Key Features of Good Academic Writing: Write, Don’t Speak

Students often complain that academics speak and write in an unnecessarily complex way. Unfortunately, there will always be academics who speak and write in a convoluted and opaque way. However, most academic writing isn’t needlessly complicated; it is just different from the sort of language we encounter in fiction or in everyday speech.

It is natural to wish to write the way you speak. However, for tertiary essays it is necessary to write in an academic manner which differs from the way you speak. The more you read, the more you learn to write in a formal, academic way.

Avoid clichs, euphemisms and tautologies

Clichйs are common in everyday speech. Clichйs are overused phrases which have specific meanings in a particular culture at a particular time. You can never be certain that people understand what they mean, so avoid clichйs, for example, ‘like the plague’! They tend to employ emotive imagery and can lead to misunderstanding, lack of accuracy and lack of objectivity.

Euphemisms are mild and vague phrases substituted for direct words. Euphemisms were put to great effect during the Gulf War in 1991 when terms such as ‘friendly fire’ were used to mean ‘killing your own soldiers by mistake’! Euphemisms dilute meaning and should be avoided. For example, instead of ‘senior citizens’, use ‘the old’ or ‘elderly’; instead of ‘passed away’, use ‘died’.Tautology means repeating something that you have already said in the same sentence. Sports commentators are famous for using tautologies! Tautologies are common in everyday speech, so watch out for them creeping into your writing. Some examples are:

  • a decisive decision
  • the bag was completely empty
  • to revert back
  • the three triplets
  • each and every one
  • more better.

Avoid slang, and emotive and personal expressions

The use of slang, and emotive and personal expressions can lead to bias and lack of clarity in your essays. All three are common in speech, but should be avoided in academic writing. Don’t use slang expressions such as ‘cool’, ‘groovy’ or ‘hip’, as they are often culture- and age-group specific and may create misunderstanding. Words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘great’ and ‘silly’ are imprecise and emotive, and should be avoided, like the statements listed below:

His argument is stupid.

It was an awful finding.

The paper is fabulously written.

It is a dramatic piece of evidence.

It is acceptable to write from the first person point of view—for example, by writing statements such as: ‘I will argue’ or ‘My essay will cover’. However, don’t use personal expressions as sentence openers, which tend to be unnecessary and emotive, such as:

I feel

In my opinion

I believe

I think.

Expressions such as ‘I believe’ state the obvious. (You clearly believe it, since you are the one writing it!)

Active rather than passive writing: Steer clear of waffle

Waffle, or verbose (wordy) writing, is what academics call the unnecessary use of complex expression or too many words. Sometimes students try to artificially ‘pad out’ their essays to meet the word limit, or they write complicated sentences to make their essays sound more academic. This leads to the use of a lot of unnecessary words and can trap students into writing vague statements around a subject, rather than writing directly about the actual subject. For example, some students waste too much essay space on continually stating what they intend to do, rather than just getting to the point. It is easy for markers to spot such ‘padding’; all it does is obscure what you are trying to say.

Waffle can also be the result of repetition. Repetition is a key feature of everyday speech. We often repeat ourselves for clarity or to reinforce a point, or sometimes simply to fill the silence while we think of the next thing to say. Here is an example:

If youre-read your work, you may find on re-reading it that a lot of repetition can be found by the simple act of re-reading!

Passive writing is wordy and dull. Active writing gets to the point and avoids unnecessary words (that is, words which don’t add any meaning to the sentence). Such a direct approach is different from the personal and informal nature of everyday speech. For example, the following sentences can be rewritten to make them shorter and clearer:

The implementation of the outcomes of the policy-making process is intended to be undertaken within the year …

is better rewritten as:

The policy will be implemented by the end of the year.

Another example:

It was argued by Marx …

is better rewritten as:

Marx argued …

A good warning sign of waffle and passive writing is when your sentences are over 30 words long. Once sentences get that long, the reader’s short-term memory begins to wane. While there are times when a lengthy sentence is required, always check to see if you can simplify the wording to shorten the sentence. Overly long sentences can usually be split into two shorter sentences. If you can split a longer sentence into two shorter ones, then do so, as shorter sentences are easier to read and understand. Is your writing free of unnecessary words? An old saying is ‘make every word count’;

Add variety to your expression

There are a great variety of words in the English language. While you should always try to write in a straightforward manner, this doesn’t mean you cannot vary the words you use. By using a thesaurus, you can improve the clarity and sophistication of your writing.

Try to use variety in your sentence structure. Avoid starting each sentence with the same opening words. There is nothing more boring than reading an essay where every sentence begins with: ‘It seems … It also seems … It seems …’.

Be accurate and specific

Read the following example taken from a student essay discussing Aboriginal inequality:

It is a well-known fact that indigenous groups have shorter life expectancies.

There are a number of problems with the sentence. For example, is it really a well-known fact? Is such a statement necessary or accurate? To which indigenous groups is the author referring? It also isn’t clear to whom the indigenous groups are being compared. The statement needs to be specific: how much shorter are the life expectancy rates? Unlike everyday speech, tertiary essays are expected to be accurate and specific in their content and argument.

Avoid point form, unanswered questions and ‘floating’

Academic writing involves structured sentences and paragraphs. Unless otherwise stated, don’t use point form in your essays. Point form is fine for taking notes, but part of your essay mark is based on your writing ability—that is, your ability to put your thoughts into logically constructed sentences and paragraphs.

A tip to remember is not to pose unanswered questions in your essays. Posing a question to the reader is an acceptable writing device. However, if you ask a question in your essay, you must provide an answer. Remember, an essay is your answer to a question. As there is clearly no point answering a question with a question, always provide your response to any questions you pose.

One final piece of advice is never to leave a direct quote ‘floating’ as if it speaks for itself. When you directly quote another author, you must link the quote to the sentences that surround it. In other words, direct quotes should be an integral part of your sentence and paragraph structure. For example, always use a linking sentence or phrase to introduce a quote, such as:

Germov (2000, p. 104) states you should ‘always use a linking sentence to introduce a quote’.

As this guide has shown, by keeping in mind the unwritten rules of academic writing, you can immediately improve your expression and enhance both the skill and art of your writing.