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The Dos and Don'ts of Academic Writing in English

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Writing is the key skill to ensure the success of any postgraduate student. The importance of this skill can be easily understood if you put yourself in the shoes of a postgraduate examiner who needs to correct a pile of essays or indeed a PhD dissertation.

Reading a lengthy piece of writing is an effortful job in itself, but reading something that is both long and poorly written is definitely in the league of its own when we talk about painful experiences! That’s why postgraduate examiners are grateful to any student who writes well, and they are always ready to reward such a student even when the quality of his/her work doesn’t necessarily match the quality of their writing. It would be a real shame if you, as a postgraduate student, received a lower grade for your course just because your THESIS or academic essays are not well written. 

Here we have compiled the list of academic writing DOs and DON’Ts based on advice by some the world’s foremost academic experts. 

Starting with the Dos:

•    “In their essence, scientific writing and advertising are the same. An advertising agent sells his product, and a scientist sells the results of his/her research. This does not mean that good advertising can sell faulty products, but if you have a high quality product and you want to persuade the public to buy it you have to present it in an insightful and convincing manner . Therefore, when you write a research paper avoid the accumulation of facts and present the results of your research in a way that will capture your reader’s imagination.”
Robert J Sternberg, Provost Professor of Psychology at Oklahoma State University

•    “Avoid needless words and make your writing clear and concise . Whenever you think that your writing is finished read it once again and find any superfluous words to exclude from your sentences.”
William Strunk, Jr & E B White, The Elements of Style

•    “Every grammatical error is a sign of carelessness and may have more serious consequences than it appears at first. A person who today doesn’t care about where to place a comma in a sentence may in future cause errors that will cost other people their lives. Make sure that your commas are in the right place and that no word is used incorrectly .”
Karl Kraus, one of the most highly regarded German-language essayists and satirists of the 20th Century

•    “ Make the beginning of your article powerful . Introduce a real world problem or an unsolved controversy and represent them as the origins of your research ideas. If you present your final arguments as a solution to the problem you introduced at the beginning, you will keep your readers engaged and willing to read.”
Daniel Simons, Professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois

•    “Academic writing can be stylish, and it may be a prerequisite for a successful career in the academy. Stylish writings are those that use personal pronouns and bring personality, show curiosity and playfulness, and use acceptable doses of humor. Stylish writings are those that contain the qualities that most of the readers want to see but that conventional academics usually neglect. Write stylishly!" 
Helen Sword, Associate Professor in the Centre for Academic Development, University of Auckland

But just as important as what to do, is what NOT to do:

•    “ Don’t write your article in a chronological order from start to end. First write the sections you know how to write, even if you are not sure where exactly in the article you will put them. This way, the sections you don’t feel ready to write will slowly become clearer to you and you will write them with less effort.”
Professor Anderson Silber, Department of English, University of Toronto

•    “ Don’t start writing your article on your PC first; use paper instead . This way you will be more careful about which words to use and more thoughtful about your content because hand-writing is more effortful and less easy to correct.”
Dr Anne Murphy, Dublin Institute of Technology

•    “Even if as a postgraduate student you are investigating a specialist field, don’t use too many technical terms and don’t try to make your writing sound too complex. The goal of writing is clarity.”
Daniel Simons, Professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois

•    “ Don’t use the passive voice ; use active instead. ‘I investigated the effects of A on B’ is better than “the effects of A on B were investigated by me”.” 
University of Reading Writing Centre

•    “ Don’t write your paragraphs as if they were separate entities . Each paragraph has to clearly follow from the previous one. Even if your paragraphs got mixed anyone should be able to put them in the right order.”
University of Cambridge Language Centre

We hope that this list will help you raise your writing skills to a higher level and inspire you to keep working on your academic writing - here we have more advice on English Language Support.


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