What is academic writing? Learn what this writing style is and how you can use it to convey thoughts precisely in your school settings.
Academic writing is a precise, concise, factual, and formal style of writing used in academic settings. This formal writing style is heavy on research and seeks to help the reader understand something about the topic. It also carefully uses citations to ensure the reader can follow the research and the writer avoids plagiarism.
What Is Academic Writing?
While you may not know the answer to the question, “what is academic writing?” if you have spent time in school, you probably have written an academic paper at some point. Academic papers are essential to the education experience in most high school and college settings.
The primary purpose is to create understanding in the reader’s mind, though sometimes the purpose is also to persuade the reader to a particular position. A secondary purpose is to show that a student has completed thorough research and deep knowledge of a specific topic.
Academic papers often seek to answer a research question. Sometimes they are the result of a scientific experiment, while other times, these papers come from studying existing literature to form a new conclusion about a topic. For some academic programs, the paper shows the culmination of learning from all the years of study in the degree.
For example, a doctoral student will complete their training by writing a dissertation, and some programs will ask the student to write a senior thesis or capstone project paper. Each provides an opportunity to showcase a student’s academic writing skills.
The Academic Writing Process
Academic writing follows a specific writing process. Students and researchers can follow this process to complete all types of academic writing projects.
Define the Question
The academic writing process starts with a question. Sometimes, a professor will assign a research question, and sometimes the question comes from the student’s initial research. This question will fuel their research.
Research the Question
Writers will research the existing literature on the topic or question, keeping careful notes so they can cite sources when they write their academic papers. Then, they will try to come up with a take on the question that is different than the information that already exists. Finally, if the paper is persuasive, the writer will choose an answer to the question, then work to persuade the reader to come to that same conclusion.
Write a Thesis Statement
After conducting research, the writer will make a thesis statement that states the answer to the question. The thesis statement is thorough and gives the reader a basic idea of the angle the piece will take when proving the thesis.
Craft an Outline
Next, the writer will write an outline that supports the thesis statement with the research already conducted. Each main point in the outline will be the main argument supporting the thesis. The subpoints under the main points will provide more details on that main argument.
Write a Draft
Once the outline is complete, the writer is ready to start the first draft of the paper. Each point of the outline will be a section in the paper or a paragraph in an essay. Each paragraph will have a topic sentence that connects to the main thesis, followed by supporting sentences that support that main topic.
Proofread and Fact-Check
After writing a draft based on the outline, the writer will need to proofread their work. Proofreading for academic journals and papers goes beyond just checking grammar and spelling. It also must check facts because academic writing must be factually accurate.
Cite the References
Throughout the paper, any quotes or paraphrases will have in-text citations or footnotes, depending on the style guide followed. These citations will correspond to resources on the works cited or references page at the end of the paper.
Format the Paper Correctly
Finally, in the final draft of the paper, the writer will carefully follow the formatting in the chosen style guide, including the formatting for the works cited or bibliography page. Formatting includes the title page, spacing, page numbers, indentations, font, and citation formatting.
Characteristics of Academic Writing
Academic writing has specific characteristics that differentiate it from other types of writing. For example, if you have a writing assignment to write something for a school setting, you will want to ensure that you have these in your piece.
A Formal, Unbiased Tone
Most types of academic writing aim to show research or findings from a study, experiment, or survey. Thus, the tone needs to be formal. This typically means you will write in the third person. You will also want to show the methodology you used and any limitations of your research or experimentation. Similarly, your journal article or another piece of academic writing must showcase the work and research of others with accurate citations. This representation should have balance, showing all sides of the issue based on existing research. Representing others’ work and knowledge in this balanced way makes your work unbiased.
These writing projects do more than just present facts from the writer’s research. These pieces also analyze and evaluate those facts or any new data collected through experimentation. To write critically, the writer must perform a significant amount of research. They must have a thorough knowledge of the subject matter to analyze it and write about it well.
Clear and Precise Writing
When writing for academic settings, keep your language clear and precise. Vague language or passive voice verbs are not ideal. For instance, avoid vague language and phrases, such as:
- A long time ago
- A few respondents
- Could perhaps suggest
Instead, use definitive word choices, such as:
- 15 years ago
- 25% of the respondents
- This research suggests
When it comes to precision, avoid adding too much jargon or specialist language to your piece unless the intended audience is well familiar with those words.
All academic writing must have solid research behind it. These resources need to be credible and appropriate for your audience. Many types of academic writing are collaborative, with new writing building on past research and adding to it. In your writing, you will paraphrase or summarize the work of others. Sometimes quotes are appropriate. Ensure that you properly cite your sources when you refer to another writer’s work, using in-text citations and a reference list or works cited page at the end of the work. Failure to properly cite work using the appropriate academic style guide assigned to your piece means you are guilty of plagiarism, which could mean expulsion from your academic program.
Follows Grammar Rules
Not only does the style guide assigned to the paper tell you how to cite your sources, but it also tells you particular grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules to follow. In general, you will follow all the English grammar rules that people readily accept. You will also follow the style guide for stylistic items, such as:
- Writing numbers
- Using the correct verb tenses
- Formatting and capitalizing headings
In addition, know whether you are writing for a US, UK, or other English-speaking audience, and spell the words appropriately for that language.
How Academic Writing Differs from Other Writing Styles
Academic writing is different from other writing styles in that it is not:
- Personal: Do not use second-person or first-person pronouns in academic writing, making it sound too personal. The exception is using “I” to refer to yourself as the writer, particularly when describing your research or concluding thoughts.
- Drawn Out: While some types of academic writing are long, it should not be more complicated or long-winded than is necessary to cover the topic. Instead, keep the writing as concise as possible.
- Emotive: Academic writing is factual or persuasive but not emotional or grandiose. Avoid writing with subjective or flowery language with elaborate words or necessarily long sentences.
- Informal: Slang terms, contractions, and similar informal language do not have a place in academic writing.
- Redundant: Be concise, academic writing should not be repetitive.
Academic Writing Structure
Academic writing, regardless of the type, will follow a specific structure. These pieces start with an executive summary and abstract, except for short essays. The abstract is one paragraph that includes:
- The purpose of the research or study
- The problem investigated
- The study’s design
- Any significant findings or trends
- A summary of your conclusions
After the abstract comes an introduction that introduces the topic, most of the time, the introduction will have the thesis statement as the final sentence in the introductory paragraph. After the introduction, you will have the body paragraphs. You will have several body paragraphs per point in your outline in a long academic piece. You may even set these off with headings.
In an academic essay, each point will be one paragraph. Your body paragraphs should start with a topic sentence. This tells what the paragraph is about, and the following sentences will support that topic sentence. If you need to write something, not about the topic sentence, start a new paragraph with a new topic sentence. After thoroughly showing your research in your body paragraphs, you will write a conclusion.
The conclusion summarizes your research and points. If you are conducting experiments, it will state your conclusion. If not, it will re-state your thesis statement differently. The paper will also have a works cited, bibliography, or references page with correctly formatted references. Some academic writing is a good candidate for publication in research and academic journals, and longer pieces may become books.
7 Types of Academic Writing
The goal of academic writing may be published in a journal or book, or it may simply be to fulfill the requirements of a college class. Some of the common types of academic writing include these:
1. Academic Essays
Essays are shorter pieces, often following a five-paragraph structure. The first paragraph outlines the essay and includes the thesis statement. The middle three paragraphs, the body paragraphs, are the three points that support the thesis statement. The final paragraph is a conclusion that restates the thesis and the points.
2. Research Papers
Research papers are a bit longer than essays. They include an introduction and conclusion like an essay but have more than three body paragraphs. Research papers include detailed investigation and may be written in response to the teacher’s question. Depending on the assignment parameters, they include in-text citations following the MLA, APA, or Turabian formats.
3. Thesis or Disseratation
A thesis or dissertation is an extensive research project, often long enough to be published as a book. It features the culmination of the research and work of a doctoral or master’s degree program. In the thesis, the student can choose the topic and argument. It will relate to their study area and their work during their education.
4. Research Proposal
A research proposal is an outline a student will present before planning their dissertation or extensive research project. Depending on the teacher’s requirements, it may be in paragraph or outline form. The research proposal ensures the student only spends time researching what the professor wants them to study. Since a dissertation is such a large project, the proposal is an important step.
5. Literature Review
Literature reviews look at all the research and literature on a topic and create a review of that information. The writer summarizes and analyzes the existing body of information in the review. A literature review aims to inform a research team about the existing body of research before they start a new branch of learning on the topic. This ensures they do not spend time testing or researching something already covered.
6. Lab Report
A lab report examines the research goals and methods for a laboratory-based experiment. This report will show what steps the researchers took to come to any conclusions they made. It often accompanies a longer work that outlines the results of the experiment.
7. Annotated Bibliography
In some types of academic writing, simply listing references is insufficient. Instead, an annotated bibliography lists those sources’ references and short descriptions. Writers may also evaluate the sources in this type of bibliography.
5 Academic Writing Tips
If you have to write for academic purposes, these tips will help you get the style and structure right:
1. Check the Style Guide
Your style guide is an essential tool when writing in an academic setting. Check it regularly for any grammar or formatting questions that you are uncertain about. Failure to follow the assigned writing guide will lead to lower scores on your writing. Generally, works in the humanities or literature will follow the MLA style guide.
You will likely follow the APA style guide if you write for psychology, sociology, education, or political sciences. Turabian, also known as the Chicago Manual of Style, is usually the choice for publishing books. If you are writing for health, medicine, or biology, you will likely need to use the American Medical Association (AMA) style guide.
2. Avoid Contractions and Slang
One of the biggest contrasts between academic writing and informal writing is the use of contractions. Do not use any in your academic work. Similarly, avoid slag and too casual language.
3. Watch for Jargon
That said, you don’t want your piece to end up full of big words that the reader cannot understand. If you must use industry-specific words that your reader is not already familiar with, define the vocabulary within the piece. Jargon is acceptable if your audience is familiar with the terminology but must not be part of your piece if it would confuse the reader.
4. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!
Proofread and fact-check your piece multiple times before submitting it. If you can, ask someone familiar with your subject area to help you edit your paper. Factual and grammar mistakes will cost you dearly because academic writing demands precision. As you proofread, make sure your piece is not repetitive or redundant. Every word needs to count, and having repetitive statements does not help convey your meaning.
5. Use Active Voice
In academic writing, always use the active voice, not the passive voice. For example:
- Several respondents gave the answers.
This sentence uses the passive voice. The subject, “answers,” does not do any of the action. To transform this sentence into the active voice, you could say:
- Several respondents gave the answers.
The subject, “respondents,” is doing the action in this sentence.
When editing for grammar, we also recommend taking the time to improve the readability score of a piece of writing before publishing or submitting.
If you still need help, our guide to grammar and punctuation explains more.
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