Understanding academic speak

Academic writing can be daunting when you read it for the first time. It reads very differently from other styles of writing; it is certainly not in the style of a romance novel, an airport novel, or a newspaper.

Here’s a representative slab of academic writing:

  • Many of the properties of static and dynamic objects and of spatial relations between objects are available from modalities other than vision. This may explain why well-adapted visually-impaired individuals are not disadvantaged at many spatial tasks (e.g., Klatzky, Golledge, Cicinelli, & Pellegrino, 1995). Visuospatial representations are regarded as contrasting with other forms of representation, notably linguistic. The similarities (e.g., Talmy, 1983; 2001) and differences between visuospatial and linguistic representations provide insights into both. For these reasons, the study of internal representations and processes was eschewed not only by behaviorists but even by experimentalists.  

Being able to write like this involves an apprenticeship of sorts; this is one of the things that a university education provides. Familiarising yourself with academic writing style will—over time, and with practise—help you to acquire the skills and techniques of writing in an confident academic manner. Academic style adds sophistication to your prose, and it can be used in many different work-related and professional contexts. It’s well worth learning what it is and how to do it.

How can I learn to write academically?

The best way to learn academic style is to absorb it by reading as many academic articles as you can. Good models are instructive. You can start to do this even before starting at university by finding articles of interest to you in your academic area of interest.

Better still, read articles on topics you’re already familiar with so that the content is easier to understand. Be sure they are academic articles though—not light-weight media pieces or newspaper articles. Peer-reviewed journal articles are best. See the helpsheet, Reading Journal Articles.

Reading literature from your field of study will provide you with word lists and search terms that you can adopt in your own writing. You can keep a Glossary for this purpose. Reading academic articles and learning discipline-specific terminology and academic phrases is a life-long endeavour. You have to work hard at it. It does not stop when you finish your degree—especially if you wish to be a professional in your field, or progress towards a higher degree.

What is academic style?

Academic style is partly about presenting your work in a clear and logical manner. However, it also involves providing scholarly analysis, i.e., close evaluation of material discussed, and reasoned argument. (see Critical Thinking). Academic writing, in addition, requires a formal style of expression that aims to be inclusive of the wider academic population and the intelligent general reader. In particular, it avoids colloquialisms, idiom, metaphors and slang. Academic writing is not conversational in style either. It’s not like writing a letter to a friend.

Academic style has the reputation of being dense and complicated, and certainly some of it is; but to those familiar with the issues being discussed, writing in an academic style is the only way to make progress in advancing complex ideas.

Academic writing is writing that is:

  • clear
  • logical
  • scholarly (i.e., it uses evidence to back-up, analyse and evaluate points)
  • reasoned

Clarity involves precision regarding what is being discussed rather than generalisations or abstractions. Academic writing should not be vague or ambiguous, nor leave no room for different interpretations. Thus, correct  word choice is important. Concrete examples are generally provided to illuminate conceptually difficult material (see the example above: This may explain why well-adapted, visually-impaired individuals …).

Academic writing should also be accessible writing to those in the field.  It will almost certainly contain technical terms and discipline-specific jargon—e.g. visuospatial representations as in the example above—but it will be accessible language to the “culture” of the discipline and use the vocabulary that is understood within the language conventions of that discipline.

Aside from disciplinary jargon, academic writing doesn’t use localised words or phrases. Slang and idiom is often culturally-specific, so while an average Australian might use a phrase like This will wet your whistle, people from another culture could be confused, and may think you intend to put water on a musical instrument. All metaphorical expressions, local idiom, and inaccessible language of this nature, e.g., colloquialisms, has no place in academic writing. We can add the following to our characteristics of academic style:

  • precise (not idiomatic, metaphorical or colloquial)
  • accessible (to those in the field)

Another feature of academic style is that it is business-like writing. It requires an economy of expression and directness that is seldom found in other writing. There is no wastage of wording, unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and redundancy (words used to “pad out” a sentence) is avoided. All academic writing gets to the point quickly and then backs it up with evidence.  It requires a great deal of skill and practise to cut out the “waffle” that is often found in the first drafts in our writing. See our helpsheet, Cutting Sentence Length.

Nor does academic use commonly-used contractions: can’t, won’t, don’t, haven’t, etc. It writes words out in full in grammatically complete English sentences. We can add some final characteristics of academic style as follows:

  • economical
  • business-like
  • fully-formed and grammatical sentences (not abbreviated or shortened)

Over and above all, academic writing explores academic issues. It is  concerned largely with intellectual problems. It is not so concerned with the day-to-day issues we all deal with, although academic writing can have something to say about these too—in an evidence-based, clear, and logical academic way!

Avoiding generalisations

Generalisations are broad phrases or ‘sweeping statements’ that are almost always unsupported. For example, Everybody thinks cabbage is the worst vegetable. In the academic world, you would be asked to produce evidence for such a claim. Reworded using academic style, it might read something like this:

  • According to a study by Johns (2005), 90% of people cabbage as their least favourite vegetable as measured by an online survey and face-to-face interviews.

Now we know exactly how people feel about cabbage. The evidence also makes the statement more convincing. If you can’t back up your argument, avoid making that kind of statement. Similarly avoid unsupported assertions, unjustified statements, and fanciful speculation for which no reasons nor evidence can be given. See the helpsheet, Incorporating Evidence.

Academic style requires:

  • Justified claims
  • Evidence-based assertions
  • Reasonable deductions from acceptable premises. (For more on this see: Critical Thinking).

Authority in academic writing

Authoritative writing refers to the tone of the work. It has been written by someone in a position of (assumed) knowledge. In academic writing, the writer gives an air of confidence that they know what they’re talking about by the way they write and how they use evidence to support their argument.

Even after researching extensively on your essay topic, you may feel like you are not an expert. This may be true.  It is likely, though, that you know more about it than most people, which is what puts you in a ‘position of authority’ to some degree. When writing academically it is important to convince your reader and write in an authoritative voice. Initially, you might think in writing in this way that you are pretending and not really sure about yourself. You might feel you are a fake. This is a normal reaction. Over time, and with more experience and knowledge of the research literature, your confidence and level of authority will grow and be genuine. In time, your writing will also read more authoritatively. But you need to start cultivating an authoritative tone early—from day one of your studies in fact!

Think of all the articles you’ve found which were convincing—it is likely that the language used was clear, the writing contained logical claims drawn from evidence-based sources, and the writer had an authoritative tone. This is what made it convincing. You need to absorb the skill of academic writing by producing work that is similar to the articles you are reading.

Can a first-year student have an authoritative voice?

Yes. The more you read about a topic, the more informed you will be and the more evidence you will be able to adduce to support your position about a topic. As we noted before, it is an apprenticeship of sorts. As a first year undergraduate, your level of confidence and authority will be limited, but in second and third year you will be more confident. In time, you may even start to develop an opinion of your own on the topic. Your lecturers are interested in how you’ve interpreted the readings, so they expect you to respond to the writers’ ideas and find evidence that supports a particular view, or different views.

This is most obvious in assessment topics that include instructional words like evaluate or discuss. Ensure that your claims and ideas are supported with evidence from readings. Using our least favourite vegetable as an example again, you could write:

  • Cabbage is not highly regarded by many Australians, as indicated in John’s study in which 90% of people rated cabbage as their least favourite vegetable (2005).

Learning to write academically takes time and effort. You can shorten the time taken by remembering the key features of academic style noted above. Another way is to make a deliberate effort to use academic-sounding sentence starters. We provide a list of some of these on our page of Sentence Starters. Another technique is to use linking words and phrases to lead the reader through the argument in your writing. See the helpsheet, University Speak.

Bias and modal expressions

It is important to identify bias in your writing and/or any assertions indicating unjustified certainty. Bias is where there is hidden agenda or an assumed opinion on a topic. Learning to evaluate your sources to determine their reliability and identify bias is part of developing effective information literacy and research skills. It is important to know when you’re being influenced into believing something without objective grounds for doing so.

Unjustified certainty is making a bold claim without clear and unbiased evidence. Bias and unjustified certainty often go together.

Compare the following statements:

  • Esquire’s (1969) theory is the most influential for scholars in education
  • Esquire’s (1969) theory remains one of the most influential for scholars in education…

Did you notice the phrase the most influential? The author of the first claim believes Esquire to be the only theorist influencing education scholars. The author is using  judgemental language and this statement could easily be challenged. Indeed, the author may be partial to Esquire’s views and trying to avoid being challenged.

The second statement is far more cautious, and only claims that Esquire is one of the most influential. That’s a big difference in meaning.

If you’re not sure how to pick up on bias, judgemental language and unjustified certainty ask yourself the following questions:

The author The source
What is their background or expertise? When was it written?
Do they include more than one perspective or argument? Does the writing reflect the attitudes of a particular period in history?
Do they use objective language? (e.g. they don’t use generalisations, judgemental or emotive language) Why was it written?
Who was it written for?

For guidance on how ELSE you can evaluate your source, visit the experts at the Federation University Library.

Academic style involves the frequent use of modal expressions to indicate tentativeness, and to avoid any suggestion of perceived bias or unjustified certainty. Academics generally do not make bold claims about the truth of something if the evidence is not there to support it. Thus, you will often read phrases such as the following:

  • Smith appears to suggest that…
  • It seems to be the case that …
  • It can be suggested that …
  • One interpretation might be that …

This is not language showing uncertainty. They make their point clear. However, they avoid making bold, grandiose statements for which there is no evidence.

Formal and informal language

Choosing whether to use formal or informal style in your writing is largely about who the audience is. Informal writing tends to mimic spoken language, so it uses slang, simpler sentences, and assumes familiarity with the reader. Your emails to friends would be written in an informal style. Letters to your Great-Grandmother might be slightly more formal, start with ‘Dear Edna’, use more ‘proper’ words and fewer abbreviations.

Formal writing is common in workplace communication, legislation, legal documentation and academic writing, among others. The academic audience consists primarily of experts—knowledgeable people—so academic writing needs to be formal. Formal writing also shifts the focus from expression to content.

To illustrate formal vs. informal language, consider these accounts of the same scenario:

  • Did you see Jimmy last night? Jeez, he was wobbling all over the place! I think it was those two bottles of Johnny Walker he had. Nobody should drink that much, man! I saw him passed out in the corridor later too. I reckon he was blind.
  • According to witnesses, James Fitzgerald was seen last night in an unstable state after consuming two bottles of whisky — an amount reported to be unsafe for consumption (Blotto, 2013). Later in the evening, he was spotted in a street gutter, unconscious. From this evidence, it can be assumed that James Fitzgerald was severely intoxicated last night.

Of course, academic writing is in the latter category. Notice in the second example too that the first person (“I”, “me”) is not used. Academic writing is generally written in the third person.

Academic style: A Summary

Use the third person where possible

Writing in the third person means avoiding words like ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’  to make your writing objective and detached. This so the argument and evidence is emphasised. The only time you may need to write in the first person (‘I’ , ‘me’, ‘mine’, ‘we’, ‘our’, ‘ourselves’, etc.)  or—more rarely—the second person (‘you’, ‘yours’ ‘yourself’), is when you’ve been asked to write a reflective journal or other task that specifically seeks your personal view on something. Use the third person for most academic writing. See the helpsheet, Writing in the Third Person.

Do not abbreviate

Formal style requires writing words in full, not as abbreviations. This includes contractions like don’t. Others to avoid are: can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, haven’t, aren’t, etc. Similarly, don’t use abbreviations like etc. Avoid them, and use examples instead. This injunction also applies to acronyms. Words like NAFTA, WTO, UNESCO, and so on should all be spelt out completely before placing the acronym in square brackets […], thereafter the acronym can be used.

Be clear

Don’t use big words just to ‘sound academic’. You will become familiar and confident using the technical terms used in various academic disciplines with time and practice. Students often get themselves in a tangle by trying to write long, complex sentences too. Academic style does not mean writing long, complicated sentences. Focus instead on being clear. Your argument, in particular, must be as clear as possible, and writing shorter, succinct sentences is preferable in order to do this, especially while you are learning to write in an academic style. With practice, your sentence structure will become more sophisticated, and your vocabulary will expand. Your grasp of academic writing style will improve—without compromising clarity—as you read good models of academic writing too.

Be logical, use reasoning

Your writing should be well-structured and your argument should progress logically. State what the objective of your essay or report is, because that will help you to actually follow through. Throughout your writing tasks, ensure that the main point is clear, and supported by reasons. There should be a contention that you are trying to defend, and reasons should be given in support of that contention. Ensure you counter any objections, with well-argued rebuttals. See Critical Thinking.

Be scholarly

Being scholarly means using evidence to back-up, analyse and evaluate points that are being made. Academic writing is only good if support is given for claims. This support can come from examples, case studies, and well-structured arguments, but most often it comes from evidence-based sources such as peer-reviewed academic articles or academic books. Scholarly referencing is necessary when you cite evidence to support the points you are making.

Be precise

You will learn how to write precisely with a great deal of practise and dedication to academic writing, and academic writing style. While you are learning be sensitive to idiomatic, metaphorical or colloquial language. Cut it out when it occurs.

Be accessible

‘Accessibility’ is a relative term. What is accessible to one person can be unclear to another. In relation to accessibility in academic writing, the aim is to eventually learn the discipline-specific writing conventions in an academic subject area. This can take a long time. Each discipline has their own assumptions in terms of what counts as “facts” and “evidence”, and what is “reasonable” in support of the points being raised.  In the meantime, avoiding culturally specific and local examples, and focussing on clear, direct and precise language can help to ensure accessibility.

Be economical

Being economical means not wasting words. Note the examples below.

  • Productivity actually depends on certain factors that basically involve psychology more than any particular technology.
  • Productivity depends more on psychology than on technology.

There are a lot of “waffle” words in the first example that can be excised without loss of meaning. Learning how to write economically is also part of the university apprenticeship in writing. See the helpsheet, Cutting Sentence Length.

Be ‘business-like’

Being business-like means being direct. State your aim in a piece of writing then go on and provide evidence to support it. There should be no long-winded lead-up, extraneous examples, tangential ramblings, or anecdotal information. Get to the point and stay on the point.

Write complete, grammatical sentences

The use of fully-formed, grammatical sentences is necessary in academic writing. See Sentence Structure. As well as this, learn the rules of other important elements of good writing, including:

Read our helpsheet, University Speak, for examples of linking words and phrases to get more academic style in your writing.

For further advice on academic style, see the helpsheet, Writing in an Academic Style.