An 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

1 - Structure

Structure is important for any written assignment. Without a clear structure your ideas and work are likely to be jumbled and unclear, so even if they are good - you may not get the credit you deserve.

Different kinds of assignments will require different structures. Some, like scientific reports have fairly rigid expectations about the structure you should implement. Others will be more flexible. The first step is to spend time familiarising yourself with the brief you have been given and any other information your course provides. Within Study Hub's 'Written Assignments' index you will also find more specific information about different types of writing assignments.

2 - Referencing

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.

At university you are required to show 'independent work'. This is not the same as original work where all the ideas are your own. Rather, it means that you are able to read, understand and compare the work of subject experts. When 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 you will be expected to consider practices of knowledge making. This means looking at theories, concepts, philosophies and other abstract ideas which underpin the practices and processes you are studying.

4 - Academic Tone

This is a tricky concept to describe and there is a great deal of variation between subject areas. Even within a course there are a number of different types of document that you might be asked to write. The bullet points below give you a basic oversight of the tone you are expected to write with at University, but please take into account that if you have been asked to write a reflective piece of writing these comments will not apply.

There is a general trend towards a less formal tone but the following points are widely valid. You should think about your writing being:

  • Objective - it should communicate principles and reasoned judgement rather than personal feelings and opinions
  • 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, without waffle and clumsy sentences. Furthermore, it avoids imprecise intensifies like 'very' and 'really' because these are very vague terms. 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
  • Modest - avoiding words like 'obviously', 'definitely' or 'prove', which suggest you have solved problems rather than contributed to debate
  • Avoids value judgements - words such as 'brilliant' or 'wonderful' are inappropriate for academic writing
  • Balanced - includes both sides of an argument and different perspectives. Try to let the evidence make your points rather than writing “I think that…”.

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
  1. 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.

It is also helpful to remember you are not writing to educate your tutor but to demonstrate to them what you know! This is a key reason why you should not assume the reader knows too much because this will leave gaps in your own logic and explanation that may make it appear that your understanding of the issue is incomplete. Walk your reader through what you know in a logical, clear and convincing manner.

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 with sloppy presentation. Remember, you need to do your ideas and argument justice and if the person marking your work can't find these clearly because of your writing style you may miss out on marks.

  • correct punctuation and grammar will help to make your meaning clear and avoid muddle.
  • short sentences and paragraphs will help to make your work more readable

Once you have checked your work for these errors it can help to get a friend or family member to read it with you to pick up errors you may have missed. Reading it out loud to yourself is a great way to see if your sentences are too long or busy.