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Language and style

Clear, concise and formal

The vocabulary, tone of voice, and style you choose to use in your writing can help you communicate your ideas more clearly to your reader.

Academic writing is concise, clear, formal and uses a mixture of the active and passive voices. It does not need to be complex or use long sentences and obscure vocabulary.

Be concise

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

To ensure your writing is concise, you can do the following:

  • Only include one main idea per sentence.
  • Keep your sentences to a reasonable length (generally not more than 25 words). Long, complex sentences can be difficult to understand and this may distract the reader from your point.
  • Avoid repeating the same idea in more than one sentence. Reading your work aloud may help you to identify any repetition.

Clarity and accuracy

Academic writing should always be clear, easy to understand and accurate. You should aim to demonstrate the following in your writing:

  • use specific and precise language
  • use specialist terminology where appropriate
  • use punctuation accurately
  • check your work is clear and accurate: you could read your work aloud to find and adjust small mistakes before you hand it in.

Read more about editing and proof reading your work.

Make your structure clear

Use signposting vocabulary when necessary to show the reader the structure and direction of your argument. You can use specific words and phrases to point out a change of direction eg “on the other hand”, “however”, or to show you are continuing the same point eg “furthermore”, “additionally”.

This table shows common signposting techniques and some of the vocabulary you can use.

Purpose Words and phrases
Continue the same point


Change direction in fact
in contrast
on the other hand
Draw a conclusion therefore
in summary
to conclude
List aspects of a topic, or steps in a process First... next... then... finally...
One [important aspect is]… another aspect...
First... second...

To give your writing a sense of “flow” or coherence, you can use vocabulary and techniques to refer back to ideas from the previous sentence or paragraph.

For example, you could use a pronoun such as “this” to refer to the concept you are currently discussing, or use a phrase like “as previously discussed” to show you are continuing the same point.

Use formal language

In academic writing you are expected to use formal language.

Avoid using colloquialisms or slang terms. For example, instead of “sort of” use “somewhat”, and instead of “basically” you could use “fundamentally”.

Write words out in full rather than shortening them. For example, instead of writing “don't” or “isn't” you are 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 a 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. You can also look at published writing in your discipline, or materials shared in your module, to understand whether active or passive forms are more commonly used.

Active voice

The active voice places the subject of the sentence in charge of the action. It is usually more direct and easier to read than the passive voice.

For example: “The research assistant designed the survey.”

Here the research assistant (the subject) designed (the verb) the survey (the object).

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.

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: Stott and Avery. 2001. Writing with Style. Harlow: Longman, p.54.