Skip to content The Open University

Skills Check 0

The Skills Check is a short survey which should take you no more than 3 minutes to complete. Once you have completed the Skills Check we provide you with a personal learning plan targeted to your personal study needs and goals.

Sign in to work on the Skills Check.
  1. Home
  2. Assignments
  3. Writing for university
  4. Using an appropriate writing style

Using an appropriate writing style

Different academic subjects will demand different styles of writing from you. Some might require you to use the third person ('Smith argues that …', or 'He said …') and to achieve a certain amount of distance from the arguments you are writing about. Other subjects expect the first person ('I placed the seeds in full daylight ...'), for example, in the reports that you might write for a science or technology subject.

Using reflective writing in professional subject areas

Some assignments (for example, some within Health and Social Care) require students to use their professional judgement to make an informed subjective comment. You might be asked to provide your own reflections and opinions on a subject. However, even though you are being asked for your subjective response to the topic, you are still be expected to provide evidence to support your position.

Self-reflection

On many modules you may find that a part of your assignment is devoted to self-reflection and your own view of how you've developed during your studies (a little like a learning-progress diary). The language you use in these self-reflective parts of an assignment may be different from that in the academic part of the assignment. You are expected to use the first person (e.g. 'I think that', 'My analysis is') and you may well be encouraged to give your subjective feelings about your progress.

Using objective writing

Most assignments require you to demonstrate academic objectivity and a well argued approach to the subject matter, rather than an unthinking acceptance of it.

There are a number of ways to achieve this. Most importantly, throughout your studies you will develop your ability both to argue for something rigorously to and provide evidence for your argument. However, some simple language use can also demonstrate a measured and objective approach. For example, avoiding the first person (except in reflective aspects of an assignment, mentioned above) and by using 'hedging' language (see below).

First person or third person?

Check your module materials to see if you are expected to use the third person or if you are allowed to use the first person.

Using the first person means writing: 'I think that …', 'My opinion is that …' If the assignment is asking you for your reflective opinion on a subject, using the first person is fine. However, many essay-style assignments require you to avoid the first person and use the third person instead: 'He argues that …'; 'Smith's book overturned previous ideas on …'.

Hedging language

Hedging language means cautious language. So, rather than saying 'Parents have a greater influence over children's desire to… , it might be preferable to say 'it can be argued that parents have a greater influence …'.

Passive or active language?

Passive language is often used in discursive, essay-style assignments, whereas active language is more often used in report-style assignments. However, that is not a hard and fast truth and you may find opportunities to change between the two in either type of assignment.

  • Passive language de-personalises the writing by avoiding personal pronouns and, if you don't know who is performing the action (i.e. in grammatical terms, who is the 'subject' of the sentence), passive language allows you to avoid mentioning the 'who': "The seed pods were counted" instead of "I/we (the subject) counted the seed pods".
  • Active language allows you to be very clear about who is performing the action: 'I counted the seed pods'. It is, therefore, useful in report-style assignments.
  • Passive language places the emphasis upon the result of an action rather than who (the subject) performs it, as in: 'Children are more likely to be hit by their parents (the subject) than their teachers' instead of 'Parents (subject) are more likely to hit their children than are teachers'.
  • Alternating between an active voice and a passive voice can provide variety and help you avoid repeating yourself.