Writing style in formal essays

Formal writing is an art form. In formal writing, ideas are structured, crafted and edited to precisely achieve a defined goal using the clearest of words.

Have your reader clearly in mind before you begin. Try to anticipate their reactions, particularly their disbelief or misunderstanding,  if you were to speak your ideas to them.

Write clearly so that the reader is able to understand your argument. Choose words carefully; use grammar accurately; and spel wel. Use a dictionary to check problem words and to clarify your word choice. Computer spellcheckers are never a substitute for human proof- reading.

Make your sentences express the single unambiguous meaning that you intend to convey to the reader. Make sentences concise.

Organise sentences into paragraphs. This isn’t a random matter: a paragraph ends when the base idea is exhausted. If you have to err one way or another, err on the side of short paragraphs by splitting up big ideas into several topics or aspects in their own paragraphs.

Jargon is language that excludes the reader, even if the reader claims to be master of the code.  It inhibits rather than facilitates understanding. When specialist terminology is called for, be precisely clear and appropriate. Technical journals abound in bad examples of how to obfuscate and alienate the noncognoscentii by concatenated exemplification of semantic egregiousness leading, if assembled in chronically frivolous consecution, to merely pervasive ignorance. Don’t use jargon.

Don’t use slang or colloquialisms. If you choose to use acronyms, unravel their mysteries at first use. Abbreviations like “govt” and “dept” should also be avoided. Some assessors hate contractions like “can’t”, “won’t”, “didn’t”, and “isn’t”. There is probably a gorgonish teacher* in their past with a ruler poised to strike. Be warned.

Do not refer to yourself. We know who is writing the essay (and possibly even where you live), so expressions such as “I feel”, “in my opinion”, “this writer believes” are redundant. (Excuse me, I’ll say that again: the writer of the essay is known, so…)

If your grasp of punctuation is tenuous, write short sentences in full words which require only a beginning and an end. The disdain with which assessors greet groups of little lost commas  is only exceeded by that reserved for instances of the groc’ers apostrophe. Learn what an apostrophe does because it’s basic to the language.

Oh, I could go on, but you get the idea. Academic institutions almost always have their own style guide which they will insist – with varying degrees of eptitude – that you use. If the guide is so prescriptive as to block meaning, break out of the mould and go down fighting. If it merely insists on writing good English, count yourself lucky and do it.

I always think that, with some important exceptions, fixed rules are a good place to start. Just as guidelines, you understand.  Spend energy on working out what’s right rather than remembering rules. Most language rules ignore their own history, and that’s a problem. To understand is the important goal. Understanding gives you the keys to the language. When you turn them in the lock, you’ll discover you’re in a bright red sports car that growls.


*I ignored my gorgon. Surprised?

Editing, language and writing