How to develop an academic writing voice (quick and dirty version)

A quick and dirty guide for those who are starting out in the essay/article writing business who need a refresher on the ‘voice’ that is expected of them

Paragraph structure

Topic sentence – Body – Conclusion

It is important that the topic sentence and the conclusion a complementary – meaning that they must be about the same thing. The topic sentence introduces the paragraph and the conclusion sums up what the paragraph is about. If they don’t match – if they are about two different things, or they’re about different sides of the same argument – then I have news for you: you have failed.

Here’s an example paragraph, taken from here.

The basic rule of thumb with paragraphing is to keep one idea to one paragraph. If you begin to transition into a new idea, it belongs in a new paragraph. There are some simple ways to tell if you are on the same topic or a new one. You can have one idea and several bits of supporting evidence within a single paragraph. You can also have several points in a single paragraph as long as they relate to the overall topic of the paragraph. If the single points start to get long, then perhaps elaborating on each of them and placing them in their own paragraphs is the route to go.

I’ve highlighted the topic sentence and conclusion. You’ll note that they’re essentially the same thing, just worded differently.

This serves two purposes: first, it helps avoid confusing your reader, who may have let their mind wander in the middle of the paragraph (they will let their mind wander at some point. If you take offence to that, let me remind you of the dozens of times you have let your mind wander while you were reading). Second, it keeps you from rambling or going off-topic mid-way through your thought. Because, and I cannot stress this enough, the paragraph NEEDS to be about ONE THING. If it isn’t about one thing, then you’re making things so much harder for yourself and your reader than they need to be.

You’ll notice that I did not use that structure for the above paragraph. That’s because this isn’t academic writing. This is a blog. Totally different beasts.

How to fix it: If you come to your conclusion and realise that the paragraph was about something else, go back and rewrite the topic sentence. Or split the paragraph.

Just tell me what the article/essay is about

You will be shocked at the number of times I’ve read an essay or an article, gotten to about halfway through the text, and still had no idea what it was about. You don’t need to be coy or try to entice me to read the work – academic writing is not entertainment. It is informative. It is your job to inform, so for the love of all the gods, inform.

How to fix it: Start your academic writing with one sentence – it should be your opening sentence or at the very least in the opening paragraph – that tells your reader a) what the text is about, and b) why they should care.

Cut the contractions

Words like ‘don’t’, ‘haven’t’, and ‘couldn’t’ belong in informal writing, not academic writing. Your voice will sound like it is trying to rush through things, which gives your reader the sense that you are maybe not taking as much time on this as you should.

How to fix it: Don’t do it in the first place. Or, if you did it already, use the Find function and search for all the ‘nt and ‘ve in the text. That should help you catch them. 

Active voice > Passive voice

I admit: I have used passive voice often in my career. It is not inherently bad and it is certainly user friendly (for the writer. Readers usually feel as though they’re being held at arm’s length when they read too much passive voice). Passive voice comes up a lot in academic writing. Probably because people have been trained to avoid using first person pronouns when they are writing informative texts.

Personally, I think that’s bs – ‘objectivity’ in research is about as rare as unicorns in captivity. Cutting personal pronouns gives the illusion that you’re separate from the research; that the research just appeared in front of you in an ethereal cloud and then you, the diligent scribe, took note of it.

Passive voice in itself is not a problem. The problem is when you use it so much that the whole text becomes one roundabout way after roundabout way of getting to the point. By the time you get to it, the reader might have fallen asleep. So it’s important to use passive voice sparingly.

How to fix it: If you want to avoid personal pronouns, you can. You can do so without using passive voice. Here, I’ll show you:

  • After the study was concluded, the following findings were found…

Gross, right? Turn that into:

  • The conclusions are…

I mean, of course the findings came at the end of the study. When else would they come?

Getting out of passive voice usually involves cutting the words that don’t matter and drilling down to what the sentence is really about. If you can do that, not only will you avoid the passive voice but you’ll also make things so, so much less boring for your reader. 

Avoid repetition in sentence/paragraph starters

Your reader is trained to spot patterns.

Popular culture and the education system have trained them to look for things that repeat – it’s how they know that those things are important.

If you’re writing a book and you want to use a plot device to some big effect later, you’d better mention it in passing a couple of times first so that the reader doesn’t think you just pulled it out of your butt. If a teacher wants students to remember something, they’ll repeat it in different ways to make sure that it sticks.

So if you keep using linking words like ‘hence’, ‘therefore’, or ‘ergo’ – your reader will spot it. And then they’ll get annoyed because these words do nothing except stick out like nails that avoided getting hammered down.

If too many paragraphs begin with the same word, you’ll have the same problem. It will feel to the reader as though you’re following a script or template. That will make them check out because they’ll think you’re not taking this seriously.

How to fix it: When you’re going back for final edits, make sure that no two paragraphs begin with the same word. Pick a couple of your linking words and use the Find function to make sure that you haven’t overused them (say, more than once per page) 

Use formal words, but not ‘big’ words

You might think big words make you seem smart. They don’t. They just let the reader know that you’ve got a thesaurus.

I’m always baffled when I get feedback from reviewers asking me to up my vocabulary. Usually, these reviewers have no comments on the content of what I’m writing – they just want me to make it less accessible. They want me to make the reader feel less intelligent because I know words that they don’t.

It’s a dirty trick, and not the kind of thing that will distract your reader from the substance of your writing – which, ultimately, is what they should be focusing on in the first place.

The point of academic writing is, as I’ve said, to inform your reader. Don’t forget that in your quest to appear erudite*.

(*I feel like ‘erudite’ gets a pass because that was the name of one of the factions in Divergent. So everyone who was paying attention to pop culture when those movies came out knows ‘erudite’ means ‘smartypants’)

How to fix it: Use complete sentences and avoid contractions. Try to make the sentences structurally complex while maintaining grammatical correctness. That will make your writing formal without having to shoehorn in words that you would never actually use. 

Don’t tell me about your feelings

‘We believe that this proves…’

‘I feel that this indicates…’

Do you believe? Do you feel it? If so, save it for your letters home to Nana – in academic writing, feelings mean nothing.

Unless you’re doing specific research on emotion, engagement, empathy, etc. Then by all means discuss your research subjects’ feelings.

But ‘I feel’ statements are for conflict resolution and humanities reflections, not academic texts.

Remember when I said that research can’t be objective? I meant that. It’s not. Every researcher has feelings about the work that they’re producing, and might even be motivated by those feelings to draw some of the conclusions they draw. But don’t tell me about it. I don’t care. I care about the results and whether you’ve convinced me of your conclusions.

How to fix it: If you’ve done good work, the conclusions will speak for themselves. You don’t have to tell your reader whether you feel that something is right because if that’s all you’ve got to go on then you need to go back and do the research again. Use statements like: “These findings prove”, or “We know” = these are stronger and will draw your reader’s attention to your work and not to your emotional state at the time of writing. 

Read it out loud

Read. It. Out. Loud. You’ll be able to hear whether you’ve made any errors. Your eye is trained to skim words and phrases when it is reading off a screen. It is designed to take in only the information it needs. When you read your work silently, your brain can actually input the information that it knows should be there even if that information was overlooked when you were actually writing. That’s why you can get tricked by texts like these:

Read it out loud. Listen to the words that you’re saying as you’re saying them. You’ll pick up errors you never would have from a quick read before submission.

How to fix it: Literally just read the text out loud.

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