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Top 10 Academic Writing Tips for Students from High Schools and Colleges

Jun 19, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Soon after they learn to construct full and proper sentences, schoolchildren are assigned short writing tasks, such as personal essays and book reports. As they progress, rules and style guidelines get ever more complicated and stringent. Near the end of their high school careers, students are introduced to academic writing, which is the most common style of writing used at the college or university level.

What is it?

Because it is intended for an informed audience in a specific discipline, the academic style is a serious one. These are no ordinary readers. They are doctors, lawyers, writers, scholars, and other experts. As such, they have extremely high standards when it comes to new ideas and arguments that concern their field of study. They also expect writers to abide by the rules.
The typical academic paper takes an objective stance, clearly delineates the importance of the topic, and is organized correctly, so that other scholars could replicate the results if they followed the same format. A strong academic paper is precise but not stodgy. It posits fresh ideas and arguments that add to a specific branch of knowledge. For the uninitiated, we will now discuss our top ten tips for better academic writing.

1. Form an argument

The main reason academic writing is so much more challenging than regular essay writing is that you actually have to convince your reader of something. In a personal essay or a book report, you simply give you personal opinion or summarize a topic or the author's ideas. But when you compose an academic paper, you must analyze the facts and demonstrate that your position, your argument holds water. To do so, you must select a specific topic and have a reason for discussing that topic.
In the academic writing style, each and every paragraph must strengthen your argument. For example, if your topic is obesity in America, your goal might be to convince the reader that "Fast food restaurants are primarily responsible for the rise in the daily caloric intake of the average American." Therefore, every paragraph that follows your introduction must argue that point.

2. Include a thesis statement

The most important sentence in any academic paper is the thesis statement. This is the sentence that lets the reader know what your argument actually is and why he/she should continue reading. Only after you have developed your thesis statement can you begin to write your paper, since everything that comes after it will be used to support this single sentence.

3. Organization is important

All academic papers must include an introduction and a conclusion. The introductory paragraph or paragraphs acquaint the reader with the topic and contains a thesis statement, usually at the end. It should also adumbrate the main points that you will be making in the body of your paper. Your conclusion is even more straightforward. All you have to do is summarize or reiterate the main points of your paper. Don't overcomplicate it by adding any new insights that were not made earlier.

4. Use the first person only when instructed...and be careful when you do!

Because it is more informal and does not provide the writer with the requisite distance he/she needs to maintain their objectivity, the first person is rarely permitted in academic writing. But when it is, the first person gives the writer the ability to replace vague terms like "the author" or "the scholar" with "I" or "we," which often gives your paper a better overall flow. With that said, the first person can complicate things when used in academic writing. Writers are far more likely to express personal opinions in the first person because they are closer to the work. Resist this temptation or tendency if you are ever allowed to pen an academic essay in the first person.

5. Don't get too personal

Some professors tell their students to draw from personal experiences when writing a paper. While this tactic can be helpful when brainstorming or coming up with ideas, personal stories or anecdotes should not be included in an academic paper. Always remember that the purpose of these compositions is to add to a body of knowledge by using academic sources to support your arguments rather than personal opinions based on life experience.

6. Remain objective

Easier said than done...we know! It takes practice, patience, and whole lot of discipline to remain dispassionate about a topic that interests you. But when it comes to academic writing the strongest papers discuss ideas and arguments in an unbiased manner. Always avoid absolute words like "all," "never," or "always," in favors of words that take individual differences into account.

7. Remain formal

Although it is permitted in works of fiction and nonfiction, informal language is frowned upon in academic circles. This includes slang, colloquialisms, cliches, metaphors, jargon, and even contractions. That's right! You really shouldn't use words like "can't" when you could write "cannot." You should also steer clear of common expressions like "beggars can't be choosers;" idioms like "more or less" are also off limits.

8. Use a specific style manual

Depending on the subject or field of study, there may be different rules for citing sources and presenting material. The most popular style guides are published by the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the American Medical Association (AMA). Academic writers are often expected to follow the formatting and documentation rules of the APA.

9. Always cite your sources

Whether you quote, summarize, or paraphrase the ideas or opinions of another, you must give credit to the original author. Failure to do may be considered plagiarism, which is a serious academic offense. Citing in text lets the reader know where he/she can find the original source material. It may also be possible to include footnotes or endnotes, depending upon which style manual you are instructed to use.

10. Proofread your paper more than once

In the age of Microsoft Word and other sophisticated word processing programs, students are less likely than ever to look over their work when they finish it. This can be grievous error in academic writing, where sentence structure and grammar are imperative. It is also important to check your work for idioms and other informal language before you hand it in.
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