The Eight Commandments of Academic Writing
I don’t like to generalize when it comes to identifying good writing. Your writing style should depend on the type of writing you’re doing. Not all writing is academic writing. Some writing (like, for instance, blog posts) is more informal.
But what does it mean to say that academic writing is more formal? Formal academic writing is more structured, more dependent on meeting certain criteria to be considered good. Unlike a blog post or an email, a piece of academic writing is going to be graded. Your writing is going to be judged, deemed good (or bad), and rewarded (or damned) by the academic powers that be.
Good academic writing depends on identifying the appropriate style for your subject. Part of this identification process is learning what your particular instructor prefers and catering your writing to those preferences. (Your instructor is, if not the ultimate audience, at least the person who sets the standards for how your academic writing will be graded.) You also need to know the formatting style, to be aware of the conventions of writing for that particular subject, and to have confidence in yourself as an author with something to contribute to that subject. An essential part of good academic writing is just understanding how to write like a serious, thoughtful, well-informed person.
So how do you write like a serious, thoughtful, well-informed person? Here are eight commandments on how to be a good academic writer. And some explanations of why they need not be followed as dogmatically as the word “commandment” suggests…
1. Thou shalt not use “be” verbs.
When your sentence contains a conjugation of “to be,” you’re probably writing in the passive voice. The commandment against “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” and “am” is really a commandment against passive voice. In most academic writing, you should use the active voice. Passive writing makes you seem like you lack conviction in your argument.
The main exception? Scientific writing. Conventional scientific writing avoids the active voice’s admission of agency in favor of a passive, observational voice.
2. Thou shalt not write “that” or “it.”
You can usually omit the word “that” from your sentence without changing its meaning.
Case in point:
“I wanted one of the kittens that I saw in the window.”
means the same thing as
“I wanted one of the kittens I saw in the window.”
If the word “that” seems necessary, it’s probably introducing a restrictive clause and should be changed to “which.” (Then again, maybe the rhythm of your sentence is just better with an unnecessary “that” thrown in. An experienced writer should be able to recognize the flow of his or her sentences and edit accordingly.)
Like “that,” “it” can be a vague and unhelpful word taking up space in your academic writing. Don’t use “it” unless the sentence clearly points toward what “it” could be. Try replacing “it” with the actual thing it refers to. (In short sentences, though, such repetition of the subject can come across as patronizing. Use “it” at your discretion.)
3. Thou shalt not write “very.”
“Very” isn’t a very good word. Adjectives and adverbs are generally bad. Try using stronger verbs and nouns rather than modifying them with words like “very.” That said, sometimes a bit of emphasis is necessary. Don’t be afraid to use intensifiers like “very” if your argument requires you to do so.
4. Thou shalt write an intro paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
Yes, you need to use evidence from sources you’re writing about. Then you need to actually explain the evidence and how it ties in to your point. But you don’t need to do this in a five paragraph essay format.
Five paragraph essays are bad. When you write an essay, you usually introduce a thesis, followed by examples to make your argument, followed by a conclusion. But that doesn’t mean you should write a thesis paragraph, a first example paragraph, a second example paragraph, a third example paragraph, and then a conclusion paragraph. I got bored just describing that format.
You can have three main points in your argument, but try to have each of your main points be an extension of the last one. The topic should evolve, and every point should build off the one before. Your body paragraphs should not be interchangeable. The point you’re making should build. If you read the work of professional essayists (like in the New York Times), you’ll see that they don’t follow such formulaic formatting.
In this vein, your conclusion shouldn’t be a summary of your argument. Don’t tell your readers what they just read. Tell them how to extend your argument. Tell them how your original argument is relevant beyond the context of your essay. Show them that the evidence you’ve provided is useful in a larger context.
5. Thou shalt not write like you speak.
It’d be, like, pretty annoying probably if you wrote, like, in the way you spoke. (That’s me trying to write like I speak. I’m a valley girl.) In fact, many beginning writing classes have their students go and write down overheard conversations verbatim, just to give those students an idea of the fact that what sounds “good” or “convincing” isn’t necessarily what actually exists in the way we speak.
But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write in a way that is conducive to being read aloud.
Please, read your academic writing out loud. It can feel silly to go on a five-page rant about your essay topic. But reading your writing aloud is one of the best ways to make yourself sympathetic to your reader. Running out of oxygen saying that long, complex sentence? It’s too long. Stumbling over words you’re not familiar with? Maybe you should use simpler terms, so you’re certain you’re using them correctly. Get bored halfway through? Maybe you should inject some personality, some cleverness, some humor into your writing. Embarrassed by how simple your argument sounds? Maybe you should make it into something you’d be proud to have overheard.
6. Thou shalt have a thesis sentence at the conclusion of your intro paragraph.
Have a thesis for your academic writing. Introduce that thesis argument before you begin providing evidence for it. Return to your thesis as a “so what” that connects the building argument of your essay. Make sure you extend your thesis beyond the context of your essay in its concluding paragraph.
But this thesis need not be stated in a single sentence in your academic writing. The reason it’s helpful to have a “thesis sentence” is that such a reduction of your main point into a single sentence forces you to be succinct. When you boil down your argument to a single sentence, you’re forced to consider which nuances you can take out while still retaining your intent. If you’re finding it impossible to boil your thesis down to one sentence, it may be too convoluted to serve as your overarching argument. Or maybe you just need to break your thesis into a couple of sentences for it to be coherent.
7. Thou shalt not use the first person.
There’s a good reason for this “rule.” A few common first-person-including sentences:
“I believe that this sentence indicates Joyce’s distaste for punctuation.”
“We now see that the boys were no more or less barbaric than the men who rescued them.”
“We understand that this sentence indicates that The Pardoner is a hypocrite.”
Now those same sentences without the first person:
“This sentence indicates Joyce’s distaste for punctuation.”
“The boys were no more or less barbaric than the men who rescued them.”
“This sentence indicates that The Pardoner is a hypocrite.”
Your points come across much stronger without space-fillers like “I believe” and “we now see.” When you address a point, there’s no need to hedge that point with an acknowledgement of the fact that you are part of a community of readers who might also see that point. Your persuasive power is better communicated in terms of direct statements.
But, as Bryan pointed out in his blog post this summer, using the first person can actually make your writing more accessible. When omitting the “I” in your sentence makes that sentence more convoluted instead of simpler, you need to consider the possibility that the first person might actually be appropriate to use.
8. Thou shalt not skip lines between paragraphs.
In essays. When you’re following the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA style), you need to eliminate line breaks between paragraphs. But, in some scientific and mathematical writing, line-skipping is necessary to conform to the report-writing style you’re following.
And it should go without saying that, in online communication, skipping lines is actually preferable to indenting.
Those are my commandments. I know the biblical list of commandments is longer, but I’m just trying to help you make your academic writing better. Much less involved than trying to make you a good person. When you’re ready to let us help you edit your work, click the order link and we’ll be ready for you:
Have seemingly-arbitrary rules about writing that have been drilled into your head? Commandments you follow, even if you aren’t sure why? Feel free to add any Writing Commandments of your own to the comments below.