Writing in English in an academic environment tends to pose a challenge for English language learners. This is mainly because academic systems in other cultures do not emphasize writing as much as the American higher education system does. And when students do write, the structure and language that they are used to is different than the American style.
The following is a list of the top five tips on how to write well in academic English. This list is based on correcting thousands of pages of writing in American academia. Note that these “before” sentences are from actual essays and are sometimes written with incorrect grammar.
Top 5 Tips for Excellent Academic Writing in English
1) Use as few words as possible.
Strong writing means that every word serves a purpose. Sentences that use more words than they need to do not sound sophisticated — they sound confusing and weak.
- Too many words: “When it comes to the contents of the documents revealed, these had contained videos showing…”
- Edited: “The documents revealed videos showing…”
2) Use strong, descriptive verbs.
Don’t overuse passive verbs like “is” “was” “be” “are”, or weak and vague verbs like “make” and “do”. Too many passive words make your opinion sound weak, so use the active voice as often as possible.
- Weak verbs: “This relationship makes the differences between native people and people from the colonies.”
- Strong verb: “This relationship differentiates native people from colonialists.”
3) Don’t overuse pronouns.
After every few uses of a pronoun (“he” “them” etc.) use the noun that you are describing. If it’s a person you are referring to, use their last name.
- “The court eventually sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison for releasing classified documents to WikiLeaks.”
4) Use formal English and avoid informal words.
Spoken English is much more informal than written English. Research and pay attention to the formal alternatives to common sayings.
- Informal: “Manning had been in prison for a while before his trial.”
- Formal: “Manning had been in prison for several years before his trial.”
- “for a significant amount of time”
- “for a substantial amount of time”
5) Be specific.
One of the worst things foreign graduate students do in writing is to be vague or obvious. Sometimes, this is cultural; communicators in some countries must be indirect. But NEVER in English! Writers must be direct and clear in academia.
- Vague: “Bradley Manning was accused of taking secret documents and giving them to WikiLeaks.”
- Specific: “Manning was accused of stealing classified documents… “
An Important Note
No matter how busy you get in school, never plagiarize. You must always quote and cite the words and ideas of others that you use in your writing. Professors know when you have used other authors’ words, especially when your own writing is not that strong, so don’t try to get away with it.