Academic writing

What to avoid in formal writing

When writing an essay, it is important to construct a reasoned argument that is supported by carefully researched evidence. The language that you use needs to be precise and uncluttered by unnecessary devices which have the potential to distract the reader, shift the meaning or detract from the clarity of the argument.

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A cliché is an expression that has been overused.


  • We cannot build a new school at this point in time.
  • Who would have thought that slavery could exist in this day and age?
  • The Prime Minister believed that at the end of the day her policies would be vindicated.

A metaphor takes a name or descriptive term and applies it to a person or object in a non-literal sense - for example, 'a glaring error', 'the heart of the matter', 'pillar of the community', 'wave of terrorism', and so on.

A simile compares a person, action or object with something else - for example, 'fly like an eagle', 'solid as a rock', 'as happy as Larry', 'pleased as Punch', and so on.

Well-chosen metaphors and similes can give your writing immense expressive power. Once a metaphor or simile has become a cliché, it no longer provides a vivid image for the reader. Consequently, instead of impressing your readers with your writing style, you leave them with the impression that you have nothing of substance to say.

Figures of speech are closely related to clichés. Like metaphors and similes, figures of speech provide a writer with a colourful or forceful means to draw attention to a particular point but should be avoided in academic writing.

  • The cleaners were advised to lift their game or else.
  • Management has been on a steep learning curve.
  • It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Colloquialisms are words or phrases that belong in conversational contexts:

Everybody was wandering around like stunned mullets. (Dazed and confused)

We'll all be pushing up daisies soon enough. (Dead)

In everyday speech or conversation we often contract words so that what we say does not sound too pompous. E.g. 'can not' (e.g. can't), 'have not' (e.g. haven't), 'is not' (isn't), 'would have' (would've), 'should have' (e.g. should've) and so on. However, in academic writing, colloquial forms should be avoided.

Some colloquialisms, such as slang expressions or phrases might demean or exclude other language users and must also be avoided. See inclusive language.

Padding consists of all the extra words added to writing that do not add anything to the meaning or content of the text. This includes:

  • Redundant phrases such as 'It is interesting/worthy/important to note that ...’ 'For what it's worth ...’.
  • Irrelevant material which has no bearing on your topic.
  • 'Dead' words includes words which repeat other words e.g. dead corpse, combined together.
  • Adverbs add quantity but little to the meaning. Adverbs such as: really, rather, quite, totally and so on, may not enhance your expression. For example: really obscure, rather tedious.

Sometimes writers think that by using big, unfamiliar words or complicated sentence structures that this makes their writing sound sophisticated or more important. But it usually just means that no one understands it. For example:

This author concludes that, after due and full consideration, some writers exhibit discursive practices that produce undecipherable sentences, the intelligibility of which beggar even the most sophisticated ratiocinative beings.

The sentence could be rewritten in a number of ways:

Very simply

Some people write so badly that no one understands it.

More complex

Some people write in a way that makes it difficult for even quite educated people to understand them.

Texting language is the collective term used for the shorthand way that people talk to each other using text messages, email, instant messaging and other forms of written contact. Abbreviating words is common in text language as the examples below show.

  • asap - As soon as possible
  • atm - At the moment
  • b4 - Before
  • brb - Be right back
  • btw - By the way

These example and others are used in informal texting exchanges. It is important to remember that text language is not acceptable in formal writing such as essays, exams, reports etcetera.


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