Papers: How to sound academic

Now that it’s time to start actually writing something, instead of just dropping terms into cookie cutter molds, you should probably hear the spiel about sounding academic. If you write like you speak, you won’t score as high. You’ll have to redevelop that skill outside of school.

The upside is that sounding academic isn’t all that hard, much easier than sounding real. Some pointers to get started:

  • No first (or second) person: Just get rid of I and me and even we. Instead of writing, “I discovered that such and such happened,” say something like, “It was discovered that such and such happened” (passive voice, for all you English nerds).
  • No contractions: You can’t write can’t. Use cannot instead. And so on.
  • No absolute claims: Always hedge with words and phrases like most likely, probably, for the most part, quite often, rarely, perhaps one of the greatest/smallest/most influential/etc.
  • Never end phrases with prepositions: This is a rule in English we’ve grown to ignore in conversation. In academic writing, though, avoid it when you can. Like the Pledge of Allegiance: “And to the Republic for which it stands,” not, “And to the Republic it stands for.”
  • Never begin sentences with conjunctions: I like to start spoken sentences with so or but or like. But I don’t do it for papers. I use therefore, though, or for instance somewhere in the middle of the respective sentences instead.
  • Never use a short word when you can utilize a longer one instead: Some long words I like include differentiate, amalgamation, procure, caveatequivocate, universalizable, categorically, proclivity, visceral and of course symbiotic. It can be tough to come up with a bunch of words that you feel comfortable enough to use in a paper, so instead of actually trying to expand your vocabulary much, it’s easier to just keep reusing the same set of big words over and over again from one paper to another, since professors don’t compare your papers.
  • Never use one word when two will do too: For example, I’d always use natural proclivity instead of just proclivity, even though proclivity, by definition, means a “natural tendency.” English has tons of these, especially when it comes to adverbs and adjectives. Keep an eye open for them.
  • Don’t be afraid of ordinal numbers: It can be a real pain to have to come up with transitions between paragraphs, especially within sections. One cheap way I get around making up actual transitions is to just number them. Instead of trying to get point number one to logically follow point number two in any meaningful way, just say “first” and then write about the first point, and then say “second” and then write about that second point, and so on.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel: Develop a set of transition or set up phrases and drop them all over the place. Here are some I like: in addition toas a result ofconsequentlyalternativelyrather thaninstead ofin other wordsfor examplefor instancesome research shows thatone author claims thatit has been proven thataccording to, regardless of, and despite the fact that.

If you’re not used to writing like this, with all the pomp of academia, it can take some time to get used to it. After a while, though, as you keep practicing and writing more, it’ll get easier to rely on these prefabricated phrases instead of the ones you normally use when you talk.