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How can I write more 'academically'?

The most important thing to do in your academic writing is to provide an argument, write critically and engage with the ideas of others. To carry this well, though, it is also important to focus on the features of academic writing.

You will find guidance on academic writing in Language and Learning Online, including

  • Writing with authority and credibility
  • Attending to style and clarity
  • Structure in academic writing, including writing effective paragraphs
  • Dealing with common problems

Disciplinary differences

What is considered appropriate academic writing will vary by discipline, so ensure you pay attention to the way your field refers to knowledge, critique, the ideas of others, as well as its habits and patterns. One area to consider is what is considered the appropriate style of language.

Example

In this example, from a sociology essay, the student has engaged with the problem of 'common sense' from a sociological perspective. He has utilised the literature to continue his discussion in both paragraphs but perhaps drifts out of the accepted conventions in his second paragraph.

In taking 'common-sense' approaches to social phenomena, we are often led into the problem of ethnocentrism; that is, judging or evaluating other cultures subjectively from our own socio-cultural perspectives (Said 1978). The discipline of sociology alerts us to our own subjectivities and biases in making arguments about 'other' societies. Similarly, within another branch of sociology, Linguistics, Fairclough (1992) reminds us that it is in the seductive notion of 'common-sense' that we must be most vigilant against in our efforts to understand the political dimension of language in a sociological context, and the efforts of dominant groups to 'normalise' such discourses. In order to effectively understand the highly problematic notion of 'culture', we need to apply methods of sociological analysis to avoid the common problems of information overload and corporate propaganda, for example (Wild, 1985:5-6, Holmes, 2003:6).

Of course, science, as the 'voice of authority', often overrides basic 'common-sense' as we have seen with the many failures of science to solve fundamental problems of human existence (i.e. the environment, nutrition, national security). Indeed, science in its bumptious quest to 'control the world' or at least manipulate it into its own frameworks of looking at social reality, often overlooks basic 'common sense'. Mary Shelley's classic work Frankenstein alerts us to the danger of tacitly accepting the voice of science over our basic 'common sense' instincts about everyday life (Shelley, 1967).

His writing is characterised by a certain vividness and reads well but has taken on a journalistic tone in the second paragraph: of course is a little conversational for the formality of a piece of academic writing. Science in its bumptious quest to 'control the world' is also a little too vivid. A more objective tone is required in academic writing and in sociology. For further illustration on a more formal tone, see 'Positioning' with How do I use the work (words and ideas) of others in a more 'academic' fashion?.

Avoiding assertion - provide evidence!

It is important to engage critically with resource material in most disciplines so that you can demonstrate your ability to question, analyse, evaluate and express a considered opinion about a particular topic or proposition. In this example, the writer relies on assertion to make his point: Of course, science as the 'voice of authority' often overrides basic 'common-sense' as we have seen with the many failures of science to solve fundamental problems of human existence (i.e. the environment, nutrition, national security). Is this 'of course'? Is this something we have all seen? Where is the support for this? It is always necessary to support your points with evidence - if you want a good mark on your assignment!

Use of personal pronouns

Notice the use of personal pronouns in this excerpt. It's OK in some disciplines- Sociology is one of them- to use personal pronouns. In others, the convention is to use third person.

Use of personal pronouns

Notice the use of personal pronouns in this excerpt. It's OK in some disciplines- Sociology is one of them- to use personal pronouns. In others, the convention is to use third person.

Use of personal pronouns

Notice the use of personal pronouns in this excerpt. It's OK in some disciplines- Sociology is one of them- to use personal pronouns. In others, the convention is to use third person.

Use of personal pronouns

Notice the use of personal pronouns in this excerpt. It's OK in some disciplines- Sociology is one of them- to use personal pronouns. In others, the convention is to use third person.

Use of personal pronouns

Notice the use of personal pronouns in this excerpt. It's OK in some disciplines- Sociology is one of them- to use personal pronouns. In others, the convention is to use third person.

Use of personal pronouns

Notice the use of personal pronouns in this excerpt. It's OK in some disciplines- Sociology is one of them- to use personal pronouns. In others, the convention is to use third person.

Too informal.

A possible solution here could be:

Whilst the use of 'common sense' can be problematic, science, too, despite its authoritative voice, can fail to address problems constructively. An example of this is…

Remember to support your assertions

Some questions you might use to determine how to provide further evidence to support your statement, in this case, might be

  • How does Shelley's work alert us?
  • What danger is there in simply accepting science?
  • In what areas of 'everyday life' can common sense be useful?
  • What common sense instincts?
  • Isn't 'the point about 'instincts' at odds with the point made in the previous paragraph?
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