Many students enter their first year college reading-writing course thinking that academic style means using "big words," never using I, and making their sentences as long as possible. Student may have read academic readings in which the style sounded "overblown" or wordy. A lot of academic writing exists that does read this way, but such writing is not necessarily good academic writing. Some writers come into college already writing in what they feel is academic writing style, and others don't know how to write in that way, but think that is the goal.
In reality, academic style involves using clear, specific word choice and sentence constructions (including active voice as much as possible); staying focused on the topic at hand; generally using third person voice to build your argument and incorporate your sources; and generally avoiding personal experience or discussing your process of writing the paper. Some of these parts of academic style are discussed elsewhere in this e-book (see "Word Choice"). Here, we will focus on some of the sentence level conventions that academic style involves.
Example of Good Academic Style
The following example by Professor Peter Bowler from publicdomainreview.org demonstrates good academic style in humanities writing:
H. G. Wells worried constantly about the future of humanity. While he hoped for progress in human affairs, he was only too well aware that it was not inevitable and might not be sustained. Throughout his career he celebrated the technological developments that were revolutionizing life but feared they might lead to eventual degeneration or, as came to pass in 1914, a catastrophic war. He was also aware that there were disagreements over what would actually count as progress. Providing everyone with the benefits of modern industry might not be enough, especially as continued technological innovation would require the constant remodeling of society. Progressive steps introducing entirely new functions were episodic, open-ended and unpredictable, in both biological and social evolution. These uncertainties were compounded by a realization that, where technological innovation was concerned, it was virtually impossible to predict future inventions or what their long-term consequences might be. Even if progress continued, it would be much more open-ended than advocates of the traditional idea of progress had imagined.
For Wells the most basic level of uncertainty arose from the fear that the human race might not sustain its current rate of development. In his 1895 story “The Time Machine” he imagined his time traveler projected through eras of future progress: “I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our time, and yet, as it seemed, built of glimmer and mist" (27). But the time traveler ends up in a world brought down by social division and degeneration. The brutal Morlocks are the descendants of the industrial workers, while the childlike Eloi are the remnants of the leisured upper classes. This prediction was based on his zoologist friend E. Ray Lankester’s extension of the Darwinian theory. Lankester argued that because evolution works by adapting populations to their environment, progress is not inevitable and any species that adapts itself to a less active and hence less challenging way of life will degenerate (Lankester 127 and 198-202). Here was the model for a more complex vision of progress in which any advance would depend on the circumstances of the time and could not be predicted on the basis of previous trends.
While a couple of uses of the passive voice are present (paragraph 1, sentence 7 and paragraph 2, sentence 4), the uses are acceptable because the author wanted to focus on the object of the sentences and needed them to cohere well with the previous sentences. However, all of the other sentences are in active voice.
The paragraphs focus on the topic at hand and what others say about topic. The author uses many types of descriptive phrases and clauses, uses specific and meaningful word choice, and varies the sentence length depending on what he wants to empahsize. In addition, when writing about an event within a book, he uses simple present tense ("But the time traveler ends up in a world brought down by social division and degeneration.")
Some Academic Style Recommendations
What to Avoid
1. Avoid using "I" unless writing about personal experience or actively comparing your opinion to another author's.
Do not write: I think greed is the principal cause of Americans’ debt.
Do write: Greed is the principal cause of Americans’ debt.
(It will be clear that the opinion is yours simply by the fact that you are writing the paper. If the opinion is someone else's, say whose opinion it is. Otherwise, the focus will move from the topic you are writing about to you.)
2. Avoid “you” (or “your” or “yours”) unless you are seeking to address the reader directly.
Do not write: If you shop too much, you can become addicted.
Do write: People who shop too much can become addicted.
Your audience is a general academic audience, and one's purpose in writing a paper is not generally to give personal advice. "You" addresses one person, but an academic essay's audience is multiple people.
3. Avoid (unanswered) questions, especially if they occur where you should be writing analysis.
Do not write: How can children know how to resist advertising?
Do write: Children do not have the maturity to resist advertising.
Just say what you mean to say because questions can prevent a writer from getting their point across with precision. It is occasionally acceptable to use a question as a hook or transition, but avoid using them more than once or twice in an essay.
4. Avoid using casual language or slang unless it contributes to the effect you want.
Do not write: The author talks about how corporations pollute.
Do write: The author explains that, without regulation, corporations pollute.
Do not write: The authors describe this family, the Joneses…
Do write: The authors describe a family, the Joneses… casual tone might undermine your authority.
A casual tone may undermine your authority and is not the usual accepted tone for academic writing.
5. Avoid sweeping, obvious, vague, or clichéd phrases and statements:
- In today’s society
- This proves that no one cares about anyone but himself.
- Everyone is addicted to shopping.
- Pollution affects everyone and everything.
- Pollution must end today or everyone will die soon.
- In society, many things happen that are connected to each other.
To correct these kinds of statements, refine your thinking and decide what specifically you mean – and can reasonably claim.
What to Do
1. Use simple present verb tense, rather than past tense, when writing about what you read.
Do not write: The author wrote about the need to reduce vaping among people of all ages.
Write: The author writes about the need to reduce vaping among people of all ages.
Using simple present tense is academic convention because of the idea that once something is written on paper (or recorded on film or video), it always exists and lives in an "eternal present."
2. Vary your sentence length.
Review the example at the top of the page and notice how having short sentences after long sentences helps to keep your attention and move you forward while you read.
3. Use strong, descriptive words -- especially verbs.
Avoid weak verbs that no longer have much meaning, such as "get," "have", "being," "make," and their variants. Also try to avoid verbs that have a preposition (but no prepositional phrase) after them.
Do not write: I ate up my food quickly.
Do write: I gobbled my food.
Depending on your meaning, the following table includes some stronger words for these notoriously weak verbs.
|Get||Have (as a main verb)||Be(ing)||Make|
|receive||contract (as a disease)||are||create|
4. Write with focused sentence; this includes active voice.
- Use active voice wherever possible. The situations in which using passive voice is acceptable are when:
- A writer needs to begin with the object of the sentence so that the sentence flows well from the previous sentence (cohesion)
- A writer needs to describe a process they followed (such as might appear in the methodology section of a scientific research paper or lab report)
- The subject or agent of the sentence is unknown.Other guidelines for writing focused sentences can be found here.
The following videos can reinforce what you just read. While they refer to APA style, all of the tips here are relevant for MLA also.
Writing in an Academic Style Part 1 and 2. Authored by: JMU Writing Center. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.
Practice with Academic Style
Rewrite these sentences in a clear, academic style using the above guidelines.
1. You will never be happy if you don’t spend time with your friends and family.
- How can communities regulate corporations without the help of the government?
- In my opinion, I think that people nowadays are materialistic.
- There was this guy who was talking in this book called Good Jobs, Bad Jobs – I think his name was Arne – saying that women only entered the workforce in the 70s because men were deadbeat earners.
- Who do you think will make you happy if not yourself?
- There are all these advertisements that try to get kids to buy things.
- I believe that advertising damages women.
- The authors of “Iron Maiden” say that you will have lower self-esteem if you read too many fashion magazines.
Rewrite the following paragraph in a clear, academic style using the above guidelines.
Food stamps have recently been proposed to be restricted by the U.S. government. To write this paper, I examine five sources that discussed the topic of food stamps. All of the sources look at the topic of food stamps from the federal level, rather than from the perspective of a particular state. Almost all of the sources acknowledge that some people will no longer receive food stamps. In fact, only those with great need could receive help! Food banks will all be inundated with new people who need help, or children will go hungry. And hungry children don't learn as well as those who have had a good breakfast. Food stamps should not be restricted to only the most needy because, in our gig-based economy, many people go hungry some of the time. It's just offloading the problem onto the private sector.