10 Effective Academic Writing Strategies

Academic writing doesn’t need to be stressful. Follow these tips to up your essay-writing game!

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Strategies for academic writing - Closeup of a typewriter

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Academic writing is often used to express complex ideas, intricate topics and elaborate thoughts across a number of disciplines.

Just like every other writing style, academic writing has its own set of conventions, rules and guidelines that you should observe in order to captivate your readers and grab their attention.

Whether you are writing a research proposal, a report or an academic paper, these academic writing strategies and tips will help you sharpen your writing skills.

1. Prioritize research

Before you begin writing, you must first think about what you want to write about. Consider your thesis, outline your main points and create a solid structure that you can work with from beginning to end.

During this process, you will also need to find reliable primary sources that will support your thesis, such as studies, reports, essays, interviews and other documents that you can utilize to build your own line of argument. By having this information at hand, the writing process will be far smoother.

Ensure you keep all this information in one place and determine where they fit into your outline from the start so you can refer back to it throughout the writing process.

2. Be concise

Academic writing should be concise and to-the-point. To achieve this, you must avoid repetition, redundancy and fluff. For example, while it’s important to reinforce your thesis throughout your essay, reiterating the same point in every paragraph would be repetitive. Instead, each sentence should be reinforcing your argument or topic of discussion whilst presenting new information about it.

Omitting sentences and sections that do not contribute to your argument is crucial. In most cases, you should assume that your readership is familiar with your field and its jargon, so there is no need for you to explain the basics. Your readership will most likely already possess the knowledge to understand and appreciate your work. This will allow you to be more precise and concise with your writing.  

3. Steer clear of clichés

We use cliché expressions every day, but when it comes to academic writing, they should be avoided as they can diminish the impact of your work.

Clichés can consist of metaphors, analogies, idioms and figures of speech such as “in a nutshell”, “take it or leave it”, “think outside the box” and so on.

It’s best to keep superfluous words and flowery expressions out of your writing so you can ensure that the language used within your paper is clear and concise.

4. Avoid colloquialisms and slang words

Similarly to clichés, colloquialisms, slang words and any other informal expressions should be kept off your academic work — that is unless you are writing a sociolinguistic report on the use of slang!

Colloquial expressions are specific to a language, geographical region or historical time period, while slang are informal words and phrases used in specific contexts or particular groups of people. So, while these sentences and words may be familiar to native speakers, they may not be to the rest of your readership whose first language is not the one your paper is written in.

5. Use a formal tone

Academic writing requires a certain level of formality, but that is not to say you should be pompous and overblown.

That said, there are certain points you should be mindful about. Generally, you should watch out for the following:

  • Abbreviations: using shortened forms of words such as “i.e.” and “e.g.” Unless you are using these within a parenthesis, these words should be written in full.
  • Contractions: using shortened versions of words such as ‘’can’t”, “doesn’t”, “they’re”, “kinda”, “gonna”.
  • First person point of view: writing from the writer’s perspective rather from a third-person point of view.

If you want to achieve a formal tone, focus on utilizing and integrating elements within your writing, such as using active verbs, which will allow you to be more concise and gives an objective tone, which will place emphasis on the action. In her book, The Study Skills Handbook [paid link], Stella Cottrell advises to “Be emotionally neutral: most academic writing requires you to stand back and analyze dispassionately, as an objective onlooker.”

6. Utilize topic sentences and transitions

A topic sentence introduces the main concept of a section. Often appearing as the first sentence in a paragraph, its purpose is to set the tone and present the central idea of that section.

Meanwhile, transition words and sentences will help your writing flow more smoothly and can prevent your work from sounding choppy and abrupt as you move from one paragraph, or concept, to another.

Both of these elements will allow you to maintain continuity with your arguments, make more cohesive points and create links between your ideas and thoughts.

7. Pay attention to formatting 

Formatting plays a crucial role in academic writing. Of course, the way your document should be formatted will depend on the referencing system you are following, your academic institution and department, as well as your discipline.

Usually, you will be expected to use a 12-point serif typeface, set the line spacing between 1.5 and 2.0 lines and leave a space between paragraphs rather than indenting the first line of each.

You should also pay close attention to how you format headings and titles, as well as tables, illustrations and graphs to ensure that your work is well-presented.

8. Use the right referencing system

Each academic discipline has its preferred referencing style. For example, the APA (American Psychological Association) referencing system is used by Education, Psychology, and Sciences, while the MLA (Modern Language Association) style is used by the Humanities. Each system prioritizes different elements and dictates how information should be presented and referenced.

It’s crucial that you use the right referencing style for your university and discipline when citing your sources and that you follow a detailed referencing guide to the T.

9. Create multiple drafts

Your first draft is meant to get all the “bad” writing out. That is what my professor used to say, and I couldn’t agree with her more.

There’s a reason first drafts are called “rough” — they are merely a sketch of what the final product will be. At this stage, you are putting your thoughts on paper, following your initial outline, and finding room to fit all your ideas and research together. It’s very much a big puzzle piece that is just starting to take shape.

You may also find yourself working in a non-chronological order, writing different sections as inspiration hits. This could allow you to discover new connections, form better arguments and fit information together more effectively. But just remember, there is no need for perfection just yet, as this will get in the way of finishing your first draft; avoid editing each sentence and allow imperfections — including typos and poor word choice — as this will be edited out by your final draft.

Once you are ready, create a new draft and start fitting all these pieces together in a more coherent and logical way, editing sentences and fixing formatting as you go. You can repeat this process several times, gradually working towards a refined and coherent final draft that has incorporated all your ideas and points along the way.

10. Proofread, proofread, proofread

This should go without saying, but proofreading is one of the most important steps you should take before submitting your work. 

Start by reading your writing out loud, noticing if there are any grammatical discrepancies, such as syntactic issues, awkward sentences, incorrect punctuation and unnecessary words.

The next step is to ask someone else to proofread for you and get their opinion on the overall flow, coherence and structure of your essay. While something might make sense to you, to an external reader it may lack the necessary context for your point to be comprehensive. This will allow you to fine-tune sections that might need further clarification.

Finally, use an online editing tool to catch any spelling and grammar mistakes that may have gone unnoticed during the previous two steps. Resources such as Hemingway and Grammarly are great (and free) options!

Key takeaways

Academic writing is a skill that takes time to master at college level. However, the more you practice, the more familiar you will become with the conventions and characteristics of this writing style.

Just remember to incorporate the following points:

  • Conduct your research and create an outline for your paper before you begin to write
  • Use concise language and cut any unnecessary fluff
  • Avoid cliches, colloquialisms and informal expressions
  • Maintain a formal tone throughout your paper
  • Use topic sentences and transitions to avoid choppy writing
  • Pay attention to how you format your work
  • Use the correct referencing style
  • Create multiple drafts
  • Proofread carefully and repeatedly

Struggling with your studying? Watch this video and give these study hacks a try:

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Have you got any academic writing tips? Share them with us in the comments section below!


Originally published on November 14, 2016.