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Common Stylistic Concerns

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Here is a list of some of the most common stylistic issues that writers of academic papers must consider. For more specific questions, consult the Writing Center or your professor.

Sentence Structure

In order to keep your reader attentive, mix long sentences with short ones. When you are writing, be on the watch for extended sentences that will slow your readers down to the point where they may lose the thread of your argument. At the other extreme, avoid strings of short sentences that will make your writing sound choppy or childish. Use artful punctuation - periods, commas, semicolons, colons and dashes - to your best advantage in order to control the mood of your writing and to emphasize important points. Excellent writing often mimics the rhythms of speech. Try reading your paper aloud to yourself to help catch awkward phrasings and grammatical problems.


Most students feel comfortable using periods and commas in their writing. Somewhat trickier are semicolons, colons, and dashes: punctuation marks that fall somewhere in between a period and a comma. Of those three, colons imply the longest pause, followed by semicolons and dashes. Semicolons are used to separate two short sentences; they can be quite useful. Colons can introduce quotations or lists, but the fact that they create long pauses makes them useful for another purpose as well: drawing attention. Dashes should be used sparingly, especially in academic writing. Single dashes can be used to tack on an afterthought - like this. Pairs of dashes can be used in the same way as parentheses, but they give your "parenthetical" thought more emphasis. Should probably have some more obvious examples here.


A good dictionary and a good thesaurus should be your best friends while you are writing. Thoughtful attention to word choice will allow you to write as descriptively as possible without rambling.

Consider these sentences:

  • The United States lacked a clear sense of the purpose of the occupation or how long it would be there.
  • The United States lacked a clear sense of the purpose or duration of the occupation.

In this example, inserting "duration" makes the sentence clearer and more concise. When you are choosing words, make sure you are familiar with all the connotations of the word you pick. Otherwise, your reader may be misled. On a final note, remember that bigger words are only better if they contribute to the meaning of your sentence. If a simpler word will suffice, use it. Cramming your paper full of large words will make you look like you're feigning intelligence.

Passive Voice

Passive voice is inappropriate when you want to emphasize the doer of an action. At best, it necessitates wordiness; at worst, it clouds the meaning of your statements.

For example:

  • The paper was written by John.
  • John wrote the paper.

The first sentence is unnecessarily wordy. There is also no reason to take the action (writing) away from the actor (John). Try to use active voice to limit needless phrasing and keep your language clear.

However, if you want to emphasize the action itself, passive voice can be the right choice. This is especially true in some types of scientific writing, where the steps performed in an experiment are more important than the person performing them.

For example:

  • The solution was heated to 37°C.
  • We heated the solution to 37°C.

Some science professors want lab reports to omit any reference to the doer of the action. This is not a universal rule, so check with your professor if you have any questions.

Gender-neutral Language

Students sometimes ask WAs about using "he" or "she" when referring to a subject without a specific gender. Generally, it is best to use singular "they" instead. Here are some ideas to help you avoid generic gendering with "he" or "she" in your writing:

Use singular "they" to avoid gendered pronouns

  • When a doctor graduates from medical school, it's one of the proudest moments of their life.

Pluralize to avoid gendered pronouns

  • When doctors graduate from medical school, it's one of the proudest moments of their lives.

Remove the gender reference

  • Graduating from medical school is one of the proudest moments in a doctor's life.

Depending on the structure of the sentence, one of these strategies may work better than the others. Try to vary your use of the strategies to avoid needless repetition and stilted language.