When it comes to higher education and academic papers, well developed and trained writing skills are overlooked or underestimated by students. However, they are crucial and an irreplaceable steppingstone to success. Therefore we have gathered some important tips on how to improve student’s academic writing skills efficiently.

Avoid ambiguous references

The conversation is full of ambiguous words that have no meaning in themselves but are often clear in context. In writing, however, the intended meaning is not obvious to the reader, because there are, for example, many possible interpretations of certain terms. It is a good idea to read everything you write, looking for these types of words, mainly pronouns. For each instance, first ask yourself: “To what specific element does this term refer?” For such a reference to make sense, the object, the person or the concept must have been explicitly mentioned just before its reference. Often, you will find that some pronouns refer to something vague that was not even explicitly discussed in the document, in which case, it requires rewriting the text completely.

Even if the article you refer to is explicitly mentioned in your writing, ask yourself if there is a possibility that the reader does not know which of the various articles you might be referring to. For example, for the word “he”, when you named more than one person, it indicates the real name of each one; since “he”would be ambiguous. You can avoid the ambiguity of the demonstrative”this” or “these” by adding a noun that precisely specifies the type of object or concept to which it refers. For example, “this argument” or “this document”.

“But” and “however” are not interchangeable

The words “but” and”however” have similar meanings, but are not interchangeable. If you take a grammatically correct sentence containing “but” and replace it with “however”, or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect, mainly due to the score.

Be very precise when you talk about an author who refers to another

For better or for worse, academic writing often turns into discussions about what one author said about another author. If you comment on such controversies, you should be very careful with the use of ambiguous terms such as “your”, “the author”, etc. Sometimes, the reader will have no idea which of the various authors you are referring to, although it may be clear to you. If in doubt, use the real surnames instead, even if they sound repetitive.

Avoid footnotes

Footnotes should be used sparingly and should never be used as a way to avoid the hard work of making the text flow in a coherent narrative. Only when something cannot fit into the main flow of the text and is still so important that it should be mentioned, should it go to a footnote.

Discontinue direct quotations

In scientific writing (as opposed to literary or historical), direct quotations should be used only when the precise wording of the original sentences is important, for example, in the case that the work is so innovative that the words themselves have impelled the research in this field. In almost all other cases, paraphrasing is more appropriate, because it allows you to formulate the idea in the right terms for your particular work, focusing on the underlying problem and not on the way an author expressed it.

Discussing the existing work

Whenever you mention an existing investigation, either yours or someone else’s, there is a standard way to do it correctly. First state what the investigation showed; then, present what its limitations are; and finally, explain how your own work will overcome these limitations. That is, you should know what has been done, what has not been done, and how you are going to do something that has not been done.

If you are doing a literature review instead of an original research paper, simply describe what you think should be done, rather than what you plan to do.

Discussing the proposed work

In the context of research, studying is a vague and unlimited task, without a criterion of success and without a way of knowing if you are fulfilling a specific objective. To carry out an investigation, you need to spell the specific questions that you are going to try to answer, the specific phenomena that need explanations, etc. It is up to you to define the question and the methods, and until you have done so, it is not research, but a mere idle speculation.

Discussion / future work

In this section, be sure to analyze all the topics that the audience expects to see in the document, even if you do not think they are relevant. The reader is more likely to assume that you have been careless with your literature review than to assume that you knew about the work, but that you thought it was not relevant. Restrictions on the number of pages can be useful here: they provide a good excuse to omit topics that you do not consider relevant. In a longer article or a thesis with no page limits, you have no choice but to address the problem and state explicitly why the topic is not relevant despite the common belief that it is.

Bibliographies

Students often seem to think that bibliographies are responding to rules too complex to understand or remember. Although there is a great variety of different bibliographic formats, the underlying principles are not really complicated. In short, all bibliographies should have a minimum information standard to fulfil their function of allowing people to locate the material cited. In particular, each bibliographic reference needs an author, date and title; each journal article must have a volume and page numbers; and each conference record must have the title of the conference proceedings, the page numbers and some indication of who posted that. Without having all this basic information, there is no way to be sure that readers can find the specific article you are discussing.

Personally, I believe that academic writing should be as professional as possible in order to achieve academic success. Hopefully these tips set you on the right path.

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About Author

Charles Whitworth is the Editor of the Young Academic publications. Graduating from the University of Liverpool with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 2008, Charles learnt his trade in newsrooms such as IPC Media and Sky. He has now developed as a top sports, music and current affairs journalist and has been printed in a range of publications including The Guardian. His interests include Cricket, Football, Rugby, Music and Current Affairs. Fresh from the editorship of Student Times he now takes the reins at Young Academic - the premier student news portal. Connect with me on Google+

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