Tips for a Successful Academic Paper

Tips for a Successful Academic Paper

Writing tip: Tips for a successful academic paper

In my work as a writing coach I have seen some common errors that are repeated frequently throughout student papers.  This tip will help you avoid these common mistakes.  Read on for tips on how to have an excellent paper.

1.       Have a clear, specific, and strong thesis.  Your writer should clearly understand from the beginning of the paper what your argument is and what you will be discussing in your paper.

Example of a poor thesis: In this paper I will explain why it is important for students to learn a foreign language.

Example of a good thesis: It is important for American students to learn a foreign language so they can be competitive in the global market, develop cultural sensitivity, and gain valuable communication skills.

Example of another good thesis: As globalization causes our world to become more interconnected, American workers cannot remain competitive in the global job market without strong language skills.  As a result, American students should be required to learn a foreign language so that they can gain a competitive edge in the job market, develop cultural sensitivity, and learn valuable communication skills.

The thesis forms a blueprint for the organization of my paper.  In the example above, my main argument is that American students should learn a foreign language.  The reasons for my argument are that learning a foreign language will allow students to be competitive in the job market, develop cultural sensitivity, and learn communication skills. Each of these reasons will form a section of my paper.  I will have one section giving evidence on why learning a foreign language will help students be competitive in the job market (and therefore, why students should learn a foreign language).  I will have another section on how students will develop cultural sensitivity and a third section on how they will learn communication skills.  In each section, I will connect the examples and evidence I give back to my overall main argument, which is that American students should be required to learn a foreign language.

2.      Organize your paper around your thesis.  Throughout the paper, explain how your supporting details relate back to your thesis.  Remember the maxim “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them.”  The goal of your paper is to communicate your ideas clearly to the reader.  I strongly suggest that you make an outline before writing your paper.  You can make a detailed outline, but even a brief outline can be useful if you don’t have a lot of time to make a detailed outline.  A brief list of the major sections of your paper and the main things you plan to discuss in each section will go a long way in helping your paper to be logically organized.

3.      Use material from outside sources to provide evidence for your argument, not to fill up space in your paper. Use material from sources carefullyandpurposefullyand be sure toexplain how it provides evidence for your thesis.  Beware of using too much material from outside sources – graduate papers should be full of your own thoughts and ideas.  Also, avoid using long quotes.  Limit your use of quotes to when the quote is very powerful or is by an expert in the field.

4.      Make your paper persuasive and strong. Avoid using phrases like “I think” or “I believe,” which make your writing sound weaker.  Be assertive in how you state your ideas.  Remember that you are trying to convince the reader of your point of view, so be confident, not timid.  However, also be sure to maintain an academic tone to your writing.  You want to prove your point and convince the reader through presenting a logical argument with evidence to back up your views. Avoid generalizations and emotionally charged language, which are not consistent with an academic tone. 

5.      Avoid clichés and unnecessary words. Instead of using clichés, think about what the cliché actually means and write it out in plain English.  Clichés are usually specific to certain regions or countries so they cannot be understood by all English speakers. Additionally, it usually sounds better to write in ordinary English rather than using clichés.  Avoid using unnecessary words like “very” or “really” or “a lot,” which make your paper sound wordy.

6.      Avoid using contractions in formal writing. Do not use contractions like “doesn’t” or “it’s.”  Write out the entire verb, ex. “does not” or “it is.”

7.      Use third person in academic writing. Generally, it is better to avoid the use of "we" and "I" in formal papers (it is alright in some cases to use "I" or "we," for example, if you are describing steps you took in an experiment (see APA Manual p. 69) or if you are specifically asked in an assignment to share your personal feelings or experiences).  However, using "we" or "I" in a formal paper is usually not a good idea.  It takes the focus off your ideas and puts it on you (the Author) instead.  The focus should be on your ideas and argument, not on you as the author.  For example, there is no need to say, "We assert that the best option for the museum is option x because..."  Rather, just say, "The best option for the museum is option x because..."  No need to use "we."  On the same topic, also avoid second person (you) in your papers.  Don’t say things like, “anyone can tell you that…” or “by the end of the paper, you will see that…”  Reword your sentence to be in third person.  

8.      Maintain parallelism in sentences:Parallelism is keeping all parts of a sentence in a similar structure so that the sentence flows well and is easy to read.  For example, the following sentence does not have parallel structure and is INCORRECT: "It is good to have writing coaches because they review drafts, their tips, and it is good to be able to ask them questions.  The various parts of the sentence do not have the same structure.  "they review tips" is subject-verb, "their tips" is a noun, and the final part of the sentence has a grammatical structure that differs from the structure of the other two points.  There are several ways you could rewrite this sentence to have parallel structure.  The following examples are CORRECT: "It is good to have writing coaches because they review drafts, provide tips, and answer questions."  Or you could say "It is good to have writing coaches because of their draft reviews, their tips, and their answers to questions."  From these examples, it is clear to see that using parallel structure makes a sentence easier to read and makes your writing stronger.

9.      Use commas correctly

      Knowing when to use a comma can be confusing.  I will post a longer tip later on with more information about when to use commas.  However, I want to mention some common errors.

·      Do not join two independent clauses together with only a comma.  The following example is INCORRECT: "Sarah was six years old, she had a teddy bear."  To fix the problem, either use a conjunction or break the sentence down into two sentences.  The following examples are CORRECT: "Sarah was six years old, and she had a teddy bear." OR "Sarah was six years old.  She had a teddy bear." 

 ·     Do not put a comma between two items in a list.  Only use a comma if there are three or more items in a list.  Ex.  She had a red pen, a pencil, and a notebook.  But: She had a pencil and a notebook. (no comma needed)


·     Do not put a comma between the subject and the verb in the sentence.  INCORRECT: Students, perform well on exams when they study.  CORRECT: Students perform well on exams when they study.


10.  Use Transitions:Be sure to have transition sentences between the different sections of your paper or it will be difficult for your reader to realize right away that you are discussing a new topic.  Using headings can also help transition between different parts of your paper.  I particularly recommend using headings in longer assignments.  Information about headings can be found in the APA Manual, p. 62-63.  I will be posting a writing tip in the future with more information about headings.

11.  Pay attention to the small details in APA formatting.  Here are some common questions and mistakes that tend to come up in student papers.

The reference list:

Formatting:Be careful in formatting your reference list.  I suggest you look over p. 185-186 in the APA Manual and review the examples in my APA References tip.  Remember that in journal article titles and book titles, only capitalize the first letter of the title and subtitle and any proper nouns. However, Periodical titles are capitalized.  The volume number of a journal should be italicized, but not the issue number or page numbers.

Citing articles from online databases:When you retrieve a journal article from an online database, you should cite it using the doi, if there is one.  If there is no doi, then use the URL of the journal home page.  If there is no journal home page, then use the URL of the database homepage that you used to find the article.  See p. 189-192 in the APA Manual.

Citing something you found on a website:

According to Lee (2010), The general format for citing something you found on a website is:

Author, A. (date). Title of document [Format description]. Retrieved fromhttp://URL

The format description is only required if it is something unusual, like a blog post. (Lee, 2010).  Remember that you should only be using sources from the internet that are reliable in nature, not websites with an agenda or wikis.  For more information on citing from websites, please see the APA Style blog entry at

As a side note, the APA style blog is also a great reference to use when you have APA related questions.

Text citations:

General:The general format for text citations is (Author, Date).  See APA Manual p. 174-175 for the general format and p. 177 for a helpful chart with citation styles for different numbers of authors.  Also, when directly quoting from a source in your paper, the page number where the quote was obtained must be given (see APA Manual p. 170-171).  If there are no page numbers because the source is electronic, use paragraph numbers if they exist, or if not, use heading title followed by the number of the paragraph after the heading (see APA Manual p. 171-172 for detailed instructions).

Citing in text when source has no author:If there is no author indicated, then follow the guidelines in the APA Manual on p. 176 for Works with no identified author or with an anonymous author (6.15). Basically, you will cite in the text according to the first few words of the reference list entry.   Follow the guidelines in 6.15 of the APA Manual.  Do not cite the author as anonymous unless the source specifically designates the author as anonymous.  Also, be sure that the author is not a group author.  Some sources are authored by corporations, government agencies, etc.  Group authors are cited according to Section 6.13 in the APA Manual (p. 176).  For example, the APA Manual is authored by the American Psychological Association, which is a group author.

Cover page:

This is an academic cover page, so be sure that it follows APA format.  See specifically sections 2.01 and 2.02 in your APA Manual (p. 23-24).  You do not need to include an author note.  For a visual example, see p. 41 of your APA Manual (look at page 1 of the sample paper, not the abstract page). 


Be sure to follow the formatting guidelines in your syllabus.  Use the font type and size specified in your syllabus. Additional information on APA formatting, beyond what is listed in your syllabus, can be found on p. 228-230 of the APA manual.  Also, be sure to indent your paragraphs fully, not just a space or two. Paragraphs should be indented 0.5 inch, which is best done by just using the tab key every time you begin a new paragraph (see APA Manual, Paragraphs and Indentation, p. 229).

Follow these tips for a strong and successful paper!


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Lee, C. (2010, November 18).  How to cite something you found on a website in APA style [Web log post].  Retrieved from

This tip was Created by  Elizabeth Chmielewski and was  posted to the MGMT Program WC Tip Bank