11 Tips to Take Your Academic Writing to the Next Level

It’s 1 am. Your lecturer asked you to redo your assignment and send it in tomorrow. Your head feels like it’s been kicked by a horse, and you’re kicking yourself because you have no idea what you did wrong. 

Just like anything else, there are good ways and bad ways to write an academic paper. Once you figure them out, the process becomes much easier. You just need to know what they are. 

We roped in Ms Farrah Sow from the School of Psychology to help us out. As someone who’s marked hundreds of papers, she knows exactly what mistakes students tend to make and where they can improve, so she’s the perfect person to ask!

Oh, by the way, we also have a similar article on how to choose the perfect FYP topic, written by none other than Prof Dr Vilasini Pillai, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology, ICYMI. Let’s get to the hacks!

1. Write like you would have your mom/dad read it.

There’s no point writing a revolutionary report that no one understands. You need to make sure all your readers can understand it – including the average person on the street. Avoid complicated jargon, but if they are necessary, make sure to explain what they mean.

The best people to ‘experiment’ on is your family (unless they’re working in the same field, then switch up to other people). 

2. Write like a diamond.  

Start from the top of the diamond and work your way down. This means expanding your content points before narrowing down the focus. Introduce everything important and relevant to your report – like definitions, general info of the field area, and sub-topics. Then when you have laid it all out, stitch them together and narrow the focus to form the final picture and complete the diamond.

3. Wikipedia: A Stepping Stone, Not The Final Answer 

It’s been said a million times, but don’t. use. Wikipedia. as. a. source. That doesn’t mean that it’s useless though. Wikipedia lists out the references they use and this can direct you to the main sources you’ll need, especially if you need to grasp an understanding of the field area. Read these yourself to verify the information before diving into journal articles. Of course, this method should only be used if your textbooks do not provide a good overview.

4. Read. A LOT. And pay attention to style

Just like how we pick up internet slang and meme writing styles, pay attention to the academic writing style in the scholarly sources you read. Look at the tone and phrases, and the choice of words and rhythm. Additionally, notice the pattern of explanations used to discuss the topic. Adopt the same pattern.

5. Collate your reference material into an excel sheet for an annotated bibliography.

Everyone’s been at that point halfway through the report where they’ve written so much that completely forget what they were talking about. To prevent this from happening, list down your references by author, discussion point summaries, the level of relevance (high, medium, low) and where you’d like to include them in your piece. Add a column to list the associations between the different sources in your list (e.g., source 1 is associated with source 3, 7, and 12).

This will help you write better critical discussions – not to mention preventing you from going through a complete memory meltdown at 1 am. 

6. Get Your Friends to Proofread.

Sometimes staring at your writing for too long can leave you blind to errors or poor syntax. The answer is simple: swap with a friend to proofread. This is another good way to improve your writing because you can learn from each other’s strengths and overcome weaknesses.

7. NEVER take shortcuts and do not delay.

This includes using aggregate sources like Wikipedia, but also paraphrasing tools, and copy-pasting. If you know about them, chances are your lecturers will too. Start early so that you will not be tempted to use all the wrong methods above. No one has ever procrastinated to success. 

8. But also, don’t be a perfectionist.

Write a bad first draft and finish it. Often, we get stuck because we are focused on creating the perfect narrative and sentence structure to frame our ideas beautifully. This extra time you spend, however, will lead to delays and it’s likely that you still won’t be able to reach that ideal. 

But if you complete a badly written piece EARLY, you would have plenty of time to come back to it and re-structure it beautifully.

9. Only write what you can explain clearly.

Sometimes, there’s a temptation to sound overly intellectual. I mean, you want to impress your examiner for better grades so that’s understandable .But, if you struggle to explain something, you really need to re-think whether it is necessary to include that in your writing. If it is necessary, enhance your understanding of the subject matter first.

10. Always ask for help and feedback.

Find someone to give criticism on your writing. No one gets better at writing by keeping their work to themselves and only sending it for grading. Welcome the criticisms and you will improve.

11. Always trace your source references back until you have arrived at the research study that sparked the opinions.

During your research, you might come across scholarly opinion or topic/field review articles that summarise previous research findings. Always remember that these have been interpreted in the lens and perspective of the writer. 

Their perspective might not be what you need. It’s always best to refer back to the original study cited in these articles and form your own opinions.


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