Formalizing your writing: 5 top tips

When you get into the flow of writing it can be easy to slip into a comfortable style, moving you away from your target audience. You might start to drop a few casual contractions or colloquialisms into your text; before you know it the discussion section of your paper starts to read like a diary entry.

So how can you stay focused and keep a consistent level of formality in your writing throughout the paper? Here are five top tips.

1. Avoid contractions. Isn’t it easy to use contractions? Don’t they make writing sound more natural? Contractions are created from two or more words squeezed together with an apostrophe replacing missing letters: we’re, haven’t, didn’t, it’s. We use them all the time when we speak and in informal writing, but they are not well suited to academic writing so it’s best to avoid them in your manuscript.

2. Don’t use clichés. When all is said and done, your paper is the icing on your research cake – the end of the road for your experiment. So don’t ruin it by stuffing clichés into your manuscript. Clichés and idioms do not tend to travel well, and something that has a clear meaning to you might mean something else – or nothing at all – to the person reading your paper.

3. Stay away from slang. There’s a time and a place for slang, and it’s in the bar over a drink to celebrate the publication of your paper – not in the paper itself. So “a stumbling block” might become “a point of contention,” or if something “got out of hand” you might instead say it “was no longer in control.” It may seem like using slang or informal language is helping to make your writing more accessible and understandable, but in fact it could be reducing clarity. Instead, try using shorter sentences.

4. Use the passive voice. As we’ve seen in a previous blog post, the passive voice is used throughout academic writing. Clarity is key in your paper, and passive writing prizes clarity over engagement; putting the object at center stage makes your writing less active but more formal. So instead of saying “we tested the engine every 30 minutes,” you would say “the engine was tested every 30 minutes.”

5. Ask someone to proofread. Whatever you write, having a second, fresh pair of eyes on your work will improve it. An editor or proofreader, like the professional language editors available via Elsevier’s WebShop, will help you make sure your writing style is clear, formal and, most importantly, consistent. If you slip into colloquialisms, contractions and active sentences, they’ll pull you back to the formal path.