Improving formal (academic) writing one handy tip at a time

Picture: Alex Duarte/Creative Commons

Picture: Alex Duarte/Creative Commons

While they may be comfortable with other genres, students, researchers and report-writers often struggle with the requirements with formal (academic) writing. Drawing on decades of formal writing experience, and marking the work of adult writers, here are 10 tips to help overcome some of the most common pitfalls:

TIP #1: Creative writing habits should be put aside for a more disciplined approach

In formal writing, colloquialisms, contractions, intimacies, non-inclusive terms, exclamation marks, and fragmented sentences are generally unacceptable. Discipline also needs to be demonstrated in sentence construction itself.

a. Verbs should always agree with their subjects in number

Incorrect:
None of them were attending.
Correct:
None of them was attending. (none means not one)
* This also applies to everyone (which means every single one); everybody; anyone; anybody

Incorrect:
The number of reasons are growing.
Correct:
The number of reasons is growing.

Incorrect:
Contaminated soil and discarded trash was collected.
Correct:
Contaminated soil and discarded trash were collected.

The BBC has some good examples on one of its Learning English web pages.

b. Uncountable nouns are usually paired with singular verbs

Things that cannot be counted – such as fluid, music, advice, wheat and power – need to be paired with singular verbs.

Example:
All the fluid had dried up.

And then there are words that are both countable and uncountable, for example: work, time, light, noise, paper, room and hair. To learn more, see English Club’s more extensive online list of nouns that are both countable and uncountable.

c. Verbs should always agree with their subjects in tense

Incorrect:
The reviewed article is asserting …
Correct:
The reviewed article asserted …

Incorrect:
These authors say the trend was obvious from the outset.
Correct:
These authors said the trend was obvious from the outset.
OR
These authors say the trend is evident from the outset.

To learn more about subject-verb agreement, see the University of Washington’s grammar page or Towson University’s Online Writing Support page on the topic.

d. Apostrophes should be used properly when indicating possession and not for indicating plurals*

Incorrect:
Interviewees disagreed with the governments latest decision.
Correct:
Interviewees disagreed with government’s latest decision.

Incorrect:
The resident’s were eager to see change.
Correct:
The residents were eager to see change.

Incorrect:
These residents concerns were evident.
Correct:
These residents’ concerns were evident. (this apostrophe indicates possession, i.e., concerns of the residents)

Incorrect:
Students’ and teachers’ writing were reviewed.
Correct:
Students and teachers’ writing were reviewed. (joint possession)

Incorrect:
Researchers used iPhone 5’s for the test.
Correct:
Researchers used iPhone 5s for the test. (a plural not a possessive)

* In non-formal writing, apostrophes are also used in contractions (don’t, it’s, they’re), however contractions are to be avoided in formal writing

e. Hyphens are required to create compound modifiers

While APA encourages academic writers to not use hyphens* unless they serve a distinct purpose, there are situations where they are needed for clarity of meaning and other situations where they should not be used. Hyphens are most commonly needed when a writer uses compound modifiers rather than multiple independent ones. Compound modifiers are two or more words that work in conjunction as an adjective describing a noun – such as first-class honours – which require the hyphen to join the two related descriptors which would not stand alone as adjectives for this noun. That is, there is no such thing as first honours or class honours. Where multiple independent modifiers are used to describe a noun – such as the tall, laconic, bespectacled tutor, each of which would stand alone as a descriptor of the noun (tutor) – they should be separated by commas.

Incorrect:
The study looked at traffic violations in one way streets.
Correct:
The study looked at traffic violations in one-way streets.

Incorrect:
This evidence came from a well placed source.
Correct:
This evidence came from a well-placed source.
(but The source was well placed does not require a hyphen because the phrase does not behave as a modifier)

Incorrect:
A forensic examination found under the counter payments.
Correct:
A forensic examination found under-the-counter payments.
Correct:
A forensic examination found payments made under the counter.
(in the second example, the words are no longer modifiers)

* Hyphens are used to connect words or parts of words and they should not be confused with dashes – that, as this demonstrates, typically appear in pairs – which have a different function in sentence construction. Dashes, which appear between words with spaces either side, are longer than hyphens. They are used to surround text that, if removed, leaves a sentence intact.

The exception to the hyphenation of compound modifiers is when the descriptor words are adverbs rather than adjectives (tip: adverbs usually end in -ly or, less often, in -y). So there are no hyphens in phrases such as the badly lit subject; an accidentally placed hyphen; a technically sound option; a community based service; or an every day occurrence.

Incorrect:
Poorly-written papers will not be accepted for publication.
Correct:
Poorly written papers will not be accepted for publication.

f. When quoting a series of numbers, the use of a hyphen indicates to. However, the word between indicates that there are just two things, but it can correctly be used when referring to the first and last items of a series

Incorrect:
The sample will include students aged between 17-25.
Correct:
The sample will include students aged between 17 and 25.
OR
The sample will include students aged 17-25 years.
OR
The sample will include students aged 17 to 25 years.

TIP #2: It is not a vanity exercise, so avoid injecting yourself into formal (academic) writing

Formal or academic writing is supposed to be logical, rational, impersonal, objective and based on facts that are independently established. Therefore, use of the first- and second-person pronouns (I, me, mine, myself, you, yours, yourself, yourselves, we, us, our, ourselves) should be avoided, as should any archaic forms (thou, thee, thy, thine, thyself). Instead, construct sentences using neutral, non-personal language or the objective third-person voice.

Incorrect:
In my research I will conduct 100 interviews.
Correct:
This research will involve 100 interviews.
OR
The researcher will conduct 100 interviews.

Incorrect:
I believe that my choice of methodology is sound because …
Correct:
The choice of methodology is sound because …

Similarly, because academic prose should be certain and unemotional, it is wise to avoid subjective, judgmental or imprecise words that erode, or erase altogether, objectivity. This includes words such as: obviously, clearly, indeed, evidently, inevitably, understandably, properly, improperly. Use of these is a covert insertion of the writer’s opinion. Be wary of possibly, probably and maybe, as these all flag a degree of uncertainty or imprecision when not backed up by hard facts or observations.

TIP #3: Scholarly writing needs to be underpinned by familiarity with the topic, its terminology and is theories

While academic writing is expected be typified by more advanced vocabulary, do not use impressive-sounding words or terms – that you barely, if at all, understand – simply to appear erudite. Writers who do this risk exposing their linguistic shortcomings, and possibly lack of knowledge, to any readers who do know and understand the topic and its nomenclature. Start simply and build familiarity with a topic by reading widely. Take note of new words or terms and their meanings. Attempt to understand the correct context in which these words can be applied. Use a dictionary to check the meaning of not only unfamiliar words but also those that are being considered for use to make text sound more “impressive”. In such cases, a word chosen to impress – usually because it “sounds right” – often turns out to have an entirely different, unintended meaning. Seek clarification from teachers if understanding of a topic is not easy to master or a theory seems impenetrable. Realise that the more academic reading done, the easier it will be to understand a topic, its terminology, its theory and its context within its field. In time, the deployment of precise, relevant language will become more familiar and, eventually, second nature. There are no secrets. This is how academic expertise is built.

TIP #4: Introductions should not give the game away and new content has a defined place

Academic writing follows the classic diamond-shaped essay construction form, with a beginning, middle and end. An introduction should flag what the paper is about, but not its key findings or conclusions. The body is where detail and evidence is presented, scoped, fleshed out and any arguments are mounted. Typically this contains the literature review, discussion of methodology and any analysis. The conclusion – or summary, depending on the purpose of the paper – is where key findings or points are restated but no new material is introduced. This form of rhetorical construction is the antithesis of that used in a news story, which typically follows the inverted pyramid form where the writer sums up the story and its impact before providing details in diminishing order of importance.

TIP #5: Avoid unfounded assertions and broad generalisations

While academic writing is intended to be persuasive, assertions need to be sourced or justified (evidenced). With the rare exception of commentary and critiques, academic writing is not a forum for personal opinions. It is a realm of facts, ideas and arguments built around those facts. It requires attribution of existing ideas, the building of solid, well-evidenced arguments around gathered facts as well as the production of new knowledge or insights from analysis of the data collected or reviewed. Feelings, hunches, prejudices, even beliefs should be suspended while the dispassionate examination of data or ideas takes place. In this vein, do not make generalisations. Never assume – or lead readers to presume – the particular will translate to the whole where there is no evidence available to confirm this.

TIP #6: Watch out for other common flaws in the logic of arguments or reasoning

Apart from generalising, there are several other common mistakes writers make when mounting a persuasive argument. The University of North Carolina has an online resource that recaps many of the most common defects (fallacies) that weaken the point/s being made because they are illogical. Take time to read it and keep the list handy when writing.

TIP #7: Observe the rules and conventions of academic writing

Writers should consistently follow specific formatting and referencing guidelines laid down by an institution or a publication. Some of the most common academic style conventions are APA, MLA, Harvard and Chicago. Only one at a time – the specified one – should be applied. The mark of academic writing is the use of formal rather than everyday language. The ability to follow writings conventions is also important. For instance, the use of italicised words is purposeful. The titles of newspapers, magazines, books, journals, movies and songs are typically italicised but not the titles of articles in journals, magazines or newspapers, nor those of book chapters. On the other hand, italics are no longer used for foreign terms (e.g., Latin, French or Greek words or phrases). If listing multiple items that are italicised, only italicise the items and not any connecting words, such as and. Being familiar with these conventions and linguistic requirements makes for a consistent reader experience.

TIP #8: Scan for fluency, repetition and redundancy

Readers need to be able to follow a writer’s argument, regardless of how complex the point being made might be. Having to re-read a sentence, paragraph or section to get the gist of what the writer meant, perhaps more than once, is not only a turn-off, but is also a giveaway that the writer is not a clear thinker. Similarly, repeating ideas and sentences, or expressing the same idea in different words, wastes time and tests the reader’s patience. Economy of expression within sentences is also important. Remove every word that is not necessary to convey meaning. If writers draft early and set their work aside for a day or two, then read it aloud – preferably from a printed version – often they will pick up things such as inconsistencies, missing or misplaced words, misspellings and incomplete sentences. It helps to ensure any spell-checker used is set to the language of the country where the work will be submitted. Do not rely on a spell-checker alone to check the work. Give the draft to someone else to read aloud. This proof-reading helps demonstrate whether the piece flows well and if it is comprehended in the way in which the writer intended.

The Write Tight Site has some good examples of efficient prose and some handy style tips for achieving this.

TIP#9: Originality is crucial in academic writing, as is the citing of other people’s works

When it comes to formal (academic) writing, imitation is not the greatest form of flattery. It is plagiarism. It is intellectually dishonest and unethical. Technology advances have not only made it much easier to plagiarise but also much easier to detect plagiarism. Depending on the institution or employer, plagiarism – intentional or not – can be grounds for dismissal or at least severe academic sanction. To avoid plagiarising, the majority of content should be original. All content that is not original should be presented, acknowledged, cited and referenced appropriately. That is, the reader should not be in any doubt as to the identity of the writer responsible for any portion of a paper, dissertation or thesis. To learn more about academic plagiarism and why it should be avoided, see the University of Oxford’s What is plagiarism page.

TIP #10: Pay attention to in-text referencing and to the reference list

In-text referencing (citations) should not only follow the stipulated style conventions, as mentioned in Tip #7, they should also be matched with the accompanying full reference details in the bibliographic list at the end of an essay, research paper, dissertation or thesis. As a rule, a short direct quote can be contained within a longer paragraph. Longer tracts of text or multiple directly quoted sentences should be presented as stand-alone, indented block quotes, with appropriate acknowledgment of authorship. A final check of each in-text citation and block quote against the paper’s reference list will ensure readers are not left without full details of the source from which the citation was drawn.

———-

Words: Trina McLellan
Picture: Alex Duarte/Creative Commons

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