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What is academic writing? (and how to avoid common mistakes)

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By Vanessa Parson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Writing is all about communication; indeed, that is its entire point and purpose. There are many styles of writing and the way you write messages and emails to friends will be very different to how you are expected to write your university assignments.

When we write we are trying to clearly communicate what is in our heads. So, when you write your assignments, you need to clearly communicate how much you understand about a particular topic, and how well you can answer the question you’ve been given. Clearly-written assignments show you understand and that you have thought about the topic. Assignments that are less clear feel ‘muddy’ and can be confusing to read, so we can’t tell if you understand or not; communicating what you understand is crucial to your success. 

In your academic work you need to write in a reasonably formal manner, so you should avoid a chatty tone. You need to explain how much you know; your work is a formal delivery of information, so you need to describe and evaluate information objectively, rather than give a personal viewpoint.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what a sensible formal tone is, and this is where practice comes in. A common early mistake with academic writing is trying too hard, using ‘clever-sounding’ language, for example:

“The visuospatial sketchpad is the part of working memory that deals with visual images and information, holding the information long enough to allow rehearsal to transfer this information into long-term memory.”

Now, let’s go to the thesaurus…

“The graphical four-dimensional drawing pad is part of an operational memory paradigm that deals with pictorial imaginings and substantive information, embracing the evidence for sufficient moments to facilitate preparation of the material to ensure direct transference into the sustained and permanent memory processes called long-term memory.”

You should be able to see that the first version of this explanation of the visuospatial sketchpad is clear and relatively easy to understand. The second sounds a bit excessive and doesn’t actually make much sense; this happens when a thesaurus is used as a shortcut to making things ‘sound clever’. Your lecturers want to see the first version, not the second. 

Make sure what you write is clear – leave flowery descriptions for non-academic writing. Your lecturers don’t need long words or impressive sentences; they need clarity. We want to know you have understood, not that you know how to use the thesaurus on your computer. Make sure the way you communicate comes directly from you, and if you want to expand your vocabulary, you need to read more – there isn’t a shortcut. 

Academic writing involves making sure you can confidently and clearly communicate your understanding of a topic. This takes time; it means thinking about the information you’re reading, comparing it with other information you have read, and applying that information to your assignments. As you move forwards in your academic writing journey, you will add critical thinking and analysis to your work, ensuring that your views about the information in your subject area come through clearly, sharing your understanding in greater depth. 

Quotations are very popular, but rarely help, as they don’t contain any indication of whether you understand the material or not and so they don’t really contribute to your work. What you really need to practice is something called paraphrasing – re-writing information in your own words while keeping the meaning of the text the same. This can be difficult at first, particularly if you are used to copying information out in assignments and revision. Whatever you write, it needs to demonstrate your understanding in your own words; simply repeating the words of others is not how you should write at university, and that’s incredibly important to remember.

Four students are standing together in the library, surrounded by books, looking at a book together

Here are some tips that will help structure the development of your academic writing skills:

Academic writing tips

  • Find an up to date study skills/writing style book suitable for your course. These books are really useful and contain lots of supportive advice that will help with your academic writing journey
  • Read academic papers and textbooks relating to your subject; the more you read, the more you will absorb the academic style of writing and be able to reproduce it
  • Close books and hide journal articles when you make notes. If you understand the content, you will be able to make notes. If you don’t understand, you won’t be able to, and you need to read it again. Use this process with your class notes as well
  • Write all notes in your own words, always paraphrase the material you use
  • Unless providing some quotations is essential for your subject, avoid them
  • When you write your assignment, paraphrase your own notes, to make sure you’re not accidentally copying anything; this will also give you some confidence that you do understand, which will come through in your writing
  • Write drafts for all written assignments; never assume your first draft is good enough – you want to make your work the best representation of your thoughts that you can and to be as clear as possible
  • Dress up smartly to write and edit the final draft of your work, avoid writing in your pyjamas! (I know, it’s a weird tip, but it does work!) Feeling formal will help you write a bit more formally, at least at the start of your academic writing journey 
  • Read the feedback you get from assignments – then act on all of it
  • Finally, if you’re not sure, ask for help!

There are lots of resources you can use here at the University of Sunderland, so make sure you take advantage of them. Like all skills, academic writing is one that takes practice; the more you do it, the better you will get.

Published: 16 July 2020