Your Arsenal of Academic Writing Tools

In this article, I will talk about tools and skills that have helped me in improving my academic writing. This article is relevant for people who are doing a Master or a Ph.D.

I am not a language expert. I am maybe the opposite but I write articles based on my own experience: what did work for me and what did not work.

I am also not a native English speaker so some of the advice in this article might seem silly for native speakers but I believe that the advice is crucially important for non-native speakers.

This article like all my articles is a “work in progress” meaning I will keep adding material to it even after the article is published. The majority of the books proposed in this article especially the dictionaries and the thesauri might have equivalent software that you can buy and install on your desktop machine or your mobile device. A lot of publishers such as Oxford, Chambers and Collins have apps for many dictionaries. You can also find Amazon kindle versions for a lot of the books suggested in this article. I think we have reached a stage where we should be aware of the serious dangers to our environment and we must act so opting for a digital book instead of a paper book might help out.

Academic Writing Language Tips Specific for PhDs and Masters

Person, tense and gender

The material of this section is debatable. I asked my PhD supervisor once about the usage of pronouns (I vs We) and about passive/active voice and I remember he told me there is no harm in using the ‘we‘  but he advised me to always use the passive voice. Conversely, my language mentor hated the usage of the ‘we‘ pronoun and advised me to use both the active and the passive voice whenever needed. I strongly advice you to check the guidelines pertaining to your discipline. It is also advisable to look at the literature of your research topic. How do scholars in your field use the pronouns and the passive/active voice?

This depends really on the research philosophy the researcher is adopting and the type of research he/she is conducting [2]. In a positivist philosophy, the researcher is independent from the subject of research and thus the usage of passive voice is more common. In other types of research, the researcher is an intrinsic part of the research so an active voice is used with pronouns such as “I”.  Generally speaking:

(1) Avoid using the ‘We‘ and  the ‘Our‘. I know these pronouns are used quite often in academic papers because Well! it makes sense, it is the voice of many authors. DO NOT USE  the “we‘  or the  ‘our‘ in your thesis or dissertation unless you want to involve the reader with an observation you are trying to elucidate so the ‘we’, in such cases, means ‘you as the author and the reader‘ and again as I said things are debatable, T.R. Smyth in his lovely book titled “The principles of writing in Psychology” [3] points out that the usage of “we” is frown upon even if it is in the intention of alluding to “you and the reader” since what if the reader does not agree with you. T.R. Smyth warns against such usage of “we”/”our” even against the usage of “I” unless the author wants to allude to a previous research he or she has conducted. I repeat: always refer back to a writing guide in your own discipline (I will give later some examples). Almost every discipline has some books that covers writing style  such as “How to write in Physics”, in Biology, in Psychology, in Medicine, in Computer Science etc… you got my point

(2) It is always advisable to use an active voice. There is nothing wrong in using the  ‘I/my’ but some advice I read states that in positivist approaches these pronouns should not be overused . Meaning only use the ‘I/my’ when you make a strong statement of ownership or an affirmation. The ‘I/my’ are too strong and you better have a good reason for using them especially in the positivist camp of sciences! Learn to use moderately the active voice  if you can or stay with the passive voice since the passive voice is always safer in the context of academic writing in scientific fields, it creates a “safe distance” between you as a researcher and the subject of research.

(3) Concerning the tense of verbs, you find also many opinions. It depends on the type of research and which research philosophy you adopted. Some scholars such as Gastel and Day [1] suggest that you use the present tense when discussing a previously published work in the literature and the past tense when discussing your results. Others scholars disagree completely with this. So please check what is the standard usage in your field of research by consulting a writing style guide book in your own field. Please also check a subsequent section titled “Master the use of good style of academic writing” for suggestions of useful books to consult. For example in computer science, the usage of verb tense, pronouns, voice and gender among many other writing style tips is explained in the lovely book of  Justin Zobel (Writing for Computer Science) [5]. There are similar books for many disciplines.

(4) Concerning gender, I discuss this further later in the article. Generally speaking, avoid using “he” or “she” alone. The language would be in some cases inaccurate  (ex: you have both male and female participants in your study) and in many cases sexist. Try to use always a language that covers both genders. An example from Saunders et al. book [2]: instead of saying “I propose to interview each executive until he refuses”, it is better to say “I propose to interview each executive until I receive a refusal”.

Master the Usage of Thesauri

Thesauri (plural of Thesaurus) are very important type of dictionaries that are very useful when it comes to academic writing. If you are a writer of any type or genre (essays, academic articles, books, newspaper articles), you have to have different Thesauri on your library shelves. These types of books enhances your command on the language and improve vastly your vocabulary.

In a nutshell, a thesaurus is a kind of dictionary (presented normally alphabetically) that gives you alternatives of a word (both positive meaning = synonyms and negative meaning = antonyms), in addition it provides related/connected expressions and their synonyms and antonyms. Some of thesauri are tailored to specific fields such as thesauri for Architecture, Furniture, Vehicles, legal terms, political terms, philosophical terms and anatomical terms.  Some thesauri contain related words by suffix, collocations and words of origin (Etymology).

Recommended Thesauri to keep on your desk for reference:

  1. The Chambers Thesaurus, 5th Edition found at Amazon Store.
  2. Oxford Paperback Thesaurus 4th Edition found at Amazon Store.
  3. Collins English Thesaurus Essential edition: 300,000 synonyms and antonyms for everyday use, found at Amazon Store.

Great online services:

  1. The Google Define feature: I would assume that you already know that if you go to the Google search engine and type something like: “define audacity”. You would get a lot of goodies. First, it will give you a dictionary (like different numbered meanings of the word “audacity”), second, it will give you the synonyms and antonyms for every meaning, a kind of thesaurus, then on top of that it will give you the etymology (i.e. origin of that word), there is also a feature that allows you to translate the word to other languages and as if that is not enough, you get a line chart graph showing the progression or regression of the usage of the word in the last centuries.
  2. Every word processor has an English dictionary and thesaurus in them. But these are too basic for a descent academic writing.

Dictionaries of Synonyms and Antonyms

These types of dictionaries are normally a subset of the English Thesaurus and contain only Synonyms and Antonyms. Don’t be surprised to find many Dictionaries titled Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms not ‘Thesaurus‘. Like Thesauri, if you see something like that rush and buy them. They are the gold raw plates for your writing refinery. Some honourable mentions of good dictionaries of Synonyms and Antonyms:

  1. Chambers Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms  found at Amazon Store. This resource is just amazing! It will do miracles for your writing.
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms 3/e found at Amazon Store.

Master the command of English Idioms

Learn to use common idioms and expressions in your writing. English Idioms Dictionaries help you refine this skill with time.

Recommended English Idioms Dictionaries to keep on your desk for reference:

A lot of the following dictionaries of Idioms show you the idiom or common expression in actual use. These dictionaries classify clearly idioms under three major categories: Formal, Informal and Slang.

Of course in academic writing, you must never use an informal or a slang language. The beauty of having a dictionary specialised in Idioms is the fact that these books make you aware of what idiomatic expressions to avoid using. Per example: I used to use a lot in my writing the expression “to bank on” (meaning to rely on) instead of repeating the usage of “to rely on something”. I actually learned the expression from a Thesaurus but I realised from looking an actual English Idioms dictionary that it is an informal expression and should never be used in any formal academic writing. The following are some suggested books:

  1. Chambers English Idioms (Dictionary) found at Amazon Store.
  2. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms 3/e (Oxford Quick Reference) found at Amazon Store.
  3. The Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms found at Amazon Store.

Master the usage of collocations

Collocations in a lay man definition are the words that can go with other words in English. They are the equivalent of the clothes’ colours that look good together? Mastering the usage of the right collocations is super important.

Recommended Collocations  Dictionaries to keep on your desk for reference:

  1. LTP Dictionary of Selected Collocations can be found at Amazon Store. This is even better than the next suggested dictionary (that of Oxford).
  2. Oxford Collocations Dictionary for students of English found at Amazon Store.

StringNet Navigator 4 website

StringNet Nevigator version 4 (used to be called lexchecker) is a free website that gives you all the patterns and collocations that goes with a certain word. I strongly advise you to bookmark this web site and use it when you need to know the right collocations of a certain word.

Master the usage of academic phrasebanks

There is a cool website that you should definitely bookmark and always use especially if you are not a native English speaker (well even if you are!). The University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank, website contains all those needed academic phrases and expressions that authors use for introducing work, reviewing the literature, describing methods and methodology, reporting results, discussing findings and writing abstracts and conclusions. In addition, the website contains tons of academic phrases to contrast ideas, to express being cautious or critical, to classify/contrast and list etc… mainly these phrases are compiled and taken from around 100 postgraduate dissertations/theses (completed at the University of Manchester), and from hundreds of academic papers. There is an equivalent PDF booklet you can purchase.

By the way, apparently the PDF booklet contains more phrases than the website, in addition, the booklet contains tips on academic style, grammar and sentence structure but unfortunately it costs money unless if you are a staff or student of University of Manchester. Nevertheless, I totally recommend the website and it is worth even to buy the PDF (around 5£, the price of two cups of coffee!).

Other recommended academic phrasebanks to keep on your desk for reference:

  1. The Only Academic Phrasebook You’ll Ever Need: 600 Examples of Academic Language

Master the usage of Clichés

This is more to the folks that write in the humanities more than the sciences. But nevertheless it does not hurt to sparkle few cliché expressions to spice up writing in the scientific fields. Not any clichés can be used but nonetheless I see many famous writers in computer science use clichés from time to time. I can not speak on the behalf of other scientific disciplines. In general, excessive use of clichés is frown upon in the sciences well because it is science and there is no room for language spices but very little usage in non important places (i.e. not when stating results or methodology etc..) makes the writing enjoyable to read. T.R. Smyth [3] per example, states that clichés should not appear in any formal writing  while alluding to the discipline of Psychology. It makes sense to refer to a book on writing in your particular field of research to see if you are allowed to use clichés or not.

Recommended Clichés  Dictionaries to keep on your desk for reference:

  1. Bloomsbury Dictionary of Cliches: Over 1, 300 Familiar Phrases Explored and Explained found at Amazon Store.

Master the use of digital language services

If you have some cash to throw, invest in services like ProWritingAid, Grammarly and WhiteSmoke. I never thought my clean conscience would allow me to recommend such tools to my blog readers but now things are different. These tools are getting more and more smarter so they are NOT like your good old Microsoft Word Spelling, Grammar checker and thesaurus or your TexStudio Spelling checker. They are far more advanced.

I subscribed to ProWritingAid , and it is amazing. It has many features (helps you find the right words, checks readability of your document (NB: Microsoft Word has only basic readability check),  helps you avoid clichés and glue phrases etc…). It has even a plagiarism checker (not bad but not too good either). I love this tool and so far I am happy with it. I totally recommend it.

There is also an awesome software called Scrivener (from Literature & Latte). The software is designed to make you write  manuscripts, scripts, academic articles, books, theses, dissertations etc. with complete ease. You can organise your chapter, your book, your article into many chunks  under semantic themes. You can write synopses for them among many other cool features. Have a look at what the software can do for you in these Vimeo videos.

Master the use of Academic Rhetorical Devices

You should master the usage of rhetorical devices especially the ones dedicated to persuasion in academic writing. Maybe the humanities and probably social sciences know about this but for natural sciences fields; in my experience, using rhetorical devices in academic writing is like consuming exotic fruits that no one tells you about especially if you are not a native English speaker like me (in other words, you did not study this in school). What the hell is the fuss about this? You must be asking?

Before I tell you the benefit, I should mention what the average Joe believe rhetoric is. Rhetoric might either mean for him:

  1. Something only used by writers of poetry, fluff and novels.
  2. A weapon used by politicians for misinformation, untruthful communications, propaganda and for playing with the minds of people.

Well, Rhetoric could be used that way. Per example Donald Trump uses a lot of Apophasis as a rhetoric device for raising  ad hominem attacks on his opponents. This of course could never be detected by the republican white angry farmer voter with poor education in Texas. In academic writing,  rhetorical devices have different and more useful role. They help to persuade and to argument. Per instance, You should learn to detect “Hyperbole”  in your writing and avoid using it. I used to be terrible, maybe I  am still :-), at constructing good parallelism.

Recommended Rhetorical Devices Handbooks to keep on your desk for reference:

  1.  Rhetorical Devices: A Handbook and Activities for Student Writers (kindle version is 7£)
  2. Sixty-Nine Tools: Sixty-Nine Useful Rhetorical Devices Which Will Assist in Vastly Improving Your Presentations and Writing (kindle version is only 0.99£).

Rhetorical devices are like a knife you can use them for good or for evil. They are techniques used in persuasion by writers, politicians, advertisement industries etc. Learn how to use them in your writing for persuading others of your arguments. Use them in moderation and do not rely on them. A clever academic will detect quickly if the intention of the usage is to mislead instead of just to persuade. Nevertheless the best pieces of written work in history are works that have used rhetorical devices. These devices aim to make your writing eloquent and enjoyable to read.

Recommended video courses

  • The Art of Communicating Eloquently – if you hate reading a book, this is a great Udemy course on rhetorical devices. The course gives you tons of examples from actual speeches, writers etc… The accent of the instructor is a little bit upsetting but nevertheless  it is a very good course.

Master the use of good style of academic writing

In the Computer Science Skills course(s) (taught by the University of St Andrews, School of Computer Science), every year, two books are always recommended to students (“The element of style” and Writing for Computer Science). The following list presents the best out of the best books on the topic:

  1.  The elements of style by Strunk and White(Kindle version 2.5 £), I was advised at a certain stage by my supervisor to read this from cover to cover (a hidden message to me back then that my style sucks 🙂 fair enough – I learned a lot from reading it). It should be mentioned that this book is so famous and so important to read that it appears on a lot of schools’ and universities’ recommended reading lists.
  2. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Williams – if the first half of UK supervisors recommend the Strunk and White book the other half  would recommend this one. Both books are extremely famous and should be on the shelf of every academic and student no matter what is the discipline and research field of the student.
  3.  Writing for computer science (Kindle version : £14) – this is very essential for the computer science folks who are writing essays, reports, academic papers, dissertations or theses.
  4. A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: theory and practice (somehow more expensive – Kindle Version £31).
  5. Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers by Caplan – there is a new edition so wait until it come out in 2019 if you plan on buying this book, otherwise go with the older version- It is worth every penny!
  6. They Say/ I Say: the Moves that matter in Academic Writing with readings by Birkenstein et al. – this book is great and teaches you a lot of argumentation techniques.
  7. Academic Writing for Graduate Studies by Swales and Feak.
  8. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations by Turabian

There is a big probability these books are available in your university library so you won’t pay a penny. Ask senior academics or your own adviser/supervisor about similar books such as “Writing for Computer Science” but for your own specific field. It is good to read such books in advance if you plan on starting a PhD or Master or even for undergraduate assignments and essays, so you do not spend enormous amount of time doing that and wasting time during your degree.

When you write in academic settings, you have to use a very careful and hedging language all the time. Exaggerating claims such as “X will make it easy/fast/better”  should be avoided unless you have a strong support to say that (either via results from an experiment or supported by a citation from the literature). Never use qualitative pompous adjectives such as “excellent”, or words such as “obviously” etc…

There are some books that are tailored for apparently “International Students” (meaning non-UK students). I will include one example below for you to consider:

  1. Academic Writing: A Handbook for International Students by Bailey

Books for specific disciplines

Many books are tailored to a specific research topic or field or discipline which is extremely convenient and important for you since you learn what is expected in your particular field of research.

NB: The following list is just a taster of what this category looks like for very few fields – you will find tons of these for a lot of disciplines – please invest in one of these books for your particular field:

Computer Science

  1.  Writing for computer science by Justin Zobel – this is very essential book for the computer science folks as mentioned above.

Nursing/health/Medical fields

  1. Academic Writing and Referencing for Your Nursing Degree by Jane Bottomley & Steven Pryjmachuk
  2. Critical Thinking and Writing for Nursing Students by Anne Harrington & Bob Price
  3. Writing Skills in Nursing and Healthcare: A Guide to Completing Successful Dissertations and Theses by Dena Bain Taylor

Psychology

  1. The Principles of Writing in Psychology by T. Raymond Smyth  & Thomas Smyth [3] – Holy cow! this book is just amazing! it is an encyclopedia on the topic, it covers scientific writing, referencing, styles, academic standards, writing essays, literature reviews, reporting statistics, also academic papers writing and publishing, qualitative research, how to present figures, tables etc… among tons of goodies – The book is dedicated for both undergraduate and postgraduate. I totally recommend this not only for the Psychology folks but for all disciplines.
  2. Critical Thinking in Psychology by Robert J. Sternberg, Henry L. Roediger & Diane F. Halpern
  3. Effective Writing in Psychology: Papers, Posters, and Presentations by Agatha M. Beins & Bernard C. Beins – an amazing book for writing papers. I know a supervisor who recommended this book for her PhD candidate to read.

Law

  1. Successful Legal Writing by Edwina Higgins & Laura Tatham

Books that teaches you how to write papers and publish

  1. Writing Scientific Research Articles by Margaret Cargill & Patrick O’Connor

…. I am sure there are tons of other good books for other disciplines… Kindly leave a comment if you have a useful suggestion in this regard.

Citing the right way

Trust me!  a lot of folks in academia do not know how to cite well or in simplest cases do not cite well out being sloppy not for any nefarious intention. Please learn how to cite well.

You should always paraphrase and summarise the ideas and arguments of others and of course you can quote verbatim from them but always use the right formatting to designate that (either use single/double quotes or indentation) and cite the sources properly. It is still considered plagiarism if you have quoted verbatim a paragraph without using single or double quotes or any form of indentation to specify to the reader that it is a verbatim quotation even if you have cited the verbatim material adequately. So pay attention!

Quotations when absolutely necessary should NOT be out of context of what the author is claiming and should be not be corrected by you if you find misspelling or grammatical errors or even errors in reasoning. They should copied to the letter. You can use [sic] which stands for scriptum in Latin. [sic] specifies clearly to the reader that there are errors to be aware of in the verbatim quotations (I will explain further this later in the article). I should mention here that you should use verbatim quotations only judiciously. Excessive use of verbatim quotations in academic writing is frown upon because it tells the reader that you do not have any voice and that your whole work is just a collection of extracts from other authors.

As much as possible avoid using secondary referencing. Secondary referencing means referencing the original source while paraphrasing or summarising a secondary source that talked about the first source without actually reading the first source and this is usually happens because researchers might not have access to the first source for a lot of legitimate reasons (source is out of print, inaccessible, source in foreign language etc.) or sometimes they are just sneaky 🙂 The danger here is that a secondary reference might misquote or misrepresent the first original source. Secondary references are considered as weak references in academic writing [3] and you only need to resort to using them in absolute cases of being unable to access the first sources

Secondary references are not forbidden as long as they are cited correctly as such. Each referencing style (Harvard, APA, Chicago, IEEE, MLA, AMA…) obliges you to adopt a specific way  of citing secondary references. Per example, in the Harvard style, you would normally write something like (Cassell 2012, cited by Lanham-New 2014).  This could be “as cited” or “as quoted” depending if it is a paraphrased citation or a verbatim quotation. You are saying to the reader: Hey! I have read Lanham-New 2014 and paraphrased what has been said (paraphrased or summarised) about Cassel 2012 work which I did not read. Pay attention: referencing the first source while in actuality you were paraphrasing or summarising or quoting the secondary source instead of the first source, is considered a form of academic misconduct [3].

There are very good books that teach you how to do cite right. They teach you many referencing styles (APA, Harvard, MHRA, MLA, Turabian, Chicago, Vancouver, IEEE etc…). Certain fields or disciplines dictate or recommend using a certain specific referencing style while others are less strict.  Researchers in a certain field need to use a certain recommended citation style so they would consult a referencing style book covering only one particular citation style (For example: APA for Psychology).

I strongly advise you to be aware as soon as possible of the referencing style you need to use and read a guide book on that. The reasons for reading a referencing style book before you embark on any research are numerous – examples: you need to know when you should compact to the “et al. form”, is it with 3 authors or 4 authors or more? How do you cite a work for which the year of publication can not be identified? How do you cite different works of the same author from the same year? How do you cite a DVD, a phone call with an expert in the field, a lecture, an anthology, a website, a twitter tweet [from a president :-)], an act of parliament etc… I could go on and on. Bare in mind each referencing style require specific rules that you should follow to the letter. Usually software such bibliographical management systems such as Endnote or Mendeley and LaTeX/BibTeX/BibLaTeX  facilitate this task for you to a certain degree since you only need to specify what referencing style you are using. Nevertheless, be aware that these automatic tools always make mistakes and can generate in many cases wrong or incomplete citations.

IMPORTANT NOTE: relying solely on referencing software such as Mendeley or Endnote or Zotero or on Google Scholar or the myriad publishers websites to export for you a BibTeX file or an RIS format file or whatever other format for a citation yields in many instances to incomplete and wrong citations (from my experience) – This is why these books are extremely important

  1. Cite Them Right: The Essential Referencing Guide by Richard Pears & Graham Shields
  2. The complete guide to referencing and avoiding plagiarism by Colin Neville

Finally on this topic, there are some websites that help you to cite correctly according to a specific citation style such as Cite This for Me and citefast. The problem with these is that the method used is too primitive/too manual since you have to fill manually a lot of necessary fields for citing a resource compared to using a referencing software such as Endnote or using BibTeX/BibLaTeX export features in scholarly search engines and publishers’ websites but the advantage is that you know that you are following exactly the referencing style you need and that your citations are correct and complete.

Master the use of logical and critical thinking and writing

This set of skills you need not only for academic writing but for all aspects of academia and even for your own life. Do you know these fallacies Ad hominem, Tu quoqueAppeal to authority, Slippery slope, straw man, and red herring? There are tons of formal and informal fallacies  that authors commit knowingly and unknowingly in their writings. You can know when unethical and hypocrite academics commit such fallacies. Two very good classical books to recommend for general critical thinking, critical reading and critical writing in academia:

  1.  Critical Thinking Skills: Effective Analysis, Argument and Reflection (cost 8£).
  2. Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates by Wallace and Wray

This is a skill that makes you a better person. It makes you a critical and rational thinker. This is not poetry here! this skill is crucial if you want to survive in a hypocritical environment. Some academics will throw at you all sort of logical fallacies and if you are not equipped, you might be fooled quite easily.

Learn how to detect logical fallacies and how to avoid them yourself in your writing and in your speech. You have no idea of how much logical fallacies I detect on a daily basis (some people find that quite charming about me while others avoid saying anything in front of me).

You need to be able to detect fallacies committed by writers in articles or books. In the scientific disciplines, there are many fallacies committed most famous of these are the fallacies pertaining to the statistical fields: due to small sample or biased sample , or rushed generalisations etc.

Please learn logical fallacies! It is crucial for your success as an academic, as an undergraduate, as a Masters student, as a PhD candidate, as a writer or as a presenter. There are many cases where I discovered that my supervisor was pulling on me  a red herring  to avoid focusing on a specific argument since he can not win it. You need to be able to have full bullet proof arguments in your PhD thesis (remember a PhD is a Doctor of Philosophy in X – X being the field) or Masters dissertation. You should not commit any logical fallacies yourself. You should become a human detector of fallacies.

The following are resources, books and online courses that I found  myself very enjoyable and taught me a lot when it comes to this topic.

Recommended online courses on Logical Fallacies

Recommended YouTube Channels

  • Philosophy Tube –  is an amazing YouTube channel about philosophical debates. It also contains a section for discussing many logical fallacies committed in argumentation.
  • Philosophy Vibe – is a beautiful cartoonized channel about philosophy. It contains many videos on logical fallacies
  • Teach Philosophy – contains many logical and critical thinking videos.
  • Wireless Philosophy – also an amazing channel.
  • Carneades.org YouTube Channel – Ah! this channel is tremendous when it comes to squeeze you mind. You can learn also logical paradoxes.
  • Nerdwriter1 channel – is a great channel for people who want to learn effective writing particularly essay writing.

Recommended websites

Recommended books

Master the art of writing good abstracts

Writing a good abstract is an art and a science if I am allowed to say that. It takes a lot of time to hone your skills when it comes to writing good abstracts that do not contain fluff or non-sense. Abstracts need to be in the same time beautiful, catchy and informative of the real content and structure of what they represent. They are the PhD thesis or the Master dissertation or conference/journal paper in miniature. If I can use a Computer Science terminology here, an abstract is like a compressed zip file of the whole thing.

A lot of supposedly experienced academics do not know how to write yet  descent abstracts. I am not joking! Two types of nonsensical abstracts you might find: a lot of academics make the abstract of a conference/journal paper as a sales pitch which is pathetic and unethical. Do you know why? A lot of people are not spoiled by unlimited access to journals and conferences’ proceedings and thus the abstract is the only piece of material that they can read in order to have an idea of whether they should buy the paper or not.

The other type of nonsensical abstracts involves extremely boring abstracts that just state results and conclusions without any sort of motivation of the work (why the hell the topic or problem is important to us in the first place?).

A good abstract has to have both: non-fluffy motivation (the pitch in low doses) & the content, the methodology and the conclusions of the paper written in a concise and coherent manner.

A great book to help you with this task is the following. Yes! there is a whole book on the topic so it is not a promenade in the park:

  1. Abstracts and the writing of abstracts by Swales and Feak.

Master the right use of academic words and expressions borrowed from foreign languages

This skill differentiates the lay person (or the average Joe) from the refined academic writer. I do not mean here, to throw excessively and without clear purpose Latin words and phrases everywhere in your writing so that you can sound fancy or refined. This will probably show immediately and thus would constitute cases of catachresis (from Greek) meaning words employed against common use or misapplied and used incorrectly. This will open all sorts of doors of disgrace on you from the reader and will show that you have some psychological complex of inferiority of some sort which is still not resolved appropriately.

You need to master the right balanced usage of words borrowed from foreign Languages: classical languages (Greek and Latin), from French – you know that English borrowed a big percentage of its vocabulary from the French language and integrated (i.e. anglicised) another big percentage – , from German, from Italian, and from Spanish. In addition, there are a lot of interesting and sometimes quite funny borrowed words taken from Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, Hindi, Persian and Russian.

It is pertinent for you to bare always in mind the Greek wisdom here:  ‘Ariston Metron’ meaning the middle course is the best always. Always do things in moderation. Too much use of foreign words and expressions make you look either arrogant or gives the reader the impression that you are hiding the lack of substance behind sugary and sophisticated language. Furthermore, over usage of such words, might piss off your reader because the reader has to keep going to the dictionary. On the other hand, less usage or no usage gives the impression that you have never been in a descent university or have never read any academic article or book at a level higher then primary school level.

Do you know that the majority of Ph.D theses used to be written in Latin across all Europe and USA till not quite long ago? (the early start of this century). I mean for God’s sake the best scientific works was written in Latin (Newton’s Principia seminal work vel cetera). So using Latin, Greek or other foreign borrowed words is NOT for fluff, is NOT non-sense or a form of pleonasm.

In addition, in many instances the meaning could not be conveyed clearly in plain English without the use of such borrowed words or phrases unless if you want to use too many words. Per example, How many words in English do you need to convey the meaning of the following words? “a priori”, “a posteriori”, “a fortiori”, “ad hominum”, “de facto”, “vice versa” and the list goes on and on.

Actually you are probably using Latin & Geek in your field whether you like it or not: words such as fungus, alumnus, stimulus, criterion, phenomenon, cactus, crocus, formula, lacuna, alga, bacterium, medium, memorandum, datum etc…. In many medical disciplines students has to memorise many Latin & Greek words’ roots, prefixes and suffixes.

Latin is commonly used in numerous abbreviations in academic writing: in academic papers, in books etc…

Per example, “ibid”  from “ibidem” meaning literally “in the same source” or “in the same place“. It is used to save space in textual references in endnotes, footnotes and bibliographies to a quoted work which has been cited/mentioned in a previous reference. You should use it in footnotes, endnotes and bibliography. I have seem some usage of it inside the text itself. It is like saying “as the above reference” or “as the preceding reference” usually found in a list where you have already mentioned the citation’s full details before. You could also say something like “ibid, p 344” meaning “as the preceding citation but this time I am citing page 344″.

Op. Cit. is an another commonly used abbreviation for the Latin phrase “Opere Citato” or “opus citatum” which means “in the work cited“. It is usually not used alone but used in conjunction with the author surname and/or year (both come before Op. Cit.).  Op. Cit. is not similar to ibidOp. Cit. can relate to any citation in a list of footnotes, endnotes or bibliography whether ibid means  “the preceding citation“. There is also loc. cit. which is an abbreviation of “loco citato” and has a similar meaning to ibid (literally the previous citation) but adds on that meaning the fact that it alludes to the previous citation and the exact page.

The term “sic”  from ” scriptum“denoted usually in square brackets [sic]. The term sic is not an abbreviation but an actual Latin word. It is very useful to use.  It literally means “thus was it written“. Suppose you are quoting what a interviewee said in an interview conducted for your research and the participant’s verbatim transcribed text contains grammatical, typographical, spelling or style errors. It also applies to when there is a faulty reasoning/logic or a surprising/rude assertion made by the person you are quoting. Putting [sic] inside the quotation itself says to the reader, hey! I am not sloppy, i.e. I did not make these mistakes while copying verbatim the quote but this is what exactly has been said by the participant in the interview. It serves sometimes a political purpose to make the reader pay attention to the mistakes in the quoted text and to show the disapproval or ridicule of the writer.

The famous et. al. abbreviating et alia and means “and others” is used in referencing. There are specific guidelines about how to use it in the referencing style you end up adopting (Chicago, APA, AMA, MLA, IEEE, Harvard etc…). Some styles require you to contract  into the “et. al.” form after the first author’s family name when you have three or more authors, while others such as the Harvard Style require a higher number of authors (4+ authors). Please check your referencing style guidelines for what is suitable.

et cetera (etc.)  means “and other similar things” or “and the rest”.  vel cetera (vtc.) means “or other similar things”/”or the rest”. The difference between et cetera, vel cetera, aut cetera is answered here (have a look).

Finally, I would like to mention one additional example (I am sorry!). I like to use “viz.” which means “videlicet” a contraction of “videre licet which literally means “it is permitted to see”. Think of it as saying “as follows”. It can also mean “in other words”/”that is”. It is very useful in listing things pertaining to a category. Check out this article on its usage vs the usage of “i.e.”.

The best resource I can recommend to read and have in your home library is:

  1. Le Mot Juste: A Dictionary of Classical and Foreign Words and Phrases (2007) – It is divided by categories of Foreign Language, of words borrowed from classical mythology, Latin and foreign suffixes and prefixes vel cetera. I was so in love with this dictionary that I literally read it twice from cover to cover (Relax! it is like 170 small sized pages) – I totally recommend it for any writer.
  2. Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases in Current English by Alan Bliss.

Use always non-discriminatory language in your writing

It is important that you write in non-sexist or non-racial voice and in a language that do not intimidate the disadvantaged or disabled or to use any demeaning language so pay attention to that.

Guidelines for gender language

It is not appropriate to have a sexist language or a gender specific language unless if the topic you are talking about is gender or gender-related. Per example, instead of using the term ‘chairman’ use ‘chairperson’, instead of ‘forefathers’ say ‘ancestors’, instead of layman use the word layperson etc.

Guidelines for ethnicity language

You should pay attention here not to insult people. DO NOT USE terms such as “black people” or  terms such as “colored communities” or similar terms since that have a bad historical connotations. Not to mention that if you say that you are emphasizing in what you say on the colour of the skin of the person instead of the origin of the person. Colours of skin is an insignificant trait. Origin of a person is significant. People are usually proud of their origins but do not tolerate to be racially discriminated via language. It is better to use the terms that relates communities to their origins. As an example, say something like the “poll shows that African American and Asian Americans votes favors Hilary”.

Guidelines for disability language

DO NOT insult the disadvantaged and disabled by using a language showing pity or  showing a demeaning voice. In addition, DO NOT use medical terms to describe a person (unless if the article/report etc you are writing is medical in nature) since this focus more on the disease or medical problem  than on the person. Use always non-disablist terms instead of using disablist ones. DO NOT use the word “blind”, use the terms “visually impaired person”, do not use the word “cripple”, use the terms “mobility impaired person”, do not use the word “mute”, use instead the terms “person with a speech impairment” , hopefully you get my idea here.

Miscellaneous Dictionaries to help in writing

Dictionaries of Eponyms

An Eponym is a term formed after a person’s name which ended up in the English dictionary. This could be because the person has certain famous positive or negative or intriguing traits like ‘Casanova’. The person could be a famous inventor, a religious or philosophical figure. Eponyms could be also about things related to certain important figures, per example: Aaron’s rod (after the prophet Aaron). Dictionaries of Eponyms are important for certain disciplines like medicine and literature. They are less relevant for much of the scientific writing.

Few suggestions:

  1. A Dictionary of Eponyms (Oxford Paperback Reference) by Cyril Leslie Beeching: I have read the 1988 version of this dictionary – it is a small dictionary so you can enjoy reading it as a book. It improves considerably your vocabulary in terms of Eponyms used in English.
  2.  A New Dictionary of Eponyms by Morton S. Freeman.

Dictionaries of Collective Nouns

This type of dictionaries is specialized only in the vocabulary of “the plural of stuff“. Imagine! You learn tons of words and expressions you would use normally to describe a collective, a miscellany or a group of certain items/objects/animals/human beings…

Honorable mentions:

  1. Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms by Ivan G. Sparkes  – the dictionary is quite old so it cost nothing really but it was a joy reading it. It is a short dictionary so you can read it as a normal book.

Specialized Dictionaries of disciplines

I think this type of dictionaries is the most important between all dictionaries. If you are doing research and writing in a certain field, you have to learn the vocabulary of that field (no other way!). More importantly, if you are doing a Ph.D in a certain discipline, you are obliged to use the right terms of that discipline.

Now, you would gain that vocabulary from reading literally thousands of academic papers (during your PhD) and reading many text books. Furthermore, and more importantly, there are many specialized dictionaries so you better have on your shelf, the ones pertaining to your filed of study. So if you are doing Computer Science, you better have a dictionary for computer science (the least), there are also many sub-fields dictionaries. If you are doing a PhD in politics, you need to have a dictionary of politics (of course, there are sub-fields dictionaries).

Giving a list here is a futile exercise, but I will give some honorable mentions for the disciplines of Computer Science, Politics, Economics and Mathematics. There are literally tons of these dictionaries for almost all disciplines. Publishers such Oxford (Oxford references series) or Barron’s Educational Series or Webster or Routledge or Penguin among others have in their repertoires many specialized awesome dictionaries. PS: always buy the latest versions especially for the scientific fields since new terms are being continuously added:

Dictionaries for Computer Science
  1. A Dictionary of Computer Science ([1], [2]) Edited by Andrew Butterfield and Gerard Ekembe Ngondi
  2.  Dictionary of Computer Science, Engineering and Technology, edited by Philip A. Laplante
  3. Webster’s New World Computer Dictionary
Dictionaries for Politics
  1. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and International Relations
  2. Dictionary of Politics and Government
  3. The Routledge Dictionary of Politics
  4. The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought
Dictionaries for Economics
  1. Oxford Dictionary of Economics
  2. The Penguin Dictionary of Economics
  3. Routledge Dictionary of Economics
Dictionaries for Mathematics
  1. The Penguin Dictionary of Mathematics
  2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Mathematics
  3. Dictionary of Mathematics (McGraw-Hill)

References

[1] Gastel, Barbara, and Robert A. Day. How to write and publish a scientific paper. ABC-CLIO, 2016.

[2] Saunders, Mark, Lewis Philip, Thornhill Adrian. Research methods for business students, 7/e. Pearson Education, 2016.

[3] Smyth, T. Raymond. The principles of writing in psychology. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2017.

[4] Zobel, Justin. Writing for computer science. Springer, 2015.

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