Academic Writing Style

We’re often asked to teach students how to write with an academic style. That’s quite a tricky one, as different subjects each have their own way of communicating their knowledge in an appropriate, conventional way, so there are as many academic writing styles as there are subjects. A physics paper is written in a very different style to an English Literature article. Even “rules” such as “never use the first person I” are not actually true across all subjects; social sciences subjects may favour it as it acknowledges the role of the researcher in research, and it’s necessary for reflective writing when you’re writing about yourself.

One common piece of advice is to avoid colloquialisms in your writing, elements which are more characteristic of informal speech than formal writing. In practice, I don’t often see many examples of ‘chatty’ writing; I find the real danger is going OTT and too formal, which can both obscure the meaning and come across as pompous! What’s really going on here is that there are a number of turns of phrase which can come across as colloquial as they don’t measure up to the kind of persona readers expect you to create in your work.

However, there are a few principles that can guide you in developing and editing your academic writing style. Think about the persona you’re trying to project through your writing, and what qualities this ‘voice’ needs to convey to your reader:

Formal and professional: we avoid things like contractions (e.g. isn’t, can’t) because the full version (is not, cannot) is more formal, even if it costs us another word. Not all formal alternatives are longwinded though – phrasal verbs (e.g. to think about) take two words when one word would do (e.g. to consider), and as well as being longer, they don’t sound quite so good. Other examples of the formal being more concise than the colloquial include ‘lots of’ instead of ‘many’. We’re not talking too formal though – if you’re uncomfortable with a word, don’t use it – it’s probably OTT and not going to help your message get across (technical terms excepted). We’re talking ‘business suit’ formal, not ‘top hat and tails’ formal!

Precise and unambiguous: in speech, we often try to persuade the listener using emotive tactics, by using exaggeration and vagueness to convince them of the importance of what we’re saying. Think of the way we use terms like ‘lots of’. In academic thinking, we need to be absolutely precise so the reader knows exactly what we’re talking about, and is persuaded by our logic, not our feelings about the subject. Consider the commonly used phrase “Many scholars agree….”. The writer is using ‘many’ as a way to impress on the reader that agreement on this topic is overwhelming, and therefore can’t be questioned. The academic reader, however, is thinking “lots of scholars? How many? Three? Thirty? Three hundred? What does ‘lots’ mean to you? And which scholars, exactly?” Quantify what you mean by lots”, and give references or examples that the reader can see.

Logical and objective: Similarly, think about an intensifier like ‘really’: “it is therefore really important that….”. The writer wants to stress the importance of their conclusions. The reader is thinking “ if you lay out your reasoning with evidence, conclusions drawn and implications noted, you’ll persuade me that it’s really important without having to say as much!” Absolute terms like ‘completely’ or ‘totally’ also make an academic reader suspicious – very little in academia is that black and white! It’s often better to acknowledge any nuances or complexities as a sign of your ability to self-critique, than gloss it over to impress the reader.

Impersonal: This is where the common advice comes from to avoid ‘I argue’ and use the passive ‘it is argued that’. Basically, these are ways of saying to the reader, “don’t look at me, with all my human flaws and fallibility – look at my ideas”. Avoiding ‘I’ takes us out of the picture, letting the focus fall on the quality of our thinking. It’s also redundant – if there is no reference provided to attribute the work to someone else, then of course the ideas are yours, it’s your essay! And no need to argue ‘I think that’ – just argue it, state it, and let it stand by the quality of its logic. Some subjects are less strict on avoiding ‘I’ than others though, and in some cases, the passive can make a sentence more convoluted than necessary / a sentence can be made more convoluted than necessary by the passive.

Concrete and functional: spoken language is often metaphorical, using imagery to attract attention and make a topic more lively. This is also true, of course, of literary writing, which uses metaphors to express truths in a different way to academic writing. Academic writing is very literal and functional though – no need to grab the reader’s attention – they are already invested in reading about the subject, and it’s the reasoning which will appeal to them. Metaphors like ‘in a nutshell’ or ‘crystal clear’ don’t add anything to your reasoning, and aren’t concrete – there are no actual nuts or crystals here! Spoken language often has these metaphors as common idioms, which become so ‘well worn’ (there’s a metaphor right there!) that we don’t notice them.

Above all of these qualities, however, is that of clarity. Academic writing is functional, and the reader above all wants to be able to pick up your message without wondering what you’re on about, if you mean what they think you mean, or why you think what you do. Spoken language is supplemented by body language, facial expressions, and the ability to ask for more clarification- writing has to stand by itself. Colloquialisms like the ones we’ve looked at get in the way of clarity. If you think about projecting the qualities we’ve looked at here through your writing, the style will probably take care of itself.


Posted by Helen

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