What Is Academic Writing? Definition, Types, and Features

Academic Writing updated on  December 11, 2023 6 min read

Academic writing is a writing style used by and for people in academic settings.

This type of writing targets readers who attend or work in schools, colleges, universities, and research institutions, such as students, professors, and researchers.

Academic writing is one of the first skills that a student learns after starting school. From elementary through postgraduate school and in academic careers, writing is the major mode of communication. Its goal is to present ideas clearly so that others can learn from and build on them.

Types of Academic Writing

The academic writing definition above spans a multitude of documents. Academic writing includes all of the following and more:

Features of Academic Writing

What does it mean to write academically? Academic writers should aim to write in a way that both interests their audience and shares their knowledge successfully.

As you're perfecting your academic writing style, remember these important features that are present in all successful scholarly writing.

Formal

Academic writing is formal, so it consists of professional rather than casual language and follows conventional grammar and style rules. To write formally, use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation according to the style guide you’ve been instructed to follow.

This is not the time to be literary or figurative. Avoid contractions and slang, and write as if you’re speaking to a stranger, not family or friends. A formal style shows that you take the topic, your work on it, and your audience seriously.

Audience question: Is this writer serious about their work?

Informed

Effective academic writing is both well researched and well cited. It draws on reputable sources and existing research to build a sound argument or get the audience to consider a specific viewpoint.

By taking the time to review various sources and give credit to their authors, you show the reader that you have respect for others’ work and are well informed on the subject.

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Understanding your subject matter thoroughly puts you in a better position to add valuable new ideas and state them with confidence, which increases your credibility.

On the other hand, plagiarism can severely damage your academic reputation and the reputation of those you're plagiarising, which is why citing all of your sources correctly is of the utmost importance.

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Audience question: How do I know this argument is sound or this research is reliable?

Clear

To make sure your ideas enter your readers’ minds intact, write in clear and precise language that they will understand.

For example, use terms that are well known in your field. When a word's definition may be unclear, define it to ensure your readers completely understand what you are trying to say.

To write clear sentences, think about their structure. Longer sentences are harder to write well and harder to follow, so it’s often best to keep most of them short—typically less than 25 words. Review each sentence carefully to make sure its punctuation and phrasing won’t cause confusion.

Demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, those) are often enemies of clarity. Here’s an example:

The US government subsidizes farms because farmers’ livelihoods are susceptible to weather and commodity price fluctuations. This protects the country’s food supply but benefits only a minority of farms and hampers global trade.

At the start of the second sentence, does this refer to price fluctuations, subsidies, the US government, or something else? A simple solution to this type of vagueness is to add a noun after the demonstrative pronoun:

This policy protects the country’s food supply but benefits only a minority of farms and hampers global trade.

Now the reader will clearly understand that this refers to the government policy of subsidizing farms.

Audience question: Does this paper make sense?

Cohesive

A cohesive piece of academic writing “sticks together”—all its parts come together to form a unified whole. High-quality academic writing shows cohesiveness at every level, from its overall idea to each section, paragraph, and sentence.

To create cohesion, lay your ideas out step by step with transition words and phrases to connect them. Ensure that each paragraph focuses on one idea and that all the paragraphs in a section contribute to the main idea of that section.

Here’s a simple formula for a well-written academic paragraph:

  1. Introductory sentence including a transition from the previous paragraph (if there is one) and a thesis statement, which states the main idea of the paragraph
  2. Sentences with evidence supporting the main idea in step 1
  3. Concluding sentence explaining why the supporting sentences support the main idea and what the reader should take from it

Audience question: What’s the main takeaway from this paper?

Precise

Precise writing is clear writing. Be specific. Thoughtful wording can make all the difference between being understood and being misunderstood.

Besides communicating effectively with readers in your native language, in academic writing you may need to consider a global audience. In these cases, words that have more than one meaning can be vague.

For instance, the APA Style Blog asks authors to use because rather than since when talking about a reason. Since has more than one meaning, but because does not.

Audience question: Am I grasping exactly what the author is saying?

Concise

As George Orwell said, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”

In academic writing, every word should add value to a sentence. These are a few examples of common wordy constructions and how to fix them:

  • in regard to → regarding
  • critically important → critical
  • due to the fact that → because
  • in a prompt manner → promptly
  • in the course of → during or while or over

Other frequent offenders are clichés and double negatives.

Clichés add words without originality. Double negatives are just plain wordy. For example, “It is not uncommon” is less concise (and less clear) than “It is common.” Long-winded writing can wear your reader out and obscure your key ideas.

Audience question: Will this paper hold my attention?

Unbiased

In any of the academic writing types, the appearance of personal bias can keep readers from seeing you and your work as credible.

Present ideas logically and be as fair and honest as possible. Focus on facts rather than opinions and offer evidence for every argument you make. Also, choose your words carefully so that you don’t exaggerate when you describe others’ perspectives and the results of research.

Writing in third person is another academic writing standard that can make you appear more objective. It’s often fine to use first person when discussing steps you took in your research; however, you should use third person to present evidence and discuss others’ work. Never use second person.

Audience question: Is the writer trying to sway me or are they simply presenting information?

How to Improve Your Academic Writing Skills

Like any other skill, writing requires practice. As you progress through your academic career, you’ll have countless opportunities to hone your academic writing prowess.

One vital way to improve is to get feedback on your writing projects from teachers, professors, and peers. You can also use this checklist to keep yourself on track and avoid missing key components of academic writing:

Academic writing checklist

  • My grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct.
  • I followed the correct writing guidelines or style guide for my audience.
  • My word choices are professional and appropriate for the academic style, and they are not casual.
  • I supported all my claims and arguments with evidence.
  • I thoroughly and accurately cited every source I used.
  • My readers will understand the terms I used.
  • I stated my ideas simply but carefully so that readers will not misunderstand me.
  • I stated my ideas in a logical order.
  • The main idea of my paper is clear.
  • The focus of each section and paragraph is clear and supports the paper’s main idea.
  • Every word adds value.
  • I considered and presented multiple perspectives, including evidence against my ideas.
  • I focused on facts, not opinions.
  • I represented arguments and views that I agree and disagree with fairly.
  • I described the limitations of my research.

And that concludes our academic writing introduction. Now you have the answer to the question “What is academic writing?” plus some helpful tips.

You are now ready to ace your academic writing assignments. But if you’re still feeling less than confident, there’s one more thing you can do: add QuillBot’s writing tools to your academic toolbox.

QuillBot is here for you as you pursue academic integrity and excellence. Good luck in your pursuit of academic writing, and beyond.

What are the four styles of academic writing?

Academic writing may be critical (assessing a viewpoint), analytical (making sense of data), persuasive (making an argument), or descriptive (explaining a theory or process).

What are the five purposes of academic writing?

Academic writing aims to inform readers, examine data, offer evidence for an argument, describe a process of gathering information, or evaluate an existing viewpoint or body of knowledge. Some academic writing types may include all five of these goals.

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Hannah Skaggs

Along with Paige Pfeifer, Mitchell Allen

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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