Producing written work as part of a university exam, essay, dissertation or other form of assignment requires an approach to organisation, structure, voice and use of language that differs from other forms of writing and communication. Academic writing is a language that no one is born speaking. Understanding more about the conventions of your discipline and the specific features and conventions of academic writing can help you develop confidence and make improvements to your written work.
Academic writing is part of a complex process of finding, analysing and evaluating information, planning, structuring, editing and proofreading your work, and reflecting on feedback that underpins written assessment at university. There are lots of resources available to help you develop your skills relating to all stages of the process.
Explore the essay workflow to the right and click on the buttons to find resources and information about each stage.
The Conventions of Academic Writing
Academic writing is defined by conventions rather than rules. This means that they are flexible and adaptable. The point is not for you and your peers to produce identical pieces of work, but to provide a shared framework of communication that allows specialists within a field to access information, ideas and concepts quickly and easily. The following resources are designed to introduce the main conventions of good academic writing and to provide you with ideas and techniques to apply to your academic assignments.
Academic Writing: Interactive Digital Workshop
This interactive digital workshop provide you with ideas and strategies to develop your independent learning skills to help you to get the most out of your study time.
Academic Writing Overview: Workshop Recording
This workshop recording introduces the principles of good academic writing including conciseness, precision, structure, objectivity and critical writing. It provides ideas and techniques that you can apply to your written assignments.
Explore the tabs below to find out more about the specific features of academic writing: academic language; flow and connectivity, paraphrasing and writing to a word count.
It goes without saying that academic writing uses a more formal register than everyday communication. The following are four important conventions to follow that will help you to hit the right level of formality in your writing:
1. Use 'Latinate' verb forms and avoid casual language
Academic writing tends to adopt formal language derived from Latin, rather than Anglo-Saxon roots. This distinction is particularly evident in the use of verbs in academic language. In general, phrasal verbs are used when speaking (e.g. in presentations), whilst Latinate verbs are used in academic writing (e.g. essays). Phrasal language is more informal, whilst Latinate verbs sound ‘posher’ and more academic.
Phrasal verbs tend to come in two parts: they use a verb together with an adverb or preposition. There is often a one-word equivalent, which usually comes from Latin root, reflecting the origins of formal English among educated Romans and the Church.
Why is this useful? Latinate verbs use fewer words, so can help you develop a more concise writing style. Latinate verbs can also be more specific than their phrasal equivalents, for example, the phrasal verb 'set up' has several Latinate equivalents:
It is okay to use a mixture of phrasal and Latinate verbs in your writing, and to tailor it to your assignment. For example, if writing a more informal blog post, you may want to use more phrasal language. Some common academic examples are:
It is okay to use a mixture of phrasal and Latinate verbs in your writing, and to tailor it to your assignment. For example, if writing a more informal blog post, you may want to use more phrasal language. But awareness of how and when to use different registers of language can help to improve the level of formality of your writing.
2. Avoid contractions and abbreviations
Academic writing tends to avoid the types of contractions and abbreviated language that you might use in other forms of communication. In some cases, this is obvious, but in other cases, where abbreviations have become commonly used forms of words (e.g. quote/quotation, bike/bicycle, flu/influenza) it can be more difficult to spot. For example:
However, some commonly used abbreviations or acronyms relating to the discipline will often need to be used to enhance the clarity of your writing and reduce the wordcount. In these cases, it is important to use the full form of the abbreviated name or phrase in the first instance, including the abbreviation in parentheses. For example:
Please note: certain extremely commonly used acronyms have become part of common usage and do not require further explanation within a text. For example: AIDS, laser, radar, scuba.
3. Appears neutral and objective
Academic writing tends to strive for an appearance of objectivity. Although you will no doubt have an informed opinion or theory that you are trying to get across in your writing, it is important to build a compelling objective case for your ideas using evidence and data. It is not uncommon to use the first person (I) in academic writing, but only as a further development of your objective analysis and interpretation to indicate where your original contribution takes over.
Always check department guidelines on the use of first person (I) forms in your writing. Some scientific writing may require no first person forms to be used, while some reflective assignments may require the use of the first person to present personal experience.
4. Uses Evidence
Academic writing draws on evidence and sources to present a balanced view of All facts and theories should be referenced using a standard system:
|Paragraphs, Flow and Connectivity||
Paragraphs are the building blocks of your written work, and a good essay or assignment will organise the content clearly at a paragraph level. However, in a piece of academic writing paragraphs can be tricky to structure due to the complexity of ideas that you are likely to be working with.
The following structure is not the only way to write a paragraph, but it is a common model that is used in academic writing to build sources and evidence into your writing in a critical and analytical way.
A paragraph will usually discuss only one idea as outlined in the first sentence, the topic sentence. If you find a paragraph drifting away from this controlling idea, it is time to split it into more than one paragraph.
Flow and Connectivity
The skill of structuring your writing and building effective connections between paragraphs is one that will allow you to develop and sustain a compelling argument in your written work. By setting out your ideas and evidence with a natural flow, you will make your work much more readable. This important technique will help you work towards higher levels of attainment in assignments and help to improve the quality of your everyday writing.
When you are producing a piece of writing at university, you will often want to talk about what someone else has written about the topic. Quoting and paraphrasing are two distinct ways of doing this.
Quoting means directly including in your work the published words or other data you have found in a source. Paraphrasing means expressing in your own words the ideas, arguments, words or other material you have found published elsewhere.
There are many reasons for quoting or paraphrasing in your own work, but essentially these techniques allow you to show your understanding of current knowledge about the topic you are studying, and respond to that knowledge in your work. Remember that you will need to cite and reference all of the sources that have informed your work.
It is a complex linguistic skill to incorporate others’ work smoothly and efficiently into your own by quoting or paraphrasing. Skilful use of sources and selective quoting and paraphrasing are important elements of the critical writing process, which is in greater detail on the critical thinking pages - see Legitimation Code Theory for more ideas.
It is also a key skill of academic writing that will help to ensure that your work does not include elements of plagiarism. For more information on plagiarism, including suggestions on how to avoid it, see the following resource from the Department of Physics and Astronomy. As with other aspects of working with sources, it is important to follow your department’s specific guidelines about these skills.
When to Quote and When to Paraphrase
|Writing to a Word Count||
Writing to a Word Count
If you find you often go over the word count on an assignment, there are several possible causes and solutions. In this online resource we will think about the purpose of the word count, reasons why we might go over, and strategies to tackle it.
Why is there a word count?
Word counts are part of the challenge of academic writing for several reasons:
Why Do We Go Over the Word Count?
First of all, it is important to remember that being over the word count is better than having a blank page! The ideas are down on the page, but might need refining. There are several reasons why you might have exceeded the word count:
The following are some simple tips to make sure you stay within your word count:
Strategies to Meet Your Word Limit
How are you structuring your argument? Does it need developing in order to highlight the key argument?
2. Being selective
Are you using more examples/case studies than necessary? Are you worried about missing out something important? Try the following:
3. Academic Language/Style
Are you using 200 words where 100 will do? One way of testing this is to calculate your Fog Index to find out how clear and concise you are being. Some ways to keep your word count down include:
Remember: Having a more concise academic writing style gives you more words to use on things that are important, e.g. critical analysis and discussion. It’s not just about cutting the odd word here and there to get you under the word count.