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Learning Development Unit

A Little Guide
to
ACADEMIC WRITING
SKILLS

2009
The Little Guide to Academic Writing Skills

Academic writing is accurate, impersonal and evidenced.

Accuracy embraces sentence structure, spelling, punctuation and vocabulary


as well as, most importantly, the accuracy of the factual information it
discusses.

If your writing is already perfectly well written and punctuated, you will want to
know what you need to do to refine your style and meet academic
requirements. This is the guide for you. However, if you know that full stops
and commas confuse you, and tutors write things such as “ poor sentence
structure” or “syntax!” in the margins of your work, then you may need to read
the Little Guide to Essential Writing Skills first and may also benefit from
some one-to-one tuition from the Learning Development Unit.

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Contents page

Academic style 4

1. Words
1.1 Vocabulary 4
1.2 Choice of words 5

2. Writing style for academic purposes


2.1 Some simple rules: do’s and don’ts 5
2.2 Academic writing is cautious 6
2.3 Academic writing is objective 6
2.4 Writing in the “third person” 6
2.5 The passive voice 7
2.6 Academic writing is evidenced 8
2.7 Academic writing is critical 8
2.8 Academic writing is interpretive (paraphrasing,
summary and gist ) 9
2.9 Academic writing is structured 10

3. Exercises to test your understanding of this Little Guide


3.1 Passive voice and use of the third person 10
3.2 Vocabulary 10
3.3 Academic style 11
3.4 Evidenced writing 11

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Academic style

“Academic: scholarly, to do with learning”


The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary (1984)

The definition adds: “not of practical relevance”; but this is not true for you. In
practice, using a correct academic writing style can help to improve your
marks and this is of very practical value to you! Academic writing is
essentially about being clear, unambiguous and not in anyway misleading.
This is vital for the development of knowledge.

In brief:
Academic writing is accurate, impersonal and evidenced.
Accurate grammar and accurate spelling is essential if you are to get good
marks and look professional in your eventual work place.

Accuracy also applies to facts. Check your facts! State the source of your
information! (See Little Guide to Referencing)

Think of academic writing as similar to scientific writing: nothing said is vague;


nothing is guesswork; nothing is simply a matter of opinion.

Words

1.1 Vocabulary

Accuracy also refers to vocabulary.

Academic writing is precise. Words should be used with care. They must
mean what you want them to mean. If in doubt, check words you use in a
dictionary. Do not be a slovenly user of words.

An example: I gave the man the job of investigating the fraud because he
was disinterested.

This does not mean the same as

I gave the man the job of investigating the fraud because he was
uninterested.

One of these would be a wise move; the other would be silly! If you are not
sure why they are different, look up the word “disinterested” in a dictionary.

Precision means not leaving your reader to guess your meaning.

Dalton airport has grown enormously over recent years.

This is imprecise. Are we talking about acres covered, or financial turnover,


or passenger throughput, or reputation, or all of these? And what does
“recent” mean? (5, 10, 25 years?) Provide exact language or clear examples
as evidence.

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1.2 Choice of words

The English language contains more words than any other European
language mainly because it is a mix of all the languages which the invaders of
Britain (Celts, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Norman French, etc) have brought
with them. Often, there is more than one word for virtually the same thing but
a subtle difference in the actual use of each word. Words from the conquered
Saxons still, for example, 1050 years on, often carry a lower-class connotation
compared with those stemming from the conquering Norman French.
Compare belly (Anglo-Saxon) and stomach (French), boss (Saxon) and
manager (French) or stool (Saxon) and chair (French). In Modern English
there is a word available to describe nearly every nuance of meaning or
emotion. A good English dictionary contains about 44000 words. Most people
understand about 14000 of them. Most people use only about 4000 of them.

We tend to be lazy in our choice of words.

Consider

We had a nice time in Brighton. The weather was nice. We had a nice lunch
and went for a nice walk along the front. I bought a nice new dress in a nice
little shop from such a nice assistant . . .

Academically, you should aim to use more of the words you already
understand, and to increase your understanding of more of the others. Use
words accurately. You should attempt to use a vocabulary which will be
understood across Britain (if not the world) and which will not date too soon.

You will probably need to increase your conceptual vocabulary: concepts are
words which some up collections of interconnected ideas, values or
experiences: for example, integrity; fair play

Writing for academic purposes

2.1 Some simple rules: do’s and don’ts

• Do not use abbreviations (don’t, can’t, etc.)


• Numbers under 10 (or better still, under 100) and at the start of a
sentence should be written in full.
• Initialisation or acronyms should be explained the first time they are
used eg: The International Dance Teachers Association (IDTA) . . . is
holding a conference . . .
• Avoid colloquial speech and clichés: this bird I know who was going out
with this geezer . . . The reaction was over the top . . . There was light
at the end of the tunnel . . .
• Attempt to keep your writing impersonal. This means that the reader is
not aware of you or your emotions. You may give a judgement but it is
based on objective evidence.

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You should:

Avoid subjective or emotive words: wonderful worthwhile rabble. These


words give away your attitude and feelings.

2.2 Academic writing is cautious

• Avoid absolute assertions which cannot be proved.

Look at: Women are bad drivers and compare this with Many people
consider women to be bad drivers or even Some women are bad drivers.

You might be able to prove the second or third statement; you are not in a
position to prove the first statement.

2.3 Academic writing is objective

• It avoids emotive language. (Emotive language sets out to cause the


reader to react with certain emotions. It gives away the writer’s
attitude.)

Compare:

The skinny hooligans behaved in an outrageous way.

with:

The behaviour of the less than average size youngsters caused discomfort to
some onlookers.

2.4 Writing in the “third person”

• A far as possible, academic work should be written in the 3rd person.


Avoid using the first or second person in your writing unless
asked to do so in a reflexive piece.

(Grammatically: 1st person = I, we, me, us, my, mine, our, ours
2nd person = you, your, yours
3rd person = he/she, it, his/her, they, them, their)

This can be difficult to achieve when you are expressing your own opinion. It
is usually necessary to step back mentally from the action and rethink how it
can be expressed impersonally.

Look at: I read several books and decided . . . (1st person)


Compare with: Several texts indicate that the following decision should be
made. (3rd person)

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Think about the difference between: I believe….
And There is a case for believing . . .

Similarly, your writing should not include statements including “you”.

When you go to Spain you will need to take sun cream.

Can be rewritten as

Visitors to Spain are advised to take sun cream. Be exact: who is the “you” in
that sentence?

2.5 The passive voice

• A far as possible, academic work should be written in the passive


voice.

Some disciplines (nursing, policing may well advise differently within the
vocational context).

Active means the subject of the sentence is doing something.


Passive means the subject of the sentence is allowing something to be done
to it.

Look at: The man read the book. (The subject did something.) This is
written in the active voice.
Compare this with: The book was read by the man. (The subject, the book,
just allowed the action to happen!) This is written in the passive voice.

NB Microsoft Word will try and persuade you to change passive to active.
Ignore it!

How to achieve the passive voice.

Look at:

Ali did the research.


Ali is the subject word in the sentence. Ali governs the verb “did the
research”. Ali is active. The object of the verb (the thing having something
done to it) is the research

Now look at:

The research was done by Ali.

The research is the subject word in the sentence. “The research” governs the
verb “was done”. But the research did not do anything. It was passive.

Pulling the object word to the front of the sentence usually turns an active
voice into a passive voice. Look at:

a) I found plenty of evidence to support this view.

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And compare it with:

b) Plenty of evidence was found to support this view.

b) is passive AND it has removed the first person. The meaning is the same
but the tone is more “academic”.

Look again at the first-person to third-person examples above and see how
they are also moving from the active to the passive.

2.6 Academic writing is evidenced

• Every time you make a statement, try to back it with evidence and then
comment on that evidence.

Dalton airport has grown enormously over recent years.


[STATEMENT]

It has more than doubled in size. Bloggs (2006) states that Dalton covered 14
acres in 1990 but had grown to 30 acres by 2005. Froome (2005) shows that
the average daily passenger throughput has tripled in much the same time.
The Dalton Airport website (2007) suggests profits are rapidly increasing too.
[EVIDENCE]

However, this is not necessarily good news for people who live nearby
[COMMENT}

This Statement, Evidence (with referenced sources) and Comment format is


sometimes referred to as the Academic Sandwich. The Academic Sandwich is
a rather mechanistic but nevertheless helpful way to ensure you are writing
academically.

Statement

Evidence
(+source)

Comment

Academic writing must not be a collection of quotations from books or


downloads from websites with no input from you. Paraphrasing (putting
information into your own words) and comment to show you have thought
about the material you have read is essential.

2.7 Academic writing is critical

Think about your sources.

Is The Sun an unbiased source?

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Is Heat Magazine rigorously and objectively researched?

Is Wikipedia totally reliable?

It is usually a good idea to cite from several sources. Triangulation in this


context means you have looked at three different texts. As you progress from
year one to year three, it will become increasingly important to question and
comment on the sources you use.

See Little Guide to Critical Thinking

2.8. Academic writing is interpretive

Paraphrasing
Academic writing must not be a collection of quotations from books or
downloads from websites (called “cut and paste”) with no input from you.
Paraphrasing (putting information into your own words) and comment to show
you have understood and thought about the material you have read is
essential.

“Managing an event and providing the audience with an environment which is


both safe and risk free is an extremely complex undertaking” (Kemp, 2004
p.11) is a quotation from “Health and Safety Aspects in the Live Music
Industry” by Chris Kemp.

Kemp (2004) stresses the complexity of managing music events safely is the
same statement put into this writer’s own words. It is a paraphrase.

Paraphrasing usually deals with a small section of text. In practice you may
well need to summarise a whole chapter or give the gist of an entire book.

Summarising
Summarising pulls together the main ideas from a large chunk of text.

Kemp (2004) uses a range of real life examples and refers to a number of
experts in an attempt to bring to the reader’s attention the need for an
academic and rigorous approach to improving the management of crowd
safety.

This summarises the whole of the book.

Gist
Gist attempts to explain or comment on the argument put forward in the book.

Kemp, in this readable and well illustrated book, argues for the physical,
procedural and psychological aspects of crowd control to be considered
together in order to improve the standards of crowd management.

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2.9 Academic writing is structured

You will be expected to write in a range of formats. Essays, reports, memos,


papers and articles all have their own structure. In common, they will each
have a form of introduction in which you make it clear what you intend to write
about and why. Never leave your reader to guess. You may know that
your tutor is a world expert in the topic you are writing about, but he/she will
still want to be sure that you know about the topic too. Show you understand
the terminology, make clear statements, and do not jump from one topic to
another without connection or explanation. Plan your writing before you start.
Make sure you deal with topics in a logical order. Argue your case with
evidence.

Specific academic structures are described in detail in The Little Guide to


Essay Writing and The Little Guide to Writing Reports.

The structure of a memo is outlined in your Student Handbook. Other


structures will be described to you as they are needed by your tutors.

Exercises to test your understanding of this Little Guide

You may like to try some or all of these exercises. Tutors from the Learning
Development Unit will be pleased to mark and discuss them with you.

3.1 Passive voice and use of the third person

Rewrite the following passage in the passive voice and avoiding the use of the
first or second person:

I conducted the test in the school library to minimise the noise. I took the
children out of their normal lessons and I tested them in groups of four. I
carried out all the tests in January 1996. The test consisted of two
components. First I showed the children the design (I have placed this in the
appendix) and I asked them to describe what they saw. I tape-recorded all
their answers. I then gave them a set of anagrams which I instructed them to
solve in as short a time as possible. I remained in the room while the children
did this

3.2 Vocabulary

Paraphrase the following sentences (i.e., put into your own words using
simple language to show you have understood the meaning). You may use a
dictionary.

1. Having over imbibed intoxicating beverages, the octogenarian fell


prostrate and insensible to the floor.

2. The woman’s impecunious state meant that she was unable to obtain
comestibles from her local purveyor of victuals.

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3. His negative life status militates against any pressure from him for
pecuniary recompense for his labours.

3.3 Academic style

Rewrite the following using an academic style:

Our project got in people from all over the place and with all sorts of fantastic
experience. I was over the moon at the response. 2 of the participants said
they would get the ok to come again, which is really cool. The guys from the
BBC were lovely so we should get super media coverage.

3.4 Evidenced writing

Indicate where, in the following passage, the writer should have given
examples or cited his source of information:

Starting with formal and technical rules, the main characteristics of Rock’ n’
Roll music will be explained. A musicological method of defining music is via a
simple style analysis that registers musical qualities in parameters such as
form and harmony. It is possible to find shared values in rock. Rock was
formed as music for pleasure, dance, and construction of identities among the
majority of white youth cultures in the period 1965-1990.

Practices of composition and improvisation can reveal important genre


differences. There are also genre differences in the practices of solo
improvisation, which is minimal in disco, common in rock, and essential in
jazz. There is no fixed set of instruments or orchestration needed to play a
rock song. Drums, a bass, guitars are almost always there, but they are not
required; the same goes for vocals or lyrics, as a rock song can do very well
without words or a singer. Genre systems have been structured by notions of
whiteness or blackness. Significant about Elvis' music as a precursor of rock
music is that it crosses the colour line, the barrier of race. With Elvis, African
American rhythms and sound patterns make their way into "white" music.

Remember: you can get more individual help by making an appointment to


work face-to-face or by email with tutors from the Learning Development Unit.

Good luck!

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