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Rules to Write By

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

Academic writing doesn't have to be awful. It usually is, of course, but there is nothing inevitable about that.

Most of us who make it to grad school start off with an ability to communicate like normal human beings, but too often that promising foundation gets ruined by years of reading impenetrable theory papers. As we train our minds to think differently, we inevitably pick up new scholarly conventions and a lot of bad habits. Over time, this type of writing becomes our benchmark for what we think real academic work should look like. Making matters worse, nothing soothes a case of impostor's syndrome better than a pungent poultice of bullshit, making bad writing as much a safety net as it is a style.

I have admittedly done my fair share of terrible academic writing, but I have been fortunate enough to have had people around me willing to furrow their brows at my prose and tell me to get my head out of my ass.

The more that I've written and revised, the more I've become aware of my own worst impulses. To keep myself in line in, I have devised my own set of rules for good academic writing (very much in the spirit of Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," which is still worth reading in its entirety). Yours may be different, and that's fine too. Mine are as follows:

1. Plan out your structure ahead of time.

It may be easier to cut than it is to write, but it's also a waste of time to have to cut because your first draft was just pouring garbage onto the page.

2. Be judicious with lists, dyads and rules of three.

I know that this is technically one of those, but I'm a shameless hypocrite so you're going to have to deal with it. If your description is just a set of words separated by commas or an "and," you haven't offered any real analysis, you've just told people what was there.

3. While we're talking commas, try to limit their use in general.

Most commas are there to manage the flow of your sentences. They are designed to make the reader pause, so if you add too many of them your sentences, you will sound choppy when you could have easily glided on to the next thought. Remember: you don't have to use one after each clause if it doesn't add clarity.

4. Vary sentence structure to keep it interesting, but be thoughtful about it.

Don't sacrifice your active voice for the sake of novelty, and certainly don't fall into predictable patterns just because you're trying to mix things up. If anything could be worse than repetitive sentence structures, it's accidentally repetitive overly-complicated sentence structures.

5. Don't use parentheticals or dashes to be digressive.

Dashes are okay if they connect two distinct thoughts, but don't overuse them. Semicolons are not okay. If you want to be digressive, remember that footnotes exist for a reason (well at least two reasons). Better yet, just try not to be digressive.

6. Don't unnecessarily bog down your sentences with adjectives and adverbs.

See, I had to use an adverb there, but I kept myself under control.

7. Don't overuse crutch words or phrases, or anything in Latin (unless you're writing on the language).

Why do we like "indeed" so much? It sounds stupid and adds little meaning to the sentence.

8. Keep your figurative writing and metaphors interesting.

More of our language is metaphorical than we realize, so this is hard. But make sure you're not just using lazy canned speech when you could think up something scintillating and original. Like, don't use conventions like "canned speech."

9. Brevity is beautiful. If you can cut out a word or simplify a sentence, do it.

10. You're going to repeat your pet words, constantly. Be aware of what they are and make sure you don't sound repetitive.

I somehow used the term "hinterlands" three times in one paragraph and didn't catch it until my proofs. The worst part is that it wasn't even the word I needed in at least one of those instances. Edit with your own flaws in mind.

11. It's okay to have a personality.

If you have a voice, use it. I'm sure that people will read your work solely for the data and your ideas, but it's nice if you can reward them with a bit of yourself in the process.

12a. That said, don't be precious.

12b. Or pompous.

If you try to sound smart just for the sake of it, you're usually alienating general readers. Some of my dumbest mistakes came when I was trying to show off.

13 . At the very least, try to make the first and last parts of your piece interesting.

They're what the reader will remember most, so take some time to be memorable when you have to be.

14. If you have any doubts about a passage, read it out loud.

If it's awkward for you, just think how your reader will feel.

There are other rules to be followed, but these were ones that I tend to break most often and most egregiously. In fact, you've likely noticed that I violated my rules all over the place in that list alone, so they are clearly more of a philosophical approach to the process than anything.

If I were to add a final note, it would be to read. Read novels, read essays, read books and papers. Read good things that make you want to write and read garbage that shows you how not to write. Train your brain to be the writer you want it to be.

Why do we even care? Sure, everyone wants to write well so they will look good for their peers, but if we focus on the big picture, relearning to communicate well is necessary if we hope to keep our profession relevant. Fortunately, there seems to be a shift taking place in a few corners of the field. Some of this is clearly inspired by editors trying to keep the leaky academic publishing industry afloat, but I also think that many of us have grown wistful for the Ghosts of Historians Past - the Inalcıks and Braudels of the field who suckered so many of us into this godforsaken profession in the first place.

It's a start, in any case. Books are expensive, but knowledge is precious. If we expect anyone outside of our narrow specializations to care about what we write, we need to make it worth reading. We can't complain that nobody learns from history if we make it a chore to try.

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