I'm not having the best of days - we just bumped our car into a friend's car and damaged both vehicles - an expensive mistake! I'm feeling a bit grumpy, so I'm going to blog about some of the things which I think don't sound good in academic writing. Feel free to disagree with me, as some of them really are a matter of opinion.
- Don't be over-dramatic. A lot of students use memorised phrases like 'One of the most controversial topics today is ....' or '..... is hotly debated around the world'. This is fine for genuinely dramatic topics which really are the subject of heated debate, like perhaps global warming, but if it is something like 'is it a good idea for children to have pets?' then these phrases sound silly. If you use phrases like this because you don't know what else to put in the introduction, follow the formula taught by IELTS-Simon, to write a fairly general sentence about the topic of the essay, and follow it with another sentence which sums up your whole answer to the question. Good examples of his techniques are here, here and especially here.
- Be careful with all sentences memorised from books. I feel a bit bad writing this, but please be extra careful with books produced by people who are not native or near-native speakers. One of my lovely Chinese students obviously had her doubts about some Chinese IELTS books she had at home, as she brought them into class and asked me to check if they were suitable for her to study from. I'm sorry to say that they were FULL of mistakes, and also contained an awful lot of very unusual vocabulary which you really don't need for IELTS (a long list of different precious stones, for example). Anyway, to get back to my point about what not to write, don't memorise and write things like 'every coin has two sides'. We just don't use this phrase - we do have the saying 'two sides of the same coin', but that really means the opposite of what people mean when they say 'every coin has two sides'. You don't need to use phrases like this at all - you need sensible opinions, with good examples, expressed in clear, simple, accurate English, with a few basic linking devices. That's it!
- Avoid 'sweeping statements'. These are statements where you over-generalise about things which you can't possibly be sure about, especially when they could cause offence to people (remember, examiners are people!). Always, never and all are dangerous words! I'm also thinking of things like 'women should stay at home with their children', 'people in the UK do not care about old people' and 'it is immoral to get divorced if you have children'. I have read all three in essays handed in for me to mark, and they are not acceptable in academic writing. Don't get me wrong - you are entitled to think whatever you want, but in academic writing you have to express your ideas more carefully, and in particular avoid racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. By the way, putting 'in my opinion' before an offensive comment doesn't make it acceptable in academic writing!
- Don't use 'he' to refer to people in general. It is no longer acceptable in academic writing to use language which excludes one half of the population. It can sound clumsy to always write 'he or she' 'his or her', so the easiest way to avoid sexist language is to make things plural - instead of 'the teacher must encourage his or her students to read widely', just say 'teachers must encourage their students....'
- Don't use abbreviations. You all know this, but it's so easy to forget! So no 'what's more', 'etc', and 'don't'... It's not a big thing, but sticking to this rule shows that you understand and respect the conventions of academic writing.
- Try to avoid mixing up British and American spelling. In IELTS it's fine to use either, but try to be consistent - all British or all American, rather than a mixture of both. I must add that some tutors at university have terribly strong feelings about British v American spelling - I personally don't think it matters, as long as you are consistent - so you need to check what the 'rules' are at the university or college where you are studying.
I hope some of these pointers are helpful - you may not think that some of these things matter, but there's no point in annoying the IELTS examiner! I'll be in a better mood next time I write....