Habits to Avoid in Academic Writing

pen and paperThese five easy hints on habits to avoid in academic writing will increase your odds of overall success

Students, instructors, and researchers are the ultimate multi-taskers, writing research proposals, writing books and journal articles, and teaching courses. The problem is that so is everyone else. If an editor has the choice between publishing a poorly written paper and a well-written one, he or she might just choose the well-written one. That's why we've collected five habits to avoid in academic writing, which you'll find below.


1. Overuse of footnotes

Footnotes can include valuable information that is often useful to a researcher's perspectives or a paper's focus. The problem is, excessive footnotes may signal to your readers that your focus isn't sufficiently narrow. Every time you're tempted to write a footnote, ask yourself: Will my work suffer if I omit this footnote? If the information merits a footnote, is it important enough to include in the main body of the paper?

2. Needlessly complex sentence structure

No discussion of five habits to avoid in academic writing would be complete without overly complex sentence structures. Generally, academic writing contains complex, subtle, sophisticated ideas—but out-of-control sentences often signal to a reader that the writer doesn't grasp his or her subject fully enough to write clearly about it.

Convoluted writing is so widespread in academic writing, one journal held a contest to choose the worst sentence of the year.1 That's one award nobody wants to win! At a time when competition for jobs and graduate schools is more stressful than ever, it's incredibly important to ensure you can communicate your ideas clearly to reach the biggest possible audience.

To streamline your sentences, it might be a good idea to use the shortest possible sentences when writing. Of course, you might worry your short sentences might be perceived as, well, unintelligent. But consider the following sentences:

“We all ought to make sacrifices for literature. Look at me. I’m going to England without a protest. All for literature.”

Few readers today would accuse the writer of those sentences, Ernest Hemingway, as unintelligent. (By the way, those passages are from Chapter 6 of The Sun Also Rises.) Anyway, when you start feeling in control of your writing, you can gradually increase your sentence lengths.

Another hint is to read your sentences aloud and then seek ways to eliminate their wordiness. Consider it a game, to see how many words you can trim from a sentence.

3. Too-fancy words

Academic writing is saddled with the burden of being difficult to read. Sure, much academic writing targets those in the know. It's fine to use jargon—but sparingly as possible. Try to use the simplest, shortest, plainest words possible. Here's an example of a sentence that's just too everything:

Contrariwise, Sue abstains from gluttony at an all-you-can eat charcuterie.

This sentence can be much more accessible stated this way:

But Sue doesn't eat too much at a buffet.

4. Plagiarism


Number four in our five habits to avoid in academic writing is number one in importance: plagiarism. It could get you fired or expelled and is just plain wrong. Some plagiarism is intentional, but usually, carelessness is the cause. Fortunately, plagiarism is easy to avoid. Whenever you use someone else’s words, credit the source. Be alert, be cautious, and err on the side of overcitation. Take extremely detailed notes. Ensure your bibliography is complete and accurate in every detail.

5. Passive voice

The last of our five habits to avoid in academic writing is the passive voice. An active sentence has a subject that acts on a direct object:

I ate pizza.

In a passive sentence, the object serves as the sentence's subject. The object receives, not initiates, the action:

The pizza was eaten by me.

In academic writing, the passive voice tends to occur when the subject is unclear or unknown, when a writer doesn't want to use first-person pronouns like I or we, or when the result of the action is more important than who acted. In these cases, the passive voice can be appropriate, especially when rewording the sentence would sound strange, cumbersome, or complicated.

Try to develop the habit of analyzing every instance of is, are, was, and were. Can you replace those words with a stronger, active verb? Try to ensure your subject is indeed the actor in the sentence.

1The journal Philosophy and Literature sponsored the “Bad Writing Contest” from 1995 to 1998.

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