Males students studying notes

Improving your writing

Explore these key points to keep your writing academic and professional, and to improve your work

You'll need an academic writing style for your most assignments at uni.

Different disciplines and subject areas have specific writing styles. This page outlines some basic elements of academic writing but you should research the writing style for your subject area too.

What is academic style?

There's no final definition of 'academic' writing, but you can develop and academic style with the advice below. 

Qualities that contribute to academic writing:

  • Formal
  • Objective 
  • Cautious
  • Succinct
  • Impersonal

Be formal – avoid common, colloquial or spoken language

Avoid casual language in your assignments such as:  

  • words like ‘stuff’, ’really’ and ‘things’
  • phrases like ‘a bit’ and ‘sort of’
  • sentence fragments and contractions including 'isn’t', 'didn’t', 'couldn’t', 'wouldn’t' and 'it’ll'
  • 'etc.' to stand for et cetera – it is better to say 'for example...'
  • using questions – try to structure your point as a full sentence

Be objective – stand back from others' work and your own

There are a few key way to remains objective in your writing:

  • critique your own work as well as others’
  • write in an impersonal or neutral style
  • avoid using 'I'
  • include and tackle material you disagree with or that challenges your work 

This critical approach might not be appropriate for all assignments, but you usually need to demonstrate you've engaged objectively with all of your source material. This means standing back from your own ideas, perspective, assumptions and beliefs. 

Be cautious – not too black and white

Academic writing is usually cautious because it discusses complex knowledge. Academic work is open-minded and enquiring – so as a student you should question arguments rather than being too certain. Beware of words like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, and think carefully about using words like ‘definitely’ which suggest now room for debate around a statement. 

Cautious words to use in academic writing:

  • possibly
  • probably
  • likely
  • seems
  • may
  • could

Be succinct – not too wordy

People reading your assignment need to understand exactly what you mean, in as few words as possible. Check that you've been as precise and concise as you can when you reread your work. You'll need to actively decide what to keep and cut from your assessment to make sure you've included all necessary information and detail.

Be impersonal – write in an impartial style

You should use an impersonal style in your essays and reports. Avoid using 'I', 'my', 'me' or 'us'. Instead of writing 'I am surprised that …', you could write: 'It is surprising that …'

Exceptions to this rule include reflective writing assignments and portfolios – these reflective assignments often require you to evaluate your own experiences or attitudes so a more personal style is appropriate.

Examples of colloquial and academic writing styles

Colloquial writing

There’s a lot of arguing about the Spinnaker. Because it’s so tall you can see it from all around, but does this mean it’s a good thing for the economy? It’s really late. It was meant to be ready for the Millenium (so much for the “Millenium Tower”, it’s just been costing us money all that time too) and it’s not going to employ as many people as lost their jobs in the dockyard over the years. And it’ll take ages for them to get back the cost from people who go up it.

Academic writing

Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower is controversial in financial terms. At 170 metres (The Spinnaker Tower, 2014), it dominates the city’s harbourside and was expected to have a positive impact on the local economy. However, income from visitors to the tower, and the expected boost to the local economy from increased tourism and employment, was lost because the project was delayed several times (Dyckhoff, 2005, p. 14). It may take twenty-five years for income from visitors to equal the cost of construction (Dyckhoff, 2005, p. 15), and the local economy will probably be unable to recoup the lost income.

Download our academic writing style revision sheet

Download this page as a PDF for your academic writing revision notes.

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