Simon says touch your toes.
Simon says hop on one foot.
Touch your nose.
Simon didn’t say.

Remember the old playground game of Simon Says? At the heart of this game is doing what Simon says when he or she says to, and avoiding what he or she doesn’t specifically mention.

Believe it or not, an important part of academic writing boils down to this ability to follow instructions. This occurs at all levels, from student essays and dissertations to conference papers and grant applications.


In most cases, there is a reason that the guidance has been provided. For example, specific instructions about page formatting often combine accessibility (so your audience can read it) and fairness (that everyone is submitting roughly the same amount of content).

Yet there are so many tricks to squeeze more text within a page limit. Have any of these gone through your mind when preparing to submit a document?

  • “The guidelines say 11 pt, but I’ll use 10.5 instead.”
  • “I’ll just shave a bit off the margins and use .95” instead of an inch.”
  • “If I make the line spacing 1.25 instead of the recommended 1.5, I can fit in another two sentences.”
  • “I’ll just make the paragraph breaks 5 pt.”
  • “Arial Narrow is fantastic! I have enough space for a new paragraph!”

If so, please back away from the font and paragraph settings now and think about your audience! Do you want to read closely packed text? White space is your friend.

For journals and conference proceedings in particular, ensuring that their house style is followed to the letter means that it is easy to drop the document into a template so that the final publication looks more professional and consistent. In my time working for a funding agency,  one of the main reasons for proposals being returned to the lead academic was that the guidelines weren’t followed; this causes unnecessary delays to the whole process.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of formatting, consider any other instructions that may be provided. Is the assessment process supposed to be anonymous? Then don’t list bullet points from your CV or paragraphs from your website bio. (Yes, I’ve seen this happen before. Multiple times.) 

Have you included what is asked for in the assessment criteria or on the reviewer form? Whether writing an undergraduate essay, a paper for a conference, or a proposal for funding, make sure your writing meets the requirements. Give a copy of the reviewer form to a friend, mentor, or colleague and ask how they would review your document.

Is it a piece of writing for general consumption rather than an academic audience? Consider how to adjust your language and tone so that someone without a background in the topic can understand it (also, see #2 in this series).

My slightly tongue-in-cheek guidelines are as follows:

  • Read the instructions.
  • Make a style sheet or notes.
  • Read the instructions again.
  • Ask if anything is unclear.
  • Consider reading the instructions a third time to make sure your document or project fits the guidelines.

On a more serious note, the easiest way to make sure you are adhering to the instructions is to make a style guide or quick cheat sheet of what is required, then double check it and the assessment criteria/reviewer forms before submission. Both your future self and the person on the receiving end of the paper will thank you.

Get a free academic submission checklist by signing up to the Blue Eagle mailing list; this can double as a style sheet to remind you about specific formatting requirements. ]

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