Basic Principles of Academic Writing
Academic writing presents thoroughly investigated ideas to an informed audience.
Contrast academic and popular writing
- Academic writing makes a claim or an argument, and uses a combination of evidence (details and facts ) and clear explanations of logical reasoning to support that claim in order to persuade the reader.
- Good academic writing is concise; rather than using flowery language and overly complex sentence structures, which can distract from an argument, writers should use the simplest language possible to let their ideas shine through.
- Academic writing usually uses objective language, which allows writers to convince the reader that their argument is true, rather than just subjective opinions.
- A good academic writer is able to see both sides of the argument, or claim, and counter it with supporting evidence.
- analysis: A critical examination by the writer which draws connections (or notes disconnections) between points of evidence.
- counter-arguments: Ideas and evidence which refute or oppose the original claim.
- claim: An assertion, used as the basis for an academic piece of writing, that must be proven with evidence.
- academic writing: Writing that is published or presented to a specialized audience in order to inform, persuade, demonstrate, explore, or achieve some other specific purpose.
- genre: A category or type of writing, usually in reference to different academic disciplines.
“Academic writing” is a broad term that covers a wide variety of genres across disciplines. While its features will vary, academic (or scholarly) writing in general tries to maintain a professional tone while defending a specific position or idea.
There are many different approaches to academic research, since each discipline has its own conventions that dictate what kinds of texts and evidence are permissible. Scholarly writing typically takes an objective tone, even though it argues in favor of a specific position or stance. Academic writing can reach a broader audience through more informal venues, such as journalism and public speaking.
Overarching Principles of Academic Writing
Academic writing comes in many forms and can cover a wide range of subject matter; however, successful writing will demonstrate certain conventions, no matter what is being written about.
The Thesis Statement: Making and Supporting a Claim
Strong academic writing takes a stance on the topic it is covering—it tries to convince the reader of a certain perspective or claim. This claim is known as the “thesis statement.” The majority of an academic paper will be spent using facts and details to “prove” to the reader that the claim is true. How this is done depends on the discipline: in the sciences, a research paper will present an original experiment and data to support the claim; in a literature class, an essay will cite quotations from a text that weave into the larger argument. Regardless of discipline, the overarching goal of most academic writing is to persuade the reader to agree with the claim.
Concision is the art of using the fewest words possible to convey an idea. Some students mistakenly think that longer words and more complicated sentence structures make their writing “better” or more sophisticated. In reality, the longer and more complicated a sentence gets, the harder it is for a reader to interpret that sentence and stay engaged with your argument. For example, if you find yourself using a phrase like “due to the fact that,” you can simplify your wording and make your sentence more powerful by saying “because” instead. Similarly, say “now” or “currently” rather than “at this point in time.” Unnecessarily complicated wording distracts your reader from your argument; simpler sentence structures let your ideas shine through.
Most academic writing uses objective language. That is, rather than presenting the argument as the writer’s opinion (“I believe that…”, “I think this means…”), it tries to convince the reader that the argument is necessarily true based on the supporting facts: “this evidence reveals that…”
Breaking the Rules
There are countless examples of respected scholarly pieces that bend these principles—for instance, the “reader response” school of literary criticism abandons the objective stance altogether. However, you have to know the rules before you can break them successfully.
Think of a chef putting chili powder in hot chocolate, a delicious but unexpected bending of a rule: typically, desserts are not spicy. In order to successfully break that rule, the chef first had to understand all the flavors at work in both ingredients, and make the choice knowing that it would improve the recipe. It’s only a good idea to break these rules and principles if there is a specific, good reason to do so. Therefore, if you plan to dispense with one of the conventions of academic writing, it is a good idea to make sure your instructor approves of your stylistic choice.
Building Academic Writing Skills
Academic work is an excellent way to develop strong research and writing skills. Try to use your undergraduate assignments to build your reading comprehension, critical and creative thinking, research and analytical skills. Having a specific, “real” audience will help you engage more directly with the reader and adapt to the conventions of writing in any given genre.
Developing Your Voice as a Writer
Develop and showcase your unique voice while adhering to the rules of writing content and style.
Differentiate between voice and style
- While academic writing stresses formal conventions, opportunities exist to experiment with a wide range of styles and voices.
- A more casual writing style might include contractions, humor, exclamations, and/or familiar vocabulary. Others writings may include clause-heavy sentences, esoteric terminology, and formal language. Still others favor analogies, idioms, metaphors, and colorful imagery.
- “Authorial voice” is a characteristic of a writer’s distinctive style. It is an important element of academic writing, fiction, and nonfiction.
- Voice is developed over time and through experience.
- format: The arrangement of images, titles, headers, content, and other formal elements of writing within a work.
- style: An author’s unique method of putting together words, phrases, sentences, analogies, metaphors, idioms, and expressions.
- voice: The distinct personality that comes through in a writer’s work which may convey the author’s attitude and character. It may represent the characteristic speech and thought patterns of the writer.
You’ve probably heard that one quality found in good writing is voice. “Voice” refers to elements of the author ‘s tone, phrasing, and style that are recognizably unique to her or him. A distinctive, persuasive voice will successfully engage your audience — without it, your writing risks losing your reader despite your top notch research or how well you adhered to sound writing practices. Yes, academic writing has rules about format, style, and objectivity that you must follow, but these will not rescue boring, impersonal prose. Whatever you choose to write about, be certain to develop an authorial voice!
Having a “unique voice” does not translate into having a radically different style from others. In academic writing, voice boils down to seemingly insignificant small habits and personal preferences. But they matter! If each student in your class was told to explain a complex concept, not one would do it in the same way. Each would use different language and syntax to say the same basic thing. Over time, each student would continue to make similar choices in language and syntax, and readers would eventually associate those choices with particular writers — each student would have developed an authorial voice.
Keep in mind that voice is not something you can automatically create. It may be tempting to use unusual syntax or fancy vocabulary hoping to make your writing stand out. Be forewarned – that would not be your genuine style. There is no quick way to create a recognizable voice, as it can only be developed over time. The key to developing your voice is to keep writing and to think about what specific types of writing excite you. Pay attention to how you say things — what words you use, what sorts of phrases and sentence structures you favor, even what kind of punctuation appears in your work frequently. These are the choices that will eventually become markers of your authorial voice.
Getting Help Meeting College Writing Expectations
Your university can provide several resources to help you through the process of planning and drafting an academic paper.
Give examples of places to find campus resources for writing
- The conventions of academic writing can be confusing at first, but there is no need to struggle alone.
- Colleges provide students with a variety of resources and advisers to help students adjust to writing at the collegiate level. Take advantage of whatever resources your college offers.
- Taking advantage of these resources has the added benefit of pushing you to begin the process early so you will have enough time to write and revise several drafts.
- Some colleges publish outstanding student work, which can provide valuable examples for you as you get used to academic writing.
- writing center: A space (often both physical and online) that provides students with free assistance on papers, projects, reports, multimodal documents, web pages, etc. from instructor and peer consultants.
- workshop: A gathering of students who share brainstorming, research, drafting, revision, and editing tips by reading and responding to each other’s papers.
- drafting: The process of beginning to write and revise a paper, with the understanding that no one else will see it.
The typical student enters college with a wealth of experience writing five- paragraph essays, book reports, and lab reports. Even the best students, however, need to make big adjustments to learn the conventions of academic writing. College-level writing obeys different rules, and learning them will help you hone your writing skills. Think of it as ascending another step up the writing ladder.
Many students feel intimidated asking for help with academic writing; after all, it’s something you’ve been doing your entire life in school. However, there’s no need to feel like it’s a sign of your lack of ability; on the contrary, many of the strongest student writers regularly get help and support with their writing (that’s why they’re so strong). College instructors are very familiar with the ups and downs of writing, and most universities have support systems in place to help students learn how to write for an academic audience. The following sections discuss common on-campus writing services, what to expect from them, and how they can help you.
Learning to write for an academic audience is challenging, but universities offer various resources to guide students through the process. Most instructors will be happy to meet with you during office hours to discuss guidelines for writing about their particular discipline. If you have any doubts about research methods, paper structure, writing style, etc., address these uncertainties with the instructor before you hand in your paper, rather than waiting to see the critiques they write in the margins afterward. You are not bothering your instructor by showing up for office hours; they’ll be glad to see you.
Most colleges have writing centers that are designed to help students meet college-level expectations. These centers usually offer one-on-one advisory meetings or group sessions that cover topics ranging from conducting research to conquering procrastination. Many writing centers employ student mentors from a wide range of disciplines, so try to work with one who deeply understands the field you’re writing in.
Learning by Example
Many students like to learn by example, and find it very helpful to read other students’ academic writing. Some universities publish outstanding student essays. Some professors keep copies of student papers, and they may be willing to show you examples of writing that meets their expectations. Genuine student papers are universally better models to follow than any of the “sample essays” on the Internet.
Some courses encourage students to share their research and writing with each other, and even offer workshops where students can present their own writing and offer constructive comments to their classmates. Independent paper-writing workshops provide a space for peers with varying interests, work styles, and areas of expertise to brainstorm. If you want to improve your writing, organizing a workshop session with your classmates is a great strategy. You can also ask your writing center to help you organize a workshop for a specific class or subject. In high school, students submit their work in multiple stages, from the thesis statement to the outline to a draft of the paper; finally, after receiving feedback on each preliminary piece, they submit a completed project. This format teaches students how to divide writing assignments into smaller tasks and schedule these tasks over an extended period of time, instead of scrambling through the entire process right before the deadline. Some college courses build this kind of writing schedule into major assignments. Even if your course does not, you can master the skill of breaking large assignments down into smaller projects instead of leaving an unmanageable amount of work until the last minute. Academic writing can, at times, feel overwhelming. You can waste a great deal of time staring at a blank screen or a troublesome paragraph, when it would be more productive to move on to drafting other parts of your paper. When you return to the problem section a few hours later (or, even better, the next day), the solution may be obvious.
Writing in drafts makes academic work more manageable. Drafting gets your ideas onto paper, which gives you more to work with than the perfectionist’s daunting blank screen. You can always return later to fix the problems that bother you.
Scheduling the Stages of Your Writing Process
Time management, not talent, has been the secret to a lot of great writing through the ages. Not even a “great” writer can produce a masterpiece the night before it’s due. Breaking a large writing task into smaller pieces will not only save your sanity, but will also result in a more thoughtful, polished final draft.
- Monday: Visit your instructor’s office hours to discuss ideas, sources, and structure for the essay.
- Tuesday: Do research at the library from 5:00 to 9:00, taking detailed notes and planning how each piece of research will fit into your paper.
- Wednesday: Do research at the library from 2:00 to 6:00, take detailed notes, and give yourself permission to write an imperfect draft.
- Thursday: Begin a first draft of the essay.
- Friday: Continue expanding/editing the first draft.
- Saturday: Look again at the draft and continue to make changes/additions/deletions.
- Sunday: Write a final draft. Print out your paper for proofreading (it’s worth it).
- Monday: Don’t look at the essay. However, if there are any remaining questions, go to your instructor’s office hours.
- Tuesday: Revise, edit and proofread the essay one more time. Relax while everyone else in your class is panicking.
- Wednesday morning: Give the essay a final read and proofread, and print it out.
- Wednesday afternoon: Turn in your essay.
Emailing Your Instructor
Subject: Expository Writing 101: Office hours on Tuesday
Dear/Hello Professor [Last name],
I have a few questions about the next essay assignment for Expository Writing 101. Would it be convenient to discuss them during your office hours on Tuesday? Let me know if there is a specific time when I should stop by. Thank you for your help with these assignments.
[First name] [Last name]
Expository Writing 101; T, Th, 10:00
Tips for Emailing Your Instructor
- Be polite: Address your professor formally, using the title “Professor” with their last name. Depending on how formal your professor seems, use the salutation “Dear,” or a more informal “Hello” or “Hi.” Don’t drop the salutation altogether, though.
- Be concise. Instructors are busy people, and although they are typically more than happy to help you, do them the favor of getting to your point quickly. Sign off with your first and last name, the course number, and the class time. This will make it easy for your professor to identify you.
- Do not ever ask, “When will you return our papers?” If you MUST ask, make it specific and realistic (e.g., “Will we get our papers back by the end of next week?”).
Discussing Writing in Class
Class discussion is an essential part of the feedback and revision process, since it provides a space for students to communicate differing views.
Identify techniques for discussing writing in class effectively
- The goal of classroom discussion is not only to promote comprehension of a shared text, but also to encourage students to listen to, understand, and exchange their assessments of a text.
- As a learning method, classroom discussions are generally more fun and interactive than simply listening to a teacher lecture or taking a written test.
- Class discussions encourage learning through active participation, comprehension, and listening. They help students to think, solve problems, listen to others, and analyze the ideas of other students, all while backing up their own thoughts with evidence from past class teachings.
- Incorporating perspectives and ideas from class discussion into your paper allows you to strengthen connections between course concepts and demonstrate your engagement in what others have to say.
- In-class workshops can provide you with valuable feedback from your peers about how to improve your paper, and also teach you to be a more careful and critical reader of your own and others’ work.
- workshop: A discussion in which people can give one another feedback on each other’s writing.
Classroom discussion isn’t simply a way of gaining points; it’s an essential part of learning, comprehending, and sharing knowledge. Class discussion is often used together with other forms of assessment to calculate your grade, even if there are no points expressly awarded. Together with lectures and individual study, discussing course readings and materials with your peers and the instructor can open up new insights that are impossible to achieve on your own. In order to get the most out of class discussion, the instructor and all students should engage in an actual conversation, not simply question -and-answer.
As a learning method, classroom discussions are generally more fun and interactive than simply listening to a teacher lecture or doing written work. When presenting a question to a class of students, teachers open up the classroom discussion to different ideas, opinions, and questions, and can mediate while students come up with their own conclusions. Class discussions encourage learning through active participation, comprehension, and listening. They help students to think, solve problems, listen to others, and analyze the ideas of other students, all while backing up their own thoughts with evidence from past class teachings. Discussions also encourage the practice of informal oral communication, which is a much-needed skill later in life.
When participating in a class discussion, the following strategies are effective:
- Try to stay on topic. Outside references are often good for context, but remember that the focus here is on learning.
- Try to use relevant vocabulary from the lesson to confirm your understanding of new concepts and demonstrate your authority.
- Try to build upon the ideas of others; listen and respond as much as you speak.
- Always be respectful to others, especially if someone in the discussion offers an opinion that differs from your own.
- Try to provide constructive criticism to others regarding their thoughts, comments, or work: “I think you’re on the right track here, but this point doesn’t seem to be supported with direct evidence.”
- Don’t get too worked up if you disagree with the instructor or another student. A strong emotional response is good, since it indicates you’re engaged with the topic, but always keep a calm demeanor to show your classmates your ability to work in this setting without getting angry or flustered.
A workshop is a special kind of classroom discussion in which students discuss each other’s work. The advice given above on class discussions also applies when you and your peers are given time in class (or in a group study session, in the writing center, etc.) to workshop drafts of each other’s papers. A writing workshop is an excellent way to get suggestions from peers that help you improve your paper, since fellow students may be able to offer a perspective your instructor cannot. Constructive, focused workshop critiquing also allows you to become a more critical reader and writer. Here are some questions that might be helpful for class discussions about student writing:
- What is the author saying in this text?
- Use three words to describe the tone and style the author uses in his/her argument. Is this the best tone and style to achieve the author’s purpose?
- Where does the author present rhetoric that is based on emotion? On facts? Which of these seem to be most prevalent in the argument?
- Why does the author think this argument matters? Have they convinced you that it matters? How might the “so what” factor be raised?
- What special terminology does (or should) the author use?
- How does this text relate to other things that have been read in this class?
- Give the author two positive comments, and three suggestions for improvement in the next draft.