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The Top 10 Academic Writing Myths


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Whether you are just starting your freshman year of college or you're in the final year of your doctorate, you have probably fallen for one (or more) of these pervasive myths about academic writing. To dispel these misconceptions and help you become a better writer, let's debunk the top 10 most common academic writing myths.

Myth #1: You only have to cite direct quotes

I see this error frequently when I'm editing dissertations and other academic essays. Many people incorrectly believe that they only need to cite direct quotes, so they think that if they paraphrase another author's words, they don't have to worry about citing the source. This is a dangerous myth: Citing your sources is essential for establishing credibility and avoiding plagiarism charges. You do not have to cite common knowledge or things that everyone accepts to be true. However, if the idea or theory originated in another author's work, you need to cite the source. Citing your source gives readers a place to look if they want more information, and it also lends credence to your statements and assertions. Remember: When citing sources, always follow the citation guidelines for your citation style.

Myth #2: Just insert quotes into the text, and the quotes will make the argument for you

This is another mistake I see frequently in academic papers. Some professors require a minimum number of sources or quotes that students must include in each paper, so students find quotes, insert them in the paper, and incorrectly assume that each quote is self-explanatory. Do not make this mistake. You need to introduce the quote with a signal phrase and provide some context about who said the quote and why readers should care about this person's opinion on the topic. Additionally, you need to frame the quote and explain how the quote relates to your paper. When evaluating if you should include a quote in your paper, consider if the quote truly relates to your topic or if it helps you make your overall argument. Do not distort the meaning of a quote to fit your paper; if you find yourself omitting words to change a quote's meaning, delete that quote and search for a quote that supports your argument.

Myth # 3: You should always avoid using first-person voice in academic writing

Many students erroneously believe that they need to avoid using first-person voice (pronouns such as "I" and "we") in academic writing. Check your citation style guidelines, but most guidelines now accept first-person voice and prefer it over passive voice. When students think they need to avoid using "I" or "we," they often end up writing in passive voice instead. However, passive voice can confuse readers, because it removes the active subject and makes it difficult to tell who did the action. Additionally, passive voice often adds to your word count, so if you need to reduce your word count on an academic paper, look for places to remove passive voice.

Myth #4: You should always use the five-paragraph method for academic writing

In high school, most of us learned the standard five-paragraph format for writing papers: an introduction paragraph, three paragraphs that support your argument, and a conclusion paragraph. Many people incorrectly think that they need to stick to this format for the rest of their academic careers. We learned the five-paragraph format so we could understand basic structure (i.e., start with an introduction, end with a conclusion, and provide supporting paragraphs in between the two). However, once you are writing papers at the college level, you are probably making longer and more complex arguments, so you need more than just three supporting paragraphs to present your arguments. You will still need an introduction and conclusion, but use as many paragraphs as you need to convey your research and present your argument. However, make sure you stay within your instructors' word count minimums or maximums.

Myth #5: Your thesis statement should only be one sentence

This is another misconception that probably originated in middle or high school English classes. When you are writing a short high school book report or informative essay, a one-sentence thesis statement is sufficient. However, just as you grew past the five-paragraph essay format, you will also probably grow past the one-sentence thesis statement. When writing a complex thesis or dissertation, you might need several sentences to accurately convey your thesis statement. According to the Purdue Owl, Purdue University's writing center, Your thesis statement should be specific—it should cover only what you will discuss in your paper and should be supported with specific evidence. Instead of trying to cram your entire thesis into one sentence, focus on writing a strong thesis statement that is specific and that you can support with research.

Perfecting Your Thesis Statement

Myth #6: You must have all your information clearly outlined before you start writing

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. You have to find the personal process that works best for you. There might be a few students out there who create detailed outlines containing all the information that will go into their final paper, but these students are in the minority. Some students don't create outlines at all, while others create outlines only after they've written their first draft. It will probably take some time to find a writing process that works best for you, so give yourself space and time to learn as you write. You might discover new questions or find new angles to consider as you're writing, so you might have to conduct additional research as part of your writing process. Do not wait to start writing until you have all the information; it is usually better to get started and leave gaps and placeholders rather than waiting to start at the last minute.

Myth #7: Only bad writers need feedback or others to proofread their work

This myth is surprisingly prolific, but don't fall for it. Of course you need to proofread and edit your paper, but it is also a good idea to ask a friend, colleague, or professional to review your paper. Most universities have writing centers that are staffed with volunteers or students who will proofread papers and help you enhance your work. Before you turn in your paper, check to see if your school has a writing center. If so, don't be afraid to use it! Your university writing center is there for you to use as a resource. You can also check out the professional editors at ServiceScape.

Myth #8: You should use big words to impress your professors and sound smart

Many students think that using impressive words will earn them a better grade, but what matters most is that you articulate your argument in a clear manner that readers can understand. If you try to only use advanced words, you might actually confuse your readers and reduce the impact of your words. Princeton psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer conducted a study on this topic, which he named Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly. Based on the study results, Oppenheimer stated, Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author. Instead of trying to find the most sophisticated words, focus on using the right word for the context.

Myth #9: When writing your conclusion, just summarize everything you discussed in the paper

You might have learned this myth back in the days when you were writing those five-paragraph essays. Sure, in high school English, your conclusion probably contained the exact same information as your introduction, but you tried to write it in slightly different words. However, for longer and more complex academic papers, you want to leave the reader with a powerful conclusion. To achieve this, consider the overall purpose of your paper and the message you want to convey to readers. Is there a way to express this in your conclusion? If your research uncovered new questions that could be explored in future research, include this in your conclusion.

How To Write a Concluding Paragraph

Myth #10: "I'll never be a good writer, because grammar is impossible!"

Being a good writer is about more than just proper punctuation and grammar. Writing is about conveying ideas, sharing research, or presenting strong arguments. If you generate unique ideas or excel at analyzing complex notions, you will probably also be a good writer. Don't let your concerns about grammar hold you back from sharing your ideas: If you struggle with grammar or punctuation, consult with an editor or visit the writing center at your school. If you have done the difficult work of conducting research or analyzing an idea, a good editor will be happy to help you with your grammar and punctuation problems.

How many of these myths have you incorporated in your previous academic papers? Are there any academic writing myths that we missed? I hope you will never fall for one of these academic writing myths again, and maybe your course grades will improve accordingly!

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