How to make your TONE more formal and academic in IELTS Writing Task 2
In this lesson you’ll learn some basic rules of Academic Writing, and how to develop a more academic tone and style.
A formal, academic tone takes time to develop, but here are some simple changes that you can make today.
1. Don’t use contractions
Contractions (e.g. ‘I’m’, ‘I’d’, ‘It’s’ ) make your writing less formal. Use them in General Training Task 1 Informal Letter ONLY.
2. Don’t use slang
The most common slang word I see is ‘kids’ as a synonym for ‘children’. This is not academic language.
3. Don’t use cliches
Cliches like ‘Every coin has two sides’ are not academic. It’s better to rephrase them and say exactly what you mean e.g.‘There are two sides to every argument’.
4. Don’t ask a question
The examiner is expecting you to ANSWER the question, not ask one.
It is better to make a statement like ‘It is doubtful whether this strategy will succeed’ than to ask a question like ‘But will this work?’.
5. Don’t use emotional language
Academic language should be objective/neutral and scientific.
Moderate your language to take out any emotion attached to the word. e.g. instead of ‘murderer’ or ‘hooligan’ you could say ‘violent criminal’.
- Avoid ‘flowery’ language
Informal adjectives can make your language sound too casual. Avoid words like:
- Avoid words that express ‘value judgements’
Words like ‘good’ ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’ are emotional and opinionated.
Replace them with more specific words e.g
bad = dangerous, harmful
wrong = unethical, unfair
6. Don’t address the reader as ‘you’
The problem with ‘you’ is that it is too conversational. There are many ways to avoid using ‘you’.
e.g. ‘If you lose your health, you may lose your job’.
is better written as
‘If people lose their health, they may lose their job.’
or (noun forms)
‘Ill health can lead to redundancy/unemployment’.
7. Avoid using pronouns like ‘I’ or ‘we’
Although IELTS essays are not exactly the same as academic research papers, it will sound more academic if you can avoid pronouns.
It is ok to say ‘I believe’ ‘I think’ or ‘I would argue’ once or twice however. An alternative, in the introduction, is to say ‘This essay will argue that…’.
8. Avoid making generalisations
Generalisations can weaken your argument because they are too broad and imprecise.
e.g. ‘Everybody loves music’
Generalisations are hard to prove. Try to replace them with specific statements, and use the language of ‘hedging’ (see my lesson – How to hedge) to be cautious in your statements.
e.g. ‘Many people enjoy listening to music’.
9. Avoid exaggeration
I found an example of exaggeration recently on an IELTS website:
“Plastic waste is clogging the oceans, choking the life out of sea-creatures and threatening to end all ocean-life as we know it!”
It is better to maintain a scientific, objective tone like this:
“According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, humans have dumped more than 8 million tons of plastic into ocean water each year for several years in a row. This plastic waste does not degrade, and clumps together, which creates large blocks in the ocean that hurt ocean-life.”
10. Don’t invent research articles
The example above was taken from a well-researched website, but in the real test you do not have such access to research articles. So don’t pretend that you just read one.
And don’t make up facts or statistics in order to prove your point.
Instead, use more general expressions related to research e.g. ‘Research has shown that…’ ‘Evidence suggests that…’
11. Keep it simple
In an attempt to sound formal, many candidates use overly-formal words and expressions which can sound unnatural.
Compare these two sentences from the same blog above.
Which one is better do you think?
a) ‘The staggering volume of synthetic organic compounds accumulating in large bodies of saline water has engendered a colossal moral quandary for behemoth manufacturers’.
b) ‘The large volume of plastic waste that has accumulated in the Earth’s oceans has created a moral question for companies that produce large amounts of plastic materials’.
Yes, (b) is better because it’s much simpler and easier to read.
12. Avoid short forms/abbreviations
It’s ok to use well-known short forms like ‘the BBC’ or ‘NATO’ but it’s better to use full forms with shortened words like ‘satnavs’ (‘satellite navigation systems’)
Don’t write ‘e.g.’ – write ‘for instance’ or ‘for example’ or ‘as an illustration’.
13. Avoid INFORMAL phrasal verbs
On the whole, phrasal verbs tend to be used in less formal writing, and when you have a choice between the two, always use the full verb in formal writing.
14. Avoid sterotypes and ‘sexist’ language
People unintentionally use what might be perceived as sexist language when they say ‘he’ or ‘him’ or ‘his’ when referring to nouns meant to include both sexes.
A simple way around this is to use a plural e.g. ‘people’ or ‘they’.
Instead of writing:
‘A footballer/doctor has worked hard for his high salary’.
‘Footballers/doctors have worked hard for their high salaries’.
15. Avoid reference to personal religious beliefs
I recently marked a paper about whether parents should limit screen time. The paper started:
‘Children are a blessing from God above’.
Apart from the fact that the statement is not relevant to the question, ‘it is not appropriate to use religious beliefs as justification for a point that requires LOGICAL REASONING.’
16. Avoid colloquial idioms
Although I would normally say no to idioms in formal writing e.g ‘It’s a piece of cake’, certain idomatic language is acceptable e.g. ‘On the other hand’ is an idiom that we often use in IELTS Essays.
It is usually possible to rephrase idioms/proverbs/cliches in more formal, academic ways (see #3)
e.g. ‘The sky’s the limit’
= ‘There is no limit to what can be achieved’.
17. Use the Passive
18. Use nominalisation (noun forms) where possible
Look again at Point #6.
‘If people lose their health, they may lose their job.’
‘Ill health can lead to redundancy/unemployment‘.
Notice the difference between the verb forms ‘lose your job’ and ‘redundancy/unemployment’.
Nouns and adjectives are more formal than verbs and adverbs.
19. Use the language of hedging
This is really important for being cautious with your facts/opinions.
Hedging uses techniques to ‘soften’ your language to make it more factual and precise, and less general.
‘Text messaging ruins children’s education’ [Too strong, too emotional, too absolute, too general, not true?]
‘There is some evidence to suggest that text messaging can have a negative effect on a child’s early literacy skills’.
The main thing to remember here is to use a clear 4 or 5 paragraph structure.
- Don’t use bullet points or numbering.
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Adam Wang says
Hello – I just saw in this article that you suggest us avoid “flowery” languages and two books came to my mind, they are 1) Martin Cutts’s “Oxford Guide to Plain English”, and 2) Sir Ernest Gowers’s “Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English”. Have you ever read them? And if yes how do you like them?
Thanks again for your comment. I haven’t read those books but I often recommend a similar free resource, from the Plain English Campaign called “How to write in plain English”.
I like their “A-Z of alternative words” because it has the formal and informal versions of common expressions.
Adam Wang says
Hello Fiona, sometimes I can find English textbooks online like “business grammar” and “business vocabulary in use” but I’ve never used any one of these books; just out of curiosity, is the “business English” very different to other kinds of academic English?
Hi Adam. Many thanks for your comment.
The English that I help students use in their IELTS reports and essays is characterized by its formal and objective tone. It puts emphasis on accuracy, precision, and intellectual arguments, which makes it more complex than Business English.
Business English uses industry-specific jargon and acronyms, and tends to be more concise and direct, as it is used more for communication between professionals.
For example in a Business English presentation you might say “We carried out some research and here’s what we found”. (Active tenses).
Whereas in formal, written academic you would write “Research was conducted into (topic) and the results are as follows”.
In a Business English coursebook, you’d learn about acronyms and abbreviations like “ROI” (return on investment), “KPI” (key performance indicator), and “MVP” (minimum viable product).
In an Academic English coursebook, you’d learn how to refer to sources using reporting verbs like ‘claims’ ‘suggests’ ‘argues’ and you’d learn techniques like ‘hedging’ (see my blog: https://ieltsetc.com/2020/12/hedging-in-academic-writing/).
I hope that helps,