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Distinguishing features of academic writing #3: Formality

American poet, W.S. Merwin once said, “The idea of writing, to me, was, from the beginning, writing something which was a little different from the ordinary exchange of speech. It was something that had a certain formality, something in which the words were of interest in themselves.” Perhaps this same sentiment is the foundational principle from which academic writing has gotten its distinguishing feature of formality – to provide something in which the words are of interest in themselves.
In our third discussion of the distinguishing features of academic writing, we discussed what makes academic writing formal, the purpose of such formality, effect of formality on tone and word choice, whether there are levels of formality acceptable in academic writing, and ways to improve the formality of academic writing efforts.

Academic writing formality – reason and purpose

We started the conversation with the question, “What makes academic writing formal?” Based on information contained in multiple resources, the key element leading to formality in academic writing is the audience. When writing in a work or education setting where the audience includes a boss or a teacher, “a more formal style is appropriate”, according to’s lesson on Formal Writing.

In their resource on formal writing, the University of Wollongong also notes the significance of audience when deciding on the formality of the writing style. “It’s not what you say, but how you say it and who you say it to!”, they claim, identifying that opinion and attitude expressed in academic writing should be both formal and objective.

Further, according to the EAP Foundation resource on academic style, academic writing is also different from spoken academic English. Specifically, they stated, “Academic English, like any writing, has its own conventions or ‘style’. It is a formal, written style, which means that it has aspects which make it different from ‘spoken’ academic English”.

Whether the reason academic writing is formal due to audience or format, we asked participants to consider the purpose of academic writing with our second question. In the University of Florida’s Guidelines for Effective Professional and Academic Writing, they note that “[m]aintaining a professional and serious tone in professional writing is important” because “[t]he purpose of professional writing is to convey information in a clear, succinct, fluid way.”

Professional Essay Writers offers five reasons formality in academic writing is necessary in their blog article titled “What is the importance of formality in academic writing?”, as follows:

  1. Tone as a means of establishing certitude
  2. Makes your writing legible
  3. Adds an element of intelligibility
  4. Empowers you to believe in your own writing skills
  5. Enhances your writing skills

The effect of formality on tone and word choice

Related to formality of academic writing, we then asked how tone and word choice are affected by a more formal writing style. In recognizing the earlier claim that a more formal style is appropriate for the audience of academic writing, Lumen Learning notes that “[t]he writer’s tone, which is conveyed through word choice and sentence structure, impacts the reader’s response.” Further, they remind us that “[f]ormal writing may require using specialized terms even though some people in your audience may not understand them.”

But you may wonder what tone is and why it matters. A Temple University resource titled “Tone and Formality in Academic Writing” states, “Tone, a term for your manner of expression in speech or writing, is another way of saying ‘attitude,’ as in the attitude your readers will perceive when they peruse your text. Many times, writers inadvertently choose an inappropriate tone for their writing, which can cause misunderstandings and frustration.” Although easier to interpret tone in spoken language through voice, word choice and structure convey tone in a written form.

You may, therefore, ask the title question of IUP’s online resource, “Can I write like I speak?” The reality of the answer provided is that audience still matters and they recommend reading aloud to hear the tone and message you are conveying in written form – “It is always important to read over your work aloud after completing it to smooth it out and check for mistakes. Always keep your message clear to your reader, remember your audience, and maintain one tone throughout your paper.”

The words chosen to express the message both influence the tone and the perception of the reader. In a more formal writing style, the use of single word verbs in place of phrasal verbs is more common, as discussed in Dushyanthi Mendis’ paper titled “Formality in academic writing: The use/non-use of phrasal verbs in two varieties of English”.

Further, the Academic English online resource on formality states, “Although there is no set rules on formality at university, this information on academic style is generally accepted throughout most universities.” and provides the following list of rules:

  • All contracted forms need to be in full forms
  • Try to avoid the following:
    • Informal adjectives
    • Idioms
    • Personal pronouns
    • Colloquial expressions
    • Phrasal and informal verbs
  • Incorporate the following:
    • Passive constructions
    • Present participles or gerunds to create more complex forms
    • Noun phrases
    • High frequency academic words taken from academic literature
    • Fixed academic phrases

Choosing a formal academic writing style conveys a tone consistent with the expectations of academic readers and influences the choice of words and language elements to maintain that tone in the manuscript.

An acceptable level of formality in academic writing

Recently John Bond wrote an article for the TAA blog in which he claimed, “Writing, even scholarly writing, is becoming less formal and driven less by grammar rules.” Our discussion addressed this claim asking whether there are different levels of formality in academic writing, and whether academic writing is, indeed, becoming less formal.

A Writer’s Domain blog article identifies four levels of formality in writing that can be considered as measurements for where academic writing exists on the spectrum: the familiar, the casual, the semi-formal, and the formal.

According to Karlstad University, “Academic writing requires a degree of formality which differs from the more conversational styles many writers are used to. Being able to write with sufficient formality is necessary for your writing to be successful.” Depending on your definition of sufficient, perhaps a semi-formal or casual level of formality may be acceptable in modern academic writing.

Ken Hyland and Fang (Kevin) Jiang directly tackled the question “Is academic writing becoming more informal?” in their research. Their conclusion? “[I]t depends. While academic writing is becoming more informal, this is by small margins and depends on the discipline and features being considered.” They do note, however, that “[o]bservers have noticed a gradual shift away from standard detached and impersonal styles of writing to ones that allow more personal comment, narration and stylistic variation”.

In another study conducted by Melissa Keppens, “the formality level in four different genres of spoken and written discourse: academic papers, conference papers, popular science articles and popular science speeches” was researched. She concluded that while all four had statistically high levels of formality, academic papers ranked highest of the four genres and written category scores also were found to be higher than that of spoken categories.

Improving the formality of your academic writing

With an acceptance that, although perhaps diminishing, formality remains a distinguishing factor of academic writing, we concluded our discussion on the topic with the question, “How can you improve the formality of your academic writing?”

According to the “Essay writing guide: maintaining formality” from EssayPartner, “Every essay can be written following the same formula, from the introductory paragraph to body paragraphs to the concluding paragraph. Even the paragraphs have a set formula. While the formulas are rather easy to remember and use, many people have difficulty with the challenge of maintaining formality as they write.” Part of this formula is the use of formal verbs, noted earlier. A list of formal verbs is provided in a resource from Universidad del Rosario.

Finally, Elsevier Author Services shares these five tips for formalizing your writing:

  1. Avoid contractions
  2. Don’t use clichés
  3. Stay away from slang
  4. Use the passive voice
  5. Ask someone to proofread

In earlier posts we looked at the first two of the five distinguishing features of academic writing, precision and complexity. Throughout the rest of the month, we continued our discussion looking at the final two features – objectivity, and accuracy – in turn. Look for future posts from those discussions and join us on Twitter every other Friday for new TweetChat discussion topics under the hashtag #AcWriChat.