Tips for Good Academic Writing

14 tips for improving your academic writing (there may be more to come)

As is always the case, the first assignments I receive each semester are riddled with basic issues that, thankfully, are easily corrected. Please read and apply the following rules religiously to any assignments for me from now on.

And don’t hesitate to show me drafts of your work. I am glad to help you improve.

1. Paginate!
• How can we meaningfully discuss the texts we read when are they not paginated? Paginate your work as a rule.
2. Give your essay (of any length) an interesting and descriptive title. Think of your title as a pre/mini-thesis.
• Sequence Analysis: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul tells your reader nothing about the argument you’ll make. Nor does it make him/her interested in reading it.
• The Micro-politics of Exclusion: Shifting Insider/Outsider Dynamics in Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (much better!)
3. Use MLA style.
• MLA style is the dogma of writing in the Humanities (that’s for English, Modern Languages, of which German is one, Philosophy, Creative Writing, Cinema Studies, Theatre Studies, and Music). Pick up a copy of The MLA Handbook, or at least visit this site:

• I will also accept APA and Chicago style, if that’s what you are used to from your discipline/major. Be consistent with whichever style you employ.

4. Italicize the names of long text forms. Put quotation marks around the titles of shorter forms.
• Long forms: films, novels, plays, epic poetry, works of art, non-fiction books: E.g. Triumph of the Will, Cassandra, Andorra, The Iliad, The Mona Lisa, The Cambridge Companion to Brecht,
• Short forms: short stories, lyric poems, an essay in a collection: “Hills Like White Elephants”, “Inventur”, “Brecht’s Influence on Fassbinder Reexamined”

5. Stay in the present tense when referring to creators (unless referring to their biography) and characters (unless discussing something that happened previously which informs what they are doing or thinking now i.e. at the point in the work you are referring to).
• Herta Müller, born into Romania’s German-speaking minority in 1953, understands personally the risks facing her protagonists. Müller thus speaks from personal experience when she writes: “…”
• The narrator in The Land of Green Plums understands the risks of trusting anyone in Ceausescu’s authoritarian police state because she has seen the consequences of not doing so. Edgar was searched because of his association with her, a fact which she cannot ignore.
• When Ali and Emmi return from vacation they encounter sympathy from family and acquaintances, which the spectator does not expect.

6. Keep personal references out of your academic writing. Assert ideas directly and in the third-person! (Your reader knows these are your beliefs/opinions and your saying so is redundant and weakens your argument!)
• Personally I believe the bloated bodies discovered in corn fields are reminiscent of the enemies impaled by Vlad Tepes, the medieval Romanian leader idolized by Ceausescu. (NO!)
• The bloated bodies discovered in corn fields are reminiscent of the enemies impaled centuries before by Vlad Tepes, the medieval Romanian leader idolized by Ceausescu. (YES!)

7. When discussing film, refer to “the spectator” rather than the “viewer.”
• Fassbinder’s persistent employment of voyeuristic camera techniques is intended to alienate the spectator, implicating him in the objectifying looking that dehumanizes others.

8. Choose words and phrases very carefully. If you are unsure whether a word communicates your intended meaning, or are unsure it fits the context, don’t use it. Find the right word.

9. Avoid using clichés, idioms and colloquial language. Such usage is inappropriate in academic writing. Inappropriate examples from recent papers:
• “swept under the rug”
• “under the radar”
• “give the cold shoulder”

10. Avoid repetition – of words and/or ideas. If you’ve told your reader already, don’t tell her again. If you’ve used a word or phrase recently in your paper, don’t use it again (I had one student use the same word five times in 3/4 of a page!) Either use a synonym – or simply move on to a new point.

11. Avoid redundancy. If it’s unnecessary, leave it out. Examples from papers I’ve received:
• “…bar establishment” (If it’s a bar it’s necessarily an establishment, right?)
• “The film is entirely done in black and white.” Be concise: “The film is entirely black and white.”
• “In this sequence beginning at 55 minutes, the character Emmi is being excluded …” (What else would she be in film other than a character?)

12. This is a minor one, but it bugs me that so many students use an apostrophe here: It is 1970s (not 1970’s) and ’70s (not 70’s).

13. Edit your work to eliminate any typos, repetition, redundancies (see above) and grammatical errors. Perhaps have a friend proof read your work. … I expect you to submit carefully edited (i.e. clean) work.

14. Punctuate properly, i.e. effectively and efficiently. The most common issues I see are incorrect/unsure comma usage and sentences that run on (There’s nothing wrong with the simple sentence. / Semi-colons are not necessarily your friends.) If you are having punctuation problems, consult this site:

*** And, generally, be as concise and precise as possible. Aim to use as few words as possible to communicate your ideas – this means employing higher order verbs, avoiding repetition and redundancy, and arguing directly and forcefully. Write like you believe it. ***