Academic writing: 5 things no one told you

In my work with academics, I’m often told: wow, no one explained this to me before! Many academics are taught to do research. They are taught how to use one style to reference their sources. But not much attention is given to the actual writing of academic texts! And it’s not just grad school. One client, a professor of thirty years, told me recently that our collaboration was the first time they’d actually gotten useful feedback on the body of their work. If you’re lucky, journals and publishers might give you some feedback when they either accept or reject your submission. But in academia, no one has the time to actually sit down with you and think with you about how to improve your work. So I felt this called for a new post specifically on academic writing. 

Every element should support your aim

If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I always make a lot of “purpose”. I truly think intuitive writing is great. By all means, sit down and follow the path that your sources lead you on. Follow the science. Follow your stream of thoughts. That’s all amazing! But once you have your first draft done, it’s time to take a step back and let purpose take over. Sit down, take a shower or go for a walk, whatever helps. Then, think about your aim. If you could leave your reader with one thought, what would it be? Ideally, what would your reader’s next steps be after finishing reading your text? 

When your first draft is done, it’s time to determine your aim. And once you’ve got that down, one very specific goal, build your text around it. This might mean reorganizing the structure. It might also result in you rewriting paragraphs. Some of the amazing work you’ve done might turn out not to be related to your main point at all and should be taken out. And that’s painful. It feels like killing your babies. But do this and you’ll see that your text becomes stronger for it. 

Your introduction can do different things

If you went to a university like mine, you’ll have been taught the following about introductions: first, you need to grab the attention; then, outline the theoretical framework and/or methodology; present your main thesis; and finally give an outline of your text. And I still feel that many of those elements can be incredibly useful! However, how elaborate each should be depends completely on the text you’ve written and the audience you envision. (More about that later.) 

The purpose of the introduction is to provide context. So before tackling your introduction, spend some time imagining what context is needed for your reader to understand what you’re doing. You might find that your structure is so logical that you don’t need to provide an outline at all; but that some concepts you use are so contested that you need to spend the majority of your intro outlining and contextualizing your understanding of these concepts. Or maybe each concept is used in only one part of your text, in which case they don’t need to be introduced in the introduction at all: they’re not context, they’re part of the analysis. To summarize: before writing your introduction determine what context is needed for your reader. 

I worked through this a lot with one of the PhD clients I worked with. If you’d like to learn more about specifically how ADHD can interfere with writing the dissertation, go to this blog post

Your reader matters

I love the idea of pure research. Research that is not about moving society forwards, or solving a problem, but research for research’ sake. But I always make a distinction between two things: why does it need to be written and why does it need to be published? You might feel like you want to do pure research without thinking about effects and consequences. Engage in academic writing because you want to experiment with ideas. But if you want your work to be published, you need to take the next step as well: why would people want to read this? What would it actually bring them, if they spend their precious time reading your text?

And that’s where your ideal reader comes in. If you want to publish your work, you need to figure out who your audience is. What is their educational background? What topics and disciplines are they well-versed in? As an interdisciplinary scholar myself, I know that I can never assume my audience is familiar with anything. Everything needs to be introduced. But if you have a specialized niche and publish your work aimed at that niche, then my level of explanation would bore your readers and make them skip entire sections if not your entire work. So: even though you don’t write for a commercial market, take some time to imagine your ideal reader and write/edit your work aimed at their needs.

Engage with your quotes and images

This is the big one! I often find that authors just ditch a quote or image onto the page and think it speaks for itself. But honestly: it doesn’t. You will need to take your reader by the hand and point them to those elements that they need to understand what comes next in your argumentation.

When you use a quote, first you introduce it (author, context…) then you insert the quote, and then you engage with it. Tell the reader what aspects of this quote you agree or disagree with and why. Tell them what the most important things in this quote are for the following analysis. Or even summarize the quote in the sentence directly following it. Tell the reader what you want them to see. 

The same is true for images. Pictures are great. I love them. But they need to serve a (there it is again!) purpose. And you cannot trust your reader to see exactly what you see. Talk them through the image. And especially tell them what they should see in the context of your larger argument. That way, you get your reader on the right page to follow what comes next. 

Academic Writing is still a form of writing

It might be a bit odd to put this here, because it seems so obvious. However, I feel that this is something academics often forget. Academic writing is different from any other form of writing. But it’s only different in the same way that writing a mystery novel is different from writing erotica. Academic writing is still writing! The same rules apply as in any other writing form. For example: there’s a lot of work out there, you need to give the reader a reason to be interested in yours. Or: if you are not believable, you will lose your reader. Or: the occasional spelling error isn’t a problem. But if your sentences are long, structureless and convoluted, your reader will get annoyed and  stop reading.

To become a good academic writer, you need to understand the principles of writing. By studying writing, you will become a more successful academic writer. And, then, of course, there’s the lesson that’s most relevant to me: an editor can help you improve your work. 

In conclusion

The research-element of your academic work is incredibly important. But when you want to get published, you also need to think about the aspects that relate specifically to the “writing” in academic writing! The five tips I outlined above will help you on your way to becoming a better academic author. But if you feel you could use some help, and need an editor for a journal article, book chapter or entire monograph, just check out my philosophy on my editing solutions page or schedule a video call to discuss your project here