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Academic writing

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

What does it mean to write in an academic style? It doesn't mean using lots of long words and complicated sentences! The purpose of academic writing is to communicate complex ideas in a way that makes them least likely to be challenged. So it's important to avoid any ambiguity. That means that academic writing must be:

- formal, because informal writing is not always understood in the same way by every reader;

- structured, because complex ideas need to be controlled to produce an unambiguous statement;

- precise, so that none of its ideas can be challenged;

- appropriate, so that it communicates to its audience in the most effective way.

As different subject areas have their own conventions, do refer to programme handbooks for specialist guidance. You can also look at publications, such as research journals, in your area to see their writing style. If English is not your first language, or you would like to access more information and activities on academic writing, you can also get more advice from the links below. If you are a University of Reading student and English is not your first language, the Academic English Programme (AEP) provides training courses in academic writing skills, speaking skills, and pronunciation practice.

Write formally and with clarity

Writing should be formal, but it does not need to be pompous. To maintain formality, there are various colloquialisms and shortened forms to avoid:

Avoid shortened forms:

Shouldn't, it's for it is

Avoid popular phrases or cliches such as:

at the end of the day; in a nutshell; when it comes to the crunch

Replace with: finally, in summary, in a crisis

Avoid casual everyday words such as:

really, okay, maybe.

Think b4 u rite! :>) 

One recent poll of students at a US university found that an average student in the class would write 42 pages for class in a semester but the equivalent of more than 500 pages of content online.

In our everyday lives we are used to communicating by writing texts and instant messages. These have their own conventions, such as using abbreviations ("txt"), using symbols (" :>)"), figures (4 rather than four) and not writing in sentences. When writing formal essays and reports we have to take extra care that our texting and emailing habits do not creep in by accident.

Correct use of grammar and punctuation is important. They show that you care about your work and have adopted a disciplined attitude to writing academically. They also help to make sure your meaning is understood. The most common mistakes by inexperienced writers include:

  • incomplete sentences (missing a verb or needing information in the previous sentence to make sense;
  • the wrong use of semicolons and colons;
  • the wrong use of apostrophes (check whether the s is there to indicate possession or a plural);
  • nouns and verbs where singular /plural do not agree (try proof reading aloud to spot this);
  • and inconsistent use of tenses (always use the past tense when you are reporting on something that was done).

See the pages on Grammar and Punctuation in this guide for more on this.

Good writing makes a point clearly and may illustrate it to help the reader's understanding. To avoid rambling, plan the points that you wish to convey and the evidence that you will use to illustrate. Include only necessary detail.

When presenting a point of view, such as a line of argument for an essay, decide on the main points that you want to communicate. Plan one main point per paragraph. A paragraph can be planned (like a mini-essay) using the PEIL format:

P: Sentence introducing the point with any necessary detail.

E: Illustration of point using evidence: research example, case study, figures, etc.

I: Interpretation of the evidence. What does it mean?

L: Concluding sentence summing up the point and linking to the question or your argument.




Where abbreviations and acronyms are required to avoid repetition, ensure that, on first mention, the unabbreviated term appears together with the abbreviation or acronym, for example:

First mention: "An article in the American Journal of Philology (AJPh) reported..."

Subsequent mention: "Writing in the AJPh, Brown concluded that..."

Important: In academic writing you are responsible for the writing you produce. If you are using research or ideas based on work by others (books, journals, websites) you must reference everything fully and in the correct way for your assignment (check your instructions for this). If you fail to do this, you are implying that the ideas etc. are your own and then you may be accused of plagiarism.


Write concisely and with precision

Do not be tempted to use complex language or expressions that are not your own, just to make your writing appear "academic". Use straightforward language. Your reader needs to understand the information or ideas that you are conveying.

Communicate succinctly without losing vital information or meaning. It is often easier to write fluently and then to edit out unnecessary words and phrases.

Three editing tips to reduce word-count:

1. Go through a paragraph that you have written and cross out any words, or phrases or even a sentence that may be unnecessary. (Or 'grey it out' – change the text colour of the words you might remove to light grey.) Read it again to see if you have lost anything essential to the information or meaning. If you have not, then delete it permanently.

2. Replace phrases with single words meaning the same:

The researcher wanted to find out <--replace with--> The researcher enquired

3. To cut down larger amounts of word count, try writing one sentence which sums up each paragraph. Then read through and rank in importance to your overall answer to the question. Take out the paragraphs that are least important.

Some academic writing, such as scientific research methodology, needs to be especially precise. A reader may need to have all the information required to understand exact conditions of a scientific study and to replicate it. Using simple sentences can be helpful.

Avoid using non-quantifiable descriptions, such as:

The company's production rate was high <--replace with--> The company produced 16,00 units per week.

The wind was strong <--replace with--> The wind measured 6 on the Beaufort scale.

Structure is also important in academic writing - it helps to make your ideas clear, guides the reader's comprehension and can strengthen your arguments. Some academic writing, such as scientific reports, has a given structure. Just find out what is required under each heading and keep to it. Other writing (such as essays) requires the writer to select and organise the material they are writing and so develop a structure.

Usually in the introduction the writer sets out the structure so that the reader knows what to expect and the order in which it will be presented. The order in which information is presented should be logical so that the reader can follow the thinking, ideally with just one point or idea per paragraph. In addition the ideas should flow or be linked so that the reader is drawn through an explanation or argument, rather than stopping and starting at each new point.The conclusion to the piece should draw together all the points or ideas and come to a conclusion.

Write for a purpose

Academic writing has a purpose. It may provide background information, the results of other peoples' research, the critique of other peoples' research, your own research findings, your own ideas based on academic research conducted by others, etc. It may be a combination of a few of these.

  • Decide on your purpose and what you intend to convey. If there is a brief, follow it. If there is a given question, make sure that you answer what has been asked. Write down your main points.(Mind-mapping can help with this.)
  • Decide on the audience for whom you are writing. If you are writing a university assignment, pretend that you are writing for an intelligent colleague from a related academic field, rather than for your tutor who knows more about the topic.

For most subject areas the writing is expected to be objective. For this the first person (I, we, me, my) should be avoided.

So     I analysed the data    becomes   The data was analysed

However, writing passively isn't always suitable. For instance, if you are asked to write a reflective piece, you will need to refer to your own actions and experiences. The important thing is to consider the purpose of your writing - that will help you to decide how to write it.