Embedding academic writing

Students taking notes

This page provides advice on supporting students to plan and organise writing, structure their writing, and express their ideas in an academic style. It provides some suggested learning activities for you to use in teaching to help students develop these important skills.

No one is born speaking (or writing) in perfect academic English; it is a second language for all of us, students included. This fact alone can be reassuring for international students, who are likely to have learned English in a more formal way and will probably be familiar with some simple structures and models that can be used in their writing.

All students can benefit from some of these basic principles that can help to break down the writing process and approach it more systematically. Finding opportunities to look at how as well as what ideas are communicated within a discipline can be a good starting point and a way to emphasise the idea of academic writing as a community of practice.

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In practice

Explore the following areas for ideas on how to support students in developing their academic writing.

1. Clarity of communication

The goal of good academic writing is to express complex ideas in a clear and accessible way. Arguably, this is not always achieved in published academic work (Plaven-Sigray et al, 2017), which can send a misleading message to students that they need to adapt their communication style to emulate the complex academic language that they encounter in their reading. Evidence suggests that this is not necessarily a helpful strategy for students and that deliberately employing complex language can lead to more negative evaluations of writing (Oppenheimer, 2006)

Encouraging students to find and develop their own academic voice can help to overcome some of the barriers that may exist around the writing process. You may want to consider trying some of the following activities to practise this in the classroom:

Suggested Learning Activity: Free Writing

Time requirement: 10-15 minutes

Ask students to have a go at ‘free writing’ on a topic for a fixed period of time (for example, five minutes). For the purposes of this exercise, students should write in the first person without worrying about their use of grammar or academic language and should focus instead on just getting their thoughts down on the page (or device) as fluently as possible.

The following prompts might be helpful as ways to get started:

  • I am writing an essay about…
  • I think this is interesting because…
  • The main challenges are…
  • My main aims are…

As a follow-up activity, you could ask the students to talk to the person sitting next to them about what they have written. They may find that free writing unlocks their thinking around a topic and makes it easier to explain their ideas to a partner.

Suggested Learning Activity: Weasel Words and Peacock Words

Time requirement: 15-20 minutes

The concision and precision of academic writing can sometimes be hampered by our desire to emphasise, convince and persuade. Although this is not always a bad thing, it can dilute the clarity of writing and lead to wordiness, overemphasis and subjectivity. There are two main categories of words and phrases that should be used with caution in students’ work:

Type of language A photograph of a weasel Picture of a peacock
Definition Redundant use of language, padding and cliché.  Language that lends itself to overstatement or hyperbole. 
Examples
  • In light of the fact that…
  • To all intents and purposes…
  • It is possible to conclude that…
  • Clearly, really, very, generally, interestingly etc
  • The most important findings…
  • The worst threat…
  • The only possible outcome…
  • All, always, never, completely, fully, total, etc.

Ask students to have a look over a section (a paragraph) of their own writing and highlight any weasel words or peacock words. As a follow up, ask them to have a go at rewriting the passage to be as concise as possible. Challenge them to reduce the number of words they have used by as much as they can - is 50% possible? It is worth noting that this may not always be an appropriate way to write, but it should highlight just how much of our use of language is potentially superfluous.

2. Structure

Models and structures are by necessity overly-simplistic and limited, particularly when used in relation to something as heterogeneous and organic as academic writing (Macbeth, 2010). However, that doesn’t mean that they are not useful as a way to scaffold students’ ongoing development as writers. By using a generic and basic model as a starting point, students will need to go beyond its limitations as they encounter more complex assignments.

An overall structure for a piece of academic writing will usually take the form of an hourglass. It will start broad by introducing the general area of interest, before focusing on the specific and narrow scope of the assignment question, then finishing broad by looking at the consequences, implications or wider significance. It can be useful to encourage students to read a published piece of academic work with this model in mind and ask them to identify the following things:

Introductions

The hook - the opening line that draws the reader in, eg. use of a significant fact, quote or by emphasising the importance of the area in question.

Background and context - how does the writer narrow the focus towards the specific area of their own writing?

The 'mission statement' - can you find a single sentence that captures the full scope of the rest of the article?

Body paragraphs

Topic sentences - the first sentence of each paragraph that tells the reader what the rest of the text is going to be about.

Use of evidence and examples - how are evidence and example introduced by the author to illustrate the area introduced by the topic sentence?

Linking and connecting - how do authors use the final sentence of each paragraph to connect it to the rest of the writing?

Conclusions

An echo of the mission statement - how does the author return to the original mission statement and rephrase it?

A summary of the main points - the conclusion will often re-emphasise the main message or findings

A final message - this looks at the wider implications of the essay

Suggested Learning Activity: Dissect an Academic Text

Time requirement: 15-20 minutes

Using a relevant example academic text (for example, one of your own journal articles), ask students to annotate the article, identifying the following features:

  • A hook
  • A mission statement
  • Example topic sentences
  • Example linking and connecting phrases
  • A concluding echo of the mission statement
  • A final message

How clear are these features in this example? As a follow up, ask students to look ahead at a future assignment and use the 301 Essay Planning Template to pencil in the hook, mission statement and topic sentences as part of their planning process.

3. Planning and Organisation

A structured approach to planning can help students organise their ideas more clearly and break the writing process down into manageable chunks. This can help to make an assignment less intimidating and easier to make a timely start on.

Once students have an essay plan in place, they can use this to organise their writing time by setting realistic intermediate milestones towards their writing deadline.

Suggested Learning Activity: Map Your Essay

Time requirement: 10-15 minutes

Ask students to use the 301 Essay Planning Template to map out an overall structure for an upcoming assignment. Encourage students to share their plan with a peer to offer constructive feedback. Does each section link to the next? Does the essay have a coherent flow as a whole?

As a follow up, ask students to use the 301 Essay Workflow Template to identify intermediate milestones for their writing. Remind them to build in extra time for final checking and proofreading. Can they find ten one hour gaps in their diaries over the next two weeks to commit to this assignment? Encourage them to make a commitment right now and stick to it!

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Further information

Links and downloads

General

Clarity of communication:

Structure:

Planning and Organisation: