What is ‘academic writing’?

Academic writing is a particular style of writing that is characteristic of academic institutions. In other words, it is the style that is used by undergraduates, graduates and lecturers when they explore particular academic questions in essays, dissertations, PhD theses and academic papers. Although it shares many similarities with other styles of writing, it also has its own characteristic features, and it is these features that we will be examining.

The characteristic features that it exhibits give it a distinct style, and the great majority of students wishing to successfully complete a course of university study should ensure that their work reflects this style. If students are unwilling or unable to adopt an appropriate style, they are likely to have greater difficulties throughout their course. So what, in general, characterises academic writing? There are a number of factors and these relate to both the language itself and the structure.

A well-written academic essay will exhibit the following characteristics. It will:

  • put forward a coherent argument
  • support that argument with evidence
  • show the writer’s knowledge of the subject
  • show evidence of reading
  • reflect independent thinking
  • contain quotations
  • contain references and a bibliography
  • adopt a formal style
  • be logical and analytical
  • be clearly structured.

This is not an exhaustive list but it provides an indication of the style of essay that is expected at a college or university. Other examples of formal writing may also reflect the elements listed here such as formal reports, formal agreements, certificates, government papers and so on.

However, it is likely that many undergraduates will not have been required to adopt an academic style before their arrival at university. While their pre-university courses may have necessitated writing essays, these will probably not have reflected the formal language, the formal structure and the presentation of a logical argument in quite the same way.

In addition, many people now start their university course after a significant period of work and so they may not have written much at all for the ten years prior to starting their course. This will obviously make it hard for them to pick up on the style of writing that is needed in higher education.