Monday, December 30, 2013

Academic Writing Tips

By Dr Andree Swanson

Artwork: Dr.  Murad Abel
You have been tasked to write your first paper and the instructor gave you feedback.  It read: “This is not appropriate for an academic paper.”  

You are now at a loss to understand what defines an academic paper. Here are a few tips to remember when writing.

Most importantly, you are creating a document that is in your own words.  It is imperative to properly research the paper.  It is not unusual to have parenthetical citations after each sentence.  The reason this happens is that you have conducted a great deal of research on your topic.  You are now reflecting on what you have read, so the bottom line is...  you are not presenting new information.  Let me restate this.  You are presenting someone else’s information.  In fact, you may be presenting more than one person’s information and must properly cite each source.

Your paper is filled with ideas that came from many journals, web sites, and books.  Basically, there are no new ideas in the world, especially at the bachelor’s level.  You are not writing a dissertation nor developing your own research on a topic, thus, your academic paper is merely a reflection of your research… not your opinions.  Given this statement, you must properly cite your sources.

A prescriptive formula for writing an academic research paper can be defined in the following equation:

A + B(x) + D(x) = an appropriate academic paragraph

A = A statement in your own words
B = A paraphrase or summary of what you have read on the topic
D = A quote which adequately reflects what you stated above
x = Your APA citation in APA or MLA format*

        Here is an example of this formula in action:

Funding Formula
After World War II, American servicemen and women became eligible for a newly-enacted legislation called the GI Bill. President Roosevelt did not spend much time on this bill; however, Roosevelt saw that America needed a boost at the end of the war. The GI Bill was established (Remembering the GI bill, 2000). The Higher Education Act of 1965 strengthened “the educational resources of our colleges and universities and [provided] financial assistance to students in postsecondary and higher education” (Higher education act of 1965, n.d.).
Figure 1. Example of a properly cited paragraph.

        Another example that incorporates information from more than one source is shown below:

Lujan v. Colorado State Board of Education

This issue of funding and the equity of educational opportunities is an ongoing topic in the Colorado court system. Once again, a group of individuals went to court. These plaintiffs “represented by the Colorado Lawyers Committee brought suit claiming that the deteriorating physical state of the public schools deprived students of educational opportunity” (Hunter, 2006, ¶ 3). In 2000, the Colorado state legislature enacted Senate Bill 00-181 earmarking “$190 million dollars for school repair and construction in the neediest school districts over more than a decade” (Hunter, 2006, ¶ 3; Wham et al., 2000). Finally, in 2000, voters passed an initiative to increase kindergarten through grade 12 school funding in the state. Amendment 23 created the State Education Trust Fund (Colorado Budget, 2005, ¶ 1).
Figure 2. Example of citing more than one resource for a quotation.

In addition to critically thinking, paraphrasing and summarizing, and adequately citing your references, it is important to avoid certain elements when writing.      

Use citations sparingly –

When writing a paper it is important to put the paper in your own words. This means paraphrasing and summarizing what you have read, and to then properly reference the source. In the example below, there are 146 total words. Of these words, 28 are the author’s. This is not good. Nineteen percent of this paragraph is in the author’s own words.

Bad example
It is important to reduce stress because of the bad affects on the body. “When you’re stressed, you feel changes in your body and your mind. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, and your face may get flushed. Your muscles might tighten up, or you may feel anxious” (Stress and how to lower it: A health guide for teens, 2007, para. 2). There are many situations that cause stress when you are writing an academic paper. “You might continually postpone working on your assignment and get a late start. If you procrastinate, you do not have enough time to think about and compose what you want to write” (Cone, 2007, para. 3) “Sometimes you might become so nervous that you feel unable to write anything at all. This is known as writer’s block, and it is akin to self-sabotage” (Cone, 2007, para. 4)
Figure 3. Example of multiple quotations strung together

Avoid vague terms… be specific –

Avoid empty words such as “things,” “stuff,” “many,” etc. Use specific terms. I have a vocabulary challenge on my personal website.

Avoid colloquialisms –

It is necessary to avoid colloquialisms in academic papers. For example, although you may use the words below when you are writing an article or a brief narrative paper, but not an academic paper. Can you think of how you might reword this sentence so it is appropriate for an academic paper?

Bad example
It was raining like cats and dogs outside while I was working on this academic paper.

Avoid references to pop-culture –

Quotes are good, but you must use the appropriate quote for the paper. I personally like this quote, but would not include this in an academic paper.

Bad example
Jerry Seinfeld once stated that when average Americans were asked what their number one fear was he said it was public speaking and number five on the list was death. Seinfeld stated, “...that would mean that at a funeral, people are five times more likely to want to be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

*APA is American Psychological Association and MLA is Modern Language Association


Stress and how to lower it: A health guide for teens. (2007). Center for Young Women’s Health Children’s Hospital Boston. Retrieved February 23, 2007, from

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