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Academic Writing

Published onJan 01, 2021
Academic Writing

Style Guidelines

The below are recommended style guidelines for writing academic papers.

Use Active Voice

Always use active voice rather than passive voice.  Active voice is more concise and/or precise than passive voice.

Passive:  The French were finally defeated and expelled from Vietnam by the Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu. 

Active:  The Viet Minh forces finally defeated and expelled the French from Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. 

Passive:  On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Agreement was signed by the belligerents.

Active:  The belligerents signed the Paris Peace Agreement on January 27, 1973.

Do Not Use Contractions

Do not use contractions in formal papers. Spell out the words the contraction is combining.

Wrong:  Women couldn't vote before 1920.

Right:  Women could not vote before 1920.

Wrong:  The Axis didn't defeat the Allies in World War Two.

Right:  The Axis did not defeat the Allies in World War Two (or, The Axis lost... or, The Allies defeated the Axis...)

Do No

Do Not Use Personal Pronouns

Do not use the personal pronouns I, me, my, we, or our in formal history papers.  They are unnecessary.  

Wrong:  We declared independence from Britain in 1776. (In this example, you were not alive in 1776)       

Right:  The American colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776.

Wrong:  I think the book's thesis is... (In this example, you're already stating what you think the book's thesis is by   simply stating the thesis)

Right:  The book's thesis is... 

Be Clear- Pronouns

If you begin a sentence with they, state who "they" are.  If you begin a sentence with this or that, always state what "this" or "that" is referring to. 

 Wrong:  They resisted their enslavement.

 Right:  African slaves resisted their enslavement.

 Wrong:  This is problematic because...

Right:  This argument is problematic because...

Be Clear- Lists

Most historians prefer to use the Oxford Comma, which is the comma before the word and, oror but in a sequence of 3 or more things.  The comma in bold in the previous sentence is an example of the oxford comma.  You do not use a comma before and or or in pair of 2 things.  Notice there is no comma in the previous sentence before the word "or."  (Whether you choose to use the Oxford Comma is a personal preference.  Just be aware that some professors like the Oxford Comma while others do not.  When in doubt, just ask your professor whether or not you should use the Oxford Comma.  This question will impress them!)

Sequence of 3 or more with the Oxford Comma:  I like grapes, apples, and pears.

Sequence of 3 or more without the OC:  I like grapes, apples and pears.       

Wrong:  I want apples, and grapes.  (In this example, you don't need a comma when you have a pair of 2 things)

 Right:  I want apples and grapes.

Be Concise- Nouns

Avoid using 3-to-4 word nouns.  They are unnecessarily wordy.

Wrong:  The Yankees continued to shoot their artillery at the rebels until they surrendered.

Right:  The Yankees shot their artillery at the rebels until they surrendered.

Wrong:  After considerable effort, the officers managed to prepare a good battle plan.

Right:  After considerable effort, the officers prepared a good battle plan.

Be Concise- Adverbs

Avoid using excessive adverbs (usually words ending in "ly").  If you use them too often, they lose their impact.  Reserve your adverbs for crucial times when you want to make a point.

 Wrong:  Lewy's thesis is clearly twofold.

Right:  Lewy's thesis is twofold.

Wrong:  Spongebob's shoes are brightly polished.  (This is also an example of subsumed information.  It is implied that      something is automatically bright once is has been polished, so saying "brightly polished" is redundant)

Right:  Spongebob's shoes are polished.  

Be Concise- Prepositions and Prepositional Phrases

Avoid using unnecessary prepositional phrases and using the same preposition multiple times in a sentence.  The most common prepositions are: of, in, on, with, by, and at.  

Wrong:  The roar of the guns of the artillery...

Right:  The roar of the artillery's guns... (or, since artillery and guns are synonymous, an even more concise version with active rather than passive voice:  The artillery's roar...)

Be Diverse- Sentence Structure

Avoid using too many short, declarative sentences (the "See Spot Syndrome," which makes your writing too choppy.  Use gerunds (words ending in "ing") to combine multiple declarative sentences into one sentence.

Wrong:  See Spot.  See Spot run.  See Spot run fast.

Right:  See Spot running fast.  (In this example, we combined 3 short, repetitive sentences into 1 concise sentence)

Wrong:  The law was discriminatory.  The law was illegal.  

Right:  The law was discriminatory and illegal.

Grammar Guidelines

In addition to following the above style guidelines when writing academic papers, please remember to use proper grammar. Please note that the grammar tips below are not a comprehensive overview.

Do Not End Sentences with Prepositions

Avoid ending sentences with prepositions.  It is just incorrect grammar.  

Wrong:  Where are you going to be at?

Right:  Where are you going to be?

Wrong:  What time should I arrive by?

Right:  By what time should I arrive? (or, What time should I arrive?)

Subject-Verb Agreement

Make sure your subject (noun) matches the corresponding pronoun in each sentence.  This is called "subject-verb agreement."  If your noun is singular (only one), your pronoun should be singular.  If your noun is plural (more than one), your pronoun should be plural.

Wrong:  After the army moved by, they turned toward the left flank.  (In this example, army is singular, but they is plural)

Right:  After the army moved by, it turned toward the left flank.  

Wrong:  Before the students entered the classroom, he stopped at the water fountain.  (Students is plural, he is singular)

Right:  Before the students entered the classroom, they stopped at the water fountain.

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