Tips For Academic Writing
Writing academic English texts can be challenging for an author who thinks in a different language. As an academic editor myself, here are some common mistakes that, if avoided, can make your writing more clear and impactful.
1. Paragraph size
For your research to impact readers, you must maintain their interest in your article. Long paragraphs look daunting and are difficult to keep track of. You want your readers to follow your methodology and train of thought, and for that, your text should be easier to consume. Break your article into small, manageable paragraphs that each contain one aspect of your idea or research. This also allows you to gradually build up concepts and provide a natural flow to the conclusion of your text.
Shifts in verb tenses are immediately visible to readers. When an author shifts from the present to the past tense, for example, it breaks the progression of the article and is likely to confuse readers. Keep in mind the overall time frame of your research and whether it applies to events in the past, present, or future. Tenses can be switched when necessary (such as when explaining the future prospects of the research), but in general, determine the primary tense of your research and maintain it as much as possible.
3. Article use
Improperly used articles are a result of differences in grammar between English and an author's native language. Singular countable nouns may be preceded by an article ("a study/the study "), but plural countable nouns never take an indefinite article ("a studies"). When referring to an entity that is being introduced for the first time, an indefinite article is used ("According to a study..."). However, for subsequent references to that entity, use the definite article ("The study further showed..."). Proper article usage can be learned with practice, and it adds to the readability of your research.
4. Spelling variations
The differences in spelling between British and American English are a difficult challenge for ESL writers, given how minor and easy-to-overlook the differences are. The most common spelling errors are seen with -ise and -ize forms (realise, realize) and -or and -our forms (odor, odour). Moreover, British English often accepts both spelling variations as valid, but only one of them is commonly used in literature due to convention. The best way to prevent these errors is to ensure that the proper dictionary is set in your word processor's spell check.
Another common error made by ESL writers due to grammatical variations is incorrect capitalisation. As with article use, this skill is improved through practice, but you can begin with the following handy tips:
Start sentences with a capital letter
Capitalise proper nouns (English, Paris, Robert)
Do not capitalise common nouns (research, sample, author)
Always capitalise the pronoun "I" (refer to tip #6 about using "I" in academic writing)
6. Writing in the first person
Traditionally, academic texts are written in the third person, and writing in the first person is often considered opinionated and informal. There has, however, been a shift in this attitude, and first-person references have become more commonplace, with some journals even encouraging this practice. As this is still under debate, it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid making subjective statements. Review the guidelines of the journal you have selected and make a decision accordingly.
7. Idiomatic or non-committal phrasing
Similar to writing in the first person, using too many idioms and expressions may make your writing seem informal. Worse still, if you use idioms incorrectly, your readers can be easily confused (e.g. "The study finished up having" instead of "The study ended up having..."). These issues can be prevented by avoiding idioms in the first place, which has the added bonus of making your text concise and more readable.
ESL writers also tend to avoid using definitive language. However, there is nothing wrong with making a definitive statement when the facts back it up. Non-committal writing adds extra words to your paper without adding extra weightage. Keeping in mind that ‘less is more’ in academic writing, you should aim to make clear, concise statements that get the point across effectively. For instance, use "In conclusion, the effects of organic compounds..." instead of "As a result of the analysis, it can be concluded that the effects of organic compounds...".
8. Subject-verb agreement
Subject-verb agreement (SVA) is one of the cardinal rules of proper writing (in any language). Due to the high number of common irregular verbs in the English language, ESL writers often have trouble with proper SVA, resulting in glaring and distracting errors.
However, getting this right is relatively simple once you have learned the rules. An easy method is to replace any nouns with the proper pronouns and then use the corresponding verb form. For example, "The study (it) shows that..." is correct, while "The study show that..." is not. Understanding whether a noun is singular or plural is the key to getting SVA correct: singular nouns usually take an added s (he says) after the verb, while plural nouns usually do not (they say).
9. Sentence construction and word order
There are general rules about word order that you can use to get started (adjectives come before nouns, adverbs come after verbs), but mastering this takes practice. The rules of proper word order are not taught but rather picked up over years of usage—supposedly, native speakers instinctively follow a natural order for adjectives (opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun). Some of these so-called "rules" are up for debate, but do not be disheartened: generally, you can get around this in the beginning by framing smaller sentences.
10. Verb form
ESL authors are more likely to use the incorrect form of verbs, such as using the continuous form ("the analysis is proving that...") instead of the simple form ("the analysis proves that..."). Keep time frames in mind and use the corresponding tense. When talking about findings, for example, always use simple tenses.
As a universal guideline, despite the many differences between academic writing and creative writing, the goal is the same: to communicate our ideas in a way that is clear and engaging. Any steps you take to make your writing easier to read through and understand are likely to have positive effects. Improvement and perfection will come through practice and exposure, so ensure you constantly read articles, identify patterns or anomalies in the writing, and investigate them to improve your understanding—much like the scientific method.