F Words of Effective Academic Writing

Are there any tricks for getting straight As on written assignments in college/university in the US? I think there are. I share some below.

Of course, not all academic writing will demand these features (and indeed, they may sound more like they come from journalism than general academic writing), but these are expected commonly enough in academic writing that you can treat them as general guidelines for most courses and contexts in college and university. In most of my classes, where I teach general to specific and advanced academic writing skills, I encourage students to implement these strategies and features as well as they can. [Edit: I’ve added #1 to a previous list of 7]

1. Fleshing Out Your Ideas

Many students say they are “good writers” or “bad writers” on the basis of their ability to produce grammatically corrected and properly edited prose. As I discuss in another post (titled “Bad Writers are Welcome“), both groups often don’t realize that good writing cannot be defined outside of what the context and purpose are, and even who the writer and audience are, with particular instances of writing. So, for instance, a letter written by a fourth grader urging the US President to “make a playground near my school” will not be “effective” if you take out identifying information and tell the recipient that the letter was written by a school Principal! So, no, there is no good writing per se, and if you’ve considered yourself a “good writer” on the basis of your grammatical and editing skills, you may be in for a B or C (if not worse)–unless, first, you “flesh out” your idea for the assignment.

Fleshing out the idea–or clearly thinking through what you want to say, developing the outline, and generally understanding how you want to organize and connect your ideas–may involve extensive research (especially if you’re writing a research-based assignment). You may only need to read the assignment carefully and/or talk to the teacher in order to develop the idea off the top of your head (though this type of assignments are rare in college). To learn (more about) what you want to write, you may need to go out in the world, work in the lab, do general research online, and/or have to read and develop your ideas by reviewing available scholarship on the topic. You may be the type of writer who writes and rewrites outlines as you develop your idea, write a preliminary draft or drafts (which you may not save or use), or write about what you plan to write before you start writing. Whatever you approach you (have to) take, you must “flesh out” your idea.

Imagine that you have an apple orchard a few miles away from your house, and one weekend, you’ve invited your friend to go apple picking. You think about this idea before you take your friend to the orchard, right? You won’t simply find yourself and your friend in the orchard when you wake up one day! You will talk about it, probably have details about how you want to make the experience enjoyable for your friend–or at least you will develop that idea in your mind (if not in interaction with your guest) before you implement the idea.

2. Framing Your Paper (and your paragraphs)

Many students seem to have learned to write “creatively” in high school, so they try to convey their ideas in subtle, indirect, and complex ways. That style (which they may have picked up from reading works of fiction) is often engaging to read, but writing in college also demands that they follow conventions of different genres in different disciplines. 

When writing argument essays, research reports, academic articles, analysis, etc, there is little to no room for suspense and implicitness, usually no need to delay the thesis. You must tell it like it is first and foremost. So, the second F of effective academic writing is FRAMING or providing a framework, big picture, or the scope of your idea to your reader.

To reuse the analogy of apple-picking, your guest will want you to give them a container, say a basket, in which to put the apples. In writing, if you want your reader to follow you as the writer, you should provide the reader with a thesis statement, an indication of scope, and your perspective on the issue as clearly as you can. The thesis, scope, and perspective will help your reader by acting like a mental “basket” for the many details that you will provide them in your writing. They will see the size of the basket, know how to hold it, and estimate how much apple they might be picking that day.

Without a sense of the big picture and its scope, your readers will have to hold on to your details in their mind without knowing where to put them; the more apples you give the reader (in the form of details and illustrations) the more unhappy they are likely to become (instead of being happy).

That looks like how far the apple picking analogy will go, but also remember that it is not enough to provide the framing for the entire essay once at the beginning and forget about it after that. Your sections (if there are any) and your paragraphs should also more or less explicitly (as needed) provide framing. You may only use expressions that present explicit claims (“In this essay, I…”), perspectives (“I argue this as…”), and scope (First, I…. then…. finally…”)  at the beginning of the entire essay; but you must use topic sentences to frame your paragraphs and sections unless the new idea that you’re about to discuss is easy to understand. At the very least, you should provide topic sentences when you are making major moves, expecting readers to guess what you’re about to discuss/argue once in a while and if it seems very easy to do so.

3. Focusing on the Main Idea and Perspective 

As you move on to the body of most standard academic papers (or into the substance of your paragraphs), your readers expect you to continue developing the main idea that they grasped as the main idea in the framing of the essay at the beginning. Note that even if you didn’t provide an explicit framing, even if the readers were confused or unsure, they will have formed a certain idea/guess about what your central idea and the scope and perspective of your writing is.

To use the apple picking analogy again, if you don’t continue to allow the visitor to pick apples, and somehow start asking them to pick oranges and peaches and, aha, we should go get some ripe tomatoes near the barn, then that’s a problem. As the owner of the orchard, you may find everything worth showing/sharing, but readers of academic writing like it when you focus on apple when it’s an apple picking trip and oranges only if it is an orange picking one (not to mention tomatoes).
Just look at articles in good academic journals and you will quickly notice that they have telling titles and subtitles, a brief abstract where you can read the summary of the entire article within a few lines, more detailed introduction at the beginning, and a relentless focus on the central idea throughout the work.

Of course, the academic journals don’t represent all kinds of writing and there are great variations among different fields and subgenres of journal articles; but focus tends to be an almost universal feature in academic writing. You can’t just write as you think, associatively moving from one thought to another; you must organize your thoughts even before you start writing if possible, and then you must reorganize, revise, make more concise, and refine the thoughts you’ve put in a rough draft.

Finally, remember that focus is not only a matter of “starting” each paragraph by staying on topic. In fact, it is equally important and often harder to stay on topic as you develop the paragraph, especially as you start drawing on external sources in order to substantiate your ideas and arguments. So, focusing means staying on the same topic, and the subtopics that logically branch out of your central argument, within the framework of your essay, and doing so throughout the paragraph. In fact, you get a second and good chance to tie up any loose ends at the end of the paragraph where you can reinforce or clarify your idea, enhancing the focus of the paragraph.

4. Foregrounding the Framing Point 

The fourth F is for “foregrounding” and that means “starting” with, not “ending” at  or “burying” your main idea. Do not assume that framing is automatically foregrounding, because unless you bring to the front your main idea as often as possible/feasible, your readers may not easily notice or recognize which one is your framing idea.

First, you should bring to the forefront the overall framework of your essay in the introduction paragraph (or at least you do so after you’ve identified the subject, focus, or problem that you want to write about). Then, as you develop the paragraphs for the body of your essay, you foreground, as often as it looks useful, the subtopic of the paragraph. Why did I say “as often as …”? Because if you put the topic sentence of each paragraph at the beginning of it, it may seem unnecessary, depending on whether the reader could have seen the move you’re making from the previous paragraph and the new point you’re trying to make in the new paragraph without starting it with an explicit topic sentence.

Note that I’m not just trying to repeat some of the ideas from the conventional 5-paragraph essay that you might have written in high school. I’m not trying to describe how to outline a paper but instead highlighting the qualities that help your reader follow your organization and your argument easily, regardless of how long your paper is and how complicated the ideas you’re trying to communicate are. I should add that while the 5-paragraph essay may be a dumbed down idea about how to organize and outline an argument, some of the advice that you got from that assignment are not bad; and one of them is starting with topic sentences rather than just random “starting points” and letting you “see where you go.”

When students write the first draft of an academic essay, they may still be thinking through the issue and have no clear argument, no clear scope for it, and no perspective of their own. So, they may start by saying something, then explore and develop their thought as they write; consequently, they often end the paragraph when they come to the aha moment. But that’s not how readers read academic and professional writing. Therein lies the extreme importance of revising and reorganizing. If you realize that you started off with something rather vague, something that may not help your reader understand the next big move you are making, or if your idea was not yet clear at the beginning of your paragraph, or your section, then just do the following: cut and paste the big idea, the controlling argument, or the framing sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. That is “fore” grounding.

To use the apple picking analogy again, don’t give your guest the basket when you return from apple picking: give them before you enter the orchard, not when you are back home!

5. Flow — Connecting the Parts and Details 

Okay, it looks like the apple picking analogy won’t work in this case, but by “flow” I mean that you should provide clear “connections” to help your reader easily move from one point to another. You should make connections between paragraphs, which you can do by using topic sentences to connect a new paragraph to the previous one and/or to the central issue/argument of the essay. But you must also help your reader recognize the logical moves that you are making from one sentence or point to another “within” the paragraph.

If connections between paragraphs are made by using sentences (and often words), connections between sentences within a a paragraph are made by using words and phrases or by repeating key words. The connecting words that are used for connecting sentences (and often paragraphs) are called “transition words.” Here is a good list of those words and how to use them.

The connections from one point to another within a paragraph not only help readers follow you, they also help you to “focus” on the central idea of your paragraph and also the central idea of the essay as a whole.

6. Finishing — Or Improving Grammar and Syntax

The sixth F word of effective academic writing is “finishing” or crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. This kind of polishing of your language and expression may start while you are “revising” your draft, but it is generally referred to as “editing” and “proofreading.” Besides being another nice “F” word, the word “finishing” helps us put the two acts (editing and proofreading) together and it also serves as a good metaphor from manufacturing. Think about your act of clarifying your thoughts by rewriting sentences, replacing words with more accurate alternatives, correcting grammar, and fixing punctuation as using sandpaper and paint and polish to give the final touch and look to a piece of furniture you build.

In professional (and even academic) writing, no matter how great your ideas are, if you haven’t spent enough time to edit your sentences—replacing words to say precisely what you mean, changing sentence structure so that your writing sounds like you want it to sound, correcting grammatical and mechanical issues so your writing is not confusing or distracting to your reader—then you could be considered an unprofessional writer or even a lazy individual. There is substantive research about how people “judge” others if they have to read unfinished writing.

Note that when you are just trying to finish (or polish) your writing, you don’t try to change its overall shape or message.

7. Formatting to Fit the Genre and Medium

The final F of effective academic writing is “format” or how to present the text on the page or screen. There are standard conventions of document design, or simply page setup that you must follow when submitting assignments. Most commonly, you format assignments using Word or another type of word processing software, which will allow you to format the print layout as having one inch margins; you are required to use, say 12 size font, Times New Roman or another standard font type, double-spaced paragraphs whose first lines are indented, and there is no extra space between paragraphs.

Different style guidelines have different specifications for how to format the references and whether to place a running head, etc. Increasingly, professors also ask you to present your work in web sites which allow you to do a lot more than format in print-looking ways; and you should learn how to format/present information in visually appealing and effective ways i
n web page format these days. If you don’t “design” or format the text effectively and by using expected conventions, your assignment can receive less than the credit that you deserve for your hard work.

8. Fun — with the Idea and the Writing 

Finally, you may have fleshed out, framed, and foregrounded your idea, you may have focused on it throughout your work, you may have let your writing flow, you may have given a good finish to your sentences and word choice as well as formatted according to expected conventions. But if you don’t enjoy doing the work, there is a problem. Unless you can also enjoy reading critically, researching and evaluating information effectively, and drafting and improving your writing as a meaningful process, you are not likely to do writing well. Whenever I try to share any advice or describe how to write better, I start worrying that I might make it sound such a complicated activity like writing simplistic and mechanical. In reality, only those writers truly write well who can get the hang of writing in its special contexts and purposes, take an interest in the conventions, try and writing about issues that they care, feel a connection with their readers, and can at least envision using writing as a means toward doing things in the real world.

Students often view academic writing as necessarily formal, boring, lifeless.  But, fortunately, once they learn some of the conventions of academic writing, they begin to see that even when writing “standard” academic papers and while using “academese” (how people in academe speak), they can write about subjects that interest them, topics from their daily lives or social experiences, using a lively language.

Yes, academic writing can often be alienating because of how different it sounds from the “real” language that you use outside in “real” life. However, when choosing to join the community of people who share ways of thinking, exploring issues, and communicating their ideas in college/university, we are also choosing to speak and write in a new way which is the way it is for good reasons.

So, once you get a hang of it, the academic conventions of research, reading, or writing shouldn’t prevent you from having fun. Academic writing can be fun. In fact, I would say that you will do it well if you have fun doing it. If you want to go pick apples, see how you can enjoy it, how you can be friends with the farmer, appreciate the farm, and the apples.

– – – –

To put the above guidelines all in one long sentence, develop a strong central idea, create an effective framework, write by foregrounding and focusing on the main idea throughout the draft, give flow and finishing to your final draft, format the way that you are supposed to when you publish your work, and have fun exploring and communicating the idea that you develop in the process of your completing your assignment.

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  1. I like the analogy of apple picking. To keep the same analogy for “Flow,” you may want to say why we pick apples from certain trees and why we move to another, or something like this. I do not know how apple picking goes though.

    • Khila, I really like that idea, because when we go out to pick the apples of academic/professional ideas with our guests/readers, there are thousands of types of apples. And we try to pick certain types of apples that we may have announced at the start of the trip: “we’re going to pick granny apples today.”
      I too am not sure if the analogy can be pushed in this direction, but maybe we can say that we try to make connections between the certain types of apples we pick from tree to tree, hillside to hillside.
      If we want the guest to pick similar apples, we say, “Furthermore” and if we want them to compare what they’ve picked with what they are skipping, we say, “For similar reasons….”
      And if we want to change the topic within topic, we say, “those apples on the other hand…” 🙂

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