What is Academic Writing?

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F001323-0008, Bonn, Münsterschule

This is not what we mean by academic writing. Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-F001323-0008, via Wikimedia Commons.

An academic essay is best defined by the PURPOSE that distinguishes it from other kinds of non-fiction writing:

It aims to identify and resolve complex problems in relation to ongoing discussions among fellow thinkers about the most difficult or abstract human issues.

In every field there are scholars working to resolve debates and questions of general interest (a “field” of inquiry can be anything from “history” to “the early nineteenth-century cultural history of the Russian gentry”).

As students or scholars, our written work is intended to be a part of such ongoing debates, and our aim is not only to illuminate a very particular problem through analysis of sources and original reasoning, but also to relate that problem to similar ones other scholars are working on, so that we – as a group – may better understand our whole field of inquiry.

The complexity of our subjects requires that our writing be as simple and clear as possible, and the goal of situating our ideas in relation to a wider public discussion requires that we refer to and analyze outside sources (i.e., other writers) as an integral part of our own work.

As such, scholarly essays generally have the following FEATURES in common:

-one main problem or a cluster of related problems is identified and its significance to the field is explained

-original claims and interpretations intended to resolve the main problem are made by the author, and supported by reasoning and evidence

-secondary sources: situate the author’s problem and main claim within a public discussion, and may also serve as support for some claims

-primary sources: support the author’s claims (Note that some kinds of scholarly writing – like book reviews and many undergraduate research papers – refer only to secondary sources)

-analysis of sources, both primary and secondary, to explain, question, and explore how they can support the author’s claims

-definitions of all specialized terms so their nuances can be analyzed in detail, and so terms may be reliably used in the same way by other researchers, or applied or adapted as necessary in new contexts

-style and structure appropriate to the intended audience

-rules of logic, evidence, citation and intellectual property are adhered to according to convention

READERS of an academic essay are assumed to be fellow toilers in the academic endeavor to “let our knowledge grow from more to more and so be human life enriched” (Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur, the motto of my alma mater).

In other words, we expect our readers to be looking to our writing for:

(a) information that will enrich or enlighten their own studies and

(b) our original ideas, conclusions or interpretations that will also help to further other studies and general enlightenment.

Readers of academic essays are generally not looking for:

(a) entertainment or aesthetic gratification,

(b) simplified or summarized versions of things they already know,

(c) conclusions or plans of action without the reasoning or evidence that led to them

(d) suspense or delay in finding out what the point is (though these are all valid elements in other kinds of essays, to suit other purposes).

Therefore, the virtues of STYLE AND STRUCTURE most often looked for (though not always achieved!) in academic essays are: clarity, cohesion, and brevity.

We want to find what we’re looking for, understand it, remember it, and apply it in new contexts, as quickly and easily as possible, without losing the inherent complexity of the ideas.

In order to best fulfill these goals, the classic short academic essay has a skeleton that looks something like this:

-Introduction: context, problem, proposed resolution (=thesis, which at this point may be only generally implied or stated in broad terms that will be elaborated later)

-Body: Argument (consisting of claims, evidence, reasoning), also including definitions of terms, background information, and counter-arguments as needed to make the argument clear and accurate

-Conclusion: restatement of problem’s resolution (thesis), and re-contextualization (how does this resolution serve the greater discussion, and where do we go next?)

(The citation and analysis of sources often plays an integral role in all three major parts of an academic essay: sources can be used to contextualize as well as to support the author’s claims. Every reference to a source, whether it is directly quoted, paraphrased, or merely mentioned, must be accompanied by a citation.)

Within this formula, there is enormous room for creativity, experimentation, and even subversion of the formula.

It is important to remember, however, that the formula is what academic readers expect to see. When you give them something different for no good reason (whimsy and rebellion are not good reasons), they will be confused, and your essay will have failed to achieve its goals.

To subvert the formula you must know the formula – that is, the reader’s expectations – so well that you can predict and guide reader responses in your own directions.

Every field or sub-field of academic inquiry has its own conventions, jargon, habits and expectations. Undergraduates encounter a greater variety of conventions than most other scholars ever have to deal with on a daily basis, and almost all of it will be new to them. This is very difficult, but it helps to concentrate on the basic principles and methods common to all academic writing (as defined by the common purpose described above), with occasional side- tracks into issues of particular interest to historians. When you work in other fields, you need to look for and assimilate the conventions or assumptions peculiar to those fields, and integrate them into the general principles and methods of effective analytical writing you have already mastered.

Finally, it may also be helpful to define an academic essay by WHAT IT IS NOT:

-Writing which aims to entertain or give aesthetic gratification (fiction, poetry, memoirs or “New Yorker”-style essays) may use entirely different devices to convey meaning (such as imagery, formal complexity, foreshadowing, juxtaposition, etc), and they may emphasize expressionistic or impressionistic understanding over analytical understanding. Structures and formal elements can vary infinitely. (academic writing relies exclusively on reasoning, logic, and rules of evidence because it must be reliably understood in the same way by every reader.)

-Writing which aims only to convey information (news journalism, some professional reports, textbooks or technical writing). naturally does not usually include an argument or thesis and has no need to refer to other arguments or theses. Often the most important information is placed right at the start, with other information following in decreasing order of importance.

-Writing which aims to direct future action or justify an action (exhortatory or opinion-based journalism, grant proposals, legal briefs, certain kinds of professional research reports). In these cases, an argument is an integral part of the structure, but the goal is to convince or inspire the reader toward a specific action, rather than to contribute new information or enlightenment for its own sake. Such pieces generally begin and end with a statement of the action desired, and the body would consist of evidence or reasoning. They may or may not emphasize a critique of alternative arguments. Depending on the intended reader, they may simplify reasoning or evidence. Such works also differ from academic writing in that they are not necessarily situated as part of any larger discussion (therefore making much less use of outside sources or analysis of sources), and may require different rules of evidence or citation, or no such rules, depending on the intended audience.

-Writing which aims to tell a story based in fact ((auto)biography, memoir, narrative history, summaries of various kinds) generally eschews argument and analysis of sources, and may employ certain literary devices. Organization is usually chronological.


Coming soon: Why is academic writing so unpleasant to read?

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