There’s no great mystique about an “academic writing style”. The most important thing is to keep your writing clear and concise and make sure that you get your ideas over in a comprehensible form. It’s clear expression of these ideas that will impress your tutor, not a string of long, inappropriate words found in your dictionary. A wide range of vocabulary is of course important, but you must use the right word, and shorter ones are often better than longer ones.
The most important thing to remember is generally to try to avoid everyday, informal language, especially colloquial expressions and slang. Also, spoken language is naturally full of hesitations, repetitions, grammatical errors and unfinished ideas. In your writing, however, structure is much more important: sentences should be complete and ideas arranged into paragraphs or sections, and you should aim for perfection in your grammar and spelling. However, especially if English is not your first language, don’t become too obsessed with this, to the point perhaps of copying word for word from your sources. What’s important is that you clearly show your understanding of the subject and your ability to manipulate information to answer a specific question or complete a specific task, and as long as any grammar errors you make don’t impede this, then it shouldn’t be a problem.
Here are a few general points to remember when you are writing your assignments. As well as using appropriate language and aiming for 100% accuracy in your grammar and vocabulary, you should also remember that you’re writing for someone else, and hence the importance of punctuation, sentences, paragraphs and overall structure, all of which help the reader.
AVOID SOME ASPECTS OF INFORMAL ENGLISH
don’t (do not!) use contractions (eg it’s, he’ll, it’d etc): always use the full form (it is/has, he will, it would/had).
don’t use colloquial language or slang (eg kid, a lot of/lots of, cool)
always write as concisely as you can, with no irrelevant material or “waffle”.
generally avoid “phrasal verbs” (e.g. get off, get away with, put in etc): instead, use one word equivalents.
avoid common but vague words and phrases such as get, nice, thing. Your writing needs to be more precise.
avoid overuse of brackets; don’t use exclamation marks or dashes; avoid direct questions; don’t use “etc”.
always use capital letters appropriately and never use the type of language used in texting!
See the practice exercises at the end of the guide.
STRUCTURE YOUR WRITING CAREFULLY
make sure you write in complete sentences (see Guide 1.34).
divide your writing up into paragraphs (see Guide 1.35).
use connecting words and phrases to make your writing explicit and easy to follow (see Guide 1.39).
check your grammar and spelling carefully (see Guide 1.42).
MAKE YOUR WRITING FORMAL AND IMPERSONAL
avoid being too dogmatic and making sweeping generalisations. It is usually best to use
some sort of “hedging” language (see below) and to qualify statements that you make.
you should consistently use evidence from your source reading to back up what you are saying and reference this correctly.
avoid sexist language, such as chairman, mankind. Don’t refer to “the doctor” as he; instead, make the subject plural and refer to them as they. Avoid he/she, herself/himself etc.
use nominalisation; that is, try to write noun-based phrases rather that verb-based ones.
For example, instead of
Crime was increasing rapidly and the police were becoming concerned.
The rapid increase in crime was causing concern among the police.
In general, academic writing tends to be fairly dense, with relatively long sentences and
wide use of subordinate clauses. Remember, however, that your main aim is clarity, so
don’t be too ambitious, particularly when you’re starting to write.
In order to put some distance between what you’re writing and yourself as writer, to be cautious rather than assertive, you should:
avoid overuse of first person pronouns (I, we, my, our)
use impersonal subjects instead (It is believed that …, it can be argued that …)
use passive verbs to avoid stating the ‘doer’ (Tests have been conducted)
use verbs (often with it as subject) such as imagine, suggest, claim, suppose
use ‘attitudinal signals’ such as apparently, arguably, ideally, strangely, unexpectedly.
These words allow you to hint at your attitude to something without using personal language.
use verbs such as would, could, may, might which ‘soften’ what you’re saying.
use qualifying adverbs such as some, several, a minority of, a few, many to avoid making overgeneralisations.