What changes in the language we use do we make when speaking in different situations? For example, what differences would there be in the language used when chatting with a close friend and the language chosen when taking part in a job interview?
- the level of formality?
- the grammar used?
- the vocabulary chosen?
Clearly, similar changes also take place when we write in different situations. For instance, the expectations of those reading our texts differ, depending on factors such as the purpose of the texts and the type of relationship we have with the anticipated reader. So, in our private lives, family members and friends receiving our text messages expect a style of language that is significantly different to the language we might use when writing, for example, to an important prospective client in a business context.
Similarly, there are features which distinguish academic writing from other forms of writing. These features are in large part connected to the principle purpose of academic texts, which is to ‘analyse or produce knowledge.’ And on this page, we’re going to introduce some of these key features, which have been grouped together into five categories:
As will become clear, this grouping of the features is to some extent arbitrary, as there is quite a degree of overlap between the groups (e.g. formality and conventions). However, the hope is that breaking the characteristics down in this way will lead to a clearer understanding of the choices that need to be made to produce well-written academic texts.
Use the short activities and explanations to take a closer look at what distinguishes academic writing from other uses of English.
After the activities you’ll find here below some further online study resources and suggestions for further reading.
Academic texts are more complex both in terms of their subject matter and their language. The information, concepts and ideas conveyed are more involved and demanding than in everyday interactions. After researching a topic, critical thinking and planning are needed to achieve a specific purpose.
The vocabulary used to convey the greater complexity is more sophisticated, as specialist vocabulary is required, and longer, more formal words are needed. The phrasing is more noun-based (e.g. nominalisation and extended nominal groups) and the syntax and grammar are often more complicated. This is because longer sentences with relative clauses, for example, are often needed and because the passive is required to achieve the more impersonal style that is conventionally expected in academic texts.
A more formal style is usually expected when writing academic texts. The features that contribute to this greater level of formality include:
- a more formal choice of vocabulary
- accurate use of vocabulary
- correct use of grammar
- clear syntax
- greater use of nominalisation
- a more objective style
- avoiding strong opinions
- the use of hedging.
Use this activity and the explanations to review some examples of each of these features.
As the quiz activity shows, several features combine to determine the level of formality in a text. It is worth checking with your tutor what is expected, but it is still generally the case that in most institutes of higher education (i.e. universities), a high degree of formality is deemed necessary. So a clear understanding of how to achieve this formality is essential in making the right choices when choosing vocabulary, constructing sentences and checking grammar.
Use these explanations to learn more about the features of formal, academic writing.
A more formal, less conversational tone can be achieved by using
- words that are of Latin or French origin rather than the usually shorter Anglo-Saxon alternatives used in everyday speech (e.g.'require' rather than '
need' or 'assist' rather than ' help')
- more precise vocabulary (e.g.'labour-saving devices' rather than 'labour-saving
And the following should be avoided
- colloquial language (e.g. '
- phrasal verbs (e.g. 'This term paper examines ...' rather than 'This term paper
deals with' / 'The aim is to determine ...' rather than 'The aim is to find out...')
- contracted forms (e.g. 'It is crucial' rather than '
Accurate use of vocabulary
In academic writing, the use of vocabulary needs to be accurate. Specialist language can be learned by reading widely about a topic in the target language (e.g. 'BPO - business process outsourcing'). Time also needs to be spent finding precisely the words needed to convey less specialised ideas or information. For example,
'The companies merged.' rather than 'The companies
Pitfalls to avoid include confusables (e.g. 'affect' and 'effect' or 'in case' and 'if') and false friends, that is, words that are similar in the target language but have a different meaning (e.g. the German word 'eventuell' and the English 'eventual' or the Italian word 'simpatico' and the English 'sympathetic').
In most forms of formal writing, a greater degree of grammatical accuracy is expected than in day-to-day conversations or, for example, in informal email writing. Academic writing is no exception. However, producing a well-researched, well-constructed and well-argued text that achieves the academic aim of critically analysing or contributing to our pool of knowledge on a specific topic area is already a demanding task. Ensuring, at the same time, that the language is accurate is an additional burden that can make the task seem daunting. This is why it is important to break the writing process down into stages:
When using English for academic purposes it is important to be accurate both in speaking and writing. It is, however, very difficult to produce language which is intelligent, appropriate and accurate at the same time. It is therefore important to break down the task into stages: an ideas stage and an accuracy stage.
In the 'accuracy stage', the text can be proofread to ensure that errors that may cause misunderstanding are removed and that the vocabulary and sentence structures chosen have made the text's meaning as clear as possible.
Grammar for academic writing
Certain features of academic writing require a good knowledge of specific aspects of grammar:
As the lexicographer, Julie More, explains it 'isn’t that a passive verb form is always more ‘correct’ or more ‘academic’, it’s just one option that can help us to organize information in the most effective way'. For example
- to achieve the 'flow' needed to guide the reader:
"Choosing an active or a passive verb form is one grammatical feature we can manipulate as writers to allow us to move information around in a sentence to best achieve this flow." (Understanding academic grammar)
- to focus attention on information and arguments rather than on 'people' and achieve a more impersonal, objective style (The passive voice).
In academic writing, it is usually necessary to include the ideas and research findings of experts in the field being considered. When quoting or paraphrasing these sources, it is necessary to acknowledge them by referencing, and their inclusion in a text is often carried out using reporting verbs. These are verbs that are used to repeat what someone has previously said or thought and in academic texts, they are generally used in the present tense:
Porter explains that ...
However, the past tense can also be used as a means of indicating that the information or views being reproduced have been superseded by more up-to-date research. The general grammar associated with the use of reporting verbs is explained here: Reported speech.
There are many reporting verbs and they need to be chosen with care because they can indicate both what the author intended and the attitude you may have towards what is being reported (see Warwick University and EAP Foundation).
- Verb tenses
The main verb tenses needed in academic wrriting are
- Present simple (e.g. A recent study shows …)
- Past simple (e.g. It was found that … )
- Future (e.g. Prices will continue to rise ...) Note that the use of 'will' implies a degree of certainty. More caution can be expressed using modal verbs such as 'could', 'may' or 'might'.
An explanation and examples of how these tenses are used in academic texts are available here: University of Hull
One reason for the complexity of academic writing is the need to connect ideas and show the relationship between them. Although a sequence of simple short sentences may be easy to understand, it is difficult to achieve the required level of academic detail and complexity without combining ideas to form longer sentences. However, this can sometimes lead to writing this is difficult to understand because of the problems with sentence structure (syntax) that may arise.
- Common problems with sentence structure
Some of the most frequent problems students have with sentence structure are
- Incomplete sentences (known as 'fragments')
- Separate ideas put together with no punctuation (known as 'run-ons')
- Sentences that are too long to follow easily
- Faulty parallelism (i.e. components in a sentence that should match but do not).
An explanation of these (and other) problem areas is available here: Sentence structure.
As mentioned above, the subject matter in academic texts often tends to be detailed and complex. This complexity can be conveyed more effectively by building sentences with noun phrases, and one way of doing this is nominalisation (i.e. changing verbs into nouns, e.g. 'require' to 'requirement'). This is why nominalisation is a common feature of academic writing. The advantages nominalising verbs can bring include
- the possibility of transforming actions into concepts so that they can be commented on or developed (e.g. 'Companies benefit from offshoring.' => 'One benefit of offshoring is lower labour costs, but ...')
- more concise sentences (see Why use nominalisation)
Objectivity in academic writing
The following advice is similar in tone to views that are often expressed in university departments regarding the level of objectivity in the written work produced by undergraduates:
... the main emphasis should be on the information that you want to give and the arguments you want to make, rather than you. ... Nobody really wants to know what you "think" or "believe". They want to know what you have studied and learned and how this has led you to your various conclusions. The thoughts and beliefs should be based on your lectures, reading, discussion and research and it is important to make this clear.
The danger with such statements is that they can inhibit students and cause them to play safe and produce work in which they uncritically reproduce what has been gleaned from their "lectures, reading, discussion and research" rather than develop an academic voice that enables them to express the kind of "thoughts and beliefs" that are generally rewarded with high grades when they are well-argued and well supported with evidence.
Another, perhaps more helpful way of considering objectivity in writing in the context of universities is provided by this explanation of 'analytical writing':
Analytical writing style is often called for at university level. It involves reviewing what you’ve read in light of other evidence. Analytical writing shows the thought processes you went through to arrive at a given conclusion and discusses the implications of this. Analytical writing usually follows a brief description and focuses on answering questions like: ‘why?’ ‘how?’ and ‘so what?’
Whether framed in terms of 'objective' or 'analytical' writing, it is clear that this requirement contributes to the formality of academic texts. And so, an understanding of how to produce this style of writing is necessary.
- Impersonal tone
This can be achieved by
- using the passive to avoid personal pronouns (e.g. 'It is argued that ...' rather than '
They arguethat ...' )
- using 'things' rather than 'people' as subjects to avoid personal pronouns (e.g. 'This term paper begins by first providing' rather than 'In this term paper,
Iwould first like to provide you...')
- replacing the expression of personal views with references to the work carried out by experts (e.g. 'Studies show that ...' rather than '
I thinkthat ...')
- not referring to the reader (e.g. 'The figures show that ...' rather than '
Youcan see from the figures that ...' )
- Be precise, not vague
To achieve this
- use precise language whenever possible (e.g. 'Sales rose by 17% in 2017 when ...' rather than 'Sales rose
quite a lot that yearwhen ...')
- avoid subjective wording that includes intensifiers such as 'really' or 'very' (e.g 'The results were revealing because ...' rather than 'The results were
There are some more examples of how to achieve an objective style here: UEfAP.com.
As mentioned above, university departments often expect students to submit work that conforms to what is considered a formal, objective style of writing. Dictionaries define 'objective' along these lines:
not influenced by personal feelings or opinions; considering only facts
This suggests that, in academic texts, expressing opinions, especially strongly stated opinions, may be regarded as problematic. The extent to which opinions are expected (or not) and how they should be expressed are areas that students need to discuss with their university tutors. However, it is also the case that students who do more than simply describe situations or repeat what has been written about their chosen topic are awarded higher grades:
As a student, it is not enough to simply describe a situation or recall the facts, you need to take a stance or position yourself in relation to the situation or the facts. This is particularly important in assessment when you have to answer a question. Of course, you need to know and reproduce the information, but you also need to use the information to give an answer to the question, to give YOUR answer to the question.
To meet the expectations of your academic audience, it is necessary to develop a position (or stance) and to make it clear, not through 'subjective' language, but through the selection and arrangement of information and arguments gathered from research and through the careful use of language. Here are some factors to consider:
- Avoid expressing strong personal opinions
This is usually considered inappropriately subjective and should be avoided (e.g. rather than '
It's clear to methat a no-deal Brexit is a bad idea every way you look at it!', offer evidence: 'The recent report compiled by the Cabinet Office indicates that a no-deal Brexit will lead to shortages of fuel, food and medicine and rising costs in social care.')
Another way of not seeming overtly opinionated is to use tentative language:
Student writers need to learn to emphasize what’s most important, to express evaluation, and comment critically on ideas. They also need to develop their use of tentative language, sometimes known as hedging, to express their degree of certainty – or uncertainty – in their message. Tentative language can include adverbs (partly, approximately, apparently), modal verbs (could, may, might, can), semi-auxiliary verbs (seem, appear), and prepositional phrases (in most cases, in general).
Understanding academic grammar
- Indicate a position
This can be done in several ways without overtly expressing opinions:
- build a persuasive argument by making the relationship between ideas and information explicit by using 'signalling' language (e.g. 'Similarly, Thompson Thompson (2005) argues that ...' )
- select reporting verbs that indicate a stance (e.g. 'Thompson (2005) demonstrates how outsourcing can lead to quality issues.')
Conventions are ways of “doing something … that …[are]… considered usual and correct” (Cambridge dictionary). Use the short quiz and the notes that follow to review some of the conventions of academic writing.
Use these notes to learn more about the conventions of academic writing.
Coventions of academic writing
As we have seen, there are aspects of formality (e.g. expressing opinions) which are a matter of convention. There are other conventions of formal writing that concern form rather than content. These include:
- no contractions (e.g. ‘who is in charge.’ not ‘
- no abbreviations (e.g. ‘that is.’ not ‘
i.e.’) as part of a sentence. However, initialisms (i.e. abbreviations consisting of initial letters pronounced separately 'CSR' for corporate social responsibility) can be used as long as they are included in a 'List of abbreviations' and introduced in their full form the first time they appear in the text (e.g. 'Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become increasingly important.')
- no colloquialisms, idioms, phrasal verbs or journalese (e.g. 'the managers did not accept responsibility' rather than 'the managers
passed the buck')
- numbers in words at the beginning of sentences (e.g. 'One hundred and twenty companies filed for bankruptcy' not '
120companies filed for bankruptcy')
Two important conventions that relate more to content than form are
In academic writing, students are responsible for the accuracy of the information included and are expected to provide evidence for any statements made. Students are also expected to demonstrate that they have understood their sources and applied some critical thinking to them rather than simply reproducing the ideas and information that they find in their research.
Related to the above point is the need for precise language (e.g. '44 companies' rather than '
quite a fewcompanies' ).
See the following
The aim of concise writing is to use the fewest words possible without losing meaning or complexity. However, as this statement makes clear, the impact of a text should also be kept in mind:
Concise writing does not always have the fewest words, but it always uses the strongest ones. Writers often fill sentences with weak or unnecessary words that can be deleted or replaced. Words and phrases should be deliberately chosen for the work they are doing. Like bad employees, words that don’t accomplish enough should be fired. When only the most effective words remain, writing will be far more concise and readable.
Use the short quiz and the notes that follow to review some of the key elements in producing concise academic writing.
Use these notes to learn more about writing concisely.
To stay within the word limits usually set for assignments, students have to keep word count in mind in their writing. However, academic writing aims to convey more complex ideas and information as clearly and concisely as possible. So, as one of the principal qualities of effective writing, concision is in itself an objective that students should strive for, irrespective of the word limits usually set for assignments.
Checking the wording of sentences is one way of writing concisely:
- Vague language
Replace vague phrasing with a more precise choice of words (e.g. 'This paper considers
many of the things that need to be considered whendeciding to outsource accounting services.' The single word 'criteria' is more precise and much more concise!)
- Use adverbs
Using adverbs is often more concise and natural-sounding:
- 'A well-managed supply chain allows companies to deliver higher quality products
in a faster and cheaper way.' Replacing the 'in a ... way' structure with 'more quickly and cheaply' saves two words and sounds much more natural.
More and moreemployees would like to work from home.' Using the adverb 'increasingly' followed by a comma saves words and sounds more formal.
- Prepositional phrases
Using phrases with prepositions such as, for example, 'of', 'in' and 'for' can make sentences overly long and sometimes unnatural sounding (e.g. 'A
verdict of the WTOcould damage international trade.' The noun phrase 'A WTO verdict' is more concise and 'flows' better.)
- Unnecessary words
Sometimes longer phrases are unnecessary and can be replaced by just one or two words:
This leads to the assumptionthat European businesses will lose profits due to the tariffs imposed by the USA.' The concise phrase 'It follows' leads the reader equally well to the 'assumption'.
the course ofthis term paper, the benefits and drawbacks of working from home will be examined.' Using the phrase 'in the course of' is not only unnecessarily wordy, it is also inappropriate in this context. The simple 'In this term paper' is a better option and an equally good option would be using 'term paper' as the subject of the sentence 'This term paper will examine ...'.
Saying the same thing twice in a sentence is an unnecessary use of words (e.g. 'The government funding for sustainability projects should be adequate
Checking the wording of sentences certainly makes writing more concise, as the examples above illustrate. However, concise writing goes beyond the sentence level to encompass paragraphing and the organisation and structure of texts as a whole:
Every paragraph in your essay must have a purpose. When revising, critically examine each paragraph and ask yourself whether it is necessary to your overall thesis. You may decide to cut some paragraphs. This process could be painful, especially if you have done a lot of research you’d like to include or need more words to meet a page limit, but it will strengthen your paper.
As the quote suggests, the decisions that need to be made in the final editing stage can be difficult but they are necessary not only to keep to word limits but also to ensure that texts are as clear and concise as possible.
- Academic writing
This Reading University tutorial provides advice on how to 'Write concisely and with precision'.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab - Concision
Contains examples of how to make wordy sentences concise.
- Writing concisely
A George Mason University tutorial with examples of how to remove wordiness and redundancy.
- Writing concisely
A University of North Carolina 'handout' with advice on different problems that lead to wordiness.
The focus in the preceding sections has been on the formality, complexity, adherence to conventions and concision that is expected in academic texts. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the primary aim of good writing, which is to be clearly understood, as this cautionary note reminds us:
Do not be tempted to use complex language or expressions that are not your own, just to make your writing appear “academic” … Your reader needs to understand the information or ideas that you are conveying.
As we have seen, choosing vocabulary carefully, avoiding errors and constructing clear, concise sentences go a long way towards achieving the clarity essential to effective writing. However, other elements in the writing process need to be borne in mind to achieve this clarity:
In good academic writing, the ideas are unified, contributing to a clear overall picture. This is true of both the whole text and each paragraph.
The focus here shifts from choices concerning individual words, phrases and sentences to the decisions that need to be made about the organisation of paragraphs and texts as a whole. In other words, careful thought needs to be given to
Cohesion, the term commonly used to describe the mechanisms which help to make a text clear, logical, unified and reader-friendly.
Clearly, the exact form and content of a paragraph depend on its subject matter and context within a text. However, there are guidelines for planning and writing paragraphs which are widely accepted, for example, the PEAL* format:
P: Sentence introducing the point with any necessary detail.
E: Illustration of point using evidence: research example, case study, figures, etc.
A: Critical analysis of point
L: Concluding sentence summing up the point and linking to the question or your argument.
It may not always be possible or desirable to keep rigidly to this format, but bearing it in mind certainly helps in producing clearer, more readily understandable texts, especially when complex ideas, situations or information are being conveyed.
*Sometimes also known as PEEL.
Readers need to be guided through a text not only to help them understand but also to ensure that they interpret the text as intended. To achieve these aims, the flow of information from one sentence to the next needs be made clear using cohesive linking devices, such as repetition, substitution and linking words. This is also known as the Hook & Eye writing technique as this Glasgow video tutorial explains:
Further online study resources
- Features of academic writing
This Monash University page has a helpful introductory video followed by a quick activity that encourages us to consider key features of academic writing.
- Characteristics of Academic Writing
This Glasgow Caledonian University page provides a quick guide to some key features of academic writing.
- Features of academic writing
Although the Using English for Academic Purposes (EfAP) website looks a little old fashioned and visually unappealing, it has some very helpful resources, including this introduction to what are considered to be the key features of academic writing.
For those who prefer printed materials and would like to work on their academic writing skills, these books provide excellent support.
Stephen Bailey’s – Academic Writing for International Students of Business – provides comprehensive explanations and exercises to develop the awareness and skills students need to write essays and reports.
Ann Hogue’s – Longman Academic Writing Series 2: Paragraphs – is the second in a five-level writing series designed to develop students’ writing, starting with composing sentences and concluding with writing research papers.
Julie Moore’s – Oxford Academic Vocabulary Practice – includes activities to improve writing skills in key areas such as, for example, evaluating ideas and explaining concepts and shows how words from the Academic Word List are used in academic writing.
Click on the images to view these coursebooks on Amazon.