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Online Guide to Writing and Research

College Writing

How Does College Writing Differ from Workplace Writing?

Workplace writing might take many forms, depending on the setting. You might be highly skilled at writing persuasive press releases, police reports in passive voice, or client letters in a friendly but professional tone. Many students begin their college careers with an arsenal of writing skills already. However, not all those skills will transfer to an academic setting. Even highly skilled writers might need to adjust their style and tone so that the writing is suitable for a target audience of academics. Academic writing usually incorporates a formal tone.

Just as you would dress your best for a formal event, your writing should match a formal academic tone.

Why use a formal tone?

An easy way to adapt to a formal tone is to think of your writing style like a dress code for sentences. Just as you would not wear sweat pants to the prom, you should not use casual writing styles in a formal academic setting. This does not mean that casual writing or sweat pants are inherently bad or wrong, just that they are misplaced in college work. Sweat pants are great for the gym or for lounging at home. And conventions like emojis, texting abbreviations, casual punctuation, slang, and similar details are useful and effective in casual settings, too. 

 Right from the start, the college writing process can be made easier by remembering to use a formal tone and style. 

For academic writing, we seek resources from scholarly articles and reputable experts to gain valuable knowledge on topics.

Formal writing focuses on knowledge

First, the purpose of academic writing is to demonstrate specific knowledge in an organized, cohesive manner. This is different from the way we communicate in other settings where the purpose might be different. In other settings, a chatty, friendly tone will be very effective. In academic writing, the tone leans into facts, knowledge, and the methodical development of ideas and arguments. This accounts for many of the differences in writing styles. 

Avoiding slang creates open dialogue with all cultures.

Formal writing speaks to everyone

Second, the academic community is international and multi-lingual. In college, you are likely to communicate with people from other cultures or those who speak other languages. Even people who are fluent or native English speakers might not be familiar with local slang or pop culture references. Using vocabulary appropriate to the setting minimizes the risk of misunderstanding in these circumstances. 

 

Writing clearly delivers a concise message that cannot be misunderstood or passed over.

Formal writing prioritizes clarity and precision

Finally, and crucially important, the rules in academic writing tend to prioritize clarity and precision over other writing aspects such as attention control. This extends beyond big problems like slang and jargon to the smallest details like commas. As you write, ask yourself if the words you choose make the ideas as precise as possible. When deciding how to structure a sentence, ask yourself if the ideas are clearer in one version over another. If you are in doubt about whether or how to use punctuation, ask if the mark enhances clarity (use it) or makes things seem more important or exciting (do not use it).  

Formal Writing Examples

Below are some specific writing habits you can adopt to give your writing a suitable academic tone.  Click on the tabs for examples.

During drafting: Use complete spelled words. 

During proofreading: Watch for apostrophes that signal contractions.

Examples:

That’s should be That is

They’ll should be They will

He’s should be He is

Proofreading tip: Use the Find tool to look for apostrophes. This will allow you to find contractions and double-check possessive apostrophes at the same time.

During drafting: Rely on commas, periods, and parentheses.

During proofreading: Watch for exclamation marks and slashes, which should be revised out of the draft. Check quotation marks carefully to make sure they’re not being used for emphasis.

Examples:

Hitler invaded Poland! should be Hitler invaded Poland.

Home users/business users can benefit from frequent password changes. should be Home users and business users can benefit from frequent password changes.

Healthcare costs can lead to “bankruptcy.” should be Healthcare costs can lead to bankruptcy.

During drafting: Capitalize the first words of sentences and proper nouns, but not common nouns.

During proofreading: If a word is capitalized in the middle of a sentence, pause to check that it is not being capitalized merely for emphasis. Never use all-caps.

Examples:

The Chief had to read and file Many Reports should be The chief had to read and file many reports.

A Degree in Statistics can lead to Business Success should be A degree in statistics can lead to business success

Roosevelt NEEDED to end the depression should be Roosevelt needed to end the depression.

During drafting: Use clear, precise words that mean exactly what they say. 

During proofreading: Be alert for chatty, intimate, or clever-sounding expressions. Replace them with language that is clear and precise.

Examples:

Tons of British soldiers should be Many British soldiers 

The FBI let these phishers slip the hook should be The FBI let the phishers evade prosecution, or, The phishers evaded FBI prosecution 

Putin thought invading Ukraine would be a piece of cake should be Putin thought invading Ukraine would provide little challenge

During drafting: State your ideas in clear, direct ways in body paragraphs. Inform the reader without providing the reader with an opportunity to dispute your ideas.

During proofreading: Look for question marks anywhere except the introduction, and rephrase those questions.

Examples:

Have you ever wondered how social media companies make money? should be Social Media companies make money in several ways.

What do 97% of climate scientists agree on? should be 97% of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring.

During drafting: Use third-person pronouns such as he, she, it, and they.

During proofreading: Check for first-person pronouns (such as I and we) and second-person pronouns (such as you) and revise the sentences to third person.

Examples:

In our modern society should be In modern society

You should check links before clicking should be Users should check links before clicking

I believe the death penalty should be abolished should be The death penalty should be abolished

During drafting: For most sentences, include only one idea and present that idea in a clear, straightforward way.

During proofreading: When you see a long sentence, think about how to make it easy to read. Shorten it, break it apart, and use clear language.

Examples:

In general, workplace writing conveys information, is predetermined in purpose and form, and tends to be pragmatic or oriented toward understanding and completing tasks, but academic writing shows knowledge and understanding of both content and process,  enables writers to explore new avenues of thought and provides opportunities to exercise cognitive skills. (51 words)

Broken into two sentences:

In general, workplace writing conveys information, is predetermined in purpose and form, and tends to be pragmatic or oriented toward understanding and completing tasks. In contrast, academic writing shows knowledge and understanding of both content and process, enables writers to explore new avenues of thought, and provides opportunities to exercise cognitive skills. (24 + 28 words)

In college, the writing process and product is not the same as the process and product from writing in the workplace.

Shortened, with clearer language:

College writing is different from workplace writing.

During drafting: Choose simple, common language wherever possible, and resist the urge to be dramatic with modifiers

During proofreading: Watch for “fancy” sounding words, including words ending in –tion (nominalizations, which can be wordy), and for words that add drama instead of facts.

Examples:

The destruction of the treaty happened rapidly.

Should be:

The treaty was destroyed rapidly.

Tip: Watch for “-tion of the” as a warning sign of possible wordiness.

Voter turnout was shockingly, unbelievably low based on expectations.

Should be:

Voter turnout was lower than expected.

Formal Writing Habits
 

Key Takeaways

  • Both workplace and college writing require specific writing styles, and the type of style you use depends on the expectations of your boss or professor.
  • Academic writing is almost always formal in tone unless you are writing a speech or a reflective essay with personal thoughts.
  • Formal writing focuses on knowledge, speaks to a diverse audience, and focuses on clarity and precision.
 


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