How to Strengthen Your Writing Style

Academic Writing

Guide on how to improve writing style and avoid common errors.

If you’ve read our recently published 2016 annual report, in which we carefully analyzed our client’s writing habits, you may have noticed that a whopping 32% of all writing errors were style-related. In this article, we explore the style issues we found and provide you a curated list of some resources to help you combat these types of mistakes and strengthen your writing style!

What are style errors, and which are most commonly made?

The style problems we observed included the following:

  • Passive voice: a grammar structure that uses “to be + past participle” to show a subject receiving the action caused by something else.
  • Wordiness: extremely long sentences (more than 20-30 words) or unnecessarily long phrases that could be replaced by fewer words.
  • Unclear reference: when the noun to which a pronoun or a determiner (e.g., “this” and “that” ) refers is unclear. E.g. “Joe gave Mark his book.” “His” could be Joe’s or Mark’s.
  • Politically incorrect or offensive language: Gender-specific words or “clinical” words regarding race, religion, gender and sexuality that could be offensive in some cultures.
  • Inappropriate colloquialism: informal words or phrases that are not suitable for formal/ academic writing.

Of the five categories above, our clients’ writing yielded the following error frequencies:

Common Style Errors by Type

As you can see from the chart above, passive-voice-related problems won the cake by constituting 67% of all style errors we found. If we break this down further, we can see that while 29.5% of all research papers overused the passive voice, 56.4% of admissions essays used too much!

But research writing requires the passive voice, right?

While it’s true that we sometimes need the passive voice in research and academic writing, remember that the active voice creates clearer and stronger writing. When we use the active voice, we know who or what is performing each verb. Since our research papers naturally contain longer sentences with complex terminology, we shouldn’t make it even harder for our readers to understand what we write by obscuring the true subject of a sentence.

Additionally, the passive voice usually introduces another style problem: wordiness. So, by decreasing the amount of passive voice you use, you’ll see a noticeable drop in wordiness and overall word count!

What’s wrong with using the passive voice in admissions essays?

For admissions essays, using the passive voice should truly be avoided at all costs. Why? The answer is simple: your statements of purpose are about who you are and what you do. Naturally, the actor in your sentences should be you. You want to emphasize your decision-making skills and how you act in various scenarios. If you use the passive voice, you’re going to project an I-just-let-things-happen-to-me message. Let’s face it. Who wants to admit someone who doesn’t seem motivated or who seems to wait around for things to happen to them, right?

How can I improve my writing style?

1. Passive Voice

2. Wordiness

  •  There are many sources of wordiness, including excessive prepositional phrasing, filler words, and nominalizations. We have prepared several articles to address some of these specific issues:
    • Editing prepositional phrases
      • in addition to →  also
      • take into consideration → consider
    • Eliminating filler words
      •  This is actually good →  This is good.
      •  I just want to say I like this song. →  I like this song.
    • Avoiding nominalizations
      •  He must make a decision about his future. →  He must decide his future.
      •  This study takes many factors into consideration.→  This study considers many factors. OR This study contemplates many factors.
  • A subset of wordiness, repetition is another error that often plagues our writing.
    • Unless you are using a defined term, you should not repeat the same words or phrases within a few lines of each other.
    • Choose synonyms or consider varying sentence structures like compound sentences.
    • Be careful, however, to use substitute words that fit the tone and context of your writing. For example, we would not have chosen “surrogate words” to replace “synonym” in the preceding sentence!
      • I like the house. The house is on a hill.→  I like the house on the hill.
  • For additional resources, please check out the following links:

3. Unclear References

  •  When you use pronouns or determiners like “this” and “that,” make sure to keep these words as close to the nouns to which those terms refer!
  • As a general rule, separating a pronoun from its referent will cause confusion, especially if the pair of words is separated by another similar noun. For example, “his” is confusing in the sentence, “Joe gave Mark his book.” Whose book did Joe give, Joe’s or Mark’s? To avoid this type of mistake, you can either (1) repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun (this option is usually awkward and creates repetition) or (2) restructure your sentence as in the example below.
    • Joe gave Mark his book. →  Joe gave Mark Joe’s book (awkward repetition!) →  “Joe gave his book to Mark.” OR “Joe returned Mark’s book to him.” [The first is in the case where the book is Joe's, and the second sentence reflects Mark's ownership of the book.]
  • For additional resources, please click on the following links:

4. Politically Incorrect or Offensive Language

  • Although few clients made these types of errors, it’s worth addressing this topic.
  • In an era where more people from different walks of life intersect on an increasingly regular basis, we should be conscious of how our words might impact others. In particular, we should take care not to express any judgment that may offend people. In that regard, research writing poses a particular challenge because we often conduct studies of various populations. When we describe participants in clinical trials or describe members of society, we may want to be sensitive to sterile language that treats certain populations as if they are somehow less than whole or flawed.
  • As we talk about populations, we should aim to use inclusive language and unbiased statements about gender, race, disabilities, etc. Of course, you shouldn’t stress about being 100% politically correct. Nonetheless, consider some of the following examples:
    •  Each man must fend for himself. →  People should fend for themselves. [This correction eliminates gender bias. Only use the first sentence if you meant only males.] 
    •  The trauma victim… →  The person who experienced trauma… [This correction neutralizes the negative tone of "victim."  Using words like "suffered trauma" would also be inappropriate for the same reason as "trauma victim" because both of these phrases project negativity and emphasize a concept of victimhood that might offend the persons who underwent those experiences.] 
  • For additional resources, please click on the following links:

5. Inappropriate Colloquialisms

  •  A colloquialism is an informal word or phrase used in everyday speech. Remember that we should always tailor our writing for the relevant context and our audience. Generally, academic, business, and admissions essay writing require formal language. This means that you should not use contractions (e.g., don’t, can’t, won’t, etc.) and slang. Most common idiomatic expressions fall into the camp of colloquialisms, so when in doubt, check a dictionary like Collin’s English Dictionary, which notes when meanings are informal.
  • For additional resources, please click on the following links:

We hope that the above information provides you with a good overview of how to correct style issues in your writing. Don’t feel overwhelmed by the long list! It’s impossible for us to remember all these rules each time we write. Rather, focus on one aspect until you perfect it, then move onto the next. Also, feel free to check out our language editing services to help you clean up these types of errors and more!


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