Academic Writing: Recognizing Red Flags on the Road to Revision

Red Flag # 1: Avoid Using First or Second Person in Academic Writing

There is a debate over how appropriate the use of “I” and “You” are in academic writing. However, especially for less experienced writers, these pronouns tend to reduce the level of formality in academic writing. Often personal pronouns make a paper or an essay much like a letter to “Mom” rather than academic prose. There are several solutions to using personal pronouns.

First, it is not necessary to make statements such as, “I think,” “In my opinion.” The reader understands that the opinions expressed in academic writing are those of the author.

Example: I think that language acquisition involves learning how to communicateappropriately in a new culture.

Revision: Language acquisition involves learning how to communicate appropriately in a new culture.

     A second solution is to change personal pronouns to third person nouns:

Example: It is more important for you to learn how to revise your own writing than to have your teacher edit what you write.

Revision: It is more important for students to learn how to revise their own writing than to have teachers edit what students write.

Example: In my country, we teach vocabulary by telling our students to memorize lists of new words related to a specific topic.

Revision: In Japan, English teachers require students to memorize lists of new words related to a specific topic.

(For a more detailed discussion on the use of first and second person in academic writing see Ken Hyland’s article “Options of Identity in Academic Writing” in the October 2002 edition of the ELT Journal.)

Red Flag #2: Avoid Using Passive Voice Wherever Possible.

The rationale here is that excessive use of passive voice makes writing wordy, confusing and even boring. Often beginning academic writers try to add words to their essays and papers to give the illusion they are writing more. Some novice writers even believe that passive voice sounds more academic. However, the academic writer should strive to have a high percentage of content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) and a low percentage of function words (articles, prepositions and sometimes pronouns) in their essays and papers.

The solution is to change passive phrases and sentences to active voice-a task that usually requires time and practice.

Example: When passive voice is used by a writer, the reader is often confused.

Content words = 8 (62%) Function words = 5 (38%)

Revision 1: When writers use passive voice, it often confuses the reader.

Content words = 8 (80%) Function words = 2 (20%)

Revision 2: Using passive voice often confuses the reader.

*Using a gerund for a subject is one way to eliminate passive voice

Content words = 6 (86%) Function words = 1 (14%)

(For additional information on using passive voice see H. Moody’s article, “The Passive Engineer”. )

Red Flag # 3: Avoid Using Lazy Words

It is common for writers to focus on ideas rather than words while composing a first draft. Therefore, first drafts often contain many “lazy words” that the writer can replace with more academic vocabulary. There is a simple two-step solution. The writer must first recognize what the lazy words are and then use a thesaurus and a dictionary to change them to the appropriate academic words. Some examples of lazy words and expressions are: big, small, let, make, give, thing, and so on, something, him, them, like, and it.

Example: If a teacher gives the students more freedom, it will let them learn with smaller stress.

Revision 1: If the teacher allows the students to have more freedom, they will be able to learn with less stress

Revision 2: Allowing the students to have more freedom enables them to learn in a less stressful environment.

Red Flag # 4: Avoid Using Long and Confusing Sentences

Often in a first draft, the writer will be “on a roll” with ideas and lose track of where the sentence began. This is similar to a stream of consciousness style of writing which may be acceptable in creative writing; however, it becomes confusing in academic writing. This red flag is easy to recognize. If a sentence takes up more than four typed lines (60+ words), the writer should consider revision. One solution is to separate the ideas in the sentence and then rewrite those ideas into two or more sentences. Another solution is to eliminate unnecessary words and phrases. Usually, the revision will require a combination of both solutions.

Example: Although it is a fact that unmotivated students are unlikely to be able to learn a second language because they won’t want to take the time to learn, it is possible to help these students by developing different kinds of lessons they will find interesting and therefore this will help to make them more motivated because then they will want to learn since the class will have suddenly become more interesting for them.


  1. lack of motivation à difficulty in learning a SL
  2. a variety of lessons will increase students’ interest
  3. increased interest leads to increased motivation
  4. which leads to increased learning

Revision: Since a lack of motivation may inhibit students’ ability to learn a second language, teachers need to develop a variety of lessons that will increase the students’ interest. By making lessons more interesting for the students, teachers raise the motivation level; thus, improving the opportunity for language learning and acquisition.

Red Flag #5: Avoid Excessive Use of Phrasal Verbs

Although phrasal verbs (verb + preposition) are common in spoken English, they can reduce the formality of academic writing. Phrasal verbs are often the reason writers have dangling prepositions at the end of a sentence. Why use two five cent words when one 25 cent word increases the academic value of an essay or paper. The solution is use a thesaurus and a dictionary to find an appropriate replacement.

Example: By giving up his position as union representative, he let down the people he had been working for.

Revision: By resigning, the union representative disappointed the members he had been serving.

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All Lessons and Material on this Site © 2015 - 2016 ESL Resource Bank 

Copyright Information