AcWriMo: Using Plain Language

Very often researchers inexperienced in writing academic articles imagine that the style of the article should be as formal as possible.  The purpose of this post is to point out that academic style is not necessarily the highest possible level of formality.  Many disciplines are increasingly emphasising writing clearly using moderately formal (we’ll talk about this later) writing style for academic articles.  We will be looking at what that means exactly in terms of the type of language you use in an academic article.

The first important consideration when writing an article is to be aware of the readership.  Will the readers be academics from a range of disciplines, academic specialists in your field or lay readers with an interest in your subject? (In this post, we will focus on academic readership, not lay readership.)    The answer to that question will determine the style of your writing in the article. Of course, for any readership, the first course of action before starting to write your article is to READ THE JOURNAL’S AUTHOR GUIDELINES TO SEE IF THERE’S ANY GUIDANCE ON STYLE. Another useful tip is to READ OTHER ARTICLES IN THE JOURNAL TO GET A SENSE OF THE STYLE PREFERRED BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD.

Academics from a range of disciplines  

If your article targets this readership, then here are a few tips to help you get the style right:

  • Avoid highly technical/specialist vocabulary – your reader won’t understand it!
  • Be concise, clear and precise – this is what is normally expected in academic circles.
  • Use examples that will be meaningful to the reader to illustrate any points you make – perhaps find examples from situations within the experience of academics from various disciplines.
  • Use moderately formal style. (We’ll talk about that in a moment.)

Academic specialists in your field

If your article is for a highly specialist field, then you will probably need to consider the following points:

  • Use technical language appropriate for your subject.
  • Use examples that are appropriate for the specialist context you’re writing in.
  • Use the writing conventions that you would normally use in your other academic research writing. For example, if you are an engineer, that will probably mean be very concise, include linking words and phrases (however, in addition, by comparison, etc.), but use them sparingly. If you are an English Literature specialist, it will probably mean use very sophisticated sentence structure that is carefully crafted to articulate a clear and persuasive argument.

Here’s an extremely formal writing style:

Substantial bodies of evidence drawn from numerous studies intimate that patients’ experience of improvements in the quality of care in hospitals continues to be perceived as a challenge globally.

Note:  This is NOT good academic style!

What makes this sentence so formal? 

First, there are far more nouns (green font) than verbs (blue font). Using lots of noun forms in sentences will tend to make the sentence more formal; in this one, there are far too many nouns, making the sentence unbalanced and difficult to read.

Second, some of the words chosen are not frequently used, e.g. intimate (a more commonly used synonym would be indicate or suggest.)

Third, the use of noun forms makes the sentence rather long and unnecessarily wordy.

Fourth, the sentence also contains the passive voice (be perceived / drawn).  The passive voice will tend to raise the level of formality of writing; when you combine that with the other three elements we’ve highlighted, the style becomes far too formal for academic writing.

Now, let’s make the sentence very informal:

There’re some studies that say that how hospitals look after patients better and how the patients feel about it is a bit challenging globally.

Note: Again, this is NOT good academic style!

  • The verbs used are quite simple. Two are phrasal verbs (look after and feel about). Using lots of phrasal verbs (a verb + a preposition or an adverb, e.g. after, in, over, under, to, from, etc.)  in your sentences, will lower the level of formality in your writing.
  • The word bit is rather vague, and so that vagueness lowers the level of formality.
  • There is also a contracted form (there’re rather than there are)

See how you can play with sentences to change the level of formality!

Here’s some general advice on the appropriate levels of formality for academic and lay readerships:

Academic readership (specialist or generic) – choose a moderately formal style:

  • Use a balanced number of nouns and verbs.
  • Use a mix of active and passive voice as appropriate (though you should read Author Guidelines carefully as some journals ask that you do NOT use the passive voice).
  • Use precise terminology but NOT the most obscure words. (Remember that if you are writing for specialists in your field, you should use technical terminology.)