Language and style in academic writing 


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To be successful, an academic book or research paper first needs to be well written.

Language and style - the keys to good writing

Whether you are self publishing, using the services of a traditional publisher, or a hybrid between the two, the quality of your writing, the style you use, and your use of English grammar will play a major part in the way your book is received. There are two principal sides to any piece of writing, the content and the container. The content is what you are writing about, the container is how you write – and it should go without saying that if the container is unattractive, i.e. badly written, poorly checked, or in an inappropriate style, the content will be less visible....and maybe less convincing.
    Most writers want readers to read more than the first few pages or paragraphs of their book; to ensure that they do, and to encourage them to read on, a book must be writtent  in a language that is easy to follow, and appropriate. What does this mean for academic texts, and indeed for writing in general? To find out, read on.

The short guide below is not concerned with a book's content. It looks at the three critical linguistic parameters of any piece of writing, in order of importance: grammar, style, and vocabulary.


It ought to be self-evident to any writer that the correct use of grammar is vital. And correct use of grammar does not just meen using a built-in grammar checker or running a text through an online tool. Automated checkers are far from 100% reliable, particularly when it comes to evaluating sentences that express complex or technical ideas. They are one tool in a writer's arsenal, but not the only one.
    More important than automated grammar checkers is the writer's command of English grammar in the first place. From understanding such basic things as distinguishing betweeen there, their and they're, to correct use of punctuation and word order, not to mention tenses, it is advisable for the writer to not just know about, but also understand the essentials of English grammar.
    All writers should possess at least one, if not more, reference grammars - books that can be quickly and easily turned to in order to check out points of grammar and expression as the writing progresses.  

 2 - STYLE

To illustrate the question of style, just compare these three sentences.
  1. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the tragic story of two young people who fall in love.
  2. Shakespeare was the author of Romeo and Juliet, the play in which he recounts the story of  two young people who embark on an amorous adventure which leads to a tragic conclusion.
  3. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, which is about two young lovers who come to a sticky end.
All three sentences provide us with the same information, but they do so in different ways. The first example is brief, understandable, and to the point. The second is long-winded, using twice as many words as the first sentence, but providing little more real information. The third is catchy, but is in a style more appropriate to casual speaking than to writing.

    In academic or technical writing, content is paramount. Or to rephrase the last sentence, "content is the most important consideration" . This rephrasing is deliberate, as it again shows how choice of words can affect the clarity of a sentence. "Content is paramount" is a clear, neat expression... just as long as the reader understands the meaning of paramount. "Content is the most important consideration" is an expression that avoids using a word that some readers may not understand, but in doing so requires more words to do so.

    Looking back at the three examples above, some writers of academic books or papers may imagine that the second version is in a more academic style, because it uses more words, and more erudite words such as recount, embark or amorous. This is not true: the expressions "academic style" and "long-winded style" are not synonymous, and adding extra superfluous and more "erudite" words does not make a sentence easier to read, but harder.
    If there is one common requirement that often has a devastating effect on academic writing, it is the need for texts or papers to have "at least xxx words" or at least a certain number of pages; this is an open invitation to useless verbosity, as if the length of a paper or book was somehow an indication of its quality. The two are completely unrelated, and authors publishing their own work should always remember this.

    People have written whole books on style in academic writing. While these may be of interest to copy-editors and PhD students with demanding supervisors, they are superfluous to the needs of most writers who have a basic understanding of English grammar, and of what "style" is all about. For them, it is sufficient to remember, and then apply, a few simple principles.
And that's it.


It should be obvious from the paragraphs above on style, that questions of vocabulary and style are very much interlinked, when it comes to academic writing.
    Every academic discipline has is specific vocabulary, its "jargon". Now while the term jargon is often used in a pejorative sense, its primary meaning is not pejorative. Jargon is just the essential technical or domain-specific vocabulary which is used for writing or talking about a discipline, and its use may be required in any type of academic writing.
    However writers need to balance their use of jargon in function of their intended readers. While some academic texts are written solely for the benefit of specialists, others may target learners or students, and others may be aimed at a more general readership including those who will not be familiar with the specialist jargon. A writer's use of jargon must therefore take account of the intended readership, with the rule being to avoid using words that readers will not understand.
    This indeed is the number one rule of all academic writing. Avoid terms that readers may not understand, since they cannot contribute to the legibility of what you are writing.

To conclude

    Academic or technical writers who understand and apply the rules and principles set out on this page should be able to produce books and papers that are easy to understand by any reader with the technical knowledge needed.
    Academic writing should be clear and to the point. Its aim is to allow readers to understand the content, and to show that the writer is competent in their field. Its aim is not to demonstrate the writer's command of erudite vocabulary and ability to write long complex sentences.


Footnote. More on style.
 A Descriptive Grammar of English has a very understandable section on style, section 4.8, which has more examples showing how the same message can be expressed in different styles from the very formal to the very informal, along with explanations to demonstrate the features that are characteristic of different levels of style.

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