Bullet Points In Academic Essays Are Written

Key words: formal/informal, objective, discipline terminology, standard English, correct English, non-discriminatory language, colloquial language/slang

For most academic essays, you are expected to use a formal writing style. You need to learn about the DOs and DON’Ts of this style so that you can edit your work effectively. This style may vary if you are asked to write in an informal style.

About academic writing style

Modern academic writing has a formal style. But, what does ‘formal’ mean? Sometimes, students think that a formal style means that they have to copy their lecturer’s writing style or that of the books and journals that they read. This may result in writing that is stilted and unclear. Academic writers develop their style after years of practice and students will take time to learn this style. In this workshop, you will be helped with your writing style if you follow some basic rules.

Exercise 1: Recognising the appropriate academic style

Study these paragraphs and select the correct comment about the writing style.


I think that essay writing is an important skill for all of us students. Don’t you see how many marks are given for this? Lots of students agree that they are marooned if they can’t write a decent essay. In my opinion (as a struggling student), we should have lessons in essay writing from day one!!!

Comment on the above paragraph

Formal, straightforward, clearly written, correct academic style


Informal, like spoken (colloquial) language, incorrect academic style


Too formal, uses too many words, incorrect academic style



It is in fact correct to say that academic essay writing is of utmost importance in the attainment of a university degree. A high proportion of marks are allocated to the compilation of essay assignments as part of a university course to the point where it could be the causation of terminating a degree program because of failure. There is somewhat of an obligation for universities in the provision of services to the student population to educate their students in the intricacies of essay writing early in their undergraduate first year.

Comment on the above paragraph

Formal, straightforward, clearly written, correct academic style


Informal, like spoken (colloquial) language, incorrect academic style


Too formal, uses too many words, incorrect academic style



Essay writing is an important skill for tertiary students. Academic essays can attract a considerable proportion of assessment marks in most degree programs. Therefore, students may require a firm grounding in academic essay writing skills at the start of their first year to assist them to succeed in their university studies.

Comment on the above paragraph

Formal, straightforward, clearly written, correct academic style


Informal, like spoken (colloquial) language, incorrect academic style


Too formal, uses too many words, incorrect academic style



What to do

Click on the links to see an explanation.

Most lecturers expect students to:

write objectively

Objective writing

Academic writing is objective (i.e. factual, impersonal, unemotional, logical and precise). You should deal with facts in an impersonal way, without distortion by personal feelings or prejudices. While you are expected to develop your own ideas from your research and reading about a topic, you must express those ideas in an impersonal objective manner. An objective tone in your writing is achieved by:

  • using third person rather than first or second person (e.g. avoid using I, we, you, us, our)
  • using standard English (e.g. avoid clichés and slang)
  • using academically sound sources of information to back up your arguments
write clearly


Clarity in your writing ensures that the person who is reading (marking) your work can understand what you are saying. Do not ASSUME that your reader will understand what you are trying to say—try to write so that another person will grasp your ideas. The opposite of clear writing is muddled text that has to be deciphered by the reader. Following are a few tips to help you to write clearly:

  • write a plan to organise your writing before you start
  • write academic paragraphs correctly (see academic paragraph workshops)
  • write shorter sentences (no longer than a couple of lines)
  • punctuate correctly (poor punctuation affects clarity)
  • edit your writing for meaning
use the technical vocabulary of your subject area

Technical vocabulary

Every subject you study will have some specialised vocabulary that should be used when you are writing about that subject. Most text books have a glossary of terms (or use discipline specific dictionaries) with explanations so that you can use these terms correctly. You do NOT have to put quotation marks around these terms (e.g. ‘collaborative group work’). If you use these words fluently in your essay, it shows your marker that you are mastering your subject.

use standard English

Standard English

This is English used by the general community (e.g. business, government, schools) rather than local English (e.g. colloquial, slang) variations.

use correct English

Correct English

You will lose marks for incorrect sentences, spelling and punctuation, so always proofread your work. Use a good Australian dictionary (e.g. Macquarie Dictionary) and invest in a writer’s guide if you are unsure about the rules of English (e.g. Macquarie Writer’s Friend).

use non-discriminatory language

Non-discriminatory language

This is language that avoids offending groups of people (e.g. racial, ethnic, religious, age, sexual). See the ASO fact sheet on Using non-discriminatory language.

What NOT to do

There is much to learn from what is NOT wanted. Following are some of the small but specific mistakes in style that are made (mainly unconsciously) in formal written work.

Do not use colloquial language or slang

Colloquial language and slang
Do not use everyday conversational English or slang terms in your academic writing.

Everyday conversational English (including slang) is practised daily in our lives. When you begin academic studies, you will be expected to conform to the academic standard of using formal language. What does this mean in REAL terms? It means that you will have to recognise colloquial language in your own writing and systematically edit your work to replace words, phrases and sentences with the acceptable academic form so that your writing sounds objective and informed. This takes time and practice.

Following are some examples of colloquial language taken from student essays:

Most of us don’t have time to, say, play around with learning grammar and punctuation while we’re studying.
Many students find it difficult to find time to learn the basics of grammar and punctuation while they are studying.

Gone are the days when English is drilled into students at school.
The era when English was drilled into school students has passed.

At the end of the day, grammar and punctuation still count in your essay writing.
Lecturers expect students to use correct grammar and punctuation in their essays.

This exercise shows a couple of things about formal writing.
This exercise demonstrates some of the problems students have with their formal writing.

This may be due to a succession of wave after wave of change in education practices.
This condition may have been caused by a number of successive changes in education practices.

Do not use shortened forms of words and phrases incorrectly

Shortened forms of words and phrases
DO NOT USE CONTRACTIONS AT ALL (e.g. it’s for it is or it has; would’ve for would have)
Contractions are classed as informal language.


  • Write the name in full first time with the acronym in brackets immediately after. For the rest of the essay, use the acronym e.g. World Health Organisation (WHO).
  • Be consistent—once you have written the acronym after the full name, use it all of the time e.g. WHO.
  • DO NOT use full stops between the abbreviated letters (e.g. UNE). If you need to make an acronym into a plural, then add a lower case ‘s’ without using an apostrophe (e.g. TAFEs, PhDs, IQs).
  • EXCEPTION: If an abbreviation is commonly used as a word, you can use it in the abbreviated form without writing it in full first (e.g. NSW, FAQs).

AVOID USING COMMON ABBREVIATIONS (such as e.g., i.e., viz., etc.)

It is BEST to write the full term in the text of your writing. For example:

  • cf. (use compare instead)
  • e.g. (use for example instead)
  • etc. (use and so forth instead)
  • i.e. (use that is instead)
  • viz. (use namely instead)
  • vs. (use versus instead)
  • & (use and instead)

If you do use these abbreviations, then they must be placed inside brackets. (e.g. The rules of plagiarism, such as copying another’s work inappropriately, were carefully explained).

Avoid using personal language

Personal pronouns


As most academic writing should be objective, you are usually advised to avoid using personal pronouns (e.g. I, me, my, we, us, our, you) in your writing. This sometimes poses difficulties for the writer when a set question implies that your opinion is required. For example:

Evaluate the effectiveness of plagiarism training workshops for university students.

My observations of the literature on student essay writing are that students who participate in a training program on plagiarism perform better in their assignment tasks. Therefore, I think that all university students should be trained in how to avoid plagiarism.


Studies (reference required) of student performance on essay writing reveal that students who receive training in plagiarism avoidance are more likely to perform well in their essay tasks. Therefore, training in plagiarism avoidance is recommended for university students.

If you are asked to use examples from your personal experience in your writing, then it is quite appropriate to use personal pronouns in that part of your essay.

Avoid using language that is emotional

Emotional language


Be careful that you use language in a neutral way so that you keep your likes and dislikes (emotions) to yourself. Appealing to your reader by using strong words is not acceptable in most academic writing. For example:

It was extremely disappointing that the bureaucracy chose to target students who did not understand the rules of plagiarism in the first year of their university studies. Some caring lecturers approached the issue by delivering a series of brilliant workshops to assist the students to overcome their referencing problems. It was a fantastic strategy as most of their students did not have to face being accused of plagiarism.


First year university students were challenged when university administrators expected them to abide by the plagiarism rules set by the university. Some concerned lecturers approached the issue by delivering a series of well-presented workshops to assist the students to overcome their referencing problems. It was an effective strategy as most of their students were able to avoid having any significant plagiarism problems.

If you feel strongly about a topic, you may be tempted to use emotional words that are inappropriate for academic writing. Be aware of this when you edit your work—a few small changes to words and sentences can make your work sound more ‘well-considered’ than rash!

Avoid using words that express your opinion tooooooo strongly

Hedging words and phrases


When you are evaluating theories and discussing implications, lecturers expect that your argument should appear to be well-considered and reasonable. The language you use to make your claims should show that you can ‘make way’ for other points of view. If it is appropriate for you to be tentative (medium certainty) with your claims, you can use language techniques to ‘soften’ your claims to indicate the degree of certainty you want to express. This technique is called hedging.

Examples of levels of certainty:

  • Low certainty: seldom, rarely, never, improbable, impossible, unattainable …
  • Medium certainty/Hedging: probably, possibly, perhaps, likely, occasionally, sometimes, generally, may, might, can, could, appears to be, seems to be, tends to be, suggests, considers …
  • High certainty: undoubtedly, absolutely, certainly, definitely, incredible, amazing, unbelievable, particularly, very, vitally, totally, wholly, often, must, would, should …
Avoid using unnecessary words



Unnecessary words confuse and frustrate the reader (marker). Using too many words is a common fault in student writing. Most students do battle with the word count (allowable words per essay), so when you’re editing your writing be aware of the tendency to overuse words. You can cut out unnecessary words—without changing the meaning—to reduce your word count. The following table shows you a few common wordy phrases and their shorter replacements:

Wordy phrasesUsing better English
1. it would appear that …1. apparently …
2. with the exception of …2. except …
3. in connection with …3. about …
4. are found to be in agreement with …4. agree …
5. a large majority of …5. most …
6. in the event that …6. if …
7. a disproportionate number …7. few …
8. arrive at a decision …8. decide …
9. for a further period of ten years …9. for another ten years …
10. such is by no means the case …10. this is not so …
11. in the field of education …11. in education …
12. they are without legal representation whatsoever …12. they have no legal representation …
13. in the case of the third question …13. in the third question …
14. at the present time, overseas companies are …14. overseas companies are now …
15. there is really somewhat of an obligation on behalf of the department of health …15. the Department of Health is obliged …

See Kim Blank’s Wordiness, Wordiness, Wordiness List for more info.

Avoid using brackets and dashes to add information

Brackets and dashes



In formal academic writing, brackets are used for in-text referencing systems (other than footnoting).

In informal writing, brackets are often used to enclose non-essential information. However, using brackets in formal academic writing to give information is generally NOT ENCOURAGED. It is better to use a pair of commas and say what you mean.

Many students had difficulties with using information correctly in their writing (e.g. paraphrasing and summarising).

Many students had difficulties with using information correctly in their writing, for example, paraphrasing and summarising.

If you do use brackets, be careful that you use them correctly. You should not switch bracket styles ( ), [ ], { }, < > as most bracket styles have a usage convention. Round brackets ( ) are usually first choice for enclosing non-essential information unless you are asked to follow another convention. Be careful with your use of spaces and punctuation rules if you choose to use bracketed information—really, it is simpler not to use them!

Dashes are used in a similar way to brackets. Most students use them incorrectly as the rules are complicated. Therefore, it is better to avoid using dashes in your formal writing unless you have a very good grasp of the rules.

Do not use dot/bullet point lists unless you are instructed to

Bullet points

If you want to list information, avoid using bullet points. For example:

In dealing with plagiarism, lecturers warned the students that they should:

  • check their work for plagiarised statements
  • ensure that their in-text references were adequate
  • make certain that the items in the reference list matched the in-text references.

Text in linear style:

In dealing with plagiarism, lecturers warned students that they should: check their work for plagiarised statements, ensure that their in-text references were adequate and make certain that the items in the reference list matched the in-text references.

There are some forms of writing (e.g. reports) where bullet points are allowed. Some subjects also allow bullet points in academic essays. Check with the lecturer and ensure that you use the appropriate format and punctuation for using bullet points in that discipline.

Do not shift verb tense unnecessarily

Verb tense


The tense of a verb indicates whether the time of an event is in the past, present or future. In academic writing, you should take care to check the tense consistency of verbs. Students often change verb tense by mistake. One minute they are writing in one tense, then you abruptly switch to another tense. This makes your writing confusing and annoying. You will need to check for this when you are proofreading your work. For example:

Many students experience (present tense) difficulties with plagiarism until they were assisted (past tense) to understand some basic rules.


Many students experience (present tense) difficulties with plagiarism until they are assisted (present tense) to understand some basic rules.

It is customary to write most academic papers in the present tense. You should report your own findings and those from research in present tense (e.g. Jackson and Smith argue [present tense] that …). Be consistent in your use of tense throughout your paper. When you have finished your writing, check that the tense matches in the introduction, body and conclusion paragraphs of your essay.

Use past tense to narrate events and to refer to an author or an author’s ideas in an historical sense or if you using an example from a past event (e.g. reflecting on teaching practice).

If you are referring to future action, verbs such as will, shall, is going to, are about to, tomorrow and other adverbs of time will assist you to indicate future tense (e.g. the last statement in the conclusion of your essay).

Do not use exclamation marks (!!!) in your essay

Exclamation marks


Exclamation marks have no place in formal academic writing. They speak volumes in personal writing (e.g. letters, emailing, texting). However, in academic writing, you should say what you mean in words. For example:

All students should have lessons in plagiarism avoidance from day one!!!


Students may require assistance in plagiarism avoidance at the start of their first year to assist them to succeed in their university studies.

Do not use questions and commands


Academic writing uses language to report, argue and critique. You must use statements at all times to do this. This means that you do not revert to using personal address such as questions and commands.

Often students attempt to answer the question with a question or toss in a question to give the impression of putting in a point of view. This point of view should be expressed as a statement. For example:

Essay writing is an important skill for tertiary students. Don’t you see how many marks are given for this?

Essay writing is an important skill for tertiary students. Academic essays can attract a considerable proportion of assessment marks in most degree programs.

Sometimes writers try to invite the reader along. This is not surprising as many journalists use this technique to write much of our everyday reading matter (e.g. newspapers, magazines, advertising). Directly addressing your reader is not appropriate academic writing as you tend to use personal pronouns and issue commands rather than using statements. For example:

Now, let’s discuss how to help students to stop plagiarising in their academic essays.

The first issue is to find ways to assist students to avoid plagiarising in their academic essays.

Do not misuse font and font styles (mainly italics & underlining)

Fonts and font styles


Many students become creative with fonts (e.g. Comic Sans) and font styles (e.g. bold, underlining, italics, capital letters) in academic essays. However, this is NOT required. These tools follow set conventions that must be adhered to. For example:

Use only those fonts recommended in your study guide. They are usually Arial and/or Times New Roman in 12 point, black. Readability is the key issue. If headings are permissible, you may use variations in font size and font style to mark the hierarchy (importance) of main headings and section headings.

Font styles

Italics should only be used for:

  • Emphasising a word or phrase in a statement (e.g. This interpretation may not be reliable.)
  • Identifying a letter treated as a word (e.g. the letter s is a problem for …)
  • Identifying foreign words not absorbed in English (e.g. raison d’etre, en famille)
  • Identifying the title of a publication (e.g. The Department of Education publication Literacy and Your Child), ship (e.g the Titanic), aeroplane (e.g. The Kitty Hawk) in your writing.
  • Referencing conventions—see UNE referencing.

(Note: DO NOT use italics, bold or underlining for direct quotations.)

General Writing FAQs


The following FAQs address various general issues concerning writing. The entries in this section are based on frequently asked questions about writing that have been sent to Purdue OWL Mail Tutors. We encourage you to scan through these before you send your general writing questions to OWL Mail. You should also scan the General Writing section of the Purdue OWL for answers to your questions.


To access the FAQs, please click here.

Contributors:Purdue OWL Staff
Last Edited: 2018-03-09 02:42:57

I’m having trouble writing my essay for class. What should I do?

Essays can be a challenging type of writing, and the OWL provides many useful resources on writing essays. For our collection of resources on essay writing section.

Writing is so tough! I feel like I can never come up with enough good ideas. Can you help me?

We recommend constructing a list of topics and drafting some theses about those topics, after which we would be more than happy to aid you in your initial stages of the writing process. For ways to start invention work, we suggest reviewing our resource on invention. 

I’ve been told that my workplace/business emails aren’t professional enough. How do I properly write a workplace/business email?

When writing (and formatting) a business email, use the block format. In
other words, do not indent, but use line spaces between paragraphs (as in
this paragraph).

The level of complication (in a sentence) should be appropriate to your
audience. In other words, if your immediate audience is familiar with the
terminology, then it is appropriate to include complex ideas and

If this is a first letter to a customer, make sure you develop and
maintain a balanced level of professional friendliness in the email. A
polite sentence about appreciating their business would be good.

Since it is an email, there is no signature included; you should—at the very least—type a closing salutation (e.g., “Best,”) and type your name under that. Some people also place their title/position, company name, and contact information in the signature line of an outgoing business emails.

So, I’m a graduate student and now it’s time for me to tackle my thesis/dissertation. This is such a daunting task! Help!

While the Purdue OWL doesn't currently have resources that pertain to thesis/dissertation writing, you may find it useful to review the website published Professor S. Joseph Levine at Michigan State University.

This is a general, non-discipline-specific guide to getting yourself organized and ready to write the dissertation. You are strongly advised to bring specific questions about your research and the type of document your discipline demands to a professor on your dissertation committee.

I have to write a critical analysis for one of my classes. Please advise!

First, you'll want to prepare by reading all the material thoroughly and
thinking about some of the different issues raised in your reading. You'll
want to do what's called a “critical read” of the material, where you don't
just accept the information, but—after you understand it—you question
it. Then, select one of the ideas, which has lingered in your mind because
you disagree or are uncomfortable with it, or because you agree with it
but believe it needs much more thought. Narrow down your ideas into a
question about this idea that you might want to investigate in your paper. Ask
yourself what your feelings are about this issue, and what reasons you
might use to support your feelings. If you like what you have come up with,
then you are ready to form a preliminary thesis. If you do not like it
then go back and consider another question from your reading.

Write down a preliminary thesis statement that specifies your topic,
states your ideas about this topic, and suggests the arrangement of your
paper's argument. Make sure you refer back to your reading and choose
details that support your arguments. If you use quotations or refer to the
text, it should only be to support your own ideas.

Then try writing a first draft and leaving it for a day. Then go back, reread and revise as necessary.

I paid one of my friends to write my essay for me. When the teacher found out, he/she failed me, and he/she said that I had violated academic integrity by committing plagiarism. I thought that plagiarism was only if I copied something. I paid for this; why isn’t this essay mine?

While you may have paid for the work done on the essay, the work is still not yours. It does not represent your intellectual effort or your original ideas, nor does it represent your abilities with written English. Under most commonly accepted definitions of plagiarism used in most North American academic institutions, plagiarism is not limited to copying text. It also includes, but is by no means limited to: “ghost writing”—having someone else write for you; purchasing a text—online or from a friend; patchwriting—copying together various parts of different texts in new ways; borrowing a paper from a friend or fraternity/sorority archives; or turning in unaltered work from a previous course.

How do I create a “proper” bulleted list?

Consistency is the most important aspect here. If the writer of a text is inserting a bulleted list within a longer, non-bulleted text, and the bulleted text forms a sentence, so to speak, the first letter is usually not capitalized. Here is an example.

In all of Virginia Woolf’s major texts of fiction, she includes:
- stream of consciousness,
- references to her family, and
- feminist issues.

The other way to do it is as follows.

All of Virginia Woolf’s major texts of fiction include the following:
- Stream-of-conciousness texts
- Family references, especially so her mother
- Issues directly related to feminism

It is important, in the last type, to precede the bulleted list with a
complete sentence. It is also very important to remember parallelism. In
other words, make sure you begin each bulleted list with either a noun or
an action verb, but not one or the other. Again, consistency is the key.

Also, remember that as in an outline, there should never be only one bullet item; you should only use bullets with an actual list.

What is an absolute phrase?

An absolute phrase is a phrase that modifies a noun and is connected to a
sentence without the use of a conjunction. An absolute phrase could be
removed from a sentence and the sentence would still make sense. Here are
some examples:

Marsha looked worried, her fears creeping up on her.

In this sentence above, "her fears creeping up on her" is the absolute
phrase. “Creeping” modifies the noun “fears.” While the word “creeping”
modifies the noun “fears,” the absolute phrase, “her fears creeping up on
her,” modifies the complete sentence, “Marsha looked worried.”

I have grammar homework for my language arts/ESL grammar class. I need help with number 27, which deals with appositives. Here’s what question number 27 says…

The OWL Mail tutors are unable to answer large numbers of questions that require detailed responses. The question you have asked requires more in-depth explanations than OWL Mail is designed to provide. The OWL Mail service is meant for questions that are specifically related to a writing task that you are completing. 

If you require more in-depth grammatical information, we recommend books such as the following:

English Grammar in Use by Raymond Murphy
The Gregg Reference Manual by William Sabin
Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln


While we understand that some of these books may be expensive, it is possible that your school library, or your local public/municipal library may have these books in their references section.

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