Cornerstones of Academic Writing

Cornerstones of Academic Writing

My journey with academic writing began when I was a senior undergraduate applying for a fellowship. I had never written a research proposal before and so the result of my futile efforts came in the form of a very literary and romantic piece of writing about a faulty protein in Crohn’s disease – certainly not what you would present to a grant committee. The moment I laid eyes on the edits made to my proposal by my supervisor and saw the generous red markings, I almost fell over in my chair. That was a low moment in my writing career. But after I sat down with my supervisor and discussed the edits, things become remarkably clear, making perfect sense. The most valuable lesson I took from him that day was one simple word: Flow, which is the very first cornerstone I will talk about in this article.

Shortly after this incident, I enrolled in a course offered by Graphos and the McGill writing centre called “Cornerstones of Academic Writing”. It was truly a very fun and interactive course that I recommend to graduate students who are struggling with their writing, wish to improve it or simply want to try out an elective in an unrelated field. I’ll be sharing with you a few pointers I picked up from the course.

Cornerstone #1: Flow

 Some ways to establish a good flow:

–           Using linking words such as “therefore, consequently, then, furthermore… etc”

–          Avoiding vague pronoun references (e.g. “After putting the cake in the fridge, I moved it.” Did one move the fridge or the cake?)

–           Re-link to the main item(s) in your topic sentences (e.g. Patients with Crohn’s disease possess an error in their genome. This error has been identified as a mutation)

Overall, there exist several kinds of establishing the general flow of a piece of academic writing. In the class, you will learn about general-to-specific; specific-to-general and problem-solution-process-type of flow.


Cornerstone #2: Audience

Whichever flow style you choose will largely depend on what you are trying to convey and to whom. For example, is your audience specialized? Do you need to provide a very general introduction? What if your audience is your supervisor and you need to demonstrate specificities of your project to him/her and then conclude a general idea? Perhaps you are writing a protocol within your thesis and need to describe a dilemma, the way in which you solved it (process/experiment) and then offer solutions. There could be more than one solution so including your evaluation on each solution is very valuable to the reader.


Cornerstone #3: Grammar, vocabulary, adverbs

Vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar and punctuation largely matter. Everything you dreaded in grammar and language classes in high school is back to haunt you. Pay attention to things like subject-verb agreement, correct verb tenses and faulty sentence structure. Pay special attention to adverbs. Adverbs are a word class that describes a verb, whereas adverbials refer to the general functional unit of describing a verb. Adverbials can include single-word adverbs, prepositional phrases and noun phrases. Most writing mistakes pertain to misuse and misidentification of adverbials. Pay attention especially to your time adverbials, such as “firstly, then, next, after which, now… etc”, as these can come in handy in process description. Time adverbials also can be replaced with prepositional phrases. For example:

“I take the bus at nine o’clock”. (When)

“She was eating in earnest”   (How)

“He left to the grocery store” (Where)

Caution: over-using adverbials can be detrimental. They can take over your article and disrupt your natural flow; in other words, it will look like you’re trying too hard.


Cornerstone #4 Critical thinking and dissection of academic articles

While this doesn’t sound like fun, a great way to improve writing of any kind of style is to read more of the genre. Reading scientific papers critically for style (rather than content) can actually be a fun task and it doesn’t involve a thorough understanding of the topic covered in the article.  You might discover that there are many published papers in all kinds of discipline that are simply poorly writ.

  In conclusion, academic writing is a form of communication first and foremost, making it a vital asset and valuable skill that bridges divides and closes gaps. After all, with clear communication comes clearer understanding and unimpeded progress towards learning and research. I’ll leave you with one final note from Steven Pinker, linguist and cognitive scientist. In his recent book, The Sense of Style, he claims that successful writing of any kind is that which puts the least amount of cognitive burden on the reader, thus communicating its purpose nicely and clearly.


Resources: John M. Swales & Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor: U of

Mich. P, 2012).


Special Thanks to Renee Lallier for valuable advice, guidance and constant encouragement.

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