Academic Style Dos and Don’ts

Here is a list of important and useful points to remember when writing with academic style.

–          Don’t use non-English words or jargon without providing a definition in simple English

Using long, obscure and foreign words can make your writing difficult to read, and seem pretentious if you overdo it. However, sometimes specialist vocabulary (such as ‘heteronormativity’ or ‘displacement’), can convey meaning more precisely than more commonplace words. This can also be the case for words with no direct English equivalent (such as Bildungsroman or jouissance). Correct use of such terminology will make your writing more sophisticated, as long as you provide an everyday English definition with the piece of writing’s first use of the term.cliches

–          Don’t over-use the thesaurus

English has lots of words that mean the same thing, or synonyms. Using a thesaurus (print or online) or the thesaurus function of your word processing program to find a variety of equivalent words can be a tempting way to try to make your writing more interesting. However, synonyms often have slightly different meanings, or don’t belong in every context. When writing about specific topics and contexts, it is best to stick to a few key terms, clearly defined, rather than varying them for the sake of it.

–          Don’t use clichés

A cliché is a phrase that is very commonly used, particularly an idiom or metaphorical expression; for example ‘the calm before the storm’, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and ‘every cloud has a silver lining.’ These metaphorical expressions are inappropriately informal in an academic context, and have become trite through over-use over time.

–          Don’t use colloquial phrases

Academic style is formal rather than informal, and differs more from spoken language than other forms of writing such as journalism. Thus colloquial words and phrases (especially commonly used ones) should be avoided in academic writing. Examples include ‘at the end of the day’, ‘nowadays’, ‘sooner or later’.

–          Don’t use ‘don’t’… or ‘shouldn’t’, ‘wouldn’t’, ‘haven’t’,’ you’ve’: contractions

A contraction is when words are abbreviated using an apostrophe, such as ‘you’ve’ instead of ‘you have’ and ‘shouldn’t instead of ‘should not’. These are informal and thus inappropriate in academic writing.exclamation

–          Don’t use exclamation marks ‘!’

The exclamation mark ‘!’ denotes excitement, joy, or triumph—it is too informal and emotive to be used in an academic context.

–          Don’t use rhetorical questions

A rhetorical question is a question that is asked without expecting an answer from another. The rhetorical question is a common device in journalistic writing or political speeches, usually to imply that a point is so obvious that no answer is necessary (e.g. ‘is the Pope Catholic?’). This is not appropriate in an academic context, and assumes that the reader will agree with you without providing evidence to convince them.

–          Don’t use phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’

Academic style does not necessarily rule out the use of ‘I’ (see our page on The ‘I’ in Academic Writing), but phrases like ‘I feel’ or ‘my opinion is’ do not show that your points are the result of reasoned thought and evidence.

–          Do use inclusive language – i.e. ‘she or he’ rather than ‘he’, ‘humankind’ rather than ‘mankind’

While you might read a lot of academic writing that breaks this rule (especially that written more than 30 years ago), the present day convention is to make sure that your writing is gender-inclusive.

–          Do use discipline-specific and technical vocabulary, but clearly explain what these terms mean

Using long, obscure and foreign words can make your writing difficult to read, and seem pretentious if you overdo it. However, sometimes specialist vocabulary (such as ‘heteronormativity’ or ‘xx art term’), can convey meaning more precisely than more commonplace words. This can also be the case for words with no direct English equivalent (such as Bildungsroman or jouissance). Correct use of such terminology will make your writing more sophisticated, as long as you provide an everyday English definition with the piece of writing’s first use of the term.

–          Do get a sense of the academic conventions of your discipline by reading a wide range of it

The best way to get a sense of what is and is not appropriate academic style is to read plenty of academic writing from various sources in your discipline, i.e. academic books, journals, and websites. See GSA Library’s guidance on ensuring that your sources are appropriately scholarly.

–          Do aim to be as clear as possible

It is important to remember that writing intelligently does not mean ‘difficult to understand’. The aim is to communicate your research and ideas as clearly as possible. See this page for guidance on communicating clearly in writing.

–          Do make sure that your writing is well-structured

Having a clear structure will enable the reader to understand the content of your writing. Make sure that your writing has an introduction, paragraphs with one topic each, and a conclusion. For more detail, see these pages.

–          Do use ‘signposting’

Academic writing can often contain a lot of complex ideas and information. To help you and your reader understand the essential aspects, use ‘signposting.’ This means emphasising your main points, referring back to what you’ve already said, and forward to what you are going to say.