Writing Formally


One thing that many students find difficult is writing in an appropriately formal tone. Here are some tricks to help you achieve a more formal style in your essays:


1.       Use linking phrases at the start of paragraphs. These can range from simple one word connectives such as: ‘Therefore’, ‘Moreover’, ‘However’, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘On the other hand’ and ‘In conclusion’ to more complex phrases that make it clear how the new paragraph follows of from the one just before, for example: ‘Napoleon is also further vilified in the chapter six, when …’


2.       Vary your linking phrases to come up with more innovative examples such as ‘ultimately’, ‘initially’ and ‘penultimately’.


3.       Find alternative verbs to replace ‘shows’ in the phrase ‘This shows that …’. Some obvious examples might be ‘implies’, ‘demonstrates’, ‘indicates’, ‘suggests’ and ‘creates the impression’. However, more adventurous examples might include ‘insinuates’, ‘echoes’, ‘caricatures’, ‘satirises’, ‘lampoons’ (look it up!), ‘vilifies’ or ‘ridicules’. Note that with some of these verbs you no longer need the ‘that’ in the phrase and you can instead just use ‘This ridicules the animals on the farm for their …’


4.       Remember to use phrases that allow you to show how different aspects of a text work together to achieve a given effect, for example: ‘enhances’, ‘reinforces’, ‘emphasises’, ‘exaggerates’, ‘exacerbates’ (makes worse) or ‘alleviates’ (makes better).


5.       Try to replace big verb phrases in your writing with noun phrases. For example the verb takes over in ‘When Napoleon takes over the farm it demonstrates …’ can be replaced by the noun take over as follows: ‘Napoleon’s take over of the farm demonstrates …’ which is a much nicer, more efficient, more concise sentence.


6.       Use appropriate literary terms: novel, persona, narrative voice, sibilance, foregrounding, etc…


7.       Be as precise with your language as possible – make your points as clearly, cleanly and quickly.


8.       Avoid using conversational phrases such as: ‘like’, ‘basically’, ‘essentially’. Remember that you don’t want to give the impression that there is anything basic about what you are doing. An examiner is not going to award an A grade to a candidate who tries to squeeze down the complexity of a novel, poem or play into one ‘basic’ statement.


9.       Avoid using vague phrases such as ‘a variety of features’ (what features?); ‘on a number of occasions’ (what occasions?). Particularly you should try and avoid the vagueness of just saying something is positive or negative. Give me some idea of why a word has negative connotations – is it vicious cruel and heartless, or dull, boring and insipid?


10.   Avoid referring to yourself or your essay. Good writers don’t write about themselves and good essays don’t talk about themselves they just focus on the issue that they are meant to be concerned with. You might be tempted to use ‘I’ or ‘me’ to introduce a personal opinion and sometimes that is ok, especially in a conclusion or perhaps introduction, however, if you write a good essay that really engages with the question and the text then it will be clear to the examiner that this is your personal response and you won’t need to use ‘I’ to make it obvious.