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Academic writing

Use clear and concise language

Academic writing is concise, clear, formal and active. It does not need to be complex or use long sentences and obscure vocabulary.

Be concise

In formal academic writing it is important to be concise. This helps your reader to understand the points you are making.

Here are some tips to help you:

  • Only include one main idea per sentence.
  • 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.
  • Avoid repetition.

Avoid using redundant words. For example:

  • Use “because” instead of “due to the fact that”.
  • Use “alternatives” instead of “alternative choices”.
  • Use “fundamentals” and not “basic fundamentals”.
  • Use “concisely” instead of “in as few words as possible”.

Reading your work aloud may help you to identify any repetition or redundant words.

Use formal language

In academic writing you are expected to use formal language.:

Avoid using colloquialisms or slang terms such as 'sort of' or 'basically'. Instead you could use 'somewhat' or 'fundamentally'.

Write words out in full rather than shortening them. For example, instead of writing “don't” or “isn't” you would be expected to write “do not” or “is not”

The use of clichés is not appropriate in academic writing. These are phrases such as “at the end of the day” or “in the nick of time.” Instead of this you might write finally or at the critical moment.

Use a blend of active and passive verbs

Most verbs can be used in either an active or passive form. It is usually appropriate to use a mixture of passive and active forms within academic writing. Always check with your department to see what form of writing would be most appropriate for your subject area.

The active voice places the subject of the sentence in charge of the action.

For example: “The research assistant designed the survey.” Here the research assistant (the subject) designed (the verb) the survey (the object).

It is usually more direct and easier to read than the passive voice.

However, sometimes you may want to emphasise what is happening rather than who is doing it. To do this you can use the passive voice.

The passive voice places the subject at the end, or may leave it out completely.

For example: “The survey was designed by the research assistant.” Here the survey (the object) was designed (the verb) by the research assistant (the subject).

The passive voice is more formal than the active voice. It is often used in academic writing as it is seen as more impersonal and therefore more objective. However, it is not always easy to read and it may add unnecessary words.

Adapted from Writing with Style by Stott and Avery, 2001, p.54.