Leeds University Library

Academic writing: language and style

In the previous sections we have looked at the characteristics of academic writing, how to structure your writing and incorporate the writing of others' into your own work. Now we are going to focus on some practical ways that you can improve your general writing style. 

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:
Redundant words
Instead of Use
 Due to the fact that  Because
 Employed the use of  Used
 Basic fundamentals  Fundamentals
 Completely eliminate  Eliminate
 Alternative choices  Alternatives
 In as few words as possible  Concisely

  • 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 as opposed to colloquial or informal 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 contracting (or 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 clich├ęs 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
  • Hull provides some excellent examples of how you can make the language in your written work more academic and formal in their Sounding academic activity. 

Active versus Passive voice

The passive voice is often used in academic writing as it is seen as more impersonal and therefore more objective. Most verbs can be used in either an active or passive form, although choosing which form to use in your writing can be difficult. Check whether your department has any specific guidance on the use of active and passive voice. 

The active voice: The active voice is usually more direct and easier to read than the passive voice. When using the active voice, the subject(s) is in charge of the relevant action(s).

  • The nurse administered the injection. 

Here the nurse (the subject) administered (the verb) the injection (the object).

  • The research assistant designed the survey.

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

In these examples it is clear who is performing the action. 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: The passive voice is more formal than the active voice but because it is not often used in everyday speech it can seem overly complicated and can be hard to read. When using the passive voice, the subject is left until the end or left out altogether.
  • The injection was administered by the nurse.

Here the injection (the object) was administered (the verb) by the nurse (the subject).

  • The survey was designed by the research assistant.   

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

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.

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

Use language to demonstrate balance in your writing

In your university assessments, there is rarely one answer to a question or assignment you are set. Research, ideas and arguments should always be open to being challenged, so it is important that the language you use acknowledges this. In your academic work, you should not present something as a fact that might not be. In academic writing, you can use language that we often refer to as 'hedges' or 'boosters' to show how confident you are about an argument or claim you are discussing. 

Hedges

When writing, be careful of using words such as 'definitely' or 'proves'. Ask yourself whether your statement is a fact or whether there may be some doubt either now or in the future. 

Some useful hedging words and phrases to use in your work are:

  • This suggests....
  • It is possible that...
  • A possible explanation...
  • Usually...
  • Sometimes...
  • Somewhat...

Read the following two sentences:

  1. Research proves that drinking a large volume of fizzy drinks containing sugar leads to the development of type II diabetes.
  2. Research suggests that high consumption of fizzy drinks containing sugar may contribute to the development of type II diabetes.

In sentence 1, the statement is presented as proven fact; that a high volume of sugary fizzy drinks will definitely lead to type II diabetes. This leaves no room for doubt or criticism or the fact that some people may drink large volumes of fizzy drinks and never develop type II diabetes.

In sentence 2, the writer has used 'hedging language' - 'suggests' and 'may contribute' - to show that while there is evidence to link sugary drinks and type II diabetes, this may not be true for every person and may be proven to be incorrect in the future. 

Boosters

You might want to express a measure of certainty or conviction in your writing and this is when 'booster' language can help.

Some useful booster words and phrases to use in your work are:

  • Clearly (only use if you are certain it is clear)
  • There is a strong correlation...
  • Results indicate...

Taking the same sentence as used in the previous section:

  1. Research suggests that high consumption of fizzy drinks containing sugar may contribute to the development of type II diabetes.
  2. Research indicates a clear link between the high consumption of a large volume of fizzy drinks containing sugar and the development of type II diabetes.

In sentence 1, the writer has used the hedging language 'suggested' and 'may contribute', to show that while there is evidence to link sugary drinks and type II diabetes this may not be true for every person and may be proven to be incorrect in the future. 

In sentence 2, the writer still uses language to allow for doubt and argument but it is clear that this writer is more convinced by the research. 

The Manchester Academic Phrasebank provides many more examples that you can use in your written work. 

Use signalling words and phrases to show the structure of your writing

Signalling words can be used to explicitly demonstrate the relationship between your ideas and arguments. These words help to make the structure of your writing more effective; they can clarify the flow and logic of your argument and make it easier for your reader to understand the points you are making. They are called signalling words because they give your reader a clue as to what might be coming up next or where you might be taking your argument. 

Have a look at these examples below:

  1. Using a laboratory method was beneficial as a causal relationship could be established between cognitive load and generating attributes. However, this method creates an artificial setting which reduces the study's ecological validity. 

    In this example the use of the word however at the beginning of the second sentence indicates that a contrasting point of view is about to be made. It also suggests that the writer may have more sympathy with the second opinion.
  2. Firstly, the concepts and person centred care will be defined.... Next, communication will be discussed... Finally, the relationship between loss and communication will be examined. [Taken from a Healthcare essay]

    In this example the writer has used signalling words to demonstrate the sequence of their argument by using Firstly, next, finally making the structure of the essay very clear.
  3. Employee satisfaction is justifiable to employees because it causes an improvement on their well being (Grandley, 2003). Moreover, employees that are in a good mood at work are less likely to act because their true feelings are in accordance with the needed display of emotions (Grandley, 2003). [Taken from a Business School essay]

    The use of the word moreover tells the reader that the next sentence will provide further evidence or information to support the statement made in the first sentence. It also suggest that the writer strongly agrees with the first statement.

Here are some more examples of signalling words you might use and what purpose they serve:

Signalling words
 Purpose Words 
Add information or show agreement Furthermore, moreover, additionally
Compare two similar points Similarly, in comparison 
Contrast viewpoints  In contrast, however, and yet, although 
Effect or consequence or conclusion  Consequently, as a result, therefore 
For example To demonstrate, to illustrate 
To emphasise  Particularly, significantly 
Sequence  First, second, finally 

(Adapted from Signal words: http://web.clark.edu/martpe/signal%20words.htm

The Manchester Academic Phrasebank at has more examples of signalling words to use in your work. 

Tenses

It is important to use the correct tense in your written work. You will probably need to use different tenses throughout depending upon the context but here are some general guidelines to help you if you are unsure: 

  • If you are writing about established knowledge then use the present tense. For example, "Diabetes is a condition where the amount of glucose in the blood is too high because the body cannot use it properly." (Diabetes UK, 2015)
  • If you are writing about an experiment you carried out or a method you used then use the past tense. "Our experiment showed wide variations in results where the variable was altered even slightly." 
  • When you are reporting on the findings or research of others then you should use the present tense. This is because you are writing about something that is established knowledge. For example, you might write "Smith's research from 2012 finds that regular exercise may contribute to good cardiovascular health."
  • When you are writing about your conclusions or what you have found then use the present tense. For example: "In this case there is not a large difference between the two diameter values (from Feret's diameter and calculated equation), which again is probably due to the fact that the average circularity ratio is on the high end of the scale, 0.88, and therefore infers near circular pores." 
  • If you are writing about figures that you have presented in a table or chart then use the present tense. For example: "These figures show that the number of birds visiting the hide increase every year in May...".