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Writing academically: Academic style

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“The judgments that are made about a piece of academic writing are part of the whole process of deciding upon the quality of a person's learning and, in turn, the class of degree they should be awarded.”

Andy Gillet, Angela Hammond and Mary Martala,  Successful Academic Writing

The style of academic writing is a little different to most other types of writing. It should be formal yet not over-complicated, persausive yet balanced and objective yet allow your own 'voice' to come through. The seven tips below should help you ensure you are getting the right tone.

Tip 1 - Use formal language

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Academic writing needs to be in a formal style - not written as we speak. This means avoiding the three Cs:

  • Contractions (isn't, didn't could've etc);
  • Clichés (in the nick of time, this day and age etc)
  • Colloquialisms (kids, mums, loads of, cool etc).

Also, try to use more formal words for some commonly used spoken words. For example, use 'quotation' rather than 'quote', 'many' rather than 'lots of' and 'obtain', 'acquire' or 'become' instead of 'get'.

If you are unsure about the choice of words, it may help you to use a built-in thesaurus when using a word processor for your writing. In MS Word, right click on a word and choose Synonyms - you will be given a list of words with similar meanings and you can also click on the Thesaurus option for more choices. You may then want to check for the precise meaning and usage of a certain word in a dictionary. Over time, you will build up your own academic vocabulary.

Tip 2 - Use academic caution

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Academic writing needs to be cautious rather than definite. Instead of writing ’this proves that the approach was completely wrong’, you should write something like ‘this could suggest that the approach was inappropriate’.

Words indicating caution include: ‘tends’, ‘suggests’, ‘could’, ‘may’, ‘might’, ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, etc. These can make statements less forceful. One possible way of avoiding making generalisations is to ask yourself, ‘Is this always the case?’ For example, consider the statement ‘Vulnerable adults live in poor housing’ . This may not always be true. It may often be true but it would be better to be cautious and say ‘Vulnerable adults may live in poor housing’.

Sweeping statements and generalisations should also be avoided. Rather than writing ‘Teenagers do not respect their parents’, a phrase like ‘Many teenagers have been shown to lack respect for their parents’ would be better.

The use of what is called litotes can be helpful when wanting to be cautious. This is where you use a negative with a negative adjective. For example, ‘It is not unlikely that further research will prove that...’ Be sparing with these though as they can make an argument less clear.

Tip 3 - Be clear

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Think about your readers and make it as easy as possible for them to follow your ideas. Your work will be read by your tutor(s) or supervisor. Does it express your ideas with clarity? Remember that tutors will have many assignments to read; make their work easier by writing as clearly as possible. It will benefit you and them.

Clarity in academic writing requires a logical structure. There is no point in carrying out appropriate research and having a good grasp of a topic if you then write your findings in an unstructured way. It would be very much like writing instructions for someone to go from A to B but giving them in the wrong order, muddling up the junctions and landmarks. The person reading them and trying to follow them would end up confused.

You write essays to show your understanding of a subject. However, use your common sense when giving explanations of concepts etc. It might be necessary at first year undergraduate level to prove to your reader that you do have a sound understanding of certain basic ideas relating to your subject. On the other hand, at postgraduate level it would be taken for granted that these were understood.

Long sentences can be confusing for the reader. In addition, there is a greater chance that grammatical mistakes will creep into them. Do not fall into the mistaken belief of thinking that academic writing must consist of long, complex sentences. It is often better to use shorter sentences. Do not be afraid to use them as they can add clarity.

Tip 4 - Back up your points with evidence

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Every point you make in academic writing needs to be backed up by evidence from reliable sources. This can be in the form of other reading you have undertaken (articles, books, reports etc) or your personal experience (generally from placements you have been on as part of your course).

You are allowed your own ideas - but only if you can show how you have developed them. What makes you think about something the way you do? All your sources must be cited in your writing and listed at the end of your document.

See our Referencing your work SkillsGuide for help on how to cite within the body of the document and format your final reference list.

Tip 5 - Give a balanced viewpoint

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When you can, it is important to include examples of ideas that disagree with what you are saying, as well as ones that support it. This will give your work balance and show that you have read widely and thought about the subject from different angles.

Providing a balanced argument is an important element of critical thinking and writing. Our Critical Writing SkillsGuide has a page on Alternative viewpoints which gives advice on incorporating these into your writing.

Tip 6 - Be objective

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Whilst you must show commitment to your argument and attempt to persuade the reader of your viewpoint, avoid words that are overly emotive like dreadful, horrendous, stunning, adorable. Keep it objective and impersonal.

Wrong: The conditions were really horrendous. It is no wonder that so many of the poor children suffered such dreadful diseases.

Right: The conditions were poor and were likely to have contributed to the high levels of childhood infectious diseases that were observed.

Tip 7 - Admit to limitations

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You are studying huge subjects and often have to focus on a very small part of a much bigger picture. Admitting limitations to what you can include shows that you are acknowledging that you cannot cover everything.

University study is often looking at new and pioneering research where there are no easy answers - as your writing progresses, you also needs to acknowledge the limited extent of human knowledge.

Expressions such as ‘For the purpose of this essay, the following limited definition will be used: ...’ or ‘The length of this essay means that only a limited number of examples can be discussed...’ can be very useful to show you are aware of limitations in your writing.