20 Ways to Improve Your Academic Writing

Would you write an email to your boss using the same word choices and style that you’d use to send an email or text to your friend? Would you start your email to your boss with “Hey dude, wassup?”

Probably not.

Why? Because writing to your boss demands a higher level of professionalism and formality than does writing to your friend.

The same is true for academic writing.

You wouldn’t use “I’m gonna write this paper about how much I love playing video games” as your thesis.  And you wouldn’t write one giant paragraph about how playing video games is the best pastime ever (even if that’s how you feel).

Why? Because academic writing requires a specific format and style. It needs to be organized, clear, and professional.

But how do you improve your academic writing? What specifically should you do to make your writing more professional?

Start by reviewing these 20 ways to improve your academic writing.

20 Ways to Improve Your Academic Writing

word cloud featuring terms related to academic writing and discourse communities

Good writing takes practice, and you simply can’t write the perfect paper on the first (or even the second or third) attempt.

You can, however, review these tips to begin to improve your academic writing one step at a time.

#1: Follow assignment guidelines

Before you start any writing assignment, take the time to review the assignment guidelines again. Really. It’s important.

Here’s why. Let’s say you thought that you knew exactly what you were supposed to be writing: a literary analysis of the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale. You write a brilliant essay about the theme of complacency in the novel and its relevance to today’s political climate.

When you finish your masterpiece, you decide to review the assignment details, only to find out that the actual assignment is to compare one of the themes of The Handmaid’s Tale to another dystopian novel.

With only four short hours left before the assignment is due, you have to rush to create an entirely new paper. Not exactly what you wanted to do on Sunday evening (especially after working so hard on your original paper).

The takeaway: Professors provide assignment guidelines for a reason. Follow them. (Your grade will thank you.)

Need more help with a certain essay type than your assignment guide offers? Use this survival guide on 6 popular types of essays.

#2: Master the academic essay structure

It may sound simple, but if you’re writing an academic essay, remember to use the proper essay structure.

All formal essays require an original title (that gives readers an idea of what your paper is about), one or more introductory paragraphs, a strong thesis, at least several body paragraphs to explain the key arguments of the essay, and one or more concluding paragraphs to wrap things up.

Need help with the basic components of an academic essay? Check out these resources:

#3: Use the correct format for an academic essay

hand holding marker underlining the word 'structure' written in blue ink
Structure” by Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Before people even read your paper, they’ll look at the format. Incorrect formatting looks sloppy. A sloppy paper is like showing up to a job interview with a dirty T-shirt and ripped jeans. It creates a horrible first impression.

Make your paper look professional by following the basics:

  • Use a standard font and size (usually Times New Roman 12)
  • Set one inch margins on all sides
  • Double space between lines

Check out this Essay Formatting Survival Guide (Infographic) for more tips.

#4: Narrow your topic appropriately

Writing about a broad topic can mean you have lots of information to throw into an essay to meet length requirements. But it can also mean that you’re writing a simplistic paper about a complex topic.

To write a compelling essay, narrow the topic to focus on a smaller, more specific issue. This approach will allow you to write a more detailed and effective essay.

Take, for example, the standard elementary school report. Let’s say you wrote about earthquakes. Your report likely explained what earthquakes are, where they have occurred, and the damage they can create. You may have even earned an “A” on your report.

It was an awesome report for an elementary school student, but it was also probably pretty basic and generalized (like a standard encyclopedia article). This type of broad overview is definitely not what you want to write about at the high school or college level.

Can you imagine telling your geology prof that the focus of your term paper will be “earthquakes”? I’m sure you can guess that she wouldn’t be impressed.

Now imagine telling her that you want to focus on the impact earthquakes have on coastal cities and how new technology can help predict earthquakes and save lives.

Much better, right?

If you’re pondering a broad topic like “earthquakes” and struggling to find a narrow focus, read How to Narrow a Topic and Write a Focused Paper.

#5: Prewrite

A lot of students (and you might be one of them) hate prewriting because they think it takes up too much time.

While prewriting does require time and effort, it will help you organize your thoughts and help you plan your ideas before you actually begin drafting. All of this organizing means that you’ll actually save time in the long run because you’ll be that much more prepared when it comes time to write your paper.

Looking for more information about how to get the most out of prewriting? Take a look at these posts:

#6: Choose your words carefully to create the right tone

young woman dancing listening to music with happy tone through headphones

Using the right words can make all the difference in how you present yourself to an audience.

Sure, if you use “too” instead of “to” or “there” instead of “their,” you’ve used the wrong word (and sloppy editing can make your paper seem rushed and unprofessional). But the word choices I’m referring to in this case are words that help boost your credibility and create a professional tone.

You want readers to find you credible. But you want readers to respect you too. You won’t be considered credible or respectable, however, if you’re rude, condescending, or sarcastic.

Thus, your tone should be appropriate for academic writing. Choosing the right words to convey your tone can improve the audience’s impression of you as a writer.

Take a look at this example:

Don’t write: 

“If you’re smart, you’ll realize my solution is the best.”

Do write: 

“Evidence demonstrates that this is the most effective solution.”

The first example is condescending and rude. You’re basically telling the readers that they’re not smart if they don’t agree with you. This is definitely not the impression you want to make.

The second example, however, is objective. It uses reason and logic to explain the statement and creates an academic and professional tone.

#7: Eliminate wordiness

Adding a bunch of words can help you make word count in no time flat, but more words don’t always equate to better writing.

Here’s an example:

Don’t write: 

“Due to extremely unfortunate circumstances, which were a result of a terrible computer error, students were unable to go online and register for their courses for the upcoming fall semester.”

Do write: 

“Due to a computer error, students were unable to register online for fall courses.”

The first sentence adds a lot of words but not a lot of content. The second sentence, on the other hand, eliminates 15 unnecessary words and is clear and concise.

To learn more about how to eliminate wordiness in your own writing, read these posts:

And when you do need to extend your word count, make sure you’re doing it the right way.

Stuck on your revisions?
Let a professional help.

#8: Write in third person

Many types of writing—such as narrative essays, op-eds, and blogs—allow (and often prefer) the use of first-person and even second-person point of view.

Most academic essays, such as research papers and literary analysis essays, however, require more formality and thus require you to write in third person.

Here’s an example to illustrate.

Don’t write: 

“If you read Romeo and Juliet, you’ll learn about the star-crossed lovers.”

Do write: 

Romeo and Juliet tells the tale of a pair of star-crossed lovers.”

Notice that the first sentence directly addresses the reader by using second person (“you” and “you’ll”). The second sentence, though, is a stronger example of academic writing as it’s written in third-person point of view.

#9: Use formal language

dapper young man facing camera wearing bow tie and jacket

Formal, academic writing requires formal language. In other words, don’t write like you speak. If you always use slang, you’ll need to edit it out of your academic writing. (Save the slang for texting your friends.)

Here are examples of informal and formal language to illustrate:

Don’t write: 

“She freaked out when she saw her final grade.”

Do write: 

“She was shocked and angry when she saw her final grade.”     

“Freaked out” is clearly too informal for academic writing, and the first sentence sounds like speech, rather than a statement from an academic essay.

#10: Write in active voice

While writing in active voice or writing in passive voice is a matter of style (rather than correct or incorrect grammar), in most cases, you should write in active voice.

Active voice creates a stronger statement and can help reduce confusion in your writing.

To learn more about the differences in active voice and passive voice (and when you should use each) read these posts:

#11: Explain concepts your audience may not know

Your audience consists of intelligent, educated readers. There’s no need to define basic words or explain simple concepts that your readers already understand.

In other words, don’t start your essay with something like this: “According to Merriam-Webster.com, a tree is ‘a woody perennial plant having a single usually elongate main stem generally with few or no branches on its lower part.’” Readers already know what a tree is, so don’t waste their time by explaining what doesn’t need to be explained.

At the same time, do spend time explaining any concepts that your audience isn’t already familiar with.

For instance, if you’re writing for a general audience and you have specialized knowledge about trees, you might need to explain the term “petiole.” (It’s the stalk that connects a leaf to a branch, in case you’re wondering.)

#12: Appeal to your specific audience

audience in front of a stage at concert

Take the time to consider what your audience believes and understands about the subject.

If your audience is a group of environmentalists and you’re writing about a recycling program, for example, appeal to your audience by explaining how your proposed program will benefit the environment by preventing further climate change.

If you’re trying to pitch the same recycling program to a group of skeptical parents at a school board meeting, you might try another angle and appeal to their love of their children. You might explain how the recycling program will teach their children responsibility and help protect the environment for future generations.

#13: Be sincere

While you should appeal to your audience, don’t go so far as excessively complimenting or flattering your audience. This will likely turn readers off, and they won’t feel you are sincere.

You know, it’s kinda like trying to butter up your parents when you’re a kid. You tell them what great parents they are in hopes of convincing them to buy you a new phone.

Both your audience and your parents can see right through these poor attempts at flattery, and it damages your credibility.

Here’s what sincerity might look like in academic writing:

Don’t write: 

“If you’re reading this, you’re obviously smart, so you understand my point.”

Do write: 

“Based on the evidence presented, the thesis is valid.”

Notice that the first example tries to flatter the reader, while the second example is a more appropriate form of academic writing because it remains objective.

#14: Support arguments with evidence

Because academic writing isn’t just your own opinion, you’ll need to use sources to support your arguments. Even if you’re a self-proclaimed expert on the benefits of sleeping until noon, chances are you don’t have any research to support your claim.

That’s where the experts come in.

Remember, you want readers to know that you’ve done your research, and you want them to see you as credible. Citing authorities and experts to support your arguments is crucial to achieving this credibility.

If you need more help with supporting your arguments and writing a research paper, take a look at How to Write a Research Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide.

#15: Choose credible sources

edge of credible book printed with 'from the real experts'

And speaking of credibility, you absolutely need to choose credible sources. You’ll lose all of your hard-earned cred if you choose unreliable resources.

After all, who would readers believe is more credible, an anonymous person who created his own website about why teens require more sleep or a psychologist who has spent hours researching and studying sleep patterns and the science behind the importance of sleep in teens?

(FYI: If you do happen to be an expert in sleeping in but still need to find a way to make it to class on time, read How to Wake Up Early and Never Oversleep Your 8AM Class Again.)

#16: Incorporate your own analysis

Keep in mind that, while you need sources to support your arguments, sources are there as support. They shouldn’t take the place of your own arguments.

Here’s a quick way to tell if your sources have taken the place of your own arguments: Take a look at a research paper you’ve written. Highlight all information that you’ve used from your sources. In most cases, if you highlight more than a few lines in each paragraph, you have used too much information from sources.

Looking for another way to see if you’ve used the appropriate amount of evidence to support your claims? Try a reverse outline.

#17: Cite all sources according to assignment guidelines

Most academic writing requires the use of sources, and these sources must be cited. (Without citation, you’re plagiarizing, so don’t forget this step!)

Before you begin researching, and certainly before you begin writing, know what citation style is required. Two of the most common types of citation used in academic writing are MLA (Modern Language Association) or APA (American Psychological Association). (You may, however, also be asked to use other styles, including CSE or Chicago.)

#18: Start your assignment early

alarm clock and school notebook surrounded by numbers

Good academic writing is polished. It’s clear, concise, and professional. Good writing doesn’t magically appear after writing a draft 25 minutes before the assignment is due. Good writing takes time, so start your assignment early enough to leave time to revise.

If you’ve mastered the art of procrastination but need a little help with that whole “starting assignments early” bit, read How to Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing.

On the off chance that you’ve procrastinated longer than you’d like, here are a few tips that can help you write a strong essay in a short timeframe.

Need help with time management? Stay on track with the advice in How to Manage Time Better When Writing (and Living Your Life).

#19: Revise, and revise again

In most cases, one revision isn’t enough, so make sure to save time to revise at least twice. Set the paper aside for a day or two, and review your paper again to make sure you have a clear thesis, topic sentences, and supporting evidence.

Here’s a tip to help you through the revision process: Try reading your paper out loud. If you stumble over sentences while reading aloud, your readers will stumble too. Revise your sentences until they’re easy to read aloud.

Need more help with revision? Read these posts:

#20: Edit your paper

Finally, edit your paper. Look for grammar errors and any spelling or word choice errors (such as incorrect use of their/they’re/there or too/to/two). Also check for punctuation, format, and citation errors.

BTW: Don’t forget that Kibin editors are always here to review your paper and help you improve your academic writing through both corrections and feedback.

Final Thoughts on Improving Your Academic Writing

black t-shirt that says 'thinking...please wait'
“Thinking… please wait” by Karola Riegler, Flickr.com (CC BY-ND 2.0)

If you’re thinking that all of this is a lot to remember and it takes a lot of work to write a good academic paper, you’re right.

Though writing is a lot of work, it really isn’t so bad, and English class isn’t so bad either. But it does take practice—and lots of it.

Remember, if you follow the tips outlined in this post and you practice these tips each time you write a paper, before you know it, you’ll have improved your academic writing.

Not sure what good academic writing actually looks like? Take a look at these hand-picked Kibin staff recommendations that illustrate strong academic writing:

Happy writing!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on March 16, 2015, but has been updated for freshness and to add even more expert advice. 

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