Writing Guides & Tips

Appropriate Language and Sentence Structure for Academic Writing

Have you ever asked said this during a college writing project? “I want to connect with the audience but can’t use first person language or personal pronouns.” We’ve all experienced this feeling. After all, everyone wants their paper read and ideas listened to, but – let’s face it – academic writing is one of the driest forms of communication. Paragraphs are wordy, and, at best, there are few graphics that appeal to the eye. But all is not lost; a few quick sentence changes and language overhaul can convert your paper from zero to numero uno. This sample English paper explores college writing tips.

Don’t speak like Yoda; use active voice

Students and professors often complain essays lack interest. One of the main culprits for this is passive voice. Passive speech happens when a verb is acted upon by the subject.

Think Yoda from Star Wars – “Powerful you are.” He simply could have said, “you are powerful.”

Passive voice makes it difficult to read and follow the writer’s thoughts. Take these two academic samples.

Incorrect: “This work is a generalization of Smith’s earlier algorithm”

Correct: “This work generalizes Smith’s earlier algorithm.”

Incorrect: “This approach is an improvement on Smith’s design,”

Correct: “This approach improves Smith’s design.”

See the difference? Professors may stumble with the passive language, and they may be distracted from the next, more important thought.

Organize your paper into easy-to-navigate sections

Research papers not only drone on forever; they also take up a lot of space. Master’s thesis and doctoral dissertations easily increase the paper’s word count to more than 15 to 30 pages. One popular strategy is to break up major points into subheadings. For example, let’s say your professor asked for a 15-page research paper about international currencies and their impact on the American dollar. Students could formulate their paper based on the following headers and sections:

England (H2 Heading)

History (H3 Heading)

Recent Trends (H4 Heading)

Impact on American Dollar (H5 Heading)

The italicized sections would supplement each country’s heading, and students can use as many countries as they need to fill up 15 pages. And, not only does this break the information into more manageable chunks, the headers and sections help students organize their paper and serves as a working outline.

Go with the flow

Students may remember writing the five-paragraph style in English Composition 101. Well, this wasn’t just a short-term technique to teach you how to write academic papers. Many professional researchers often use this system. For each separate thought, introduce the topic with an explanation – similar to the introduction paragraph and/or thesis statement. You should include at least three supporting statements. Next use at least three distinct paragraphs to discuss those supporting statements and evidence, and follow up each topic with a closing paragraph to make the transition tighter.

Let’s say your research paper is about newspaper convergence in the past twenty years. You would more than likely include a section about social media. This strategy would complement the social media breakdown, and each platform would have a separate five-paragraph system. For example, you may choose Twitter as your first medium of communication. The five paragraphs could be structured as follows:

  1. Introduction to Twitter as a news conveyor
  2. Evidence showing news outlets have increased their Twitter usage
  3. Evidence showing more people are using Twitter for news searches
  4. Examples showing how Twitter is best used to report the news
  5. Closing/transitioning paragraph

Master and doctoral candidates also can use a similar strategy. However, each evidence will need to include supporting facts and statistics, studies, pros and cons, and other solidifying information. Each backup point would need an additional paragraph.

Additional Reading: The Biggest Writing Fails

Consider yourself an investigator

Have you ever watched Law and Order: SVU on TV? Detectives often use specific, defined terminology and definitions to explain evidence and strategies. The producers rely on these descriptions to prevent the audience from getting lost in the babble and changing the channel. The same is true for research papers and essays. There are two easy rules to remember when avoiding vague words or over-educated terminology.

Avoid vague words

Don’t use vague pronouns: it, they, those, them, etc. These words often leave readers wondering what you are describing. Be more concise. Say what you mean.

Vague: New York’s Police Department voted to deny police officers an increase to overtime pay. It costs the department too much money.

Concise: New York’s Police Department voted to deny police officers an increase to overtime pay. Leaders said the increase would cost the department too much money.

Say it in a few words

Okay, everyone likes to expound on a subject and show they know what they are talking about. But if you really want your reader to believe you; they have to understand the words. Using more words that necessary not only makes the readers tired, it prevents them from absorbing the information. A sentence should never go above 25 words. But the shorter the better.

Too Long: The professor demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words from my essay that I had written for class.

Just Right: The professor showed me how to cut words from my essay.

If you need to include more than 25 words, try to break sentences up using semicolons and conjunctions.

Confusing: The professor demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words from my essay that I had written for class.

More Concise: The professor was concerned about my essay’s length, and he demonstrated some of the various ways and methods for cutting words.

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