5 ways to improve your students’ academic writing

Striking the right tone in academic writing can be tough for students - here Mark Roberts offers five handy tips

Mark Roberts

Five tips to help students improve their academic writing

Academic writing is a code. 

To the initiated, it’s coherent, logical and appropriate in tone. 

To the uninitiated, it’s a minefield of unwritten rules and assumptions. 

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I learned some of these rules late in my education, the hard way, through the robust comments of professors, scrawled in scarlet all over my essays. 

Here’s my advice to your students who may have a similar struggle. 

Academic writing: cut out phrasal verbs

Academic discourse largely avoids phrasal verbs. These common phrases – made up of two or three words – combine to make a single semantic unit and are usually found in spoken English.

While "take it out" is fine in an informal text, it stands out in formal academic writing.

Provide opportunities for students to spot and eradicate phrasal verbs.

Eventually, they’ll end up editing sentences like, “Businesses that are interested in sustainability need to get rid of/remove plastic bags from the till."

Use nominalisation

Nominalisation – where verbs or other words (usually involving actions or descriptions) are turned into nouns (things or concepts) – is a key feature of academic writing.

This process creates a tone that is formal, objective and abstract; all elements of most successful academic writing.

Get your students to compare sentences like these, thinking about which works best and why:

  1. Benvolio tries to bring peace to the play. He is a foil to hostile Tybalt and volatile Mercutio.

  2. Benvolio is the play’s unsuccessful peacemaker. He is a foil to Tybalt’s hostility and Mercutio’s volatility.

Include formal discourse markers

A good essay or report helpfully guides its reader through its different sections. But signposts in academic texts operate at a more formal register to discourse markers in other texts, such as blogs or newspaper articles. 

I once got caught out writing “more of this later” – a phrase I’d magpied from a magazine columnist – in an undergraduate essay. Let your students see why "we shall return to this topic in due course” would have struck a better tone.

Embrace hedging language

Students tend to believe that for writing to seem confident, it should adopt a default tone of decisiveness and certainty. In reality, the opposite is true.

This is an interesting paradox for your students to confront: in order to sound authoritative, good academic writing embraces indirectness, politeness and doubt.  

Hedging, a linguistic device that introduces caution and hesitancy, is the academic writer’s friend. We need to demonstrate the benefits of deploying phrases like “appears to indicate” rather than "this proves" in our scholarly prose.

Avoid generalisations

Similarly, unconfident academic writers often use broad brush strokes in their writing when careful shade is required.

Sweeping statements usually indicate a student with only a surface understanding of the topic they’re studying. In particular, watch out for generalised comments about gender, social class or ethnicity. 

Modelling, then interrogating, sentences such as “in Elizabethan times everybody was poor and people believed that poverty was their own fault” will help students to add much-needed nuance to their writing. 

Through making this esoteric academic code explicit to our students, we can help them to express themselves more effectively and allow them to avoid making the same mistakes that left my essays splattered in red ink.

Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher in the South West of England

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