Academic writing is a skill you can learn. There are techniques to be mastered in conveying meaning well and constructing essays. Academic writing observes formal conventions that are intended to facilitate considered and respectful in-depth discussion. This guide provides advice to students undertaking studies at the University of Divinity and should be used alongside “Presenting Assignments” and the “Guide to Referencing.”
Lecturers love elegant scholarly writing. They aspire to it themselves! Good writing is persuasive as well as a pleasure to read. It fixes the reader’s focus on the page with concrete nouns that speak to the senses, even when discussing abstract concepts. Readability is paramount, so strive for clarity, coherence and concision in an engaging style.
Convey meaning with clarity. One useful technique is to keep nouns and verbs together so that readers understand who is doing what in each sentence. The verse “Jesus wept” is a powerful and succinct example. If we separate the noun and verb, the sentence loses some of its force and readers must work to reconnect the noun and verb in their minds: “Jesus, on discovering the death of his friend Lazarus and witnessing the grief of others, especially Martha and Mary, wept.” Rather than cram all the information into one serpentine sentence with multiple sub-clauses, write a few sentences of varying length. Eloquent brevity is better than laboured constructions intended to impress. Jargon can obfuscate too. You need to know the specialised language of your chosen discipline and you should use it thoughtfully, but jargon-laden writing can tell the reader another story. It may suggest academic hubris and it rarely facilitates considered and respectful discussion.
Avoid clutter. Assessment word counts have a tolerance of 10% above or below the total specified including text and footnotes, but not the bibliography. Concision is required. Hedging statements, such as “I am inclined to think that possibly,” are common in polite conversation but are extraneous in academic writing. Get to the point! Likewise, generalisations take up space and contribute little. Focus instead on detail and significance. Overusing adjectives and adverbs can congest your writing too. Use them where required, though you may not need many if you choose your verbs well.
Enliven your writing. Consider how often you use “is,” “are,” “was,” “were” and other conjugations of the verb “to be.” Exchange a few for some more animated verbs. You may need to rephrase sentences to achieve this, but it will give your writing verve. Compare “Jan’s book is important” with “Jan’s book radiates importance.” The verb “radiates” tells the reader so much more. Varied, lively verbs will also help you avoid passive verb constructions that can deaden prose if overused. Passive verb constructions usually name the passive person or thing that is being acted upon and then combine a form of “to be” with a past tense verb: “Our neighbour is loved by us.” Active verb constructions are more direct and lively. They place the actor and the action up front: “We love our neighbour.” Using the first person “I” or “we” tends to keep your writing in the active voice too, and it implicitly acknowledges your subjectivity as a scholar.
Read discerningly in preparation for your assignments. When selecting secondary sources avail yourself of your lecturers’ wisdom, and when researching further keep in mind the four-fold criteria (with its memorable acronym): currency, reliability, authority and purpose or point of view. In a world awash with information and opinion, use only those sources that satisfy these selection criteria. Having assembled quality sources, examine each for argument, method and perspective. Be scrupulous in recording direct quotation and page numbers so that you can reference accurately. As you take notes, add some searchable key words highlighting themes across all your sources. Then use those themes to construct an original argument that takes account of a variety of perspectives and is not reliant on the information, argument or structure of any one source.
Structure your essays. Every essay requires an introduction that outlines scope and argument, a series of paragraphs that each deal with a single theme pertinent to the argument, and a conclusion that summarises afresh while critically reflecting. In each paragraph lead your reader from example to explanation, and point out the link between the paragraph and the overall argument. Rather than let the evidence speak for itself, make your points clearly, succinctly and persuasively. Introductions should address the topic and state the main argument, but may begin with an apt quotation, example or concrete visual description. There is scope for both rigour and creativity in structured writing. Just as composers master harmony and musical form in order to innovate, scholars master academic writing in order to engage with courage, spark and passion.
Use inclusive language. It is the policy of the University of Divinity to use inclusive language at all times. Avoid generic use of gender specific terms such as “man,” “men,” “his,” “him,” “he,” and words that incorporate “-man” such as “caveman,” or “sportsmanlike.” Consult a thesaurus for gender neutral terms. The phrase “he or she” and the singular “they” are commonly accepted. Do not add feminine or diminutive suffixes to masculine forms as in “authoress,” “aviatrix,” or “heroine”: women can be heroes.
Respectful discussion requires formal language. To write with studied precision, scholars avoid informal contractions, slang and colloquialisms. Never use informal contractions such as “don’t” or “isn’t,” but instead use “do not” or “is not.” Do not use the contraction “it’s,” but instead use “it is,” unless quoting informal speech: “it’s certain you won’t use contractions.” Euphemisms, slang and colloquialisms are also to be avoided as they do not aid considered discussion. Indeed, they are frequently imprecise and may even add unintended connotations: the formal phrase “Harry remained in the role for several years” is preferable to the colloquial “Harry had a good spell.”
Choose words thoughtfully. Consult a dictionary and thesaurus to help you write with accuracy, nuance and variety. Use technical terms with precision and, if they are likely to be unfamiliar to your reader, a brief explanation. Acknowledge unfamiliar non-English terms with the use of italics: conscientização. Italics are not needed if the word is in an English dictionary: agape; en route.
There are conventions for the use of abbreviations. No full-stop is required for abbreviations of measurements (cm, km), contractions of titles (Dr, Mme, Sr, Fr, St), or abbreviations using two or more uppercase initials (NSW, SA, NZ, UN, NGO, DVD, BCE, AD, PhD, DMin). Full-stops are required for abbreviations ending in a lowercase letter (vol., a.m., etc., Vic., Tas., Qld., Feb., Aug.), and initials standing for given names (E. S. Fiorenza).
Numbers and dates are expressed in particular ways. Dates follow the day-month-year pattern, using numerals for the day and year but letters for the month: 1 May 1901. Years are expressed as numerals, but use letters at the beginning of a sentence: “Nineteen twenty-nine was a more difficult year than 1928.” Decades do not require apostrophes: the 1920s. Centuries are expressed in letters: the twentieth century; a twentieth-century theologian. Except for dates, spell out numbers from zero to one hundred, multiples of a hundred, fractions, and numbers at the start of a sentence: fifty-six; seven hundred; two-thirds; Three little kittens. Decimals and numbers over one hundred may appear as numerals: 3.14159; 101. Further and more detailed conventions are outlined in the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style Online.