Academic Writing Part Two

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When we look at the following text extract, most of us would in all likelihood classify it as a sample of academic writing. But what in fact are the characteristics that lead us to this conclusion? Please consider the text for a few minutes and note down what linguistic features and other characteristics in your opinion make this an example of academic English.

Academic writing – general issues (1)

  • At first sight, most of us would probably mention some of the following:
      • the use of sources
      • quotations
      • vocabulary characteristic of a specific field
      • formal language and format
        • vocabulary
        • structures
        • absence of features of spoken language
        • layout
        • matter-of-fact style

Academic writing – general issues (2)

  • Let us first look in more detail into the style of the passage and academic writing more generally.
  • No matter what style manual or other source on academic writing you consult, you are likely to come across the following adjectives describing the style of academic writing:
    • formal
    • impersonal
    • precise
    • cautious
    • unemotional

Academic writing – general issues (3)

  • The reasons for citing such stylistic characteristics arise from the traditional view of science, according to which issues should be handled objectively, precisely, and neutrally. According to the same principle, it is often said that the style of academic writing should be as objective, precise, and neutral as possible.
  • The degree to which such features apply depends on different variables, such as the topic, the audience that one is writing to, and the type of document that is being produced. Generally speaking, however, when writing something for study or professional purposes, it is always the safer alternative to be formal, impersonal, precise, and so on—the opposite may puzzle or annoy a reader who is expecting ’true’ academic or otherwise matter-of-fact style.
  • In academic writing, then, we typically think about three variables when we determine how we should write: topic, audience, and purpose of writing.

Academic writing – general issues (4)

  • When writing a Bachelor’s thesis in English, one should thus consider the following:
    • How does my own topic area affect language use?
    • What kind of audience am I writing for?
    • What is the purpose of writing?
    • How do the audience, topic and purpose of writing together affect my use of language?
  • Regardless of the topic area, audience, and purpose, certain general guidelines can be provided as a starting point:
    • use formal words and structures (do NOT use shortened verb forms or negatives such as I’m, don’t, etc.)
    • do not over-emphasize your own person or that of someone else (impersonality, objectivitypassive voice, impersonal structures, etc.)
    • be cautious when dealing with issues not necessarily accepted by everyone (modal auxiliaries such as may/might/should; adverbs and adjectives such as potential, perhaps, possibly, likely, etc.)
    • use the professional terminology of your field, but avoid saying things in an overly complicated manner. Technical terminology will help you discuss matters in more detail (e.g. ‘digit’ vs. ‘number’), but it may also obscure the message when used in the wrong context (e.g. ‘feline olfactory organ’ vs. ‘cat’s nose’)
    • keep in mind your intended audience and its expectations
    • In sum: the style of your writing should be uniform and consistent and the language (in terms of vocabulary and structure) should be appropriate for the context.

Academic writing – general issues (5)

  • How does my own topic area affect language use?
  • What kind of audience am I writing for?
  • What is the purpose of writing?
  • How do the audience, topic and purpose of writing together affect my use of language?
  • Each topic area has its own special characteristics, which may vary from the type of terminology used to various other issues, such as the structure of academic writings and the use of sources.It is difficult to give rules which would apply to all subject areas. Therefore, you are stylistically best off by following the guidelines of your school and by looking closely at the conventions used in for example books, journals, and other previous writings in your topic area.
  • When writing a Bachelor’s thesis, you can presume that your reader is educated in the same field as yourself and his/her general knowledge of the field in question is of at least the same level as your own.
  • There are various purposes for writing a Bachelor’s thesis. From an educational perspective, it is a demonstration of your ability carry out and report a study of your own field of expertise. On the other hand, more and more theses also have a practical function insofar as they are commissioned by companies or other organisations. The needs of the commissioning party may also have an effect on the form that a thesis takes.
  • In all, the language and content of all Bachelor’s theses depend on a combination of the factors mentioned, and ultimately the effect of the different factors is a question to be resolved by the writer, often through a negotiation with the supervisors of the thesis.

Academic Style: Practical Examples

  • Formality
  • this piece of writing the present study (=this study)
  • my essay’ll make it clear the present paper will clarify
  • Impersonality
  • Many of my friends and colleagues say that… It is commonly said that…
  • I, you, my friend Dave the present study/author, one, Professor Robertson/Robertson (1992)
  • Precision
  • pets like cats, dogs, etc. pets, such as cats and dogs,
  • around half of the groupapproximately 53% of the group
  • Caution
  • Our study proves that This study shows that
  • I’m sure this is so. There is reason to believe that this is so.
  • We really couldn’t make anything of the results. There were difficulties in analyzing the results.
  • Lack of emotion (an objective, unemotional stance)
  • I think that this idea sucks. This idea may not be accurate.
  • In my opinion this is a wonderful topic. This topic is worth investigating because….

Now try making these more academic:

  • 1. This test isn’t good enough.
  • 2. The results were a lot better than I originally thought.
  • 3. The methodological problem is a tough nut to crack.
  • 4. We want to sort out how old geezers get along with teenagers.
  • 5. I have a hunch that the bosses are to blame for the company’s troubles.

Exercise: Formality

  • Below is a spoken, informal attempt at defining what ‘marketing’ means. Please write a more formal written version of the definition, using full sentences.
  • Marketing? Yes, well… marketing is, I guess, about someone trying to… let me see… get people interested you know, in things they … oh, yes, want them to buy.

Formality: sample solution

  • Formal
  • Marketing refers to communicating about a product or service with the purpose of encouraging the recipients of the communication to purchase or use the product or service.

Style: practical issues

  • When it comes to style, there are a variety of issues at stake. Ultimately, however, the key thing is that the style of a Bachelor’s thesis does not stand out from the crowd negatively.
  • Issues of style may have a significant bearing on how a thesis is approached by its readers. For many readers, the quality of the reporting is in direct comparison with the quality of the work reported. In other words, excellent research can be spoiled by bad reporting. On the other hand, research with slim results can be made to look a lot more appealing if the quality of reporting is high.

Exercise: Change of style

  • To use the extract below for purposes that require more formal (academic) style, shift the key vocabulary; everyday words => precise terms, and eliminate unwanted personal pronouns. Also, remove any words that are not necessary. Clients and Servers. In general, all of the machines on the Internet can be categorized as two types: servers and clients. Those machines that provide services (like Web servers or FTP servers) to other machines are servers. And the machines that are used to connect to those services are clients. When you connect to Yahoo! at to read a page, Yahoo! is providing a machine (probably a cluster of very large machines), for use on the Internet, to service your request. Yahoo! is providing a server. Your machine, on the other hand, is probably providing no services to anyone else on the Internet. Therefore, it is a user machine, also known as a client. It is possible and common for a machine to be both a server and a client, but for our purposes here you can think of most machines as one or the other. Source: HowStuffWorks

Change of style * KEY

  • Clients and Servers. In general, all computers on the Internet can be categorized as two types: servers and clients. Computers that provide services, e.g. Web servers or FTP servers, to other computers, are servers, whereas computers that are used to connect to the services are called clients. When a user connects to Yahoo! at to read a webpage, Yahoo! provides a computer, or a cluster of large computers, to service the user’s request. This is how Yahoo! provides a server. The Internet user’s computer, on the other hand, does not provide services to any other Internet users. Therefore, it is a user computer, also known as a client. However, it is possible for a computer to be both a server and a client.

Style: practical issues

  • One of the things that you should pay attention to is that your writing is easy to follow.
  • Therefore, make your texts well-organized. Toward this end, pay attention to for example:
    • dividing your text into sensible components (paragraphs subsections, main sections,).
    • paragraph structure
    • Cohesion and coherence at different levels (cohesion means that the language indicates the links between the various issues; coherence means that interrelated issues are presented logically)
    • economy of expression

Paragraphs (1)

  • What is a paragraph?
  • A paragraph is a collection of related sentences dealing with a single topic.
  • Effective paragraphs normally contain the following overlapping traits: Unity, Coherence, A Topic Sentence, and Adequate Development. Using and adapting them to your individual purposes will help you construct effective paragraphs.

Paragraphs (2)

  • 1. Unity:
  • The entire paragraph should concern itself with a single focus. If it begins with a one focus or major point of discussion, it should not end with another or wander within different ideas.

Paragraphs (3)

  • 2. Coherence:
  • Coherence is what makes the paragraph easily understandable to a reader. You can help create coherence in your paragraphs by creating logical bridges and verbal cohesive bridges.
    • logical bridges: The same idea of a topic is carried over from sentence to sentence
      • Successive sentences can be constructed in parallel form
    • verbal cohesive bridges:
      • Key words can be repeated in several sentences
      • Synonymous words can be repeated in several sentences
      • Pronouns can refer to nouns in previous sentences
      • Transition words can be used to link ideas from different sentences

Paragraphs (4)

  • 3. A topic sentence:
  • A topic sentence is a sentence that indicates in a general way what idea the paragraph is going to deal with.
  • Paragraphs do not always have clear-cut topic sentences and topic sentences can occur anywhere in the paragraph (as the first sentence, the last sentence, or somewhere in the middle). However, an easy way to make sure your reader understands the topic of the paragraph is to put your topic sentence near the beginning of the paragraph.

Paragraphs (5)

  • 4. Adequate development
  • The topic introduced by the topic sentence should be discussed fully and adequately. This varies from paragraph to paragraph, depending on the author's purpose, but writers should beware of paragraphs that only have two or three sentences. If a paragraph is short, is it fully developed?
  • Some methods to make sure your paragraph is well-developed:
      • Use examples and illustrations
      • Provide data
      • Provide supporting arguments (quotes and paraphrases from other sources)
      • Compare and contrast
      • Discuss causes
      • Deal with effects
      • Proceed chronologically

Paragraphs (6)

  • Economy
  • Adequate development also means economy in one’s writing—sufficient but not excessive development
  • Do not toy around with unnecessary words—keep the number of words to a minimum.
  • Are the following needed?
      • tautology: future prospect  prospect
      • intensifiers, qualifiers: very difficult  difficult
      • formulaic phrases: due to the fact that  because
      • unnecessary ’to be’, ’being’, passives

Cohesive Text (1)

  • The overall structure of academic writing is formal and logical.
  • Your writing must be cohesive, which means that it is linguistically unified.
  • The reader must be able to follow the flow of your arguments and the logic of your ideas with the help of cohesive links between sentences, paragraphs, subsections, and sections.

Developing Cohesive Text (2)

  • Use full and complete sentences to avoid fragmentation.
  • Show Connections: Make sure that your logic is clear. Use simple links to unify your ideas.
  • Pronouns such as it and they and this keep the focus on the ideas that you deal with--as long as they are clearly linked to specific antecedents.
  • Deliberate repetition of key words also helps.

Developing Cohesive Text (3)

  • Pay attention to the use of cohesion markers expressing connection, order, consequence, contrast, concession, and so on. Depending on the situation, these can be single words, phrases, sentences, or entire paragraphs.
  • Cohesion markers create a backbone for your writing that the reader can follow to understand the relationships between your ideas and arguments.

Developing Cohesive Text (4)

  • Connection: also, in other words, what is more, more importantly…
  • Order: first, second, third; initially, finally; as stated in section 1; as will be demonstrated…
  • Consequence: therefore, accordingly, thus, hence…
  • Contrast: instead, in contrast, on the other hand…
  • Concession: however, nevertheless, all the same…

Developing Cohesive Text (5)

  • Cohesion between Sections—Particularly in longer works, there is a need for items that summarize for the reader the information just covered, specify the relevance of this information to the discussion in the following section, or refer back to discussions in previous sections. A cohesive link between sections can be a word or two (however, for example, similarly), a phrase, a sentence, or an entire paragraph.
  • Cohesion between Paragraphs—Even if you have arranged paragraphs so that the content of one leads logically to the next, a cohesion marker will highlight a relationship that already exists by summarizing the previous paragraph and suggesting something of the content of the paragraph that follows. A transition between paragraphs can be a word or two, a phrase, or a sentence.
  • Cohesion within Paragraphs—As with cohesion between sections and paragraphs, cohesion markers within paragraphs act as cues by helping readers to anticipate what is coming before they read it. Within paragraphs, transitions tend to be single words or short phrases.  

Economy (1): eliminate unnecessary components

  • On a number of occasions, authors clog up their own prose with one or more extra words or phrases that appear to add so very little new information to the meaning of a certain expression but however do not add to the meaning of the entire sentence overall. Although words and phrases of these kinds can be utterly meaningful in the suitable context, more often than not they are used as ‘fillers’ and can quite easily be fully eliminated.
  • What would you eliminate above?


  • Wordy
  • A particle of any specific type may well be used.
  • Balancing the budget by the upcoming deadline is an impossibility without additional extra help of some kind.
  • More Concise
  • Any particle may be used.
  • Balancing the budget by the deadline is impossible without extra help

You can often eliminate expressions like these…

  • kind of sort of type of really
  • basically quite
  • definitely actually generally individual specific particular

You try…

  • Wordy
  • Basically, industrial productivity generally relies on particular factors that are actually more psychological in kind than of any given technological type.
  • More Concise
  • Industrial productivity depends more on psychological than on technological factors.

Change phrases into single words

  • Using phrases to convey meaning that could be presented in a single word contributes to wordiness. Convert phrases into single words when possible.
  • Compare
  • The type of experiment which caused difficulties…
  • The difficult experiment…


  • Wordy
  • The employee with skill...
  • The department demonstrating the best performance...
  • Jack Stiles, our chief of consulting, suggested at the latest board meeting the installation of microfilm equipment in the department of data processing.
  • More Concise
  • The skilful employee...
  • The best-performing department...
  • At our latest board meeting, chief consultant Jack Stiles suggested that we install microfilm equipment in the data processing department.

Change unnecessary that, who, and which clauses into phrases

  • Using a clause to convey meaning that could be presented in a phrase or even a word contributes to wordiness. Convert modifying clauses into phrases or single words when possible.


  • Wordy
  • The report, which was released recently...
  • All applicants who are interested in the job must...
  • The system that is most efficient and accurate...
  • More Concise
  • The recent(ly released) report...
  • All job applicants must...
  • The most efficient and accurate system...

Avoid there is & there are

  • These expressions (the existential construction) can be rhetorically effective for emphasis in some situations, but they are also often unnecessary in academic contexts.
  • The most common kind of unnecessary existential construction involves an existential phrase followed by a noun and a relative clause beginning with that, which, or who. A more concise sentence can often be created by eliminating the existential opening, making the noun the subject of the sentence, and eliminating the relative pronoun.


  • Wordy
  • It is the President who signs or vetoes laws.
  • There are four criteria that should be considered: ...
  • There was uncertainty about the reasons for the financial problems.
  • More Concise
  • The President signs or vetoes bills.
  • Four criteria should be considered:...
  • .The reasons for the financial problems were uncertain.

Exercise: economy

  • Improve these wordy sentences:
  • 1. A surprising aspect of most government negotiations is their friendly nature.
  • 2. The fact of the recession had the effect of causing many economic changes.
  • 3. The new system is considered to be effective.
  • 4. It is felt that a reorganisation program should be attempted by this company before ownership measures of any kind are taken.
  • 5. The hydroseal is said by most users to be faulty.
  • 6. The novel, which is entitled Ulysses, takes place . . 
  • 7. It was Aristotle who said
  • 8. There is a tendency among many students who may be said to show certain signs of lack of knowledge in their field of expertise that their writing will demonstrate an overload of unnecessary irrelevancies and comments which are generally useless in function.

Exercise: economy * KEY

  • 1. Most government negotiations are friendly.
  • 2. The recession caused many economic changes.
  • 3. The new system is effective.
  • 4. This company should try a reorganisation program before ownership measures are taken.
  • 5. Most users find the hydroseal faulty.
  • 6. The novel Ulysses takes place . . 
  • 7. Aristotle said
  • 8. Many students who seem to lack knowledge in their field tend to overload their writing with irrelevancies and generally useless comments.

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