The Rules of Academic Writing

Because I’m on the editorial board for a scholarly journal, I often give feedback to aspiring scholars.  (A bonus is that every piece of advice applies to any writing you do!)

  • Never submit to a journal you don’t read regularly. Know their preferred style and the topics that interest them.
  • Keep up with your field. Know what the breaking issues are. Know who the leaders are.
  • Be the writer that people want to read. Make your writing lively and strong.
  • Write straight, powerful sentences. Here’s a rule of thumb I use: if there are more than three commas in a sentence, it’s probably too complicated.
  • Have only one idea in a sentence.
  • Don’t be afraid to use I and you. They help you connect to your readers.
  • Professional writers start about 10% of their sentences with and and but. Follow their lead: those transitions make for lively writing. (If you’re afraid to start a sentence with but, read this: Can a Sentence Start with “But”?)
  • Never use passive voice unless you absolutely have to.
  • No gobbledygook, ever. Use ordinary words unless a big word is absolutely necessary. If you use an unusual word, define it right in the sentence: When you start looking for metadrama (“drama examining itself,” according to Richard Hornby), you’ll discover many surprises in Shaw’s plays.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread. Then proofread again.
  • Find a mentor – an established authority in your field. Ask them to go over your article before you submit it. (Give your mentor plenty of lead time.)

Professional word cloud


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