Academic Writing Prose Style

Definition – Summary

An academic writing prose style refers to the writing style that academic writers share across academic fields, including Humanities and Social Science; Natural Sciences; Formal Sciences; Professions and Applied Sciences.

Related Concepts: Discourse Community – Community of Practice; Professional Writing

Guide to an Academic Writing Prose Style

Traditionally, an academic prose style is portrayed as as a singular style of writing–as a monolithic form of discourse. In theory, an academic prose style refers to a style of writing that

  • is “objective, impersonal, formal, explicit, and organized around assertions, claims, and reasons that illustrate or defend those claims” (Ronald 1999, p. 175)
  • adopts a “formal tone, use of the third-person rather than first-person perspective (usually), a clear focus on the research problem under investigation, and precise word choice”

In the U.S., as students move beyond high-school writing, they are expected to adopt a formal register and write in the 3rd person point of view. They’re instructed to keep the spotlight on the topic rather than their feelings or thoughts about the topic. These shifts in voice and rhetorical stance make sense as students shift away from discourse that focuses on their personal experiences to discourses that summarize research, theory, knowledge claims, and practices in specific disciplines.

In practice, however, the academic writing styles of subject matter experts may be more varied, more robust, and more open to stylistic play than these portrayals suggest. Note, for instance, the tremendous variety of writing styles employed by academic writers across academic fields.

Academic Fields
Humanities and Social ScienceNatural Sciences
Formal SciencesProfessions and Applied Sciences

Textual Attributes of an Academic Prose Style

Works that are characterized as having an “academic style” tend to have the following stylistic attributes:

  1. Research-based
    • Academic writing tends to be grounded in textual and empirical evidence. Appeals to logos are privileged over appeals to ethos and pathos.
  2. Thoughtful, well reasoned, detailed
    • Academic writing tends to be substantive rather than superficial, anecdotal, vague or underdeveloped. Writers tend to specialize and go into great depth.
  3. Reflective, self-critical
    • Academic writing may be persuasive yet even so writers are careful not to overstate claims and to be self critical about methods. Writers relate their work to the work of past investigators and clarify the contribution to the field.
  4. Formal in style and tone
    • Academic writing tends to avoid contractions, colloquial expressions, sexists use of pronouns. Because it is written for specialists, some jargon is used, but not unnecessarily.
  5. Thesis-driven & deductively organized.
  6. Respectful of copyright and intellectual property
    • Academic writers tend to contextualize secondary sources, clarify the ebb and flow of scholarly conversations, and carefully follow academic styles for attributions.

Academic Prose Styles Evolve in Response to Social and Technological Changes

Additionally, thanks to new writing spaces such as the internet, Twitter, WordPress, YouTube, and Instagram, academic writers have new opportunities to express themselves–and the affordances of these technologies tend to favor the first person and individual expression. Additionally, at least in the humanities use of the first person is now commonplace.

  1. Use of the 1st person rather than the 3rd person is becoming more commonplace in academic discourse.
  2. There is a great deal of variety in the writing styles of professionals across academic disciplines. For example, a knowledge worker in the finance field has distinct and unique ways of proving theorems and hypotheses. Thus, their peer-reviewed articles are likely to share some textual attributes such as data visualizations, financial projections, and mathematical formulae. These stylistic moves are likely to be different from the stylistic moves of knowledge workers in other disciplines. For instance, students and professors of history probably wouldn’t organize their reasoning around calculations but would instead turn to archival research, interviews, and textual research.

Textual Attributes

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