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TRIO McNair Undergraduate Research Guide: Academic Writing Style


Academic writing refers to a particular style of expression that scholars use to define the boundaries of their disciplines and their areas of expertise. Characteristics of academic writing include a formal tone, use of the third person rather than first-person perspective (usually), a clear focus on the research problem under investigation, and precise word choice. Like the specialist languages adopted in other professions such as law, academic writing is designed to convey agreed meaning about complex ideas for a group of scholarly experts. 

Academic Writing. Writing Center. Colorado Technical College.

Importance of Good Academic Writing

I. The Big Picture 
Unlike fiction or journalistic writing, the overall structure of academic writing is formal and logical. It must be cohesive and possess a logical flow of ideas, which means that the various parts are connected to form a unified whole. There should be links between sentences and paragraphs so the reader is able to follow your argument. 

II. The Tone 
Throughout your paper, it is important that you present the arguments of others fairly and with an appropriate tone. When presenting a position or argument that you disagree with, describe this argument accurately and without loaded or biased language. In academic writing, the author is expected to investigate the research problem from an authoritative point of view. You should, therefore, confidently state the strengths of your arguments using language that is neutral, not confrontational or dismissive. 

III. The Language 
Clear use of language is essential in academic writing. Well-structured paragraphs and clear topic sentences enable a reader to follow your line of thinking without difficulty. Your language should be concise, formal, and express precisely what you want it to mean. Avoid vague expressions that are not specific and precise enough for the reader to derive exact meaning ["they," "we," "people," "the organization," etc.] abbreviations like 'i.e.' ["in other words"], 'e.g.' ["for example"], and contractions, such as, "don't", "isn't", etc. 

IV. Academic Conventions 
Citing sources in the body of your paper and providing a list of references are very important aspects of academic writing. It is essential to always acknowledge the source of any ideas, research findings, or data that you have used in your paper. To do otherwise is considered plagiarism. 

V. Evidence-Based Arguments 
Your assignments often ask you to express your own point of view on research problem you are discussing. However, what is valued in academic writing is that your opinions are based on a sound understanding of the pertinent body of knowledge and academic debates that are currently being debated in your discipline. You need to support your opinion with evidence from academic sources. It should be an objective position presented as a logical argument. The quality of your evidence will determine the strength of your argument. The challenge is to convince the reader of the validity of your opinion through a well-documented, coherent, and logically structured piece of writing. 

VI. Thesis-Driven Analysis 
The writing is “thesis-driven,” meaning that the starting point is a particular perspective, idea, or “thesis” on the chosen research problem, such as, establishing, proving, or disproving solutions to the questions posed for the topic. In contrast, simply describing a topic without the research questions does not qualify as “academic writing.” 

VII. Complexity and Higher-Order Thinking 
One of the main functions of academic writing is to describe complex ideas as clearly as possible. Often called higher-order thinking skills, these include cognitive processes that are used to comprehend, solve problems, and express concepts or that describe abstract ideas that cannot be easily acted out, pointed to, or shown with images. 

Academic Writing. Writing Center. Colorado Technical College.

Strategies For...

Understanding Academic Writing and Its Jargon 

The very definition of jargon is language specific to a particular sub-group of people. Therefore, in modern university life, jargon represents the specific language and meaning assigned to terms and phrases specific to a discipline or area of study. For example, the idea of being rational may hold the same general meaning in both political science and philosophy, but its application to understanding and explaining phenomena within the research work of a discipline may have subtle differences based on how scholars in that discipline apply the concept to the theories and practice of their work. 

Given this, it is important that specialist terms [i.e., jargon] must be used accurately and applied under the appropriate conditions. Subject-specific dictionaries are the best places to confirm the meaning of terms within the context of a specific discipline. It is appropriate for you to use specialist language within your field of study but avoid using such language when writing for non-academic or general audiences. 

Key Problems to Avoid 

  1. Excessive use of specialized terminology. Although academic writing represents a formal style of expression, it does not mean using "big words" just for the sake of doing so. Overuse of big words and complicated sentence constructions gives readers the impression that your writing is more style over substance; it leads the reader to question if you really know what you are talking about. 

  1. Inappropriate use of specialized terminology. Because you are dealing with the concepts, research, and data of your subject, you need to use the technical language appropriate to the discipline. However, nothing will undermine the validity of your study quicker than the inappropriate application of a term or concept. Avoid using terms whose meaning you are unsure of--don't guess or assume! Consult the meaning of terms in specialized, discipline-specific dictionaries. These can be found by searching the library catalog, by entering, for example, the phrase "sociology and dictionaries." 

Other Problems to Avoid 

In addition to understanding the use of specialized language, there are other aspects of academic writing in the social sciences that you should be aware of. These include: 

  • Personal nouns. Excessive use of personal nouns [e.g., I, me, you, us, etc.] may lead the reader to believe the study was overly subjective. Using these words can be interpreted by the reader as being done only to avoid presenting empirical evidence about the research problem. 

  • Directives. Avoid directives that demand the reader "Do this" or "Do that." Directives should be framed as evidence-based recommendations. 

  • Informal, conversational tone using slang and idioms. Academic writing relies on excellent grammar and precise word structure. Your narrative should not include regional dialects or slang terms because they are often open to interpretation; be direct and concise. 

  • Wordiness. Focus on being concise, straightforward, and contain no confusing language. By doing so, you help eliminate the possibility of the reader misinterpreting the research design and purpose of your study. 

  • Vague expressions (e.g., "they," "we," "people," "the company," "that area," etc.). Being concise in your writing also includes avoiding vague references to people, places, or things. While proofreading your paper be sure to look for and edit any vague statements that lack context. 

  • Numbered lists and bulleted items. The use of bulleted items or lists should be used only if the narrative dictates a need for clarity. For example, it is fine to state, "The four main problems with hedge funds are:" and then list them 1, 2, 3, 4. However, in academic writing this must then be followed by detailed explanation and analysis of each item. Given this, the question you should ask yourself while proofreading is: why begin with a list in the first place rather than just starting with systematic analysis of each item? 

  • Descriptive writing. Describing a research problem is an important means of contextualizing a study and, in fact, some description is needed because you can't assume the reader knows everything about the topic. However, the body of your paper should focus on methodology, the analysis and interpretation of findings, and their implications as they apply to the research problem and not background information and descriptions of tangential issues. 

  • Personal experiences. Drawing upon personal experience [e.g., traveling abroad; caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease] can be an effective way of engaging your readers in understanding the research problem. Use personal experience only as an example, though, because academic writing relies on evidence-based research. To do otherwise is simply storytelling. 

NOTE: Rules concerning excellent grammar and precise word structure do not apply when quoting someone. If the quote is especially vague or hard to understand, consider paraphrasing it. Otherwise, a quote should be inserted in the text of your paper exactly as it was stated. If you believe the quote is important to understanding the meaning of the work as a whole, consider inserting the term "sic" in brackets after the quoted word or text to indicate that the quotation has been transcribed exactly as found in the original source, complete with any erroneous spelling or other nonstandard presentation. 

Academic Writing. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Academic Writing Style. First-Year Seminar Handbook. Mercer University; Bem, Daryl J. Writing the Empirical Journal Article. Cornell University; College Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Pernawan, Ari. Common Flaws in Students' Rsearch Proposals. English Education Department. Yogyakarta State University; Style. College Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Invention: Five Qualities of Good Writing. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; What Is an Academic Paper? Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College.

Structure and Writing Style

I. Improving Academic Writing 

To improve your academic writing skills, you should focus your efforts on three key areas: 
1. Clear Writing. Thinking about precedes writing about. Good writers spend sufficient time distilling information and reviewing major points from their sources before creating their work. Writing detailed outlines can help you clearly organize your thoughts. Effective academic writing begins with solid planning, so manage your time carefully. 
2. Excellent Grammar. Needless to say, English grammar can be difficult and complex; even the best scholars take many years before they have command of the major points of good grammar. Take the time to learn the major and minor points of good grammar. Spend time practicing writing and seek detailed feedback from professors. Take advantage of the Writing Center on campus if you need a lot of help. Proper punctuation use and good proofreading skills measurably improve academic writing [see subtab for proofreading your paper]. 

Always refer to these three types of resources to help your grammar and writing skills: 

3. Consistent Stylistic Approach. Whether your professor requires you to use MLA, APA or the Chicago Manual of Style, choose one style manual and stick to it. Each of these style manuals provides guidance on how to write out numbers, references, citations, footnotes, and lists. Consistent adherence to one style of writing helps the flow of your paper and improves its readability. Note that some disciplines require a particular style [e.g., education uses APA] so as you write more papers within your major, familiarity will improve. 

II. Evaluating Quality of Writing 

A useful approach for evaluating the quality of your academic writing is to consider the following issues from the perspective of the reader. While proofreading your final draft, critically assess the quality of the following elements in your writing. 

  • It is shaped around one clear research problem, and explains what that problem is from the outset, 

  • Your paper tells the reader why the problem is important and why people should know about it, 

  • You have accurately and thoroughly informed the reader what has already been published [or not] about this problem or others related to it, 

  • You have provided evidence to support your argument that the reader finds convincing, 

  • The paper includes a description of how and why particular evidence was collected, and why specific theoretical arguments or concepts were used, 

  • The paper is made up of paragraphs, each containing only one controlling idea, 

  • You indicate how each section of the paper addresses the research problem, 

  • You have considered counterarguments or counterexamples where they are relevant, 

  • Arguments, evidence, and their significance have been presented in the conclusion, and 

  • The narrative flows in a clear, accurate, and well-organized way.

Academic Writing. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Academic Writing Style. First-Year Seminar Handbook. Mercer University; Bem, Daryl J. Writing the Empirical Journal Article. Cornell University; College Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Style. College Writing. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Invention: Five Qualities of Good Writing. The Reading/Writing Center. Hunter College; What Is an Academic Paper? Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College.

Writing Tip

UW-Superior Writing Center 

The Writing Center - located in Swenson Hall 1024 - provides free assistance to any and all UW-Superior students with the writing you do for your classes, no matter the subject. Their peer consultants have been trained to assist with all stages of the writing process, from brainstorming topics to making final revisions. Make an appointment here.