Academic Essay Writing Style

Academic Writing

These OWL resources will help you with the types of writing you may encounter while in college. The OWL resources range from rhetorical approaches for writing, to document organization, to sentence level work, such as clarity. For specific examples of writing assignments, please see our Common Writing Assignments area.

The Rhetorical Situation

This presentation is designed to introduce your students to a variety of factors that contribute to strong, well-organized writing. This presentation is suitable for the beginning of a composition course or the assignment of a writing project in any class.

Establishing Arguments

These OWL resources will help you develop and refine the arguments in your writing.

Logic in Argumentative Writing

This resource covers using logic within writing—logical vocabulary, logical fallacies, and other types of logos-based reasoning.

Paragraphs and Paragraphing

The purpose of this handout is to give some basic instruction and advice regarding the creation of understandable and coherent paragraphs.

Essay Writing

The Modes of Discourse—Exposition, Description, Narration, Argumentation (EDNA)—are common paper assignments you may encounter in your writing classes. Although these genres have been criticized by some composition scholars, the Purdue OWL recognizes the wide spread use of these approaches and students’ need to understand and produce them.

Conciseness

This resource will help you write clearly by eliminating unnecessary words and rearranging your phrases.

Paramedic Method: A Lesson in Writing Concisely

This handout provides steps and exercises to eliminate wordiness at the sentence level.

Reverse Paramedic Method

This resource will help you write clear, concise sentences while remaining in the passive voice. Passive voice is used quite often in scientific writing.

Adding Emphasis

This handout provides information on visual and textual devices for adding emphasis to your writing including textual formatting, punctuation, sentence structure, and the arrangement of words.

Sentence Variety

This resource presents methods for adding sentence variety and complexity to writing that may sound repetitive or boring. Sections are divided into general tips for varying structure, a discussion of sentence types, and specific parts of speech which can aid in sentence variety.

Using Appropriate Language

This handout will cover some of the major issues with appropriate language use: levels of language formality, deceitful language and euphemisms, slang and idiomatic expressions; using group-specific jargon; and biased/stereotypical language.

Active and Passive Voice

This handout will explain the difference between active and passive voice in writing. It gives examples of both, and shows how to turn a passive sentence into an active one. Also, it explains how to decide when to choose passive voice instead of active.

Email Etiquette

Although instant and text/SMS messaging is beginning to supplant email for some groups' primary means of Internet communication, effective and appropriate email etiquette is still important. This resource will help you to become an effective writer and reader/manager of email.

Email Etiquette for Students

This presentation was designed in response to the growing popularity of email and the subsequent need for information on how to craft appropriate email messages. This presentation will help you send resumes and cover letters via email, and it will help you communicate with teachers / professors.

Using Foreign Languages in Academic Writing in English

This resource provides information on strategies that the students can use when incorporating languages other than English in their academic texts.

Key words: formal/informal, objective, discipline terminology, standard English, correct English, non-discriminatory language, colloquial language/slang

For most academic essays, you are expected to use a formal writing style. You need to learn about the DOs and DON’Ts of this style so that you can edit your work effectively. This style may vary if you are asked to write in an informal style.

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.

1

I think that essay writing is an important skill for all of us students. Don’t you see how many marks are given for this? Lots of students agree that they are marooned if they can’t write a decent essay. In my opinion (as a struggling student), we should have lessons in essay writing from day one!!!

Comment on the above paragraph

Formal, straightforward, clearly written, correct academic style

incorrect.

Informal, like spoken (colloquial) language, incorrect academic style

Correct!

Too formal, uses too many words, incorrect academic style

incorrect.

2

It is in fact correct to say that academic essay writing is of utmost importance in the attainment of a university degree. A high proportion of marks are allocated to the compilation of essay assignments as part of a university course to the point where it could be the causation of terminating a degree program because of failure. There is somewhat of an obligation for universities in the provision of services to the student population to educate their students in the intricacies of essay writing early in their undergraduate first year.

Comment on the above paragraph

Formal, straightforward, clearly written, correct academic style

incorrect.

Informal, like spoken (colloquial) language, incorrect academic style

incorrect.

Too formal, uses too many words, incorrect academic style

Correct!

3

Essay writing is an important skill for tertiary students. Academic essays can attract a considerable proportion of assessment marks in most degree programs. Therefore, students may require a firm grounding in academic essay writing skills at the start of their first year to assist them to succeed in their university studies.

Comment on the above paragraph

Formal, straightforward, clearly written, correct academic style

Correct!

Informal, like spoken (colloquial) language, incorrect academic style

incorrect.

Too formal, uses too many words, incorrect academic style

incorrect.

 

What to do

Click on the links to see an explanation.

Most lecturers expect students to:

write objectively

Objective writing

Academic 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:

  • using third person rather than first or second person (e.g. avoid using I, we, you, us, our)
  • using standard English (e.g. avoid clichés and slang)
  • using academically sound sources of information to back up your arguments
write clearly

Clarity

Clarity 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:

  • write a plan to organise your writing before you start
  • write academic paragraphs correctly (see academic 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

Technical vocabulary

Every 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. You do NOT have to put quotation marks around these terms (e.g. ‘collaborative group work’). If you use these words fluently in your essay, it shows your marker that you are mastering your subject.

use standard English

Standard English

This is English used by the general community (e.g. business, government, schools) rather than local English (e.g. colloquial, slang) variations.

use correct English

Correct English

You 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).

use non-discriminatory language

Non-discriminatory language

This 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.

Do not use colloquial language or slang

Colloquial language and slang
Do not use 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.

Do not use shortened forms of words and phrases incorrectly

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

  • Write the name in full first time with the acronym in brackets immediately after. For the rest of the essay, use the acronym e.g. World Health Organisation (WHO).
  • Be consistent—once you have written the acronym after the full name, use it all of the time e.g. WHO.
  • 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).
  • EXCEPTION: 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:

  • cf. (use compare instead)
  • 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)

If you do use these abbreviations, then they must be placed inside brackets. (e.g. The rules of plagiarism, such as copying another’s work inappropriately, were carefully explained).

Avoid using personal language

Personal pronouns

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:

Evaluate the effectiveness of plagiarism training workshops for university students.

My observations of 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.

If you are asked to use examples from your personal experience in your writing, then it is quite appropriate to use personal pronouns in that part of your essay.

Avoid using language that is emotional

Emotional language

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:

It was extremely disappointing that the bureaucracy chose to target students who did not understand the rules of plagiarism in the first year of their university studies. Some caring lecturers approached the issue by delivering a series of brilliant workshops to assist the students to overcome their referencing problems. It was a fantastic strategy as most of their students did not have to face being accused of plagiarism.

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.

If you feel strongly about a topic, you may be tempted to use emotional words that are inappropriate for academic writing. Be aware of this when you edit your work—a few small changes to words and sentences can make your work sound more ‘well-considered’ than rash!

Avoid using words that express your opinion tooooooo strongly

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.

Examples of levels of certainty:

  • Low certainty: seldom, rarely, never, improbable, impossible, unattainable …
  • Medium certainty/Hedging: probably, possibly, perhaps, likely, occasionally, sometimes, generally, may, might, can, could, appears to be, seems to be, tends to be, suggests, considers …
  • High certainty: undoubtedly, absolutely, certainly, definitely, incredible, amazing, unbelievable, particularly, very, vitally, totally, wholly, often, must, would, should …
Avoid using unnecessary words

Wordiness

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 phrasesUsing 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.

Avoid using brackets and dashes to add information

Brackets and dashes

AVOID USING BRACKETS & DASHES TO ADD INFORMATION

Brackets

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.

FOR EXAMPLE:
Many students had difficulties with using information correctly in their writing (e.g. paraphrasing and summarising).

A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE:
Many students had difficulties with using information correctly in their writing, for example, paraphrasing and summarising.

If you do use brackets, be careful that you use them correctly. You should not switch bracket styles ( ), [ ], { }, < > as most bracket styles have a usage convention. Round brackets ( ) are usually first choice for enclosing non-essential information unless you are asked to follow another convention. Be careful with your use of spaces and punctuation rules if you choose to use bracketed information—really, it is simpler not to use them!

Dashes
Dashes 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 dot/bullet point lists unless you are instructed to

Bullet points

If you want to list information, avoid using bullet points. For example:

In dealing with plagiarism, lecturers warned the students that they should:

  • 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.

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.

There are some forms of writing (e.g. reports) where bullet points are allowed. Some subjects also allow bullet points in academic essays. Check with the lecturer and ensure that you use the appropriate format and punctuation for using bullet points in that discipline.

Do not shift verb tense unnecessarily

Verb tense

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:

Many students experience (present tense) difficulties with plagiarism until they were assisted (past tense) to understand some basic rules.

A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE:

Many students experience (present tense) difficulties with plagiarism until they are assisted (present tense) to understand some basic rules.

It is customary to write most academic papers in the present tense. You should report your own findings and those from research in present tense (e.g. Jackson and Smith argue [present tense] that …). Be consistent in your use of tense throughout your paper. When you have finished your writing, check that the tense matches in the introduction, body and conclusion paragraphs of your essay.

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).

Do not use exclamation marks (!!!) in your essay

Exclamation marks

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:

All students should have lessons in plagiarism avoidance from day one!!!

A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE:

Students may require assistance in plagiarism avoidance at the start of their first year to assist them to succeed in their university studies.

Do not use 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:

QUESTION
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.

Sometimes writers try to invite the reader along. This is not surprising as many journalists use this technique to write much of our everyday reading matter (e.g. newspapers, magazines, advertising). Directly addressing your reader is not appropriate academic writing as you tend to use personal pronouns and issue commands rather than using statements. For example:

COMMAND
Now, let’s discuss how to help students to stop plagiarising in their academic essays.

A MORE APPROPRIATE STYLE:
The first issue is to find ways to assist students to avoid plagiarising in their academic essays.

Do not misuse font and font styles (mainly italics & underlining)

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:

Fonts
Use 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.

Font styles

Italics should only be used for:

  • 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.

(Note: DO NOT use italics, bold or underlining for direct quotations.)

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