Top Tips for Academic Writing from PhD Candidates

20 Mar, 2024 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

Academic writing is very different from writing a story, or jotting down musings in your journal – sometimes, the added style guidelines and referencing rules can seem restrictive and even pointless.

If you’re looking to hone your academic writing skills, whether to prepare for your undergraduate degree or to polish your essay competition entry, we’ve asked three PhD candidates and a Master’s postgrad for their top tips when it comes to acing your academic writing.

Matteo, MSc Political Science and Political Economy

London School of Economics

“A few months ago, I encountered Matt Might’s popular “Illustrated Guide to a PhD”. In a few diagrams, Might invites us to think of our time at university as gaining a specialism in a subject. For many students, this is the most obvious change from high school to university: rather than learning something about everything, we learn a lot about just one thing.

In my view, two other changes also mark this next step in your academic writing life. Firstly, you will be asked to speak with your authentic voice. Rather than regurgitate facts for exams or provide a balanced, noncommittal overview of arguments for and against a position, you’ll be invited to make judgments and justify them – especially in the humanities and social sciences.

As you travel closer to the frontiers of human knowledge, you’ll find that scholars genuinely (and legitimately!) disagree about many things. Your job is to understand why, and create your own original assessments of their arguments. This creative task parallels the second change in the transition: rather than merely gathering knowledge from others, you’ll start to learn how to create knowledge. Pay special attention to any classes that discuss methods in your disciplines!

Finally, my only gripe with Might’s diagrams is that they visualise knowledge as hierarchically accumulative: he suggests that new knowledge has to be built on previous knowledge. In my experience, the knowledge we accumulate outside of our formal studies is more like an eclectic pick-and-mix selection of sweets. We choose the sweets we enjoy, and sometimes, the combinations we chew over give us highly personal perspectives, insights and approaches to our formal studies. 

The combination of things that only you know might even paint a picture that nobody else has ever seen. So eat lots of sweets: read widely and develop hobbies outside of your studies, and bring these insights into your writing!”

Alix, PhD Experimental Psychology

University of Oxford

“Academic writing comprises four fundamental parts: understanding the question, undertaking research, planning the argument, and actually writing.

For the best work, you should maximise the time you spend planning, and remember that the writing should only really take the final 10-20% of the time. It’s helpful for the research to take place alongside the planning stage, where the plan helps to inform the sources you read, and the reading helps to develop and refine the planned argument. 

The planning stage for any piece of academic writing will take time to craft, and the best approach is to compare several structures and choose the most logical option. A good argument flows well, and jumbling the order of the paragraphs will disrupt the argument.

Once you’ve decided on the most compelling structure for your work, the actual writing is really just the window dressing that fleshes out the outline. A solid structure will result in an essay that needs minimal editing – job well done!”

Student writing in a workbook

Faissal, DPhil Clinical Neurosciences

University of Oxford

“When it comes to writing for your academic project, remember that staying organised is super important! You’ll have to record, research and cite your sources, which you definitely don’t want to do in one go at the end. Using a reference manager like Paperpile or Zotero will help you keep track of your sources and cite them properly in your papers.

Instead of trying to write perfect sentences right away, you might find it useful to start by making a rough outline with bullet points. Then, add in facts, quotes and other information from your research to build your paper.

Also, don’t forget to separate the writing process from editing. Focus on getting your ideas down on paper first, and you can work on making your writing sound better and fixing any mistakes later.

Good luck with your writing!”

Alejandro, DPhil International Relations

University of Oxford

“My number one tip for academic writing, whatever your level? Be concise.

Very often, students are led to think that good academic writing means using the most sophisticated, advanced vocabulary they can find. To make a piece of work more professional, it can be tempting to look for elaborate synonyms and use them in place of simple words.

However, doing this can actually prevent your reader from understanding the arguments and ideas you’re trying to put forward, and you might even get lost in your own sentences! Try to go for the simplest language, and the fewest words needed, to express an idea. Use short sentences, don’t be vague, and avoid overly complex language. Remember that academic writing is not about sounding a certain way, but about expressing your ideas clearly. Being concise, for me, is the essential first step to good academic writing.

P.S.: Don’t forget to proofread your work.”

Student sitting at a desk writing in a notebook

Academic writing is always a work in progress, and your style and voice will develop and evolve throughout your studies. It also won’t be possible to apply all of these tips, all of the time, but experiment with those that appeal to you, and use them as you develop your own writing.


By Sophie Parker

Our Head of Content, Sophie, is responsible for our blog and our resources. She graduated from University College London, where she read English.

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