Skip to main content

Scholarly Voice: Overview

Basics of Scholarly Voice

Formal language and tone are expected in scholarly writing, although the definition of formal varies over time and by field. Most current fields agree, however, that colloquialisms, slang, contractions, biased language, rhetorical questions, and second person pronouns should be avoided.

In formal writing, you must be cautious in your selection of scholarly language. Be aware that not all texts demonstrate good scholarly tone, even those that may be peer-reviewed.

Watch out for these writing temptations:

  • Using overly long or complex sentences: longer is not necessarily better. Instead, simplicity and directness should be the highest priority.
  • Using compound sentences that try to stretch themselves too far (e.g., run-on sentences)
  • Writing sentences that carry little information or structural purpose or those that point out the obvious.
  • Writing in an indirect fashion to sound more scholarly or formal (e.g., using passive voice)
  • Using "nice-sounding" words or phrases without fully understanding their specific meaning. (If you are unsure of a word's or phrase's definition or meaning, look it up in a dictionary or thesaurus, or find another word to use in its place.)
  • Using unneeded words to make a point.
  • Adding unnecessary ideas or phrases to lengthen your paragraphs and sentences.

Clear and Direct Statements

Students often use complicated, evasive sentences when they are first trying to write with a scholarly voice. However, according to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, "Devices that are often found in creative writing--for example: setting up ambiguity, inserting the unexpected, omitting the expected, and suddenly shifting the topic, tense, or person--can confuse or disturb readers of scientific prose" (APA; 2010, p. 65). Instead of using wordy descriptions or poetic language, try to make your language clearly understood.

For example, rather than identifying an object as an electronic instrument upon which one types and saves documents, simply use a computer. Often students use indirect language because they cannot think of the right word. However, developing a good vocabulary is necessary for scholarly writing. Diction and precision are also very important to strong scholarly writing.

Remember--it is your ideas that should be complex, not your sentence structure!

Discipline-Specific Expectations

It is important that you become familiar with the language and writing conventions of your discipline; these determine how you approach your work. You must also understand the goals of your assignments and those of the course as a whole. For comprehensive scholarly writing guidelines, take a look at our website. Following APA's guidelines for scholarly writing will help you to maintain a formal, academic tone.