10 Academic Writing Tips from PhDs

DR. JOHN Ke SAYS: I think almost everyone would agree that a lot of academic writing leaves a lot to be desired.  It can be dry and tedious, aimed only at the two or three other scholars who do similar work, rather than trying to reach a broader audience.  At its best, academic writing should avoid this.  It should be interesting and accessible to the interested layperson, and help make readers more interested, rather than less, in the topic under discussion.

As with any other writing, I think the key to good academic writing is to find a voice that is genuine and personal.  Writing can only have an effect when it seems to come from a real person.  Of course,  in academic writing one also has to cultivate an “academic” voice – one that is informed and authoritative and conversant with the other literature in the topic.  But that voice ought to also seem like it’s coming from a real person, and it ought to show why you are excited about the topic you are writing about.

If you can’t convey to your readers why you think a topic is interesting and worthy of study, you can’t expect your reader to be interested in it.   Any really good academic writing, like all good writing of any sort, needs to draw the reader in, to make the reader care about the work and understand why it is important and worth doing.

Obviously, there’s much more to successful writing than this – conveying often complicated information clearly and elegantly; finding the structure that works best to present your argument; and finding the tone that shows you are a competent, professional scholar.  But more than any of this, good academic writing must meet the most basic goal of any piece of writing – making a connection to its readers.


DR. WILLIAM SAYS: Here’s my personal “recipe” for good, academic writing:

The professor who served as my primary advisor for my major and dissertation writing advised me to post a visual reminder to guide my writing: to tape my primary hypothesis on my computer screen so that I never sat down to write without keeping the main thing the main thing.

Nothing’s worse than getting off track in your writing and having to hit that dreaded delete button.

You must be willing to edit your own writing at a very basic level. At least read over your work for missing thoughts, run spell and grammar check, and read your writing out loud.

You also must be willing to let others read your work. They will see things you do not. They will point our areas of confusion that may have made perfect sense in your own mind in the middle of the night. Your team of helpers will fine tune your writing and take it to a higher level.


DR. JOHN Ku SAYS: Don’t Start with the Introduction!

Unless this is your strength, don’t start with introductory paragraphs or even your introductory chapter.  Most of us are pretty sequential in our thinking.  We do this first, then this, and then that.

With academic papers, this order generally manifests with trying to write our introductions first, then the literature review, followed by the study design, etc.

However, the most effective and efficient approach is to start with sections that you are the most comfortable with, and then move around from section to section.

At some point you’ll begin to organize your logic, and eventually your sections will follow suit.

Another piece of advice, particularly if you are planning on writing a thesis or dissertation, is to first conduct and write-up your literature review.

During my dissertation proposal, when I was wrestling with a topic, I was advised to complete and write a literature review around issues I found interesting.

This was perhaps the best piece of academic advice ever given to me.

After the literature review (or chapter 2 in standard dissertations), I knew my problem statement, the gaps in the research, how similar studies have been conducted, what data collection instruments prior researchers have used, and how my study would contribute to the field.

As a result, the preceding (introduction) and following (proposed method) chapters pretty much wrote themselves after this literature review was complete.

Not bad, for a graduate student who couldn’t narrow down a topic six months before.


DR. JOHN Ku’s “Six Rules for Good Writing”

In 1946, George Orwell presented an essay critiquing the often vague and boring manner of written English.  Perhaps a similar argument can be made today with academic writing.

When I was a first-year graduate student, I sat next to a dictionary and a pitcher of coffee trying to read long and mundane peer-reviewed scholarly articles.  When it was my turn to produce such content, I caught myself falling into a similar trap.

After years of reading and writing academic material, I now try creating content that can read by non-academics and academics alike.

To prevent you from falling into the vague and boring style of academic writing, Orwell recommends the following six strategies:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I’ll add a few recommendations to Orwell’s list:

  • Get to the point
  • Don’t repeat yourself (unless you’re writing to politicians)
  • And usually, the more succinct a manuscript, the better (you can’t hide behind a stick, as my former advisor would say).


–by the Staff of Edit911, Inc. and Baldwin Book Publishing


One comment

  1. Dr,
    Am with you on those six rules,but i got to know that i am a logical writer which gives me the passion and flow to satisfactory express my knowledge with full desire. Although it ideological to me to pick this advices together and get a worthy result, i think its all powerful. On the other hand, i think there are naivety in students approach for now, which will inevitably improve after a while. Thanks so much.

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