4 ways to improve academic writing in English as a second language

4 ways to easily improve you academic writing styleSpeakers of English as a second language often know much more about the mechanics of the English language than its native speakers. This is perhaps because, as a learner of English as a second language, you are taught the rules of grammar, word formation and everything else. However, native English speakers are often not taught in this way – I know I wasn’t! In fact, I couldn’t have told you what the past perfect continuous was until I started to train as an English language teacher and upgraded my awareness of the rules of English grammar, despite having probably used this tense daily since childhood. When you begin your journey into higher education, where English is either the main language of study or the language of publication, you are suddenly made aware that you need to write with academic style in a formal register. You might then expect that there is a list of rules from which to learn how to do this, or that native speakers of English will somehow naturally know all about this. Well, there isn’t, and they don’t! Actually, no one speaks or writes academic English as a first language. Speakers of English as a second language and native speakers alike must learn this through a gradual process of study, observation and practice.

However, as a teacher of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), it is my job to play a part in making sure that international students have the best chance of success in English-speaking universities. Despite the fact that native English speakers are often thrown in at the deep end and expected to quickly acquire the academic skills necessary for higher education, including the use of academic style and register, it makes sense to me that my students are better prepared in order to maximise their chances of success. It also makes sense to me that, if people have learned to speak English by following and practising sets of rules (e.g. with English grammar), it might make it easier to have a set of ‘rules’ for writing in an academic style. To get you on the right track, here is a very short (and certainly not exhaustive) list of writing features to both use and avoid.

1. Avoid personal pronouns; use the passive voice

Academic writing in English should be objective rather than subjective. In other words, it should focus on the information being presented rather than yourself. One way to minimise subjectivity is to avoid the use of personal pronouns (I, you, me, we, etc.). Instead, the passive voice can be used (see what I did there?). The passive is formed in the following way: Passive = verb ‘to be’ + past participle (3rd form) For example: 100 participants were interviewed. (were = verb ‘to be’ and interviewed = past participle) Let’s look at an example of how to transform a sentence written in the ‘active’ form, i.e. with the use of personal pronouns, into a sentence written in the passive form: Active: We issued the questionnaire to 100 students. Passive: Questionnaires were issued to 100 students. Easy right? OK, let’s move on.

2. Avoid emotive writing; use objective language

Another way to avoid subjectivity is to eliminate any emotive language from our academic writing. This is language that shows the feelings or opinions of the writer (you). Again, we need to keep things objective, keeping the focus on the information being presented. Obviously, phrases such as ‘I believe’ and ‘in my opinion’ are out. We have already covered this in the first rule, but old habits die hard, especially for those of you who have spent the last few years writing IELTS essays to try and get into your English-speaking university. Apart from this though, emotive language often comes in the form of adverbs. One tip is to proofread your work, identifying any adverbs that have been clumsily (see what I did there?) placed in the text. When you find them, ask yourself whether they show the reader how you feel about something. Here’s an example of emotive adverbs in use and how to get rid of them. Emotive: Unfortunately, the death penalty still exists in certain countries Objective: The death penalty still exists in certain countries. Get rid of those adverbs! No one wants to read about your feelings.

3. Avoid absolutes; use academic caution

Another thing to be avoided in academic work is writing in absolutes, or stating things as 100% fact, when it is possible that they are not (see what I did there?). Often, it is better to use caution, or ‘hedging’ in our writing. I say often, as some things are 100% true; for example, there would be no point in saying that China ‘may be’ in Asia. However, when putting forward a point in an argument, for example, it is appropriate to use this kind of language. One simple way to ‘hedge’ is through the addition of certain modal verbs to statements. Now let’s look at an example of how a modal verb can be used to transform an absolute statement into something more cautious. Absolute: Education reduces crime. Cautious: Education can reduce crime. Is that it? Erm, yeah!

4. Avoid rhetorical questions; use statements

In certain academic cultures, the use of rhetorical questions in academic writing seems to be common practice. When I have asked students about this, they have usually told me that it is to hook the reader in or to make the reader think. “Why wouldn’t you ask the reader a question?” they  say (See what I did…). Fair enough, but academic writing is there to inform and not to entertain. We inform with statements and not with questions; therefore, if you find yourself asking the reader a rhetorical question, think about how you can rephrase it into a question with the goal if telling the reader something. The following example shows how it is possible to make more use of a sentence which you might consider writing in question form. Question: What were the main causes of the economic crisis? Statement: There were three main causes of the economic crisis, which were… Don’t ask the reader – tell them!

OK, so these were just a few examples to help you on your way. The more academic texts you read, the more of a feel you will get for academic style and formal register. The important thing is to experiment with style in your own writing and listen to feedback from tutors and peers. If you would like us to look at your academic work, and give feedback on academic style in addition to the usual proofreading and editing services, then check out some of the ways that we're able to help you to improve academic writing skills in your writing.

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