Basic Rules for Academic Writing

What is the Purpose of Academic Writing?

Although it goes without saying, when writing at a college or university level, students are expected to write in an academic style and this is expected in nearly all forms of assignments including, but not limited to:

  • essays
  • research papers
  • reports
  • presentations
  • term papers
  • thesis/dissertations
  • and other written pieces

Although these may go by different names, the goal of these assignments remains the same – to test your knowledge in the subject area through a written task

This makes academic writing arguably the most important skill for effective academic communication, (although it may seem like specifically designed instruments of torture to grad students).

The truth is academic papers are not actually meant to be excruciatingly painful and put off until the end. Instead, if you approach the paper early on, and think of it as an opportunity to explore various topics of interest within your field of study, you can avoid the last-minute rush, and even turn-in a decent paper. But there are some basic rules you must follow when writing your academic paper.

Academic papers must be written in a particular style, catered towards academic audiences such as scholars within the same discipline (who are most often your tutors and instructors). When starting on a written assignment, think about your readers – what do they expect from you? The simple answer: they want you to convey your findings and arguments in a scientific and professional manner.

Read below for a snapshot of the dos and don’ts in academic writing or scroll further down for a detailed guide on the rules for academic writing.

What are the Basics of Academic Writing?

Here are some basic rules to follow to ensure the content of your paper meets the academic writing style required by most universities.

1. Use Formal Language

X Don’t use informal language
X Don’t use first person narrative
Use technical terms within your field
Use transition words and punctuations to connect complex sentences

2. Maintain Structured Writing

Include separate introduction and conclusion
State clear aims at the beginning
Use headings and sub-headings to section your paper
Create flow between your paragraphs (for easy readability, write them in a sequence)
X Don’t discuss unrelated points in the same paragraph
X Don’t introduce new points in conclusions

3. Remain Objective

X Avoid biased writing (i.e. use neutral tone without favoring any one angle)
Discuss all sides of the argument (i.e. multiple perspectives) to draw your stance from it
Evaluate the credibility of your sources for major arguments
List out the limitations of your work

4. Conduct Evidence-based Research

Read current, relevant, and high-quality journal articles within your study subject
Provide scholarly evidence from credible sources to support your points
X Don’t simply re-state the findings of others; instead inform how it agrees/ disagrees with your findings
Derive your original idea from the analysis of all your arguments

Detailed Guide on the Basic Rules of Academic Writing

1.      Formal Language

In academic papers, avoid the use of informal language at all costs! This means, stay away from:

  • slang words (such as “low-key” and “lit”)
  • first person pronouns (such as “I” and “we”)
  • contractions (such as “can’t” and “don’t”)
  • adverbs of frequency (such as “always” and “never”)
  • dramatic superlatives (such as “very” and “extremely”)

For example, instead of concluding “the results of the study are very confusing”, you can state “the results are inconclusive” to sound more balanced and sophisticated. That’s not it, there’s a whole list of taboo words that must never make its way into any academic paper, which you can read about further to make you avoid them, if possible.

However, do note that the use of first person may be acceptable, or even recommended, in reflection assignments, where the student is expected to reflect on their personal learning experience.

For example, when reflecting on the process undertaken during a research paper, you could state “I improved my time management skills through this research as I learned to break down bigger tasks into a series of smaller steps”. Unless recounting of your personal growth journey is a specific assignment requirement, for the most part, stick to a third person narrative in your paper! (here’s a detailed guide on how to write a reflection paper).

Plus, in terms of vocabulary, the use of appropriate technical terms relevant to your field of study will give readers the impression that you are knowledgeable and proficient in this subject. Show off to your readers that you are a pro at this. But of course, you also need to define such technical terms wherever necessary, in order to offer further insight to your readers. For example:

  • if you are writing about water pollution, use scientific words like “bioaccumulation” and “biomagnification”
  • if you are focusing on mergers and acquisitions, use industry-specific terms like “due diligence” and “hostile takeovers”
  • if you are discussing “Super Bowl”, talk about “blitz” and “clothesline”

You should also break-up and connect long sentences with punctuations like semi-colon (;) and transition words like “however”, “nevertheless”, “although”, “moreover”, “furthermore”, etc. This can help readers understand the link between your points, while you simplify it for them. Thus, academic writing can be more complex than general writing, involving the use of complex sentences and technical jargon; for example, note how the sentences within this paragraph are broken down and linked using semi-colons and transition conjunctions, and how we drew the paragraph’s conclusion from it.

2.      Structured Writing

Academic writing is structured as it most often requires you to begin with an introduction stating the aims of the written piece, and end with a conclusion summarizing the key findings and implications. We have a dedicated guide focused on the basics of writing assignment structure which you can take a look at if you want to know all the relevant headings and subheadings that go into them, and what to write under each.

Examiners (who are your target readers, if you are a student) always look for your aims or topic sentence in the initial section, so that they know you are aware of the purpose of the assignment and what you hope to achieve. That’s why you need to spell out your aims clearly in your opening paragraphs to score that extra cookie point.

You also need to go one step further and section your paper using clear headings and subheadings within the body paragraphs, unless it is an essay or otherwise stated.Note: essays do not generally require sub-headings, but as with other academic papers, each paragraph must present a single theme or idea. That is, similar points should be clubbed together within the paragraph, supported by relevant evidences and examples, critical arguments, and key takeaways.

Also, try to be a good narrator – tell your story in a logical order! That means the paragraphs must flow one after the other in a sequence, without being abrupt, redundant or repetitive. This will ensure your readers are able to follow your trail of arguments and engage with your content, ultimately leading to the impression that your writing is structured and cohesive. A great way to logically structure your paper is to make an outline of topics to cover as your first step, by paying attention to your assignment brief or assignment requirements and drawing on the assignment rubric or marketing criteria.

(Click here to know how to structure your paper based on the marking criteria/ assignment rubric and what headings/ sub-headings to choose).

3.      Objectivity

There are always two sides to a story; but, as an academic writer and researcher, you need to remain impersonal, unbiased and search for the truth that lies somewhere in the middle-ground. That means, put aside your feelings, distance yourself from both sides, and write your paper as a third-party and neutral judge. Better yet, be an emotionless bot when it comes to representing facts, analyzing information and drawing interpretations.

But remember, your assignment is not just about stating the facts or listing out information taken from elsewhere. Although you will draw from the work of other scholars, you must also evaluate that information in your paper and correlate it with other similar studies, which may agree or disagree with your stance (see example below). By doing so, you would be showing objectively – that there are multiple perspectives and different sides to the argument, leading up to what you gather from all this by stating your clear point of view. Thus, you will be putting across your original idea in an objective and critical manner, as it is backed by evidence and balanced argument, rather than playing favoritism.

Example of correlating findings with other studies: The study findings reveal ‘brand name’ to be of lower value to Singaporeans against factors like value for money, comfort, design, and product quality. This is in line with Business Insider’s report which notes that even the wealthy and affluent buyers prefer fast fashion over luxury brands for daily wear (Schlossberg, 2016).

However, being completely objective in your paper is highly unlikely, as we have a subconscious tendency to subjectively select the text and sources which seem more suitable for our line of thinking. This introduces a certain level of research bias since your sources are not randomly chosen. But that’s okay, because you’re going to acknowledge this research flaw in your paper – let your reader know the limitations of your work. By being critical of your own research process in this manner, you can be sure that the examiner will notice your efforts to remain objective and will definitely grade you higher for it, as it sets your paper apart from others.

Although being objective is a general rule in academic writing, there are some exceptions where subjectivity is sought. For example, ethnographic and social researches draw on the personal interpretations of the author who observes a social phenomenon by living in or close to the studied society. In such a scenario, qualitative descriptive writing is adopted as the author seeks to describe the phenomenon and its impact on the society from a subjective/ personal point of view. Unless you are undertaking such a research, try to remain largely objective in your arguments to sound more systematic.

4.      Evidence-Based Research

The use of reliable evidence to support your arguments will be the biggest point-scoring tactic you can master. In fact, this will be the main criteria to pass your assignment, because your course almost always requires you to read journal articles published in your subject area. That’s why tutors often tell you Wikipedia is not a reliable source. (But how can you still use Wikipedia for your research, without actually putting it in your paper? We’ve made a dedicated guide for using Wikipedia for academic research (because let’s be honest – Wikipedia gives you tons of useful information).

In reality, you are expected to support the arguments in your paper by drawing from existing studies, statistics, market reports, news articles and other scholarly literature, by citing these sources as evidences (see the example below). Such a specific requirement to cite and reference academic sources for your arguments differentiates academic writing from other forms of writing.

Example of citing sources: Variety-seeking customers often switch between brands due to the availability of different options, rather than because of dissatisfaction (Kakiza, 2015). In addition to this, Mohan, Sivakumar and Sharma (2012) have found store environment to positively impact customers seeking variety, from a case-study conducted in Dubai. Since Singapore has a similar cultural set-up as Dubai, with a large number of expats working in high-paying job roles (Tharoor, 2015), a variety-seeking buying behaviour is likely to be witnessed among the spend-thrift, high-end shoppers in both Asian cities.

When we talk about these sources as evidences, always remember to choose a variety of high-quality and current papers (published within 5 years) to support your own ideas. How many references should you use in your academic paper?

You may be wondering how many references you should have in an essaywe recommend integrating 6-8 references for every 1000 words in your paper, unless the number of references are explicitly requested in your assignment task. We cover this in more detail in this guide on how many references you should have in an essay.

Concluding remarks about referencing

A common mistake that most students make while integrating references is simply re-stating what the authors have published in their paper. To actually use them as supporting evidence, you need question the credibility, reliability and generalizability of their findings, by either critiquing the author’s research methods and techniques or by comparing or contrasting them with similar studies examining the same topic.

This tells the reader that you have not only read these papers, but you are also synthesizing and correlating information from different sources and analyzing them in order to draw your own original idea. Although this can be overwhelming for a novice academic writer, it is actually not that tricky to accomplish. For a more detailed understanding of this, you can read our post on some referencing guidelines to help you write a better paper.

We cover this issue and various other common mistakes in referencing in our separate guide. So be sure to check that out as well for a more comprehensive understanding about referencing as it is worth reiterating that this is the core aspect that differentiates academic writing from other forms of written content.

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