The seven deadly sins of academic writing


Like a lot of university lecturers, I mark many essays. And I see a lot of rookie mistakes being made by students who are normally very intelligent, but when faced with an impending assignment, suddenly forget how to formulate things properly on paper. I therefore present the seven deadly sins of academic writing so that students can learn what drives their tutors to distraction, allowing them to avoid the main pitfalls. See it as insider knowledge, a kind of Urban Dictionary of the Senior Common Room.

Citation bombing

Like its visual cousin photo bombing, this describes the phenomenon of students finding a juicy quotation and then ramming it into the text with no preamble or explanation, leaving the quotation just to speak for itself. Usually appears with about twenty other quotations doing the same thing, as a string of apparently unconnected mini-plagiarisms without any critical analysis linking them, that makes a lecturer’s weary heart sink.


We need to think about children’s verbal experiences of school. “In the case of an elaborated code, such a code points to the possibilities which inhere in a complex conceptual hierarchy for the organization and expression of inner experience” (Bernstein, 1971). Early Years classrooms are often focused on play-related activities.

So here we have three sentences, two of which might just make sense in terms of an essay and then the random Basil Bernstein bit in the middle. Just because it sounds clever, it does not mean you have to squeeze it in there. It won’t help you impress us. You need to make it work harder. This is really what we are looking for in a student essay:

Children from different backgrounds respond to school in different ways, and some will find the medium of instruction difficult compared to their experiences of home. The sociologist Basil Bernstein argued that this can be related to social class. He showed through his research that middle-class children were likely to have distinct advantages when it came to understanding the complexity of their teacher’s speech, and the various concepts that were being expressed, as they were more likely to have experienced this at home. Bernstein termed this ‘elaborated code’, as opposed to ‘restricted code’, which uses fewer words and a more simplistic syntax and conceptual frameworks. As Bernstein explained, “In the case of an elaborated code, such a code points to the possibilities which inhere in a complex conceptual hierarchy for the organization and expression of inner experience” (Bernstein, 1971). If we are to extend this idea it would mean that in early years settings, play-based settings may well offer potential scope for helping children unfamiliar with the type of speech represented by elaborated code to access these complex conceptual hierarchies in a more structured way. In order to achieve this, educational programmes need to be carefully planned and implemented with a transition to elaborated code in mind.

Inverted comma spillage

Similar to an oil spill on a motorway, this is when a student is temporarily transported back in time to the 1940s-1950s linguistically. Every ‘term’ that is potentially to be ‘interpreted’ in more than one way or vaguely resembles some kind of ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’ if you dig deep is ‘surrounded’ by inverted commas in order to ‘hedge’ the writer’s ‘bets’. (See what I did there?). Avoid.

Op. cit. and ibid.

Sometimes students over-cite their limited range of references, with the same three or four authors popping up again and again, every other line. Reading academic journal articles might be partly to blame here, as in the social sciences there is a convention which means you cite the author’s name afresh each time it comes up, and the effect is exaggerated when a student is only working with a very limited number of sources. However in essays, and particular in dissertations, it is important to familiarise yourself with the use of op. cit. (from the Latin opere citato, meaning ‘from the work cited’) and ibid. (from the Latin ibidem, meaning ‘the same’). You use op. cit. when there has been a gap between the original reference and where you are now, with other authors in between. You use ibid. when it is the same as the reference you last had.

Narration disease

This is when students simply write out long lists of information from the literature with no critical analysis, interpretation or insight. Guys, we already know this stuff, we work with it all day. We can even look it up if we want to. What we are looking for is an intelligent analysis of what it all means. Compare and contrast things, bring authors together, synthesise or apply different aspects of knowledge, craft your writing so it brings deeper meaning to the topic. Feed the beast, please.

Religiosity or ideology outbreak

However meaningful and enduring your favourite religious text is, it does not count as an academic reference unless the essay is specifically meant to analyse it, for example as part of a theology or divinity course. Therefore simply citing from the Bible or Koran in support of your arguments is not sufficient. Moreover, even if your assignment is being marked by someone of the same faith as you, it will be marked as having a defective bibliography if you only draw on a very limited number of texts, unless it is clear close reading has been part of the brief (and this is a particular skill more commonly used in literature courses). Similarly, using respectful phrases such as ‘Our Lord’, “Peace Be Upon Him’ and so on each time you invoke a religious figure is not a suitable form of expression for academic essays, however well-intentioned and devout. Your job as an academic writer is to distance yourself from religion and ideology and assess texts as objectively and dispassionately as you can, regardless of any personal feelings in the matter. This is actually a good discipline as you are then forced to think your position through a lot more carefully, and harness stronger arguments. You can still draw on your beliefs, but they need to be more conventionally expressed and draw on the broader academic literature rather than purely religious texts. Incidentally, this also would apply if you were an avid follower of Marx, Juche or whatever.

Id, ego and superego

Many students are not sure how to position themselves within an essay and whether they can use the pronoun ‘I’. Where it works well is when it is clear you are offering a personal insight that clarifies a theoretical point. This rises above the commonplace and counts as the application of knowledge, something we might call a measured, controlled, superego approach. What works less well is when students ramble on about their own lives for half the essay in a narrative way, and this is mainly off-task. It comes across as indulgent, and we might call this a rather self-interested ego approach. What really comes across badly is the use of bold pronouncements in academic writing. In some of the weaker essays I mark, these come across as assertions that because the author has twenty years’ classroom experience as a practitioner, for example this means they know more about education than the authorities who have carried out seminal research studies. For the purposes of theoretical psychoanalytical completeness, I would call this an id approach, being apparently unaffected by logic or reality. So the secret when referring to yourself is considering how you would link it to a reference that adds to the debate. If you can do this easily and effectively, it is most probably an appropriate use of the pronoun.

Apostrophe catastrophe

What can I say? It beggars belief that intelligent postgraduate students with at least 14 years of schooling behind them are not always able to use the apostrophe properly. If you can’t, read Lynne Truss’s amazing book Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Her blog is here:



2 thoughts on “The seven deadly sins of academic writing”

  1. Sandra, this is really good! As an ITT tutor, I mark trainees’ assignments but I also moderate other tutors’ feedback. So I see a lot of essays – your excellent piece here helps me to articulate more clearly some of the ‘sins’ I encounter all the time. I love ‘citation bombing’, that’s exactly what it is!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s