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The Path to Strengthening Your Academic Writing Skills


By Dr. Nicole Drumhiller, Program Director, Intelligence Studies at American Military University

Good academic writing is more than just writing. It is a process of critical thinking, research, and analysis that can only enhance an officer’s ability to do his or her job effectively. – Chapnick and Stone (2009)

One of the biggest challenges students face when starting graduate school is learning how to write in an academic style. These writing skills take time—lots of time—to develop. There are two primary factors that drive improvement in academic writing.

First and foremost: practice. It might seem obvious, but the fact remains that the more you write, the better you will get at writing. Integrating reviewer feedback is also a great learning exercise.

The second way to improve your writing is increasing how much (and what) you read. It’s important to read the level of writing that you are trying to achieve. For example, by reading peer-reviewed journals and scholarly publications, students learn the style and language used in academic writing. The more you read at this level, the better you can mimic the style and integrate the language into your own work.

Surmountable Challenges
Many students enter graduate school out of practice writing academic papers. And that’s okay. Writing is a skill that can be relearned, but students must be diligent about learning from their mistakes.

[Related Article: Could You Pass the CIA’s Writing Boot Camp?]

Another challenge stems from the fact that students are used to writing for the work place. The formality and style of academic writing is very different than the style of writing for work. For example, some jobs require individuals to be sensitive to time constraints and write using short bullet points. In a conversation with industry experts from the intelligence community, one individual explained:

“I can teach people to write short bullet-pointed reports by showing them examples. That’s easy. I don’t have the capacity to teach the kind of writing skills that show critical thinking and sound research skills. They need to know this before they come on the job.”

One excellent resource for students is Chapnick and Stone’s (2009) Academic Writing for Military Personnel. Granted, the title focuses on a military audience, but it is useful to anyone transitioning into academia from a career field that did not use academic citations. This book provides students insight into the academic tone of voice that is used in academic research and writing.

Differences in Writing Style and Purpose
Graduate students need to be able to distinguish between narrative writing, expository writing, and academic or persuasive writing (Chapnick and Stone, 2009).

Many people have prior experience reading works that tell a story or report information. That is not the purpose of academic writing. Instead, academic writing is geared towards making and backing up a specific claim or argument. Students typically have no problem making claims or arguments, but have difficulty backing up their assertions using evidence from existing literature.

Students must use resources to support their work. For example, even if you’ve worked on nuclear submarines for 25 years, if you plan to write about them for an academic paper, you must back up your work judiciously with references to existing literature.

[Watch an instructional video by AMU professor Dr. Ron Wallace about how to find reliable scholarly sources.]

According to Turabian (2013), references are used for a number of reasons:

  1. To give credit to the originator of the idea
  2. To back up and enhance the accuracy of your claims
  3. To point out bodies of research that inform your study
  4. To help readers pursue their own line of research

A reference should appear at the end of each sentence where “you use any idea, data, or method attributable to any source you consulted” (Turabian, 2013, p. 136).

Maintaining Academic Professionalism
Documenting references is something that any good researcher or analyst should do. There are numerous guides and tools that can help you keep track of your sources and notes such as Zotero or Endnote. Such tools can assist you in properly documenting sources.

Being a strong academic writer is not just about the number of sources you cite; high-quality resources are important. In general, peer-reviewed journals and scholarly books will always trump magazine articles, blog posts, encyclopedia entries, and similar sources.

Why? Because journals and scholarly books are sources that have been vetted by professionals in the field. Peer-reviewed journals use blind, and even double-blind, peer-review processes where the author’s name is masked so that the experts that review it are not biased by the author’s prior work or reputation.

Open Source Is Not a Limitation to Academic Research
One misconception by students transitioning from the military or intelligence community is that their research is limited because they must use open-source materials. The fact is, about 95 percent of peace-time research carried out by the intelligence community comes from open sources so it’s a very valuable source of information (Prunckun 2015).

If authors of scholarly publications were required to utilize protected sources of information in their work, chances are that research would not be approved by their employers for publication. Students who are struggling to find information on a topic most likely need to adjust their search methods as the information most likely is available in open source.

Hard Work and Time Will Improve Writing
When first starting your graduate studies, remember to be diligent but patient with your writing abilities. It will take time to adjust to the formality of academic writing, but it will happen. If you are struggling with this transition, be sure to reach out to your professor for assistance and ask for additional resources to help you. By the end of your first class, you will likely see a dramatic improvement in your writing skills. Good luck!

Nicole Drumhiller_SMAbout the Author: Nicole Drumhiller graduated with a Ph.D. in Political Science from Washington State University. She is currently the Program Director of the Intelligence Studies Program at American Public University System. Nicole teaches courses in analysis, profiling, deception, and propaganda. Her research interests include cognition, group and leadership psychology, and extremist studies.


Chapnick, Adam and Craig Stone. 2009. Academic Writing for Military Personnel. University of Ottawa Press.

Prunckun, Hank. 2015. Scientific Methods of Inquiry for Intelligence Analysis. 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Roman and Littlefield.

Turabian, Kate L. 2013. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students & Researchers. 8th ed. The University of Chicago Press.




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