academicwriting

Features of Academic Writing

Structure

Academic writing is clearly structured.

A clear structure is important for several reasons:

  • It is the framework around which you construct your assignment.
  • It enables you to present your material in a coherent, logical manner.
  • It gives your work a sense of direction.
  • It helps the reader to understand the text.

There is no fixed, one-fits-all template for structuring academic work. Different types of assignment have different overall structures. For example, essays typically consist of an introduction, body and conclusion; research reports, on the other hand, usually have four or five main sections: introduction, methods, results, discussion and, in some cases, a separate conclusion.  Being aware of these general conventions is helpful, but it is important to remember that structuring an assignment also involves:

  • Grouping similar points together
  • Dividing sections into paragraphs
  • Ensuring that each paragraph deals with a main point or theme
  • Presenting the main point or theme in a sentence at or near the beginning of the paragraph
  • Developing the main point or theme of the paragraph in the sentences that follow
  • Ensuring that each paragraph links smoothly with the previous one

Idea development

Academic writing is logically developed.

A well-written academic assignment must have a clearly formulated central idea that is developed in a logical manner, leading to a conclusion.

The central idea is usually expressed in a single sentence encapsulating your answer to the question posed in the title. The question may be explicit, as in “To what extent are global media corporations eroding national and local cultures?”, or implicit, as in “Globalisation is the new colonialism.” This statement can be easily converted into a question such as “Is globalisation the new colonialism?” or “To what extent is globalisation the new colonialism?”

In answering the question, you have to follow a clear and sustained line of reasoning. This involves identifying points in support of your central idea and developing them using appropriate evidence. A smooth progression from one point to the next is important: you should avoid digressions, gaps and jumps in logic.

This process will lead quite naturally to your conclusion, which may or may not be clear cut. It may well be that the available evidence does not justify a firm conclusion, but this is acceptable in academic writing. What really matters is that the ‘thread of the argument’ – as many tutors would put it – runs smoothly from beginning to end.

Analytic approach

Academic writing is analytic.

Here are some fairly typical comments from markers:

  • “Too much description, not enough analysis”
  • “Don’t just tell me what happened; tell me what it means.”
  • “Elaborate”
  • “Needs less description and more critique.”

If you have received similar feedback on your written work, you need to write more analytically.

Writing analytically
  • In your writing, you must acknowledge and deal with the complexity of the subject matter. In any given piece of writing, this will entail at least some of the following:
  • Explaining; giving reasons; examining or anticipating consequences
  • Comparing, contrasting and evaluating
  • Considering both sides of an issue
  • Taking a position
  • Supporting your claims with credible evidence
  • Investigating claims made by others and, if appropriate, questioning the evidence
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Making suggestions and recommendations

Use of sources

Academic writing is based on sources. All academic work builds on the work of others. When reporting, developing, applying, criticising or even rejecting the contributions made by others, you have to follow well-established conventions for citing and referencing reading sources.

Citing authorities in your own subject or in related disciplines gives credibility to your work and provides the evidence you need to support your claims or criticise claims made by others.  As this suggests, different reading sources may provide contradictory evidence. Reporting that this is the case is not enough. You have to evaluate the evidence and decide how to use it to develop your argument.

Your position, or stance, on the sources you cite must be clear to the reader. In other words, your own ‘voice’ must be distinct from that of your sources. This is one of the features of academic writing that students find most difficult to grasp. The extract below shows how this is achieved. The student author's 'voice' is in bold.

The term ‘access’ is not straightforward and should be seen as different from, but closely connected to, other terms like ‘social inclusion’ and ‘audience development.’ Defining exactly what access is (and subsequently what it means to ‘widen access’) can be difficult. Dodd and Sandell see access as multi-faceted, there being a number of different types of access (physical, sensory, intellectual, financial, emotional/attitudinal), each with its own barriers (1998: 14). Essentially, widening access can be seen as removing these barriers. However, confusion can occur when we approach access from the points of view of the aforementioned concepts ‘audience development’ and ‘social inclusion’. In its publication Libraries, Museums, Galleries and Archives for All, the DCMS described its “overarching objective” as “social inclusion” but then went on to describe other objectives as “access...outreach/audience development...[and] social change” (2001: 8-9). The issues of social exclusion/inclusion can be seen to have driven government policy originally, but widening access was clearly one of the important steps towards the ideal of the socially inclusive museum/gallery (although the DCMS itself seems to have been confused by the exact definitions of the individual terms it was using). As Kawashima points out, these different terms “cannot be neatly defined and sorted out as discrete areas” (2006: 63), and what some organisations/people refer to as one may in fact be better defined as another. I would suggest that widening access refers primarily to removing the barriers which may stop people from visiting museums and galleries (audience development and subsequently social inclusion being goals which drive this).

Explicitness

Academic writing is explicit.

In academic writing, the author is responsible for ensuring that the meaning of the text is clear and free from ambiguity. In other words, there is an expectation that the writing will be explicit. This is best achieved by anticipating the reader's questions. When revising your work before submission, try to think what questions your reader might want answers to if reading your assignment at this stage; for example:

  • What is the purpose of this work?
  • What does the author mean by this?
  • How do these two ideas (or these two paragraphs) link together?
  • Where is the evidence for this?
  • What is the author's view about this issue?

If the answers to questions such as these cannot be found in the appropriate place in the text, your writing lacks explicitness.

Here are some tips to help you make your writing explicit:

  • Explain what you intend to achieve/demonstrate/argue.
  • Define key concepts. If you find different definitions for the same term in the literature, explain which one you will adopt or what the word means to you.
  • Make sure that links between ideas are clear. Use linking words and phrases if necessary.
  • Ensure that every claim is supported by evidence.
  • Take a position in relation to the issues being discussed. In other words, make sure that your viewpoint is clear to the reader.

Language

Here is a brief explanation of the three main features of written academic English:

Written academic English is objective

Everyday language is predominantly subjective. It is mainly used to express opinions based on personal preference or belief rather than evidence. For instance, we might say, “Doing coursework is easier than taking exams” or “Watching a DVD at home is better than going to the cinema”. Everyday language is also a vehicle for emotional expression; for example: “He was so mean to me”, or “You are amazing”, or “I was gutted”.

In contrast, the language of academic writing is objective. It is used as a vehicle for logical argumentation, not self-expression or emotional response. Objective language is measured, fair and accurate. It avoids exaggeration and bias, and shows respect for the views of others.

Written academic English is cautious

It is important that the language used in academic writing reflects the strength of evidence available to support an idea or claim. Whether you say “The working-age population will fall”, “The working-age population will probably fall” or “The working-age population may fall” will depend on the projections available to you at the time of writing, and your interpretation of those projections. The less certain you are about your claims, the more tentative the language should be. The use of cautious language in academic writing is known as ‘hedging’.

Written academic English is formal

Written academic English is formal. It avoids colloquialisms and slang, which may be ephemeral and subject to local and social variations. Formal language is more precise and stable, and therefore more suitable for the expression of complex ideas and the development of reasoned argumentation. You can find out more about formal language in the section of this website dealing with academic language and style.

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