In everyday life, what you read is usually written to grab your attention and get a message across quickly before you “switch channels,” so to speak. By contrast, academic texts often raise broad, abstract questions and are unconcerned about arriving at quick answers. For example, where a newspaper headline might say:
“Voters Ready for Tax & Spend, Claims Guru”
the text, written by Richard Layard in the article “The Secrets of Happiness,” and published in The New Statesman, actually says:
…taxation is one of the most important institutions we have for preserving a sensible balance between work and leisure […] I suspect that, in some almost unconscious way, the electorate now understands that the scramble to spend more money is partially self-defeating and that this explains why people are more favourable to public expenditure. But the time is ripe to make argument explicit.
The headline makes its point quickly, but it says far less. It presents little basis for analysis and debate. You can agree or disagree, but you can’t easily discuss the proposition. Layard carefully teases out a variety of issues, but the headline simplifies everything down to a well-established formula: free markets or public spending – which side are you on?
Unlike general public debate, academic debate advances through finely-tuned language and disciplined methods of argument. The Layard paragraph may be a lot longer than the headline, but it is not “wordy” for the sake of it. It is very precisely argued; it would be quite difficult to cut out words without altering the meaning.
Academic writers use cautious, considered language in an effort to be as exact as they can in their analysis. They try to say only what they mean and what they think can be justified. In daily life we cheerfully use language as a blunt instrument, to cudgel our way through the discussions that spring up around us. By contrast, academic writing uses language as a scalpel, to cut precisely between closely related arguments, so that they can be spread apart and analyzed in detail. Learning how to read, think and write in this way is a central part of learning in college.
What Academic Sources Look Like
Academic and specialist sources, such as the ones you have just considered, may have different purposes and contain different kinds of information but they all aim to present content in a clear way. This is why they all follow a clear and predictable structure.
The structure of each type of source depends on its purpose. For example, to help readers to find a specific term easily and quickly, dictionaries arrange words and their definitions in alphabetical order. Once readers understand the way the words are listed, looking up a word is not difficult.
Academic articles or book chapters also follow a clear and predictable structure. They normally contain an introduction, several paragraphs and a conclusion. Paragraphs may also be grouped into sections. This is their typical structure:
Other texts such as newspaper articles, web pages, and fact sheets are organized differently.