The ‘style’ of our writing – the kind of vocabulary and sentence patterns we use, or the degree of formality or informality we adopt – shows our beliefs about who our readers are (our audience) and why they’re reading what we’ve written (our purpose).
As a student, you write different forms of assessment for academic staff to read, evaluate, and grade. You try to show, in writing, that you understand and can apply key material from your subjects and can also reflect critically on this material.
Markers read your assignments and exam scripts to assess how far you have demonstrated these valued abilities.
Style plays a role here.
While engaging in university assessment tasks, you need to write in a style which shows that you understand what an ‘academic community’ is and that you want to participate in it. This academic style
- is clear
- is formal, and
- makes carefully considered claims.
The ability to write clearly is a skill that you can and should develop.
The judges of clarity in academic writing are your readers. Readers may fail to understand your meaning because you may have written sentences or used expressions that unintentionally confuse them.
This is why, before you submit assignments, you need to re-read them to check whether you have been clear. If you identify any clarity problems, correct them.
Compound nouns can help clarity but, if overloaded, may generate misunderstanding, as in this case:
Early childhood thought disorder diagnosis often occurs as a result of unfamiliarity with research literature.
The first five words of this sentence seem to be one compound noun. But what is the writer referring to? Is it an ‘early diagnosis’ of ‘childhood thought disorder’? Or does the ‘diagnosis’ concern a condition that only occurs in ‘early childhood’? Both interpretations seem possible. An academic reader might well consider the sentence unclear.
You could clarify this confusion by writing:
Physicians often misdiagnose disordered thought in young children because they are unfamiliar with recent research.
(Williams, Ten Lessons, 3rd edition 1994, p84)
‘Signposting’ is another feature that can make your intended meaning clearer.
In natural conversation we constantly predict what another person will say next. Something similar needs to occur when we read.
Sometimes, you may become so familiar with your own written work that you no longer need to use prediction when reading it. You may become ‘too close to it’. However, keep in mind that your markers will be reading your work for the first time. How it is going to develop needs to be clear to them right away.
How can you ‘signpost’? One common and useful way is by means of such ‘linking’ and ‘signalling’ words and phrases as:
- for example
- on the other hand
- by contrast
- in addition.
Another is by grouping information appropriately and informatively. This classification of information is an important method of establishing cohesion in your writing. For instance, when presenting some causes of event X, you might write:
X happened for a number of reasons. The first one was A. The second was B. The third was C.
But it would be clearer and more informative to write:
There were three main causes of X. The first and most important was A. Other reasons were B and C.
This would also give your marker a sense that you had really understood the material you were discussing.
To write clearly, then, you need to:
- choose your words carefully
- pay attention to cohesion.
At university, your audience is composed of academic readers. This means that certain styles of speaking and writing that may be perfectly acceptable in some mass media or other public contexts are not acceptable in the academic context. Your work therefore needs to respect academic values and your writing needs to adopt a certain formality of style.
Formality in academic writing involves avoiding:
- colloquialisms (e.g. ‘arvo’, ‘big-noting yourself’)
- contractions (e.g. ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’)
- abusive or sarcastic comments (e.g. ‘anyone with any intelligence should be able to see the weakness of that argument’).
Clichés and redundancy
Formality in academic writing also involves using a style that avoids clichés (over-used expressions that make your writing seem lazy) and redundancy (needless repetition).
Examples of clichéd expressions include:
- ‘In this day and age’ = Today
- ‘Every coin has two sides’ = There are two sides to the argument
- ‘At this moment in time’ = Now, Currently
Redundancy is illustrated in the table below (source: Williams, Ten Lessons, 1994, 3rd edition, p.83). The italicised adjectives and nouns are redundant and the ‘not + adjective’ expressions can be replaced with more precise wording:
Not + adjective expressions
Formality and specialist vocabulary
Sometimes students think that formality means that they should use as many long or technical words as they can.
However, as stated above, an appropriately formal style should above all be:
- clear (clarity is the highest virtue in academic writing), and
- objective in tone.
Nonetheless, specific fields of study usually do contain some specialist terminology. (See the section on discipline-specific vocabulary above for further information.)
Specialist fields may also use some ‘sub-technical’ English words in slightly different ways to the ways they are used elsewhere (e.g. show, illustrate, association). You should familiarise yourself with these features of your fields of study and take care to use such words appropriately.
Formality and the passive voice
English has two voices: the active and the passive.
While the passive is often associated with formal academic writing, it is important to learn how to use each voice appropriately.
In the active voice, the focus of the sentence is on the ‘actor’ (who/what carried out the action of the verb) while in the passive, the focus is on the ‘action’:
- The government broke the agreement. [Active]
- The agreement was broken (by the government). [Passive]
In other words, using the passive is effective when you do not want to emphasise the actor because the actor may be:
- not a specific person.
However, beware of overusing the passive as it can make your writing unclear. For example, in the following pair of sentences, the use of the passive makes (a) less clear than (b):
(a) The President was rumored to have considered resigning.(b) Rumors circulated that the President had considered resigning.
(Williams, Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 1994, 4th edition, p.72)
Formality and nominalisation
Nominalisation is the process of turning verbs (actions) into nouns (concepts). For example:
- The public opposes nuclear power plants. [This sentence uses the verb ‘opposes’]
- There is public opposition to nuclear power plants. [This sentence uses ‘opposition’- the nominalised form of the verb ‘opposes’]
Nominalisation can make your writing more formal and help to link recurrent ideas. But if used excessively, it can make your writing unclear:
- A need exists for greater candidate selection efficiency. [Dense use of nominalization]
You can clarify the above sentence by reducing the nominalised forms as follows:
- We need to select candidates more efficiently.
(Williams, Ten Lessons, 3rd edition 1994, p84)
Academic study relies on evidence, even though what counts as acceptable ‘evidence’ differs from one discipline area to another. Academic writers should always ask themselves:
- Given the evidence I have presented, how strong can I reasonably make my claim?
This is because academic claims (interpretations or arguments) are rarely ‘black’ or ‘white’. Your assigned tasks will probably require you to explore ‘grey areas’, where evidence may be insufficient for a definitive conclusion.
One strategy you can use to indicate the strength of your claim is called ‘hedging’.
You can hedge by using quantifiers, adverbs, adjectives or modals.
For example, you can hedge the generalisation ‘experimental results are inconclusive’ in some of the following ways:
- Many experimental results are inconclusive. [Quantifier]
- Experimental results are generally inconclusive. [Adverb]
- Experimental results offer limited conclusions. [Adjective]
- Experimental results can be inconclusive. [Modal]
- A few experimental results can be inconclusive. [Quantifier + modal]
- Some experimental results are inconclusive on occasions. [Quantifier + adverb]
- Experimental results can sometimes be inconclusive. [Modal + adverb]
The combination of these hedging devices in phrases can be especially useful when discussing results or when formulating a conclusion:
- It would appear to be the case that…
- It is probable/possible/unlikely that…
- The weight of available evidence suggests that…
A writer who uses hedging shows recognition that issues are complex and that debates will continue.