Top Tips for IELTS

10 ways to make your writing more academic

This lesson looks at 10 different ways to make your writing academic or more formal. I talk you through some of the more important dos and don’ts to help you write essays that use the right sort of language.

Academic/formal and IELTS

How important is it to be academic in IELTS? Well. You need to write an essay and the convention is that essays use “academic” language. So your goal should be to reasonably formal/academic. That said, conventions vary around the world and there is nothing specifically in the marking criteria about formality of language. What you really need to do is make sure you avoid being too informal/non-academic.

In practice, this means you need to follow most of the guidelines below, but you shouldn’t become obsessive about it. These are guidelines and not rules.

Test yourself first

This quiz gives you 8 sentences. 4 of them are more academic and 4 are less academic. Your job is simple – decide which is which. The goal is to get 8 out of 8.

Academic language

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Congratulations - you have completed Academic language. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Return
Shaded items are complete.
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678End
Return

Points to avoid in academic writing

This is a short form guide to some of the “don’ts” in academic writing.

1. Short forms of verbs

We don’t use short forms of verbs (don’t/can’t etc) when we write more academically. So this example doesn’t work:

I don’t think it’s very important for small kids to learn English.

2. Imprecise language

When we write academically, we tend to use more precise language. So these examples don’t work:

I don’t think it’s very important for small kids to learn English.

This is the best thing to do.

3. Use idiomatic language

This is not  a rule – there are sometimes when you will find idiomatic language in academic writing. However, there are idioms and idioms and idioms. The more “colourful” the idiom, the less likely you are to use it in academic writing. So, this idiom is inappropriate:

If we do that, then we might throw the baby out with the bathwater.

while this idiom is much weaker and acceptable

On balance, this would seem to be the most appropriate course of action.

4. Start sentences with “and” and “but”

A difficult one. If you read almost any language course book, you are almost certain to find sentences that begin with “and” and “but” in the reading texts. Language changes and it is becoming more and more acceptable to do this. However, in academic writing for second language speakers, this should be avoided. So this is unacceptable for most teachers:

 But the most important thing is that the government find outs what the real needs are.

And needs to be transformed into:

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conduct a needs analysis.

5. Phrasal verbs (2/3 word verbs)

Phrasal verbs (a species of idiom) are an important part of the language, but we tend to avoid them where we can in academic writing and choose a different verb. So

But the most important thing is that the government find outs what the real needs are.

needs to be transformed into

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conduct a needs analysis.

6. Personal pronouns

A big area. Academic writing tends to be relatively impersonal and so we try to avoid over-using personal pronouns. This does not mean that you can’t use them, you just need to be careful how you do it. If it is important to show that something is your personal opinion, then “I” or “my” can be acceptable. The one pronoun to avoid is the informal “you”.

I don’t think it’s very important for small kids to learn English.

More academic variations

1. Precise language

Typically, academic language is more precise. This means that we try to use language that is accurate as possible. Properly speaking, children are not small they are young

It is doubtful whether it is particularly important for young children to study English.

and the government is going to find out by conducting a needs analysis

The immediate priority, however, is for the government to conduct a needs analysis.

2. Impersonal language and passives

Typically, even many personal opinions are put in impersonal language and it is left to the reader to understand that what is being said is the author’s own view. Probably, the most common structure here is It is

It is doubtful whether it is particularly important for young children to study English.

The passive is not 100% academic and it is quite possible to use it in all forms of speaking and writing. However, one of its uses is in academic writing as it is one way of not using too many personal pronouns

We should let people do any sport they want to.

can be changed to

People should be allowed to participate in whatever sport they choose.

3. Cautious language

This is really to do with opinions. The more academic we become, the more we “hedge” or weaken opinions/statements that are strong. In practice, what this means is that we use a lot of possibility and probability type words when we write academically. For example:

This solution is perhaps too radical and may cause as many problems as it solves.

On balance, this would seem to be the most appropriate course of action.

4. General academic vocabulary

Finally, there are just some words we use more when we write academically. If you have a language background, English is essentially the marriage of two languages old German and Latin and for historical reasons we tend to use the words with a Latin origin when we write academically. Many of these words can be found in the academic word list:

People should be allowed to participate in whatever sport they choose.

This solution is perhaps too radical and may cause as many problems as it solves.

On balance, this would seem to be the most appropriate course of action.

It is doubtful whether it is particularly important for young children to study English.

I must add here that this absolutely does not mean long words good, short words bad.

A sample essay

To see how this works, try looking at this sample essay. You will find two parallel versions of it. One is more formal/academic and the other isn’t. I have highlighted the major differences between the two versions.

See the two versions

In the modern world, we frequently no longer rely on food that has been grown locally, but we have become accustomed to buying produce from all over the world. While this trend has some clear benefits to consumers, I would argue that overall transporting food over long distances is a negative.

In the modern world, we often don’t rely on food that has been grown locally, but we have got used  to buying food from all over the world. While this trend is good for consumers, I think that overall transporting food over long distances is not a good thing.

The strongest argument against importing food is environmental. Studies have shown that transport and the use of fossil fuels is one of the leading causes of global warming and climate change. This means that if we want to lead a greener lifestyle, we should be trying to minimise transport and this includes the unnecessary transport of foodstuffs.

The biggest argument against importing food is environmental. We know that transport and the use of fossil fuels is the biggest cause of global warming and climate change. This means that if we want to lead a greener lifestyle, we should try not to use transport so much and this includes transporting of foodstuffs when we don’t have to.

Another point that needs to be considered is the impact of transporting food on local farmers and traditional ways of life. Again, there is good research to show that farmers and smallholders are unable to compete in price with the supermarkets that import cheap, and often low-quality, produce from abroad. This is not just a problem for local farmers who are likely to go out of business, it also has an impact on weakening traditional communities that rely on those farms for employment and trade.

Another point is that transporting food is bad for local farmers and traditional ways of life. This is because farmers and smallholders cannot compete in price with the supermarkets that import cheap, and often low-quality, produce from abroad. This is not just a problem for local farmers who will go out of business, it also weakens traditional communities that  need those farms for employment and trade.

A further consideration is that food that has travelled across the world is considerably less healthy than locally grown, fresh produce. The  point is that the further food travels before it reaches the consumer, the less fresh it will be and any nutritionist will confirm that fresh food is fuller of vitamins. Therefore, it would be preferable if supermarkets and other stores did not transport food from other countries.

We should also think how food that has travelled across the world is not as good for you as locally grown, fresh produce. This is because if food travels a lot of miles before it reaches the consumer, it won’t be very fresh and experts say that fresh food is better for you. So, in my opinion, supermarkets and other stores shouldn’t transport food from other countries.

In conclusion, I believe that the trend for transporting food over long distances is undesirable because it is environmentally unfriendly, threatens local communities and results in less healthy options for the consumer.

In conclusion, I think that the trend for transporting food over long distances is wrong because it is not good for the environment, it is bad for local communities and means consumers eat less healthily.

Write the essay yourself

Now try this exercise where you read the non-academic version and need to complete the academic version with the correct words:

academic essay language exercise

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19 Responses to 10 ways to make your writing more academic

  1. Ava January 6, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    I appreciate your effort and profession in guiding us who need help for IELTS, especially in writing. Through your detailed explaination and examples, it is so easy for me to understand the difference now. Thanks a lot 🙂

  2. Mandy January 6, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    This is really great website. It helps me alot in improving my writting and my vob.

    Many thanks to the teachers

  3. Dominic's Fans January 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

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  5. marveltracker January 7, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    Dear Dominic,

    I would argue that this blog is the best ever IELTS blog in the world. I who desperately need 7 for my writing, though I was struggled to achieve during my previous attempts. Now I’m eager on following your band 8 writing posts.If, however, I have a concern on the sample essay.

    The topic of the essay is said
    “Today’s food travels thousands of miles before it reaches customers. Why is this?
    Is this a positive or negative trend?”

    In here,as per my understanding, we would discuss the reasons why food travels far.Then, we have to discuss the impact.In your sample essay, however, discuss the impact and the consequences of impact.

    Most Probably, I may miss some thing here. Please guide me. Thanks in advance.

    • Dominic Cole January 7, 2012 at 8:55 am #

      Thank you. And no, you didn’t miss a thing. I uploaded the incorrect version of the essay. My mistake – now corrected.

  6. marveltracker January 7, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    Thank you very much sir

  7. Dinaz January 7, 2012 at 10:43 am #

    I always prided myself for possessing an excellent knowledge of the English Language – until i faced the IELTS and received only a 6.5 in writing – after studying your sample essays I realize where I have gone wrong —–I hope to get that much needed 8 this time around -and if i do –it will be due to your wonderful blog !!

    THANK YOU !

  8. Christina January 12, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    Today’s food travels thousands of miles before it reaches customers. Is this a
    positive or negative trend?

    If my arguments are against, should I write any benefits that it may have. You mentioned “clear benefits’ in the introduction, but you didnt expand on that in the body paragraphs.

    • Dominic Cole January 12, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

      Really intelligent question. I see your point that you might expect the essay to look at both sides of the argument from the wording you mention in the intro. However, if you look at the whole sentence: “While this trend has some clear benefits to consumers, I would argue that overall transporting food over long distances is a negative.”, the essay is also set up to make the negative argument.

      More generally, the question (which I slightly amended) only asks if it is a positive or negative trend. This means that you can say that it is one or the other. My general advice is to look at both sides of the argument and nearly all my essays follow that pattern. It is I believe good advice. It allows you to say more. It is almost never wrong to consider the other side of the argument. It is the more academic approach. It is simply safer.

      That much said, I do try to change my essays around. This is because the best approach is not to learn one pattern, but be prepared to answer different questions in different ways. Always, always answer the question in front of you. So I included this essay for variation. It would of course be quite possible to take a more balanced approach to the essay. Typically, that is how I would write the essay for myself.

      As I say, a really intelligent question and it may be that the intro is not perfect!

  9. ele January 27, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    Hello….I have many problems when i try to write an essay!!
    I have to do an exam at univerisity.
    One task is about writing an essay.
    Could you give some advices to write it?
    Pleasee….Thank you

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  14. Angela April 27, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    As a high school English teacher, I would love to share some of your tips with my students, particularly when it comes time to write research papers. The “quiz” seems like a useful resource, but I can’t figure out where it is. Please help!

    Thanks.

  15. Nazerke Les April 25, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

    Oh thanks for the best advices!!! After your advices I am sure, to get from writing high scores!!!

  16. kim July 20, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    Thanks for your efforts and time in guiding us to be more equipped with such awareness. Really appreciate that., thanks a lot!

  17. Kris July 6, 2016 at 6:36 pm #

    Fantastic resource. I have been searching for ways to help my students learn and practice what’s appropriate in academic writing. For me, as a native speaker, I can just say “oh, well this sentence sounds more academic,” but students need concrete examples, like you give here. The essay is especially good for seeing the differences between the two styles of writing within the context of an entire discourse.
    Thank you so much.

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