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National College of Ireland


Academic Writing Skills Guide: Key Features of Academic Writing

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.

Be Concise

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.

Achieving concise writing usually requires several rounds of revising and editing your writing.
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

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  


Negative Expressions

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

Gender Inclusive

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:
adorable awesome awful
brilliant dreadful fabulous
fantastic funny horrendous
lovely nasty nice
ridiculous rubbish stunning
terrible wonderful  
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)
e.g. for example
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)
i.e. that is

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.

For example:

First Mention

...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:

  • If you are using a precise figure, write the numbers 
  • If you are using mathematical notation or formulas, write the numbers
  • Percentages depend on the type of document. If you are writing scientific or technical documents, write the numbers and the symbol, otherwise use words and "per cent"
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:

The logical order in which you will address different aspects of the assignment question
The key point that you wish to make about each one
The evidence you will include to support each one

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.

Always keep focused on writing as clearly as you can – many students make the mistake of trying so hard to sound academic that their work comes across as confusing and unnatural.

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.

Avoid using words you find in the thesaurus that are not part of your growing academic vocabulary or you have not found in your reading material as you may misuse them. By using unfamiliar terms and vocabulary, you may use them out of context and it will affect the clarity and understanding of your writing.
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.

It is important that the evidence you use comes from good quality sources, such as textbooks and peer reviewed journals. Avoid using Google to find information unless your lecturer says otherwise. Instead, use resources recommended and featured by your lecturer on their Moodle page as well as library resources.

Using evidence from good quality sources can:

  • add substance to your own ideas
  • allow the reader to see what has informed your thinking
  • demonstrate your understanding of the general concepts and theories on the topic
  • show you have researched widely

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:

Clearly support the individual points which contribute to your argument Indicate what other scholars have written or said about your topic - and how their views relate to your argument Demonstrate different perspectives in the debate/issues you are writing about, but ultimately show that there is stronger evidence to support your argument rather than other opinions



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.
This approach strengthens your argument by positioning yourself as a critical reader, thinker and writer. As there are different viewpoints in academic literature, there might not be a definitive answer in relation to your topic.
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
feasibly likely some unlikely
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:

  • You will not have read all possible evidence relating to the topic and as there are different viewpoints, it is unlikely that you will be able to back/prove a claim beyond doubt or debate
  • There may not be a correct answer, just a slightly more likely answer; the results of individual studies are rarely conclusive and findings may later be shown to be inaccurate, based on false assumptions or incorrect interpretations
  • New data is being created all the time through new research; what is known can change as new discoveries are made
  • Data is often open to different interpretations


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