What is Academic Writing Style?

access_timeApril 2, 2018

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Academic writing doesn’t have a single definition. You’ll see forms of it in different areas of academia and research. The goal stays the same – to prove a theory or hypothesis. Writers dissect thoughts, question reasoning, and support conclusions.

Academic writing differs from other forms of writing because it looks at a topic from an impersonal, research-driven angle. The language is formal, and vocabulary and structures are concise.

Academic writers analyse a topic from a neutral standpoint. A judge, for instance, is objective. They examine evidence without bias and then pass judgement. You won’t use the pronoun ‘I’ in academic essays often because your opinion on a topic isn’t necessary.

A question may ask for your opinion, but you present an argument from an impersonal angle in most cases. Consider:

  • I think traffic is very bad in some big cities.
  • Traffic congestion is a serious problem in big cities.

Whether you think it’s bad or not doesn’t change the fact that traffic congestion is a problem in big cities.

Nouns and noun forms make effective impersonal subjects. In the example above, ‘traffic congestion’ is a compound noun. Other popular forms include:

  • Adjectives + nouns: Extreme weather contributed to…
  • Adverbs + participles + nouns: Recently discovered fossils reveal...
  • Compound adjectives + nouns: Car-free days promote…

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Active or passive?

The passive voice allows you to further remove yourself from the equation. Additionally, you can highlight the important information in a sentence. When you support a topic with data and facts, decide if the ‘doer’ of the action requires focus. If not, opt for the passive voice. It keeps sentences concise and strengthens supporting details.

Which sentence is clearer?

  • When people cut down too many trees, this makes climate change worse.
  • Climate change is compounded by rapid deforestation.

Formal or informal?

Examine the style, language, and level of vocabulary and grammar in academic works. You won’t spot any slang or smiley faces! Formal language is direct. It expresses a thought without the need for additional details. A simple example is the word ‘hard.’ It has several meanings, and the connotation is obvious only through context.

  • ‘The question was hard.’ The meaning of ‘hard’ is clearer, but in what sense was the question hard?
  • ‘The question was complicated.’ The question required deep analysis. That’s a complete idea, and we don’t need to add more.

Remember, too, that In spoken English, we have the advantage of word stress and tone to convey meaning. That’s clearly not the case with an essay, so precise vocabulary will keep your writing formal and coherent.

Formal Language

Vocabulary must help the reader to understand your claim. Poor word choice can be a distraction, or it can confuse the reader, invalidating your argument.

  • Use the correct word: Deforestation affects or effects climate change?
  • Avoid vague language: A good host is nice or hospitable?
  • Include technical language: Diseases are caused by pathogens. (instead of germs.)
  • Don’t use colloquial terms, slang and idioms: Scientists claim that…(instead of Scientists reckon…)
  • Avoid contractions: It should not be assumed that…(instead of shouldn’t)
  • Use clear intensifiers: Insecticide-treated mosquito nets are highly capable of… (instead of really capable of…)
  • Use single-word verbs: The cost of living is rising. (instead of going up)

Precision is key. The reader shouldn’t have to infer meaning. Rhetorical questions and expressions such as ‘etcetera’ ask the reader to form too many of their own conclusions. It’s your task to prove a thesis, not theirs.


Accuracy means you analyse and research your topic so you can provide precise information that is factually correct. The following sentence lacks precision:

  • Is there any growth in Africa? Well, some countries in Africa have better economies than others.

First, the rhetorical question is unnecessary; it delays essential information. Second, the reader is left thinking “Which countries?” A stronger sentence would be:

  • Sub-Saharan countries in Africa have experienced greater economic growth.

Verbs with a wide range of meanings can affect accuracy. For example, the verbs get, have, do, and make can be unclear. Compare:

  • Scientists got new information about an old culture.
  • Palaeontologists discovered artefacts from an ancient civilization.

The second example is loaded with words that offer strong, precise supporting information for your essay.

Academic style is essential to support a thesis well. The elements of academic style allow you to examine a topic from the right angle and present your findings with suitable language. Together with careful analysis and thorough making research, you’ll produce a concrete essay.

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