Male students using study notes

Improving your Writing

Explore these key points to keep your writing academic and professional, and to improve your work

In most assignments, you need to write in an academic style. However, there is no recipe for writing a perfect assignment and different disciplines and subject areas have their own styles. Writing for the sciences, humanities or social sciences require different styles, so it is vital that you learn your discipline or subject area conventions. Writing is also an intensely personal activity and everyone develops their own approach. Nonetheless, there are some broadly accepted ways of writing academically.

This page outlines the basic elements of academic writing, and provides a paragraph written in an informal style and rewritten in an academic style.

What is academic style?

There is no definitive answer to this question, but we can identify five technical qualities to make a piece of writing ‘academic’:

  • Formal
  • Objective 
  • Cautious
  • Succinct
  • Impersonal

Formal — avoid common colloquial or spoken language

You should not use ‘casual’ language in your assignments – words like ‘stuff’, ’really’ and ‘things’, and phrases like ‘a bit’ and ‘sort of’ are casual language. Sentence fragments and contractions that are acceptable in everyday speech should be avoided, such as 'isn’t', 'didn’t', 'couldn’t', 'wouldn’t', and 'it’ll'.

You shouldn't use etc. to stand for et cetera — it is better to say 'for example'. Avoid phrasing questions so that they have a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Objective — stand back from others' work and your own

Three key elements are: critiquing your own work as well as others’, writing in a more impersonal or neutral style and avoiding 'I', and including and tackling material you disagree with or which challenges your own work. Being critical can be positive as well as negative, and includes agreeing with arguments, finding alternatives, or challenging current debates.

In some fields and for some types of assignment, this critical approach may not be appropriate or may only be used sparingly. Nonetheless, most types of assignment require you to demonstrate that you have engaged objectively with all the material, and have stood back from your own ideas, perspective, assumptions and beliefs. 

Cautious — not too black and white

Academic writing is often rather cautious. This is because we are dealing with complex areas of knowledge. Beware of words like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, and think carefully before using words like ‘definite(ly)’. Academic work is open-minded and enquiring; as a student you should generally question arguments rather than being too certain. Words like ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘likely’, ‘seems’, ‘may’ and ‘could’ tend to feature in good academic writing.

Succinct — not too wordy

Some texts might make you think that academic writing should be complex and long-winded, but in fact the opposite is true. Readers of your assignments need to understand exactly what you mean, in as few words as possible. When re-reading what you have written, you should always check that you have been as precise and concise as possible. However, you need to ensure that you have provided all the necessary information and details. You have to decide what to prioritise and what to leave in or leave out.

Impersonal — write in an impartial style

In essays and reports, you normally write in a more impersonal style, so you should avoid using 'I', 'my', or 'me'. You should also avoid using 'we', 'our' or 'us'. For example, instead of writing 'I am surprised that …', you might write 'It is surprising that …'. There are some exceptions to this rule, such as reflective writing assignments and portfolios. These more reflective assignments sometimes require you to evaluate your own experiences or attitudes, therefore a more personal style is appropriate.

Examples of colloquial and academic writing styles

Colloquial writing

There’s a lot of arguing about the Spinnaker. Because it’s so tall you can see it from all around, but does this mean it’s a good thing for the economy etc? It’s really late. It was meant to be ready for the Millenium (so much for the “Millenium Tower”, it’s just been costing us money all that time too) and it’s not going to employ as many people as lost their jobs in the dockyard over the years. And it’ll take ages for them to get back the cost from people who go up it.

Academic writing

Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower is controversial in financial terms. At 170 metres (The Spinnaker Tower, 2014), it dominates the city’s harbourside and was expected to have a positive impact on the local economy. However, income from visitors to the tower, and the expected boost to the local economy from increased tourism and employment, was lost because the project was delayed several times (Dyckhoff, 2005, p. 14). It may take twenty-five years for income from visitors to equal the cost of construction (Dyckhoff, 2005, p. 15), and the local economy will probably be unable to recoup the lost income.

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