Often, students find it difficult to write with an appropriate academic style. This is largely a matter of practice (and you should pay attention to the way books and articles you read are written). However, here are some key areas to fous on:
1. Choosing to use a personal or impersonal voice:
Traditionally, academic writing uses an impersonal style that is passive, uses the third person and focusses on things, rather than people.
You should be presenting information another scientist could use. Your feelings and opinions are rarely relevant. Presenting evidence or stating your own perspective is more useful than sharing what you ‘believe’.
Pay close attention to your brief and any guidance given by your teachers. For some kinds of writing (especially those where you are required to explain a process you were involved in), it may be more appropriate to write with a personal voice. When used well, this can make writing more precise and natural.
Active: I observed the angle to be…
Passive: The angle was observed to be…
For more information see: Active and Passive (OWL at Purdue)
2. Check your verb tenses:
Use the past tense to describe events that have happened.
e.g. “If you mix the compounds they react” would be better written as “When mixed, the compounds reacted”.
The results of others are typically discussed in the past tense.
3. Make tentative rather than absolute statements:
Science is developing and dynamic, and ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ are not often actually attainable. The best outcome is that your data supports or is consistent with your hypothesis. When ideas repeatedly stand up to experimental scrutiny, they acquire the status of a theory, such as the Theory of Evolution. Do not over-state what your own work achieves.
e.g. “this experiment proves” could be rephrased in a number of ways: “tends/ appears to suggest”, “indicates that”
- Possible/ possibly
Modal Verbs (indicating there may be doubt):
- May be
Softening or hedging words:
4. The tone of your writing:
Avoid using jargon or cliché, or extensive repetition of certain words. In avoiding repeition be careful to choose alternatives carefully - the meaning quickly gets lost if you use words inaccuarately. If you are not sure what a word means - double check!
5. Keep it simple and clear:
Someone will be marking it, so help them out! Keep sentences and paragraphs short concise and purposeful. Academic writing doesn't mean you should waffle.
- Make sure your key ideas are not lost in the middle of long sections of writing. The opening line of a paragraph is a strong place to put important information.
- Only include detail where they make a point or help you to interpret result. Anecdotal information is typically superfluous.
- Avoid superlatives. These are adjectives like ‘huge’, ‘incredible’ and ‘exciting’ that don’t actually tell us anything specific.
For more detail on writing see: Academic Phrasebank (Manchester University)