Writing like a university student: formal writing

Kari Clarkson


be creative written on paper

Hello and welcome to part three of our series on helping you write like a university student: formal writing.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: writing is an important skill that transcends all programs and majors. It’s a technique that you’ll constantly be improving. Getting a head start as you transition into the life of a university student will be a big help!

In this post, with the help of our Student Learning Centre, we’ll be going over some tips to help make your writing prim and proper.

You don’t want your essay to come off like a text message or email to your professor. You want your assignments to take a stroll down the red carpet in their best formal writing style.

Check out these tips on formal writing to help you adapt to the post-secondary writing style:     

Don’t use contractions

I know, I know. It’s a little contradicting for me to use a contraction in the subheading telling you not to use contractions. A contraction is a mash-up of two words that create one word, such as ‘can’t, shouldn’t or won’t.’

In a conversational piece of writing (like this post), contractions get the green light. In a formal piece of writing, however, they should be avoided.

Write out words in full to help make your writing more professional and polished.

Try not to sound too conversational

When you’re writing an assignment, you want to be taken seriously. That’s why the use of informal language that’s more conversational should be avoided.

It’s as simple as replacing common expressions like ‘figure out’ or ‘for sure’ with their bigger, more mature siblings like ‘deduce’ or ‘certain.’

If you think something in your writing is sounding a little too informal, look up a synonym for it.

I personally like using this feature in Word. Right-click on the word you want a synonym for, select ‘synonym’ from the drop-down and voila—a nice list of alternative word suggestions right at your fingertips.

Bonus tip: searching for synonyms is another way to avoid repetition in your writing. 

journal with "write ideas" written on the frontWatch for run-on expressions

A run-on expression is one that uses specific phrases that imply more, like ‘and so forth,’ and ‘etc.’

Instead of using these phrases, just finish the thought. Include whatever would be skipped over by using the run-on expression and make it a complete statement.

Skip the rhetorical questions

What colour is the sky? A rhetorical question is one that you assume your reader will already know the answer to, or it is answered in your assignment.

Instead of risking your reader actually not knowing the answer, make your writing stronger by turning your question into a statement.

Keep adverbs and verbs together

Sometimes when we speak, we’ll start or end sentences with adverbs (a word that describes a verb, adjective, another adverb or an entire sentence).

Generally, for most formal writing, you’ll want to keep adverbs and verbs together.

For example, instead of the sentence above, try: For most formal writing, you’ll want to generally keep adverbs and verbs together.

This tip can be a bit tricky, but think about it during the editing phase when you’re nitpicking fine details.

woman working on a computer Don’t start sentences with co-ordinating conjunctions

In formal writing, co-ordinating conjunctions are words that are used to join phrases, not begin sentences. Some of these include: ‘for,’ ‘but,’ ‘or’ and ‘so.’

Instead, try using come fancy transitional adverbs to start your sentences and make your argument sound stronger, like ‘therefore,’ ‘additionally,’ ‘however’ or ’thus.’

Now that you’ve got the basics, of writing, editing and formal writing, it’s time to tackle a style of writing often found in university: the critical review.

Want more details on formal writing? 

Download formal writing tip sheet


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