Writing for students: how to get your head around academic writing

Writing at university: writing with an academic tone

HTWB Students logo 3You might think that your writing style is pretty much flawless. You got those As and A*s for all those A-level essays, so writing for uni will be a piece of the proverbial, right?


Writing at uni is a whole different kettle of cod. Whereas at A-level what you wrote needed to sound great, have substance but generally adhere to a pretty set formula, uni writing will force you to think so far outside of the box that you’ll have forgotten there ever was such a thing. Honestly, cube and cuboid shaped objects will no longer exist for you.

So how exactly is uni writing different? Well I’m going to tell you… and you’re going to listen (hopefully).


Except maybe during exams, most of the time at school you were writing for your teacher. Someone you’d likely known for at least a while if not for donkey’s years.

While you might have always intended to keep it straight and formal, knowing your audience as well as you did would have meant you probably, unconsciously, crept into some bad habits.

The sort of language you used would perhaps pass as formal, but might not pass as academic. There is a subtle difference (one of which I subtly highlighted in that sentence). Contractions like “there’s” are generally not acceptable in academic prose. Of course there are exceptions; quotes for example, but on the whole, words and phrases need to be written out in full, ‘proper’ English.

This might sound basic, but read through your A-level essays again (if you haven’t already used them as kindling for an end of year BBQ) and I bet you there will be various smatterings of “it’s” and “don’t”.

Keep the contractions to a minimum (which is a funny sentence in and of itself).

Sentence structure

I have a friend, who will remain nameless but will know who he is, who used to write sentences in essays at uni that would stretch on for paragraphs. Literally, five or six lines with no full stops.

small__2948299231 (1)Now, if you’re Immanuel Kant and the sentence you’re writing is set to change the entire face of western philosophy, then exceptions probably can be made. You’re not Kant, so you can’t (see what I did there) ignore full stops and line breaks.

If you’re studying a subject like philosophy (as I did), then the likelihood is your sentences will require significant length, in order to fit in all the necessary information (read: unintelligible horsesh*t). However, once you find yourself inserting the 10th comma into a single sentence, it might be time to have a rethink.

It’s also worth remembering that tutors bloomin’ well love shorter sentences because it makes the essay easier to read. With the amount of essays that they churn through, anything that makes them easier to consume will be taken favourably.

I’m not saying it will affect your grade, but it can’t hurt, can it?


K.I.S.S. Keep it simple, stupid.

A motto I wish I lived by, but alas my precocious and pretentious sensibilities conspire to create verbose and sometimes unfathomable syntax and diatribes of meagre construction.

Seriously though, simplicity is key to good academic writing. ‘But Jackson’ I hear you say ‘my subject is immeasurably complex, with its own catalogue of jargon. How can I possibly keep it simple?’

The truth is, yes, if your subject is complex and uses words like ‘universalisability’ then you’re going to struggle to make it comprehensible for those who read Twilight, for example.

What I’m saying is don’t make it unnecessarily complex. By all means, use the jargon that the source texts spew forth, but there’s no reason to substitute a word like ‘poor’ for a word like ‘meagre’. It doesn’t make you sound smart. It makes you sound like a nerd (read the previous paragraphs for evidence of this).

Only use those big words that make sense and that need to be used, otherwise K.I.S and you won’t sound stupid.

Last word

So that’s it for this week and remember, keep it short, simple but formal. Next time I’m going to show you how to plan the perfect essay.

Over and out.

Jackson Rawlings on HowToWriteBetter.net

Jackson Rawlings.




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