In academic writing it is important to be accurate and specific as this will ensure a clear flow in your writing. You should convey information as efficiently and precisely as possible, so it is important to pay attention to details such as your choice of words and phrases and the accuracy of your grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
There should also be accurate and specific acknowledgement of the sources from which ideas have been taken (see further advice on referencing).
The language and vocabulary you use are key to communicating your ideas. It is important to know the meanings of words, particularly subject specific words, so you can use them accurately. Avoid using vague and general phrases or imprecise language as you risk confusing the reader and weakening your discussion. Lecturers want to see evidence in your assignments that you can express yourself clearly, concisely, and logically.
Avoid vague phraseology such as the examples below:
|Vague Phrases||How to be More Specific|
|about / several||Use exact figures or values wherever possible.|
|for a long time / in recent times/ in the past / over time / some time ago / throughout history||When? Be more specific about the time frame or period you are referring to.|
|it / them / they||Ensure that your reader knows who or what you are referring to when you use words such as these.|
|many people / most people / people / some people||Who exactly? Words such as 'people' have the potential to be vague. Be more specific and explain which people.|
|throughout the world / the whole world||Where? Be more specific about where you are referring to.|
Avoid Unnecessary Academic Expressions and Complexity
One of the biggest misconceptions about academic writing is that it is complicated writing which uses complex language; however, this is not the case. Academic writing should not be overly complex and does not require the use of long sentences and complicated vocabulary.
While there will be a need to use subject-specific terms in your writing, you should aim to be clear and concise rather than wordy or over-complicated. Use plain language - you do not have to search for a more academic-sounding word when a simple one will do.
Thinking about the message and purpose of each sentence and paragraph can help you explain your points. Aim for one main idea per sentence and keep your sentences to a reasonable length (generally not more than 25 words). Long sentences can be difficult to follow and this may distract from your point.
Using the minimum number of words to express a point keeps the meaning clear and can also help you stay within the designated word count for your assignments. Producing clear written work within a word limit is an important skill to develop in college.
|Wordiness = More Concise|
|a bit = somewhat||in order to = to||prior to / in anticipation of / following on / at the same time as = before / after / as|
|at the present time = currently||in regards to / in relation to = about||regardless of the fact = although|
|at this point in time = now / then||in the event that = if||the majority of = most|
|beyond a shadow of a doubt = definitely||in this day and age = today||the question as to whether = whether|
|did a study of = studied||is able to / has the capacity = can||the reason for / owing to the reason that / on the grounds that = because / since / why|
|due to the fact that = because / as||is aware of the fact that = knows||think about = consider|
|each and every one = all||it is possible that = may / might / could||this is a subject which = this subject|
|has the ability to = can||notwithstanding the fact that / despite the fact that = although||utilise = use|
|in close proximity to = near||on a daily basis = daily||within = in|
Phrasal verbs are two-part/multiple-part verbs that often take a preposition and are one of the features of informal language. While some phrasal verbs may be appropriate, many may be seen as less formal than single-word verbs. Avoiding phrasal (two-part) verbs in academic language can help you develop a more concise writing style.
|You can use a dictionary and/or a thesaurus to find a suitable alternative for an imprecise or multi-word verb; however, avoid using words that are not part of your normal vocabulary as you will likely misuse them.|
|Phrasal Verb = More Concise Verb|
|add up to = equal||get rid of = eliminate||make an assumption = assume|
|adhere to = follow||get worse = deteriorate||mixed up = confused|
|backs up = supports||give back = return||pick out = select|
|bring about = cause||go back = return||point out = explain|
|bring along = bring||go down = fall / decrease||put in = insert|
|bring up = raise||go on = continue||put off = postpone / delay|
|come back = return||go up = rise / increase||put up with = tolerate|
|come to a conclusion = conclude||hand out = distribute||refer to = mention|
|come to the realisation = realise||have an effect on = influence||set up = establish|
|come up with = generate||help out = assist||start again = resume, recommence|
|cut down = reduce||hold onto = retain||take action = act|
|do away with = eliminate||is in conflict with = conflicts||take away = remove|
|engage in = undertake||keep up = maintain||talk about = discuss|
|fill out (a form) = complete||leave out = omit||think about = consider|
|find out = determine / discern / discover / investigate||look into = investigate / explore||throw away = discard|
|get across = communicate||look up to = respect||work out = calculate|
|get better = improve||make a decision = decide|
You can also switch around negative expressions to make your wording more concise.
|Negative Expression = More Concise Expression|
|not...any = no||not different = alike / similar||not the same as = different from|
|not...many = few||not enough = insufficient||did not = failed to|
|not...much = little||not many = few||did not accept = rejected|
|not able = unable||not notice = overlook||did not allow = prevented|
|not careful = careless||not often = rarely||does not have = lacks|
|not certain = uncertain||not possible = impossible||not old enough = too young|
|not clearly = unclearly||not stop = continue||did not remember = forgot|
In your assignments, lecturers want to see you developing your own opinions and coming to your own conclusions based on your reading and research. Critical writing requires you to move beyond a description or summary of other people's ideas.
It is important to answer the ‘so what’ question. Why is this information important / significant in the context of what you are writing about? You should be analysing and evaluating the information in relation to the question / assignment title you have been given.
While you inevitably need to describe what an author/researcher said or did, you need to go a step further by interpreting this information, adding some comment which shows what your analysis of the evidence is and why this information is relevant to your discussion.
While academic writing does not need to use long words or complicated sentences, it does need to have an element of formality. Using academic language means following a more formal style which differs from the casual language we use in everyday conversations or on social media.
So, when writing assignments you should try to avoid using informal words and colloquial expressions as these do not look very professional and can actually weaken the argument you are trying to make. Informal language can also make your writing appear as if it is only your impression rather than an academic piece of work bringing together your research, analysis and critical thinking.
Therefore, your choice of words for an academic assignment should be more considered and careful which helps your writing to be more credible and authoritative.
|The following categories all represent areas where more formal choices can improve your writing.|
Another reason for avoiding colloquialism and slang is because their meaning is not always clear. These phrases are used in everyday language to such an extent that they have lost their precise value and there are better alternatives which can be used in academic writing.
Below outlines more formal alternative word choices for less formal common expressions.
|Colloquial Term = More Formal Term|
|a bit = a little / rather||get = acquire / become / obtain / receive||loads of things = many factors|
|about = approximately / concerning||go down / go up = decrease / increase||lots of / plenty of = a large number of / a significant amount / a significant number / a significant proportion / many|
|a lot of = a considerable amount / a great deal of / a large amount of / a significant number of / many / numerous||help = assist||need / want = desire / require|
|ask = enquire / request||huge = considerable / large / significant||okay = acceptable / satisfactory|
|at the end of the day = finally||in a nutshell = in summary||out of the blue = unexpectedly|
|basically = fundamentally||just = merely / simply||pros and cons = advantages and disadvantages|
|big = large||keep = maintain / retain||really big = considerable|
|choose = select||like = for example / such as||things = aspects / characteristics / factors / ideas / issues / problems / topics|
|deal with - manage|
Below are examples of avoiding contractions and how to be more formal.
|Contraction = More Formal Term|
|aren't = are not||haven't = have not||there's = there is|
|can't = cannot||isn't = is not||they're = they are|
|couldn't = could not||it'll = it will||we're = we are|
|could've = could have||it's = it is||weren't = were not|
|didn't = did not||mustn't = must not||won't = will not|
|doesn't = does not||shouldn't = should not||wouldn't = would not|
|don't = do not|
Use neutral, gender inclusive language when a gender is unknown.
A researcher must confirm his or her results
A researcher must confirm their results
|Using "they" in the singular form is also acceptable in academic writing.|
Academic writing should be emotionally neutral - keep it objective and impersonal. Being impartial and relying on evidence, not emotions, is a key part of academic writing. Emotive language uses superlatives or exaggeration to persuade and comes across as a biased opinion instead of a knowledgeable insight, which is unsuitable for academic writing.
Emotive language can also sound judgmental and can suggest that you are making a personal judgement and are making conclusions based on your own previously held beliefs, rather than through a review of the relevant literature.
By relying on good quality research and evidence, there is no need to appeal to the emotions of the reader. Trust that the points you raise, once well-made and logically developed, will be enough to persuade your reader that your argument is credible.
|Examples of words that could be interpreted as emotive are:|
|Exclamation marks should be avoided for the same reasons as emotive language.|
Avoid posing (direct) questions in the text of your assignments. Rhetorical questions are inappropriate in academic writing as they are less formal and can weaken your writing. You can make a better point by using a statement instead.
Note - this does not apply to research questions.
Avoid using Latin abbreviations in academic writing by using their English equivalents.
|Examples of abbreviations and their alternatives:|
|&||and (except where & is required in referencing)|
|etc.||and so on (try to avoid using either form as it can come across as vague and imprecise; instead, be specific about what you are referring to when listing items)|
When using other types of abbreviations or acronyms, it is important to use the full form of the abbreviated name or phrase in the first instance, including the abbreviation in brackets, so that the reader understands what it means and knows what abbreviation you will be using thereafter.
...North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)...
Only use abbreviations and acronyms for terms when they are commonly abbreviated in this way by other writers. Avoid using too many acronyms as well as creating acronyms for the sake of it, only use them if they already exist. Overuse of acronyms or new acronyms may confuse the reader.
In academic writing, use words for numbers if the number is below 10. If it is 10 or greater, use the number.
Be aware of the following situations:
|Using personal pronouns (I, you or we) is generally discouraged in academic writing in order to maintain a tone of objectivity. Using the first person can make an assignment less about the ideas you are supposed to be discussing and more about yourself. The exception to this is reflective writing where you are specifically asked to write in the first person but always check with your lecturer first.|
Most of the time you will be expected to use the third person as it enables you to show that you have an authoritative and well-reasoned argument. Writing in an objective or impersonal way enables you to sound more convincing or persuasive as this style of writing is unbiased and it is based on the evidence you have read and researched from good quality sources; therefore, you refer to what ‘the assignment/research’ will do, rather than what you will do.
When personal beliefs or emotions influence your writing, it is subjective and thus less convincing. Avoiding personal pronouns does not mean you cannot express your own opinion. Your own evaluation of the material is still extremely important; however, you communicate this by using evidence and logical arguments. In other words, the emphasis is placed on the arguments and information, rather than on the writer.
|Below are examples of how to be impersonal/objective:|
|Personal Pronoun = More Objective/Impersonal|
|based upon the literature I have read, I think that... = based upon the literature, it could be argued that...||I think = it could be argued||I am sure that = it can be argued that|
|I think that = this assignment argues that||I argue that = this assignment argues that||it is my belief that = it can be concluded that / in light of the evidence|
|I believe = research suggests||I will argue that = this assignment will argue that||I feel = these findings suggest|
|I will discuss = this assignment will discuss||I found that = it was found that||I would argue = it could be argued|
|in my opinion = it could be argued||the intention of my research is = the intention of this research is||in this assignment I will argue that = this assignment argues that|
|How you organise and present your ideas in academic writing is crucial to how well you communicate them. After researching and evaluating the information you have found in academic sources - make a plan of the points that you wish to make and the evidence that you will use to support them. Once you have settled on your central claim (argument) and you have written down the main points you need to discuss in order to justify your position, you will find it easier to maintain a clear focus throughout the assignment.|
|Even if you do all the right research and have a good understanding of your topic, if you have an unstructured assignment, you will conceal all the good work you have done. By planning your assignments thoroughly, you ensure that your work has a consistent, balanced structure and your arguments follow a logical flow with respect to the assignment question. Planning an assignment is important and will help you to feel more in control of your writing as it begins to take shape. The longer you spend planning and thinking about your written assignment, the better your final draft will be.|
Before you begin writing, check the plan to make sure it matches the assignment requirements and repeat these checks as you draft and redraft your assignments. Your plan should show:
Further advice on planning and structuring your writing is available in the following pages (Planning & the Writing Process: Planning Your Writing, Beginning Your Writing: Structuring Your Assignment; Paragraphs, Introductions & Conclusions)
Writing a good assignment is strongly linked to the way your argument is phrased. In college you will come across words or phrases you might not be familiar with, such as subject specific terms or technical language.
As a result, some students think they have to adopt an overly sophisticated vocabulary in order to write in an academic tone. This can make the prospect of writing an assignment even more daunting. However, in the beginning, you can adapt the vocabulary you already know into a more formal and academic manner and over time incorporate more subject-specific terms as you learn them.
Learn by Reading
The best way to gain a more accurate understanding of the language required in your assignments is through reading. Reading textbooks and journal articles in your area of study is one of the best ways of developing your own academic style of writing. Get familiar with your course readings to help you develop language appropriate to your subject as well as taking note of the terminology used by your lecturer.
Reading widely around your subject will help you understand how others write about a topic. What sort of words and phrases do they use? You could keep a list of useful words and phrases which you can include in your own writing. Pay attention to the spelling of words used commonly in your subject and in academic writing generally.
|Increasing your vocabulary can benefit your academic studies in a number of ways. It can help you to:|
|Get through your course reading more quickly||Improve your grades in exams and assignments|
|Express yourself more effectively in your writing||Gain confidence in how you are engaging with your subject|
A useful resource to consult for assistance in academic phrasing and vocabulary is the University of Manchester’s Academic Phrasebank which contains suggestions and examples suitable for many aspects of writing in college.
One of the main characteristics of academic writing is that you must support your writing with evidence from good quality sources and reference these rather than solely rely on personal opinion and experience.
You need to make sure that any claim you make is supported with suitable evidence. This means that when you give your own opinion, it will be based on what another author has said in a good quality source. In an academic context, your opinion will be more valid if it is based on published evidence, for example, explaining how or why you are convinced (or not convinced) by what someone else has written.
Without the use of such evidence, you are asking your reader to simply accept what you say to be true without anything to back up your opinion. Evidence is vital for building a convincing academic argument. No matter how strong your logic is, no matter how good your writing style, if you make statements without trustworthy evidence to support them, you will undermine your argument.
Using evidence from good quality sources can:
When using evidence from other sources, you will be expected to reference any information or ideas you use. All your sources must be cited within your writing and listed at the end of your assignment. If you fail to do this, you are implying that the ideas are your own and then you may be accused of plagiarism.
A well written assignment draws together ideas and information from a number of different sources and analyses these. Your lecturer needs to know not just what you have read but what you think about what you have read. Although, it is important to do research and include information from outside sources in academic writing, you need to do more than just present the words and ideas of others. You need to analyse and evaluate the evidence and tell the reader why the information is important and/or significant in the context of the overall discussion.
If you include information from outside sources with no comment from you, it is no longer your paper; it is just a summary of what others have stated. It is important to use research to support your ideas, not replace them.
Your use of evidence should do the following:
Due to research and theories being developed and updated all the time, in academic writing there are few definites or absolutes. Therefore, academic writing tends to be cautious, using degrees of certainty or probability, rather than absolute certainty. Any claims that are made in your writing should be presented as possibilities rather than being stated definitively - this is known as hedging language.A cautious tone demonstrates to the reader that you are open-minded to alternative opinions, evidence and studies that may prove otherwise.
|The language used in academic writing should reflect the strength of evidence to support a topic or claim. Using language with a suitable amount of caution can protect your claims from being easily dismissed. It also helps to indicate the level of certainty you have in relation to the evidence or support. Even though you should be cautious in your writing you should still try to persuade the reader of the most likely viewpoint. Your choice of vocabulary and hedging words can convey your degree of confidence in the information you are using.|
|Absolute Words||Cautious Language|
|all, every||countless, large number of, many, most, much, a number of, numerous, a proportion, several, some, vast majority|
|always||commonly, often, for a long time, frequently, normally, regularly, repeatedly, sometimes, usually|
|certainly||possibly, probably, to some extent|
|impossible||doubtful, improbable, unlikely|
|never||infrequently, rarely, seldom, sporadically|
|none/no||few, hardly any, a minority, not many, a small number|
|will||could, may, might|
|Further Cautious Language Examples Used in Academic Writing|
|a possible explanation||is evidence for||might||there may be a link between|
|apparently||it could be suggested||most||these findings may/could/might suggest|
|appears to||it could be the case||normally||this apparent contraction may be due to|
|arguably||it could perhaps be argued that||perhaps||this appears to show|
|can||it is generally agreed||plausibly||this could be caused by|
|can be described as||it is more likely that||potentially||this could indicate|
|conceivably||it is perhaps the case that||presumably||this could suggest that|
|could||it is possible that||probably||this may be because|
|could be described as||it might be suggested that||seemingly||this may indicate that|
|doubtful||it seems||seems||this suggests that|
|the evidence suggests||it would seem that||should||uncertain|
|has a tendency to||the majority of||sometimes||usually|
|has the possibility of||may||somewhat||with the exception of|
|has the potential to||maybe||studies suggest that||would|
|in most cases||may indicated||suggest|
|in some areas||may in some cases||tends to|
|It is important to strike a balance between being over-cautious and over-confident; too many words/phrases like 'perhaps' and 'could possibly suggest' can make your writing feel vague but sounding too definitive or absolute is not advisable either. Avoid overstatement (for example: ‘everybody knows that’, ‘it is certain that’, 'always', ‘definitely’, ‘must’ and ‘never’) but try not to be too vague either. Modifying your language and preventing your statements from being too absolute and categoric prevents you from stating that something is true/false 100% of the time.|
Using cautious language is important because:
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