7 Tips To Improve Your Academic Writing Style For Social Sciences – Part 1

The 7 Cardinal Sins

As an award-winning psychology tutor for The Profs, I must admit, my life is pretty glamorous; I have celebrity clients, prestigious parents, travel, and a great pay packet every week (Yes-The Profs pay weekly!). However, today is not one of those days. Today, I’m stuck inside my office with my books and expense receipts, listening to the thunder, lightning, and rain outside my window while marking a master’s degree dissertation. All 12,000 words of it.

Did you know you can ask The Profs to assess your dissertation? Many students who are not in the position to hire a tutor for long periods of time might consider hiring a tutor to do a review and proofread an essay. With online tuition you can save a bundle on tuition if you have a dissertation prepared and it just needs a review. I know for a fact many tutors like myself snap up these jobs when they become available because of how convenient the work is, and—very frequently—it’s fun to read another person’s work.

Improve Your Academic Writing Style

However, it often seems the case (at least in psychology) that universities spend so much time on teaching theory and statistics. No one ever sits down with students and teaches them how to write. Seriously, I teach A-level psychology as well and it never happens then, either. So for some students, when they approach their dissertation, the last time they actually took a class on how to write an essay was when they were fifteen-years-old. I find that crazy!

The end result of this is that students at the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels frequently make the same writing mistakes over and over and over. And here I am, telling my students over and over and over to fix them. From this review experience, I had the idea to write the 7 Cardinal Sins of Academic Writing for Social Sciences, because these are the easiest mistakes not to make—at the biggest expense to your good grades! Are you ready to improve your academic writing style? Are you ready for a walk through Profs’ Inferno? The 7 Cardinal Sins are listed here from what I find least offensive to most offensive. So, gird your loins, get your tablets and join me on a journey to the murky underworld of academic hell… Here we go!*

Recognising the 7 cardinal sins in the social sciences realm will help you to improve your academic writing style.

1. Thou Shall Not Waste Line Spacing.

Who likes an empty room? Not me. Imagine this particular level of academic writing hell is an empty room, with lots of research clutter in one corner of the room and lots of research clutter in the other corner of the room and not anything taking up space in the middle of the room. How does that feel? Uncomfortable? Well that is how your markers feel when you use unnecessary spacing. In academic writing, you never start a new page because you feel like it. The paper should be double-spaced anyway so it has to be a damn special occasion to double the double space. Even when you start your paper, there is no space between the title and the first paragraph. Bear this in mind when you get an itchy trigger pinkie-finger.

2. Thou Shall Not Use Contractions.

Contractions are a major cardinal sin

Welcome to the second level of Hell. You are in a classroom, except your lecturer is half-drunk and speaking as though they are straight out of My Fair Lady. You cannot understand any of the words coming out of their mouth. Now you have to remember what you just learned. This is what it is like when you use contractions. Contractions are when you shorten two words into one with the use of an apostrophe; can’t, won’t, doesn’t, haven’t, and I’ve are all contractions and you should not use them, (well, you should not be using ‘I’ve’ anyway but more on that later…) if you want to improve your academic writing style. The reason is because contractions are conversational and academic writing is formal. Therefore, just use the real words. The word ‘hasn’t’ becomes ‘has not’. It’s that simple.

Additional bonus here: you double your word count when you stop using contractions! Your homework just got easier!

3. Thou Shall Honour The Use Of “however” Correctly.

In this particular level of Hell, giant vicious monsters attempt to contrast two ideas—frequently very good ideas—but you just can’t take in what they are saying because the monster saying it is just too ugly to get past! This is what it is like when you misuse ‘however’ in a sentence. ‘However’, when used in the middle of a sentence has a comma around either sides or a semicolon just before and a comma immediately after. Yes, you can look it up! Whenever I see a student use ‘however’ in the middle of a sentence without commas or a semicolon, I die a little inside because I’m just too irritated about their misuse of ‘however’ to even care about what they said. Guess what—your assessors feel exactly the same way.

4. Thou Shall Not Misuse et al.

In this circle of Academic Writing Hell, you are surrounded by damned Latin students (apologies to the Latin tutors out there). Some of them speak Latin well; others speak Latin terribly, but you’ll never know because you can’t speak it at all! This is the story of et al.

Now, et al. is used when you have three or more authors in your paper and you have already referred to all of them once before. This means on Page 2 of your paper you said “The Research of King, Evans and Blood (2017)” and when you mention them again later on Page 4, you say “King et al.” Now, the term et alii is Latin for “and others”, so hopefully now you can see why it is appropriate when you are shortening papers with many authors. First, the term is italicised because it is Latin. Second, al. ends in a full stop (or if you are American: period) because al. is an abbreviation for alii. Follow these simple rules and et al. will not leave your essay assessor shaking their head and threatening to send you back to do GCE Latin (Now, THAT is a real A-level of Hell!). As well as that that you will improve your academic writing style which isn’t half bad.

Don't be a Hellmo. Improve your academic writing style for your own sake.

Do you see the City of Dis? The walled city burning forever as students scream eternally for their lost essay marks that can never come back? That is how you know we are at the centre of Academic Writing Hell, and the truly, most evil of sins are now upon us!

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Stay tuned for the worst of the 7 Cardinal Sins and find more ways to improve your academic writing style.

*Just to clarify for readers, I have been trained in American Psychological Association (APA) writing style—the go to writing style for psychology students and many other social scientists working with human participants. You may have a different writing style, so be sure to check your dissertation/module guidelines before following my advice. Many universities have their own sets of rules and some scientists use Harvard referencing.