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A Guide to English: Academic Writing

A guide to English created by Visiting Librarian Abe Nemon in 2022/2023.

Academic Writing: How It's Different

How is academic writing different from writing in other contexts?

Academic writing - or writing at the college and university level - has a handful of qualities that make it different from writing you might do in a nonacademic setting.

The following guidelines about "U.S. Academic Style" are drawn from The Everyday Writer, 5th edition by Andrea A. Lunsford (available on the library's Ready Reference Shelf), along with chapters where Lunsford expands on each one.

  • Consider your purpose and audience carefully, making sure that your topic is appropriate to both. (Chapter 5)
  • State your claim or thesis explicitly, and support it with examples, statistics, anecdotes, and authorities of various kinds. (Chapter 7)
  • Carefully document all of your sources. (Chapters 49-55)
  • Make explicit links between ideas. (Chapter 8)
  • Consistently use the appropriate level of formality.
    (Chapter 23)
  • Use conventional formats for academic genres.
    (Chapters 3-4 and 61-64)
  • Use conventional grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics. (Chapters 31-48)
  • Use an easy-to-read type size and typeface, conventional margins, and double spacing. (Chapter 9)

Academic Writing is a Conversation

A key point to understand about academic writing (which explains the underlying reasoning behind many of these conventions) is that it is a scholarly conversation between ourselves and the academic writers who have come before us, and between ourselves and the academic writers who will in turn read our writing and converse with it themselves.

As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein explain in their book They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (also available on the Ready Reference shelf),

Broadly speaking, academic writing is argumentative writing, and we believe that to argue well you need to do more than assert your own position. You need to enter a conversation, using what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own views. For this reason, one of the main pieces of advice in this book is to write the voices of others into your text.

A large part of why we follow conventions like state your claim or thesis explicitly and using topic sentences to organize our paragraphs is because we want our readers to clearly understand our contribution to the ongoing conversation. We provide clear in-text citations and lists of works cited because we want to give full credit to those who preceded us in the conversation and allow others to follow along and see our place in it as well.

Did you know: If you search for an article on Google Scholar and then start browsing the "Cited by" links below each article, you can see this web of conversation literally taking place.

Long-term goals for college writers

Academic writing is also a learning process that we improve upon semester-by-semester and project-by-project, as we gain more confidence writing for different audiences and in our disciplines. Still, it helps to have a general idea of what we are trying to accomplish when we talk about becoming more effective academic writers.

Three national organizations for college writing instructors -- the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the National Writing Project -- jointly produced a document called A Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011), which describes eight habits of mind and four areas of writing competency that they believe college writers should work towards.

Here's a video explaining what this document tries to do.

The authors of the Framework identify eight habits of mind they believe college instructors and college writers should work to develop:

  • Curiosity – the desire to know more about the world.
  • Openness – the willingness to consider new ways of being and thinking in the world.
  • Engagement – a sense of investment and involvement in learning.
  • Creativity – the ability to use novel approaches for generating, investigating, and representing ideas.
  • Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.
  • Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others.
  • Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands.
  • Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge.

The Framework then identifies four general areas of writing competency students should achieve:

You can click on the above links to reach four subpages of this section of the guide, where we explore each of these areas in greater detail.

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