What is academic writing?


If you look for an academic writing definition in the Oxford or Cambridge dictionary, you will come away disappointed. These revered lexicons do not define academic writing at all. There are, however, plenty of resources on the internet which do a decent job of explaining the concepts and rules of academic writing.


So, what is academic writing? The MacMillan Dictionary carries the following definition – “a formal and factual style of writing that is used for essays, research papers, and other academic texts”.


There are specific rules and characteristics related to academic writing. This article serves as a guideline on how to develop your academic writing skills. 


An interesting fact about academic writing

Research has shown that enhanced writing skills boost motivation, attitude, and self confidence


A recent paper has described how a group of doctoral students, participating in a Thesis Writing Group found that the benefits of working in the group extended beyond the practical purpose for which it was formed. It also had psychological advantages for members, who found that the group interactions endowed them with a more positive outlook, and enhanced their motivation and confidence. 



Examples of Academic Writing 


The main purpose of academic writing is to offer the reader a clear and well thought out picture of the topic under discussion. Students and academics use academic writing to describe, explain, analyse and argue points about the subject under discussion.


We use examples of academic writing from Google Scholar to explain some of the characteristics of this type of writing. These examples should help you to gain some true insights into the essential elements of academic writing.



Academic writing must be accurate and focused. Statements of fact must be backed by evidence. In the academic journal below, you will notice that there is a number after each of the cited facts. This indicates the source of the data.


When writing an academic paper, you may not make vague statements like “people say” or “it’s a known fact”. Your English must be clear and concise. Even though this abstract is about a scientific matter, about which many people know very little, it is easy to read and each fact is backed by a source.


The facts in the abstract are succinct and formal.  An example, “It is estimated that viral infections contribute to approximately 6.6% of global mortality.


The writer would have lost credibility If he had made a statement as follows “Statisticians believe that many people from various countries around the world may die from viral infections.


In the second sentence the reader is left with the following questions;

  • How many or what percentage of people will die?
  • What countries will be affected?




A detached view
Academic writing requires that you take account of the topic goal. The goal of the article is not to express your own opinions or to pander to the opinions of the reader. The data must be clear of any subjective sentences or phrases. Academic writing must be structured and focused.


Army-ants (particularly swarm-raiding species Eciton burchellii and Labidus praedator) are keystone predators in Neotropical forests.


This is acceptable but 

Army-ants (particularly swarm-raiding species Eciton burchellii and Labidus praedator) are keystone predators in Neotropical forests and in our opinion the problem is they’re taking over.” 


Presents two problems;

  • It is not detached as it expresses an opinion
  • It contains a contraction “they’re”.


Academic work must be structured. It must follow a logical order that coherently brings together your argument. The best academic writing Is formal and unbiased. The objective is to base conclusions on facts and not on the views of the author.





Complex language


The abstract below demonstrates how academic writing often requires the use of more complex language. It is often more difficult to understand the words and language in academic writing. Academic work must accurately unambiguously convey distinct ideas. The grammar, clauses, and adjectives must all work to this end.


You will also note that there is no informal language, contractions such as don’t or can’t, and no dialects. The writing is formal and to the point. It contains words and phrases that you would not typically use in everyday conversation. Words like “context-dependent”, “unidimensional construct”, and “syntactic” to name but a few.


Although this piece includes a reference to the first person, it is acceptable because it is for good reason and is unbiased, offering no opinion.



Why BBC and Guardian English are not academic writing


Many people are under the impression that the writing style used by the BBC and Guardian is the same as academic writing. While journalists are expected to back up their facts with sound sources and offer accurate work, the writing is less formal and takes a different structure.


Newspaper stories start with a lead and follow with more background information. There is no conclusion as there must be in any academic work.




Characteristics of Academic Writing

"Good writers are those who keep the language efficient. That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear"

- Ezra Pound


What to avoid in academic writing


What to include in academic writing



Full words

Informal English

Formal English



Flowery language

Straight facts

Vague expressions like “going to” required

Replace with “will”

Personal experienceKeep to the objectives of the article
Unnecessary wordinessKeep it short and succinct
Emotive and grandiose languageUnbiased
Second person pronouns 

Use clear and concise language

"A good style must first be clear"



Many students are tempted to use flowery or wordy language, particularly if they are daunted by the required word count. Avoid this temptation. Imagine that each word will cost you $10 so you should use as few words as possible.


English academic prose is not like Chinese or Russian, both of which require the use of wordy descriptive sentences. In most cases, in English, less is more. Get to the point in as few words as possible. Avoid words such as “perhaps” which suggests that you are unsure of your conclusions.


Examples of redundancy appear all around us. The following sentence was taken from a formal letter I recently received. "Please send the results as asap as possible."


Below some examples of redundant, unclear, and flowery sentences with some advice on what they should look like.


  • Each and every one of the students felt that they should plan ahead for holidays
    • This sentence contains redundant words in the phrases “Each and  everyone” and “plan ahead”.
    • Here is a corrected version of the sentence; “Every student felt that they should plan for the holidays.”


  •  Activity at the work site carried on in the year 2020
    • This sentence is unnecessarily complicated
    • Here is an improved version - Activity at the work site continued in 2020.

  • Unfortunately, this terrible accident is one of the most tragic in aviation history
    • This sentence contains grandiose and emotive language
    • This is what the sentence should look like – “The mortality rates in this accident were the highest in aviation history.

Choose the correct tone and voice

"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple."
-Jack Kerouac

Writing Voice

Everyone has a writing voice. When you write freely it is as distinctive as your auditory voice. In freewriting, you have little control over your voice until you think about the reader. When the reader comes to mind, you will adjust your voice so that you speak to them naturally and comfortably.  So, if you want to write an academic paper that your tutor will appreciate, you should imagine her in the lecture room reading your work.


Author and writing instructor, Jerry Jenkins, suggests that your voice is the unique lens through which you see the world.



The way that the writing makes the readers feel is described as the tone. The contents of the writing determine the tone. The tone is the way that you deliver facts to the reader. How difficult is it to read? Is it interesting or boring? Is the language formal or informal?



As we have already stated, in academic writing the language should be formal, but this does not mean that it should be boring or lack interest. You should put in every effort to make it interesting and easy to read. Mix long and short sentences. Make sure that your writing is succinct and to the point. Use an example to demonstrate your points if you can.


Writing style

The style of writing describes what you do to establish the tone. The style includes all the tools that you use from word choice to grammar and the rules that you choose to use or break.  





There are four major types of academic writing:



This is the simplest form of academic writing. The objective of such writing is to present the facts.


Analytical writing will include descriptive writing, but it requires careful sorting and reorganization of facts into categories based on relationships. Analytic writing will include such verbs as “compare”, “contrast”, and, of course, “analyse”.


Persuasive articles are those where the writer sets out to persuade the reader of their point of view through academic argument and based on solid research. Such an article does not just present the information, the writer must argue his position using supporting evidence and logical conclusions.  


Critical writing also seeks to persuade the writing but in this type of writing, the writer examines other opinions and conclusions. This is typically used in a literature review.




Two Academic Writing Structures


This diagram conveys the structure of a general essay which you may have to write in answer to an exam question. These forms of academic writing often start quite broadly with a general statement and then drill down to offer increasingly more detail. Essay and paragraph questions often broaden out again with a summary that refers to the initial statement.


This diagram graphically describes the shape and form of a typical research paper. As one would expect, the paper starts with an introduction which should offer the rationale and a general discussion about the topic. The discussion is aimed at drawing the reader in and piquing his interest.


The method section describes in detail the methods used to conduct the research and the reasons why those methods were used.


The results of the research follow.


In the last section, the writer discusses the research outcomes referring some of these back to items discussed in the introduction.



"Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go."

-E. L. Doctorow


There is a technique to academic writing, and getting it right requires some practice. A good academic article should be clear and concise. The writing is formal and should contain no colloquialisms, informalities, or contractions. Keep the writing free from bias and do not offer any of your own opinions.


Flowery language and redundancy are not only unnecessary, but they also detract from the quality of the paper. It is important to bear the reader in mind when writing your paper as this will help you to use your writing style to set the tone and voice of your article.


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