Most people notice fairly quickly that most academic writing doesn’t read quite the same way as we do when writing emails and texts. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences this alphabet is a kind of check list for good academic writing.
Analysis: This is the goal of most assignments at university. They want to see what you can work out. This means going beyond description of what is and into what it means or even might mean in certain circumstances. Does your assignment analyse what you’ve found or stop at describing it. Even in first year analysis is necessary for the top marks.
Breadth: Focus on exact areas and detail is vital for good academic work. However, you still need to include enough breadth for your readers and reviewers to localise and understand where and how your work is functioning.
Context: The context is vital. If you are writing a paper for a particular discipline and you include lots of well organised and presented ideas about the subject but from outside that discipline you are unlikely to do well unless you can link this to your discipline.
Depth: A lot of papers that pass, or even ‘do OK’ suffer in this department. The writers do enough but then stop before fully investigating and exploring their ideas. If you get the comment ‘unpack this a bit more’ then you probably need more depth in your work.
Engagement: Are you interested in that paper you have to write about the observation of the mating habits of fruit flies in the 1730s? If you can’t find something to engage your own interest in your work then it’s unlikely that you’ll engage others.
Flow: Good writing, academic and otherwise, flows. This means that it is easy to read and doesn’t confuse the reader. One trick can be to read your work aloud, we can all be too close to the things we are writing and editing yourself for good flow is difficult, but if you run out of breath in mid-sentence or lose your place while reading then you probably have found the problem with the flow.
Guarded: A lot of people new to academic writing make more of their work than it perhaps merits. It can be a good idea to temper your enthusiasm a bit with some moderation. So instead of “I have proven the existence of fairies” perhaps “The existence of fairies is perhaps more plausible in the light of recent evidence”.
High Standards: Your reviewers may see themselves as defending their tradition, position, values etc. they will hold your work to high-standards, standards that they should publish and make you aware of. Get to know these standards and hold yourself to them.
Insight: This is another thing that people tend to leave out. What have we learned from this research? What do you the researcher (even if you are only reading textbooks you are doing research) think it all means?
Juxtaposition: This isn’t always a requirement; in fact sometimes it might be a distraction. However, from time to time it can be an idea to develop a topic by comparing and contrasting two things. This is a step on the road to deeper critical engagement. If you are writing about Shakespeare, why not compare a modernised retelling of Romeo and Juliet with a more classically staged one?
Knowledge: While it can be a good idea to go further with some assignments there are a number of assignments that will be intended, at least in part, to test what you know. Is the assignment you’re working on a knowledge testing one or more skills based, or something else? It might, (as many assignments are) be a mix.
Length: One course that I’ve been teaching on for a few years now as much as 30% of the submitted work is the wrong length 20-25% is to short, some is too long, some much too long. Assignment lengths can be fixed limits, ranges or more flexible but a good response to the assignment will fall within a certain length. Too short and things are left out or skimmed over, too long and there’s probably repetition and/or derivation from the topic in there.
Mastery: This one can take a bit of time to develop, usually somewhere in the top grade band or two you’ll see this word. If you display mastery of a topic you have become an expert. This may seem like a distant goal, especially in first year, but if you know lots about the topic try and show that in your assignments.
Open-Minded: As academics we often think we know about x or y, but we need to keep our minds open, the evidence may not support our theory, it may even contradict our theories. This can feel discouraging but if you can learn that you were wrong… you can learn anything.
Proofreading: All good writing has been proofread, carefully, often more than once. It’s impossible to overstate the value of good proofreading.
Question: What is the question you are trying to answer? A surprising number of poor assignments, and even some OK ones could have been a lot better if the writer had kept their focus on the question, and not allowed their work to creep off track into other questions.
Reflection: Increasingly reflection is called for directly in many assignments, but it can be useful to all. Once you’ve done the research reflect and ask yourself what have I learnt? Once you’ve written it up reflect again and see if there is anything that needs adding or taking away.
Style: Every discipline and task type has its own genre and style conventions many courses come with a style guide and/or provide examples of good work. Part of learning a subject is learning how that subject is written.
Transferability: Can your research be transferred to another context? What can you learn in terms of knowledge, skills etc. from the assignment? Many UK universities will publish “transferable skills” statements for courses.
Universality: Is your work universal? How does it connect to other work in the field? How does it relate to theories and ideas that are ‘trending’ at the moment in your discipline? Good work doesn’t necessarily need to be universal but it often, (perhaps usually) addresses the question of universality.
Voice: Some might think this is all about presentations but we talk about a writer’s voice as well. It refers to an individual style or flair that may be imitated but is not easily duplicated. Does your voice come through in the piece? Does it sound like you? If not you might not be done editing.
Wisdom: The University of Winchester’s motto is “Wisdom ond Lar” and academic work should contain wisdom, learning reflected upon and shared. It should also be put together with wisdom, use your own words, cite your sources, and display your learning and expertise but above all answer the question.
eXactness: Ok I confess, I’m cheating here. But exactness is important in academia. Wherever possible avoid expressions like: recently; these days; a few years ago; some people; a proportion of; etc. they are not exact and introduce vagueness into your work.
“Yada-yada”: Your word count may seem huge, but don’t “pad your work out to fit the word count” use as few words as you can to say something, then say something else. The best academic work does more with less rather than the other way round. “Yada-Yada” by the way is another way of saying “blah blah blah” often used negatively when you want to say that someone was speaking without saying anything.
Zero-in: It’s a good idea to try and zero in on one aspect, explore it fully and then move on. A significant proportion of papers every year don’t really focus closely enough on any one aspect of something. This goes back to depth… but it’s worth saying again.