When I teach academic writing, I always notice how stressed students get—especially graduate students—wanting to get it right immediately. I explain that learning the conventions of academic writing takes time and practice. It’s learning a whole new language basically.
And, I know writing can be especially stressful for students, especially, ahem, when it’s done at the last minute. Although I personally subscribe to the “thinking is a part of the writing process” philosophy, you can’t develop your skill as a writer without actually practicing. Which means… STOP PROCRASTINATING (she yells to herself) and get started.
10 specific suggestions to improve your academic writing:
1. Embrace “Shitty First Drafts.” Before becoming an academic, I was a professional writer in corporate communication and marketing. I wrote for magazines, published newsletters and handbooks, and started a couple blogs. This year, I published a whole book. I LIVE for Anne Lamott’s advice that we should embrace “Shitty First Drafts” when starting new writing projects. Especially for the perfectionists among us, giving ourselves permission to just get started and not worry about being “correct” or sounding “right” is really helpful. (See the above link for her article Shitty First Drafts which comes from her brilliant book Bird by Bird. It’s a whopping two pages.)
When I start a new academic essay, I let myself be messy and incomplete because I know I’ll have several drafting opportunities. I draft in bullet points. I write in long, convoluted, run-on sentences. I add comments like [insert brilliant thought here] and [CITE!!] and [NEED TRANSITION] and [this is ugly; fix it], with the goal of just getting the ideas on the page. It’s a liberating way to write, as opposed to stewing to find the exact right words the first time.
2. Think personally. Very often students get bogged down with academic writing because they don’t know who they’re writing to. I encourage you to think about your audience personally. My mentor, Dr. Sarah J. Tracy, says to write to your “conceptual cocktail party.” Who are the folks you wish were reading your writing? Write to them. (And, cough, cite them, so they’re more likely to actually see your work.)
Thinking about your audience is helpful for deciding what terminology you need to use and define, the level of language that’s appropriate, and the amount of background context you need to give. When students complain that they don’t understand academic journal articles because of all the dense terminology, I explain that’s often because they’re entering ongoing conversations among experts who know the lingo and context. (Sometimes it’s because the author didn’t do a good job explaining along the way, but most of the time, it’s because they’re using common language/style… that’s aimed at a specialized audience, not the average undergraduate or new grad student.)
3. Be Kind to Your Reader. Another gem from my mentor, Sarah: Be kind to your reader. I explain to my students that typos, run-on paragraphs, lapses in proper formatting, erratic sentences strung together randomly… all of those elements make it hard to understand their ideas and frustrate me as a reader. Clean up your drafts, sign-post (more below), use transitions to link ideas together, tell me how the ideas go together or build on each other so I don’t have to guess.
4. Sign post where the writing is headed. I’m literal about this as an academic writer because I find sign posts and summaries helpful to learning and preventing audiences from getting lost. Example: “In this paper, we will discuss why an exploration of XYZ is important. We begin by talking about relevant literature related to XYZ. Then we describe methods and procedures…” Some folks may find signposting inelegant, but in academic writing where the goal is most often to convey complex knowledge, I appreciate clear guidance.
5. Use active voice. Want to easily and dramatically improve your writing? Use active voice. Compare “I conducted 25 interviews” with “Twenty five interviews were conducted.” Although you could ask 10 professors and not get agreement (ahem), first-person, active perspective is an important way to improve academic writing. In fact, first-person perspective is PREFERRED in APA style because it conveys ownership and ethics. The research didn’t just happen… you did it. Own your choices. Even if you don’t or can’t embrace first person perspective, you can still use a more active writing voice. Compare “Over 200 surveys were conducted from teenagers by researchers” and “Researchers conducted 200 surveys with teenagers.” The latter is more succinct and clear.
6. Use your own voice. Another big stressor for new academic writers? Worrying about sounding academic. Don’t. Instead, write like you talk. Discuss the literature you read in YOUR OWN WORDS. Summarize and describe the big ideas as they relate to your project. Explain how findings from one study connect to another, and how your project builds on/extends/complicates what we know already. Use language you’re comfortable with and not because it sounds fancy. Yours truly reads everything I write (including this post) out loud to make sure the words sound right. And for heaven’s sake, don’t copy someone else’s exact words without giving proper credit.
7. Explain and give examples. But course: If you do need to use a technical term, explain it and give examples. Very often, writing is considered “jargony” and “dense” when it’s abstract and terminology isn’t well-explained. Cite a term, explain the definition, and then if you can, give more concrete examples. If you plan to cite a term early and explain it later in the paper, tell your reader so they don’t have to be annoyed, and stop to look it up themselves.
8. In your literature review, lead with the idea. When reviewing literature, lead with the idea and not the author (see Sarah, I really did listen in class!). So instead of “Malvini Redden (2021) argues that Popeyes chicken sandwiches are far superior to Chik Fil A,” you might write “Not all chicken sandwiches are created equal. In fact, in a study of chicken sandwiches, Malvini Redden (2020) argues that…” Emphasizing the idea rather than the author in your literature review helps avoid repetition “So and So said” and “Research found” sentence constructions, and also foregrounds your voice and the connections between ideas. It also helps to show you where you’re missing topic sentences for paragraphs. It’s a lot harder, of course, so echoing back to Tip #1, I will often start literature reviews by writing “Researchers said” and “So and So found” all over the place, and then go back and revise.
9. Read good examples and PRACTICE. Want to really improve your writing? Read widely and emulate best practices. For instance, here’s an example that I share with my students of signposting and literature review writing, Dr. Shawna style: How Metaphorical Framings Build and Undermine Resilience During Change. Notice how many quotations are in the literature review (cough, not many) and how long they are (ahem, not long). Also note, I rewrote that literature review probably seven or eight (hundred?) times.
10. Use your resources. Get feedback from professors or peers. Heck, ask your roommate or significant other to read drafts—I do. Having an outside perspective is SO HELPFUL, especially to identify the places where the ideas are very clear in your head, but not yet on the page. For students: Check out campus resources like writing centers or peer tutoring. Or find any of the wonderful writing books and resources available. My graduate students RAVE about Dr. Kurt Lindemann’s book Composing Research, Communicating Results. I also recommend They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Birkenstein and Graff, and everything on Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog.