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Checking your academic style

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This guide will help you to make sure your writing in the appropriate academic style.

Depersonalising your writing

    Look at the numbered sentences below and identify:
    • the one that feels more like academic writing
    • the one that feels like it was spoken
    • the one that feels in the middle between academic writing and spoken words.
    1. People use mobile phones a lot which causes cancers and things like that.

    2. The use of mobile phones may well cause an increase in the number of health-related issues.

    3. People use mobile phones a lot and this may cause more issues that are related to their health.

    The one which is closer to academic writing is number two:

    The use of mobile phones may well cause an increase in the number of health-related issues.

    Example 1

    There are two reasons why this sentence is more appropriate to academic style. First, the language is more specific, for example:

    Sentence 2 is more specific than Sentence 1
    ‘ ... health-related issues.’ ‘ … cancers and things like that.’

    Second, the language is more depersonalised, for example:

    Sentence 2 is less personalised than Sentence 3
    ‘ The use of mobile phones … ’ ‘ People use mobile phones … ’

    One way to help depersonalise your writing is by using nouns rather than verbs, for example:

    ‘The use of … ’ instead of People use … ’
    ‘ use’ is a noun ‘use’ is a verb



    ‘ … health-related issues.’ instead of ‘ … issues that are related to their health.’
    ‘ … health-related issues.’ is a noun ‘ … are related to … ’ is a verb


    Example 2

    You can see this difference in the following example:

    Cross

    If they increase spending, unemployment may drop.

    Here ‘If they increase spending’ focuses on the people (‘they’), their actions (‘increase’) and the spending.

    Tick

    If there is an increase in spending, unemployment may drop.

    In contrast, here ‘an increase in spending’ is depersonalized and focuses on the increase in spending.

    The following example can be depersonalised in two places in the same sentence:

    Cross

    They banned driving over 70mph and then the number of people who died went down.

    Tick

    The ban on driving over 70mph led to a reduction in the death rate.

    Again, ‘The ban on driving’ depersonalises the writing, whereas ‘they banned driving’ focuses on ‘they’.

    Similarly, ‘a reduction in the death rate’ is a depersonalised idea, while ‘the number of people who died went down’ has a personal feel.

    Now try the Depersonalising your writing exercise to check you can recognise the correct style.

    Example 3

    Other areas of style

    The first part of this guide focused on depersonalising your writing by using more nouns. Now we will look at four additional areas of style. To get the most out of this section, make sure you look at depersonalising your writing first. Then work through this section and complete the test yourself exercise at the end.

      Good style in academic writing involves being very specific about what you want to say. For example, look at the following phrases:

      the problem This isn’t very precise.
      the severe problem Adding ‘severe’ makes it more precise.
      the severe problem with far-reaching effects Adding ‘with far-reaching effects’ makes it more precise again.

      Here are two more examples of going from general to more specific:

      unemployment General

      arrow

      Specific
      current unemployment
      the current level of unemployment in the north of England


      an issue General

      arrow

      Specific

      We can also see a problem with precision in the following examples:

      Significant improvements need to be considered, such as accountability etc. Cross Significant improvements need to be considered, such as accountability, administration and structure. Tick
      There are issues with administration, structure and so on. Cross There are issues with administration, structure and accountability. Tick

      Here ‘etc.’ and ‘… and so on’ are not precise. A better practice would be to complete the list as shown on the right.

      Finally, the use of precise words instead of very general words can help. For example:

      General arrow Precise
      Do research Carry out research
      Something that helps with … A mechanism that helps with …
      Get money Receive/earn money
      Looks at problems with Examines/evaluates/investigates/documents problems with
      Smith (2007) says that … Smith (2007) argues/describes/concludes/supposes/found …

      1. Being precise

      In academic writing, it is often preferable to use the words ‘no’, ‘few’ and ‘little’ rather than ‘any’, ‘many’ and ‘much’ in certain expressions. This gives a more formal feel, as shown in the examples below:

      There aren’t any problems with far-reaching effects. Cross There are no problems with far-reaching effects. Tick
      There are not many issues with far-reaching effects. Cross There are few issues with far-reaching effects. Tick
      There isn’t much research on this. Cross There is little research on this. Tick

      Be careful here as 'little' is used with things you can’t count (research, water, money) but 'many' is used with things you can count (effects, ideas and issues) you do need to use 'many', for example:

      There is little research on this. Tick
      There are many examples of this. Tick


      2. Use ‘no’, ‘few’ and ‘little’ rather than ‘any’, ‘many’ and ‘much’

      When describing how much something is changing, words like ‘significant’, ‘substantial’ and ‘considerable’ have a more academic feel than more common phrases like 'lots of'. Here are several examples:

      They increased a lot. cross There was a significant increase/rise in ... Tick
      It went down lots. cross There was a considerable decrease/fall in ... Tick
      This led to loads of changes in the law. cross This led to substantial changes in the law. Tick
      The result was a very big rise in prices. cross The result was a dramatic rise in prices. Tick
      It stayed the same during the 80s. cross It remained constant throughout the 1980s. Tick

      Notice also that ‘increase’ and ‘decrease’ in the right-hand column are now nouns (‘a rise in’, ‘an increase in’).

      3. Describing changes

      In most forms of academic writing contractions, such as ‘isn’t’, are not used. For example:

      It’s a problem. cross It is a problem. Tick
      It’s brought about an issue. cross It has brought about an issue. Tick
      They’ve reduced the number of computers. cross They have reduced the number of computers. Tick
      The jury didn’t agree. cross The jury did not agree. Tick
      Non-members can’t vote on this. cross Non-members can not vote on this. Tick

      The Other areas of style exercise will help you test if you have understood and can use all the aspects of style covered in this guide.

      4. Contractions

      Summary

      In this guide we have looked at how you can give your writing more of an academic feel by:

      1. Depersonalising your tone (by using nouns rather than verbs e.g. ‘The ban on driving’ rather than ‘They banned driving’)
      2. Using specific and precise terms (e.g. ‘health-related issues’ rather than ‘cancer and things like that’)
      3. Substituting certain words in descriptions of quantities and changes (e.g. ‘little research’ instead of ‘not much research’ and ‘a significant increase in unemployment’ rather than ‘unemployment went up a lot’
      4. Avoiding contractions (e.g. ‘do not’ rather than ‘don’t’ and ‘it is’ rather than ‘it’s’

      These are general starting points for academic style. Of course there are many other aspects and you should always take the advice of your tutors on specific assignments. (For example, in some subjects you may be asked to produce a reflective essay which would be written from a personal point of view using ‘I’.)

      A good way to help develop your feel for appropriate style is by reading academic texts from your subject and noticing the particular phrases and expressions, as well as vocabulary, that come up time and again. If you have an essay draft that you’re working on now, it could be really useful to read through it and highlight any places where you can change your words and expressions using the advice here and from your tutors.