Do you want your essays to sound more professional?
A well-written essay takes the reader on a clear journey of your argument. Your tutor can give you marks more easily if they can understand the flow of ideas.
Academic writing is a skill that requires practice. But it’s difficult to improve at something without a guide.
This blog post details 21 academic writing tips to make your essays sound more professional.
But first, sign up to my free resource library where you can download the awesome guide I've created for you with a checklist of these 21 academic writing tips…AND 2 cheat sheets for improving the flow and clarity of your writing. AND you'll get access to tons of other printables and worksheets to help you become a happier, more confident and more successful student.
1). Always proofread
There’s no excuse for spelling mistakes or typos. Everyone makes mistakes but there are so many tools to pick them up. All word processors come with spell check so the first thing to do is use that. Also check the spelling of specific subject terminology.
Next you could print your essay and read it through. It’s easier to spot mistakes on paper than reading on a screen.
Another trick is to copy your text into Google Translate. Click the ‘listen’ button and Google will read your text back to you. It’s a little stilted but you’ll be able to notice typos or repeated words.
2). Do not use contractions
I use contractions in my blog posts and emails because informality is acceptable for a personal brand or business. Blog posts are meant to sound approachable with writing similar to how someone would speak.
But it’s deemed inappropriate to use contractions in academic writing as objectivity and neutrality is required. So watch out for using contractions when editing until you get in the habit of using the full two words.
If you think you use contractions when you shouldn’t try searching your essay for the most common ones e.g. don’t, can’t, it’s, shouldn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, she’ll, haven’t, hasn’t, who’s, what’s…etc.
3). Avoid colloquialisms and clichés
Informality should be removed from academic writing. Don’t use informal phrases such as ‘kind of’ or ‘gonna’. Don’t use clichés such as ‘on a roll’ or ‘sooner or later’. Go through your essay carefully to check for phrases that sound like you are talking to a friend.
He reckons small businesses struggle with scaling their operations.
He is of the opinion small businesses struggle with scaling their operations.
The organisational restructure was long and difficult, but the CEO got through it.
The organisational restructure was long and difficult, but the CEO persevered.
4). Don’t use big words to attempt to sound smart
Now it may seem logical that using long, academic-sounding words will make your tutor think you are smarter.
When the study’s participants easily understood the text and the message being communicated, they considered the message more intelligent. Using simple, clear vocabulary makes your arguments more understandable which can make it easier for your tutor to award marks.
Before (less clear)
The company utilised consultants and agencies to overhaul its corporate branding.
After (more clear)
The company used consultants and agencies to overhaul its corporate branding.
Before (less clear)
The celerity of the organisational restructure shocked the employees into change.
After (more clear)
The swiftness of the organisational restructure shocked the employees into change.
5). Back up all your points with evidence
For most essays that require you to answer a question or form a response to a statement (rather than a self-reflection essay), you need to back up your points with evidence.
The common formula to use is – make a point then back this up with evidence and a reference. You should not make a claim without linking it to a reference.
For example, consider you had to answer the question ‘does complexity theory help or hinder an organisation’s strategic activities?’.
You may want to make the point that complexity theory is helpful because it teaches managers they can’t control their environment. If you just made that point you would be wrong on two counts. First you’ve plagiarised by not including a reference for the author who made that point. Secondly, you’ve missed the chance of strengthening this argument with an example.
Try to link all of your statements with a reference or example backing up the claim.
6). Cut out unnecessary words
Often, many unnecessary words can be cut from your essay. It’s important to cut these words for two reasons: it improves the readability of your work, and it creates spare word count for adding extra points.
Personal opinion > opinion
Absolutely essential > essential
Weather conditions > weather
Top priority > priority
Shorter in duration > shorter
You can also cut words from your sentences to add impact and save words.
Before (31 words)
In the 1960s, Honda decided to enter the US motorcycle market by emulating current companies Harley-Davidson and Triumph and creating similar big bikes to those already on the market (Richardson, 2011).
After (25 words)
In the 1960s, Honda decided to enter the US motorcycle market with similar big bikes to those of established incumbents Harley-Davidson and Triumph (Richardson, 2011).
7). Remove ‘that’ and ‘which’
‘That’ and ‘which’ often creep into our writing. They’re fairly harmless words but they take up precious word count. You won’t always be able to remove them, but use the search tool to see if you can edit them out. Removing these extra words rarely impacts meaning, flow or structural clarity.
Ensure that you make relevant use of both articles
Ensure you make relevant use of both articles.
Figure 4 identifies the company’s resources, which indicates a hierarchy of capabilities may exist.
Figure 4 identifies the company’s resources, indicating a hierarchy of capabilities may exist.
We drove down Queens Square; which is considered the prettiest street in Bath
We drove down Queens Square; considered the prettiest street in Bath
8). Avoid repeating the same words
Look out for words you use too often and replace them with the help of a Thesaurus. But, be careful not to change the original meaning. Choose a word and check it using dictionary.com to make sure you haven’t changed the meaning of the sentence.
Instead of saying, ‘Richardson says’…, try:
· Richardson states …
· Richardson opines …
· Richardson argues …
· Richardson declares …
· Richardson expresses …
· Richardson believes …
· Richardson details …
· Richardson voices …
· Richardson articulates …
· Richardson asserts …
Instead of saying, ‘The evidence shows’, try:
· The evidence demonstrates …
· The evidence illustrates …
· The evidence reveals …
· The evidence conveys …
· The evidence establishes …
· The evidence determines …
· The evidence explains …
· The evidence indicates …
· The evidence suggests …
· The evidence implies …
9). First or third person?
First, second and third person refers to personal pronouns. The first person uses ‘I’ – ‘I believe’ or ‘I analysed the company’s finances’.
Third person uses ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ – ‘Richardson supports rational decision making: he believes decisions should be made logically and without bias.’
Firstly, check your assignment guidance to see if it reveals the tense to be used (or ask your tutor). Most academic essays expect the third person. Instead of saying ‘I believe’ you would say, ‘The evidence suggests’. Instead of saying ‘I conclude’ you would say, ‘In conclusion’.
Yet, you may be asked to write a self-reflection as a whole essay or part of one. Here the first person is allowed as you are reflecting on your beliefs, experiences or learning. Again, check with your tutor what they expect.
10). Second person usage
Second person addresses the reader with ‘you’ – ‘you may feel overwhelmed on your first day of a new job’.
It is considered informal to use ‘you’ in academic writing so, instead, use ‘one’.
‘Complexity theory is a difficult subject; you should not expect to understand it immediately’.
‘Complexity theory is a difficult subject; one should not expect to understand it immediately’.
11). Be objective
Academic writing requires you to demonstrate objectivity: taking an unbiased, neutral perspective. Being objective can seem cold as it requires you to not express judgement on the material. Instead you must find evidence to support your argument.
You must create an argument of evidence and sound reasoning rather than giving your own viewpoints or blindly accepting the material.
12). Do not generalise
Be careful not to make sweeping statements about a whole group of people or types of people e.g. age, gender, race, profession…etc. Generalisations are normally incorrect and can even be offensive.
Don’t say ‘young people find it difficult to be without their mobile phone’. Instead you could say, ‘young people may be more attached to their mobile phones than those of an older generation, because they have grown up using them’.
Don’t make a statement without ‘hedging’ your language (see the next tip).
13). Use cautious, hedging language
Caution is required in academic writing to protect your claims and ensure you don’t over generalise.
Use phrases such as:
· It can be argued …
· The evidence seems to suggest …
· In some cases …
High unemployment causes crime to rise.
High unemployment may lead to an increase in crime.
14). Avoid very long sentences
Short sentences can aid clarity whereas long sentences can confuse a reader and make the key point harder to determine. Each sentence should detail just one idea.
Read your essay out loud; where there are sentences you struggle to fit in one breath – edit them. Copy the text and paste it in a space underneath. Experiment with splitting the sentence and removing some unnecessary words. Once you’re happy, replace the old version with this shorter, clearer version.
Before (one sentence, 38 words)
Collaborative structures can be complex, especially where many partners are involved who also have complex structures, which could lead to ambiguity surrounding the roles and responsibilities of members which could lead to failures (Huxham and Vangen, 2005, pp.133).
After (two clearer sentences, 31 words)
Collaborative structures can be complex, especially when there are many partners who also have complex structures (Huxham and Vangen, 2005, pp.133). Ambiguity surrounding the roles/responsibilities of members could lead to failures.
15). Use paragraphs to divide your work
Your essay is the journey of your argument with good paragraphs acting as stepping stones for your reader. Each idea and argument should be its own paragraph.
For example, for the question ‘Evaluate the usefulness to managers of the rational decision making process’, you want to identify reasons why it’s useful and reasons why it isn’t or might not be. So if you have three positive reasons these would be set out in three paragraphs that flow together.
But, be careful you don’t overdo it. Every point doesn’t require its own paragraph. You must show you can link ideas and sentences to form a coherent argument.
16). Use signposts to identify key elements
Signposts guide the reader through your essay, answering any questions they may have. They indicate the direction of your essay, key points and conclusions you’re drawing.
Good use of signposting shows that YOU are in control of the structure of your essay, rather than just listing points one after the other.
Each paragraph should include a signpost.
Here are some examples:
· Introduction: signpost the essay aims and what it will cover in which order. ‘This essay aims to…’
· ‘Having discussed the strengths of this theory, its limitations will now be covered’
· ‘Another argument for the usefulness of complexity theory is …’
· ‘A counter argument to Smith’s claims is …’
· ‘To further understand the importance of organisational structure …’
· ‘Conversely, Smith argues …’
· Conclusion: ‘The above evidence demonstrates …’
17). Use linking words to improve flow
Linking words work together with signposts to link your ideas and take your reader on a journey. These are small words that progress your essay and link one point to another.
Without these words your essay would just read as a series of unrelated statements. You’re probably already using some of these words without realising their full power so here’s some examples to try and incorporate into your next essay and improve your academic writing.
For addition or indicating similarity
· Additionally, …
· Furthermore, …
· Similarly, …
· Also, …
· Moreover, …
· Likewise, …
· Nevertheless, …
· Alternatively, …
· On the other hand, …
· Yet, …
· But, …
· Conversely, …
· In contrast, …
· For example, …
· For instance, …
· To exemplify, …
· To illustrate, …
· Thus, …
· Therefore, …
· Consequently, …
· As a result, …
· In conclusion, …
· To conclude, …
· To summarise, …
Grab the FREE resource pack which includes a printable cheat sheet on sign posts and linking words.
18). Learn the correct use of difficult words
There are sets of words that are confusing to a lot of people. Misusing them in an essay is a simple mistake that can make your work confusing and look a little shoddy. Learn the correct form to use and when.
Affect is the verb e.g. sunshine affects my mood.
Effect is the noun e.g. sunshine has the effect of brightening my mood.
There refers to a place or thing e.g. I’ve never been there before. (Test this by replacing ‘there’ with ‘here’).
Their shows possession e.g. we went to their house. (Test this by replacing ‘their’ with ‘our’)
They’re is the contraction of they are e.g. they’re going to be mad when they see the mess. (Test this by replacing ‘they’re’ with ‘they are’)
For a longer list of these words check out this article – Common Mistakes in Writing.
19). Write acronyms out in full the first time
Whenever you use acronyms write them out in full the first time you use them. Then use the acronym afterwards to save words.
‘America’s space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)…’.
20). Use commas correctly
Used correctly, commas can improve the clarity of your writing.
Here are some rules for comma use:
· Use commas to separate items in a list e.g. we invited Chloe, her mother, and her sister to the party
· Use commas to ‘hug’ non-essential clauses i.e. phrases or words that can be removed from the sentence while retaining clarity. For example, ‘during the company’s acquisition phase, expected to last two years, external recruitment will be frozen’. The middle clause can be removed and the sentence still makes sense – ‘during the company’s acquisition phase external recruitment will be frozen’
· Use commas after introductory words such as finally, on the other hand, furthermore. 'Finally, the house build was complete'.
For more guidance on correct comma use check out this article - 13 Rules For Using Commas Without Looking Like An Idiot.
21). Beware of rogue apostrophes
The correct way to use apostrophes can be confusing but you need to learn the rules as they’re an obvious mistake to make.
Apostrophes are used for contractions (shortened forms of words)
Do not becomes don’t, should have becomes should’ve. Here, the apostrophe replaces the missing letters
Apostrophes are also used to illustrate possession.
Apostrophes are also used to illustrate possession
Add ‘s to singular words (even those ending in a –s). Pratchett’s novel. James’ toys.
Add ‘s to plural forms that don’t end in –s. The children’s park.
Add ‘ to plural forms that end in –s. The countries’ laws. The cats’ owners.
Its and it's
Its and it’s is a common difficult example. It’s is the contraction for it is. Only ever use it’s if you can replace it with it is.
Its refers to the possessive but doesn’t follow the normal rules. The accountant Company A uses is its accountant.
This blog post has outlined 21 key ways you can improve your academic writing. This may seem overwhelming but once you start using some of these they become a habit and you’re no longer aware.
To help you implement these ideas I’ve created a FREE printable guide with a checklist and 2 cheat sheets. Print and use this guide when you’re writing your next essay.