4 Common Academic Writing Mistakes and How to Fix Them

It’s easy to fall into formulas and missteps when you’re writing tons of papers for your classes, but these easy fixes will keep your essays clear and concise.

Academic writing: it’s rarely anyone’s favorite thing about school.

I learned this while working as a tutor in college, where the writing center was full of students who were frequently frustrated and a bit perplexed by all the weird, conflicting writing rules and guidelines they had accumulated from different teachers throughout high school.

I also noticed that students tended to make writing much harder than it needed to be, either reaching for words beyond their vocabulary in order to sound authoritative or taking on topics they found utterly boring. In the interest of making academic writing ever-so-slightly less painful, I’ve rounded up some easy fixes for the most common issues I came across with my students.

Hey, if I can make just one person avoid writing “prior to” instead of “before,” the effort will have been completely worth it.

1. Please, please, please, don't use legalese!

I beg of you! The terrible jargon prevalent in law and much of academia has, unfortunately, led to students equating words like "henceforth," "hitherto," and "thereby" with intelligent communication. Legalese words are usually empty, and their very purpose is often to hide and obscure meaning (I'll defer to my friend George Orwell here).

Also, using words whose meaning you don't actually know is like heading to the deep end of a pool when you can't swim: it'll quickly become clear to anyone watching that you don't know what you're doing, and someone will have to call the lifeguard.

How to fix it: Put away the thesaurus and make sure all the words you're using are ones you would actually use in a friendly, high-level conversation on the issue presented in your paper. If you don't know the meaning of a word you're using, get rid of it. You should sound like an intelligent person in your paper, not an arbitrary, legal brief generator.

2. An oldie but goody: show, don't tell.

"Show, but don't tell" is the simplest and single greatest rule for writing I've come across. It doesn't matter if you end every paragraph of your paper with "this proves bears love picnics." If you're not providing the readers with concrete statistics about bears parading into picnic areas and going to town on turkey sandwiches and lemonade, they won’t be convinced.

In fact, in a truly great academic paper, you won't really need to repeat the thesis multiple times because you'll be making the point clearly with the great information you're providing, as well as the way you're connecting that information back to your greater, central idea.

How to fix it: Track the instances when you use transitional phrases along the lines of "this shows," "this proves," or "therefore," and backtrack. Put each claim under an intense, ant-scorching magnifying glass. Did I really just support this claim? Or am I just using those words to drive home the fact that I have a thesis?

3. Forget (most of) the rules you were taught in high school.

Of course, it's always a good idea to stick with the rules laid out by a professor (Do you really want me to italicize my thesis statement? Hey, you're the one with the red pen.), but there are no strict rules that should govern every academic paper you write in college. While tutoring, I frequently encountered students who were writing themselves in circles trying to play by the guidelines of every teacher they’d ever had.

You can use "I" if there's a compelling reason. Your thesis statement doesn't need to be one sentence long, or in the first paragraph, or underlined, or in Comic Sans. For heaven’s sake, go ahead and end your sentence with a preposition if it works. And you can totally start a sentence with a conjunction if you know how to do it. See? I just did, and the world is still turning.

How to fix it: You always want to be writing in a clear, straightforward manner, arriving at a greater point, delivering information in an order that makes sense, and following your prompt. But don't twist your paper into a pretzel trying to use every rule you've ever learned. Most of them were just guidelines to help you get a better grasp on writing, and some of them — hate to say it — are pretty much useless.

4. If you don't believe it, don't write it.

In my experience, whether or not the author was actually interested in his topic was the greatest indicator of a paper’s success. Generally, academic papers give you an opportunity to learn more about a subject that interests you, and to voice an opinion on it. Why not take advantage? Being passionate about the project will make your voice more authoritative and convincing, and make the writing process much easier on you.

Side note: There are those pesky "choose one of these three thesis statements" and "defend the opposite side of an issue" assignments used as writing exercises, where you don’t always get to pick a topic you feel passionate about. But these thought exercises can help you find a new way to consider a topic, and give you a place to focus more on writing mechanics.

How to fix it: Is the assignment to write a paper on life in America during World War II, but your real passion is film? How about a paper on Hollywood propaganda films during the war? Fashion? How about a paper on how the war influenced clothing trends in the United States? There's almost always an entry point to adjust the topic to your interests.

Curious about other writing traps students often fall into? Check out Tips From an English Teacher: How to Fix 7 Common Grammar Mistakes.

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