Do you know one question students have asked me as a writing tutor the most times? It was, “How to improve academic writing skills?” What is important, the students asked this question when they wanted to “improve academic writing skills” to complete the writing assignment they had.
The question somehow made me smile, as it is like asking where the sea is when you are swimming in it. The fact is, completing your writing assignment IS a part of the process of improving students writing skills: skill is something, which comes after you practice, not before you do.
Still, the more I communicate with students, the more I understand how important it is for them to understand this algorithm of becoming good at academic writing. What is more, a quick search on the net immediately shows the misinformation students receive… 7, 5, 9 simple ways to improve academic writing skills are usually separate tips on improving the essay, not a skill. So, the time has come to approach this question with a realistic and consistent manner.
Let us start by considering some key concepts:
A skill is…
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says skill is “a learned power of doing something competently”. Collins defines it as “the knowledge and ability that enables you to do something well”. Thus,
Academic writing skills is basically the knowledge about how to write academic papers and the learnt ability to do it well.
This leads us to the short answer to our question – to develop academic writing skills, gain knowledge about the demands to academic papers and practice writing until you learn to do it well!
An academic paper is…
An academic paper is any paper written for the academy – any school above elementary level, high school, college, university.
Since the audience of the paper is an academic community, it should be written in a formal style.
What is more, although there are some general rules applicable to all academic papers, they should correspond to the specific demands put forward by the academy (professor) assigning it. For example, if a professor tells you to write a blog post with bullet points and the use of “I”– just do, even though you will never find such form as an example of academic writing.
Rules of academic writing fall into the following broad categories, which all require a different type of training:
3. Academic Honesty
What I mean by content is what the research paper tells in comparison to how it tells (presentation).
Academic papers are by no means freewriting on the topic. They should have
1. An argument. This means that everything included in the essay should serve to introduce, sustain or summarize your claim;
2. Evidence of research. Writing based on your experience may still work for high school, but not for college essays. Here, your task is to show you can understand what other authors say and use their ideas, recognized facts, studies’ results, and statistics to support the claim you are making.
3. Critical analysis. Whether you are asked to write a literature review, a response paper on the chapter from your manual or an argumentative essay, you are expected to show you can analyze, not only retell what you have read. Therefore, your essay should be a balanced combination of citations and your explanations of them.
Why Practice and How?
Most web content is extremely user-friendly. We find out what the author wants us to know through just a few bullet-point sentences or pulled-out quotations. This is why students find it so difficult to understand quality sources, which are often assigned or required for research papers. As a result, their academic writing skills seem poor.
To improve writing skills, read and analyze articles in reputable newspapers and journals such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Herald Tribune and similar.
Articles in reputable sources, especially op-eds, are good examples of how to make and support an argument. To be skillful at analyzing these texts, you should start asking yourself
- What does the author want to tell with an article?
- Why does the author include this information?
- How many points does the author make to support his claim?
- How does the presented example/fact/figure support the claim the author makes?
Answering all these questions will considerably affect your analytical and academic writing skills.
Another useful exercise the Internet allows for is following the links in articles. Here is what I mean. While peer-reviewed sources and academic papers provide in-text citations for the cited information, authors of articles for the online publications provide links you can follow. It is very useful to follow such links when an author cites someone who does not agree with his position. This way, you will have a possibility to (1) see how the author summarized/paraphrased the source article, (2) compare and contrast the two articles, find supporting points each of the two authors is using, evaluate which of the two sources are more persuasive, etc.
Demands to the presentation may be further subdivided into the demands to
– Essay structure
Rules of academic writing prescribe that academic essays should have a recognizable introduction finishing with a thesis statement, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
A thesis statement is the most important element, around which the essay is structured. Namely, the introduction should lead to a thesis statement. Each body paragraph should develop one of the points in support of a thesis statement. A conclusion should restate it and either summarize the supporting points or provide a call to action. A detailed consideration of how to create a thesis statement and how it affects the rest of the paper is given in this post. I have also paid considerable attention to thesis statements for all possible types of papers in this webinar.
Other important demands to the structure of the paper are the demands to the adequate length of sentences and paragraphs, length of an introduction and a conclusion, the allowed amount of direct quotations, etc. All these aspects are specified in the post on essay structure.
Students generally know (or at least read in their instructions to the papers) that their essays should be written in an academic language. Its important characteristics are
1. being formal – this guides the use of sophisticated vocabulary instead of prepositional phrases, refusal from contractions and colloquial words;
2. being unbiased – for an essay to be unbiased, we speak about facts, ideas, and conclusions, which can be made from them, not about what we think, believe, etc. This is why students are discouraged from the use of “I” in academic essays.
3. demonstrating a logical connection between the presented ideas – this is accomplished through the intensive use of linking words and phrases.
More details about how to avoid language mistakes when writing academic research papers may be found here.
Maintaining correct formatting is an important aspect of academic writing skills. The most common academic writing styles are APA, MLA, Chicago and Harvard formatting styles. Usually, a required formatting style is mentioned in the assignment. Sometimes, students are given the freedom to decide what style to choose as long as they use one. If you are given such a choice, remember that APA (American Psychological Association) style is preferred in social sciences, while MLA is used for formatting papers in humanities and liberal arts.
There are so many demands to formatting that there are lengthy manuals and whole websites dedicated to them. The good news is that you do not have to remember all the rules – you just have to know where to look for the needed information. For example, you can use comprehensible guides to formatting papers in APA and MLA styles I have created or refer to Perdue OWL or printed manuals on the styles.
The reason why the students have many mistakes in formatting is that they cannot even imagine there is a specific rule prescribing this or that formatting.
Here is the list of things, for which there is a specific formatting rule:
– The margins of the paper
– The spaces
– The font
– Page numbers and headers
– Title pages
– Block quotations
– Titles (of books, articles, newspapers) cited in the text
– Words, which the author wants to emphasize
– In-text citations to indicate where the cited information comes from (there are detailed rules about how to cite sources with one, multiple, unknown or corporate authors in all styles)
– References (there are detailed rules about how to format the reference page layout and provide citation for all types of sources)
If you are not sure you follow all the demands, be sure to order proofreading for several of your first papers and review the changes before approving them – this way, you will soon understand what rule you have to clarify to hand in a perfectly formatted essay.
Another important demand in academic writing is avoiding plagiarism and maintaining academic honesty.
Academic dishonesty is a broad notion, which includes
All of the following instances are considered plagiarism:
– Presentation of ideas, phrases, formulas, programming codes, diagrams, images, artworks or musical pieces without correctly referencing where these come from
– Copying from another student’s work without indicating it
– Presenting a paraphrases without correct referencing
– Including the source in your bibliography (References/Works Cited list) without referencing content in the text, so the assessor does not know what work is your own
– Quoting from a speech or lecture without acknowledging the speaker
– Quoting from a secondary source, without acknowledging the primary source
2. Hiring someone to write your paper and submitting it as your own (also referred to as contract cheating)
3. Working in partnership with another student and presenting a paper as your own
4. Splitting group assignments so that each student writes one part of it only (for group assessment tasks, all students are expected to contribute to all parts)
5. Submitting a paper, you have written earlier for another course (you may draw on your previous work, but not resubmit the same paper)
6. Cheating on the exams
7. Fabricating the data for research.
I have met thousands of students who refer to custom writing companies because they are afraid that they are not skilled enough to paraphrase and may have plagiarism issues, and here is what they have to know: only dishonest plagiarism (intentional copying and pasting and making the copied material dominate in your work) and submitting a paper written by someone else as your own (contract cheating) are taken very seriously and a student may fail the entire course or be suspended or expelled from the university for doing this. All other issues may result only in a lower mark or a request to revise the paper. This way, the grave consequences of academic dishonesty stem from poor intentions, not poor academic writing skills!
You cannot train yourself not to copy-paste from other sources – you just resolve not to do this when writing your essays! You cannot train yourself to research sources rather than research ready-made papers so that you use them in your essay – you just resolve not to plagiarize. Still, you can and should practice summarizing, paraphrasing and quoting. Your training consists in citing sources in your essays and reflecting on your writing. You have to make sure that you do more than just change some words for their synonyms (you have to explain the original idea in your own words, change the structure of the sentence) and that you use other authors’ words is logical and coherent way. The following post on quoting, paraphrasing and summarizing will explain how these three forms of citing differ and what tips you can use to improve your writing. In addition, the post contains a practical task, which I will check. The feedback will help you to understand what your current citing skills are and what you can do to make your writing better.
In addition, although incorrect referencing is less harmful than no references at all, it is still a form of academic dishonesty, which will make your mark lower. This returns us to the formatting. As I have said, using formatting styles should not necessarily be your skill (learned ability) – you can look up the formatting rules each time you write a paper. The success of an essay depends on how accurate the citations are, not how many rules you actually memorized or looked up.
There seems to be only one rule in academic writing, which depends on students’ abilities rather than efforts – critical reading and critical thinking. The ways to improve your abilities to understand the authors’ argument are considered in the content section of this post.
Following all other demands does not depend on skills but on effort! What is important here is that to hand in successful essays, academic writing should not necessarily be your skill = something you do quickly and easily, without checking the rules. Still, if you write essays and put effort into understanding the demands and your mistakes, you will inevitably make it your skill!
So, here are the three steps you should repeat in a cycle to develop and improve academic writing skills:
(1) learn about the demands to academic writing and research papers (this is what you have just done! Congrats!!!)
(2) follow them (you cannot progress unless you actually write a paper trying to follow the demands to academic writing)
(3) reflect on your mistakes not to make them the following time
While all the three steps depend on efforts, it is extremely difficult for students to assess their own works against all the requirements and determine what they might be missing until they receive a professor’s feedback and… a poor grade. This is what usually demotivates students to take our magical three steps again and improve. A good idea here is to work with a tutor or an academic editor that will give feedback on the essay’s correspondence to the professor’s and academic writing demands, give recommendations about how to improve the paper. This way, revision of your paper will not take much time but will be super helpful regarding your academic writing success.
I would love to support you at any stage of essay writing so that you do not give up writing and develop your academic writing skills!