The academic world has its own culture and subcultures. A group of people who work and interact together will over time create their own language and customs. When they act and speak in these particular ways, they are able to communicate more information, with more nuance, and more precision to those within the culture than if they had spoken and acted in a “normal” way. The following pages will help you understand and navigate academic culture.
Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.Rita Mae Brown 1988 Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers' Manual, p.58, Bantam
Academic writing is, essentially, the writing you have to do for your university courses. Instructors may have different names for academic writing assignments (essay, paper, research paper, reflection paper, term paper, argumentative paper/essay, analysis paper/essay, informative essay, position paper), but all of these assignments have the same goal and principles. The goal of all types of writing is demonstrate that you understand and can think critically about your topic (and this is what makes good academic writing).
Clear Purpose. The goal of your paper is to answer the question you posed as your topic. Your question gives you a purpose. The most common purposes in academic writing are to persuade, analyze/synthesize, and inform.
Note: Some assignments will have a pre-determined purpose (see the examples above); for other assignments, you will have to choose a purpose when you choose a topic (research paper, term paper). While some assignments may have two purposes. In all cases, the purpose will be clear at the beginning of your paper, and your paper must achieve its purpose in order to be successful. Return to section top.
Audience Engagement. As with all writing, academic writing should be written with a specific audience in mind. Unless your instructor says otherwise, consider your audience to be fellow students with the same level of knowledge as yourself. As students in the field, they are interested in your topic, but perhaps not so interested in reading a paper. Therefore, you will have to engage them with your ideas and catch their interest with your writing style. Imagine that they are also skeptical, so that you must use the appropriate reasoning and evidence to convince them of your ideas. Return to section top.
Clear Point of View. Academic writing, even that with an informative purpose, is not just a list of facts or summaries of sources. Although you will present other people’s ideas and research, the goal of your paper is to show what you think about these things. Your paper will have and support your own original idea about the topic. This is called the thesis statement, and it is your answer to the question. Return to section top.
Single Focus. Every paragraph (even every sentence) in your paper will support your thesis statement. There will be no unnecessary, irrelevant, unimportant, or contradictory information (Your paper will likely include contradictory or alternative points of view, but you will respond to and critique them to further strengthen your own point of view). Return to section top.
Logical Organization. Academic writing follows a standard organizational pattern. For academic essays and papers, there is an introduction, body, and conclusion. Each paragraph logically leads to the next one. Return to section top.
Strong Support. Each body paragraph will have sufficient and relevant support for the topic sentence and thesis statement. This support will consist of facts, examples, description, personal experience, and expert opinions and quotations. Return to section top.
Clear and Complete Explanations. This is very important! As the writer, you need to do all the work for the reader. The reader should not have to think hard to understand your ideas, logic, or organization. English readers expect everything to be done for them; your thoughts and thought processes should be clearly and completely explained.
An academic paper with a flawless logical flow leads the reader from the introduction to the very last sentence without causing any confusion. When you are done with the first draft, you need to read and revise the paper to make sure there are no information gaps. Read it from the position of someone who does not understand anything about the particular topic. Then, make sure that all arguments are consistent and related to the thesis statement. Do not think twice before you get rid of repetitive or unnecessary sentences and paragraphs. Each piece of the puzzle has to be relevant to the main impression you want to achieve. Return to section top.
Writing Style. Because this is your work, you should use your own words whenever possible. Do not try to write like a boring, overly formal scholarly article. Use the natural conversational style that you would use in the classroom. Your writing should be clear, concise, and easy to read. It is also very important that there are no grammar, spelling, punctuation, or vocabulary mistakes in academic writing. Errors convey to the reader that you do not care. Return to section top.
Writing at a graduate level requires students to explore a variety of authors in the fields being studied. In this process, students will dig deeply into the topics, synthesize multiple concepts and identify individualized thoughts about the subject. In brief, these are the characteristics of good scholarly writing:
In addition, scholars should pay specific attention to graduate level content and style.
Graduate-level writing is about conversation. When you write at the graduate level, you contribute to the conversation about a specific issue. In other words, add to the body of knowledge/literature.
To contribute, students must first learn what has already been said about a given topic. This usually takes the form of a literature review. As you review, take note of important figures, theories, and controversies. Most importantly, note what is still unknown—what has not been said.
Next, add to the conversation by addressing an unknown aspect of the issue. By focusing on filling a gap or hole in the conversation, graduate writers will help advance the frontier of knowledge.
Finally, leave the conversation open. Like all scholarly work, students writing and research will have limitations, so suggest ways that other scholars can build on or challenge your contributions. Return to section top.
Graduate-level writing depends on arguments, and arguments require evidence. While the specific requirements for evidence vary from discipline to discipline and even from project to project (i.e., certain arguments may only require textual evidence from a specific document instead of results from a randomized controlled trial), your writing will usually need support from something other than personal experience.
Read within your field to determine what counts as evidence for the intended audience. Return to section top.
As a scholar, students will need to evaluate the work of others. This means not only evaluating what was said, but how, when, where, and why it was said. Do not take the sources found at face value. Just because it is in print, does not mean it is beyond critique.
Synthesizing sources means more than summarizing them. When you synthesize sources, you incorporate them into the body of your argument. Instead of reading sources for quotes to insert into your material, approach sources as a whole and engage with their ideas and evidence. In some disciplines, direct quotes from sources are discouraged, except in cases where the language of the source is particularly relevant.
Note: For more information on evaluating and synthesizing sources, please see our “Analyzing Information,” “Synthesizing Information,” and “Incorporating Sources” pages. Return to section top.
Specific style requirements vary from discipline to discipline, so be sure to familiarize yourself with your discipline’s style guide. The College of Education Style Guide is the American Psychological Association Style Guide (APA 6th Edition). Style guides standardize the use of language within disciplines to help scholars focus on content. Return to section top.
Academic or scholarly writing is formal writing, so avoid using casual words and phrases. Informal writing may signal to scholarly readers that you are not serious about the topic.
However, do not simply use “big words” in order to sound smart. Beginning writers often turn to a thesaurus in order to find “smarter” synonyms for their writing. A thesaurus is a place to remember words, not learn them. Many words in the thesaurus have special, nuanced meanings and are not exact synonyms.
Example (Casual): Participants showed up for four sessions, watched a movie, and answered some questions.
Example (Formal): Participants attended four one-hour sessions, during which they viewed a 30-minute video and then completed a survey of open-ended questions.
Example (Overdone): Participants graced four one-hour hearings, concurrently they witnessed a 30-minute motion picture and then consummated an inquiry of open-ended queries. Return to section top.
Graduate-level writing tends to avoid figurative language like metaphors and similes (although some metaphors are woven so tightly into the fabric of English that it hard to avoid them). Other devices like rhymes, puns, and heavy alliteration are also typically avoided.
Clichés are phrases that were once sharp and interesting but that have become dull and boring through overuse. Avoid clichés in your graduate-level writing since they detract from, rather than add to, your content.
Clichés: Out of the blue, these students had to fight fire with fire and dig deep to overcome discrimination in the classroom.
Rhetorical questions are used sparingly in academic writing. While they serve as effective signposts in casual writing or in oral presentations, rhetorical questions can appear patronizing to scholarly audiences. Instead of asking the question, you can usually frame the information as a statement.
Rhetorical Question: What do these results say about the population? Some scholars would argue that....
Presented as a Statement: These results indicate several things about the population. Some scholars note...
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