Academic writing: Guidelines and mistakes to avoid for students


Whether you are an ambitious academic, a student working on your thesis, or simply someone guiding the different levels of scholarly assignments, understanding the nuances of academic writing is crucial for success. From the very definition and types to the do’s and don’ts, this complete guide aims to make the complexities of academic writing.

Dive in to learn about the formal and neutral tone, clarity, structure, and sourcing that differentiate academic prose from other types of writing. Also, discover what academic writing is not, and explore essential tools that can aid you in becoming a skilled academic writer.

Definition of academic writing

Academic writing is the formal writing approach used in academic settings and scholarly publications. You’ll come across it in articles in academic journals and scholarly books, and you’re expected to employ this style in your essays, research papers, and dissertations.

While academic writing follows the general writing process like other forms of text, it sticks to particular norms for content, organization, and stylistic features. The following lists outline the characteristics that define academic writing as well as the features that are generally not considered appropriate in such writing.

What is academic writing?

  • Clear and precise
  • Formal and unbiased
  • Focused and well-structured
  • Correct and consistent
  • Well sourced

What isn’t academic writing?

  • Personal
  • Emotive and grandiose
  • Long-winded

Types of academic writing

Succeeding in different forms of academic writing is an essential skill for anyone involved in scholarly pursuits. The table below outlines the key types of writing assignments you are likely to encounter in an academic setting. Each type has its unique objectives and specific guidelines that vary depending on the academic discipline. Understanding these different categories is essential whether your goals are to successfully complete your degree, apply to graduate school, or follow an academic career.

Type of academic textDefinition
EssayA brief, independent argument that typically uses course materials to answer a question posed by the teacher.
Dissertation/ThesisThe main concluding research task completed at the close of a degree program often focuses on a dissertation subject chosen by the student.
Literature reviewA comprehensive analysis of existing studies on a subject is typically prepared to guide the methodology of a future research project.
Research paperA detailed investigation is conducted through independent research, commonly focused on a question selected by the student.
Research proposalA preliminary blueprint for a prospective dissertation or research project, detailing the potential topic and practice.
Annotated bibliographyA collection of cited references, each attended by a brief summary or assessment.
Lab reportA report detailing the objectives, procedures, findings, and conclusions of an experimental study.

Different disciplines have different priorities when it comes to writing. For example, in history, emphasis might be placed on supporting an argument with primary sources, whereas in a business course, the practical application of theories might be stressed. Regardless of the field, academic writing aims to communicate information clearly and effectively.

Whether your goal is to pass your degree, apply to graduate school, or build an academic career, effective writing is an essential skill.


What is academic writing?

Learning the art of academic writing is a valuable skill for students, researchers, and professionals, as it serves as the gateway to producing high-quality scholarly work and engaging effectively with the academic community.

In the sections that follow, we will delve into the key characteristics that define effective academic writing, from clarity and precision to sourcing and citation standards, offering guidance and examples to improve your skills.

Clear and precise

Steer clear of using tentative language like “maybe” or “could be,” as it may undermine the strength of your arguments. Take the time to scrutinize your word choices to ensure they precisely and unambiguously communicate your intended message.

For example:

  • The data might possibly indicate that…
  • The data clearly indicate that…

It’s important to use clear and straightforward language to guarantee that your reader knows exactly what you mean. This means being as specific as possible and avoiding unclear language:

For example:

  • The subject has garnered interest for quite some time.
  • The subject has been the focus of scholarly attention for over a decade.

Technical terminology is often a feature of academic writing, which is usually aimed at a specialized audience well-versed in the subject matter.

However, this specialized language should serve to improve the clarity and accuracy of your writing, not complicate it. Employ a technical term when:

  • It expresses an idea more concisely and clearly than a general term would.
  • You expect that your target audience is trained with the term.
  • The term enjoys widespread use among researchers in your specific area of study.

To get familiarized with the specific terminology used in your field, it’s beneficial to study scholarly articles and take note of the language employed by experts.

Formal and unbiased

The objective of academic writing is to provide a structured framework for sharing information and arguments in a neutral and evidence-based way. This involves three key principles:

  • Evidential support. Arguments must be backed up by empirical data, distancing them from the writer’s personal beliefs.
  • Objectivity. Both your own research and the work of other scholars must be presented fairly and accurately.
  • Formal consistency. A formal tone and style are necessary to provide uniformity across publications, making it easier to compare and evaluate different research projects.

By sticking to these principles, academic writing aims to keep its integrity and effectiveness. It’s crucial to be clear about your research methodology and mindful of any limitations your study may have.

Due to this focus on formal consistency, the language you choose plays a vital role. Avoiding informal expressions, such as slang, contractions, and everyday phrases is important.

For example:

  • The data is kind of sketchy and doesn’t tell us much.
  • The data appears inconclusive and provides limited insights.

Focused and well-structured

A scholarly paper goes beyond being a simple collection of ideas; it must have a specific purpose. Begin by preparing a relevant research question or thesis statement that will guide a focused argument. Make sure every piece of information contributes to this central goal.

Here are the key structural elements:

  • Overall structure. Always incorporate an introduction and conclusion. For longer papers, segment your content into chapters or sub-sections, each clearly titled. Arrange your information in a logical flow.
  • Paragraph structure. Begin a new paragraph when introducing a new concept. Each paragraph should start with a topic sentence that outlines its main idea, and there should be smooth transitions between paragraphs. Provide each paragraph that serves your main point or research question.
  • Sentence structure. Use linking words to indicate relationships between different thoughts within and between sentences. Stick to proper punctuation to avoid sentence fragments or run-ons. Use a mix of sentence lengths and structures for better readability.

By focusing on these structural elements you improve the readability and impact of your academic paper. These guidelines are key to effective scholarly writing.

Correct and consistent

In addition to sticking to grammatical rules, punctuation, and citation guidelines, keeping consistent stylistic standards is crucial. These standards contain:

  • Writing numbers
  • Using abbreviations
  • Picking the right verb tenses
  • Capitalizing words and titles
  • Spelling and punctuation for UK and US English
  • Formatting tables and figures
  • Citing pictures or videos
  • Using bullet points or numbering

Even if there’s more than one correct way to do something, it’s most important to be consistent. Always exactly proofread your work before submission. If proofreading isn’t your strong suit, services like our professional proofreading or grammar checker can assist you.

Well sourced

In academic writing, the use of external sources helps to verify claims and present a well-rounded argument. These sources include not only texts but also other forms of media like photographs or films. When employing these sources, their credibility and respectability in an academic setting are of vital importance. But how should we go about this complex task? Below is a table that simplifies key points:

Key ConceptsExplanationExamplesRecommended tools
Source typesTexts or media used for evidence and analysisScholarly articles, filmsScholarly databases, university libraries
CredibilityHow reliable and accurate the source isPeer-reviewed articles
Citation requirementsAcknowledge quotes or paraphraseIn-text, reference listCitation generators
Citation stylesSets of rules for citingAPA, MLA, ChicagoStyle guides
Plagiarism preventionAvoid using others’ work without citationPlagiarism checker

After carefully choosing your sources and citing them correctly, it’s essential to consistently apply the citation style required by your institution or field. Failure to do so could result in charges of plagiarism, which is a serious academic offense. Using tools like plagiarism checkers can help you secure the integrity of your work before submitting it.


What isn’t academic writing?

Before diving into specific elements that are generally avoided in academic writing, it’s important to understand the main objective of this form of writing. Academic writing seeks to present research and arguments in a clear, structured way. It follows specific guidelines to keep a level of formality and objectivity. With that in mind, there are also several stylistic approaches and techniques that are typically not appropriate in academic contexts.


In most cases, academic writing aims to maintain an impersonal tone, focusing mainly on research and evidence rather than the writer’s personal views or experiences. Although there may be instances where information about the author is included—such as in acknowledgments or personal reflections—the primary emphasis should be on the subject matter itself.

The first-person pronoun “I” was once generally avoided in academic writing but has gained wider acceptance in numerous disciplines. If you’re uncertain about employing the first person, it’s best to consult guidelines within your field or seek advice from your professor.

When including personal references, ensure they serve a meaningful purpose. For example, you can clarify your role in the research process but steer clear of gratuitously incorporating your personal viewpoints or emotions.

For example:

  • Instead of saying “I believe…”
  • Replace “I wish to prove…”
  • Avoid saying “I prefer…”
  • Swap “I intend to show…”
  • use “The data suggests…”
  • with “This study aims to demonstrate…”
  • use “The evidence favors…”
  • for “The research seeks to establish…”

In academic writing, it’s recommended to steer clear of using the second-person pronoun “you” when making general statements. Opt for the neutral pronoun “one” or rephrase the sentence to eliminate direct address entirely.


  • If you smoke, you risk your health.
  • If one smokes, one risks their health.
  • Smoking poses health risks.

Emotive and grandiose

Academic writing varies fundamentally from literary, journalistic, or advertising styles. While influence is still a goal, the methods used in an academic setting are different. Specifically, academic writing avoids emotional appeals and excessive statements.

While you might be writing on a subject that is deeply significant to you, the objective of academic writing is to share information, ideas, and arguments in a clear and objective way, rather than to produce emotional reactions. Steer clear of emotional or opinion-based language.

For example:

  • This devastating event was a massive failure of public health policy.
  • The incident had one of the highest rates of illness and death, indicating significant public health policy shortcomings.

Students often feel forced to support their arguments with inflated statements or glorious language. However, it’s important to depend on concrete, evidence-backed arguments rather than overblowing your case.

For example:

  • Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most iconic figure in all of literature, shaping the entire course of Western storytelling.
  • Shakespeare is a highly influential figure in English literature and has had a significant impact on the development of drama and storytelling.


Numerous students believe that their writing must be complex and verbose to be considered academic. However, this isn’t advisable; aim for clarity and conciseness instead.

If a simpler word or phrase can replace a complex one without changing the meaning, then opt for simplicity. Eliminate duplicative expressions and consider replacing phrasal verbs with single-word alternatives when appropriate.

For example:

  • The committee commenced the examination of the issue in the month of January.
  • The committee began examining the issue in January.

Repeating serves a purpose in academic writing, such as summarizing earlier information in the conclusion but avoiding extreme repetition. Ensure you’re not making the same argument more than once using different phrasing.


Essential tools for academic writing

There are a lot of writing tools that will make your writing process faster and easier. We’ll highlight three of them below.

  • Paraphrasing tool. AI-based tools like ChatGPT can clarify and simplify your text, especially when paraphrasing sources. Remember, proper citation is essential to avoid plagiarism.
  • Grammar checker. This type of software scans your text for grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. When it identifies a mistake, the grammar checker provides immediate feedback and suggests potential corrections, thus helping you articulate your ideas clearly and sidestep common errors.
  • Summarizer. If you need to make long or hard-to-understand information easier to get, a summarizing tool can help. It makes complicated sources simpler to understand, helps you focus your research question, and gives a short summary of your main points.


Achieving excellence in academic writing is crucial for anyone involved in a scholarly career. This guide has provided you with the key elements that represent strong academic writing—from clarity to sourcing—and has also offered insights into what should be avoided. Tools like paraphrasing software and grammar checkers can further simplify this process. With this knowledge in hand, you’re better prepared to attack academic challenges effectively and confidently.

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