8 simple rules for academic writing in English

September 6 2021

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” (Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland). If only writing were as easy as this.

Writing is a difficult task and even more difficult in a foreign language. When Alice was told to ‘begin at the beginning’, she wasn’t given a maximum word count, a particular structure to follow or a strict narrative style to adhere to. That’s the nice thing about live storytelling in the oral tradition: you can use metaphor, simile, hyperbole and as many figures of speech as you like. You can even use the word ‘you’ to address the listener (although I’m using it in this short article to address the reader – how dare I?). You can enter into a dialogue with the listener. You can ask direct questions. You can repeat words and sentences with emphasis, using your voice to highlight important parts as you speak. You can use slang, contractions (like I’m doing), and informal words. You can even use fragment sentences. Not so in writing (although I just have).

So far, I’ve deliberately broken a number of rules which I would have to adhere to if I were writing an academic paper or an academic article. Are there any simple rules academics can follow to make sure they come across as learned, serious, and academically reliable when writing an article or a thesis in English? The answer is: Yes, there are! And here they are (please note I’ve broken another rule by beginning with ‘and’, which is a co-ordinating conjunction and should never be used at the beginning of a sentence):

  1. Write out all words in full. This means the writer must not use contractions, e.g., ‘don’t’, ‘isn’t’, and ‘won’t’. Write: ‘do not’, ‘is not’ and ‘will not’. This does not apply to direct quotations, of course.
  2. Keep to a formal style. This means using words of a Latin origin (e.g., ‘investigate’ rather than ‘look into’), using proper quantifiers (e.g., ‘far better’ rather than ‘way better’; ‘fairly average’ rather than ‘pretty much average’), and avoiding slang words and fill words (such as ‘kinda like’).
  3. Do not address the reader directly, i.e., do not use the word ‘you’ as a narrative form. Use impersonal structures (sentences beginning with ‘it’ and ‘there’, the passive voice, and nouns).
  4. Avoid the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ except when explaining the set-up of the research in the introduction or in the methods section. Avoid using ‘we’ unless it refers to the authors.
  5. Do not begin a sentence with an abbreviation or a number expressed in digits.
  6. Do not begin a sentence with one of the FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). These words connect sentences. Instead, use words like ‘Moreover’, ‘Furthermore’, ‘However’, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘Alternatively’, ‘Therefore’ and other esoteric-sounding adverbs.
  7. Write complete sentences. This involves making sure that every sentence in English has a subject and a verb (this does not always happen in Dutch, e.g., ‘Interessant is…’ would have to start with ‘it’ in English, i.e., ‘It is interesting to note that…’). If you want to connect two sentences, then you need either a subordinating conjunction (e.g., although, if, as soon as, when, after, before) or a coordinating conjunction (e.g., FANBOYS). You cannot connect two independent sentences in English with a comma.
  8. Make sure the abbreviations you use are those used in English. For example, the words ‘for example’ can only be rendered by ‘e.g.’ (ergo gratia). Abbreviations like ‘f.i.’ (for instance) do not exist in the English language. You can check abbreviations that do exist in a good dictionary.

Conclusion: Although many papers have been written that break these rules, the more formal the writing style is, the more credible and learned it sounds and the more the writer will be taken seriously.

If you want help, then I would recommend a number of useful websites:

  1. The OneLook.com dictionary resource: This resource provides a number of bona fide American and British dictionaries.
  2. The University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank: This resource provides different phrases for every section of an article and specific language for specific functions of language such as hedging (cautious language), comparison and contrast, and cause and effect sentences.
  3. The Centre for Independent Language Learning (CILL) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University is an essential resource for grammar, vocabulary, and almost everything you need to write an academic paper.
  4. The Purdue University Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.

This site also provides almost everything you need to write an academic paper.

Good luck with your writing!

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