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Introduction to Academic Writing

Our online guide to academic writing covers the key skills for writing at university level, including style, structure and how to develop your academic voice.

Welcome

Introduction to academic writing banner. Black text on pink background.

 

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Introduction

This guide will help you understand how to write effectively at university. Effective academic writing will help you to convey your thoughts in a logical manner and to develop a sense of authority in your writing.

The first step is to fully understand the nature of the writing task you have been set. What is the purpose of writing? What audience are you writing for? Usually you will be writing for a tutor who will mark your assignment, but occasionally another audience will be implied e.g.  writing a report for a client or company or writing an information leaflet for a patient with academic commentary giving an account of the research you have found.

For more information, visit our online study guide to planning your writing.

This toolkit contains sections on:

So, let’s assume you know what writing task is ahead of you, you have done some reading around the subject, you have a plan and some idea of how your assignment will be structured. Here are issues to bear in mind as you start to write.

Conventions of academic style

Academic style

It is usual to write in the third person (he, she it, they), not using the ‘I’ voice.

Check expectations in the assignment instructions. If in doubt check with your tutor for what style they require. If your assignment involves some reflection, of course you’ll need to write using ‘ I’. Most of the time you need to aim for an objective, fairly formal voice in your writing.

We can’t write from our common-sense knowledge in university writing, instead we have to acknowledge where credible ideas come from; ideas could come from theory, research, prior learning in a field and from experts. Your evidence base supporting your ideas will come from extensive, recent reading and reliable sources of information (textbooks and articles, preferably peer-reviewed) within your field.  Therefore, a convention is that all ideas are referenced using the APA referencing format. It is usual to include the author’s name and date of publication if paraphrasing. If you use a direct quote, use the author’s name, date of publication and page number. You can find more information in the online referencing guide from Hallam Library.

Another convention is that ideas are presented with formality, reflected by the use of formal language. A good tip would be to read out some of your work to yourself. Listen for chatty, colloquial expressions and try to replace them with more formal alternatives (synonyms).

Top tip: Find synonyms
You could use online dictionaries or a thesaurus to find alternatives to informal words and phrases:
http://www.thefreedictionary.com/
https://www.lexico.com/en
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/
https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/
https://www.merriam-webster.com/

If when you read your work it sounds as if it’s conversational, as if when talking to a friend, the chances are it needs to be more formal and needs revising.

There are tools to help you; there is also a synonym search function within word. Select a word, right click your mouse over it and select synonyms from the drop-down list. This generates a list of alternative words. If you are not sure how to use these words, check a thesaurus and see it written in a sentence to understand how it might be used in context. If English is not your first language, use linguee.com. You can easily find translations and find lots of examples of words used in context.

If the thought of finding more formal words interrupts your flow when you are writing, underline words or add coloured highlighter to remind you to return to edit them later.

This table shows some colloquial first drafts with more formal revisions in the right hand-column.

Chatty or colloquial language

Formal alternatives

Procrastination is down to people believing they will not be able to complete tasks and  anxiety

Procrastination could be attributed to people believing they will not be able to complete tasks and anxiety

The number of dissatisfied teachers has gone up.

The number of dissatisfied teachers has increased. 

Another way of putting it is…

Alternatively, one could argue….

 

Top tip - Replace phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs are two-part verbs that often take a preposition and are one of the features of informal language. Examples include 'bring up', 'find out', 'make up' and 'spell out'. A more formal alternative is to find a 'latinate' verb - a one word verb that has the same meaning, for example 'raise', 'discover', 'fabricate' and 'explain'. Look for examples of latinate verbs when reading journla articles to build your academic vocabulary.

 

Achieving a formal style

Avoid contractions

Avoid contractions such as don't, can't, won't; write them fully: do not, cannot, will not. It helps to be direct and precise in your writing. Avoid padding out your sentences with repetition, obvious points or generalisations:

Example:

As Baronowski (2019) suggests, two-way communication in organisations is important and forms the cornerstone of trust and cohesion.

Edited:

Baronowski (2019) suggests, two-way communication in organisations forms the cornerstone of trust and cohesion.

 

Use reporting verbs

When introducing ideas using reporting verbs avoid colloquial verbs such as says, mentions and reckons that. The verbs you choose can help with signalling the function of the writing.

Neutral verbs

suggest

claim

state

observe that

describe

note

point out

demonstrate

You might want to signal a more tentative or questioning function of your writing. In the paragraph, you might introduce a counter-argument, a critique, or explore  limitations. 

Tentative/ questioning verbs

question the view that

posit the view that

postulate

hypothesise

speculate that

You might want to signal strong agreement with a view or stance:

Strong verbs-supporting ideas

argue

claim

emphasise

contend

maintain

theorise

You might want to signal strong disagreement with a view or stance:

Strong verbs-challenging ideas

refute

reject

challenge

counter the view that

argue against the view that

critique

negate


Subject and verb agreement

Remember to ensure verb and subject (one person or more than one person) agree in the sentence when introducing views:

  • Jones (2017) rejects the view that..., where rejects relates to one person - Jones.
  • Mikhail, Abondawar, Glynne and Pfizinger (2018) claim that..  where claim is singular as it relates to multiple people.
For more examples of formal verbs for academic writing:
Verbs for reporting, University of Adelaide
Reporting verbs, University of Warwick

Structure, spelling and grammar

Paragraph structure

Writing at university requires making your reasoning explicit and clear. Ideas need to be evidenced from your wider reading. It is not enough to string ideas together; you need to develop ideas in paragraphs. It is important to structure the whole line of argument (reasoned analysis) by building ideas through linked paragraphs which build into arguments.  The TED paragraph model can be used to make your paragraphs work harder.

The three main sections of a paragraph are 1. Topic - Introduce the main idea of the paragraph with context. 2. Evidence - give evidence to support your idea or claim. 3. Dicuss - explain strengths or weaknesses in the evidence, or suggest possible conclusions and interpretations.

Here’s an example of a paragraph that follows the TED model:
 

The subject of procrastination is relevant  in organisations with regard to productivity, and researchers in universities are becoming more concerned with procrastination and its impact on student success.
Topic
Hussain (2019) in a cross-university study reports that 87% of students  identify procrastination as a key barrier to achieving academic outcomes, 46% use postponing work to motivate them to last-minute action, 23% believing that  such tactics are detrimental to wellbeing and overall course achievement.
Evidence 
The reasons for procrastination are complex, but our understandings are finally developing beyond the usual expressions of procrastination and its antecedence in perfectionist mindsets, Sirois (2019) argues that procrastination functions as a mood-repair tactic, which could fundamentally be described as misregulation as it is based on false assumptions which ultimately serve to undermine self-control in the longer term. Therefore procrastination could undermine  identity beliefs and create more stress  for individuals concerned with competence and performance.
Discussion
For academic phrases you can can adapt and use in your writing:
Manchester Academic Phrasebank, University of Manchester

Developing your academic voice

Developing your voice and authority

Try to be discerning in your writing. It is necessary to use judgment. Sometimes it is better to be direct to convey authority if you are certain of facts or the evidence base. There is often no need to state 'I believe'; the reader can determine your stance by how you position yourself with relation to reading.

There are a number of techniques you can use to signal your position:
 

Add a sentence to support a point of view

Sirois (2019) suggests procrastination functions as a mood-repair tactic; poor emotional self-regulation is indicated in poor achievement (Andrijou, 2019).

Disagree with a  point of view and introduce another theory to explain phenomena:

Sirois (2019) claims procrastination functions as a mood-repair tactic. However, there are other functions of procrastination beyond the emotional regulation model. Beizmenne (2019) suggests identity theory is also at play as the procrastinator has a  stronger belief in the current self and has not yet formed a convincing view of their future ideal self.

Introduce a critique (leading with the view of  another author to signal your  disagreement with a view):

Felddottir (2019) challenges the view of Sirois (2019) and argues that procrastination functions as a mood-repair tactic is limited and is based on negative assumptions of the human psyche.

Expressing certainty

If you use lots of qualifiers such as’ it seems to me’, 'I think', 'I believe' or 'it could be likely that' the message you are trying to convey could be diluted. Occasionally 'I think', 'I believe' used sparingly, could signal you stand behind or promote a key idea.

When evaluating evidence, you may wish to express doubt, hesitancy or be tentative in your conclusions. In such cases, it may be appropriate to include hedging language: adverbs such as possiblyprobablypotentially and phrases which convey doubt. Hedging language can be more sophisticated in style:

Girls may appear to be more competent than boys in primary school according to SATS results (Johns, 2018). This could be used when tentatively drawing a conclusion from reading research.

vs.

Girls are more competent than boys in primary school according to SATS results (Johns, 2018). The voice of the author is more certain, and it is suggestive that competence is more proven.

 

For resources on developing your own academic style, including grammar and punctuation, see:

 

Get feedback on your work online

Studiosity is an online writing feedback service, which is available via Blackboard.

You can upload draft essays and extracts of your work online, and will receive comments, feedback and suggestions from an academic writing expert within 72 hours (and usually within 24). Studiosity is available online 24/7 but it is not a ‘marking’ or proofreading service

To access the service, visit our help pages or search 'Studiosity' in myHallam.

 

Signposting

Linking ideas together

When we start to write, of course we know what we are trying to say, but it is easy to lose sight of the reader. Try to help the reader find their way through your document and give them pointers to help them understand the purpose of your writing.

For example, you might signal shifts from one section to another, signal ways in which ideas link, signal when an explanation is offered, signal when you are introducing a critique or counterargument or when you beginning to conclude or make recommendations.

An image showing the three key forms of signposting: how ideas are connected, signalling explanations and introducing counterarguments.

In terms of your planning and structuring, you should think carefully about to use signposting language to link the ideas between your paragraphs, signal key transitions develop your argument. Some examples are included below:

To reference other parts of your essay

  • As noted above
  • As previously stated,
  • Given the evidence outlined earlier in the essay

To introduce a supporting point

  • Likewise,
  • In the same way,
  • Similarly,
  • Relatedly,

To introduce a contrasting point

  • Against this,
  • A clear challenge for
  • By contrast
  • Although

To introduce reason/outcomes

  • Consequently,
  • Taken together the evidence seems to suggest
  • Accordingly,
  • As such,

To introduce a conclusion

  • As this essay has demonstrated
  • From the evidence detailed here, it seems that
  • In summary,
  • In conclusion,

 

More examples of signposting words and phrases:
Signposting phrases, UEA 
Manchester Academic Phrasebank, University of Manchester