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Five resources to help students with academic writing

If you’re struggling to write essays or assignments while at university, these resources might help

    Hyebin Seo's avatar

    Hyebin Seo

    Research master’s student in English education at Seoul National University
    March 8 2024


    Nothing is more frustrating during the writing process than stopping because we cannot find an appropriate word or phrase. We have the idea in our head but no matter what combination of words we try, some awkward or informal phrases creep in.

    Sometimes we lack the vocabulary and grammar skills; at other times we lack general writing knowledge in our discipline. This piece introduces five academic writing resources that provide advice and guidance for students while at university.

    1. Phrasebanks and phrasebooks

    Academic writing is a set of communication “actions” – critiquing research, controlling how certain you sound, comparing and contrasting – achieved through specific phrases.

    John Morley from the University of Manchester has compiled The Academic Phrasebank to help students with their writing. He also comments on how phrases are used differently in each discipline.

    While The Academic Phrasebank does not focus on one discipline, there are a range of books in the Bloomsbury Study Skills series that focus on academic writing for specific disciplines such as business or science.

    2. Academic word lists

    Learning academic vocabulary is a daunting task, but there aren’t always that many words or phrases to learn.

    To organise the most common words for students to study and reference, scholars have created academic word lists. The Academic Word List by Averil Coxhead, a linguistics lecturer from the University of Wellington, is one of the first and most famous. The most recent New Academic Word List, created in 2013 by Charles Browne, Brent Culligan and Joseph Phillips, is free to download in different versions. The EAP foundation has curated field-specific word lists for science, medicine, chemistry, economics and nursing. 

    3. Corpora

    Now we have the phrases and words, but how exactly can we incorporate them into our writing?

    Corpora, large databases of text written and/or spoken by people in their daily lives, provide the writer with example phrases and sentences to analyse and make use of. The Corpus of Contemporary American English, for example, has more than 1 billion words from subtitles, radio programmes, works of fiction, magazines, newspapers, academic journals, blogs and websites, which can be used to understand how words are used within sentences. 

    As another example, the British National Corpus corpus has 100 million words of fiction, magazines, newspapers, and academic writing. For a list of possible corpora, check out Sketch Engine or Clarin. 

    4. Guidelines from university writing centres

    It may also be helpful to understand how other scholars in our field write. Writing centres at universities create and compile guidelines that are open for anybody to read on their website.

    The writing centre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a page called Tips & Tools, with resources and videos covering topics from AI in academic writing to brainstorming and thesis statements. The second-to-last section, titled “Writing for Specific Fields”, provides guidance in 14 fields including anthropology, communication studies and political science.

    The Purdue Online Writing Lab at Purdue University has a wider range of resources on subject-specific writing, with guides on literature, social science, engineering and professional writing.

    Check whether your university has a writing centre with resources on how to write for your discipline.

    5. Books

    Tips for specific disciplines can also be found in books such as The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities, by Eric Hayot, a professor at Penn State University,or Katerina Petchko’s How to Write about Economics and Public Policy. More general books such as What is Good Academic Writing? Insights into Discipline-Specific Student Writing, include chapters on academic writing in different disciplines.

    Knowledge of vocabulary, grammar and style are all necessary for academic writing. The resources introduced in this piece provide general and discipline-specific examples and guidelines on each. Reading about yours and other disciplines will not only deepen understanding in your own field but widen your perspective and help you to form your own writing style. 

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