One of the biggest transitions from high school to university is the jump in academic writing standards. There are many referencing requirements, of course, but your academic writing will also be assessed for fluency and clarity.

Here are some tips.


Read a lot

Something that really helped me through my first years of university was exposing myself to a wide range of academic texts. These included textbooks, journal articles, and reports, most of which were prescribed in my units anyway.

This gives you something to work toward - a standard of writing you can use as a benchmark. Your writing might not be as academically rigorous right away, of course - many of these academics have been writing for a long time - but you at least have some modelled examples of academic texts.

"This gives you something to work toward - a standard of writing you can use as a benchmark."

You won’t like how every article you read is written, and that’s useful, too. I remember reading some articles in my first year, and thinking that they were ridiculously dense. Some had noun phrases embedded in noun phrases embedded in noun phrases, and the syntax was completely unintuitive to me. Even though these were frustrating articles to read at the time, I’m glad I saw them - they demonstrated how I didn’t want to write!


Get ideas on the page, then edit heavily

Starting assignments can be really hard. In fact, here’s a full article on starting university essays. I contend that simply getting whatever is in your head onto the page is a great start. At the very least, it’s better than a blank document!

The more you do this, and gradually build your ideas into sentences, then paragraphs, then full sections, the closer you’ll get to a full draft. If your process is anything like mine, however, that first full draft probably won’t be very good, and heavy editing will be required.

This is such a huge part of academic writing, and I really want to emphasise that point. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll be able to sit down, type away at your keyboard, and instantly have a perfectly drafted academic text. It takes considerable time and effort to build writing skills, and the editing process shouldn’t be discounted.

"It takes considerable time and effort to build writing skills..."

Assuming you have given yourself enough time prior to deadline day, the good news is that there’s no limit on the number of drafts you can complete. You can read through your work, make amendments, and change language elements as much as you like to gradually - very gradually - craft something you’re proud of.

Once I’ve finished a full draft for an assignment, I’ll re-read it many times, and across several days. Keeping on task can be difficult, particularly if you’ve already invested a lot of time, so I do things like reading a section at a time, reading aloud to myself, or even reading my work to others. I find that when I am actively engaged like this, I can more easily identify aspects of my writing that aren’t as clear or, more often, unnecessarily cumbersome.


Act on feedback

There are ample feedback sources at university. The most obvious place to turn might be your tutors - those who know the specific requirements and conventions for each of your units. Through feedback on prior work and also through conversations one-on-one (if you’re proactive), you should be able to work with them to identify your strengths and areas of improvement.

But your faculty will likely also have more general services to support you - things like workshops, online modules, or even consultations with support staff or librarians. These resources will only be helpful if you engage with them, though!


Keep consistent

When I’m reading others’ work, one of my biggest frustrations is inconsistency in writing. A lot of the time, these are small things that could be easily noticed with even a cursory glance over your work - things like using “capitalise” early in the essay, and then “capitalize” later on.

"... one of my biggest frustrations is inconsistency in writing."

If nothing else, this type of inconsistency simply takes away from your actual work. It can be distracting for those reading (and marking!) your work, and gives an impression of carelessness.


Understand that clarity is key

I think there’s a temptation at university level to try to sound really sophisticated. In hindsight, that was the case for me; I felt like the jump from high school to university necessitated a jump in vocabulary, too.

But highfalutin* language isn’t the same as clear language. And clear language, ultimately, is what we should work toward.

At the end of the day, the language you employ is really just a method of presenting your ideas. If the language you use is hard to read, your ideas won’t be as clear, and your arguments won’t be as compelling. As important as it is to remain professional and academic in your writing, it’s also crucial to be clear.

*One of my favourite words, incidentally!