Academic Writing Style

When writing for an academic audience, use an appropriately professional, objective tone. That does not, however, mean that you must eliminate your personal creative sensibility from the paper. Do not, however, let the style of presentation overshadow the message.

Academic writing tends to be more formal than personal writing. Contractions, colloquialisms, slang, and sloppy grammatical constructions distract the reader from your argument. Show enough respect for your reader to communicate clearly.

Sentence Construction

While your language should be formal, it does not need to be stuffy. As much as possible, write with active verbs rather than linking verbs, such as am, is, are, was, and were. These verbs eliminate action from the sentence, which can lull the reader into a drooling stupor. By extension, never begin a sentence with the phrase “it is.” By doing so, you remove the subject and verb, leaving an extended, tedious predicate.

Avoid using passive verb constructions in most academic disciplines. While some writing in the sciences requires passive voice, it is rarely necessary in the other disciplines. A passive construction joins a “to be” verb with a past participle, such as “the murders were committed by Malvo” or “Malvo is portrayed in the media as….” These constructions obscure the agent of the action, leaving the reader to guess who did what in the sentence. Using active verbs usually solves the problem, such as “Malvo committed the murders” or “the media portrays Malvo as….”

Write concisely. Phrases that repeat information, unnecessary clichés, and stock phrases mask meaning and distract the reader. Consider the following statement: “on the grounds that Lee Boyd Malvo existed in a state of adolescence at the time in which the crimes were committed, very few members of the criminal prosecution community would argue that he possessed the agency to meet the requisite state of culpability.” Compare that to the following statement: “since Lee Boyd Malvo was a teenager when the crimes were committed, most attorneys do not think could be found guilty.” State the message clearly in as few words as possible.

Word Choice

Although your language should be formal and your tone should be professional, you should not feel compelled to use the most complex sentence structures and most esoteric vocabulary possible. In all cases, write as clearly and directly as possible. A recent study from Stanford, in fact, indicates that readers usually develop a more positive impression of easily understandable language. Compare the following statements. First, “as you know, psychology is a field that is constantly engaged in a state of transmogrification, just like any other social or physical science, and hypotheses similarly require the same conclusive evidence to be accepted and built upon.” Second, “since psychological research constantly changes, new ideas require an extended testing period before gaining acceptance.” These sentences convey the same message, but one communicates much more effectively than the other.

Be careful about using second person in academic writing. Addressing the reader as “you” assumes an inappropriate level of familiarity. While second person make be proper when addressing a specific person or group of people—a class of philosophy students, for example—third person is more effective for an academic essay. You may, however, use first person, especially when stating an opinion. Don’t be afraid to own your ideas.

The traditional use of he as the third person singular pronoun offends some people, but the cumbersome expression he/she does not present a simpler solution. Whenever grammatically possible, use the plural third person pronoun they, and, when the singular pronoun is necessary, choose one gender or the other and use it consistently.


Academic papers should be presented in a consistent format. Always use twelve point times new roman font, always use one inch margins, and always double space the entire paper, including the works cited page.
Essays should have identifying information placed in the upper left-hand corner of the first page, and page number should be placed in the upper right-hand corner of every page after the first page. Unless requested by the instructor, do not use identifying headers on each page. The essay should have a short, descriptive title centered below the identifying information and above the first line of text. The title should not be bolded, placed in quotation marks, or emphasized in any other way. See the example below:

Stanley Kowalski
FYS 101: Composing the Self
Dr. Blanche DuBois
November 21, 2010

Parent in a Box: The Media’s Influence on Adolescent Identity Development

            Over the course of a year, the average American adolescent will watch three hundred hours of television, will listen to five hundred hours of music, and will spend …

The Paramedic Method
Richard Lanham, a professor of English at UCLA, invented the paramedic method for revising prose to eliminate wordiness and clarify the action in a sentence. Use it to improve your writing style.

1. Circle the Prepositions. Too many prepositions can drain the action from a sentence. Get rid of the prepositions, and find a strong active verb to make the sentence direct:
Original: In this passage is an example of the use of the rule of justice in argumentation.
Revised: This passage exemplifies argumentation using the rule of justice.

2. Circle the “is” forms. Using “is” in a sentence gets it off to a slow start, and makes the sentence weak. Replace as many “to be” verbs with action verbs as you can, and change all passive voice (“is defended by”) to an active voice (“defends”).
Original: The point I wish to make is that fish sleep with their eyes open.
Revised: Fish sleep with their eyes open.

3. Ask “Where's the action?” or “Who's kicking whom?”
If you get stuck in a passive sentence, ask the question “Who does what to whom?” Order the syntax correctly to energize the sentence’s meaning.
Original: Burning books is considered censorship by some people.
Revised: Some people consider burning books censorship.

4. Phrase the “kicking” action in a simple active verb.

Original: The theory of relativity isn't demonstrated by this experiment.
Revised: This experiment does not demonstrate the theory of relativity.

5. Start fast--no slow windups.
Stick to the action and avoid opening sentences with phrases such as
My opinion is that...
It is …
There are…
The point I wish to make is that ...
The fact of the matter is that...