Essay Writing Guidelines
The challenge in academic writing is to express complex ideas simply. Follow these guidelines to help improve your academic papers. Don't try to adopt a learned tone — your message, not your writing style, should show your knowledge and expertise.
- Use active verbs.
- Keep your sentence length under control.
- Use simple words instead of complex words.
- Avoid jargon.
- Avoid abstract terms — be as specific as you can.
- Avoid abbreviations and acronyms.
- Avoid padding.
- Use topic sentences.
- Link your ideas and paragraphs.
- Use examples to explain difficult points.
- Use quotations in your essay writing
Use Active Verbs
Using active verbs is essential if you want to write with a direct authoritative style. Instead of using the impersonal passive verbs and third person viewpoint, you should write with strong, active verbs.
Almost every authority on writing encourages you to use active verbs. Here’s some typical advice to authors publishing research papers for The American Society for Testing Materials.
“As most everyone has agreed for some time now, use the third person in a paper not only adds nothing to scientific objectivity, it renders the paper gutless and lifeless . . . Scientists of the 19th century such as Darwin and Huxley wrote sensibly and clearly in the first person and turned out some very respectable prose. Let us begin anew . . . use active verbs.”
Look at these examples:
An improvement in quality has been made leading to the decision being taken to raise the standard test so a higher mark means the same success rate being accepted. (29 words)
As quality improved, the standard test rose, leading to a higher standard mark to gain the same acceptable success rate. (20 words)
Notice the passive example sounds academic but takes an extra nine words to say the same information. It is no more objective than the alternative with active verbs. Although we naturally speak with active verbs, even when discussing academic subjects, the traditional academic writing style litters writing with unnecessary passive verbs. Any sentence can be either active or passive. It is your choice as the author.
Here’s another example:
Most writers know that copying another’s work word for word without giving the author credit is considered plagiarism. But it is often assumed that this practice is considered cheating only when long paragraphs are involved — paragraphs or whole pages. An honest paraphrase, however, is one in which the ideas of the source are stated in the writer’s own words. (59 words)
Most writers know that copying another’s work word for word without giving the author credit is plagiarism. But they assume this is cheating only when they copy long paragraphs or whole pages. An honest paraphrase, however, is one written in the writer’s own words. (44 words)
Whatever the subject of the essay, you can write with active verbs to make your writing style more direct, clear and forceful. If there’s one piece of advice on writing style you should follow, it’s to use active verbs throughout your essays.
Keep Your Essay Sentence Length Under Control
Sentence length is crucial to good essay writing. Almost everything written by good writers has an average sentence length between 15 and 20 words. This does not mean writing every sentence the same length. Good writers naturally vary the length and rhythm of their sentences. They balance longer sentences with shorter ones, but they keep their average sentence length below 20 words.
Follow this advice:
- keep your average sentence length between 15 to 20 words,
- cut down long sentences, and
- vary the length of your sentences
An average of between 15 to 20 words for essays and research papers helps produce a clear and readable style. It’s the same average as well-respected publications such as New Scientist or the Economist consistently produce. Below 15 words and there’s a danger your writing will become too choppy and disjointed. As you go above the 20-word average, your document becomes more difficult to read. An average sentence length of 25 words is far too high.
Here’s an example of a 102-word paragraph with an average sentence length 34 words.
At first, Einstein faced great opposition when he came up with his radical new theory because the previous laws of motion proposed by Galileo and expanded upon by Newton had remained valid for over two hundred years. By mathematically manipulating these previous laws of motion, physicists in the nineteenth century were able to explain such phenomena as the flow of the ocean, the orbits of planets around the sun, the fall of rocks, and the random behavior of molecules in gases. However, it would not be long before the cement in the foundation of Newtonian and Galilean physics would begin to crumble.
Sentence lengths: 37, 44, 21 = 102,
Average = 34
Einstein faced great opposition with his radical theory. By mathematically manipulating these laws of motion, nineteenth-century physicists explained the flow of the ocean, the orbits of planets around the sun, the fall of rocks, and the random behavior of molecules in gases. The previous laws of motion, proposed by Galileo and expanded by Newton had remained valid for over two hundred years. However, soon the cement in the foundation of Newtonian and Galilean physics would crumble.
Sentence length: 8, 34, 20, 14 = 76,
Average = 19
Make sure you do not allow long sentences — over 40 words — to creep into your writing style. Most academic writing contains too many long, even mammoth sentences. Faced with long sentences, readers often give up halfway through or forget the start of the sentence by the time they reach the end. The more words in a sentence, the harder it becomes to understand. By comparison, it’s difficult to write an unclear sentence if it is short. Edit long sentences by cutting out wasted words or by breaking them into two or more shorter sentences.
Finally, you need to vary your sentences. An sentence length average of 18 words is fine, but if 90 percent of your sentences are 16, 17, 18 or 19 words long, your style will lack variety and interest. You should balance longer sentences, say up to 35 words with shorter sentences, some under five words, some phrased as direct questions, and still get an average sentence length of between 15 to 20 words.
Use Simple Words Rather than Complex Words when Writing an Essay
Keep your writing style simple. Follow the standard rule in all editing: prefer the simpler word to the complex word. This means writing extra or more rather than additional; help rather than assistance; use rather than utilize. Although you might need specialist or technical words, depending on your subject, you should choose the simpler word instead of the more difficult word whenever you can.
Your essay should be interesting but also easy to read. As well as the advice to use the simpler word to the complex word, you can also make your essay read much better if you cut down on heavy words. The traditional advice is to cut down on three-syllable and four-syllable words.
Take this example:
This demonstrates an understanding of the history, diversity and commonality of the peoples of the nation, the reality of human interdependence, the need for global cooperation, and a multicultural perspective.
A more readable style, would be:
This shows we understand why history and common beliefs in each nation matters as across the world, people need to work together and respect their different cultural backgrounds.
Breaking the habit of using heavy-sounding words and replacing them with shorter, everyday words helps make the essay easier to read and encourages you to explain your ideas in more specific terms.
Avoid Jargon When Writing an Essay
You should always write an essay to show your understanding of the subject. There’s a great temptation to pepper your essay with the impressive sounding vocabulary of experts. Look out for the overuse of noun phrases, acronyms and abbreviations, non-words and unnecessary specialist language in essays. Here’s an example showing how bad it can get.
Example of academic gobbledygook
In situationist projects, the methods of instrumental science are inverted and replaced with a disturbing desire to make people suffer in order to experience the sensual, essentially alienated, narcissistic aspects of modern life. The poetics of weathering, mortality, etc, became, in situationist practice, as reactionary nihilist lament upon the death of reciprocity between individual and common creativity.
We can all recognize this as impressive-sounding nonsense. However, there’s a difficult line to draw here. Does this mean you should avoid technical language? No. You can and need to use technical terms. Here’s an example with the technical terms highlighted.
HIV is now becoming increasingly under control. However, the solution has been to treat patients with toxic drugs. The first effective drug was AZT, leading to a new class of drugs known as nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors. The drug invented at Yale — d4T is in the same class as AZT.
Patients received a cocktail of AZT and d4T and a protease inhibitor in a treatment called highly active antiretroviral therapy or Haart for short. This treatment does not rid the body of the virus but simply keeps the viral load low and stop it damaging the immune system. Because the virus mutates quickly if the dosage is not high enough, the patients must take the drugs at the right time in the correct quantity or there is a danger the virus in the body will develop resistance. The challenge for the pharmaceutical industry is to develop new drugs to match the threat of the mutating virus.
To a nonmedical person, the words highlighted in red would be jargon. But here the writer sensibly uses accepted medical terms to describe the information. HIV, AZT and d4T are acceptable because HIV is now universally recognized, AZT is a well-known medical drug and d4T is a product name. The phrases nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, protease inhibitor and highly active antiretroviral therapy are not jargon, but the precise terms. The phrases, viral load, immune system and mutating virus are all acceptable medical terms. However, what makes these all these terms acceptable, are three overriding considerations.
- The reader, the tutor, has an understanding of medical terms.
- The writer is not using these phrases to impress, but to explain and describe.
- The style of the rest of the paragraph is specific and clear, with short sentences, active verbs and no wasted words.
There’s a great temptation in essays to show off your knowledge, leading to a stilted and abstract academic style.
Example of abstract academic style
Conceptualizing the multiple relations into which they enter, and which they mediate, through Serres’ notion of the parasite, the manifold and complex shifts between the semiotic and the material, the intersubjective and the interobjective (and permutations thereof), and the broader implications of this analysis for the theorization of the object will be explored.
It certainly sounds impressive. You’ll find many academic experts write this way. You study what they have to say, but find it hard work to understand just what points they are trying to make. The result is usually the same. You have to dismiss the ideas because you cannot draw them out of the author’s complex style. The author, no matter how good his or her ideas, has failed to communicate.
It’s the same for tutors reading 30 essays. They are not going to award you a high mark because it sounds impressive if they cannot understand what you are saying. Tutors will not give high grades to essays they cannot fathom or have to work at to understand. They will give you a high mark for good information, well-reasoned ideas, presented in the clearest style.
Avoid Abstract Terms When Writing an Essay — Be as Specific as You Can.
You must constantly fight against your style becoming too abstract or difficult to read. You can do this by making your information specific, keeping your sentences under control, using active verbs and giving examples. Here’s a typical example:
This demonstrates an understanding of the history, diversity and commonality of the peoples of the nation, the reality of human interdependence, the need for global cooperation, and a multicultural perspective.
Guard against this style and try to develop the skill of writing in specifics. What does diversity and commonality of peoples mean? What is the reality of human interdependence? What does the writer mean by global cooperation? Every reader will have a different ideaof what multicultural perspective means.
Whatever your subject, edit you writing to keep your writing style as clear as possible. Here’s an example from an engineering student describing the need to limit the transfer of data during naval combat.
All combat systems installed on ships and fighters must have a working limiter device. The limiter device regulates the direct interface pilots have with their ships. Without such regulation, ships systems as well as the ship’s pilot would overload each other with massive amounts of data transfer. When in normal operation the limiter device keeps the ship-pilot interfaces to a suitable level. In rare cases of emergency, the limiter can be set to allow hyper accelerated interfacing. Any ship running with an open-ended limiter will have multiplied abilities but will take constant damage even to the point of its destruction.
All ships and fighters must have a working limiter to control communication during combat. This regulates the communication to stop vast amounts of data swamping either the pilot’s combat screens or the ship’s command center. In an emergency, the limiter can allow either the pilot or the ship to transmit more information. But without a limit on transferring combat data, there is an ever-present danger of the enemy succeeding in destroying the ship the fighters are defending.
Although the redraft has to use the word limiter twice, cutting down on words such as device, interface and system and nonspecific phrases such as hyper accelerated interfacing, open-ended limiter and multiplied abilities, the style becomes clearer and more readable without loss of content.
Keep Abbreviations Under Control
The conventional advice when using abbreviations in your essay is to write them out in full with the abbreviated form you intend to use later in the text. Although this is better than no explanation, these defined abbreviations are often the ones to avoid. Each time you define another abbreviation, you set a memory test for your reader. We have tested this by asking people to read a two-page document with two abbreviations explained on the first page. When they turned the page and read the abbreviations, we asked them what they stood for. Only one person got one correct answer — a 95% failure rate. When writing an essay, keep your abbreviations under control.
Here are the rules for using abbreviations when writing an essay
- Use the abbreviation without explanation, if everyone knows its meaning.
IBM , USA, Washington DC, BMW, PhD
Note : avoid using an abbreviation if it’s commonly understood as one term and you mean another. For example, do not use PC for politically correct or for Privy Council as most people think of it as meaning personal computer.
- Use the shortened word form to avoid most abbreviation.
Kennedy Space Center becomes Center on the second use — not KSC
- Use the ten to twenty most common and understood abbreviations in your field without explanation to an audience (your tutor) you know is familiar with them. Prefer the full form and the shortened word form when writing to wider audiences.
- Use common sense. If the abbreviation is the better shortened form and causes no problems for any of your readers, use it freely.
- Limit your use of shortened forms to two or three in any document, no matter what its length.
- If you use a word processor, use your spelling checker to find acronyms and abbreviations — it constantly reminds you not to overuse them.
So, when you draft your essay, use Accident Data Recorder shorten it to Recorder rather than ADR when you use it later. Write alt in the full form of altitude, prefer satellite communications rather than sat comms and sea level to SL. You’ll find no one misses your shortened forms and your writing style will sound more natural.
Avoid Padding in Your Essay
Some people are predicting, because of the length of Internet calls and the amount of bandwidth the calls take, that one day in the not so distant future, the entire telephone network, or at least a great portion of it, will cease to function, and all telephone calls will fail to connect. This idea is referred to by some as the “Gridlock Theory.” Others advise that steps can be taken to avoid such a disaster, such as upgrading telephone lines and limiting Internet use.
Many predict gridlock on the Internet as telephone networks collapse under the weight of higher traffic outstripping available bandwidth. Others believe measures such as upgrading telephone lines and limiting Internet use can avoid the disaster Gridlock Theory suggests.
Two key writing techniques can help you cut out padding.
1. Write most of your sentences in the ‘Who-Does-What’ order.
Using the Who-Does-What order means starting the sentence with the main subject, followed by a strong active verb. For example:
This idea is referred to by scientists as the Gridlock Theory.
The Who-Does-What order places scientists first, followed by the verb refer. This shortens the sentence to:
Scientists refer to this as Gridlock Theory. (7 words)
The Who-Does-What order will cut out wasted words and encourage you to write your sentences with active verbs.
2. Write with specific nouns and action verbs close together.
This technique takes the idea of Who-Does-What rule one step further. You may have noticed the Who-Does-What technique encourages you to start your sentence with the main noun and follow it with the most important verb.
Nouns (the scientist, oxygen) are the content and verbs (proved, leaked) the actions in your writing. Adjectives add to or describe the content (the difficult experiment) and adverbs qualify the actions (the thoroughly reworked experiment). The other parts of the sentence glue together the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Let’s take a simple example:
- Example: Lawson quickly criticized Lovell because of his unscientific investigation into the pollution in the river.
- Nouns: Lawson, Lovell, investigation, pollution, river
- Adverbs: quickly
- Adjectives: unscientific
- Glue: because of his, into the, in the
The key words for meaning are the nouns and the verb. We can write: Lawson criticized Lovell’s investigation [of] river pollution. The meaning is in the nouns (content) and verbs (action). Although you need adverbs and adjectives for more description — we turned the noun river into an adjective (river pollution), they are not essential. The words of least meaning are the glue words — those present to hold the other parts of speech together in a coherent sentence.
To write a strong style you must keep use specific nouns and action verbs close together. This means cutting the glue words and questioning whether you need the qualifying adjectives and adverbs. If you need adverbs or adjectives, you must place them next to the words they qualify. This changes our original 15-word sentence to eight words.
Original: Lawson quickly criticized Lovell because of his unscientific investigation into the pollution in the river.
Redraft: Lawson criticized Lovell’s unscientific investigation of river pollution.
The quickest way to learn this technique is to cut the glue words cementing your nouns and verbs together and placing any necessary adjectives and adverbs close to the words they qualify. Look how many words we can cut from this sentence:
Original: What I propose to do, therefore, is to identify the equivalent conditions in the two experiments and then go on to explain the reasons for the importance of these conditions.
Redraft: I propose to identify the equivalent conditions in both experiments and explain their importance.
The redraft packs the nouns and verbs together and cuts out redundant words.
Use Topic Sentences When Writing an Essay
Writing topic sentences at the start of each paragraph helps your reader get to the crux of your message immediately. The topic sentences in your essay contain the key information with every other sentence explaining or adding to the topic sentence. If a sentence does not develop from the topic sentence, you should move it or cut it out.
Think of your topic sentences as the headline to each paragraph, announcing the new point you want to make.
When it comes to new products, few businesses are more perilous than making civil aircraft. Aircraft can cost millions to develop. Boeing gambled the company when it launched the 747, spending $2 billion on the project, 2.5 times the value of the firm. Twice as big and efficient as anything else in the air, the jumbo has earned the Seattle company $20 billion in profit since they first flew, 30 years ago almost to the day.
By writing the main point in the first sentence, your reader quickly gets the message. The supporting facts and views follow logically from the first topic sentence.
Link Your Essay Ideas and Paragraphs
Make sure that each sentence flows logically. The traditional way to do this when writing an essay is to use connecting words or phrases, often conjunctions (linking words) such as “although”, “because”, “so”, “moreover”, or “therefore”. In this way, you build your logic and arguments. These connections come in simple and complex forms.
- Simple connections -
also, although, and, as, because, but, despite, first, however, if, next, now, second, then, therefore, third, until
Although we sometimes need words to show the logic and connection between sentences and paragraphs, many connecting words make your style more complex and academic than necessary. For example:
- Complex connections -
accordingly, as you are aware, consequently, for this reason, furthermore, hence, in addition, inasmuch as, likewise, more specifically, moreover, nevertheless, nonetheless
Here’s a comprehensive list of connections. Try to limit yourself to the simple connections shown in blue. Try to avoid those shown in red as they detract from a clear, concise style.
- Addition: again, and, besides, finally, first, next, second, then, third, further, furthermore, in addition, in addition to, lastly, moreover
- Comparison: after all, against, although, but, by comparison, compared to, however, in contrast, meanwhile, where, yet, although this may be true, balanced against this, conversely, in the meantime, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the contrary, on the other hand, vis-à-vis, whereas
- Conclusion: therefore, in conclusion, in summary, to conclude, to summarize, accordingly, as a result, as has been shown, consequently, thus
- Emphasis: always, forever, naturally, never,absolutely, certainly, definitely, emphatically, extremely, in fact, indeed, obviously, positively, undeniably
- Example: for example, for instance, such as, that is, e.g., i.e., in this case, in this situation, on this occasion
- Exception: despite, however, sometimes, still, yet, in spite of, nevertheless, of course, once in a while
- Proof: because, besides, if, evidently, for the same reason, furthermore, in fact, indeed, moreover, obviously
- Sequence: after, afterward, afterwards, before, finally, first, following, later, next, now, previously, soon, then, therefore, and so forth, at this point, at this time, concurrently, consequently, hence, subsequently, thus
- Time: after, afterward, afterwards, and then, finally, first, formerly, immediately, later, next, previously, second, soon, then, firstly, secondly, thereafter, thirdly
Look at this example with too many complex connecting words or phrases. Don’t you think the style looks false and unnatural?
Although this may be true, Krammer argues growth in the economy depends mainly on higher government spending. Accordingly, he argues that direct investment, whatever its source leads to growth. Indeed, Krammer states that the circulation of money in the economy is the key consideration when forecasting growth, that is to say, how the government controls interest rates, government debt. This is despite the fact that most economists believe the picture is more complex. Consequently, James and Proctor, in Issue 95 of New Economics, dismiss Krammer’s views as “failing to look at all traditional growth theory,”and thus failing to explain historical growth when government spending was low or negative.
But, Krammer argues growth in the economy depends mainly on higher government spending. He argues that direct investment, whatever its source leads to growth. Krammer states that the circulation of money in the economy is the key consideration when forecasting growth — how the government controls interest rates and government debt. Most economists believe the picture is more complex. James and Proctor, in Issue 95 of New Economics, dismiss Krammer’s views as “failing to look at all traditional growth theory,” and therefore failing to explain historical growth when government spending was low or negative.
Use the connections to make sure your reader can follow the flow of information, ideas and arguments within sentences, from sentence to sentence and between paragraphs. But don’t let too many connections creep into your writing and keep to the simple ones recommended.
Use Examples in Your Essay to Explain Difficult Points
Good writing uses specific information the reader can picture. Drawing examples, illustrations or analogies into your essay writing makes it more interesting, readable and stylish. Look at the following paragraph.
For their surface area, insects weigh very little. A beetle, falling from a high altitude, quickly achieves terminal velocity: air resistance prevents it from falling very fast, and, after alighting on the ground, it will walk away, apparently none the worse for the experience. The same is true of small mammals. A mouse can be dropped down a thousand-foot mine shaft and, if the ground is soft, will arrive dazed but essentially unhurt.
The specific and visual examples of a beetle falling to the ground or a mouse dropped down a thousand-foot mine shaft conjure up vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. This is the opposite style to so much academic writing. Use examples to explain difficult information, abstract ideas and theories. You’ll soon see power they have to make your essay stand out as a model of clarity and clear thinking.
Use Quotations in Your Essay Writing
Your essay should reflect wide reading and solid research. You can show this by working short, specific and relevant quotations from experts. When you quote material in your essay, make sure it:
- is relevant to the point you are making,
- advances the argument or point you are making,
- is short,
- flows with the text of the message, and
- has a proper reference either as a footnote or in your bibliography.
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