10.2: The formal writing style
While those areas discussed so far are very stylistic, the next few sections focus on the more technical aspect of style in the type of voice you use as well as word choice, sentence structure, and grammar devices. As you will see, formal does not mean that you have to be stiff, stuffy, and stilted in terms of your academic writing. It just simply means to be more selective in the language and how you structure that language within the body of your essay. In this way, it has little to do with the personal and you and more about the available information and facts.
Chapter 10 Pt 2 contents:
Chapter 10: Summary
10.2: The formal writing style
10.2.1: First person or third person?
One of the long-standing arguments about essay writing and academic writing style is whether it is okay to use first person ("I") or whether it should always be a third person format. Often, the use of this personal pronoun ("I") depends on your subject area and the actual nature of the essay. If you are writing an essay specific to you or a personal narrative, then you have no choice but to use this personal pronoun.
However, the majority of essay assignments are geared toward an objective review by the student of other works and ideas so the tutor is not interested in hearing the personal views of students but rather hear how the student has considered and understood those works and ideas. This then requires that you use third person, which removes the voice of the student to a certain degree or that makes that voice more objective and impersonal in tone and attitude.
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10.2.2: Active or passive voice?
In order to understand the importance of using active voice and avoiding passive voice, you may first need to understand the differences between them. First, here are some examples:
Passive: In 1971, my daughter was born.
Active: My daughter was born in 1971.
Passive: The cheese was eaten by the mouse.
Active: The mouse ate the cheese.
Passive: The gold of the gold mine from Arizona was first discovered in 1880.
Active: The gold was first discovered in 1880 at a mine in Arizona.
Passive sentences put the person who is performing the action as secondary or excludes them altogether. Passive sentences become more impersonal for this reason. In contrast, active sentences have the person or thing performing the action first in the sentence. While you might have heard that passive voice is bad in every way, it is not necessarily the case as it does and can have a place in writing. If the focus of your writing has to do with a date or place, then it is important to use an active voice structure.
Most guide books on academic writing tend to believe that active voice can be more engaging for the reader. Yet, in balancing this belief, it is important to note that passive voice was more impersonal and that is important for academic style, so it is important to make sure that, if you do use the active voice that you make sure the writing does not become too personal in its style but focuses on facts over opinions. Here is an example of how to use active verbs while maintaining an impersonal academic style: Instead of "I believe that," use "It was found that."
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10.2.3: Watching for contractions, cliches, and overstatements
In trying to balance active and passive voice as well as modesty and confidence, there may be other issues that come up in writing around contractions, clichés, and overstatements.
The first issue is the use of contractions - a device that has no place in formal essay writing and is not an academic style device. As language and everyday writing has become so informal, the use of contractions have become commonplace. Words like "I'm," "we're," and "aren't" are used all the time and have a tendency to creep into academic writing where they are not wanted or accepted. While they may be used in this book because we are trying to keep our style informal and readable for you, as a student, contractions are not allowed in academic writing or essays. Here is what you need to do:
|Instead of this:
For a whole list of contractions and how to avoid them, you can find tables and charts in grammar books as well as online. One great source we found was: .
One place where contractions may be allowed is when you are including a direct quote or dialogue from an interview. In this case, you must leave it exactly as how it was said and put quotes around the direct quote to acknowledge why you left the contraction in.
The next issue is the use of overstatements found by selecting certain words that add unnecessary emotion, which then also dilutes the objectiveness and formality required for academic style. While there may be times that you feel compelled to put more emphasis on a certain point in your argument, do not go overboard with it because it ends up doing the opposite of what you intended. Here are some prime examples of overstatements to avoid:
- Out of This World
You get the idea. It is overstating because you are telling the reader how they should feel instead of letting the results, evidence, diagram or facts speak for themselves and incite that level of feeling or belief for the reader. Some things like diagrams, tables, and photos are a way to say so much without having to use words, which helps you by saving you from thinking of the right words!
The point here is to stick to that objective tone - the idea of neutral writing that is not sentimental, overemotional, or infused with anger. It is about staying grounded and straightforward rather than fluffy, flowery, or fantastic. Save that for the novel you may write in the future.
Clichés are the last area in this section about how to avoid certain stylistics devices that turn your academic writing into something much less formal. The definition of the word cliché is an overused phrase that really just takes up critical word space and adds nothing to your essay. They are also informal but what makes them so challenging is similar to that of contractions. Clichés have become so much a part of everyday speech and writing that we forget what they are and how little they mean in terms of their lack of imagination, meaning, and interest. From the media to social interaction to social media, clichés are all around us and hard to avoid. As such, we have listed some below:
- The calm before the storm
- The writing's on the wall
- The sands of time
- At the end of the day
- Always look on the bright side of life
- Carpe diem
- What goes around comes around
There are some fun lists online, too, where you can see even more clichés that you may not realise are even that! Check these links out:
While you may not intend it, clichés easily creep into your writing, especially when you are trying to form an argument and are looking to draw comparisons or create a picture for the reader. When you can't think of just the right detail, it is easier to just go back to your common knowledge and pull out a phrase that is easy to understand. However, the problem is that this phrase most often falls into the category of cliché.
Here are some ways to change some common essay clichés:
|Instead of this:
|By and large
|Pros and cons
||Advantages and disadvantages
|These days/In this day and age
|The bottom line
|At this time
|In the near future
A common finding with clichés is that, as phrases, they use too many words when so many of them can be replaced with just one word as shown above. While online resources can help you with replacing clichés in your essays, other solutions even include software like Cliche Cleaner, which can systematically go through your writing and identify and suggest replacements for overused expressions.
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10.2.4: Avoiding slang
Another problem with today's language becoming so informal is the increase in the number of slang words now used in oral and written communication. The use of slang has even become so common that you can buy slang dictionaries in book stores or look up entire slang dictionaries on the Internet. While there is nothing wrong with slang, it just doesn't have a place in academic writing like essays.
Slang has a vital place in society because it helps to provide a certain sense of identity and belonging, especially among young people who most often seek acceptance and want to establish their own communication that others from different generations do not understand. However, it has its place in life and that is outside of academic life (as well as most often your future professional life). Here's why: If the person who is marking your essay does not understand what you mean when you include slang words in your essay, they are going to simply mark you down because you are not being clear and using language that fits within academic circles.
While some slang is obviously not fitting for an essay - "dude," "wassup," "killer" or "aggro," others can illustrate the fine line between common language and slang. That's because, as time passes and trends change, so do the slang words that are in fashion. Here are some words that are so common that you may not even define them as slang:
- Cool (as in good)
- Get over it
- Wound up
- Burst bubble
- Bad (as in good)
- Basket case
- Mad (as in crazy)
- Git (stupid person)
There are many online sources where you can look up words that could be considered slang to make sure you are not inadvertently putting them in your essay:
Once you realise you may have put slang in your essay, it is important to look up the word it represents and choose a different, more formal word as a replacement.
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10.2.5: Diverse and technical language
As clichés and slang words point out, commonplace language does not have a place in academic writing style. It requires higher level language as well as a variety of words to diversify the writing while also incorporating technical language, where necessary and appropriate to the essay topic.
Here are some tips on adding to your vocabulary and showing your tutor the depth of your abilities when it comes to your essay writing:
- Read your essay for words that may be used more than one time. If you find some, use a thesaurus to find a synonym that can replace the other times that same word is used. It will mean the same thing but it will diversify your vocabulary.
- You can diversify verbs by pulling other words from the same verb family. While some of these may be more applicable than others due to the fact that they have a slightly different meaning, there are often many to choose from that will give you the variety you need.
- You can also use your computer's word processing programme, which often has both a dictionary and a thesaurus that can suggest word replacements. Of course, there is also the traditional route of reference books that can help you to expand your vocabulary as you improve your academic writing style.
Another way to illustrate a more sophisticated academic writing style is to use specialist and technical words but, of course, do so correctly and in the appropriate places. Your area of study has its very own, unique language with words that have modified meanings - commonly referred to as jargon - to suit a particular technical or specialty area whether that be law, medical, economics or some scientific study area. However, since you are still a student of that specialty, you may be still learning this jargon so you will want to make sure you are using the words correctly. Here are some tips to keep you looking smart as you incorporate more specialty or technical language into your essay writing:
- Look for a specialist dictionary in a book store or online to keep as a helpful reference while you are writing your essay.
- Pay careful attention to how these specialist words are used in your textbooks, reading list books, or journals you use for study and research.
- Specify how you are using the term as it may often be used in different ways for different situations or in relation to various concepts.
- Designate in a brief, but clear, way how the word or phrase has a different meaning in relation to the specialist area than it would when used in everyday language or more general situations.
- Use jargon in moderation, keeping a balance and diversity in your essay's language. Filling your essay full of jargon works as well as trying to use really big words - it fails to impress and takes away from getting your ideas across in a credible way.
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10.2.6: Long and short words
Along with diversifying vocabulary, you will also want to diversify the size of words, balancing the use of long and short words just as you would with long and short sentences for readability and interest. In many ways, it is best to avoid long words because they can add to the complexity and cause the reader to often stumble over what they are reading until the word can be processed. Although you may need long words here and there, as many specialist words tend to be longer, be sure that the other words are shorter to create that simple, clear, and readable effect for your audience.
You may not realise it but sometimes you may opt for a longer word when there is a simple, shorter equivalent for that word. For example, you can substitute "use" for "utilise." Here are some links to sites that list longer words along with shorter words that can serve as substitutes to diversify word length in your essay:
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10.2.7: Other grammar no-nos
When it comes to grammar devices, there are many other places where it is easy to go wrong and commit grammar no-no's that do not fit the framework of acceptable academic writing. This section covers some of those grammar mistakes and helps to get you on the right track to sterling academic writing style.
The first area is phrasal verbs. These are verbs that use two more words when you could actually just use one word. Here is an example of how it works:
||direct your eyes in a certain direction
||You must look before you leap.
||take care of
||Who is looking after the baby?
||search for and find information in a reference book
||You can look up my number in the telephone directory.
||look forward to
||anticipate with pleasure
||I look forward to meeting you.
While this is common - and acceptable - when speaking, it is not appropriate for academic writing. Many phrasal verbs are not necessary as shown below:
break out — erupt, escape
count out - exclude
think up - imagine
take off — depart, remove
work out - solve
put off - delay
egg on - incite
put out - extinguish
put off - postpone
The singular verb carries more weight because it gets more emphasis and importance than if it was to get lost because it needed a companion word or words. There are online dictionaries of phrasal verbs so you can learn how to use them and when to avoid them. Again, this is where your research and academic reading become important as a benchmark for your own academic writing. It will show you the balance and appropriate use of such grammar devices.
Another big no-no in academic writing is to try and create an effect in your writing with the use of formatting or punctuation. It's not clever and does not impress your tutor. It tends to confuse and distract from the main objective of the academic writing. Your writing and ideas need to stand alone and should not need italics, bolding, underlining or an exclamation point. By doing so, you are being too direct in telling the reader what to look at and how to feel when they read your essay. Here are other formatting no-no's:
- Do not use different fonts and font sizes.
- Avoid changing the colour of the font.
- Do not put any words in all caps.
- The only time you can use all caps, italics, or exclamation points are if these are part of a direct quote or dialogue that you are including in your essay.
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