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Academic Writing: Some General Guidelines

Have you ever been told that your writing style is not academic or that it is too informal? Are you unsure what rules to follow, what you can do and what you should not do? Of course, the specific guidelines will vary, depending on what you want to write—the guidelines for an essay or a thesis will differ from those for a journal article. In addition, the tone and structure for, say, a business article will vary from that for a biomedical one. Although you should follow all the guidelines set by your university or your target journal, here are some general guidelines that you can use for all sorts of academic writing across all disciplines.
Academic writing must be formal and impersonal. Your writing should be clear, concise and professional. Certain rules (such as those outlined below) will help you ensure that your writing meets academic standards.

Supported by evidence

Avoid using the first person. So, you would not use ‘I’ or ‘we’ in your paper. Instead of writing ‘I will argue’, you can write ‘This essay/thesis/study will argue’. The first reason you need to follow this rule is that academic writing must be formal and impersonal.

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  1. In this essay, I will discuss the reasons that critical thinking is important to the role of registered nurses, including its role in improving the accuracy of diagnoses.
  2. Critical thinking is important to the role of registered nurses because it improves the accuracy of diagnoses.

The second sentence is not only more formal but also more direct and thus sounds clearer, more concise and more academic. Instead of stating that a point will be made, as in the first sentence, the second sentence simply makes the point directly.
The second reason the use of the first person is discouraged is that it is often unnecessary. Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  1. I believe that critical thinking is relevant to the role of registered nurses.
  2. Critical thinking is relevant to the role of registered nurses.

It is unnecessary to state ‘I believe’. The reader knows that the statement is what the author believes, because the author has written it in their essay. Further, which sentence sounds more convincing? The second, because it is direct and straight to the point.

Like every rule, this rule has exceptions—for example, if you are discussing your field trip or interviews that you carried out for data collection, or if there is a specific guideline that asks you to use the first person.

Terminology, grammar, spelling, punctuation

Correct terminology, grammar, spelling and punctuation are very important in academic writing. To write formally and to a high academic standard, your writing must be accurate. Handing in an essay that contains correct terms, grammar, spelling and punctuation can make a significant difference to your final grade. Inaccurate writing not only affects your marks for presentation but can also confuse your audience. Remember that poor language quality is high on the list of reasons that journals cite when they reject articles after a preliminary screening, so get into the habit of submitting well-written, accurate and highly polished papers to improve not only your grades but also your chances of publication throughout your academic career.

Updated 31 January 2023
Ellen McRae, PhD, AE (IPEd), MNZSTI
Senior Managing Editor