Academic language and style
Academic language should be clear, unambiguous and objective. ’Objective’ does not mean that you avoid taking a position. Rather it means to expose foundations (reasons, evidence). Inexperienced writers are often tempted to embellish their language, using complicated expressions and technical terminology. As a rule of thumb, you should choose ordinary language, as long as it is adequate. Scholars who have achieved ’classic’ status often write in a plain and direct style. This is precisely why – regardless of changing literary conventions – they have been widely read over the years.
Many academic studies are, by necessity, demanding to read. This is partly due to their high level of specialisation, and partly due to formal requirements, such as detailed descriptions of methodology and findings, numerous references, and so on. This means that the authors have to undertake a great deal of work in order to produce a readable text.
Level of style
Who is your audience? What can you assume that your reader already knows, and how many definitions are needed? For example, are you writing for your supervisor, or for a general reader? The general advice is to aim somewhere in between, or to write as you would for a fellow student.
Active – Passive
Sometimes it is necessary to avoid the active voice of verbs, because it may not be known who performed an action, or it is irrelevant who. Yet a writer must be careful not to create heavy-going reading, or end up with long sequences of words strung together by prepositions, for example, ’…investigation of questions concerning a reduction in the occurrence of…’.
Example of a passive construction:
New results in this area are produced by the research group.
The same sentence using the active voice:
The research group produces new results in this area.
Use of the passive voice tends to conceal who is doing the action. In a methods section, this is often the norm, since the results should be reproducible by anyone. However, there is a common misunderstanding that sentences using the passive voice are more objective because the author avoids saying ’I’ or ’we’. It is sensible to vary writing style as appropriate. Overuse of the passive voice makes a text heavy to read, and makes for a woolly, bureaucratic and mystifying read. Do not feel that you have to avoid the passive voice altogether, however, as overuse of the active voice also becomes tiring for a reader. We do not always need to be reminded of the person of the researcher through the use of ’I’ and ’we’.
Rewrite the following in a more direct style:
- X is characterised by importance.
- Y is characterised by reliability.
- X entails correctness.
- Research is carried out.
- An investigation is being undertaken.
Can I write ’I’?
In some fields, writing in the first person (i.e. using the words ’I’, ’me’ and ’my’) is strongly discouraged. If this is the case in your field, you may have to write your text using words such as ’one’ or ’we’, or using the passive voice. It is important to be clear, however, that using the word ’I’ is not the same as being personal or subjective.
We should distinguish between the private or personal ’I’ and the ’I’ as the author of the text. For example, when you write ’I will now explain’, this is not a personal statement. In most disciplines, the use of the authorial ’I’ is acceptable, in for example pointers for the reader. Writing in the first person will make the text less stiff than using the word ’one’ when referring to yourself.
The private ’I’, however, has no place in an academic text. This does not mean that you cannot put your own personal stamp on the text. It simply means that you should do this by using the means that the various academic genres put at your disposal. For example, by choosing to discuss interesting and important research questions, by presenting convincing reasoning, and by using good examples.
In academic texts, you may also find a third type of first person, the researcher ’I’. Once again, this is not a personal reference, but refers to the person who has, for example, collated data or carried out experiments.
Read several pages of student writing (e.g. from a thesis), and highlight the word ’I’. Identify occurrences of the personal ’I’, the authorial ’I’ and the researcher ’I’. For comparison, read a research article that uses the word ’I’ and carry out the same analytical process. How did the results vary between the two texts?
Note: Remember that there may be good reasons for the use of ’I’ in a student text. These reasons may not be relevant in the case of a research article.
Recommended reading: Passive voice
There are many ways to create flow in a text. This is often called text binding. Text binding is used to create the right expectations in the reader: a «reading contract» where the reader’s expectations of the task are met. The opening is particularly important: you should not promise more than you can keep, but not too little either. The art is to show that what is coming is interesting, and that the presentation is adapted to the content. Below are some examples of text binding (NB: the categories are partly overlapping):
- Outline: structured overview of the content.
- Signposts for the reader: clarify the structure of the text, i.e. what comes when, what is the purpose of the various sections, and so. For example: ’Now I have considered X, in the next section I will address Y.’
- Subheadings: choose headings that reflect the content of the various sections. This provides a neat and informative overview.
- Transitions: writing transitioning text between different sections and chapters can be used to help the reader move on, and create the right expectations for what is to come.
- Meta-comments: the author’s comments on the text. Examples: ’as we have seen”/“as has been seen’, ’now I will explain’, ’as I argue’.
- Point forward, and back: memory of what has been said previously, and anticipation of what is to come. The point is to show where you are going and where you have already been in the text.
- Summary: points to the essence of a section or chapter and specifies the content.
The principle of text binding is to help the reader see the context of the text. An important criterion for academic texts is appropriate and clear demarcation. The outline and signposts for the reader clarify the demarcation, and remind the reader that the author is aware of his or her choices. Examples: ’Here it could be relevant to address… but this is outside the scope of this thesis’, ’It would take too long to go into…’, and so on.
A good paper or thesis fulfils the expectations created at the start, and answers the research question.
Revision of language and style
To create distance from what you have written, you can go through the text backwards, to try to notice which words and expressions you use a little too often. When you read the text from the beginning, it is easy to get into the actual reasoning and content. Reading backwards makes it easier to focus on word choice.