4.1 Write essays and articles in academic style

by Sven Åke Bjørke

1. Special academic language?

To some extent academic language differs from ordinary oral language, the language used in the mass media and the informal and abbreviated language you may find on e.g. Facebook.  Typical for the academic document is that you have a case to present, not just social chit-chat that you often find on social media, like pink blogs or Twitter. You have a purpose with your writing. You are expected to present your case with some authority, standing on the shoulders of others. You must be precise, clear and concrete.

An academic document is rather formal. Check your grammar and spelling carefully. Spelling and grammar mistakes reduce your authority. Avoid “high-brow” language. Ensure that you know the meaning of all words you use. If in doubt, look it up in a dictionary. Present your ideas understandably.  Avoid words that many people in your audience probably must look up themselves.

Avoid informal language

Avoid informal language with slang and contractions. Don’t use “don’t” – write “do not”.  Avoid “kid”, “lots”, “cool” etc. Make complete sentences. An academic essay is not an SMS.

Be precise

Avoid “waffle”:  many words that do not really express much. Avoid vague words like “nice”, “get”, “etc”;  or nice sounding but rather empty peacock words and phrases. You may for example write “spade” rather than “excavation tool”. Consider removing the adverbs. Do you need to say “very clever” or “very serious” when you can achieve the same with just “clever” and “serious”? When you want to write that something is “better”, be specific: better than what?  Don’t say that something is “proper” or “not proper”; specify exactly what is good or bad about it.

Be focused

In every essay you write, you will struggle to stay within the word limits.  You must be strategic about how you use your limited space.  Focus on what is important and relevant to your research question and your argument, and leave out details and side arguments that are not essential.  Find out what is mainstream for the topic in question. Marginal issues might be tempting, but are often speculative and unreliable.

Structure your writing

Divide your writing into paragraphs. Put some “air” into your document. Add section titles.  This makes your paper easier to read and provides overview.

Prefer being formal and impersonal

Try to be objective: Avoid personal language. “I”, “You”, “We”, “My” are not prohibited words, but should be limited in use.      When stating your own argument, don’t say “I believe the UN is redundant…” or “It can be argued that the UN is redundant…”; instead state your view directly, with justification: “The UN is redundant because….”  Avoid sweeping generalizations, which make you vulnerable to criticism. Unlike newspaper articles and fiction, the passive voice may often be regarded as better, or at least more academic, than the active voice. With the passive voice, you distance yourself from the subject and will probably be perceived as more objective.  However, be careful with the passive voice. It has a negative impact on readability. The active voice is as a main rule more readable.

Justify your opinions with rational arguments and evidence

You must always provide justification for your viewpoint using rational and evidence-based arguments.  For example, instead of writing “Foreign aid does more harm than good, and should be reduced so that African countries can finally achieve true independence”, state the reasons for your position: “Foreign aid enables unaccountable and corrupt governments to stay in power while disregarding their citizens’ needs, and therefore should be restricted and have more conditions placed on it.”  (Then you would go on to prove these statements with the best, most valid, current and reliable information you can find.) Use evidence from reliable sources to back up your arguments. Reference this correctly! Correct referencing makes the difference between high quality and mediocre academic writing.

What do you want to achieve? Choose between a, b or c

  • Make them feel inferior – maybe even stupid! – Tell them that you know the academic “mumbo-mumbo” language and that they are stupid if they don’t get your points.  Use many “peacock words” and long, complicated sentences
  • Hide your ignorance! – Make smoke screens helping you to hide your incompetence using many nice words and long sentences but with no real content or meaning
  • Communicate! – Get your messages across. Communicate and convince

 

Readability index

Make reading your text easier: Reduce the number of long sentences  and “difficult” words. “Difficult” words have seven or more than letters.

  1. Avoid sentences with more than 25 words. Vary sentence length. If your sentence has more than 25 words, consider breaking it up.
  2. If you have many words with seven or more letters in your sentence, consider replacing some of them with shorter words
  3. A text with short sentences and few “difficult” words has a low readability index and is regarded as adapted to non-academic audiences. A text with high readability index is regarded as acceptable to academics, but may exclude a broader audience.
  4. Many difficult words, long sentences and no variation make your text boring and difficult to understand. Foggy talk indicates foggy thinking.

 

Readability tests, readability formulas, or readability metrics are formulae for evaluating the readability of text, usually by counting syllables, words, and sentences.

What is a readability test?

Readability index calculator

 

What to read

Rule of thumb: Reflect, select information – read – assess – reflect – select

Collecting the material

Collect information that may be relevant. Select the relevant information! How? It is all too easy to dash to the library, collect a huge pile of books and then browse aimlessly. You might learn something, but you won’t get your essay or thesis done. The best place to start is by quickly jotting down what you already know about the question: you will probably know more than you realize. This will help to get you thinking about the topic and may also give you some ideas to follow up.

Good advice: Get the habit of making mind-maps! A mindmap is a tool for brainstorming, taking notes, planning & organizing, studying or managing tasks. You can either get some colored pencils and big pieces of paper and make your own drawings, or get a digital program, such as Buzan’s mind map. See:  Mindmap

A mindmap helps you organize your thoughts and ideas, helps you to remember better and maybe even activates your brain.

 

Purposeful reading

You need to adopt a strategic method: In order to read purposefully, formulate a set of questions before you begin reading. As you read, more specific questions will arise and you can look for the answers to these too. It is easy to do too much research and end up getting confused by the facts and figures. Looking for the answers to predetermined questions helps to avoid this.

Use varied sources of information

Wikipedia will often have an extensive list of sources. Use those sources and the bibliographies in them to extend your reading. However as the reliability of Wikipedia is questioned in academia, avoid frequent direct citing of it, at least if you are writing about a controversial topic.

It is often a clever idea to go to the library. Most universities do have one. You may access online libraries like ‘Bibsys’ :

BIBSYS

Google Scholar   and

EBSCOHOST

If you use source material, either as a direct quotation or as a summary in your own words (paraphrasing), you must make a reference to it in your text and give the full details in your bibliography.  You must always credit the original author. Make it a habit to add page numbers. It is so much easier to navigate in your source for yourself as well as others.

There are some easy rules to follow to avoid being suspected of plagiarism. See:

Source compass

When you find useful information, remember to ALWAYS note down the following:

  1. Author
  2. Year of publication
  3. Title
  4. Page or pages referred to
  5. Publisher and place of publication (for a book) or DOI (for an online journal) or
  6. Web page address (URL) (for any other online material)

 

Look for information according to

The ROAR principle:

R: Reliability – Can you trust the source? Are the claims valid?

O: Objectivity – is the information biased?

A: Accuracy – sweeping statements and generalizations weaken the source

R: Relevance – does the information really deal with the issue at hand? How old is the information? If you use a source more than 5 years, ask the question – is it possible to get more current sources – or is this source so important that you can use it after all?

Viko – guide to information

 Test yourself: How prepared are you for writing essays?

 

Structure and organisation

The Abstract

Put some work into the abstract. In many cases the abstract will be the only part that people actually read.  If you make it interesting enough, they might continue to the introduction.  An abstract is a concise summary of a body of information as a report, dissertation, thesis or article. Its purpose is to make it possible for potential readers to quickly find out if the work is relevant to their needs and worth reading.

An abstract often includes:

  • Background (one or two sentences)
  • Aim of essay (or other type of academic deliverable)
  • Methods describing what was done (Keep very short!)
  • Results or main findings
  • Conclusions

The abstract should make clear what the research is about and give the key information from each section; indicate how it was carried out; and most importantly summarize the main findings and conclusions. You should not, however, indicate the structure of the writing – this would be included in your introduction.

Avoid:

  1. “this paper…”, “this report…” or similar
  2. sentences that end in “…is described”, “…is reported”, “…is analysed” or similar
  3. “I”, but also “we”, “the author”, “the writer

…because the abstract should be about the research, not about the writing process. For more information, see Writingguide

The Introduction

Some advice on the Introduction

The first impression

Your introduction is the first impression your readers will have of your writing.  A good introduction will show them that you know what you’re talking about and that you’re going to complete the task in question.  It should tell the reader what you intend to prove or explain, and the main arguments you will use.

It will also make them want to carry on reading and feel well disposed to what is to come.

A bad introduction will have the opposite effect and might even prejudice the reader against the rest of the writing, even if it does improve

A good introduction will:

  1. Show that you are going to answer the question or complete the task;
  2. show that you understand the issues and their implications;
  3. show how you are going to do this by indicating the structure of your answer and making clear the principal areas that you are going to write about (your plan);
  4. show evidence that you have carried out some research by making a reference to one of your sources;
  5. be totally relevant;
  6. be concise

 

Thesis statement

All essays should contain a good thesis statement: one or two sentences that state clearly, and concisely exactly what you are intending to prove in your paper.  The thesis statement is usually the first sentence (or two) of the paper, or appears somewhere in the first paragraph.  Here are some examples of thesis statements.  Notice that they indicate what the paper is about and tell the reader the position you will take on the subject.

“NGOs, although acting in the name of local communities, are in fact unrepresentative and lack accountability to the people they aim to serve.”

“Although the aid system has flaws, it has demonstrated a range of positive development outcomes and is a necessary transitional stage to support countries that would otherwise be in even more serious difficulties.”

“Foreign aid is a barrier to progress, distorting incentives, fuelling corruption, encouraging inflation, killing entrepreneurship, and disenfranchising citizens.”

 

Main section

Remember readability, cohesion, style and structure

Cohesion  means consistency in argument, natural flow of text and structure. You have a good, easy to read  narrative For more information see Writingguide

Academic writing style  – Writingguide

If you feel uncertain: Take the free OU course: What is good writing? 

Photos , charts, graphics  – cut and crop photos.

Adapt size. Keep size under 300 kb

 

Conclusion

A good conclusion will show that you have successfully answered the question or completed the task set.

It should be a thoughtful end to a piece of writing; for example, by applying what you have written to the outside world.  It should  emphasize or reinforce your main ideas – with your ideas restated in a fresh way:  avoid using the same language again.  Refer to your introduction, either with key words or parallel concepts and images.   Do you answer your research question? Do not introduce new information; the conclusion should follow logically from what you have already written. For more information, see Writingguide

 

References

Please repeat about referencing and plagiarism if at all uncertain.

E-Book on how to write academic essays Chapter 7: references

Citation compass

Avoid plagiarism!   Take the plagiarism quiz

 

General outlook

Paper

Use A4 size paper

Title page or Cover page:

Name, date, title. When relevant: Abstract

Table of Content (ToC)

When you have more than 8-10 pages, consider a ToC

Fonts

Use standard fonts, for example, Times/ Times New Roman, Arial etc. The font size should be 10, 11 or 12, depending on the font. As a rule, go for 12.

Avoid overuse of formatting such as bold, italic, underlining and parenthesis. Parentheses are mainly used in connection with referencing. Many parentheses impact negatively on readability and should be avoided.

Quotations

ALWAYS mark quotations clearly, e.g. with quotation marks. It is not enough to put it in italics.  If you quote more than three lines, indent it! When you indent, you do not use quotation marks.

When you quote or paraphrase, your citation should give the author’s last name, the year of publication, and the page number: (author, year, p. 99).  Full stop AFTER the parenthesis. Otherwise it will look as if the parenthesis belongs to the next sentence.

Numbers below twelve are normally written out in letters:   one, two, three, eight; but 18 and 31.

Final editing:
Chapter 9.1. in e-book E-book: How to write academic essays

 

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to: Brian Lucas, Michael Schmidt and Steve Gould for good advice, contributions and other help making this article

Short video lectures:

  1. Academic writing and Critical thinking
  2. Academic writing and Critical thinking : Argumentation
  3. Academic writing and Critical thinking: References
  4. Academic writing and Critical thinking: Sources
  5. Academic writing and Critical thinking: Analytical writing

Read more:

Writing the Empirical Social Science Research Paper:
A Guide for the Perplexed

 

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