Writing is one of the most important skills for success in higher education [1]. Publications are still the primary means of assessing a researcher’s output, and the single most important criteria for hiring and promotion in the academic system. Therefore, being able to write efficiently (maximizing the limited amount of time available for writing) and effectively (being able to clearly communicate ideas in writing) is critical for advancement. Furthermore, excellent writing skills are also needed in order to have talks or papers accepted for conferences, to communicate with broad range of audiences, and to achieve success in the highly competitive grant system.

Academic writing requires the author to take a critical approach to the topic at hand. This can take many forms, including reviewing and amalgamating evidence on a topic, identifying critical gaps in the literature, or critiquing approaches, theories, or results. Claims are substantiated by a combination of reasoned logic, evidence, and prior research of other authors in the same or related fields [2].

STRATEGIES FOR WRITING

You have to try and write, even if it's just for half an hour a day . . . You just have to find a time when it's possible just to close off everything, and write.

The authorial 'I'

Traditionally, most English-language academic guides have advised against writing in the first person. By avoiding the first-person point of view, authors were thought to appear more objective. In recent years, however, a paradigm shift to the authorial ‘I’ has taken place [3]. The ‘authorial ‘I’ reflects a writer’s awareness of themselves as author and the textual identity they construct through their writing. It demonstrates confidence in your own writing, understanding of authorship (i.e., identifying your own ideological standpoint), and a capacity to avoid plagiarism (e.g., knowing how to show which parts of your written work originated from other sources, knowing how to reference content) [4].  Writers can use the authorial ‘I’ as a strategy to demonstrate strong commitment to  their ideas[5], as it strengthens and clarifies one’s arguments and perspectives.

Hedging

An important feature of academic writing is hedging: the use of cautious language. Hedging words or phrases, such as ‘It could be the case’ or ‘It might suggest that’, imply that the writer is not completely certain of the referential information he or she is presenting [8]. Hedging is important as it enables writers to distinguish between facts and claims. There are often good reasons to include hedging language in your writing, including [9]:

  1. Reducing the risk of opposition:
    Writers can downplay or soften their arguments through hedging. By toning down their statements, they can avoid criticism for being too radical or overconfident. In other words, hedging adds caution to protect claims.

  2. Allowing precision in reporting results:
    By reducing the strength of their claims, writers can more accurately represent the data/evidence presented and avoid overblown claims.

  3. Indicating a politeness strategy:
    Writers who make use of hedging come across as humble rather than being viewed as arrogant or all-knowing.

  4. Showing awareness of academic writing style:
    Hedging has become conventionalized. Writers who use hedging conform to the currently accepted style of academic writing.

Some examples of hedging language are:

  • Verbs: to seem, to appear to be, to think, to believe

  • Adverbs: certainly, probably, possibly, perhaps

  • Nouns: assumption, probability

  • Adjectives: probable, definite

What are some of the challenges of academic writing?

There are a host of challenges that academics will face in their writing, including [11][12][13]:

  • A lack of self-management skills:
    Without self-management skills, it can be hard to successfully complete academic work. Academic writing is often not an urgent task but is nonetheless critical to your career success. Self-management skills are necessary to both manage your work and allow you to control the speed and quality of your academic output.

  • A lack of strategy for composing text:
    Have a conscious strategy or process for working through your writing process, from beginning to end.

  • Problems understanding and following instructions:
    Writing requires understanding instructions before commencing work. For example, writing an academic paper requires you to conform to precise instructions and procedures which may be specific to your field, or even the journal that you intend to submit your article to. In order to successfully publish your work, you must adapt your writing to comply to those requirements.

  • Difficulties introducing the topic:
    The introduction of a paper should focus on stating the topic and a plan for development. Avoid raising questions that are not addressed throughout the text. 

  • Weaknesses in content:
    Academic papers should be rigorously written to provide strong, well-reasoned evidence for claims. Avoid providing inadequate support for statements.

  • Avoiding errors:
    After working on an article for a long time, it is easy to miss minor errors in grammar and punctuation. Make sure to proofread your work. Try taking some time away from your work so you can view it with fresh eyes.

  • Problems in understanding and accepting criticisms:
    Academic publishing is often characterized by continuously receiving negative feedback and comments about your work. It is important to develop a ‘thick skin’, improve your resilience, and treat feedback as a means of strengthening the rigour of your work. 

  • Presenting a cohesive argument:
    Reporting your data is not enough. It is important to contextualize your findings, by being clear and concise about the claims you make and supporting each claim with relevant data.

  • Writer’s block:
    All writers have had the experience of writer’s block – hitting a point where it is difficult to know how to proceed with your writing. Don’t stress when this happens! Instead, switch tasks for a while (e.g., go for a walk, change your environment, read a book, listen to music) and continue the writing process later.

  • Writing stress:
    Most writers suffer from the burden of completion. It can be a challenge to find the best way to present results so that they can be interpreted, understood, and considered scientifically valid. Avoid mental and physical exhaustion by taking frequent breaks, practicing meditation, and accepting self-care [14].

What are the key characteristics of good academic writing?

When you start the writing process, take note of the essential features of good academic writing [15]:

  • Tone. State the strengths of the arguments confidently in a neutral manner. Remember that you’re investigating the research problem from an authoritative view.

  • Dictation. Make use of concrete words that convey a specific meaning. Avoid using general words that have different meanings and interpretations.

  • Language. Use unambiguous language. Avoid vague expressions (“they”, “people”), abbreviations (“i.e.”, “a.k.a.”) and nonspecific determinate words (“incredible”, “super”).

  • Punctuation. Limit your use of exclamation points and dashes. Understand when to use semi-colons: (i) when a second section explains the first section; (ii) to describe a sequence of actions/aspects; (iii) before clauses: therefore, even so, for instance; (iv) to mark of a series of sections that contain commas.

  • Academic conventions. Acknowledge the source of ideas, data, and research findings using references. Make appropriate use of headings and subheadings, and avoid contradictions and slang.

Additional strategies for improving your academic writing[16]

  • Create an outline
    What are the key points you want to convey in your article? Organize your thoughts and ideas through an outline of your arguments. Do this before you start drafting your article.

  • Use reliable sources of information [17]
    Critically evaluate your resources. Before adding a source, use a platform such as Ulrichsweb to check if a journal publication is refereed or peer-reviewed. Check to see whether the publisher is associated with a university press or commercial publisher. Avoid vanity or predatory publishers [18], which charge fees for publication without ensuring high quality peer review or academic integrity. Lastly, check the domain name to determine the authority of a website; for example, sites ending in .edu are educational websites.

  • Show a little style
    Academic papers often require adherence to a specific style or set of styles. Journals often stipulate a specific style for submitted publications.  Improve your quality of writing by investing in an appropriate style manual. Some examples include: The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and The Chicago Manual of Style.

  • Proofreading leads to perfect papers
    Proofreading refers to the careful examination of a text to find and correct typographical errors and mistakes in grammar, style, and spelling [19]. Examples of online proofreading tools include Grammarly, Language Tool, and Readable.io. Submitting your papers for peer-review also provides an opportunity for other, similarly qualified professionals to review your work and strengthen it. A peer-reviewed article is evaluated by one or more people with similar competencies as the author of the work [20]. Academics may find the peer review process daunting. It is important to remember that the feedback you receive from peer reviewers is intended to help you improve your paper. Try not to become demoralized when receiving constructive criticism, because it will ultimately result in a better outcome.

  • Leave time for writing and editing
    All writing is improved by editing. Drafting and redrafting your work can improve the organization and flow of your ideas, creating a more coherent piece of work. By polishing your wording and eliminating verbiage you produce more persuasive and elegant papers.

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