Different genres of writing typically take on certain characteristics. Academic writing is especially prone to an intellectual, wordy, and sometimes confusing style that has made many textbooks the bane of students’ study.
As an academic writer, remember that you can create professional-sounding texts in this genre without being boring, stuffy, or confusing. In fact, your audience will be better off if you can make your academic writing as interesting as possible.
Keep the following things in mind to help you write engaging academic writing while maintaining a professional tone.
1) Remember Active Voice and Passive Voice
Academic writers commonly use passive voice. Many people seem to believe that passive constructions always make writing sound more professional. A “clinical” tone, for example, will often word things passively to focus more on what occurs than on who the actor is, as is shown in this example:
“4 mg of Zofran were administered to the patient upon the discovery of her symptoms.”
The original writer probably used this passive construction to focus on the type and dosage of drug that was given to a patient instead of the person administering the medication. In this medical situation, the amount of medication is the most important part of the event, and the construction works fairly well as it stands.
Passive voice constructions can help you emphasize specific parts of a sentence, but too much passive voice will make a paper feel repetitive and difficult to read. This principle is especially true if these sentences don’t need to be passive. Consider this example:
“A study on this subject was conducted by researchers at Cornell University. A discovery was made in the control group of the study that, unfortunately, invalidated many of the claims that were planned to be examined: information about the study had been learned beforehand by some individuals in the control group, negating any potential placebo effects.”
While it does fit the “clinical” or scientific-sounding style that many academic sources attempt to emulate, this example paragraph leans too heavily into the passive construction. The passive sentences do not shift the reader’s focus to a specific, important point like the earlier medical example; instead, they’re just passive for the sake of being passive. A better example might be something like this:
“To learn more about this subject, researchers at Cornell University conducted a study. Unfortunately, many of the study’s claims could not be evaluated as planned because of a discovery that was made in the control group. Any potential placebo effects were negated because some individuals in the control group had learned information about the study beforehand.”
Some sentences that did not need to be passive, such as the very first, no longer are. This results in a simpler construction that is easier to follow but still conveys all the appropriate information. While this example does still use some passive voice constructions (like “potential placebo effects were negated”), it does so with a purpose: the most central part of each sentence comes first, helping readers follow along with the information.
2) Show Why the Facts Matter
It’s exciting to learn new things, but it’s even more exciting if you know how those things will impact your world. Academic writing sometimes focuses too heavily on presenting facts and forgets an explanation of why those facts are important.
When you are writing something to show why certain facts matter, you’ll want to strike a balance between overexplaining and not explaining enough. Your analysis is a connection between the points in your writing, and it should help readers see how your points build on each other and support your main ideas.
For example, if you quote from a source, don’t just assume that the quote stands on its own. If you properly introduce a quote by giving it context and then explain or analyze it afterward, the quote will not only make more sense to readers but will also be better integrated into the rest of your writing. Take this quote, for example:
“Doctor Johnson learned that only 10 percent of participants actually followed through on the email they received.”
On its own, this quote has some information, but without context, it is difficult to see why it is significant. When properly introduced and analyzed, the quote might look something more like this:
“Researchers assumed that when someone agreed to have an email sent to them beforehand, they would be more likely to reply to it; however, ‘Doctor Johnson learned that only 10 percent of participants actually followed through on the email they received.’ This was only half of the estimate that Doctor Johnson gave in her hypothesis, showing that prior consent to an email on the part of a participant is not nearly as important as Johnson and others assumed. However, companies may still want to take this into consideration, since normal marketing emails without prior consent have a much lower response rate.”
This example is more successful in explaining the ramifications of the quote, which will help readers internalize its importance and feel more connected to the topic. When you provide analysis for the facts that you present, you’ll show readers how to connect your writing with their real-life experiences and help them understand how all the pieces you’ve found fit together.
3) Avoid Complicated Words When You Can
Finally, there’s one more important point to keep in mind when you’re approaching academic writing: you don’t need to overcomplicate things.
Some fields have a specialized vocabulary for concepts that would be difficult to define in any other way. This type of jargon or technical language may be necessary when you write about your academic subject. However, it is critically important to avoid the temptation to force your writing to sound hyper-formal or extra complicated just because it is academic.
Only use complex words when you need them. More complex words may be a good choice if they are a better fit for a concept or because they are the technical jargon of the field for which you are writing. Some complex words express an idea concisely and effectively, and when you provide a definition for these words after their first use, they can greatly enhance your writing.
On the other hand, complex words can be detrimental to your academic writing when used incorrectly. If you’re turning to a thesaurus not to find a better word for something but instead to find a more obscure one, you’ve overcomplicated your writing.
Complex wording can impede understanding for readers, and it can also inadvertently draw attention away from what you are saying and instead focus readers on how you are saying it. The purpose of academic writing is mostly to impart information, not to impress readers with poetic turns of phrase or obscure word choices.
Here is an example of a sentence that has fallen into the trap of unnecessarily complex language:
“The professor’s recherché assortment of superannuated artifacts form the evidence for his own writings. His current pursuit is an attempt to authenticate the conceptualization of ‘echoic causality’: that there are lingering threads of influence which extend to the present from time immemorial, from the dawn of sapient humans to the most modern times.”
This sentence uses a few complex words that might be appropriate, but it also uses many that aren’t necessary (and some that are purely decorative in the final few clauses). This same concept can be explained in less complex, but still appropriate, wording:
“The professor has carefully selected an assortment of ancient artifacts which form the evidence for his own writings. His current pursuit is an attempt to prove the concept of ‘echoic causality,’ which is the idea that even the most distant periods of human history have an effect on the present.”
This second example explains the concept more simply, keeping the focus on the ideas that are being discussed. When you know your subject and use a writing voice that avoids drawing attention to itself, your academic writing will stand on its own and will not need to rely on complex terms as a crutch.
If you are writing in an academic setting, just remember that you don’t have to make yourself sound like a robot or a perfect scientist. Your purpose in writing is to communicate ideas clearly, and following these tips will help you to do so in a more engaging manner.
If you have further questions, comments, or suggestions concerning academic writing, share your thoughts in the comments or on social media.