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Academic writing: key features

The story so far

The four introductory sentences from academic articles used less than 100 words between them but by looking at them in detail we’ve been able to identify a number of key features about academic writing. Let’s try and sum them up.

i. Academic writing has a serious tone. The language used and the way writers approach their subjects are thoughtful and restrained. None of the examples were dull but even the most direct – [1] and [3] – avoided sounding chatty and colloquial.

ii. Academic writing is clear and to the point. All four examples introduce their subjects and manage to tell us quite a bit about what the writers are going to say about them.

iii. Academic writing is objective. Examples [3] and [4] do this particularly well: never mind what the accepted views are, what do these things really look like? Examples [3] and [4] also do something that is a key feature of academic writing: they take a critical view of their subjects.

iv. Academic writing starts with an element of doubt. It does not assume anything. It’s tentative and exploratory. It does not start by claiming to be definitive or comprehensive. The more you read academic articles and books the more you’ll find phrases like ‘Professor X’s argument suggests that there might be a sense in which…’ or ‘Taking this into account, it could be argued that…’

v. Academic writing uses evidence. This connects with being objective. Academic writing isn’t a place to express opinions or feelings without backing them up with facts or references. This is one of the important differences between speaking and writing. In conversation we just say what we think but in writing we have to be able to back it up.

vi. Academic writing locates itself in an existing body of knowledge. Any new piece of writing is a development and an extension of what has already been written on a particular subject.

The sequel

There are some other key features which would have become apparent if we’d read the four articles in full, and which this guide will look at elsewhere. Here’s a quick summary:

i. Academic writing follows a process of reasoning. It will present the facts about a subject and a writer’s interpretation of them in a way that shows those facts are interrelated, connected or sequential; and the presentation will appear orderly, logical, even predictable or inevitable. So if we go back to our second article about Edna O’Brien, the process of reasoning might be as follows. The writer could briefly review the accepted view of O’Brien’s work. She could then look at statements that O’Brien has made – in journalistic articles or interviews – about the world of politics. She could then look at O’Brien’s novels and short stories and see how the world of politics appears or is discussed.

ii. Academic writing advances an argument. I look in detail at what an argument is in another section, but making an argument is closely connected with following a process of reasoning. As in our suggested outline for the article on Edna O’Brien, an argument moves through clearly presented, logical stages and uses and reviews evidence at each of those stages.

iii. Academic writing is consistent. This is true of all successful pieces of writing. If we’d read our four academic articles in full, we would have found that they start as they mean to go on. They don’t suddenly become colloquial or veer off into impenetrable jargon. They don’t suddenly start making wild, unsupported assertions.