Academic writing 101

Today we’re going to take a break from our discussion of fiction writing to give our student readers some tips about academic writing. If you’re a freshman in college—or soon to be a freshman—pay close attention: These are tips that you won’t get in your gen ed writing class! If you’re past that point, stay with me—I didn’t learn a lot of this until my junior or senior year. And post-college writers? Some of these same principles may even apply to you, though the application may look a little different!

1. Know thy professor

When I was picking classes for my first semester of freshman year, I eagerly looked up all my potential profs on While I encourage this practice—it can help you avoid really bad profs—it almost led me to a huge mistake. As a grad student, my sister had audited a class in literary theory and told me that I had to take a class with Dr. Jacobs. I stressed out about this, however, because told me that Dr. Jacobs was a really hard grader. I gritted my teeth and signed up for his class anyway.

Not only did I end up with consistently good grades in the three classes I was privileged to take from him, he ended up being my all-time favorite professor and, later, my academic advisor. Don’t be intimidated by a prof’s reputation as “difficult”; focus instead on understanding exactly what he or she wants. I got my best grades in the English department from the two professors who had the reputation for being the hardest because I was able to figure out what they wanted. I had a more difficult time with “easier graders” because it was harder for me to read them.

The moral of the story? Know thy professor. Take in papers to them ahead of time to get their comments on how you can improve, and take those comments very seriously. Read one or two of their journal articles to get a feeling for what they value in academic writing. Ask your professor what she’d like to see more and less of in your papers. Writing for a specific audience is a very valuable skill; in college, your professor is your audience.

2. Pull all-nighters judiciously

During your college years, at least six different professors will assure you that you cannot write papers for them the night before; they say they will be able to tell that you rushed it. This is sometimes true. You have to be a really good writer to pull off all-nighter papers and get away with it. It’s probably something you’re not going to be able to do as a freshman. I mastered the skill during a semester abroad when I had one 12-page paper due every week, and an additional 10-page paper due every other week. Your professor will be the ultimate judge of whether you’ve sufficiently conquered this feat, but if you do pull an all-nighter to write or finish a paper, observing a few rules will help:

-Pay attention to other work due the same day as your paper. If you have an exam due the same day as a final paper, get the paper done early. The vast majority of college students cannot ace an exam after an all-nighter except in very easy classes; your brain gets foggy. You are probably not the exception.

-Drink as many ounces of water as you do of your energy drink of choice. Your body will thank you the next day.

-Eat a small snack every half-hour through the night. It will help you stay awake and focused. And you’ll feel less sorry for yourself, which is half the battle of getting through the night.

-Choose an ideal environment. If you’re writing your paper at your desk three feet away from your bed—or in bed—you’ll probably go to sleep before you’re done. You want the temperature in the room to be cool but not cold. And to avoid distractions, I’ve found this noise generator to be the perfect background while writing.

-Be careful with power naps. Some people are refreshed by them and are able to work longer and better as a result; others oversleep their alarm and wake up six hours later in a panic. I was just fine taking power naps; my freshman roommate, who slept like the dead, didn’t take them.

-Never pull two in a row. Ever. You will hate yourself, your life, and the world.

3. Avoid enlarging margins and padding with fluff

Often, the sophomore that is initiating you into college life will tell you that you can add several pages to a lengthy paper just by adjusting your formatting in Microsoft Word. There are many tricks to adding length—margins and manipulating the font size of spaces being the two that I’ve heard of most often—and it’s true that, if a professor didn’t specify a margin width, you’re free to choose between 1-inch margins all the way around and margins that are 1-inch on top and bottom and 1 ¼-inch on each side. But don’t try this if your professor has specified margins. They’ve seen every trick in the book, and they can tell when you’re manipulating the page. Especially if you turn in an electronic copy, and all they have to do is check the margin width.

Padding is another trick to make the paper longer without adding content—figuring out a way to make every sentence or thought stretch out as long as it possibly can by desperately adding fluff words. This does work if your goal is merely to reach your word count, but it lowers the quality of your writing. Instead, see if you can add an additional point or two. If you absolutely cannot reach your page count, many professors would prefer to see a paper that is a little short than one that has obviously been padded.

4. Your high school English teacher was wrong about many things.

Write naturally. Academic writing may sound stilted at first, but read a few journal articles in the field in which you’re writing a paper to get a feel for it. Don’t contort a sentence to avoid ending it with a preposition; I only ever had one professor that actually cared about that particular rule. Don’t rely on personal experience, but don’t be afraid to use a personal pronoun when it’s relevant (e.g. “After studying Restuccia’s view on Woolf’s feminist impulse, I have concluded…”). And, remember, it isn’t actually incorrect to occasionally begin sentences with a conjunction.

5. But not about everything.

You still have to use a thesis. You aren’t confined to three main points, but stay organized. Write linearly, so that each point flows seamlessly into the next. Pay attention to correct comma use. In short, think carefully about the purpose behind the rules before you jettison them. Your high school English teachers taught you to write in a specific way because it would prepare you to learn how to write at a college level. Build off that foundation but be willing to go beyond it, and you’ll be just fine.

Agree? Disagree? Planning to try out one of these tricks? Tell us in the comments and be sure to share this post on Facebook and Twitter!


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