In academic writing, finding the balance between sounding like you really know your stuff and expressing your ideas simply and clearly is difficult.
When English is not your first language, you may feel that writing academic texts in English places you at a disadvantage and that you are unable to express yourself so well in a language that is not your mother tongue. For fear of sounding stupid, you may overcompensate by using excessively complicated grammatical structures and vocabulary.
On the other hand, in trying to engage with your audience, you may do the opposite and oversimplify, not realizing that your tone is too casual or informal for an academic paper. Spoken expressions, for example, have no place in academic texts. After all, you’re relating scientific findings, not telling a story.
So, how can you find this balance?
To learn how to balance the tone of an academic text, that is, to write objectively and formally enough without sounding too stiff, while at the same time keeping your writing simple enough to ensure that the reader understands your arguments, you must first ensure that you know what academic writing is.
What IS academic writing?
Academic writing is scholarly writing. It’s a writing genre used in journal articles, dissertations, doctoral theses, and scientific papers. Its purpose is to communicate findings you have made as clearly and comprehensibly as possible. It has its own conventions and is more formal than everyday writing. It must be clear, concise, specific, objective, concrete, and focused. It must be grammatically accurate. It is steered by your tone, your expressions, your sentence structures, your choice of words, and your level of language. So, I think it’s fair to say academic writing is somewhat challenging.
Does grandiosity make you sound knowledgeable?
An academic writer wants to sound professional and wants to impress their readers and colleagues. They want to show that they are experts in their field and that they possess an enormous amount of knowledge. In this endeavour, the writer may over-exaggerate and end up sounding too official and distant. In order to sound clever, they may use words that their readers don’t necessarily know: these words may be old-fashioned, or at worst, obsolete. Their sentences may become too long and complicated, increasing the possibility of errors, and risking their message getting lost in a jungle of excessively formal language. This manner of writing can make reading the text a laborious, boring task, and it can alienate the reader. The reader may also get the impression that the writer is trying to conceal a lack of knowledge about a certain issue, especially if they use complex words incorrectly: words that they may think sound good but do not necessarily understand properly.
Tips to avoid over-exaggerated formality
- If you’re not sure of the meaning of a word, ask yourself, will your readers understand it either? After all, the mother tongue of most readers of international academic journals is not likely to be English.
- If you have to look up a difficult word, ask yourself, are you sure you know how use it correctly?
- If you already know a simpler equivalent term, use it. Take George Orwell’s advice: ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do’.
- Don’t try to be something you’re not. It always shines through. Using ‘big words’ does not make you sound more clever or important.
- Avoid long, complex sentences. They do not ensure good-quality academic writing. Take Thomas Jefferson’s advice: ‘The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do’.
- Reduce your use of the passive voice. It’s no longer the case that you can’t use ‘we’ or ‘I’ in academic papers.
- Don’t be influenced by old-fashioned, long-winded papers. Times have changed.
Being too nonchalant to connect with your readers
So, it’s good not to be overly formal or to try too hard to sound sophisticated. But you must also take care not to go too far in the opposite direction.
In trying to engage or help readers understand their message more easily, a writer may use language that is inappropriately informal or too simplistic for academic writing. Examples of this are colloquial or idiomatic expressions, phrasal verbs, contractions, or emotive or subjective language.
Academic conventions require a certain standard of English. Not adhering to these conventions and being too casual can make you sound inexperienced, less credible, or even unprofessional.
Tips to avoid over-simplifying
- Avoid phrasal verbs such as ‘find out’ or ‘bring about’ and use one-word verbs such as ‘determine’ or ‘cause’ instead. Phrasal verbs are mostly used in spoken language and their meaning may confuse a reader whose first language is not English. Some phrasal verbs are acceptable (e.g., to carry out an analysis), but a good rule of thumb is: if in doubt, use a clear, simple verb.
- Don’t use slang.
- Make sure your sentences still have a good, basic structure, and that they are grammatically accurate.
- Use other ways to help your reader: for example, illustrations, tables, figures, or lists.
- Avoid idioms and cliches.
- Bear in mind that many things that may be acceptable in speech are not acceptable in writing.
- Avoid emotive or evaluative language (felt vs considered; Surprisingly).
- Don’t use contractions (It is vs it’s).
Here’s a list of examples of overly informal phrases that I often come across in my language editing work, and more formal alternatives:
- We left them out of our study / We excluded them from our study
- They didn’t use protective clothing anymore / They no longer used protective clothing
- More chances / Greater opportunities
- It’s no wonder / Inevitably
- As you get older/ With the onset of age
- A big difference / A great difference
- Plenty of / A great deal of
- Like height and weight / Such as height and weight
- How much it changes / The extent to which it changed
- We tested this too / We also tested this
Finding the balance
The purpose of an academic paper is to disseminate your findings, so that they can be applied in the real world and contribute to finding solutions to specific problems. Thus, the reader must understand the message.
But complex ideas are not always easy to express in simple language. Requirements vary according to disciplines, and jargon is an inevitable part of the language in some fields.
However, at the end of the day, your text should be as clear and comprehensible as possible, but at the same time, convincing and credible.
The key is avoiding language that overcomplicates your message, hinders its effective communication, or makes you sound pompous or incredible. It’s also important to avoid over-simplified language that makes you sound unconvincing or too flippant. Admittedly, the line between these two is a fine one.
The balance between the level of formality required by academic conventions and the level of clarity required to ensure your readers absorb your message is something that may take you a while to find, but with some thought and practice, it is also completely achievable.
For a useful list of good phrasal verbs for academic writing, see (Melodie Garnier): https://blog.writefull.com/phrasal-verbs-in-academic-writing/.
For a list of suitably formal verbs for academic writing, see: https://grammarsimple.com/verb/120-academic-writing-verbs/
Altexta offers language editing services and translations from Finnish into English. I am a native English-speaker, brought up in Wales by a Finnish mother and Irish father. Thanks to my mother’s determination, I’m fluent in Finnish. I have now lived in Finland for twenty-seven years and have been editing and translating for seventeen. My areas of specialization are work life, occupational health and occupational safety.
I love my job!
In my blog, I hope to give multilingual writers of English tips for writing good English, based on the problem areas I most often come across in my language editing work.
Altexta tarjoaa kielentarkistus- ja käännöspalveluita. Olen syntyperäinen britti, kasvanut Walesissa, mutta viettänyt lapsuuteni kesät Suomessa, mummolassa. Äitini on suomalainen, isäni irlantilainen. Kiitos äitini sinnikkyyden, olen kaksikielinen. Olen asunut Suomessa 27 vuotta, ja työskennellyt kielentarkistajana ja kääntäjänä 17 vuotta. Erikoisalani ovat työelämään liittyvät tekijät, työterveys ja työturvallisuus.
Blogissani annan suomalaisille neuvoja hyvän englanninkielisen tekstin kirjoittamiseen, käyttäen esimerkkeinä ongelmakohtia, joita eniten kohtaan kielenhuoltotyössäni.