- identify various forms of writing, from various sources
- identify distinguishing characteristics of journalism, literature, nonfiction, and academic texts
We love categorizing things, and defining items by their differences as much as their similarities. Consider movie genres: when a friend asks you to go see the new horror movie, you know to expect something different than when you snuggle up for a romance with your significant other.
We use genre to define types of writing, as well. Knowing some of the basic differences between types of readings you’ll complete in college, will help you know what to expect from the reading before you begin.
The Academic Style
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.
Distinguishing Features of Reading Types
The types of reading you do in college will depend on your major and your elective options. It helps to be able to identify the type of source you’re being asked to read in each class. That way, you have some expectations about why you’re reading it, what you should expect to learn from it, and how to read it effectively.
Literature includes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and drama.
- Artistic use of language
- Plot = action
Works of fiction and drama usually follow a similar plot structure, called a dramatic arc. “Exposition” provides setting and background information. “Rising action” is where the events of the story start to get complicated. The “climax” is where the drama reaches its most dramatic moment. “Falling action” then shows the fallout from the climax, and “resolution” (also known as a denoument) is the closing action where the issues of the plot are fully resolved.
- the Harry Potter series of books, by J. K. Rowling
- the plays and sonnets by William Shakespeare
Journalism is news, usually focused on current events.
Because of this purpose, the writing is neutral: it shows no opinion, just facts.
The inverted pyramid is a metaphor used by journalists to illustrate how many news articles are organized. Many blogs and editorials follow this structure, in addition to most newspaper pieces.
This upside-down pyramid consists of three parts. The widest part at the top represents the most substantial, interesting, and important information the writer means to convey, while the lower parts illustrate that other material should follow in order of diminishing importance.
This format is useful for two reasons. First, readers can leave the story at any point and understand it, even if they do not have all the details. Second, readers get a sense of how important different content is, depending on where it appears in the article.
Journalism relies on research. They refer to sources by name, but don’t have separate citations at the end of the piece.
- articles from The New York Times
- stories from the evening news
Actor Dennis Franz gives a demonstration of pulling out the key features from a newspaper story in this video clip.
Download a transcript for this video here (.docx file).
You’re likely quite familiar with these already. Whether in ebook or print form, textbooks are commonly associated with formal education.
A textbook is an organized body of material useful for the formal study of a subject area. A good textbook is distinguished by:
- A discrete, well-bounded scope: all the material should relate to a solid understanding of the subject, usually mixing theory and practice for each topic as it covers the subject domain.
- Use of examples and problems: the student should be able to better grasp each presented concept by following examples, and then applying the concept in structured exercises or problems.
- An internally consistent style: after the first few sections, there should be little or no surprises for the student in terms of layout and presentation of material. The text’s user can get comfortable with the layout, the tempo of presentation, and the pattern of figures, illustrations, examples and exercises.
- Utility for future reference: once reviewed, the textbook should isolate material that is useful to the future application of subject knowledge in well organized appendices and tables.
- A structure that makes sense: the textbook is not just a collection of useful material, it is a guide to the student for an order of review which will aid in mastering the subject area.
An academic or scholarly journal is a peer-reviewed periodical that focuses on a narrow field of study. Academic journals serve as forums for the introduction and presentation for scrutiny of new research, and the critique of existing research.
Academic journal articles are generally written by experts in a particular field. They assume that readers have a depth of knowledge about the subject matter, as well.
This video defines scholarly articles, and shows their differences from other types of writing.