As an academic writer, you want your work to be taken seriously. This is partly achieved by presenting an authorial persona who is appropriately formal and professional. This will be quite different from the language you are used to using in other contexts in your life, such as the spoken language you use at home, or the written language of emails. However, it should still sound natural; it is still your voice, and the persona you create should not become an exaggerated parody of academic language. The formal tone you are aiming for is neutral - neither too colloquial nor too affected. In this context, it largely means avoiding abbreviations and idiomatic language rather than an artifically formal style.
There are several potential pitfalls when cultivating a suitably formal academic style:
- Some people are more familiar with formal language than others, and it might feel a little unfamiliar and "not really you" at first, just as many people find it a little strange to change from the student's casual clothes to a suit for their first professional job. However, you can learn to develop this professional academic 'voice' in your writing as another facet of your identity, and become more comfortable with it.
- The opposite extreme should also be avoided - it is easy to misjudge the register and write in an overly formal 'hyper-correct' or even clichéd 'professorial' manner which may obscure your meaning, become wordy or even be unintentionally humourous or pretentious.
- The tone of your writing may become uneven, if you are familiar with the conventions of academic style but not yet 'fluent' in them. This may lead to slips, such as the occasional colloquialism or overly pompous word or phrasing.
You can check for this when you proofread and edit your work before handing it in (see the resource on How do I Manage the Process of Writing an Essay for more information). If achieving this fine balance seems daunting, remember that although appropriate formality is important, the priority in academic writing is always clarity. Academic writing is functional, and formality is secondary to clarity of meaning. For this reason, it is better when in doubt to choose a tone which is closest to your own natural one rather than aiming to produce an 'academic-sounding' one.
Below is a sample of academic writing, with sections of the text underlined to show where it demonstrates this quality:
Shakespeare's sonnets demonstrate that he exploited the potential of literary forms as a means of argument. Argument is not a purely cognitive activity in which one's case is always made cogently and explicitly; both in life and literature it is reliant upon suggestion and an appeal to the emotions, as is evident in Sonnet 42. On a superficial level, the argument appears to be that of the poet within himself; he seems to have successfully convinced himself through witty conceit that his ‘grief' is in fact a ‘joy'. However, the true argument is directed at the reader; Shakespeare suggests that the offered consolation is entirely insubstantial. The apparent retreat to internality (‘thee' becomes ‘my friend' in the thirteenth line, indicating that the poem is no longer addressed to the friend) suggests a lack of confidence which prevents the poet from making public the conceit-based argument, while the flat contradiction of the preceding lines in ‘she loves but me alone' means that this effect does not rely on any exophoric reference on the reader's part; the inconsistency is a fundamental aspect of the poem's design. Although the sonnet is an entirely different medium from the play, this poem demonstrates two aspects of Shakespearian argument which, it will here be contended, are evident in the problem plays: firstly, that Shakespeare's argumentative method is to appeal to the emotions rather than to reason, and secondly that he argues through negation (as, for example, he negates the abandoned lover's consolation in Sonnet 42). The term ‘problem plays' will here be taken as referring to The Merchant of Venice, All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. Although other plays, notably Troilus and Cressida, have also been placed in this category by critics, they have much less in common with these three than they do with each other.
- The text uses full forms instead of contractions: it is / it's; it is not / it isn't; does not / doesn't, it will / it'll; they have / they've.
- Phrases are slightly expanded where a shorter form might also be grammatically possible: 'Is reliant upon' / 'relies on', 'appears to be that of the poet' / 'appears to be the poet's'; 'will be taken as refering to' / 'refers to'. This strategy should be used with care and not be taken to extremes, or you run the risk of verbosity or pomposity. In this example, the tone is slightly over-formal, and the simpler alternative might have been more natural and concise.
- The lexicon is slightly above the everyday without sounding unnatural or pompous.
- Some technical terms are used where they are helpful: 'internality', 'exophoric', but there is no unnecessary 'jargon'. See the section on Precise writing for more information.
- The third person is used: 'one's case'. This does not sound unnatural if used sparingly and if it helps to avoid more complex syntax, but excessive or unnecessary use should be avoided, as it can easily sound pompous.
- Slightly more formal alternatives have been chosen where possible: 'demonstrate' instead of 'show', 'to contend' instead of 'to argue', 'placed' instead of 'put'. Again, be careful not to take this to extremes, especially where a more neutral alternative is available. 'To contend' is perhaps slightly overformal, unless a synonym is essential to avoid repetition. 'To show' and 'to demonstrate' are both appropriate, whereas if the writer had used 'to elucidate' or 'to evince', this would have been excessive, distracting and therefore less effective. When writing in an unnaturally overformal register, there is also the danger of malapropism, or using a word in an incorrect sense.
- There are no colloquial phrases or idioms.