It’s time to stock up on words! Now that you’ve become more familiar with the mechanics of academic writing (check out my recent blog posts on Sources, Citations, and Structure), we’re going to focus on the most basic aspect of the essay: the words themselves.
How exactly can you make your academic essay sound ‘intellectual?’ Believe it or not, by trading out a few of those boring verbs and adjectives, avoiding some common mistakes, and boosting your overall vocabulary, you can be sure to end up with a polished, professional, and truly academic –sounding essay!
The strongest words in your essays will always be your verbs. That’s because these little guys carry the action of your essay; they move your arguments forward. Your goal is to choose action-packed, concrete verbs that make your essay sound sure of itself and convincing. Remember these gems:
- When describing what other authors are saying about a particular work, poem, or idea: suggest, argue, imply, propose, introduce, engage, consider, acknowledge, gesture, indicate, illustrate, analyze, emphasize, confirm, expose, establish, evince, declare
- When describing what a certain author’s idea does: complement, augment, contradict, complicate, challenge, elucidate, explicate, alleviate, elaborate, connote/denote, determine, clarify, underscore, undermine
Nouns and Adjectives
You might find yourself resorting to the same nouns after some time (I know I do!). These helpful synonyms for commonly-used nouns in essays may spice it up a bit:
- When describing a “source,” or “article:” evidence, reference, text, work, criticism, literature, explication, analysis, critique, perspective, acknowledgment, reference
- When describing an author’s “argument:” consideration, suggestion, portrayal, typification, implication, acknowledgment, attestation, affirmation, complication
- When talking about a problem: conflict, issue, complication, tension, divergence, dilemma, contradiction, antagonism, contention
Although you do not want to bog your essay down with too many adjectives, feel free to sprinkle in some of these when discussing certain aspects of the literature you are analyzing or the arguments of other authors:
- Certain, particular, especial
- Peculiar, concerning, conflicted, complicated
- Sinister, grievous, sober, troubling
- Rich, illuminating, insightful, astute, shrewd, apt
- Evocative, telling, poignant
Words to Avoid
Some words you should just leave out of your essay altogether. Why? They are over-used, cliché, or generally too weak and flat to serve any purpose in the confines of good academic writing. These include:
- “empty” words: good, stuff, bad, interesting, get, got, gotten, it, can’t (and any other contractions), pretty, ugly, worse, better, best, people, they
- clichés: ‘everyday life,’ ‘in today’s society,’ ‘pros and cons,’ ‘people,’ ‘society,’ ‘this day and age,’ ‘all walks of life,’ ‘from time immemorial,’ etc.
- Avoid passive voice and always opt for active voice. Passive voice is always a roundabout way of saying something; usually over-wordy and vague, it makes the direct object its subject, as in the following sentence: “The door was opened by her.” Compare this sentence to its counterpart written in active voice: “She opened the door.” Active voice is always much more direct, strong, and, well, active!
- Opt for shorter, concise sentences. Nobody likes to follow a roundabout argument or wade through a wordy paper!
- Don’t use thesaurus.com to look for words that sound smarter, especially if you do not know really what these words mean. A teacher or professor will know when you are simply trying to sound more “academic” by generating synonyms, but this method doesn’t work—always make sure you know what the word means, or ask someone who may help you choose a more appropriate term.
This series on Academic Writing is not quite at its end–stay tuned for next week’s discussion on fashioning a fashionable introduction!
Check out the next posts in this 8 part series on writing academically:
Check out the previous posts:
- Writing Academically Part 1 – What’s the Point?
- Writing Academically Part 2 – Lexicon
- Writing Academically Part 3 – Structure
- Writing Academically Part 4 – Sources
- Writing Academically Part 5 – Citation 101
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.