8 practical tips you need to know to improve your academic writing

Have you ever found yourself sitting there staring at a blank piece of paper for what feels like hours?

Perhaps you’ve written a few sentences, but it just doesn’t feel right?

Or you’re looking for words that just feel so desperately out of reach?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone!

Academic writing is difficult for EVERYONE! Especially if you’re writing it in a language other than your own!

And we know, improving your academic writing might seem like a daunting task…

But just like any journey, the academic writing journey also begins with a single step!

And as you continue to put one foot in front of the other, you’ll notice that things get a bit easier and a lot more enjoyable (or at least not as daunting!)

In this blog, we’ll walk you through ten essential tips that every ESL student should know to boost their academic writing skills. Whether you’re just starting your English learning journey, or you’ve been on this path for a while, we have no doubt you’ll learn something useful!

So, without further ado, let’s get started! 

1. Understand academic writing

Of course, to master something, we have to understand exactly what it is we are trying to master!

Put it simply, academic writing has some key elements that you need to know:

  • Be formal

Academic writing is typically formal in nature. This means avoiding colloquialisms, slang, and contractions (like “isn’t” or “doesn’t”). Instead, you should use full phrases (like “is not” or “does not”). Also, you should avoid informal punctuation such as exclamation points.

  • Be objective

Academic writing should be objective, meaning it is based on facts and evidence rather than personal feelings or biases. Your personal opinion should be backed by sound reasoning and evidence.

  • Be precise

Clarity and precision are important in academic writing. It’s essential to define your terms clearly and be specific in your descriptions. For example, instead of writing “several,” state the exact number.

  • Use third person perspective

Academic writing often requires a third-person perspective, avoiding first person pronouns like “I” or “we” and second person pronouns like “you”. However, there are exceptions to this rule. So, always refer back to your assignment instructions.

2. Expand your vocabulary

Reading is one of the best ways to improve your vocabulary. By exposing yourself to a variety of texts, you encounter words and phrases you might not ordinarily use. This can be academic articles, newspapers, or even just recreational novels! The wider the variety of your reading materials, the more diverse your vocabulary will become.

However, it’s not enough just to learn new words – you need to use them too. Try to incorporate new vocabulary into your writing and speaking. This will help you remember the words and understand how to use them correctly.

When you find yourself using the same word too many times, try using a thesaurus to find synonyms of that word. This will help you avoid too much repetition.

Another thing that you can do to expand your vocabulary  is to learn roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Understanding the parts of a word can often help you guess its meaning. For example, if you know that “bio” is a prefix meaning “life” and “logy” is a suffix meaning “study of,” you can guess that “biology” is the study of life.

3. Know the difference between reporting verbs

Reporting verbs are used in academic writing to report or describe what authors have said in their work. They might be a bit tricky at first  For example, the words “suggest,” “argue,” and “claim” can all be used to refer to someone else’s idea, but they imply slightly different levels of certainty and evidence. But don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it as you go. 

Here are some more examples on reporting verbs and their usage:

  • Suggest

This word implies a proposition or an idea, but it doesn’t carry a strong sense of certainty. “Suggest” is often used when the evidence isn’t definitive or there’s room for alternative interpretations

Example: The research suggests a potential correlation between sunlight exposure and improved mood.

Explanation: In this sentence, the research doesn’t definitively prove the correlation; it just points towards it.

  • Argue

This word is typically used when presenting a more certain viewpoint or interpretation, often used in academic or theoretical contexts. When a source “argues” something, it usually means they’re presenting evidence to persuade their audience of a particular point.

Example: Smith (2020) argues that sunlight exposure directly improves mood by increasing serotonin levels.

Explanation: In this sentence, Smith is presenting a specific argument backed by evidence.

  • Claim

This word can indicate a statement that the speaker believes to be true, though it might lack strong or sufficient evidence. It often implies that the statement could be disputed.

Example: Jones (2021) claims that sunlight exposure has no effect on mood

Explanation: In this sentence, Jones is making a claim, but without additional context, we don’t know how strongly this claim is supported.

  • Demonstrate

This term often implies that the research provides clear, concrete evidence or proof of something.

Example: The clinical trial results demonstrate a significant reduction in symptoms after patients used the new drug.

Explanation: In this instance, the clinical trials provide hard evidence of the drug’s effectiveness—it’s more than just a suggestion or possibility.

  • Imply

This term suggests a particular meaning that isn’t explicitly stated but can be inferred.

Example: The statistical correlation in Thompson’s (2023) data implies a possible link between pesticide use and bee population decline.

Explanation: In this sentence, Thompson doesn’t state outright that pesticide use is causing bees to decline, but the correlation in the data leads us towards that conclusion.

Still confused? Don’t worry, we’ll write a more thorough article discussing reporting verbs. Stay tuned! 

4. Read academic texts

Reading academic texts is a fundamental part of improving your academic writing skills. The more you read, the more you can understand and emulate the structure, style, and tone of academic writing.

If you’re new to reading academic texts, it can be helpful to start with subjects you’re genuinely interested in. This will make the reading more enjoyable and help you stay motivated. Look for review articles or introductory texts in your field of interest to start with, as they usually provide a good overview of a topic.

Pay attention to the arguments that authors make and how they support these arguments with evidence. Try to identify the main points, the supporting evidence, and any weaknesses or gaps in the argument. This can help you understand how to construct strong, well-supported arguments in your own writing.

Another sometimes forgotten but nonetheless important thing that you should also pay attention to is how the authors cite their sources. Citing sources will become muscle memory as you go, but at first, it might be confusing. You can learn a lot about how to do this effectively by seeing how others do it.

Last but not least, practise critical reading! This means that you shouldn’t just read a text passively, but rather you should ask questions, make notes, and perhaps summarise the paper in your own words.

You can find academic texts in online databases such as Google Scholar, PubMed, JSTOR, and your university’s library resources. Many professional organizations also publish journals that can be accessed online.

5. Plan your writing

Planning your text is an important step that you shouldn’t miss! This step helps you improve the clarity of your arguments, the organizations of your thoughts, and the overall quality of your work.

If you’re writing for an assignment, make sure you understand what is asked of you. Read the instructions, then read it again (and honestly, read it a third time for good measure!). Even better if you get a rubric so you know for sure what things must be included in your paper. Aside from the questions or prompts, also pay attention to the length, formating, sources, and citing style requirements.

If you’re asked to decide your own topic, we strongly suggest writing something that you’re passionate about, if possible. It’s far easier to maintain discipline and motivation when researching and writing about something you care about.

Next, do preliminary research. This can help you identify the current state of knowledge in your field, identify key sources, and start thinking about what you want to say.

Then, you can outline your paper. An outline is like a roadmap for your paper. It can help you organize your thoughts, plan your arguments,and ensure that each part of your paper supports your thesis statement (a sentence or two in your text that contains the focus of your essay and tells your reader what the essay is going to be about – typically located at the end of your introduction).

Last but not least, plan your time carefully! You’ll need time to research, plan, write, revise, and proofread. Make sure to start early and leave yourself plenty of time to complete all these steps.

6. Learn your required citation styles

There are several different citation styles that you might use in your academic writing. The most common are APA, MLA, Oxford, Harvard, and Chicago style, although there are many others that are used in specific fields or disciplines. Each citation style has its own rules for how to cite sources in your text and in your reference list or bibliography.

Remember, the goal of citation is to give credit to the authors whose work you’re using and to provide a clear path for your readers to find your sources. Consistency is key, so choose a citation style and stick with it throughout your paper. Most universities provide detailed guides for their preferred citation styles, so be sure to use these resources as well.

7. Seek feedback

Getting feedback can help you improve your argument, identify gaps or inaccuracies in your research, enhance your writing style, and correct grammatical or spelling errors. A fresh pair of eyes can be helpful to see things that you might miss.

You can ask your peer, tutor, or even friend and family for feedback. when you ask for feedback, provide some guidance to your reader. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Are there parts of the paper that you’re unsure about? Are you looking for help with the argument, the evidence, the organization, the writing style, or the grammar and spelling? By giving your reader some guidance, you’ll likely get more useful feedback.

Keep an open mind when you receive feedback. Some comments may be critical, but that’s okay. The purpose of feedback is to help you improve your work. Take the time to consider all the feedback you receive and decide how to incorporate it into your revisions.

Of course, you don’t have to incorporate all of the feedback you receive. Remember, it’s still your paper. So, trust your own judgement about what changes are necessary.

8. Use online tool

There are so many online tools out there that can help assist you with various parts of academic writing! Here are some of them:

  • Grammar and spelling: Grammarly and Hemingway App can help you catch grammar and spelling mistakes and also improve your writing style. They aren’t always perfect though, so make sure to still proofread your writing.
  • Citation generator: Tools like EasyBib, Citation Machine, and Zotero can help you create citations in different styles (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). You input the information about your source, and these tools generate a citation that you can copy into your reference list. However, be sure to still double check!
  • Plagiarism checker: Turnitin can help detect plagiarism by comparing your text to millions of online sources, papers, and articles to ensure originality.
  • Reference management tools: Tools like Mendeley, Zotero, or Endnote are designed to store, manage, and cite bibliographical references. They are especially helpful for larger projects, like dissertations or theses, where you’ll be working with many sources.
  • Academic search engines: Google Scholar, JSTOR, or your university’s own library resources are great starting points for researching academic sources.  


Navigating the intricacies of academic writing can be challenging, especially for those whose first language is not English. The rich vocabulary, specific rules, and precise structures might seem intimidating, but fear not! Just like any skill, mastering academic writing is absolutely achievable with the right approach and tools.

In this blog, we’ve outlined 8 practical steps to elevate your academic writing, designed specifically to make this journey easier for you! With consistent practice, a little patience, and a lot of determination, you will find that academic writing in English can not only be conquered but even enjoyed. So take a deep breath, embrace the learning process, and don’t forget to celebrate your milestones!

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