GUIDELINES FOR ACADEMIC WRITING: Textbooks, Journal Articles, Seminar and Term Papers

Different kinds of writing have different conventions. Informal writing is approached in a different manner from formal writing. This post focuses on academic or scholarly writing, which is part of formal writing. It discusses key points to bear in mind when doing scholarly writing like textbooks; journal articles; conference, seminar and term papers.

Although creative writing can be done for academic purposes, some of these guidelines do not apply to such works as poetry, fiction, nonfiction and the like as they often require a personal and informal approach. The same applies to some forms of journalistic writing like soft news, reviews and personal experience features.

However, intellectual pieces that discuss the aforementioned forms of creative and journalistic writing need to apply the guidelines in this post.

A few related posts that amplify some of the points in this article, like the matter of style and other issues to consider when writing a publishable work, are linked within and at the end of it.

Guidelines for Academic Writing

  1. Do not use contractions

Contractions like “don’t,” “won’t” and “hasn’t” are more appropriate in informal writing. Use the full form of these terms when writing a scholarly piece.

  1. Use the terminology for your field

Every field has its own terminology or jargon. You need to read widely in your field to familiarise yourself with the jargon and use it for your scholarly writing. Using everyday language to couch your work rather than applying the specialised terms in your field is wrong. It will limit the value of your work because some terms from everyday language mean different things in your field. Your work will thus lack the precision and rigour required in scholarly writing.

  1. Conform to the style guideline on how to refer to yourself

Many academics do not use the singular first person pronoun “I” to refer to themselves in their works. Some say it sounds informal and arrogant, others say it is distracting. As a result, they use the plural form, “We,” even in sole-author works. Others use the third person, “the author,” “he or she,” to refer to themselves. But there are some who use “I”.

The various options above are allowed by different publications. Authors need to confirm the style guidelines for the publications or institutions their works are meant for and conform to them. They can make their own decisions if the works are to be self-published.

  1. Use the present tense for attribution

When you cite previous works, it is the norm to use the present tense as this example shows:
“In his Theory of …, X describes human beings as capable of reason and self-control” (X, 2015).

The exception to this rule would be when the sentence refers to the past as in the following case: “In 2015, X formulated a Theory of … in which he described human beings as capable of reason and self-control.”

  1. Be concise

Every word you include in your writing must contribute to accomplishing the purpose of the work. Therefore, verbosity is discouraged. It not only makes your work unnecessarily long, it weakens its power.

  1. Avoid verbatim repetition

It is irritating to see the same sentences and passages repeated all over your work. It gives the impression that you are just copying and pasting material to fill up space because you do not have a good grasp of the topic or you did not do sufficient research to find relevant material on it.

If you must repeat an idea for emphasis or as a prelude to a broader point you want to make, rephrase it slightly.

  1. Stick to one form of spelling – British or American

Do not alternate between the two. Always check your work to harmonise the spellings in case your computer autocorrected some to the wrong language.

  1. Avoid plagiarism

Plagiarism is so common these days that many are unaware that it is a grave academic offence with stiff penalties.
A lot of students and lecturers are even ignorant of what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it in their writing.

A comprehensive discourse of the foregoing is available in this post:

  1. Avoid pretentiousness

Do not use your language to bamboozle. Stringing together polysyllabic words does not make you a respected author if you fail to communicate.

  1. Be specific

Do not couch your work in vague language. If you want to address frequency of, say, TV viewing, rather than use terms like “often,” “sometimes” and “rarely,” use more specific terms like “daily,” “few days a week,” “once a week,” etc. For magnitude of TV viewing, instead of saying, “heavy viewing” and “light viewing,” supply a range of hours of TV viewing that will give a clearer picture of what you describe as heavy or light viewing.

  1. Be orderly in your presentation

There is an expected order for presenting material in scholarly writing. For example, the goals of a study captured in its Objectives, Research Questions or Hypotheses should be presented before addressing the Methodology. The findings of the study should address these goals earlier stated.

Illustrations like tables and figures should be presented before the data in them are discussed and they should have titles. The titles for tables are usually above them while those for figures are normally placed under them.

Present material in logical sequence. For instance, merits should come before demerits and if explanations of ideas or individuals are needed, they should come in the order they were first mentioned.

Instead of dropping ideas haphazardly in your work, use a chronological order or arrange the ideas according to their similarity or dissimilarity with the other ideas raised. In the latter case, you can discuss the similar ideas before introducing the opposing ones, instead of jumping back and forth between the two.

In any case, let their be orderliness in your presentation.

  1. Sound objective

Avoid sentiments, categorical assertions without evidence and activism. Scholarly writing should not be used as a soap box to sell your race, religion, ethnic group or political party.

Cite sources to back up important assertions, even if you coined them. Do not make wild accusations. Rather, make your postulations, present the data and discuss your findings in relation to the findings of similar research.

In view of this, the practice in social science research is to say that the data “suggests that,” “it appears that Variable A has a significant influence on Variable B,” “Variable A tends to correlate with Variable B.” Words like “likely” and “probably” are also used. For example, you seek to determine the likely causes and the likely consequences of an incident.

  1. Use surnames to refer to your sources

In citing someone, you can say Ukonu (2022). If you need to add more information about the source, you can say, “the former News Editor of The Guardian newspaper, Marcel Mbamalu, once emphasised the importance of writing skills for the mass communicator in these words, ‘….”’ (Mbamalu, 2020). Any further reference to him should be with his surname.

  1. Be thorough

Proofread your work over and over, not only to remove language errors but to ensure that you have included all the sources cited in the work in your References with their full and accurate documentation details. Avoid a situation where authors’ name are spelt in different ways in your work, their first names are used in place of their surnames and the dates for the same book cited vary.

I hope you have found the guidelines discussed above helpful. Be sure to look at the material linked and drop any questions you have on this topic in the Comments below.


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