Module 1 - Good Practice in Academic Writing

Good prose is like a window pane

George Orwell, English author

Orwell meant that your words are the medium through which you see meaning. Therefore, your words must be completely clear, just as a window pane must be clear so that you can see what is on the other side.

Good academic writing practice

Academic writing is simple (in the sense that it follows some simple rules), but that doesn’t mean that it is easy. This form of writing takes instruction and practice, but it can be mastered by anyone who works at it. Academic writing is a skill that will help you into the future, no matter what paths your careers will take. Because good academic writing is bound up with clear, critical thinking and a logical approach to communication, it will provide strong generic skills.

Written and oral communication

Effective writing is different to spoken communication. The written word follows different rules of logic, grammar, conciseness and clarity that are not expected in speech.  In most cases, written academic communication is more “formal” than spoken language. This form of writing does not allow slang or colloquialisms, and nor does it allow contractions such as “it’s” for “it is” or “shouldn’t” for “should not”.

In most cases, you need to use “Standard English” – the generally accepted form of English that is considered to be the most “correct” form. You will use the academic form of Standard English, because you will include technical vocabulary (but not jargon) relevant to your discipline. Formal writing requires some discipline, but that very structure can be liberating as well, because it provides a strict architecture that holds your ideas up. This can make formal, written academic writing more suitable for contributing to the fund of human knowledge. Formal, correct academic writing can (or should) be durable.

Your “archetypal reader”

Imagine the person most likely to read your document. That person might be the head of your candidature committee, a journal editor, a peer reviewer, a researcher in your discipline or your thesis examiner. Now imagine that person in a room with you, asking you questions about what you are telling them. Can you answer all those questions?

Clarity as your guide

You should start with clarity of purpose and finish with clarity of expression. Clarity is your most important key word as you embark on your writing project.  When you adopt clarity as a guiding principle, you place the receiver of information first. You must be clear for your reader.

Is your written work always clear?

Think about how to achieve clarity

  • By ensuring that your meaning is always unambiguously clear. Test your writing with colleagues/peers before submission.
  • By having empathy for your reader at all times.
  • By understanding who your reader is and what their needs are.
  • By breaking down the true meaning of your work into its component parts and ensuring that every part makes sense and joins logically to the other parts.
  • By using concrete language that enables your reader to form pictures in their minds.
  • By being as simple as possible in your expression, but no simpler.

Academics are busy, so give them what they want

  • A clear summary at the beginning (the abstract)
  • An introduction that leads the reader logically and clearly into your argument, then a conclusion that provides them with a new understanding at the end
  • Clear definitions of terms
  • Clearly presented evidence and reasoning
  • Excellent writing that is informative, unambiguous and a pleasure to read.

The academic writing process

An outline will become an important planning document for you. Start your outline early in the process and refine it as you learn more. Do not just write a list. Write down all the points that you want to include, without regard to their order.  Some people place these points onto post-it notes that can be moved around on a large surface. Others outline on a computer, using the cut and paste function to move items around. Move the elements around until you have the beginnings of a workable structure. Create a document that features a hierarchy of headings, an indication of how evidence is to be used and theme sentences.

See an example

An outline is only worthwhile to the extent that you actually use it.  The outline should be a regularly-updated document that guides your activities and enables you to control the structure and content of your document.  You can use it to write out of sequence, with the confidence that your work will be part of the structure and therefore not wasted effort.  Divide the outline into sections, then sub-sections and paragraphs.  Revise the outline as you continue to research.  Move sections around to make good structural sense.

Once you have started to draft your document, apply critical techniques to ensure that you are achieving your aims.

  • Ask questions of each paragraph:  What is the unit of argument conveyed by this paragraph in relation to the whole chapter/thesis? Is this argument stated clearly in the paragraph?
  • Ask questions of each sentence: Does this sentence carry forward one idea and one element of the argument? Do the sentences connect to each other effectively?
  • Supplement unanswered questions with concrete information.
  • Ask questions of every assertion:  Is the assertion clearly and logically expressed? Is sufficient evidence provided to support the assertion?  Supplement the first draft with precise, concrete information.

Read your second draft and again ask questions of every paragraph:

  • Does it contain specific information that backs your argument?
  • Is it in its logical position?
  • Does it repeat information that is in other parts of the chapter?
  • Supplement the first draft with precise, concrete information.
  • In fourth draft, tidy up the language to make it as polished as you can. Ensure that the language is strong, clear and precise – and also elegant and stylish.  Ensure that no gaps remain, in either substance or style.

    • Outline the possible structure
    • Research, then refine your outline
    • Write, to fill in the outline (first draft)
    • Supplement the draft with precise information (second draft)
    • Check for structural logic and restructure as required (third draft)
    • Strip back:  be concise and remove non-essential verbiage and information (third draft)
    • Check for grammar, spelling, punctuation and references (fourth draft).

    Writing paragraphs: units of thought

    • A paragraph discusses and elaborates a particular point to support your overall argument.
    • Most effective academic paragraphs will contain between four and eight sentences.
    • An academic paragraph usually will not contain just one sentence.

    Sentence lengths

    To guide your writing, aim for the following lengths:

    • Theme sentence:  25 words or fewer
    • Subsequent sentences:  between five and 50 words, with either extreme rare.
    • Concluding sentence (if required):  25 words or fewer.

    A well-written paragraph contains a pleasing mixture of sentence lengths.  Follow a short sentence with a longer one.  Diversity of sentence lengths is easier to read. Starting your sentences with a strong key word grabs your reader immediately. Beginning with the name of a source is far less compelling and critical. Cite your sources later in the paragraph.

    Take a moment now to think about the first sentence of your finished thesis. What will be the first word or phrase?

    Three paragraphing concepts

    1. Unity: only one idea is discussed in each paragraph and all information supports the theme.
    2. Coherence: the paragraph’s sentences are arranged logically and are connected by linking devices and repetition of key words.
    3. Development: enough specific information is given so that the idea is completely understandable and the reader can evaluate the unit of argument.

    Take the Quiz

    Check your understanding
    What is the main key word that you must take away from this module?
    What is 'concrete language'?
    Who are the most important readers for your thesis?
    What is an outline sometimes called?
    What is the minimum number of drafts you will need for your piece of academic writing?
    What is a theme sentence?
    How long should a theme sentence be?
    How many sentences should an academic paragraph contain?
    How many points should a paragraph make?
    What are the three main paragraphing concepts?