What it isn’t
Dictionaries aren’t much help. They sometimes define ‘academic’ like this: abstract, impersonal, cold, over-formal. This all sounds pretty off-putting and quite negative. If you talk to university tutors, they will tell you these are precisely the sorts of things that spoil essays because students think that’s what writing at university is supposed to be like. Tutors will also tell you that academic writing isn’t about jargon. This does not mean that academic writing does not use complex theoretical or technical terminology but it does not do so in place of clearly written everyday language. It also isn’t about very long sentences and using six big words when two short ones will do. Academic writing does not mean putting yourself on hold and trying to write like a character out of Star Trek about the prevalence of sub-space frequencies being refracted by tachyon beam phase distortions.
So, what is it?
Buried among all those negative-sounding dictionary definitions of ‘academic’ are a few helpful ones: ‘relating to scholarly performance’ and ‘speculative’. If we unpack those meanings a little we can try some definitions of our own:
i. Academic writing is writing that shows evidence of learning.
ii. Academic writing considers a subject in its different aspects, relations and implications.
iii. Academic writing reviews a subject with a sense of sceptical enquiry.
iv. Academic writing re-examines a subject in order to test and develop ideas or theories.
Yes, But What Does It Look Like?
Our definitions sound as if academic writing always looks and sounds the same. If we look at the opening sentences of articles from a number of academic journals this clearly isn’t the case: Edwin Morgan will be seventy this year and his oeuvre is now a substantial one.  This essay examines some of the ways in which racialised ideologies were constituted in the nineteenth century in the context of British imperialism.  Edna O’Brien is a writer more often judged as dealing with private passions than the wider world of politics.  The rapprochement of bibliography and contemporary theory has become so familiar a fact of Shakespeare studies that it is now routinely invoked as a fait accompli.
Fingerprints 1: register & evidence of learning
All four passages have a number of identifying marks or fingerprints. We can see straight away that there’s a particular register of language being used. The examples about Edwin Morgan, British imperialism and Shakespeare studies use words and terms that we might not recognise: ‘oeuvre’, ‘racialised ideologies’, ‘rapprochement’, ‘fait accompli’. The writers aren’t using these words and terms to show off. They are using them because these are the words and terms that writers about the subjects of these articles habitually use. For example, the writer on Edwin Morgan could have said ‘body of work’ instead of ‘oeuvre’ but ‘oeuvre’ is a recognised term in literary studies used to refer to the totality of a writer’s work. It establishes that the writer is taking a serious approach to his subject. To go back to our first definition of academic writing, we might say that writing in this register is one way to show evidence of learning – although, of course, it’s not the only one or even the most important. We can also say that writing in this register helps to establish the right degree of formality. When a reader sees a word like ‘oeuvre’ instead of ‘books’, she is already starting to form an opinion that the writer knows what he or she is talking about.
Fingerprints 2: specialised language used clearly
We can also see that while the writers on British imperialism and Shakespeare studies do use specialised or unfamiliar words and phrases – ‘racialised ideologies’, ‘constituted’, ‘rapprochement’ – they do so in the context of clear, direct statements. The writer on British imperialism announces clearly what the article is about. The writer on Shakespeare studies directs us clearly to the article’s area of discussion.
Fingerprints 3: saying what you are going to do
The most important thing about all four examples is that they all announce clearly what the articles are going to be about and do so in particular ways.
Example  not only tells us the article is going to be about Edwin Morgan’s works: by referring to his seventieth birthday, it tells us that this is a good moment to review aspects of those works.
Example  announces its subject but does so with a little of that element of doubt from our third definition. The writer is going to write about only ‘some of the ways’ – i.e. she’s not claiming to be comprehensive. She’s going to write about how ‘racialised ideologies were constituted’ i.e. made up. So she’s going to talk about processes as much as finished facts. Finally she’s going to do something from our second definition of academic writing: she’s going to ‘examine’, i.e. look at carefully, look at in detail, look at from a number of different angles.
Example  seems to be just a straightforward statement about Edna O’Brien. However, by using the phrase ‘more often’ the writer is doing something from our third and fourth definitions of academic writing. She’s introducing an element of doubt – yes, Edna O’Brien is more often judged in one way but there are others. And that, in turn, tells us that she’s going to re-examine the ways in which Edna O’Brien is usually judged. She’s already telling us that the focus of her article is going to be on ‘the wider world of politics’ in O’Brien’s work.
Example  also uses particular phrases to tell us that it’s going to re-examine its subject: ‘become so familiar a fact’, ‘routinely invoked’, ‘fait accompli’. ‘Rapprochement’ is also used deliberately. It means both the ‘re-establishment or recommencement of harmonious relations’ and ‘the act or fact of coming or being drawn near or together’. So the writer might be telling us that once upon a time there was antagonism between bibliography and contemporary theory but now the two things are the best of friends. Or he might be telling us that the differences between bibliography and contemporary theory are becoming blurred. ‘Fait accompli’ means something that’s been done and is therefore regarded as irreversible and/or no longer worth arguing against. The writer is telling us that his view of the subject is going to be that something isn’t necessarily so just because we keep seeing it and keep talking about it.
Fingerprints 4: objectivity
This points to another important aspect of academic writing: objectivity. By telling us that they are going to take a new view of their subjects, writers [three] and [four] are standing apart from them. They are saying ‘Yes, I know everyone says it looks like this but is that really true?’ Being objective means looking at the facts without letting feelings or prejudices – our own or other people’s – get in the way. I usually tell students: imagine you are a detective. You’ve been to the scene of the crime, you’ve interviewed the witnesses and you’ve got the forensic reports. Now you are sitting back at the police station weighing it all up and asking yourself questions about what it looks like. Does piece C of forensic evidence contradict witness A? Or do the two things just make each other clearer? If you spend any time talking to academics you’ll often hear them say that research can be frustrating because it does not always tell them what they were expecting, but that this in itself can be exciting and challenging.
Fingerprints 5: located in a body of knowledge
The other thing that all the writers of our four examples do is to locate themselves in existing bodies of knowledge. They take certain facts for granted and then move on to their particular take on the subject. Our four writers aren’t going to and don’t need to spend time on proving that Edwin Morgan has a substantial oeuvre; that British imperialism involved racialised ideologies; that there’s a dominant view of Edna O’Brien; and that bibliography and contemporary theory were once opposed but aren’t any more. This is also why, for example, the writer in  uses the word ‘oeuvre’ and the writer in  uses the phrase ‘racialised ideologies’. Using a particular register of language helps to tell your readers where you are coming from and where you are going. These are important points to bear in mind for any piece of writing: who you are writing for; what you can assume they know; what you can assume they want you to tell them; and what language they expect to be told it in.