Oct 6, 2021

What is Academic Writing (and What is Not)?

If you are a non-native writer of academic papers and articles, you might think that the most important thing to focus on is sounding like a fluent English speaker. But even native English speakers do not automatically sound “academic” when they write. There are many differences between this academic writing and other language and writing styles, and research shows that experience outweighs native-speaker status when it comes to writing academic texts. This article will help you understand what is important when writing academic texts and provide you with clear guidelines for drafting and editing your own work.

When should you follow an academic writing style?

You are expected to follow academic writing conventions when writing any kinds of academic essays, book reports, annotated bibliographies, research papers, research posters, lab reports, research proposals, theses, or manuscripts for publication. You have probably been told many times to write “concisely” and “effectively.” But you might not know exactly what that means or how you make your own writing as concise, as effective, and overall as academic as possible. In the following, we will look at the main components of academic writing as well as at some things that you should avoid when writing any kind of scholarly text.

Table of Contents:

  1. What is Academic Writing? 
  2. What You Might Confuse with Academic Writing 
  3. Formal Writing vs Informal Writing
  4. Clear and Objective Writing 
  5. Structure and Consistency 
  6. How to Cite Sources Correctly

What is Academic Writing? 

Academic writing can be descriptive (e.g., a results section), analytical (e.g., a comparison of different theories), persuasive (your own point of view), or critical (when you discuss other peoples’ points of view). This type of writing always has a clear structure that guides the reader from beginning to end. It is also focused on the presented information and arguments and is backed up by evidence. Different disciplines have different conventions and jargon, but academic writing generally has a formal tone and style that is unbiased and impersonal.  

What You Might Confuse with Academic Writing 

The point of academic writing is not to “sound like a native.” In fact, all the colloquial expressions and idioms you might have picked up from your native English-speaking friends or colleagues need to stay out of your papers and articles. Academic writing is not story-telling, and your goal is not to entertain the reader. However, academic writing does not have to be complex and full of long-winded sentences and complicated vocabulary expressions. In fact, recent research argues that using needlessly complex words might make you look less intelligent. You can use simple language and keep your sentences short (many readers will thank you for that) as long as you stick to the main principles of academic writing: formality, clarity and accuracy, structure, and evidence.

black man writing in a book with a pen
Academic writing is about more than just sounding like a native English speaker. Formal writing is learned by reading a lot of academic texts.

Formal Writing vs Informal Writing

What exactly makes your writing formal? You might think you need to use complicated words, longer sentences, and complex grammar structures to impress the reader and sound academic and professional. But formal writing can be simple and plain (in fact, simplicity is a good thing). Just be sure to avoid the following characteristics of informal language: 

  • Slang: The Cambridge dictionary defines slang as “very informal language” that is used between people who know each other well and belong to a specific social group. Expressions known only to you and your friends or colleagues (but not to others) because they refer to things you often talk or joke about between yourselves are examples of slang. Since spoken and written language have to be clearly separated, these expressions should not be included in anything you write for professional or academic purposes.
  • Idioms and cliches: You might think that using idioms makes you sound more native. But idioms can be highly country- and culture-specific and not every reader will understand them. They can also sound boring or lazy, because they have been used so many times by so many writers that nobody wants to hear or read them anymore.
  • Verb contractions: You find blog posts and resources or even newspaper articles these days that use “don’t” and “haven’t.” But in academic texts such contractions must be spelled out. This rule also applies to academic conversations, such as when you respond to reviewer comments in a rebuttal letter that directly addresses an editor and reviewers.
  • Conversational phrases: Since academic writing is generally impersonal, you should not use any expressions that include the reader as a conversation partner. First-person pronouns (“I” and “we”) can be used in research papers where appropriate, but never address the audience personally as “you.”

Structure and Consistency 

Your research article or academic paper needs to have a logical structure from beginning (title and abstract or introduction section) to end (discussion and conclusion), with clear sections and subheadings. It should contain all necessary but only relevant information. The reader should never have to ask “Why is this detail mentioned?” or “Did they forget to discuss why they used this method?” 

Within this overall structure, however, you also need to pay attention to consistency on the level of the paragraph and sentence.

  • Overall structure: Avoid repeating the same information in different parts of your article, unless you need to remind the reader of certain details (such as at the beginning of the discussion section). Spell out every abbreviation once before you use it, so that the reader can follow. Do not mention details in the abstract or introduction that you only explain later in the article. Do not use different terms for the same thing or different variations of terms in different sections of your paper — decide on one, define that at the beginning if necessary, and then use it throughout the text.
  • Paragraph level: When you move on to a new idea, start a new paragraph — and use the correct transition terms here as well. Make sure that every paragraph really only contains one idea or topic, and if you later decide to omit some details of your experiment or analyses, then make sure you delete all paragraphs on that topic from all sections of your article.
  • Sentence level: Make sure you use the correct transition terms and the correct punctuation within and between your sentences so that you logically connect one idea or piece of information to the next. 

Clear and Objective Writing 

As an academic author, you have to present information clearly and as objectively as possible so that the reader can come to their own conclusions. 

  • No vague expressions: The rule of thumb has no place in your research paper or article. Say exactly who did something, what quantities you used, and how long something took. Do not use vague terms like “perhaps,” “maybe,” “a little,” “some,” “and so on,” or “etc.” Pay attention to the timeline of your experiment or study and make sure you use verb tenses correctly to indicate when something happened relative to the present day. 

NO Participants were shown the faces, cars, animals, and so on, about three times.

YES Participants saw each face, car, animal, house, and scene three times, except for two participants who could already name all pictures after two rounds.

NO Some patients took medication when they visited our clinic.

YES Five of our 20 patients were already on medication when they visited our clinic.

  • No emotive language: For instance, in clinical reports, do not describe events as “horrendous” or “disgusting” or patients as “suffering from” a disease. Use non-emotive language. If you want to emphasize the gravity of a situation, cite other people who used such expressions and clearly mark them in quotes.

NO Many patients suffer a lot because of the horrible disease.

YES The disease often affects the patients’ quality of life.

  • Present evidence, not just your own opinion: You don’t want to tell the reader what to think, you want to provide them with all the information they need to come to their own conclusions. Clearly explain why you did what you did, why you used the methods you used, and what the limitations of your work are. Present other people’s work accurately and try to be fair even if you disagree.

NO Adams et al. could not show clear results.

YES Since Adams et al. used a cognitive rather than a language scale, they could not distinguish between the two effects we report on here.

How to Cite Sources Correctly

Every piece of information or data that you take from somewhere else needs to be cited so that the reader knows what was known before and what new knowledge or ideas your paper or article provides. Note that you also need to add references to images and other material, whether you found something online, in a book, or in a newspaper. Your sources should be credible (i.e., articles from books, your university library, and academic databases rather than Wikipedia or blogs), and you need to know who wrote them and who published them when and where. 

Since there are several different citation styles, you should check your class syllabus, the guidelines of your department, or the author instructions of your target journal to make sure you use the correct style. In general, add author names and years in brackets or (superscript) numbers to the text to indicate where a quote or information comes from, and you list all your sources at the end of your paper or article. Don’t forget that even if you paraphrase you still need to provide your sources if you don’t want to get into trouble for plagiarism. And even if you reuse your own work (e.g., your unpublished bachelor’s thesis), you need to cite yourself to avoid what is called “self-plagiarism.”

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