Related Concepts: Discourse Community – Community of Practice; Elements of Style; Professional Writing – Style Guide;
What is Academic Writing?
Academic writing refers to all of the texts produced by academic writers, including theoretical, empirical, or experience-based works. Examples:
- Students at the high school and undergraduate level write essays, book reviews, lab reports, reviews of literature, proposals–and more. These assignments often presume an audience of a teacher-as-examiner
- Professional academics (e.g. research faculty at a university) engage in academic discourse in order to engage in peer-reviewed scholarly conversations with other experts or to inform other disciplines or the general public about a subject. Academics endeavor to contribute to existing scholarly conversations–and, ideally–to change the conversation in a range of ways:
- by proposing a new theory, method, application
- by presenting new empirical findings
- by offering new interpretations of existing evidence.
Different academic fields have distinct genres, writing styles and conventions because each academic field possesses its own set of rules and practices that govern how ideas are researched, structured, supported, and communicated. Thus, there is no one single style of academic writing. Rather, there are many different writing styles a writer might adopt, depending on their aims of discourse, media, writing tools, and rhetorical situation.
Differences aside, there are a number of discourse conventions that academic writers share across disciplines. These conventions empower writers to establish authority and clarity in their prose–and to craft pieces that can be understood and appreciated by readers from various academic fields as well as the general public.
Features of Academic Discourse
- Substantive, well reasoned, and logical
- Academic writing tends to be substantive rather than superficial, anecdotal, vague or underdeveloped. For example, a paper on climate change would not just describe the observed changes in temperature, but might also delve into the scientific theories that explain these changes, the evidence supporting these theories, the potential impacts of climate change, and the debates within the scientific community
- Academic writing prioritizes evidence and logical reasoning over anecdotal observations, personal opinions, personal beliefs emotional appeals
- Members of the academic community expect authors to provide evidence for claims. When academics introduce evidence into their texts, they know their readers expect them to establish the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of any evidence they introduce
- Academic writers are careful to support their claims with evidence from credible sources, especially peer-reviewed, academic literature.
- Academics are sensitive to the ideologies and epistemologies that inform research methods.
- Academics are mindful of the assumptions that inform their research practices.
- For example, when a psychology student studies the effects of mindfulness on anxiety disorders, they would need to understand that their research is based on the assumption that anxiety can be measured and quantified, and that it can be influenced by interventions like mindfulness training. They would also need to understand that their research is situated within a particular theoretical framework (e.g., cognitive-behavioral theory), which shapes how they conceptualize anxiety, mindfulness, and the relationship between them.
- Objective, Fair, Truthful
- Academic writing is expected to be objective and fair–and free of bias. This means presenting evidence in a balanced way, considering different perspectives, and not letting personal biases distort the analysis.
- It also involves recognizing the limitations of the research and being open to criticism and alternative interpretations.
- Respectful of copyright and intellectual property
- Academic writers are very careful to attribute the works of authors whom they’re quoting, paraphrasing, or summarizing. They understand information has value, and they’re careful to discern who the major thought leaders are on a particular topic. They understand they cannot simply copy and paste large sections of copyrighted material into their own work, even if they provide an attribution.
- Academic writers must also abide copyright laws, which protect the rights of authors and creators. This means, for example, that they cannot simply copy and paste large sections of copyrighted material into their own work, even if they provide a citation. Instead, they can use smaller excerpts under the principle of “fair use,” or they can seek permission from the copyright holder to use larger portions.
Academic writing is typically organized in a deductive way (as opposed to inductively), with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction sets the context and states the purpose of the writing (aka, the thesis!), the body develops the arguments or presents the research, and the conclusion summarizes the main points and discusses the implications or applications of the research
Typically, the design of academic documents is plain vanilla, despite the visual turn in communication made possible by the ubiquity of design tools. Unlike professional writing, which tends to be incredibly visual, academic writing tends to be fairly traditional with its focus on alphabetical text as opposed to visual elements.
- Plain Design: Academic documents, such as research papers, theses, or scholarly articles, typically follow a minimalist design approach. They primarily consist of black text on a white background, with a standard, easy-to-read font. This “plain vanilla” design reflects the focus of academic writing on the content rather than the presentation. The aim is to communicate complex ideas clearly and without distraction.
- Limited Use of Visuals: Unlike in professional writing or journalism, visuals such as images, infographics, or videos are not commonly used in academic writing. When they are used, it’s usually to present data (in the form of graphs, charts, or tables) or to illustrate a point (with diagrams or figures). The visuals are typically grayscale and are intended to supplement the text rather than replace it.
- Structured Layout: Academic writing tends to follow a structured layout, with clearly marked sections and subsections. This helps to organize the content and guide the reader through the argument. However, aside from headings, there is usually little use of design elements such as color, bolding, or varied fonts to highlight different parts of the text.
- Lack of Interactive Features: With the transition to digital media, many types of writing have become more interactive, incorporating hyperlinks, multimedia, or interactive data visualizations. However, academic writing has been slower to adopt these features. While academic articles often include hyperlinks to references, they rarely include other interactive elements.
However, as digital media and visual communication become increasingly prevalent, we may see changes in the conventions of academic design.
- Academic writing tends to be formal in persona, tone, diction. Academic writers avoid contractions, slang, colloquial expressions, sexist use of pronouns. Because it is written for specialists, jargon is used, but not unnecessarily. However, the level of formality can vary depending on the discipline, the genre (e.g., a research paper vs. a blog post), and the intended audience. For instance, in sociology and communication, autoethnography is a common genre, which is a composite of autobiography, memoir, creative nonfiction, and ethnographic methods.
- In the last 20 years, there has been a significant move toward including the first person in academic writing. However, in general, the focus of discourse isn’t the writer. Thus, most academic writers use the first person sparingly–if at all.
- Academic writers use the citation styles required by their audiences.
- The prose style of academics, especially professional academics, tends to be incredibly “compressed,” which makes academic writing challenging, particularly for novice readers or those outside the discipline. In other words, academic writing, particularly that of professional academics, is often characterized by an efficiency of expression, where a lot of information is conveyed in relatively few words. Here’s what that means in more detail:
- Specialized Vocabulary: Academics often use specialized vocabulary or jargon that is specific to their field. These terms can convey complex ideas in a compact form, contributing to the compressed nature of academic prose. However, they can also make the writing less accessible to non-specialists.
- Complex Sentence Structures: Academic writing often uses complex sentence structures, such as long sentences with multiple clauses, or sentences that incorporate lists or parenthetical information. These structures allow academic writers to express complex relationships and nuances of meaning, but they can also make the writing more challenging to read.
- Referential Density: Academic writing often refers to other works, theories, or arguments, either explicitly (through citations) or implicitly. This referential density allows academic writers to build on existing knowledge and engage in scholarly conversation, but it also assumes that readers are familiar with the referenced works or ideas.
1. When is it appropriate to use the first person?
Use of the first person is now more commonplace across academic disciplines. In order to determine whether first person is appropriate, engage in rhetorical analysis of the rhetorical situation.