Martha Carlin
Professor of History
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
copyright 2022, all rights reserved


Your academic writing should be well-reasoned and well-phrased, and should use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Always proofread your work before you submit it.

Here are eight common writing problems to avoid:

  1. Awkward and unclear phrasing

Example: “The fact that no one knew what was happening and the remoteness of the castle meant that it wasn’t clear what to do.”

Corrected version: “News of the war had not reached the remote castle. When an enemy force approached, the castle’s commander had no idea what was happening or what to do.” It is your responsibility to say clearly what you mean. Do not settle for a clumsy or unclear approximation of what you intended to say. If necessary, convert a long, confusing sentence into two sentences.

  1. Vague statements

Example: “In medieval cities, the usefulness of inns outside the walls may have been increased due to some legislation.”

Vague and unclear statements such as this signal to the reader that you do not really know what you are talking about.

Corrected version: “Commercial innkeeping developed in the fourteenth century and was especially common in suburbs, where rents were lower and regulations often looser than in city centers.”

  1. Inappropriate personal comments

Example: “I feel that the Romans cared more about entertainment than justice.”

In academic writing, your job is to use concrete evidence and careful analysis to make arguments, draw conclusions, and persuade the reader that you have proved your case. Your personal feelings are not relevant; introducing them says that you are basing your case on your feelings rather than on your scholarship.

  1. Wandering tenses

Example: “In medieval Europe, most people were poor and hunger is common.”

Corrected version: “In medieval Europe, most people were poor and hunger was common.” Wandering tenses are ungrammatical, sloppy, and confusing. Avoid them.

  1. Over-use of the passive voice

Example: “As soon as the news reached the king the war was begun.”

Corrected version: “As soon as the king heard the news, he declared war.” Occasional use of the passive voice is fine, but frequent use makes your writing flabby, clumsy, and blurry. Say “they did it” rather than “it was done by them.”

  1. Sentence fragments

Example: “A time of wonder and mystery.”

Corrected version: “It was a time of wonder and mystery.” Sentence fragments are ungrammatical. They make your writing look incompetent or pretentious. Avoid them.

  1. Clichés:

Example:  “Richard the Lionheart was an adventurer who lived life in the fast lane.”

Avoid clichés. They deaden your writing, and tell the reader that you would rather use a tired expression than think for yourself. They also often include inappropriate anachronisms (as above) or slang or colloquial expressions (see below).

  1. Inappropriate use of slang or colloquialisms, including contractions:

Example: “When George Washington passed, America mourned.”

Academic writing is formal, not casual. This helps to make it timeless, and also understandable to international readers. Formal writing thus avoids slang and colloquial expressions, including contractions. Say “died” not “passed.” Say “children” not “kids.” Say “they were not present” not “they weren’t present.”