Written by Emily Wilson
So, ah, just what is academic writing? It's a question we've all asked—or, well, discreetly Googled—at one point or another.
It's an excellent question to ask. In essence, academic writing is a specialized form of writing that suits the particular needs of academic writers. Used effectively, it helps scholars express complex concepts, research, and theories clearly to their peers. Learning to embrace this style of writing is essential in academia. However, we all need to start somewhere.
Welcome, friend, to the beginner's guide to academic writing.
The characteristics of academic writing
Throughout this guide, you'll see the words "academic writing" and "scholarly writing" being used interchangeably. Both of these terms refer to the same form of writing, and both adhere to the same set of characteristics.
Let's take a closer look at three of the major characteristics of academic writing.
1. Writing that is evidence-based and thesis-driven
Unlike other forms of writing, academic writing prioritizes logical, evidence-based reasoning. Every conclusion or point that you make should be supported by evidence. Furthermore, all of those points should work together to support your thesis. Your thesis is the topic or research question that your writing aims to investigate, discuss, prove, or disprove.
2. Writing that is formal and neutral in tone
Scholarly writing should be formal in tone. This means no contractions, colloquialisms, or slang. It also means that your writing should avoid personal pronouns, such as "I". In this style of writing, you should write in the 3rd person.
Furthermore, while you're certainly encouraged to feel passionately about your topic, you should also aim to write in a neutral tone. This means that your writing should avoid inflammatory, judgement-call statements. Instead, your writing should sound like a rational exploration of the facts and evidence that support your conclusions. Seek to eliminate bias from your writing and remember to thoughtfully engage with your opposition's viewpoints. Don't just dismiss them as "wrong".
3. Writing that is properly cited and formatted
Proper citations are one of the most important characteristics of academic writing. Any evidence that you call on should always be supported with clear, orderly citations and references. This not only lends authority to your writing but also helps others locate your sources and further expand on your topic.
Your citations and the overall formatting of your paper may change depending on your assigned style guide (APA, the Chicago Manual of Style, or MLA to name a few). Make sure to adhere to the specifications of your specific style guide.
The major types of academic writing
Next, let's take a look at the major types of academic writing that you'll encounter. Unfortunately, part of the reason that the answer to "What is academic writing?" is so long is that the subject is littered with sub-categories. Below, we've listed some of the most common types of scholarly writing and linked them to articles detailing each one.
These types of scholarly writing can split into further sub-categories. For example, an academic essay might fall into the descriptive, analytical, persuasive, or critical categories—each of which might ask you to take a different approach in your writing.
Finding your research question & thesis statement
Now that you have a grasp on what academic writing is, let's take a closer look at its elements. We'll begin with the star of the show, the thesis statement. However, in order to create your thesis statement, you'll first need a research question.
Select a topic that interests you and draft an intriguing question about it. That question is your research question. Make it as specific as possible, and as you dig into your research, continue to narrow its scope.
More often than not, the answers you find will become your thesis, which is the statement or question that your writing will investigate, prove, or disprove.
A good thesis statement should meet the following characteristics:
If you want to learn more about thesis statements, check out our article on how to write a great thesis statement.
The importance of a strong structure
A good structure is vital in academic writing, and a clear, logical structure will help you present your ideas. Moreover, many forms of academic writing obey an established structure, which the reader will expect you to follow.
For example, many academic essays follow the five-part structure. It is okay to experiment with other structures from time to time, but it is a good one to start with.
A five-part structure involves an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Your introduction introduces your topic and situates its importance within your field. It establishes your methodology and introduces your thesis statement.
Your body paragraphs support your thesis in more detail. Each body paragraph begins with a topic sentence. After which, a cycle of introducing sub-topics, providing evidence, and reflecting on the impact of that evidence ensues.
Your conclusion should summarize your body paragraphs and reaffirm your thesis. It shouldn't contain any new information. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to finish strong and hammer in your points one last time.
Check out our Ultimate Essay Checklist for additional essay writing advice.
Good academic writing requires an outline
In order to have a strong structure, it's best to create an outline before you start writing. It'll help you keep yourself motivated and on track. It's much easier to write with a plan in mind than to write into a shapeless void.
If you can, leave time for multiple drafts. It may sound unnecessary; however, each draft will give you the time and mental space you need to drastically improve the quality of your writing.
Always keep your writing concise
Verbose writing is one of the most common issues in academic writing.
Whenever you can, keep things concise. Complex vocabulary and sentences are common in academic writing. However, they aren't everything. Learning to write concisely is a difficult skill to master. However, it has great benefits, including the ability to express yourself clearly.
To begin writing concisely, challenge yourself to first avoid the passive voice. It won't always be possible to use the active voice. However, favor the active voice whenever you can. It shakes up your writing, making it more dynamic and helping to propel the reader forward.
Style guides: don't wait until the last minute
Style guides are intended to make your life easier, not complicate it. Think of them as friendly guides who will help you cite and format your work correctly. Don't wait until the last moment to crack yours open!
Here are three of the most common style guides and the fields they're commonly used in:
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), which is used in history, criminology, and business
- The Modern Language Association (MLA), which is used in the humanities and liberal arts
- The American Psychological Association (APA), which is used in the social sciences, psychology, business, and economics
Always edit and proofread your academic writing
Never underestimate the value of editing and proofreading your work. You would not believe the number of errors that can be caught simply by taking a break, refreshing your mind, and settling in to complete an editing or proofreading pass.
In turn, professional editing and proofreading can give you an even stronger boost. When you work closely with a text, it's easy to skim over errors and confusing language. You already know how your writing should go, so it's easy for your brain to fill in the gaps.
You should now have all that you need to step out into the world of academic writing. It's time to take all that you've learned and put it into practice. Make your mark on the world. We'll be rooting for you.
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About the Author
Emily has thrown caution to the wind and pursued a riotous, life-long love affair with English. Over the years, she's worked as an English teacher, an editor, and a copywriter and is now happily employed as Scribendi's junior content marketer. When she's not reading or writing, she's exploring the outdoors.