Academic writing style, editing and proof-reading
There are six topics in this section relating to Writing and assessments:
Look below at this infographic highlighting nine tips for Academic writing.
Below the infographic, there is a text version for screen readers.
- Academic writing - Nine tips for being clever and clear (text version)
1. Know the rules (to break them)
Make sure you know appropriate syntax, grammar and punctuation. Learn how to spell and use words correctly. There’s a big difference between playing with language and misusing it.
2. Show, don’t tell
If you can, use stories and/or examples to show your arguments. A well-placed metaphor or analogy can also spice things up – but don’t go overboard or your readers might fall by the wayside.
3. Use your own voice
Don’t think, ‘I must do academic writing now.’ Write as you would speak – you can formalise it later. Use the active voice and do use the first person – it’s much more engaging for your readers.
4. Be concise
Why do academics always say, ‘the ways in which’ rather than ‘how’? Why use four words when one will do just as well? Say what you want to say in as few words as possible.
5. Drop the flowery language
Similarly, use the simplest and most precise words to express your meaning. Sometimes you need a long word, but nobody needs to write ‘endeavour to ascertain’ instead of ‘find out’.
6. Listen to the music
Cadence in writing – a sense of rhythm and pace - is very different from being flowery. There is a lot to learn about this but to start with, try reading your work out loud. Is it pleasing to your ear?
7. Know your own process
Everybody writes differently: some are super-structured, others go with the flow. Know your own process – writing is an emotional experience and you need to know you’ll get through it in the end.
8. Read, read, read
If you want to improve your writing, read widely and read often. When something draws you in, think about why. Emulate your idols (but don’t become a tribute act – do it your way).
9. Have fun with it
When you have enough practice at writing it can become really rewarding. When you know what you want to say, you can have some fun with how you want to say it. Enjoy!
This infographic was created by Professor Alison Phipps.
As soon as you start reading academic textbooks, it becomes clear that there is a particular style to academic writing. While there is certainly a lot of variation between different academic disciplines, they all use the general conventions given here. Make sure that you follow the key features of this style so that your essays reflect what your tutors are expecting.
Generally, academic writing should be written for an ‘interested non-expert'. Although your essays will be read and graded by your tutors, you should imagine that someone who is interested in your topic but who has not done the research that you have is the target audience. This means that you need to explain any topic-specific terms that crop up but can assume that discipline-specific terms won’t need to be defined. For instance, a biology student could assume their audience would understand ‘pulmonary system’ but would include a definition for ‘Type 1 pneumocytes’.
Academic essays use formal language. This means that you should not include words and phrases that are only used in spoken language. For example:
- contractions should be written out in full: Doesn’t → does not
- change informal phrases to plain language: there’s no way that → It is not possible that
- avoid the use of ‘stuff’ or ‘things’: These things can cause many negative effects → These items can cause many negative effects
- avoid the use of ‘really’: It seems really likely that → It seems very likely that.
Do not make your essay overly stuffy, however. Remember that you are writing for an audience in the 21st century rather than the 19th, so use modern formal language rather than antiquated phrases!
The Passive Voice
The passive voice is often used shift focus on the object of a verb.
- the policy would have affected millions of people and broken the European code of conduct. (Active voice with the focus on the policy)
- millions of people would have been affected by the policy and been thrown into debt and poverty. (Passive voice with the focus on the millions of people).
It is often thought of as rather formal, even though it used in everyday speech. Be careful not to use it in every sentence as it can sound strange when overused. It can also affect readability, so check when proofreading that your sentences are easy to understand:
- medical professionals began to notice that the symptoms spread through both skin-to-skin contact and through the air. (Active sentence. Easy to read because the main verb is near the beginning of the sentence)
- that the symptoms spread through both skin-to-skin contact and through the air began to be noticed by medical professionals. (Passive sentence. Harder to read because the main verb is near the end of the sentence.
Academic writing is notable in that there are very few absolutes. Opinions, especially around the future, must be couched in uncertain terms because nobody can predict what will happen or what new discoveries and theories may occur. For this reason, hedging language is often used when discussing ideas and the causes and implications of particular results:
- the 1987 stock-market crash occurred because of the five previous years of strong bull market growth
- the 1987 stock-market crash seems to have mainly occurred because of the five previous years of strong bull market growth.
The second sentence here uses hedging language in order to allow for the possibility of other factors. This gives the writer more chance to critically analyse the factors and demonstrate good academic thinking.
Access this Academic Phrasebank for plenty of hedging language structures.
Your choice of reporting verbs in your essay shows your engagement with your sources and it also informs the reader of your position. Reporting verbs can express agreement, disagreement, or a neutral stance to your references.
Here is a useful exercise to get you started. Click and drag the appropriate answers to the correct statements.
Below the activity, there is a text version for screen readers.
- Activity (text version)
Activity text - Listen to the 3 comments below and then associate each comment with the correct response, a, b, or c.
- Smith, (1999, p.596) discusses a more realistic solution …
- Smith, (1999, p.596) fails to provide a more realistic solution...
- Smith, (1999, p.596) correctly argues a more realistic solution …
a The writer agrees with the source
b The writer neither agrees or disagrees with the source
c The writer disagrees with the source.
Look at this Academic Phrasebank for more ways to refer to your sources.
Remember! Using reporting verbs uses more words than simply paraphrasing a source and adding a citation. Use both structures strategically to hit your word count.
Use of “you” and “I”
In almost all academic writing, the use of “you” is not recommended. This includes direct instruction to the reader and also rhetorical questions, see below the two sentences that contain the word 'you'.
- since the 1940s, studies have repeatedly shown that you shouldn’t smoke and that it’s very difficult to stop once you start
- why do you think that most first-generation immigrants in the UK earn below the average salary rate?
In most schools, the use of “I” is also best avoided. However, this is changing and for some writing, in particular reflective writing, writers use “I”. Check with your tutors if you are unsure.
You can avoid “you” and “I” by various methods, look at the two examples below:
- You can see the effects of alcohol by measuring risky behaviour.
- Observers can see the effects of alcohol by measuring risky behaviour
- The effects of alcohol can be seen by measuring risky behaviour
- Measuring risky behaviour can reveal the effects of alcohol.
- I think that Richtman is correct when she writes that...
- Richtman is correct when she writes that...
- It is easy to agree with Richtman when she writes that...
- There are many reasons to agree with Richtman when she writes that...
Practising Academic Writing
Read the following short text that is not written using academic style conventions. How would you change it? There is a text version solution below.
I’m really intrigued by the case of Gower v Suntime Ltd . To wit, this case involved a young filly who used a sun-tanning bed inside the Suntime Ltd property, but which the owners were renting from a bloke named Conway. Third-degree burns were suffered by Gower when the bed malfunctioned and she sued Suntime Ltd, who argued that as the bed in question wasn’t theirs, Conway should be getting all the attention. The judge disagreed, which is crazy considering that the upkeep of the dodgy contraption was agreed to be Conway’s. Sheppard (2013) attempts to claim that this case is a good example of the problems of inter rusticos, and that you should always ask a legal professional to check the validity of these things. There is strong legal precedence for Sheppard’s view. Additionally, Mr Conway argued that the bed was not properly maintained by Suntime Ltd, and Ms Gower’s barrister, a lawyer who specialises in representing their clients in court, pointed out that the client was reckoned that the booth was both owned and operated by Suntime Ltd since it was in their property.
- Click to reveal the academic sample solution (text version)
The case of Gower v Suntime Ltd  is very intriguing. It involved a young woman who used a sun-tanning bed inside the Suntime Ltd property, but which the owners were renting from an individual named Conway. Gower suffered third-degree burns when the bed malfunctioned and she sued Suntime Ltd, who argued that as the bed in question was not theirs, Conway should be on the receiving end of the legal focus. The judge disagreed, which is questionable considering that Conway agreed responsibility for the upkeep of machine. Sheppard (2013) argues that this case is a good example of the problems of inter rusticos, which are contracts not written by legal professionals, and a legal professional should always be asked to check the validity of such documents. There is strong legal precedence for Sheppard’s view. Additionally, Mr Conway argued that the bed was not properly maintained by Suntime Ltd, and Ms Gower’s barrister pointed out that the client was under the impression that the booth was both owned and operated by Suntime Company since it was in their property.
Editing and proofreading are often the most hated parts of academic writing. You’ve finished writing your text and you just want to get it handed in so you can relax. This is understandable, however by completing the first draft and getting your ideas out on paper in a structured way, you have already got the bulk of the work out of the way. These last two stages are much easier!
Editing is simply making sure that your ideas work, that there aren’t any major gaps or errors, and that everything is in the correct order. Read this RLF blog for more information.
Try to give yourself at least 24 hours away from your first draft before coming back to it to edit.
Download this Editing Checklist and make any changes necessary to create the final draft. Remember to save everything!
By now, you should be happy with your essay, although possibly a little tired of reading it. Just one last push! Proofreading entails looking at your essay sentence by sentence, making sure all the small details are perfect. If you write your first draft informally, now is also the time to switch it to an academic style. Like before, take a 24-hour break if possible before starting to proofread. We have created this Downloadable Proofreading Checklist to help you.
Can I ask someone else to proofread my work?
If you ask someone else to proofread your work you must make sure that their changes are limited to minor language correction. This can include errors in grammar, vocabulary, expression and word order.
They should only make specific suggestions to correct the language where the meaning is clear.
Where the meaning is not clear, the proofreader should not make specific suggestions for improvement or corrections. Instead, the proofreader may outline in broad terms the nature of the issue, for example, use of tenses and/or grammar, spelling errors etc.
A proofreader should not make any changes directly to the work, but should suggest changes by writing on a hard copy or using Track Changes etc.
The proposals made by a proofreader should be retained by the student in case a concern regarding misconduct is raised.
No substantial changes to the content should be made. A proofreader may not:
- rewrite sections where argumentation or logic is unclear
- rewrite sections to improve paraphrasing
- rearrange paragraphs and sentences with the intention of improving structure
- rearrange paragraphs and sentences with the intention of improving the argument
- correct calculations, data, or factual errors etc
- make substantial changes or correction to the references and bibliography.
A proofreader may:
- identify errors in grammar, vocabulary, expression and word order, only making specific minor suggestions where the communication is clear
- highlight areas where communication is unclear or where there is inconsistent use of a referencing system.
A proofreader may not be used for assessments where the use of language and the formal accuracy of the work form part of the mark.
It will be stated in the assessment task that a proofreader may not be used.
It is the student's responsibility to ensure that these guidelines have been followed for work that is submitted for assessment.
The University’s formal policy of proofreading is provided here.