Keeping it formal – your academic writing

31 Oct

I’ve worked with many different academic texts, written by native and non-native speakers alike. Many issues are the same all over the world and crop up in anything from an undergraduate essay to a journal article. One of the major ones is making sure the language and style used is appropriate to the academic environment.

Here are my top tips for keeping your academic writing formal and appropriate.

No contractions

Contractions are not suitable for academic writing. That’s right, don’t do what you wouldn’t see in a textbook.

  • Change don’t to do not
  • Change there’s to there is
  • Change isn’t to is not

The only exception to this (and to all of these rules, actually) is if you’re quoting, either the literature or the direct speech of your interview participants / writing in entries to your questionnaires. Then, go ahead and use what someone else has said (but see the section on tidiness below).

Colloquialisms and slang – not cool, man

It’s very easy to be tempted to write as you speak. This includes those contractions that we’ve just talked about, of course. The classic one I see here is “lots of”; you just need to upgrade that one a little, and the same happens with “really”.

  • Instead of “Lots of researchers say this is wrong”, try “Many researchers say this is wrong”.
  • Instead of “This happened in lots of places”, try “This happened in a large number of cases”
  • Instead of “Interviewee A appeared to be really upset about this”, try “Interviewee A appeared to be very upset about this”

If you’re tempted further into slang, then think twice. Is there a way to make this sound less informal? What word would you use if you were talking in a seminar, or to your grandparents?

There is no place for the exclamation mark!

This one is more about objectivity than anything else. If you’re writing an academic text, you need not to appear partisan (even if you are) and your language needs to be very cool, calm, collected and academically rigorous. An exclamation mark is a surefire way to allow your own personal feelings to creep in.

Contrast these two examples:

  • When they were claiming expenses, senior managers would often claim for an extra meal that they did not order or eat!
  • When they were claiming expenses, senior managers would often claim for an extra meal they did not order or eat.

In the first one, we can’t help reading a value judgement – this is a bad thing, right? Well, it might be, but your job is to report the facts and then draw conclusions from them, backed up with the theory from your literature review.

Me, me, me (I)

It can be quite hard to work your own practice into the text in an appropriately formal way. It’s not usually acceptable to use the word “I” and you will need to find a way to work around this. It’s a good idea to check local practice here – some institutions favour “we”, some go for “the researcher”, and some won’t let anything personal through at all, and you’ll have to do some rather acrobatic writing to twist it all round into the passive tense.

Please note that this one can change depending on the academic discipline within which you’re working, and the agreed common practice of your institution. So check this one with your supervisor or the style guide you may have been given at the start of your course or contract, and adhere to the rules you’re given there above my rules. If you are not given any guidance, then use my suggestions to keep it as formal as possible. It’s worse to be under dressed than to be over dressed!

Here are some examples of the options:

  • I found that not all of the respondents answered every question
  • We found that not all of the respondents answered every question
  • The researcher found that not all of the respondents answered every question
  • It was found that not all of the respondents answered every question
  • Or, keeping it simple: Not all of the respondents answered every question

Eliminate sloppiness

It’s oh-so-easy to let sloppiness and inconsistency creep in, especially when you’re writing a long document with lots of sections. These are a few of the major culprits

  • Not checking the spelling of names in your references. Spell-checker won’t notice this and if you go too far wrong, your proofreader might think you’re talking about two different authors.
  • Not being consistent in your headings styles and numbering (read this article and the ones it’s linked to if you need help setting this up to be automatic)
  • Not being consistent with how you lay out new paragraphs and indented quotations (those big ones that you put in a special paragraph all on their own)
  • Not being consistent with your -ise- and -ize- spellings (organisation vs. organization)
  • Not being consistent with your capitalisation – there are rules for this which I’ll treat on the blog at some stage, but there are often choices to be made, too
  • Not being consistent with hyphenation – similar to capitalisation
  • Using abbreviations without spelling them out the first time

The editor’s solution for this? Use a style sheet. If there’s something you need to use consistently, note down your preferred way of doing it on a separate Word document, and keep it open to refer to as you need.

With abbreviations, note down each one and when you first use it (chapter and section will be enough), Keep this updated if you’re working on the chapters in an unusual order, and make sure the first instance is the one that has the words spelled out.

Keep it tidy

This is related to sloppiness, but a bit more specific. This is all about keeping the document looking nice, so how it looks doesn’t distract from what it says. I find two main culprits here:

  • Putting everything into direct quotations from interview respondents. I often find a quotation like this: “… and um the thing the thing is that, it’s not going to … work … at … all”. A much neater way to put this, which is going to get across the meaning a lot more clearly, would be “And the thing is, that it’s not going to [pause] work at all”.
  • Emphasis overload. If you’re indenting a quotation and putting it in italics, you don’t need to put quotation marks around it, too – it’s pretty obvious that it’s a quotation. If it’s a quotation in the text, just quotation marks, no need for italics except for emphasis. If you’ve got a heading, bold, underline and italics plus a colon at the end might just be too much

As a basic rule, keep it simple, keep it neat and tidy: don’t distract from the reader’s experience of the content of your writing.

Reference, reference, reference

I cover this in detail in another article, but it’s worth reminding you of these rules …

  • If you state an opinion that hasn’t come directly from your brain as an original thought, reference it: “Many people think the sky is green (Jones, 2010; Smith, 2012)”
  • If you talk about something that’s come out of your research, reference it and make sure you label your respondents: “One teacher thought this was rubbish and said so (Interviewee A2)”
  • If you state your own opinion, still back it up: “When reading the responses from the students, it struck the researcher that this needed looking into”; “As we have seen from the teacher respondents, not everyone agreed”. “We found that, contrary to Green (2011) our results suggest pupils do respect their teachers”


I hope you’ve found these pointers useful. If you’re a student or a supervisor and you can suggest any more hints and tips, do please use the comments below to share them! And you might find my other resources for students and resources for Word users helpful – do take a look.


Posted by on October 31, 2012 in New skills, proofreading, Students, Word, Writing


Tags: , , , ,

10 responses to “Keeping it formal – your academic writing

  1. Dr. Tim Hadley

    October 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    Very good advice, Liz. Overall, this is one of the best compilations of advice on this topic that I’ve seen.

    I don’t agree with the prohibition of contractions, which are no longer, in modern writing, considered overly informal. Many of the “rules” about this kind of thing are only “usage opinions,” and most of those opinions come from British English of 100 years ago or more.

    Also, In my field, technical writing, the use of first person (I, me, etc.) is encouraged and often expected.


    • Liz at Libro

      October 31, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      Thank you for your feedback. Where I have seen rules on contractions in either journal instructions to authors or style guides belonging to universities, they have prohibited them, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. I did try to write the piece in standard academic style, but I do try to be friendly and it certainly made it less so!


    • Liz at Libro

      October 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you! I am in the UK but I think these guidelines are pretty universal. I hope you’ve found my other resources useful, too.


  2. clive johnson

    November 1, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Generally great, but have to endorse Dr Hadley’s two slight quibbles. Of course I’m not an academic, but my last lover was and many of my friends are and so I read a lot of academic work (and since Tuesday will almost certainly – if I can find the money (no Masters and with my health no time for a Masters) – be getting the memoir/essay I’ve been writing these past two years (still only 1/3 the way through) – also phd.ed!

    Anyway, re contractions – ditto the doc.
    re: objectivity. In hard science even, would frequently ditto the doc, too. But certainly in some of the more interesting psychoanalytical, French philosophical (Barthes etc.), feminist film theory + gender studies work (eg ecrit feminin) etc find the playing on the I/eye provocative and exhilarating. And writing even undergraduates papers in such a way – at least in more enlightened universities such as King’s College London – got me a lot of plaudits. It’s a big risk, but can be worth taking.


    • Liz at Libro

      November 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm

      If you are writing a creative essay in a humanities subject in your native language, then yes, you can play with the rules. But a) see my reply to the previous comment; I have seen guidelines on these matters and b) most of my clients and many of my readers are non-native English speakers, and it’s best to be seen to be playing by the rules for them.


  3. Nordie

    November 3, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    I used to review a lot of technical specs written by other programmers, and unfortunately, I regularly had to get the red pen out. I felt like a teacher!

    Lots of “I will do it like this”….err, no you wont, because you’re writing this spec for an as yet unknown colleague to be worked at an unspecified period in the future, so you’ll be doing nothing of the sort, rather “this piece of code is to be developed as follows:”.

    “We’ve decided that”… I told you that. There is no “we” or “decided” or “agreed” in this.

    “I found this bug”. No. “This issue was identified during x – appendix y contains details of how to recreate”.

    I still see the occasional spec or email from techy people and still find myself correcting them, even if I cant explain why I get them to change things!


    • Liz at Libro

      November 4, 2012 at 10:32 am

      Thanks for your comment, Sorcha – steadfastly removing the I from all techy specs!



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