Academic writing pointers

Introduction

There are many elements of academic writing in the English language that are neither ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but making your work consistent makes it appear more professional and credible. Your departmental guidelines is your starting point, but here are a few things to consider.

Writing style

Consider your reader first and foremost. For a thesis, this is an academic within your field, but also consider students and researchers from related disciplines. Avoid unnecessary jargon and explain specialist terms. The reader wants to know about your research, and you need to communicate what you have done effectively and concisely. If you are writing an article, there may be a word limit. Furthermore, academics and researchers are busy; the more accessible your writing style, the more likely your work is to be read and cited.

Whether or not your reader’s first language is English, less is often more. The longer the sentence, the harder it is to keep track of the point being made. If there is too much going on in one sentence, break it down into several separate sentences. Similarly, long paragraphs can appear rambling. If several concepts are being discussed, use several focused paragraphs.

The use of complex noun phrases or obscure words can distract even the most educated reader. Do not be afraid to use a simple word for an object or concept. Also, do not scour a thesaurus to avoid repeating a word as this can cause unnecessary confusion.

Overall structure

Use the correct format and structure from the beginning of the writing process. If your department has an MS Word template, use that. Otherwise check the guidelines for elements such as margin sizes, and the font size, style and spacing for the text and the headings. Changing margin sizes and line spacing later on can have unintended consequences, especially when it comes to images and tables, leading to additional effort.

Using MS Word Styles for headings (Heading 1, Heading 2, etc) will enable easy navigation of the final document and makes inserting the Table of Contents really simple. MS Word Styles are listed in the Home ribbon; to update the format of a Style throughout your document, change the text to the desired font size, type, etc, select the word/line, then right click on the Style and select ‘Update Style to match selection’. There are many tutorials available online.

Similarly, use Insert Caption for any figures, images, tables, etc. This will allow Word to build lists of figures and tables for you, and will provide automatic numbering. This may seem fiddly at first, but it is more time-consuming to go back and put these in later on than it is to set it up in the first place.

Rather than using repeated returns, insert Page Breaks to ensure the next chapter starts on a new page. Similarly, use the Paragraph dialogue box to put the correct level of spacing between paragraphs and under headings (you can make these changes to the MS Word Styles to format everything at once) rather than hitting return, otherwise you may end up with blank lines at the top of a page, or headings being separated from the text.

Details

These are some of the things I check and update first when I receive a file:

  • Numbers – generally use words for one to nine (or ninety-nine), then numerals for 10 (or 100) or more. Precise numbers with units are always given as numerals. Rounded large numbers are given as words – millions of people.
  • UK or US spellings – use UK spellings for a British university submission.
  • -ise or -ize endings (e.g. realise or realize) – consistency is the important factor, but -ise is generally considered to be standard in UK.
  • Use spaced en dashes within sentences to make parenthetical – or aside – comments rather than hyphens. Use unspaced en dashes in number ranges (e.g. 15–20), rather than hyphens (although hyphens are often accepted for this purpose in references).

Terminology

Define abbreviations, acronyms or obscure terminology at first use. Subsequently use the abbreviated version consistently throughout the text, except in headings and figure/table captions where the full version is preferable (readers may look at figures and tables before reading the text in full). When writing a long document like a thesis, blocks of text can get moved around, so ensuring the definition is provided at first use should be checked again at the end of the writing process.

Quotations

Whether you are including quotations from published works or quoting study participants, you need to make it clear to the reader that these are someone else’s words. For shorter quotations embedded in the text, use quote marks. Use the same type of quote marks throughout your thesis; either use single quote marks and double within, or vice versa.

For longer quotations (check your departmental guidelines – the limit is often 40 words) and for interview transcripts, you can display these by using a distinct MS Word Style (which may be suggested by departmental guidelines).

There is a Quote Style that you can manipulate (e.g. I always set it to justified, but the default is centred) to match any departmental guidelines. If you are displaying quotes in this way, they do not need to be enclosed in quote marks. You can then use another visually distinct font (e.g. bold, non-italic) for the source of the quotation at the beginning of the quotation or on the line below, if the source was not specified in the preceding text.

You can add missing words – e.g. to correct grammar or supply missing context – in square brackets [], and omit unnecessary words using an ellipsis… In this way, you can ensure that the reader is able to determine the intended meaning.

Use of images

Consider how the thesis will look when printed on A4. Unless you are certain that it will be printed in full colour, avoid relying on colour for detail in images. Images on the printed page cannot be expanded in the way they can on screen, so make sure they are large enough for important details to be read. Position them such that they don’t obscure text on the page.

Footnotes

Check your departmental guidelines, as some do not allow footnotes in theses. Even if they are allowed, when the footnote is more than a few words, find a suitable place to put into the main text.

Summary

The above covers a few points to guide your approach to writing about your research. There are many other details to consider, but your reader is key. No matter how hard you have worked, make it easy for them to understand what you did.

 

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