One of the key element of academic writing is to be formal. The reason of emphysizing this is that, during writing process, many English major students pay more attention to the content, structure and technique of their writing, than the formality of their works.
Formality of the writing can be seen through the format, usage of word and the usage of punctuation.


One good academic writing needs to be in serious format. Format of the writing is consisted by components. Usually, the regular order of component is as following:
  • Title Page
  • Table of Contents
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Literature Review
  • Theoretical Framework & Approach
  • Methods
  • Findings
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion / Summary and Recommendation
  • Notes
  • Footnote
  • Endnote
  • References / Bibliography
  • Appendices (tables, figures, diagrams, clipping...)

This format needs to be strictly obeyed in the Graduation Thesis. As for short-paragraphed academic writing, the Introduction, Discussion, Conclusion and References are the essential parts.
To see whether one academic writing is formal, one needs to check not only the component of the work, but also the documentation of the work.
These are several professional styles of documentation for academic writing:
  • AAA (American Anthropological Association) Style
  • APA (American Psychological Association) Style
  • ASA (American Sociological Association) Style
  • CSE (Council of Science Editors) Style
  • MLA (Modern Language Association) Style
  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • Turabian Style

For us students, the regular writing style we adapt to is the MLA (Modern Language Association).
MLA Style, developed by the Modern Language Association, is the system of documentation used in the fine arts and humanities. This system is presented in detail in two books by Joseph Gibaldi: The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (Sixth Edition, New York: Modern Language Association, 2003) and the MLA Style Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Second Edition, New York: Modern Language Association, 1998).
Further information on how to do a MLA documentation, see DOCUMENTATION.

Usage of Word

Most non-native English language learners use words for usage of spoken English in academic writing without noticing. Since we are studying English as a foreign language, it is not easy to distinguish the slight differences between words and recognize their level of formality.
Some tips and examples are given to illustrate the formality of words usage.
1) Avoid using omission. Omission is used mostly in spoken English. In academic writing, one needs to write "it is" instead of "it's", "that is" instead of "that's", "do not" instead of "don't".
2) Avoid using adverb describing degree which used only in spoken English such as "so" "really" and "a lot".
3) Avoid using run on expressions such as "so on" and "etc.".
4) Avoid using multi-verbs.
For example:
More formal
He checked up on his accountant.
They put up with their neighbours.
She caught on very quickly.
She made up for it with an early night.
He went down with a fever.
The cost of living went up.
He investigated his accountant.
They tolerated their neighbours.
She understood very quickly.
She compensatedfor it with an early night.
He contracted a fever.
The cost of living increased.
5) Pay attention to slight differences of two synonyms.
Try to compare:
Promise / Guarantee
Scared / afraid
Destiny / Fate


Many students do not use punctuations other than comma and fullstop, especially non-native learners. They do not know how to use other punctuations correctly, thus they are afraid of making mistakes. Actually when some students use dashes, they do make mistakes.
Some students are confused by when to use comma, dash and semicolon. In one sentence to conclude, avoid using a dash when a comma is needed; avoid using a comma when a semicolon is needed. This paragraph aims to illustrate the correct usage of dashes, semicolons and parentheses.
  • Dashes

Know the kinds of dashes.
A dash is noticeably longer than a hyphen. There are several different dashes, but the most commonly used are the en dash (–) and the em dash (—). They are so named because they are the same width as the small letter n and capital letter M, respectively.
En dash is used between dates, times, or numbers. Examples of this usage may include:
June–July 1967
1:00–2:00 p.m.
For ages 3–5
pp. 38–55
President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981)
The en dash should not have spaces beside it unless the computer cannot type en dash, people use spaces beside hyphen to represent en dash. (" - ")
Em dash is for identifying an independent clause.
Famous grammarian William Strunk Jr summed up the definition of a dash (em dash): "A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses."
From The Elements of Style, fourth edition, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, page 9.
When you want a phrase or another part of the sentence to have extra emphasis, a em dash may be used.
  • Dashes are not to be used commonly. If your paper has a whole bunch of dashes, make sure to check them over, and see whether they all were used correctly and appropriately or not.
  • If you have a dash where a comma would work, use the comma! (Dash makes the sentence less formal)
  • If you use a dash toward the end of a sentence, do not put an ending dash right before the period.
  • Do not replace commas that are being used for an appositive with dashes. Simply because it is an interruption, but does not mean a dash belongs there.

  • Semicolons

Semicolons help you connect closely related ideas when a style mark stronger than a comma is needed. By using semicolons effectively, you can make your writing sound more sophisticated.
  • Link two independent clauses to connect closely related ideas
  • Link clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases to connect closely related ideas
  • Link lists where the items contain commas to avoid confusion between list items
  • Link lengthy clauses or clauses with commas to avoid confusion between clause

  • Parentheses

Use parentheses ( ) to include material that you want to de-emphasize or that wouldn't normally fit into the flow of your text but you want to include nonetheless.
If the material within parentheses appears within a sentence, do not use a capital letter or period to punctuate that material, even if the material is itself a complete sentence.
If the material within your parentheses is written as a separate sentence (not included within another sentence), punctuate it as if it were a separate sentence.
Forty-three years after his death, Robert Frost (we remember him at Kennedy’s inauguration) remains America’s favorite poet.
Forty-three years after his death, Robert Frost (do you remember him?) remains America’s favorite poet.
Forty-three years after his death, Robert Frost remains America’s favorite poet. (We remember him at Kennedy’s inauguration.)
Always remember three golden rules of using parentheses:
  1. If the material is important enough, use some other means of including it within your text — even if it means writing another sentence. Note that parentheses tend to de-emphasize text whereas dashes tend to make material seem even more important.
  2. Place a period outside a closing parenthesis if the material inside is not a sentence (such as this fragment).
  3. (An independent parenthetical sentence such as this one takes a period before the closing parenthesis.

Formality is the basis of a good academic writing. To have more information of other skills of academic writing, see other articles of xiamenwriting.

Further reading

MLA Documentation: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/research/MLA.html
Punctuation: http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/style-and-editing/punctuation
Frequently Asked Questions about MLA Style: http://www.mla.org/style_faq
Checklist of language to avoid in academic writing: http://unilearning.uow.edu.au/academic/2e.html
  1. ^ References:
    1. Style Manuals & Writing Guides: http://www.calstatela.edu/library/styleman.htm
    2. MLA Documentation: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/research/MLA.html
    3. Academic Writing: Styles and Proper Reference Format : http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/soc/socionexus/corskill/it/eskills/refstyle.htm