How can I improve my academic writing style?
January 8, 2018 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I'm just starting my second semester of grad school and I'd like to improve my academic writing. Are there any good style-guides, websites, or other resources I should be checking out?

I'm currently getting my MLIS in a course-based, not thesis, graduate program. Sometimes I find myself really struggling with writing my larger assignments. I just don't love writing. It doesn't come naturally to me. I got pretty good grades in my previous semester, but I really would like to become a stronger writer. How do I do this?

I'm not sure if I'm a bad writer, per se, I just want to become stronger. One of my professors rarely said a negative word about my writing style last semester, while another one thought I was a pretty poor writer and I always got a bunch of marks knocked off for my writing. I'm not really sure what to think of that, or who to believe! Regardless, I just want to improve.

On campus there is a writer's centre I could go for advice, but when I'm not in school I am working and there's no feasible time for me to seek help from them.

In particular, I think I need to work on writing in a more "active" voice, being more concise/direct, editing, and get better at noticing things like comma splices (gah, my enemy).
posted by modesty.blaise to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried reaching out to the writing center? (Via phone, email, et cetera. I'm assuming you can't visit in person due to your schedule.) They would almost certainly be able to recommend writing and style guides. You might also be surprised by the services they offer. This varies from school to school, of course, but my undergrad institution had a writing center that strove to accommodate working students. While it wasn't really advertised on their website, they would actively try to make alternate arrangements for students (having them meet tutors outside regular hours, for instance).

In addition, they might be able to point you to writing tutors who are looking for work, if that appeals and is financially feasible.
posted by desert outpost at 7:23 PM on January 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Purdue OWL
posted by thelonius at 7:23 PM on January 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've often heard that reading improves writing, perhaps more dramatically than studying writing. So maybe try reading more, particularly academic works in your field.
posted by bunderful at 7:32 PM on January 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace sounds like it may be what you need: it's intended for graduate students and professionals who have stuff to say, but need help saying it.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:53 PM on January 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Longman Writer can be checked out of the Internet Archive with an Open Library account, and it has a ~50 page section at the end called "A Concise Handbook" that explains common issues with many examples. The book that thomas j wise recommended is also available for checkout, as is an old edition of the The Little, Brown Handbook. A very old edition of the McGraw-Hill Handbook of English can be read online for free, and it has many example sentences to work through too.

Incidentally, I can't imagine you need all of these--or even one, cover to cover. I just suspect that there'll be one rule or other of traditional grammar where you'll want to see a bunch of examples for it to click.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:00 PM on January 8, 2018

As a professor, I recommend actually talking with your professors and asking specifically for writing advice. A couple of possibilities: you might contact last semester’s profs to ask if you could set up a time to meet and discuss their feedback about your writing. Or you could proactively ask to meet with this semester’s profs to discuss what they think is most important in academic writing, common problems they see in student writing, or resources they recommend. Professors appreciate specific questions, and the ones who’ve already seen your work can identify particular things for you to work on. And we love students who actively work to improve! Plus, faculty in your field are the best guides to what’s considered good writing in your field.
posted by JaneEyre at 8:20 PM on January 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Okay, these are always answers that we don't want to hear, but there are a few things that have helped me immensely:

1. Reading. If I find a writer or scholar whose style I really connect with, I read while paying special attention to structure, wording, and also the cadence and intonation in my head while I read. I find that I pick up on things I can make my own instinctively than if I pay attention to my writing alone, and it then comes out in my writing naturally. I also pay attention to way that a person I enjoy reading makes arguments, logical connections, and substantiates their conclusions. It's okay to copy a methodology that works well for others.

2. Then write, write, write. Here's how I do it, and it works wonderfully for me. Having some semblance of structure is a must, but as I'm working from the general structure in my head, I start almost entirely with stream of consciousness getting stuff down on paper without worrying at all about how it sounds. I just get the logical flow going and put pieces together, even if it isn't remotely well polished. I find that at that stage of the game, it's always easier to go back and tweak a bit for the tone and cadence when I didn't have to worry initially about how it sounds. Making something sound better is easier than working out the internal logic, so doing those things in two steps is immensely helpful for me.

3. Pick up just a few key rules that will go miles towards creating good-sounding writing, and stick with them. Don't go overboard, but every once in awhile, put in a good turn-of-phrase in there that sounds like you care about what you are writing about. Make sure you have clear transitions between all of your logical ideas. Even if you repeat the same transitions over and over initially, you can go back and tweak those transition to have variety on the next run through (see #2). Also, do not use ambiguous pronouns in which the antecedents are not clear. If it's a technical writing, over-repeat your reference in place of pronouns if you can. Nothing messes up a logical flow in reading someone's work than not knowing a referent, or trying to work out a jumble of references in the same paragraph or sentence.

4. Simplify, simplify, simplify. After all of that, go back and see if you can make anything shorter and more succinct by pulling out redundant adjectives or flowery language that isn't necessary. Wordiness in academic writing if tedious, brevity is beauty.

There are also rules that you'll pick up as you go along, but I really think that the way to work through those things is not to be a perfectionist, but to see the writing process and the (sometimes difficult) feedback that comes with it not as a judge of your academic ability necessarily, but as good, blunt advice on how to improve, which simply comes with grad school. If you take any of that personally in grad school, it will make you freeze up. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, as I found out at the grad level that there are few people there to make you feel like a superstar. There are a lot of superstars the higher up you go. Their job is to make you a better writer and researcher, and it works best when the advice is blunt and direct.

You can do it! Plenty of people have become good writers by focusing on a few essential things, and then building off of that foundation. Also, be encourage by the fact that even the very best writers rarely send things off for publication without a lot of editorial feedback. They get ideas out there, other people sometimes help polish it up. The best advice I ever received about writing is that if you see it as a community endeavor instead of creating something ex nehilo, it provides the proper humble posture that not only allows us to get better, but to not worry that we have to think too much of ourselves to be good scholars. The best work is done in community with other people.

Good luck!
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:22 PM on January 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

A piece of advice I found helpful is to use work-related emails as a way to practice academic writing. Draft an email, then edit for clarity and brevity before sending. As a bonus your emails will be more professional with fewer typos.
posted by emd3737 at 10:28 PM on January 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure whether you're asking about how to get better at the mechanics of writing, or whether you just happen to be producing "boring academic writing" at the moment and are interested in spicing it up. Assuming the latter, my recommendation is to study "classic style" as described by Steven Pinker in his style guide The Sense of Style. In his words, classic style "treats prose as a window onto the world," and tends to be more conversational than explicitly academic. The goal, essentially, is to make the reader feel smart.

If you'd like to take a look at some scientific writing representative of "classic style"--accessible while still being fairly rigorous and intellectually honest--try any of these:
- Behave by Robert Sapolsky
- The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- The Better Angels of Our Nature (Pinker again)

Good luck!
posted by blissfulchar at 10:35 PM on January 8, 2018

Yeah, acedemic writing may be harder to aquire than more general writing. I would say this takes several years to master. As a first year grad student, your acedemic writing is going to be poor, as a general rule. Ask your profs for help. Have them redline your writing. Rinse and repeat. After a few dozen redlines, where they tell you to be specific every single time or other thing, you will be a good acedemic writer. This is kind of a painful process that may feep insulting, but you can learn a lot!
posted by Kalmya at 5:33 AM on January 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed Writing Science in Plain English and think you might too. The book focuses on active voice, sentence structure, clarity, etc. I sometimes struggle getting through style guides, but this one is super engaging and does a good job walking you through rewrites and examples. Plus it’s fairly short. Good luck!
posted by elephantsvanish at 6:04 AM on January 9, 2018

The one book that helped me with academic writing more than any other was They Say, I Say You can google the title and "templates" and you will find some good cheat sheets.

I would recommend finding a writing tutor/editor, either through school or paying out of pocket. Even though it isn't taught in school, very few people write well enough on their own, and very few schools give the feedback on student's writing that helps them to grow as writers.

Finally, there are a lot of good apps out there that help with basic writing rules- Grammarly is one- their paid version is very good.
posted by momochan at 6:22 AM on January 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really like "The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective". Like the title says, the focus is on writing in such a way that serves the reader.

"Do I Make Myself Clear" is meant to be good, too. It's on my list of books to read. It's written by a newspaper editor, but I imagine the advice would be applicable to academic writing.

Good luck!
posted by MrBobinski at 6:03 PM on January 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

Coincidentally, a friend just showed me this site. It's the polar opposite of what you're doing -- but that can be valuable too. Just refresh it a few times and you'll see how it works.
posted by LonnieK at 6:51 PM on January 9, 2018

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