A number of language features make academic writing appear formal:
Vocabulary choice - you can develop a broader academic vocabulary by focussing on vocabulary as you read:
- when you come across a word you’re not sure of, google it or use a dictionary to find out its meaning and use
- think how you would use that word in speaking or if you were explaining it to someone
- notice how often that word or phrase is used in academic texts you are reading. If you come across it frequently, it’s worth making sure you know how to use it.
Caution – writers are careful not to make claims that are too strong. Words like “may” and “might” are often used to make claims less strong. Writers are also very precise about the circumstances in which a claim is valid.
Impersonality – with the exception of reflective writing, write in the 3rd person – do not use “I” and “you”.
Relevance – you should only include information that is relevant to the question. A common mistake is to give too much unnecessary descriptive detail, which uses up too many words, while not demonstrating critical understanding of the issue. You need to decide:
- What is relevant?
- How much detail do I need to give?
Precision – this relates to formality. Words and terms have very specific meanings and it is important that you use them correctly. If you are not sure what a word means, do not use it without checking that it makes sense, both in meaning and grammatical use. It is usually obvious to the reader when a writer has not understood a word or an idea
- Avoid repeating yourself – do not repeat an idea because you think that will show its importance.
- Use as few words as you can without losing meaning or complexity. We use more words in spoken than written English, so writing often involves finding alternative words to the words we use in everyday speech.
- Edit your work carefully to find ways you can reduce word count
Conciseness – in order to write within the word count, you have to write concisely.
Grammatical complexity – in this context complexity refers to grammar structures not the difficulty of understanding an idea.
A simple sentence expresses one grammatical idea
the dog attacked the man
a complex sentence contains more than one grammatical idea. The sentences below increase in grammatical complexity
the dog attacked the man as he came into the house
the dog attacked the man who lives opposite
the dog attacked the man who lives opposite when he tried to give him a biscuit
Even though the dog knows the man well, he attacked him as he came into the house yesterday
The sentences in academic texts tend to be dense, in other words they contain lots of highly grammatically complex sentences. A variety of grammatical structures are used to create complex sentences. This is one of the reasons why academic reading is demanding – both the ideas and the sentence structures can be complex. It is useful to be aware of this and to develop the range of grammatical structures and vocabulary that you use by thinking about what they mean and trying to use them in your own writing. However, don’t use words and phrases that you are not familiar with just because you think it will make your writing more “academic”. If you don’t know what a word or phrase means, there’s a good chance you’ll misuse the word and the reader/marker will know you don’t understand what you are reading.
For more examples and exercises about academic style, see this guide on Using English for Academic Purposes and click on features in the menu on the left of the screen