Top tips for formal academic writing

The world of academic writing can be a terrifying place, full of tricky rules and customs. If you’re a student working on an essay, thesis or paper, you might have been told that the writing you’ve poured your heart and soul into is too informal. This vague bit of feedback isn’t much use on its own. But fear not, the Post-Graduate Proof-Reader is here to remove the mystery with some tips which will allow your words to rub shoulders with the greats.

You don’t have to be scared of academic writing any more!

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  • No abbreviations

You may find you’re using more shorthand than you realise. You’re sadly unlikely to be encouraging your readers to BYOB to your essay – but you may well be using eg, ie or etc. These are not good academic language, so always make the following substitutions:

eg = for example

ie = such as

etc = and so on

The only exception to this is acronyms. If you’ve defined a term with an acronym the first time you use it, use that acronym each subsequent time. For example: In this thesis, I have used interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Smith devised IPA in the mid-90s…

  • Hedging your bets

Research is a tentative world. Experiments are flawed. Some results are replicated, others are disproven. When you’re analysing qualitative data, there is often room for another interpretation. As such, it can be hard to know when you can confidently state that such-and-such a finding is bona fide or when you should be more cautious.

Think about your subject matter, as this will help you decide on your tone of voice. Let’s look at an example from some hypothetical qualitative findings. If a participant you’ve named Emma says:

I finally had to accept that I needed dialysis, and that made me really depressed

you can afford to be bold in how you phrase your interpretation. You don’t need to say ‘It appeared that the thought of dialysis distressed Emma’; she’s telling you in clear and unambiguous language that she was depressed, so it’s fine to state that as a fact.

However, Emma might go on to say:

Although the ward was chaotic, the only company I had was the bleeping of the machines

This is more ambiguous, so reflect that by saying ‘it seems Emma felt isolated.’ You can apply the same logic to the rest of your paper; if an existing finding or theory is uncontroversial, report it as so. Hedge your bets with anything more ambiguous.

Be cautious when describing ambiguous findings – or you could fall into dangerous territory!

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  • ‘The model states…’ – or does it?

Remember that models, papers, theories and chapters are not sentient and cannot suggest, confirm or deny anything themselves. It is always the people who wrote or created those ideas who have the agency.

For example, ‘a recent paper agrees’ is not right, whereas ‘the authors of a recent paper agree’ is. ‘The ANOVA demonstrated’ is not right, whereas ‘our use of ANOVA demonstrated’ is.

This can be a hard one to get right but keep trying and it will become second nature. This article on the issue from Walden University is helpful if you want to read more about this.

*Note that in APA 7, the rules on anthropomorphism, as this rule is known, have relaxed. Check out our blog to read more about this.

  • Humanising language

It’s important for all academics – and especially psychologists – to use language in a way that is respectful of people and mindful of diversity. For example, rather than the unwieldy ‘he or she’, use ‘they’, which is not only neater but also makes space for people who identify as non-binary.

Always state a person’s humanity before other identifying factors, especially factors which might be stigmatising. So rather than ‘HIV patient’, you should say ‘person living with HIV’. ‘Participants’ is a better word than either ‘subjects’ or ‘patients’ as it implies an active rather than a passive stance.

Not only is language like this better for humanity, it is also in line with British Psychological Society (BPS) guidelines and the standards of most journals where you might be sending your work.


Share the love by using language which puts people first

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If all this feels like far too much like hard work, don’t worry – just get in touch with us via the form below, and we can do all the heavy lifting for you.  

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