Before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Saul Bellow failed as an academic writer. After a semester in graduate school, Bellow was forced to agree with his advisor that his writing had too much style. “Every time I worked my thesis,” he later reflected, “it turned out to be a story.” Even a Nobel will not raise your GPA. Here are some tips that will. They do not include warnings about the passive voice or hyphenating adjective phrases. Plenty of guides can give you that advice (and you should heed it). Here, we will take a deeper look at what goes into good academic writing.
Before college, much of the writing you did for school was proof that you had read the required materials. That is all changed. More than a record of your class attention, writing represents an opportunity to participate in the broader exchange of ideas. If this sounds intimidating, consider how much pressure it takes off your shoulders. You do not need to demonstrate everything you know, or find ways to paraphrase your professor’s notes. Academic writing has more to do with the substance of your questions than with defending your answers. The sciences and social sciences often make this point explicit, requiring peer-reviewed papers to include a section detailing the limits of the study in question and noting opportunities for further investigation.
As your writing represents your contribution to a broader conversation, you will need to understand that conversation before jumping in. That means reading, often quite a bit of it. Here, too, what might seem overwhelming at first is actually a bit of a blessing. Yes, you will need to read a lot. But you do not need to read passively. If an author makes an assertion that strikes you as doubtful, think of how you would challenge it. You might even employ a perspective you studied in another course for a fresh angle on a disputable opinion. While you read, be sure to take copious notes reflecting your take on each source. They are the blueprint for your eventual paper. Then read some more.
You may be sensing a theme here: academic writing gives you greater freedom, but it also requires you to exercise greater responsibility for each writing project. That extends to things like timeliness and adherence to the right style guide; more fundamentally, it speaks to how you organize the skeleton of your project: your reading and research. Students once kept binders, notebooks, and little mountains of paper to organize their readings, citations, and notes. These days, online research tools make the process somewhat less chaotic, but you must still devise your own way of integrating your readings and notations.
Successful academic writers tend to write terrible first drafts. The key is to write your first draft quickly, leaving ample time for revision. Consult your notes. Even if you have taken them electronically, this might be a good time to print them out and elaborate on them. Do not ignore your paper’s requirements, but do not get hung up on them, either. If your first draft reads like a lumpy mess, that is fine: you will sculpt it later. If you hit a snag and find yourself at a loss for words, wing it for a while and come back later. If you find yourself with an oversupply of words, try reducing your ideas to their most essential points. Simplify your ideas and address individual points in direct language. The objective: quickly produce a draft that articulates your points and write freely. That is it. Then step away from your lumpy first draft. Be certain to allocate time for revisions.
With a fresh eye on things, it is now time to sculpt and polish your draft. Your paper’s strength lies in your ideas and the connections you make to the conversation at large. Keep your diction clear and your syntax simple: when writing tries to do too much, it exudes a lack of confidence. Your first pass should seek to make your argument as clear and logical as possible. Trim any overwritten passages and expand on those that need more heft. Be sure to wrap up each major point you have made, and ensure that each section of your paper flows reasonably into the next. Finally, revisit the instructions you received before you started writing your paper. Be sure that you have addressed every single requirement, and that you have adhered strictly to your instructor’s chosen style. A quick round of proofreading, and your paper is ready to go.
Academic writing requires straightforward yet elegant narrative to convey substantial ideas; flowery language conceals rather than reveals. It is, above all, an exercise in discovering, managing, and creating new understanding.
Online research has made discovering information easier than ever, and creating meaningful insight depends on you, the questions you ask, and the syntheses you produce. Knowledge management—the bridge between what you find and what you make—is often the trickiest element of the three. Until Petal.
Petal was built expressly to help academic researchers discover and organize knowledge resources in an intuitive, free-to-use online application. It allows readers to annotate PDFs directly, and to review their notes in one simple interface. All your readings, all your notes, all your citations, in one place; ready when you are to bring it all gloriously together. It is the not-so-secret weapon that helps students all over the world write more confidently, impressively, and successfully.