This is a tricky concept to describe and there is a great deal of variation between subject areas. Even within a course there are a number of different types of document that you might be asked to write. The bullet points below give you a basic oversight of the tone you are expected to write with at University, but please take into account that if you have been asked to write a reflective piece of writing these comments will not apply.
There is a general trend towards a less formal tone but the following points are widely valid. You should think about your writing being:
- Objective - it should communicate principles and reasoned judgement rather than personal feelings and opinions
- Relatively formal – in that it avoids slang, contractions (such as can’t, shouldn’t), exclamation marks and text-speak
- Precise and Concise - good academic writing aims to make points in as few words as possible, without waffle and clumsy sentences. Furthermore, it avoids imprecise intensifies like 'very' and 'really' because these are very vague terms. Being precise is often difficult and can involve thinking and re-thinking, drafting and re-drafting. It is one aspect of writing which tends to improve with practice
- Modest - avoiding words like 'obviously', 'definately' or 'prove', which suggest you have solved problems rather than contributed to debate
- Avoids value judgements - words such as 'brilliant' or 'wonderful' are inappropriate for academic writing
- Balanced - includes both sides of an argument and different perspectives. Try to let the evidence make your points rather than writing “I think that…”.
A note on the use of “I” (first person)
Some academic tutors specifically forbid the use of the personal pronoun “I” in Academic Writing but this is increasingly rare. It is generally acceptable to use phrases like “in this report I will investigate…” and “I” frequently appears in introductions and conclusions. However, to maintain an objective tone, it is best to keep expressions of personal opinions to a minimum, unless these are specifically asked for in your assignment brief. Some kinds of reflective writing particularly encourage the use of “I” and personal reflection so check your assignment type carefully and make sure you understand what your tutors are expecting.