What does ‘academic’ writing look like?

Tertiary students who are new to university often express concerns about academic writing. While tertiary writing differs from business, journalism and personal writing, it is similar to many styles of writing because you should always communicate your understanding clearly and concisely so that your reader is in no doubt about the points you are making. Remember that when you write, you are communicating your understanding to your reader and you need to do this in such a way that you explain your thinking piece by piece, so that your reader (usually your marker) can say: “Yes! I really understand how this writer thinks about this topic!”

Academic writing expresses your ideas about the texts you have read

To get started with academic writing tasks, you need to research, find and summarise information that is relevant to your topic. You also need to come up with a position or line of argument that is your response to the question. This position or line of argument or your response to the topic is usually summarised and clearly stated in the introduction as a thesis statement. A thesis statement is like your brief (one or two sentence) answer to the question that has been set. Once you have determined what your thesis will be, you must then ensure that every paragraph of your essay provides evidence to support that view. A thesis statement is a statement of what you think the answer to the question is, it is not a list or statement of what you will talk about in your essay. Remember that you can only decide on a thesis statement once you have done your research. A thesis statement is always based on your understanding of the readings, not your ideas before you started to read. Consider the following table showing an essay question, a thesis and an outline or a statement that would not count as a statement of your position or thinking on the topic:

Question/topic Thesis statement Not a thesis statement
What are the major features of effective teaching and which theories will most inform your practice? The most significant aspects of effective teaching are related to building confidence, managing relationships and building a positive learning environment. These elements will be discussed in relation to constructivism and metacognitive approaches to learning. This essay will examine the work of Vygotsky and Smith with a view to outlining the essential features of effective classroom practice.
Examine and critique anti- discrimination policies and outline how effectively you believe they can be implemented in the workplace. This essay will propose that anti-discrimination policies are well grounded in theory and ethical principles, however, they are difficult to implement in workplaces where there is an overreliance on regulations and hierarchical structure. This essay will examine anti-discrimination policies and discuss how they can be implemented in the workplace.

Having ideas about the topic in the form of a thesis or argument is a central feature of most academic writing, and once you are clear about this and some of the other features and requirements of academic writing, it is quite possible to achieve some excellent results.

Academic writing shows critical thinking

Academic writing is more about exploring, discussing and evaluating ideas than it is about simply rewriting what you have read. The aim of academic writing is to critique and make suggestions about ideas. It is not enough just to find the relevant facts and explain them. When discussing and evaluating ideas, it is important to realise that evaluation or critiquing requires you to comment on the useful and not useful, the advantages and disadvantages and the strengths and weaknesses of ideas. Look at the section on critical thinking for more information about this.

Here are some examples of language that shows evaluation with the critiquing words in bold:

This well designed and wide ranging study of 1000 people from across nations showed……

Kottle’s (2009) argument appears to be less useful when …… is taken into account

The strengths of the research are….and….

Academic writing expresses opinions tentatively

Students are sometimes surprised that they are required to express opinions at all. It is certainly true that lecturers and tutors are not interested in your unsubstantiated opinions. In other words, they don’t want to know your prejudices, conclusions from your life experiences, biases and ideas that cannot be supported by your readings. However, they do want to know what you think about what you have read. There are ways to express your thoughts and ideas, but ‘I think this is a bad/good idea’ is not what is required. If you want to express an opinion, it needs to be based on the authors you have read and it needs to raise questions about their ideas or show how or why those views are or are not useful or how they can or can’t be applied. Opinions need to be expressed in tentative language. Tentative language is sometimes called ‘hedging’. Here are some examples of assertive and tentative language:

Assertive language Tentative language
It is the case that… It could be the case that…
It is true that… It is likely that…
These results occurred because… These results could have occurred because…
The authours reached these conclusions because… The authors could have reached these conclusions because…
This finding must be applied in the following ways… One possible way this finding could be applied is…
This should be done in… This could be useful in the following contexts…
This is limited to… The limitations appear to be as follows…
The reason this finding differs from previous findings is… This finding could differ from previous findings because…

Notice that when you use tentative language, you are not stating your idea as though it is a fact, and therefore you do not need to reference these statements. It is important, when giving an opinion, to justify your opinion.

It is important to realise that you can express an opinion, but because you are not an expert in your field yet, and because it is not always possible to back your opinions with objective research, you do not have the authority to claim that your views are objective facts. Therefore you need to offer your ideas using tentative language.

Sometimes students have a wealth of knowledge and experience in practical situations and feel frustrated because they think they cannot draw on that material. It is possible to draw on experiences if it is discussed in the light of the authors you have read. For example, you can explain an author’s view and then using tentative language, you explain how this might or might not be useful or applicable in a particular situation (and you describe your own experience, without explaining it as “my” experience). Here is an example:

Hakble (2011) argues that good governance is a central feature of effective aid dissemination. While this may be the case in many instances, there are examples of countries, for example, Trijunia, where there is good governance, but still there are problems with aid distribution. In these instances the problems with distribution seem to be related to timing and geographical issues which can be critical when distributing resources.

Academic writing usually uses objective language

For the most part academic writing tends not to use ‘I’ and ‘we’. This is because the purpose of most academic writing is to present ideas and research objectively or in a factual way. Once you start to use personal pronouns, it makes the ideas sound very ‘close’ to you as the writer and this undermines the objectivity of your writing. There are exceptions, and reflective writing would be an example of this. This will be considered in more detail later (see Genre).

While it is becoming more common to start academic pieces of writing with phrases like, “I will examine the reasons for inequality in the social justice system”, it is still possible, and sometimes desirable, to use more objective language, for example, “There are a number of reasons why social inequality exists in the social justice system. These will be examined in this essay”. Notice that this sounds more objective and factual than the first example.

Academic writing is clearly structured with strong links

We have already seen that academic writing has a strong line of thinking or argument running through it often starting with the overall point that the writer is trying to make (the thesis). Every paragraph should be linked to the thesis or to the overall idea that is being put forward in the essay. The ways in which each paragraph is linked to the thesis should be very clear to the reader, usually in the topic sentence of the paragraph. Ideas are linked because they are similar or different or because they are a further explanation, application or extrapolation of an idea. As you make links between paragraphs, you show your reader how you think about the relationships between the ideas in the essay. Links between ideas are signposted for the reader by these sorts of phrases:

A similar research study showed…..
Similarly……
A contrasting idea is evident in the work of…..
By contrast……
On the other hand…..
While Brown (2010) argues……..Smith (2008) holds a different view…
These ideas include suggestions about…..and…….
Smythe (2009) further explains this concept by showing…….

Imagine you had to write an essay on this topic:

Compare and contrast the theories of Jones and Smith and present an argument outlining which theoretical stance you would favour in your practice.

Your thesis (brief response to the question) might sound something like this:

Jones’ (2011) and Smith’s (2012) theories share common elements with regard to thinking. Both authors adopt a meta-cognitive approach to understanding thinking, however the theories differ in terms of their usefulness. While the strength of Jones’ approach lies in her detailed explanation of the thinking process, Smith’s ideas are helpful because of the practical insights they provide for practitioners. This combination of approaches will be used as a theoretical basis for my future practice.

The first paragraph (or section) after the introduction, might deal with the first element that Smith and Jones have in common (their meta-cogntive approach ) and would be linked to the thesis statement. The next section or paragraph of the essay would probably deal with the differences, for example Jones’ explanation of the thinking process and would show why it is more useful than Smith’s explanation. The language to introduce this section would include words that highlight difference, for example, by contrast, on the other hand and so on.

Academic writing relies on academic sources

Academic writing draws heavily on the writing and research of other academics. It is uncommon for academic essays to be based on non-academic texts (for example, newspapers, popular magazines and web sites that do not include refereed academic journals). Refereed or peer reviewed journals are articles that have been read and approved of by academics before they are published. They are the sorts of articles that are found in collections and on-line data bases which are accessed through university libraries. Many data bases will identify which of its sources are peer reviewed articles.

Academic writing includes a range of ideas

It is not usually acceptable for academic writers to choose certain views over others, without discussing contrary viewpoints. Academic writing nearly always includes a range of ideas on a topic or even one point. Sometimes contrary views will be similar rather than being radically different, but as a writer you need to show that there are differences or subtle shades of difference between authors. It is important to show that different writers emphasise different aspects or take a slightly different slant on an idea. Quite often research will be done under different conditions and so there may be differences in findings. As a writer, you need to include these discrepancies in your work and offer some suggestions about them, for example, why they occurred. It is not acceptable to only include the ideas that mirror your views. As you explain this range of ideas, it is common to explain which elements of those ideas have most influenced your essay and why other ideas were less influential. Here is an example:

Brigley (2008) showed that there was a positive correlation between the two variables, while Higgins’ (2010) research suggested a different dynamic. These differences in findings may be attributed to the nature of the studies which differed with regard to the number of samples used and the methods used to analyse the data. The current argument draws more strongly on Higgins’ work because it explains…….

Academic writing requires synthesis of sources

This point is an elaboration of the previous principle. As you discuss a range of ideas, it is up to you as the writer to note whether different authors are saying similar things or whether there is disagreement between them. You need to make clear statements about this for your reader. Sometimes authors are discussing ideas in similar ways, but they are using different words to describe the ideas. It is up to you to as the writer to be able to show that even though different words are used, the principles or ideas are the same, or alternatively you need to show that there are differences in the way that authors understand and discuss certain ideas. Sometimes there is radical disagreement and at other times there are variations in emphasis or approach. An academic writer is able to show the similarities and differences between authors and comment on this in order to reveal his or her understanding of the readings. Here is an example of this:

Brown (2007) and Higgins (2010) both argue that children learn best when they feel safe and free from threat, however they appear to have slightly different views of what constitutes safety. Higgins (2010) describes safety as an environment which is conducive to learning, while Brown seems to be emphasising safety in terms of physical and emotional safety.

Academic writing uses simple, concise language

Tertiary ideas tend to be complicated enough without ‘dressing them up’ with fancy words that do not make the point clearly and concisely. Students sometimes feel that the vocabulary that they use naturally is not ‘smart’ enough for academic writing, so they try to find longer or ‘bigger’ words by using a thesaurus. This can be disastrous, because a word looked up in the thesaurus may have a similar meaning, but it may not be appropriate to use it in a particular context. For example, the word ‘predict’ also means ‘prophesy’ or ‘forecast’, but one would not use these words in a scientific context. For example, ‘The results predict that there is a causal relationship between the onset of disease and certain environmental factors’, would sound strange if ‘prophesy’ were substituted for ‘predict’. While this example, may be obvious, there are other less obvious, subtle differences between the meanings of words, so use synonyms and the thesaurus with caution.

‘Dressing up’ your writing often sounds pompous. For example:

During the yule time fest, a brood of offspring ventured as far abroad as the nether regions of ancient Greece. It was in this terrain that they feasted their eyes on those ancient marvels that have drawn travellers from every corner of this glittering orb called home.

While one might (but hopefully not!) write like this in a novel or personal correspondence, it is unnecessarily confusing in academic writing. Here it is re-written:

Over Christmas a group of children visited some historic sites in ancient Greece. There they saw ancient buildings that have attracted tourists from all over the world.

It should be easy to see that the second example is much clearer even though it does not use such a wide range of vocabulary as the first example. Always make your point as clearly as you can by choosing the most appropriate word to convey your meaning.

Academic writing should avoid overuse of jargon

While jargon or language that is specific to a discipline is necessary, it should be used with caution. Overuse of jargon often confuses the reader rather than helping him/her to understand. If you can use a simple word that explains the idea, it is usually preferable to use the simple word. Obviously you cannot avoid the specific language of your discipline, but unnecessarily heavy use of jargon can confuse your reader. Here is an example of unnecessary jargon:

Inclusive education is a pedagogically sound principle based on theories and research of great repute. Inclusivity requires adherence to the principles of social justice and equity as espoused by the school mission and policy statement. These are in turn articulated by all students and staff in their dealings with such parents that may have children requiring inclusive practices in the secondary environment.

Here it is rewritten:

Inclusive education (the practice of ensuring that all students are catered for in the school environment) has been widely researched and discussed in the literature. It is based on social justice and equity principles which are usually included in the school’s policy and mission statement. Students and staff then apply these principles to create an inclusive environment.

You may wonder if this rewrite is an accurate representation of the first piece. If this is the case, then it illustrates clearly that jargon and pompous language often obscure meaning!

Reflection and Conclusion

Guiding principles

These are guiding principles that will help you as an academic writer. Start reading academic texts and see if you can find examples of the principles described in this section.

What was the most interesting or useful idea you gained from this section?

Think about the principles outlined here. Which of these do you think would have troubled you if you had not read this section?

Your experience

In the past when you have written assignments, have you fallen into any of the traps described in this section?

How will you avoid these traps in your writing from here on?