Nine Basic Ways to Improve Your Style in Academic Writing

1. Use ACTIVE VOICE

Don’t say: “The stepmother’s house was cleaned by Cinderella.” (Passive.)

Say instead: “Cinderella cleaned the stepmother’s house.” (Active voice.)

Passive voice construction (“was cleaned”) is reserved for those occasions where the “do-er” of the action is unknown.

Example: “Prince Charming saw the glass slipper that was left behind.”

 

2. Mix it up in terms of PUNCTUATION

Here are a few commonly misused punctuation marks that a lot of people aren’t sure about:

The semi-colon (;) separates two complete sentences that are complementary.

Example: “She was always covered in cinders from cleaning the fireplace; they called her Cinderella.”

 

The colon (:) is used…

a. preceding a list.

Example: “Before her stepmother awoke, Cinderella had three chores to complete: feeding the chickens, cooking breakfast, and doing the wash.”

b. as a sort of “drum roll,” preceding some big revelation.

Example: “One thing fueled the wicked stepmother’s hatred for Cinderella: jealousy.”

 

The dash (–) is made by typing two hyphens (-). No spaces go in between the dash and the text. It is used…

a. to bracket off some explanatory information.

Example: “Even Cinderella’s stepsisters-who were not nearly as lovely or virtuous as Cinderella–were allowed to go to the ball.”

b. in the “drum roll” sense of the colon.

Example: “Prince Charming would find this mystery lady–even if he had to put the slipper on every other girl in the kingdom.”

 

3. Vary your SENTENCE STRUCTURE

Don’t say: “Cinderella saw her fairy godmother appear. She was dressed in blue. She held a wand. The wand had a star on it. She was covered in sparkles. Cinderella was amazed. She asked who the woman was. The woman said, ‘I am your fairy godmother.’ She said she would get Cinderella a dress and a coach. She said she would help Cinderella go to the ball.”

Instead say: (there are multiple correct ways to rewrite this, but here’s one) “Amazed, Cinderella watched as her fairy godmother appeared. The woman dressed in blue was covered in sparkles and carried a star-shaped wand. Cinderella asked the woman who she was, to which the woman replied, ‘I am your fairy godmother.” The fairy godmother would get Cinderella a dress and a coach; she would help Cinderella get to the ball.”

 

4. Closely related to this, avoid CHOPPINESS

Don’t say: “She scrubbed the floors. They were dirty. She used a mop. She sighed sadly. It was as if she were a servant .”

Instead say : (again, there are multiple ways to do this) “She scrubbed the dirty floors using a mop, as if she were a servant. She sighed sadly.”

 

5. Avoid REPETITION.

Don’t say: “The stepsisters were jealous and envious .”

Instead say : “The stepsisters were jealous .” (…or envious. Pick one.)

 

6. Be CONCISE

Don’t say: “The mystery lady was one who every eligible man at the ball admired.”

Instead say : “Every eligible man at the ball admired the mystery lady.”

 

7. Use the VOCABULARY that you know.

Don’t always feel you have to use big words. It is always better to be clear and use simple language rather than showing off flashy words you aren’t sure about and potentially misusing them. This is not to say, however, that you should settle for very weak vocabulary choices (like “bad” or “big” or “mad”).

 

8. But also work on expanding your VOCABULARY.

When reading, look up words you don’t know. See how they’re used. Start a list. Incorporate them into your writing as you feel comfortable and as they are appropriate.

 

9. Keep language FORMAL and avoid language of everyday speech.

Don’t say: “Cinderella was mellow and good. She never let her stepmother get to her .”

Say instead: “Cinderella was mild-mannered and kind. She never let her stepmother affect her high spirits .”

 

So, essentially, when it comes to working on style, there are three things to remember:

Empower yourself with knowledge.

Learn to punctuate correctly, enhance your vocabulary, etc. Give yourself all the tools there are so that you are free to…

…Mix it up!

Avoid repetition of words and sentence structure. Variance promotes good “flow” and is more interesting for your reader.

“Write to EXPRESS, not to IMPRESS.”

Above all, write actively, clearly, and concisely.

FIVE HABITS TO AVOID IN YOUR ACADEMIC WRITING

Hints to help you tighten up your academic writing

As professors and researchers, you are responsible for writing proposals, authoring academic books and scholarly journals, and designing and teaching courses. After editing thousands of pieces of academic writing, our editors have compiled five of the most common mistakes that academics make and offer suggestions on how to avoid them.

1. Passive voice

An active sentence contains a subject that acts on a direct object:

I bought the magazine.

A passive sentence occurs when the object becomes the subject of the sentence and is the recipient, rather than the source, of the action:

The magazine was bought by me.

The passive voice tends to spring up in academic writing when the “doer” of an action is indefinite or unknown, when a researcher feels uncomfortable using subjective pronouns like I or we, or when the result of the action is more important than who acted. In these cases, the passive voice can be appropriate in academic writing, especially when rephrasing the sentence would introduce absurdity or unnecessarily complicated phrasing.

However, sometimes the passive voice can frustrate a reader and, in extreme cases, represent an abdication of responsibility, as in the following example:

Mistakes were made.

Who made the mistakes? Sentences like these make readers wonder whether the author is trying to pull a fast one on them.

Generally, though, the passive voice is simply cumbersome. We recommend looking over your academic writing and scrutinizing every instance of is, are, was, and were. Is there a way to make the sentence stronger by identifying the subject and making it the actor in the sentence?

2. Needlessly complex sentence structure

Much academic writing contains sophisticated and complex thinking, as it should. However, the writing used to express this thinking does not have to be convoluted or unclear.

Meandering clauses, dangling modifiers, and the like are so common in academic writing that one scholarly journal began holding a contest to choose the worst sentence of the year.1  Whether you can make heads or tails of these sentences is beside the point. The goal of writing is to communicate your ideas. Furthermore, academic writing that seems almost deliberately unclear makes our academic editors, as well as scholarly readers, wonder whether the author even understands what he or she means to say.

It is possible to simplify and streamline your writing without “dumbing it down” or sacrificing nuance and complexity. We recommend reading your sentences aloud and then looking for ways to eliminate the wordliness of your sentences by breaking them up. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and think about whether your meaning comes across clearly.

3. Trumped-up vocabulary

Academic writing is also famous for using an abundance of esoteric complicated vocabulary that does little to convey the meaning clearly. While much academic writing is targeted to an “insider” audience (readers who will know and understand the technical vocabulary of a given field), some writers go overboard, choosing the multisyllabic and rarely used synonym instead of a plain but effective word. Try to keep jargon and obscure language to a minimum. Always remember that your goal is to communicate your ideas, not hide them in obscure terminology.

4. Overuse of footnotes

Footnotes are a useful way to include information that has value but falls outside the scope of a paper’s main focus. Sometimes, though, academic writing overuses footnotes, and the reader suffers. We recommend asking yourself: are all your footnotes justified? If the information is important enough to warrant its own footnote, it may just be important enough to be included in the body of the paper.

5. Plagiarism

This one’s more than a bad habit in academic writing—it could get you expelled or fired. Some plagarism is intentional, but more often than not, disorganized research and careless writing are to blame. Avoiding plagiarism is simple: Any time you use someone else’s words, give credit to the source. Slow down and pay attention. Take good notes. Stay cautious and over-cite. Make sure the information in your bibliography is accurate and complete. Authors work hard on their research and writing—give credit where credit is due.

Tightening up your academic writing will help enhance your research paper and greatly increase your chances of getting published in a scholarly journal. Submit your next piece to one of our editing services for academics and receive an expert analysis