Academic writing style
Key words: formal/informal, objective, discipline terminology, standard English, correct English, non-discriminatory language, colloquial language/slang
About academic writing style
Modern academic writing has a formal style. But, what does 'formal' mean? Sometimes, students think that a formal style means that they have to copy their lecturer's writing style or that of the books and journals that they read. This may result in writing that is stilted and unclear. Academic writers develop their style after years of practice and students will take time to learn this style. In this workshop, you will be helped with your writing style if you follow some basic rules.
Exercise 1: Recognising the appropriate academic style
Study these paragraphs and select the correct comment about the writing style.
What to do
Most lecturers expect students to:
Click on the links to see more details.
- write objectively
- using third person rather than first or second person (i.e. avoid using I, we, you)
- using standard English (avoid clichés and slang)
- using academically sound sources of information to back up your arguments
- write clearly
- write a plan to organise your writing before you start
- write academic paragraphs correctly (see paragraph workshops)
- write shorter sentences (no longer than a couple of lines)
- punctuate correctly (poor punctuation affects clarity)
- edit your writing for meaning
- use the technical vocabulary of your subject area
- use standard English
- use correct English
- use non-discriminatory language
Objective writingAcademic writing is objective (i.e. factual, impersonal, unemotional, logical and precise). You should deal with facts in an impersonal way, without distortion by personal feelings or prejudices. While you are expected to develop your own ideas from your research and reading about a topic, you must express those ideas in an impersonal objective manner. An objective tone in your writing is achieved by:
ClarityClarity in your writing ensures that the person who is reading (marking) your work can understand what you are saying. Do not ASSUME that your reader will understand what you are trying to say—try to write so that another person will grasp your ideas. The opposite of clear writing is muddled text that has to be deciphered by the reader. Following are a few tips to help you to write clearly:
Technical vocabularyEvery subject you study will have some specialised vocabulary that should be used when you are writing about that subject. Most text books have a glossary of terms (or use discipline specific dictionaries) with explanations so that you can use these terms correctly. If you use these words fluently in your essay, it shows your marker that you are mastering your subject.
Standard EnglishThis is English used by the general community (e.g. business, government, schools) rather than local English (e.g. colloquial, slang) variations.
Correct EnglishYou will lose marks for incorrect sentences, spelling and punctuation, so always proofread your work. Use a good Australian dictionary (e.g. Macquarie Dictionary) and invest in a writer's guide if you are unsure about the rules of English (e.g. Macquarie Writer's Friend).
Non-discriminatory languageThis is language that avoids offending groups of people (e.g. racial, ethnic, religious, age, sexual). See the ASO fact sheet on Using non-discriminatory language.
What NOT to do
There is much to learn from what is NOT wanted. Following are some of the small but specific mistakes in style that are made (mainly unconsciously) in formal written work.
Click on the links to see more details.
- Do not use colloquial language or slang
- Do not use shortened forms of words and phrases incorrectly
- Avoid using personal language
- Avoid using language that is emotional
- Avoid using words that express your opinion tooooooo strongly
- Avoid using unnecessary words
- Avoid using brackets and dashes to add information
- Do not use dot/bullet point lists unless you are instructed to
- check their work for plagiarised statements
- ensure that their in-text references were adequate
- make certain that the items in the reference list matched the in-text references.
- Do not shift verb tense unnecessarily
- Do not use exclamation marks (!!!) in your essay
- Do not use questions and commands
- Do not misuse font and font styles (mainly italics & underlining)
- Emphasising a word or phrase in a statement (e.g. This interpretation may not be reliable.)
- Identifying a letter treated as a word (e.g. the letter s is a problem for ...)
- Identifying foreign words not absorbed in English (e.g. raison d'etre, en famille)
- Identifying the title of a publication (e.g. The Department of Education publication Literacy and Your Child), ship (e.g the Titanic), aeroplane (e.g. The Kitty Hawk) in your writing.
- Referencing conventions—see UNE referencing.
Colloquial language and slang
DO NOT USE YOUR EVERYDAY CONVERSATIONAL ENGLISH OR SLANG TERMS IN YOUR ACADEMIC WRITING.Everyday conversational English (including slang) is practised daily in our lives. When you begin academic studies, you will be expected to conform to the academic standard of using formal language. What does this mean in REAL terms? It means that you will have to recognise colloquial language in your own writing and systematically edit your work to replace words, phrases and sentences with the acceptable academic form so that your writing sounds objective and informed. This takes time and practice.
Following are some examples of colloquial language taken from student essays:
colloquial Most of us don't have time to, say, play around with learning grammar and punctuation while we're studying. rewrite Many students find it difficult to find time to learn the basics of grammar and punctuation while they are studying.
colloquial Gone are the days when English is drilled into students at school. rewrite The era when English was drilled into school students has passed.
colloquial At the end of the day, grammar and punctuation still count in your essay writing rewrite Lecturers expect students to use correct grammar and punctuation in their essays.
colloquial This exercise shows a couple of things about formal writing. rewrite This exercise demonstrates some of the problems students have with their formal writing.
colloquial This may be due to a succession of wave after wave of change in education practices. rewrite This condition may have been caused by a number of successive changes in education practices.
Shortened forms of words and phrases
DO NOT USE CONTRACTIONS AT ALL (e.g. it's for it is or it has; would've for would have)
Contractions are classed as informal language.
USE ACRONYMS (e.g. TAFE) AND INITIALISMS (e.g. UNE) CORRECTLY
The general rule is to write the name in full first time with the acronym in brackets immediately after. For the rest of the essay, use the acronym. Be consistent—once you have written the acronym, use it all of the time. DO NOT use full stops between the abbreviated letters (e.g. UNE). If you need to make an acronym into a plural, then add a lower case 's' without using an apostrophe (e.g. TAFEs, PhDs, IQs). If an abbreviation is commonly used as a word, you can use it in the abbreviated form without writing it in full first (e.g. NSW, FAQs).
AVOID USING COMMON ABBREVIATIONS (such as e.g., i.e., viz., etc.)
It is BEST to write the full term in the text of your writing. For example:
e.g. (use for example instead)
etc. (use and so forth instead)
i.e. (use that is instead)
viz. (use namely instead)
vs. (use versus instead)
& (use and instead)
DO NOT USE PERSONAL PRONOUNS IN YOUR FORMAL WRITING UNLESS YOU ARE ASKED TO DISCUSS YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES.
As most academic writing should be objective, you are usually advised to avoid using personal pronouns (e.g. I, me, my, we, us, our, you) in your writing. This sometimes poses difficulties for the writer when a set question implies that your opinion is required. For example:
My observationsof the literature on student essay writing are that students who participate in a training program on plagiarism perform better in their assignment tasks. Therefore, I think that all university students should be trained in how to avoid plagiarism. A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE
Studies (reference required) of student performance on essay writing reveal that students who receive training in plagiarism avoidance are more likely to perform well in their essay tasks. Therefore, training in plagiarism avoidance is recommended for university students.
AVOID USING WORDS THAT MAY SOUND UNCRITICAL, GUSHY OR DEFAMATORY WHEN YOU PRESENT YOUR OPINION.
Be careful that you use language in a neutral way so that you keep your likes and dislikes (emotions) to yourself. Appealing to your reader by using strong words is not acceptable in most academic writing. For example:
A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE
First year university students were challenged when university administrators expected them to abide by the plagiarism rules set by the university. Some concerned lecturers approached the issue by delivering a series of well-presented workshops to assist the students to overcome their referencing problems. It was an effective strategy as most of their students were able to avoid having any significant plagiarism problems.
Hedging words and phrases
DO NOT USE WORDS AND PHRASES IN ACADEMIC WRITING THAT ARE TOO STRONGLY OPINIONATED.
When you are evaluating theories and discussing implications, lecturers expect that your argument should appear to be well-considered and reasonable. The language you use to make your claims should show that you can 'make way' for other points of view. If it is appropriate for you to be tentative (medium certainty) with your claims, you can use language techniques to 'soften' your claims to indicate the degree of certainty you want to express. This technique is called hedging.
|Low certainty||Medium certainty/Hedging||High certainty|
|seldom, rarely, never, improbable, impossible, unattainable ...||probably, perhaps, likely, occasionally, sometimes, generally, may, might, can, could, appears to be, seems to be, tends to be, suggests, considers ...||undoubtedly, absolutely, certainly, definitely, incredible, amazing, unbelievable, particularly, very, vitally, totally, wholly, often, must, would, should ...|
DO NOT CLOG UP YOUR WRITING WITH WORDS THAT DON'T NEED TO BE THERE.
Unnecessary words confuse and frustrate the reader (marker). Using too many words is a common fault in student writing. Most students do battle with the word count (allowable words per essay), so when you're editing your writing be aware of the tendency to overuse words. You can cut out unnecessary words—without changing the meaning—to reduce your word count. The following table shows you a few common wordy phrases and their shorter replacements:
|Wordy phrases||Using better English|
|1. it would appear that ...||1. apparently ...|
|2. with the exception of ...||2. except ...|
|3. in connection with ...||3. about ...|
|4. are found to be in agreement with ...||4. agree ...|
|5. a large majority of ...||5. most ...|
|6. in the event that ...||6. if ...|
|7. a disproportionate number ...||7. few ...|
|8. arrive at a decision ...||8. decide ...|
|9. for a further period of ten years ...||9. for another ten years ...|
|10. such is by no means the case ...||10. this is not so ...|
|11. in the field of education ...||11. in education ...|
|12. they are without legal representation whatsoever ...||12. they have no legal representation ...|
|13. in the case of the third question ...||13. in the third question ...|
|14. at the present time, overseas companies are ...||14. overseas companies are now ...|
|15. there is really somewhat of an obligation on behalf of the department of health ...||15. the Department of Health is obliged ...|
See Kim Blank's Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List for more info.
Brackets & dashes
AVOID USING BRACKETS & DASHES TO ADD INFORMATION
In formal academic writing, brackets are used for in-text referencing systems (other than footnoting).In informal writing, brackets are often used to enclose non-essential information. However, using brackets in formal academic writing to give information is generally NOT ENCOURAGED. It is better to use a pair of commas and say what you mean.
A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE
Many students had difficulties with using information correctly in their writing, for example, paraphrasing and summarising.
DashesDashes are used in a similar way to brackets. Most students use them incorrectly as the rules are complicated. Therefore, it is better to avoid using dashes in your formal writing unless you have a very good grasp of the rules.
DO NOT USE BULLET/DOT POINTS IN YOUR ACADEMIC WRITING UNLESS THE LECTURER TELLS YOU TO.If you want to list information, avoid using bullet points. For example:
In dealing with plagiarism, lecturers warned the students that they should:
Text in linear style
In dealing with plagiarism, lecturers warned students that they should: check their work for plagiarised statements, ensure that their in-text references were adequate and make certain that the items in the reference list matched the in-text references.
DO NOT SHIFT FROM ONE TENSE TO ANOTHER IF THE TIME FRAME FOR EACH ACTION OR EVENT IS THE SAME.The tense of a verb indicates whether the time of an event is in the past, present or future. In academic writing, you should take care to check the tense consistency of verbs. Students often change verb tense by mistake. One minute they are writing in one tense, then you abruptly switch to another tense. This makes your writing confusing and annoying. You will need to check for this when you are proofreading your work. For example:
SHOULD BE WRITTEN AS
Many students experience (present tense) difficulties with plagiarism until they are assisted (present tense) to understand some basic rules.
Use past tense to narrate events and to refer to an author or an author's ideas in an historical sense or if you using an example from a past event (e.g. reflecting on teaching practice).If you are referring to future action, verbs such as will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time will assist you to indicate future tense (e.g. the last statement in the conclusion of your essay).
NEVER USE EXCLAMATION MARKS IN YOUR ACADEMIC WRITING.Exclamation marks have no place in formal academic writing. They speak volumes in personal writing (e.g. letters, emailing, texting). However, in academic writing, you should say what you mean in words. For example:
SHOULD BE WRITTEN AS
Students may require assistance in plagiarism avoidance at the start of their first year to assist them to succeed in their university studies.
Questions and commands
QUESTION AND COMMAND SENTENCES ARE NOT REQUIRED IN FORMAL ACADEMIC WRITING.
Academic writing uses language to report, argue and critique. You must use statements at all times to do this. This means that you do not revert to using personal address such as questions and commands.Often students attempt to answer the question with a question or toss in a question to give the impression of putting in a point of view. This point of view should be expressed as a statement. For example:
Essay writing is an important skill for tertiary students. Don't you see how many marks are given for this?
SHOULD BE WRITTEN AS A STATEMENT
Essay writing is an important skill for tertiary students. Academic essays can attract a considerable proportion of assessment marks in most degree programs.
Now, let's discuss how to help students to stop plagiarising in their academic essays.
SHOULD BE WRITTEN AS
The first issue is to find ways to assist students to avoid plagiarising in their academic essays.
Fonts and font styles
DO NOT USE INAPPROPRIATE FONTS OR FONT STYLES.Many students become creative with fonts (e.g. Comic Sans) and font styles (e.g. bold, underlining, italics, capital letters) in academic essays. However, this is NOT required. These tools follow set conventions that must be adhered to. For example:
FontsUse only those fonts recommended in your study guide. They are usually Arial and/or Times New Roman in 12 point, black. Readability is the key issue. If headings are permissible, you may use variations in font size and font style to mark the hierarchy (importance) of main headings and section headings.
Try these workshops if you need to have a fuller understanding of what academic writing style means in higher education learning communities:
- eSKILLS UNE: Cultural issues (UNE)
- Writing with good style (University of NSW)
- Academic writing for undergraduate students (Monash University)
- UniLearning: Academic writing (University of Wollongong)
- UniLearning: Expressing opinion (University of Wollongong)
- Conciseness: Methods of eliminating wordiness (The OWL at Purdue)