Written style in essays and term papers

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1. For most essays your written style should be plain, clear, and straightforward. You should avoid sloppiness and a casual manner. Don’t try to be ‘impressive’, flowery, or emotive. Remember that an essay is an academic exercise, not a piece of ‘creative writing’.

2. Keep in mind that speech and writing are two different forms of communication. Avoid the use of a chatty or conversational tone when writing essays.

3. Avoid the use of contractions such as ‘isn’t’, ‘can’t’, ‘don’t’ which occur in speech but should not be used in formal writing. These terms should be written out in full as ‘is not’, ‘can not’, and ‘do not’.

4. Avoid the use of common abbreviations such as ‘etc.’, ‘e.g.’, ‘&’, ‘i.e.’. If you need to use these expressions, write out the terms in full, as ‘for example’, ‘and’, ‘that is’. [There is a good argument for never using ‘et cetera’: it can easily suggest that you are being lazy.]

5. Avoid using unnecessary jargon (technical terms), clich&eacute (‘leave no stone unturned’), vogue words (‘situation’ or ‘ongoing’), and slang (‘far-out’).

6. Avoid using metaphors you are used to seeing in print or figures of speech which are currently popular. For instance: ‘the bottom line’, ‘a ballpark figure’. (This is one of George Orwell’s rules for avoiding a tired style.)

7. Remember that the common word order (the syntax) of a simple sentence written in English is as follows. If in doubt, adopt this pattern.


The cat eats the goldfish
We are the best team

8. Avoid starting sentences with words such as ‘Again’, ‘Although’, ‘But’, ‘And’, ‘Also’, and ‘With’. These words are conjunctions, which belong in the ‘middle’ of a sentence, not at its beginning.

9. Good style is usually connected with the need for precise punctuation and clearly expressed ideas. The following example shows a sloppily written argument transformed by just the removal of two commas and the addition of a full stop. This creates two shorter but clear sentences instead of one which is very confused.

Smoking became as socially acceptable as drinking, in all classes of society, mostly associated with men until the second world war when women began to smoke openly, in public shocking older members of their sex.

Smoking became as socially acceptable as drinking in all classes of society. It was mainly associated with men until the Second World War when women began to smoke openly in public, shocking older members of their sex.

10. Try to avoid the awkward ‘he or she’, the ugly ‘he/she’, and the crass ‘s/he’. These formulations are sometimes used to solve the problems of gender references.

Candidates should note that any employer is obliged to follow Equal Opportunities policies when he/she is interviewing applicants.

11. The simple solution to this problem is to use the plural form:

Candidates should note that all employers are obliged to follow Equal Opportunities policies when they are interviewing applicants.

12. An essay which is written in a sparkling and attractive style will obviously be more interesting to read than one which plods along in a dull manner. However, you should be very cautious about creative or decorative flourishes in academic writing. Jokes, bold metaphors, and even figures of speech can easily seem mannered. If in doubt, stick to clear, plain language.

© Roy Johnson 2003

Writing skills links

Written style Tutorials, guides, and books, on writing skills

Red button Writing skills – a bibliography

Red button Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook

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