Introduction to Academic Writing
Writing at University includes many different kinds of formal and informal documents. By the term “Academic Writing”, we usually mean essays, reports and dissertations which follow particular conventions of structure, style and content. Your course will give you information about how you are expected to tackle a particular piece of work. It is important to pay attention to any specific instructions that you are given – there is a great deal of variation between different subjects and the ways in which they follow convention (or not!). These are general guidelines.
What is Academic Writing?
Academic Writing has a number of distinctive features:
1. There is usually a formal structure within which to present your ideas
2. Your ideas should be supported by reference to existing knowledge in the subject
3. The writing is likely to deal with the underlying theories and causes behind everyday
processes and practices – there is generally a focus on abstract thought
4. The writing usually has a fairly formal tone
5. You should think about writing for a general, intelligent reader rather than just
addressing your lecturer or tutor
6. Conventional rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation are followed
In the section on Assignment Types you will find more information on how to structure particular types of writing.
Citing the work of published authors in your subject field is a very important feature of academic writing. If you can refer to other writers’ work and integrate their ideas with your own, it shows that you have read, understood and considered the issues and perspectives that they raise.
It is important that if you make a judgement or express an idea, you can support it by linking it to what has previously been said or written by authorities on the subject.
There are a number of different Referencing Styles in use – see the Referencing section for guidance.
3. Abstract thought
Even if you are writing about a practical subject such as Design or Zoology, the academic practice of knowledge making in your subject area will expect you to also consider theories, concepts, philosophies and other abstract ideas which underpin the practices and processes.
4. Academic Tone
This is a tricky concept to describe and there is a great deal of variation between subject areas. And there are a number of different types of document that you will be expected to write at University.
Particularly if you are studying a creative subject, you may be asked to write personal, reflective documents and these comments do not apply to that kind of writing.
There is a general trend towards a less formal tone but the following points are still generally valid. You should think about the writing being:
Relatively formal – in that it avoids slang, contractions (such as can’t, shouldn’t), exclamation marks and text-speak
Precise and Concise – good academic writing aims to make points in as few words as possible – you should try to cut out waffle and clumsy sentences. Being precise is often difficult and can involve thinking and re-thinking, drafting and re-drafting. It is one aspect of writing which tends to improve with practice – so if you are a novice writer, don’t expect this to come straight away.
A note on the use of “I” (first person)
Some academic tutors specifically forbid the use of the personal pronoun “I” in Academic Writing but this is increasingly rare. It is generally acceptable to use phrases like “in this report I will investigate…” and “I” frequently appears in introductions and conclusions. However, to maintain an objective tone, it is best to keep expressions of personal opinions to a minimum, unless these are specifically asked for in your assignment brief. Some kinds of reflective writing particularly encourage the use of “I” and personal reflection so check your assignment type carefully and make sure you understand what your tutors are expecting.
5. The Audience
In Academic Writing it can be tricky to work out who you are writing for and why – after all, you may think that your tutor knows it all already. Instead, you could think about writing for an interested, intelligent reader who has some knowledge of your subject area but who does not know the detail of your assignment – for instance you could think of a fellow student on your course from an earlier year but who has not taken the particular module or assignment you are working on. However, even if you are thinking about writing for another student, you should respect the conventions of a formal, detached and rather impersonal tone.
6. Punctuation and Grammar
It is really important to check and double check your work for errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. This can be tedious but it is important not to undermine your good ideas by sloppy presentation. Also correct punctuation and grammar help to make your meaning clear and avoid muddle. It can help if you get a friend or family member to read through your work with you to pick up errors you may have missed. Reading it out loud to yourself also helps.