10: Defining the academic writing style

Academic writing is like no other type of writing. It is not creative but it is not at the level of writing that you will need to do in your career either as far as business correspondence. Academic writing has its own special writing style that requires a specific tone, specificity, objectiveness and formality. This chapter explains the academic writing style, who you are writing to, and how to write it in a way that meets certain academic objectives. The chapter also helps you develop your own academic voice so that you can put your personal mark on what you write.

Chapter 10 contents:

10.1: What is the academic style?

Academic writing is a unique combination of facts and argumentation that must be balanced in presentation, objectivity, and information while providing a clear way to understand what can often involve complex issues or challenging concepts. It also involves being specific and getting a point across without resorting to fluff or becoming too stuffy. No one said it would be easy, but, with practice and by paying attention to other academic sources that you have to read for your classes, you can start to understand the academic style and use it as a basis to improve your own essay writing to take on the same academic feel.

Here are some characteristics of the academic style:

  • Errs on the side of caution and never over commits.
  • Balances arrogance and humility.
  • Writes in a formal style often in third person.
  • Focuses on active sentences rather than passive ones.
  • Avoids overstatements.
  • Does not use contractions or slang or rely on clichés.
  • Uses a wide range of language and the appropriate specialist words.
  • Never uses formatting or punctuation for effect.
  • Remains objective and avoids biased language.
  • Focuses on clear, concise, and precise writing.
  • Uses statements, not questions.

All of these characteristics of the academic style are discussed throughout this chapter to help you work on developing these appropriately throughout your essay writing.

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10.1.1: Your audience

Unlike creative writing, you are not necessarily writing for yourself - although creative writing is often shared with others. In the case of academic writing, the writing is for a specific audience - your tutor. As such, you need to think about them and what they want and expect from your essay:

  • Show that you understand the material and concepts but do not regurgitate what was already covered in lectures or notes. Think of these as springboards for exploring the concepts and relating them to real world examples so the tutor knows you truly understand what you were learning.
  • While you can consider quoting any of the tutor's published work, it should not be done to try and win marks on your essay because the tutor may take it in that way and have the opposite reaction to what you intended. Also, if you plan on doing this to some limited degree, make sure you reference it appropriately so you are not accused of plagiarising.
  • Write clearly and directly without wasting words on anything construed as fluff. Your tutor has read hundreds of essays over the course of their academic career so they know what they are looking for in an essay and what constitutes excellent academic writing style.

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10.1.2: Your tone and attitude

The most important part of academic writing is the right tone and attitude wherein the reader takes your writing seriously. And, since the person most often reading your academic writing is your tutor, you want to speak to them in a language they understand and use themselves. There are many things to think about when you work toward creating the appropriate tone and attitude in terms of your academic writing voice. After all, it is about finding that balance of being confident without arrogant as well as being persuasive without leaving holes where your argumentation can be easily shot down.

Here are some important tips for getting your tone and attitude right in essay writing:

  • Balancing confidence and modesty: While you do not want to make it sound as your essay is worthless or put it down, you also do not want to be cocky. It is about acknowledging that your ideas are but one dimension of a larger picture or scope of available knowledge or research on a particular topic and that you are working toward expand ideas and open up new perspectives. To maintain modesty, be sure to acknowledge the existing research of others as useful and important, but do not put your work at the same level.
  • Balancing caution and commitment: Academic writing always errs on the side of caution because it is important to acknowledge that others may come up with different results or have carried out their research differently and developed other ideas and perspectives As such, it is difficult in academic writing to ever reach a complete and final answer to any research question because there will always be new investigations and research that uncover more findings or a new way of looking at the same problem or issue. Yet, that does not mean that academic writing is wishy-washy as there has to be some conviction and confidence that results are meaningful; otherwise, you are devaluing what you are trying to share that does serve as important research. Look at the types of vocabulary and verbs you are using in your paper and balance the cautious ones (possibly, seemingly, arguably, potentially, I hypothesise, I imagine and I suppose) with more committed language (I think, I understand, I believe, in my opinion, undoubtedly, certainly and from my perspective).
  • Checking your attitude: Back to the idea of balancing confidence and modesty, your attitude is important because you do not want to exude an attitude that you already know it all and are the end-all expert on a particular subject. Instead, you want to get your ideas across in a confident manner by backing them up with reason, logic, and coherence. You also do not want to resort to personal experience or colourful language because these mean nothing in academic writing. One way to keep this in check is to not resort to trying to use big words unless it is necessary to the specialised content you are writing about; if you just throw these types of words into the essay, you do not impress anyone and just come off as pompous.

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