Editing for Formality: Find Your Academic Voice
Formal academic writing is not "better" than other styles of writing; it's just different. Part of being a graduate student is learning to speak--and, more importantly, to write--in what is probably a more formal style than the one you're used to using on the job. That means writing with
- longer paragraphs (reasons need to be explained thoroughly, claims need to be proved)
- longer sentences (complex rather than simple or compound sentence structures)
- different kinds of words (more formal vocabulary, no jargon or slang, less emotional language)
Why? Because in academic writing
- the issues under discussion are often more formal and complex than factual reports and descriptions at work;
- the audience is less clearly defined (your dissertation, written first for your teachers, may later be read by other scholars, other practitioners, general readers with an interest in your topic); and
- it's just the way people have agreed to do it. You don't want to have people wondering about your language choice rather than thinking about your good ideas, do you?
Here's the most important thing you need to know about academic writing:
Good academic writing is clear, concise and intelligible. It's written to express, not to impress.
Don't use big words for the sake of using big words; use them only when they are the best way to express big ideas.
The following table shows how the same idea might sound as you move up the scale of formality, depending on the audience and the purpose.
(Talking at the water cooler to your friends)
(Writing an informal memo or email to a colleague)
(Describing a poor agency decision in an academic paper)
(You'd never talk like this, so please never write like this either!)
|Ain't no way they're gonna be able to ax two programs and not have to get rid of staff. That decision really sucks.||There's no way the powers to be can shut down two programs without handing out lots of pink slips. That decision sure leaves lots to be desired.||It is impossible for administration to close two programs without any reduction in staff. Such a decision is indefensible.||The termination of two programmatic branches with no concomitant reduction in staffing patterns would appear to be both unfeasible and impracticable. That decision is considered totally incomprehensible by this writer.|
Avoid the following kinds of language in your academic writing:
- slang: He freaked out when I showed him the judge's order.
- jargon: After three clean urines, the residents are permitted unescorted day trips.
- sexist or racist terms: A good counselor always listens to his clients.
- profanity: [oh, come on: you don't really need an example of this, do you?]
- contractions: Responses to the questionnaire didn't vary much by gender or ethnicity
- bureaucratese: The remuneration at my last place of employment was not good.
- legalese: The suggestions considered included but were not limited to a hiring freeze and a fund-raising initiative.
The best way to build a more extensive academic vocabulary and a more complex writing style, and to find your personal academic voice is to read as much good academic writing as you can.
When you come across new words, look them up if you can't figure the meaning out from context, and then make sure you use them afterwards, so that they become part of your arsenal. Use your word processor's thesaurus and dictionary functions too--right click on the word you want to find a substitute for and consider the list of alternatives that turns up to see if any options there fit your meaning and the context better than the one that came to mind initially.
But always remember: formal writing doesn't use bigger words and more complex styles than the content of the writing demands. "Formal" is not the same as "pretentious."