As a non-native English speaker, I struggle sometimes during my academic writing because of lack of some academic vocabulary.

I have bought many books for academic vocabulary, but I found them to be boring, and even when I memorize a word, I don't remember it when I start writing.

So, what are the other methods that I can improve my academic English vocabulary?

  • 3
    Do you mean technical terms, or general formal-sounding words and phrases that you think sound better in academic writing? Can you give some examples of words that you think are good, or a sentence that someone criticized for not sounding academic enough?
    – gib
    Feb 19, 2022 at 19:29
  • 2
    There is no "right way" - what works for one person may not for another. That said, your English in this question is clear. That should be the goal for any writing. There's no need for fancy words when they are not necessary. Have readers complained that your vocabulary is not "academic enough". Feb 19, 2022 at 19:55
  • 3
    Memorizing obscure words leads to poor quality academic writing. Feb 19, 2022 at 22:34

8 Answers 8


Unfortunately, there is no quick way. My main advice is to read lots of good papers, especially by authors who have good academic writing. You learn by osmosis. It may not be obvious now, but you will find academic writing is 'simple', meaning authors tend to use a restricted set of words and write in similar styles. Second, get a teacher or someone who is willing to provide feedback. Third, focus on one rule at a time. For example, I noticed that you wrote 'I struggles', which is not correct. So you may want to focus on singular and plural rules first. Fourth, give yourself time. Becoming proficient in a language takes many years.

  • Note, however, that English has few "rules" that aren't routinely broken. This is largely due to the many distinct language roots that led to modern English. Spelling, pronunciation, subtly different words for very similar concepts (French and German derivatives, perhaps). It is quite chaotic compared to many other languages.
    – Buffy
    Feb 19, 2022 at 23:39

There is a trend amongst academics to assert that scientific communication should be simple, and therefore vocabulary is overrated. In my opinion, this is a little misguided.

Vocabulary doesn't have to mean the use of obscure or complicated words; it is simply the use of the right word in the right place. Scientific literature is littered with imprecisely used words. Native English speakers are not immune to this either.

My suggestion is to spend more time understanding words and their actual context rather than trying to learn more words. This often involves developing a better appreciation for the scientific concepts that you deal with.

As example, consider the use of the word 'spectrum' in the physical sciences. It is often used inaccurately when 'variety'/'range' would suffice. A spectrum specifically requires a (usually continuous) range of measurable quantities that vary in one particular aspect. Frequencies of electromagnetic radiation can form a spectrum, but stating that 'the spectrum of chemical reactions is composed of...' is inaccurate, and 'range' is better. (Usage like 'a wide spectrum of people' instead of 'diverse set' is plain silly).

Likewise, authors often write 'chemistry of an alloy' when they mean 'chemical composition of an alloy'. These authors ignore the fact that chemistry encompasses far more than chemical composition.

My central point is that academic vocabulary can only be built in the context of your academic field. Words have different usage across fields (and in everyday use); so it is necessary to truly understand what each technical word conveys in your particular domain.

This can come from a combination of mindful reading of good literature and conscious reflection. Once you've reflected and understood a word, you will use it precisely. Building a habit of precise use will make you seek precise words when a common word won't suffice. That search will lead you to more literature, where you will see how others have tried to express the same ideas. When you reflect on their words/phrases, you will be able to judge whether the context matches yours.

If it is, you have added to your academic vocabulary. If not, the search must continue, but you have still learnt one way not to use those words/phrases.

  • If readers could reasonably be expected to understand what is meant by "chemistry of an alloy" in the context, then I think that phrase is fine. You don't have to spell out the full details of things every time you mention them. You just have to make sure you are clear and accurate.
    – gib
    Feb 20, 2022 at 14:17
  • @gib- I agree, but that's a big if considering that many authors and readers, like OP are non-native speakers, and may take these phrases literally (and use them inaccurately in some other context). Feb 20, 2022 at 14:28
  • A very strong +1, I think focusing on having short concise sentences far outweighs the use of new words when it comes to readability. I think a better technique to improve the quality of writing is rewriting with an aim to aid clarity and succinctness.
    – Russelled
    Feb 20, 2022 at 14:35

In my observation, it is very difficult to find a "rule-based" description of writing or speaking language that sounds "natural/correct". Rather, it is by immersion and imitation. Instead of trying to compose a sentence in a somewhat alien language, try to remember how a more-or-less native speaker said what you want to say. :)


The best way to learn to write is to read the works of good writers

One of the best ways to learn to write well is to read the works of good writers. To begin with, just read through these works without worrying too much about the writing technique. Good argument structure and good prose can both be "absorbed" subconsciously to some extent, without explicit instruction. If you regularly read good writing (and avoid reading bad writing that crowds it out) you will find that you start to enunciate your thoughts more clearly and eloquently without having to think about it. Don't start by reading books on writing technique; these are likely to be boring to you if you read them too early. Instead you should read novels and articles on topics that are of interest to you, written by good writers who have a clear and powerful writing style. Don't confine yourself to academic writing; read widely and include interesting fiction and non-fiction works. Most importantly, if you want to expose yourself to good writing avoid excessive time on social media and read books instead. This is likely to raise the average quality of the prose you are reading, expand your vocabulary, and train you to lengthen your attention span, all of which will benefit your reading and writing.

Once you have become "well read" by reading some good books, you should then take the next step of consciously examining some of the techniques that your favourite writers use that make a powerful impression on you. See if you can decipher and explain their technique, and explain how it differs from other writers. See if you can articulate why you find the style or technique to be powerful and persuasive. As you learn the different styles and techniques of different writers, you will expand your own writing "toolkit" and learn to find your own preferred style. In some cases you may be lucky enough to find a favourite writer who has also written explicitly about writing technique. (One of my favourite writers, George Orwell, wrote some useful articles on his writing where he sets out some writing techniques to make your writing more powerful.) When you are at a point where you are ready to practice writing yourself, you will be ready to read books on writing technique without them boring you.

For example, one of my favourite writers is the economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell. One particular technique that Sowell uses ---which makes his writing powerful--- is to gradually build up the case for a particular conclusion in an anti-polemical style, using a steady drum-beat of empirical evidence and historical examples capped off with a significantly understated conclusion. Sowell begins by setting out a hypothesis or question in a neutral manner and then bombards the reader with a mass of empirical evidence pointing to an answer, almost to the point of exhaustion. As he delivers this evidence he maintains a dispassionate and clinical tone and avoids suggesting any inference or conclusion, relying entirely on the reader to draw their own inference from the evidence presented. Once the proper inference is inescapable, he then finishes with an understated statement of this conclusion, which tends to leave the reader ahead of him in their normative conclusion. This kind of anti-polemical style is one that is contrary to what you see from many polemicists, who tend to put forward strong normative conclusions before they have convinced their reader, leaving the reader behind the writer. It is an interesting and powerful technique.

I could point to other good writers who each have particular techniques that I've found to be useful in writing. Some strong writers that I've found to have helpful writing styles and techniques are George Orwell, Thomas Sowell, Jean-Françios Revel, Ayn Rand, Michel Houellebecq, Noam Chomsky, H.L. Mencken, T.S. Eliot, and Mark Twain. (There are probably plenty of others that I'm forgetting now.) In any case, the above example is just one writing technique that I have observed amongst the best writers I've read. By reading good writers, absorbing their works, and then learning the techniques they use expliclity, you can expand your "toolkit" for writing and learn to write


Make reading scientific literature a habit. Do this regularly and not just before writing a paper, drafting research proposals, etc. Actively reading about things that you enjoy will not only help you get familiar with academic English but also help you identify your area of interest. You can also try writing opinion pieces on a personal blog/social media account to retain what you’ve read and develop a critical point of view.


This may sound counterintuitive, but try to master regular English first. To be able to write nicely, you don't necessarily need a big topic specific vocabulary, you rather need a natural grasp of the language.

I am not a native speaker myself but have reached quite a good level of English by now, and I still often have a dictionary website open in my browser when writing texts. If I don't know a word, I can look it up. In my experience, don't waste brain capacity on things you can fast and easily look up somewhere - as you said yourself, it is tedious and boring.

I would rather suggest to get immersed in the English language in easier and more enjoyable ways: if you watch a movie or a series, watch it in English instead of your native languag, if possible even with subtitles. Try to read as many things in English as you can. Listen to English language audiobooks. Have conversations with native speakers (that one might not be as easy).

From my experience with peer review, if there was a problem with the language level, it most often was poor grammar and poor grasp of the English language in general that made the text hard to read and not the lack of "academia specific vocabulary".


English is not my first language. It takes time, patience and sometimes years to learn it. I consider myself as fluent speaker/writer, but my English is not perfect yet. The key is constant practice and immersion.


Academic or scientific writing has a style and patterns different from others. I would argue that it is just as hard to write it in your native language. So I think perhaps your issue is not just vocabulary, but more importantly, the writing style, how do you start, how to articulate what your research is about, why it is important, what questions are still not addressed by other research…etc.

The fastest way for me was reading other research papers for their writing style and format, and find the key phrases, transition patterns that you are comfortable with and use them as a template to work for your own words or terms suited to your research topic.

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