On Academic Writing

Page No.: 
Paul Tanner, Shiga University

Anna Mauranen has stated that, “There are no native speakers of academic English” (cited in D’Angelo, 2017, p. 178). This means that academic writing is a skill that must be learned by everyone. It takes repeated practice, trial and error, and effort. Successful academic writing is a non-linear process comprising hundreds of decisions and can be intimidating to the uninitiated. The following are some ideas to consider when writing an academic paper.


Choose a Good Title

If you are applying for a job, the first thing the hiring committee will almost certainly look at are the titles of your papers. Do not make it too wordy, vague, or overly technical. It should be less than 50 characters, which is a standard publication limit. Ask yourself this question: How can you make it memorable?

Always Write an Abstract

Even if not required, it is a good exercise for you to explain your topic clearly and concisely, as well as describe conclusions and methods. In addition, when applying for jobs, employers often require an abstract of every article you have published.

Narrow Down Your Topic

It is very important to focus your topic on a single manageable idea. You are not writing a book. Rosenwasser & Stephen (2008) suggest a technique they call “10 on 1” in order to narrow the scope of a paper: it is better to make ten observations about a single representative issue than to make the same basic point about ten related ones.

Review Relevant Literature

The literature review is very important for two reasons. First, it shows what the leaders in the field have said about your topic as well as your familiarity with relevant scholarship. It also gives readers background information and sources they might not be familiar with, paving the way for you to build your ideas or research upon the ideas of established scholars.

Familiarize Yourself With Style Conventions

Be familiar with the venue in which you want to publish and their style. Properly formatted manuscripts are looked upon more kindly, while those that are not may be rejected outright. In the ESL field, the most common reference style is APA. However, journals often have their own unique variations from the main style, and it is part of your responsibility to be aware of these differences. You can boost familiarity by closely reading the target journal with an eye towards style and making sure you follow their submission guidelines to the letter. For example, a careful reading of TLT, which follows APA conventions, will bring up one difference: italics is preferred over double quotes for indicating ironic or coined words. Do your best to notice such details, and when in doubt, feel free to contact a journal editor.

Provide a Strong Reference Section

Do not make too many self-references. Put your ego and the desire to add to your citation numbers aside. In addition, do not over-rely on one author, source, or publication. We love TLT, but your entire reference section should not consist of TLT articles. Consider some of the high impact ESL publications, such as TESOL Quarterly, Journal of Second Language Writing, Applied Linguistics, or the ELT Journal, and cite the experts in the field you are writing about. Finally, before submitting a paper, check to make sure the citations in the text match the sources in your references section. Avoid including any references that are not cited in the text, and vice versa. This is one of the first details editors check for when considering a paper for publication. Make it easy for them.


Write in Academic Register

Academic writing is much more formal than spoken English. Do not use spoken language conventions, slang, or contractions and avoid emotional or inflammatory language. Your prose should be analytical and logical. Examples of academic registers include using in which rather than where, and correct rather than right. Since and while are mostly used for time in conversation, but in academic writing, since is used for reasons and while is used for concession/contrast. These levels of formality are just part of the reason for the quote at the beginning of this article.

Limit the Use of “I”

Is it wrong to use the first-person point of view? It should not be used in the style of I think, I believe or In my opinion... However, it can help to aid assertiveness, clarity, and your position in an essay. The third person point of view can be used in three particular situations: to organize and guide the reader through your argument; report methods, procedures, and steps undertaken; and to signal your position or contrast claims with another source.

Hedging is a Sign of Strength

Hedging is another important skill in research papers. It is not a sign of weakness but shows balance by expressing uncertainty or doubt. It is used to express precision (which allows writers to express degrees of uncertainty or doubt), protection (from overstatement or overconfidence by limiting claims of support), and politeness. According to Hyland (2008), on average, experienced academic writers hedge about one word in 50. The top ten academic hedges are: assume, might, could, possibly, indicate, seem, likely, suggest, may, and would.


Paraphrasing vs Quoting

Paraphrase, quote, or summarize in order to analyze, rather than to replace analyzing. Avoid assuming that the meaning of a citation or your reason for using it is obvious. Explain how the cited information leads to a conclusion. Never use quotes without explaining them. Paraphrasing more and quoting less will demonstrate your critical engagement with the text and strengthen your academic argument.

Knowledge Telling vs Knowledge Transforming

Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) distinguish between knowledge telling and knowledge transforming writing. Knowledge telling is accessible to practically all language users and involves explaining personal experience or opinions. Knowledge transforming requires thinking about an issue, obtaining information needed for analysis, and modifying one’s thinking after reflection. Mature writers obtain, synthesize, integrate, and analyze information from various sources so that it becomes obtained knowledge. Strive to make your writing knowledge transformative rather than merely offering opinions and summarizing others’ ideas.


Less is More

A higher level of clarity can be achieved by establishing a less is more writing style (Talandis Jr., 2020). Without question, overwriting is a bigger problem than underwriting. It takes effort and discipline to avoid wordiness. To paraphrase Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain, if they had more time, they would have written less. Take the time to condense content. One of the best examples of this is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which took less than two minutes to recite and consisted of 271 carefully—some would say perfectly—chosen words. Popular myth has it that Lincoln wrote the Address on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg. In fact, he spent weeks writing and polishing his prose.

Rewriting is Essential

Unlike conversation, writing offers the opportunity for a do-over to say something exactly as it was meant to be said. Think of your first draft as a sketch rather than a painting. Recognize you will make changes as you write, including wrong turns and discoveries. It is only natural. Zinsser (1994) believes that rewriting is the essence of writing well. He warns against developing an emotional equity in the first draft, believing it was born perfect.

Review Checklist

The following is a checklist you can use to evaluate your academic writing project. Each item can be answered yes or no and serves as a reminder of the key points and ideas stressed in this article.


♦ Is your title memorable and less than 50 characters?

♦ Does your abstract explain your topic clearly and concisely and describe your methodology and conclusions?

♦ Is your topic sufficiently narrow?

♦ Is there a clear purpose and conclusion?

♦ Have you referred to leaders in your field in the literature review?

♦ Are you familiar with your target publication’s submission guidelines and style format?

Reference Section

♦ Do you refer to high impact journals?

♦ Do your citations in the text exactly match those in the reference section?

♦ Have you padded the references to include lots of your own work? (this answer should be no)

Writing Conventions

♦ Have you written in an appropriate academic register?

♦ Do you limit the amount of first-person narrative?


♦ Do you explain the quotations that you use?

♦ Have you connected cited information to your conclusion?


♦ Have you avoided repetition and wordiness?


♦ Have you edited and rewritten your work more than once?


Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

D’Angelo. J. (2017). Managing an academic journal from an ELF-informed perspective: The case of Asian Englishes. In Murata, K. & Konakahara, M. (Eds.), Waseda Working Papers in ELF, Volume 6 (pp. 175-186). ELF Research Group Waseda.

Hyland, K. (2008). Make your academic writing assertive and certain. In J. Reid (Ed.) Writing Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching (pp. 70-89). University of Michigan Press.

Rosenwasser, D. & Stephen, J. (2008). Writing analytically. Cengage Learning, reprinted by Peking University Press.

Talandis Jr., J. (2020). Less is more: Tips for removing unnecessary words. The Language Teacher (44)5, 43–45.                                     

Zinsser, W. (1994). On writing well. Harper Collins Publishers.