How to make your TONE more formal and academic in IELTS Writing Task 2
The aim of this lesson is to outline some basic rules of Academic Writing, and to help you develop a more academic ‘tone’.
The basic rules are easy to fix, but the academic tone takes more time and practice, especially when it comes to expressing your opinion in a sophisticated way, using hedging to soften your tone, and the use of nominalisation to lift your writing to Band 7 and above.
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.
Saying ‘cannot’ instead of ‘can’t’ will make you sound more academic.
2. Don’t use slang
The most common slang word I see is ‘kids’ as a synonym for ‘children’. This is not academic language.
Even phrases like ‘nowadays’ and ‘In this day and age’ are considered to be too conversational. It’s better to say ‘Today’ and use the tense to show the time e.g. ‘More and more people are shopping online’.
Get to know the Academic Word List, which will help you build your formal, academic vocabulary.
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’.
The same goes for proverbs. It will sound better if you rephrase them in your own words (Quick TIP – if you google the dictionary definitions of proverbs, you’ll find the real meanings written in a formal, academic style)
e.g. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’
= ‘People should not prejudge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone’.
= ‘A person’s value should not be judged by their appearance’.
or ‘Appearances can be deceptive’ [Fixed expression].
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?’. Questions are more suitable for magazine-style articles.
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. Try to think of a legal term, which must be unbiased 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 all words like:
amazing, fascinating, wondrous, wonderful, glorious, fantastic, fabulous, cool, magnificent, shocking, unbelievable, incredible
- Avoid words that express ‘value judgements’
Words like ‘good’ ‘bad’ ‘wrong’ ‘terrible’ and ‘ridiculous’ are emotional and opinionated.
Replace them with more specific words e.g
bad = dangerous, harmful, shortsighted, problematic, inadequate, questionable, destructive, wasteful, insufficient
wrong = unethical, unfair, irresponsible, corrupt, unprincipled, fraudulent, unscrupulous, dishonest, inappropriate, indecent or improper
6. Do not 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…’.
Focus on the topic, not on yourself. Although the question asks for examples from your personal experience, it is better to keep this more general.
Instead of saying ‘A colleague/friend/brother experienced this’ (anecdotal evidence) say ‘Many people experience this’.
8. Avoid making generalisations
Generalisations can weaken your argument because they are too broad and imprecise.
e.g. ‘Everybody loves music’ ‘Boys prefer science subjects’.
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’. ‘Traditionally speaking, boys have tended to lean towards scientific subjects…’
9. Avoid exaggeration
I found a great example on this 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 as above.
Which one is better do you think?
‘The staggering volume of synthetic organic compounds accumulating in large bodies of saline water has engendered a colossal moral quandary for behemoth manufacturers’.
‘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, it’s the second one, which is 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’.
Don’t use vague language like ‘etc’ or ‘and so on’ – this is considered lazy. Just give one or two concrete examples that illustrate your point.
The same goes for words like ‘thing’ – choose a more precise summarising noun like ‘factor’ or ‘element’.
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.
However, not all phrasal verbs are informal, and there are many that are used frequently in academic writing. See this article for more information:
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.’ (see this video by David Hennessy)
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’
= ‘The possibilities are endless’
= ‘There is no limit to what can be achieved’.
You can find a list of ‘academic idoms’ here (though the authors say these are mostly used in spoken academic English).
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.
Where to find more information
Credit for some of the examples on this page go to:
‘What is Hedging in Academic Writing?’ (my lesson)
‘The dos and don’ts of Writing in an Academic Tone’ (www.citethisforme.com)
‘Writing with a sophisticated Academic Tone’ (David Hennessy on YouTube).
Get Academic Phrases from Manchester University Academic Phrase Bank.
Nominalisation (Academic English UK)
Idioms in Academic English (EAP Foundation)
Hedging (EAP Foundation)