Before we take on some of the complexities of academic writing, it is important we build from the basics. Excited for the end-product but forgetful of the rudiments of academic writing, many ambitious undergrad writers forget the foundations of academic writing. Without these foundations, their writing constructs wonderful, temporary, castles in the sky. The following is a summary of six basics to begin your process of academic writing.
Before we explain why we write, let us revisit what academic writing is. The University of Leeds’ Library (2022) offers the following definition:
is clear, concise, focussed, structured and backed up by evidence. Its purpose is to aid the reader’s understanding. It has a formal tone and style, but it is not complex and does not require the use of long sentences and complicated vocabulary. Each subject discipline will have certain writing conventions, vocabulary and types of discourse.
Academic writing aims to convey complex information through a concise, formal, and clear filter so that it can be readily understood by its reader (clear) and understood in the same way as its author (distinct). As a consequence, academic writing tends to use a formal and organized style, using conventions such as the introduction, literature review, methods, findings, conclusion. Academic writing is highly specialized, so to be successful, you need to be able to anticipate what information your audience wants to hear (See Chapter 1 and Chapter 2), and how to convey it (the focus of this chapter). You can become proficienty by what and how other academics express themselves and what they express by consulting your course readings, journals and other publications. We comment on both in more details next.
Outlining – What Evidence will Express What I Want to Say?
Once you have figured out the basics of what you want to write, is the practice of sketching out the main points and sub-points (or arguments) and the supporting evidence that will be provided. For academic writing, using the top-down process of having a larger point to guide your discussion is essential for writing. For example, if you have a thesis, “cultural representation of Canadian mounties achieves X through Y,” and your subsequent points should be outlined to demonstrate it. The phrase “This thesis is true because…” should be imagined before every point you write in the outline. This phrase should likewise guide new paragraphs and headers as well as to signal that the following section conforms to the argument. Consider using such as ‘furthermore’, ‘in comparison’ etc to demonstrate coherence in your writing. Each signal word will show the reader the placement of the evidence in your sentence with respect to your own argument (is it contrary evidence, supporting, comparative?). For more signal words, check out Manchester UK’s academic phrasebank.
|Table 5.1 - Leeds University Library's Four Ways to Add Evidence|
|Ways to Add Evidence||Description|
|Paraphrasing||Identify a relevant theme or point of view in someone else’s work and summarize it briefly. Reference the original author and attempt to construct their point of view as charitably as possible. Put it as much as possible in your words. Connect it to your argument using the signal words stated above.|
|Summarizing||Provide an overview of the literature or of a participants point of view. Summarizing is like paraphrasing, but it does not refer to a specific statement in the text. Rather, summarizing tries to consider the ‘larger’ statements of the text. Use other types of evidence to back up your summaries.|
|Synthesizing||Synthesizing combines many different ideas and arguments into your own. It is a type of motivated summary which connects sometimes unrelated ideas through an argument given by your paper. It can often involve citing many different authors under a category (e.g., these authors all argue against Uber’s labour conditions (Mich, 1999, James, 1888, Spiel, 2002). Be careful to clearly distinguish whose voice is whose in this sometimes messy move.|
|Quoting||Use with caution! Quoting is the process of reproducing the author’s words exactly in your text. It should also be used with some commentary either before or after the quotation. Make sure that it also is always related back to the text. Avoid ‘floating quotes,’ quotations which do not have any clear connection to your argument. See our section on in-text and block quotation in the qualitative analysis chapter for more information on how to do this in interview research.|
|Source: University of Leeds Library. (2022). “Academic Writing.” How to incorporate evidence | Academic writing | Library | University of Leeds|
Now that you have planned out what you want to say, you must also figure out how to express that point as efficiently as possible. This involves consideration of how much evidence is sufficient in justifying your point, what ways of expressing that point are formal, and avoidance of redundancies (reptitions or words that do not add value to the argument).
Rules regarding sufficiency will differ by genre, but in terms of organizing your idea, try not to overload a single paragraph with a multitude of arguments or supporting evidence. As Leeds University’s (2022) writing guide suggests, each paragraph should take on only one main idea. The main idea should be expressed quickly in the first sentence on the paragraph (hopefully related to the paragraphs prior to it), and then at least two pieces of evidence should be attached to that idea in order to give it significant weight.
When expressing your ideas, be careful to uphold the formal standards of the discipline that your writing is addressing. While these formalities may seem arbitrary (and sometimes they truly are), they are common conventions which help others in the field recognize which rules your writing is following. For academic writing, these formal standards tend to uphold formal conventions in English writing. Leeds University Library (2022), highlights the following faux pas:
- Do not use contractions (instead of didn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, say did not, could not or should not),
- Avoid slang, avoid cliches (instead of saying “can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs”, just concisely state your point in relation to the research question). It is important to note that while slangs and cliches are important to creative writing, they are less tolerated in academic discourse. Hence, instead of showing off your literary skills, it is best to directly make your point in the simplest language.
- Do not use colloquialisms (such as ‘fundamentally’, ‘the thing is’, ‘basically’). Again, just state your point without preamble.
In addition, formal writing tends to use a blend of active and passive voice (Leeds University, 2022). This means that you should use active voice when expressing the agency of an object or subject (“James sought to correct his ways”) and passive voice when expressing the affliction of the object or subject (“After a series of failures, it was inevitable that change was coming to James”).
Finally, your writing should cut out as much redundancy as possible. Here is a list of the usually useless phrases that should be removed:
- in the nature of
- it has been estimated that
- it seems that
- the point I am trying to make
- what I mean to say is
- it may be argued that
- With the possible exception of
- Due to the fact that
- For the purpose of
- for the most part
- for the purpose of
- in a manner of speaking
- in a very real sense
- in my opinion
- in the case of
- in the final analysis
We are not saying that these phrases are always useless, only that they tend to be. Proceed at your discretion.
There are also conventions for referring to past, present, and future events –the tense of your speech. Box 188.8.131.52, sourced in part from Leeds University’s Library (2022), provides a basic overview of where to use tenses followed by an example from our writing, which highlights the tenses used.
Past Tense For MethodExcerpt from Waldsorth et al (2021, p. 138):
We created three dummy variables: host-national (Canadian), co-national (from the same country as the respondent), other international (from another country but not the host or the respondent’s home country). From the dummy variables, we constructed measures to determine the proportion of respondents’ friends (all ten friends) that are from the host-nation, from their own country, or from a different country.
Present Tense to Conclude and Discuss Established Knowledge
Excerpt from Hou, Shellenberg & Berry (2018):
Looking at the determinants of membership in each of the four profiles, we can separate those factors that existed pre-migration from those that arose post-migration. The reason for this separation is that there are differing implications of the findings, because more can be done to improve outcomes when dealing with post-migration factors than for those that existed prior to migration.
Recommendations into the future (for the discussion section)
Excerpt from Drisko (2005, p. 592):
Authors should make each major contribution of the study clear and explicit. Beyond linking the current work to the prior literature, the discussion may point out newly apparent definitional or conceptual limitations, illustrate the impact of context and population specific understandings, point out subjugated knowledge, or identify variation in processes unmentioned in the summative literature.
All of the previous sections seek to culminate into a position on the knowledge in your field. As there is almost never consensus on the knowledge in the field (there would be no need for research if there was), it is your task to evaluate the integrity of your opinion in relation to others. This is the key point of the execution of your argument: how effectively you are able to persuade the reader to your position. While these will depend on the entirety of your argument and style, there are a couple of important discursive moves which we can pay close attention to when thinking about how we are conveying our point: hedging, boosters, and reporting verbs (Leeds University’s Library, 2022).
refers to the boundary (hedges) we place around our argument (what it can and cannot speak for). It also often refers to the confidence in which we think our point represents a given experience. If we speak over confidently, or arrogantly about our point, other academics will doubt the legitimacy of our work. Academics work hard to argue and preserve their distinctions, so you would do well to respect their reasons (particularly when you seek to persuade them). With that said, here are some good hedging phrases for qualifying assertions that you doubt:
- It is likely…”
- “It is unlikely…”
- “To the best of my understanding…”
- “This suggests…”
- “It is possible that…”
- “A possible explanation…”
While hedging is an important rhetorical move in communicating the fallibility of your findings (Hyland, 2001), it is also easy to go overboard with hedging and babble something so ambivalent it expresses nothing resolute or significant. For example, a statement such as “it is possible that the ego functions as a complex upon other egos, or perhaps it is the superego that achieves this end” will create doubts in the mind of your readers about the significance of your work. Hence, hedging can sometimes sometimes be a sign of cowardice, not subtlety. Take courage in asserting what you believe to be the case. While perhaps imperfect, leave some work for your reader to evaluate the strength of your assertions. (Indeed, integral to writing this manual was our belief in the value of our advice and your capacity to judge it for yourself).
To express this confidence, you can use . Boosters are the opposite of hedging, they express your conviction about the truth of the statement. We strongly believe that you will be convinced by the following examples:
- “There is definitely a connection between…”
- “There is a strong correlation…”
- “The results indicate…”
As implied before, however, boosters should be used carefully. There is nothing wrong with just stating your assertion flat out. As soon as you cover it with an assertion with hedges and boosters, you invite your reader to further test the confidence of your assertions. We suggest using both sparingly, as your assertion should speak for itself. Try to only use hedges and boosters when expanding and contracting the boundary of your claim, not to defend your statement (either by cowering or puffing out its chest) against the judgment of your reader.
Reporting verbs are another important way to represent your stance on the issue and also represent a form of hedging and bolstering. For instance, a reporting verb like “Robinson (2020) argues” represents a strong position on behalf of Robinson. These reporting verbs should thus be supported by the text (i.e., are you transparently reporting or exaggerating the position of other authors).
In summary, academic writing begins with some information or idea that it believes is important for other academics to understand. To make its point, it carefully chooses the evidence it wants to support, plans how to organize that evidence into a coherent pattern, chooses concise and formal language to express that evidence, and carefully considers the time in which that evidence or procedure took place (tenses). Having achieved this all brilliantly, it then considers to what degree its point has been made: can I express with complete conviction that “Uber is popular because of their contract labour and cheap prices”? “Should I bolster this claim and hedge the other?” This final execution of your point will determine whether you have gone too far, too short, or settled the argument perfectly.
Hyland, K. (2001). Humble servants of the discipline? self-mention in research articles. English for Specific Purposes, 20(3), 207-226. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0889-4906(00)00012-0
University of Leeds Library. (2022). Academic Writing. How to incorporate evidence | Academic writing | Library | University of Leeds
A formal way of presenting evidence in a clear, concise, focused and structured manner according to the conventions of the discipline.
the practice of sketching out the main points and sub-points (or arguments) and the supporting evidence that will be provided.
words used to convey transitions between different ideas in your paper e.g., ‘however’, ‘furthermore’ etc.
refers to the boundary (hedges) we place around our argument (what it can and cannot speak for)
words or statements that express your conviction about the validity of your statement(s)