What makes Academic Writing Academic (or Scholarly)?

Many students struggle to shift gears from, for example, writing a business email or policy document, marketing copy (including advertising), and the writing most journalists do to the way scholars or academics write. Obvious differences would be the intention and audience.

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Friends share their personal worlds, marketers sell products, journalists inform people about events and opinions about those events, and academics formally contribute their slivers of truth, be it the extent to which an immune system is compromised by a Western lifestyle to what it means to be an effective leader. Besides the intention to discover truth rather than share, sell, or inform, differentiating academic or scholarly writing from other types of writing, academic writing also differs in its purpose, structure, and tone.

Academic Writing Has a Particular Purpose

Perhaps the most important aspect of academic writing is its overall purpose, which is to answer a research question. In addition, each section of the report has a purpose or precise focus. For example, chapter one in a dissertation provides an overview of what you intend to do and how you intend to do that. Even if the first chapter is written first, it should be the last chapter reviewed, edited, and proofread before finalizing your submission because what you said you would do must be congruent with what you actually did.

One critical section of a first chapter is clarifying the background to the “problem” or unanswered research question before formalizing the statement of the problem and purpose statement [1]. For example, if you are asking a question about gender-based violence, you might cite credible statistics to show that it is an issue worthy of discussion. Other sections might highlight how published research contributes to an understanding of the topic but does not answer the specific research question posed. Still other sections might outline how you intend going about answering the research question or provide an overview of the methodological design. So, Chapter One would be focused on the implications of those statistics for motivating the research question and developing a methodology to answer the question.

Academic Writing has a Particular Structure

Academic writing is also structured in a particular way. It is intended to lead a reader to the same unambiguous conclusion as you based on the literature reviewed and the data collected and analyzed. To achieve that, when writing, it is best to be clear about the point you want to make in each section, gather the evidence in support of those points, be it from the literature you have reviewed or the data you have analyzed.

In other words, each paragraph in a section should include a focus and elaborate upon that focus. Beginning paragraphs in a section might outline what you intend to cover to make a point in that section because readers appreciate knowing where they are going, and final paragraphs to a section may draw the ground you have covered in support of a point together and sometimes also provide the foreground for what is to come in the next section.

Keeping the PEEL strategy, meaning point, evidence, explain, and link, can be helpful:

  • Introduce the point you wish to make,
  • Illustrate the point with an example or data (in other words, evidence),
  • Include elaboration or analysis of the point in terms of that example or data, and
  • Conclude with a sentence that sums up the point and links it to the paragraph that follows, the question you are attempting to answer, or the argument you are making.

Bear in mind that writing to reveal the truth is not a linear process: Each paragraph of your report is part of a spiral that deepens your own and the reader’s understanding of the topic, and there are spirals within spirals. For example, the introduction and conclusion to each chapter, section, and subsection can be seen as containers for those respective chapters, sections, and subsections. The introduction, be it a paragraph or sentence, opens the door to the point you will make, and the concluding section, paragraph, or sentence closes the door on that point or takes it forward.

Academic Writing has a Particular Tone

Academic writing also requires a certain degree of formality. That does not mean it should be sound pompous. To write formally means avoiding shortened or contracted word forms, for example, using should not instead of shouldn’t; popular phrases or cliches, like in a nutshell or often times, and casual everyday words such as okay, maybe, and really. So, bear in mind that writing a dissertation is not the same as writing a message on a social media platform. In general, one uses whole and precise words.  

Choosing words precisely is critical. The words used to convey meaning are chosen carefully so that your meaning is clear and unambiguous. There are words to avoid, for example, vague measurements like many/most, often/rarely, high/low. Consider, for example, the difference between “Most students struggle to begin writing an essay” versus “At least 62% of students struggle to begin an essay.” In other words, a reader should not be left guessing what you mean by “most.”

Likewise, absolute terms are best avoided. Even in the most robust statistical research, there would be 0.01% risk that the correlations occurred by pure chance, so it cannot be true that everyone desires to find a soulmate or that everybody responds to extrinsic motivation or that all students are motivated by excellence. In other words, nothing in science and more especially the social and business sciences can be said with absolute certainty. Data support a hypothesis, model, or finding; they never prove a hypothesis, model, or finding.

Third, academic writing is concise, straightforward, and direct. It is not about being wordy and convoluted. The complexity must be demonstrated in your thinking about the topic rather than your word choices, so if one word will do, avoid using a phrase that means much the same. Practice whittling down the word count [2] of passages you have written in those moments when you lack the energy to move forward.   

Fourth, academic writing is objective, but does not objectify. Where possible, sentences should be restructured to avoid first-person speech singular and plural (I, my, mine; we, our, ours). The focus and therefore the subject of the sentence should be on the topic, not the person who wrote about it with some notable exceptions. For example, in some qualitative methods it would be important to make one’s personal perspective on the topic explicit so that the reader can take that into account when evaluating the truth of the explication that follows. Likewise, it is preferable to use the first-person singular (I) if the only alternative is to use the rather awkward and alienating “the researcher” when reporting on the strategies you followed to gather the data.

So, for example, rather than saying, “The researcher measured the amount of oxygen emitted over a period of four minutes” or even, “I measured the amount of oxygen emitted over a period of four minutes,” I might say, “Thereafter, the amount of oxygen emitted over a period of four minutes was measured.”

Bear in mind also that the words you choose have implications: they reveal your assumptions. Consider, for example, “The researcher used a random sample of students to complete the self-administered questionnaire.” The sentence turns both the researcher reporting on what he or she did and the participants into objects, things sans consciousness. In that case, “A random sample of students was chosen to complete the self-administered questionnaire” or even, “The self-administered questionnaire was completed by students chosen on random basis” is preferable. Even, “I chose a random sample of students to complete the self-administered questionnaire” is less objectifying even if not, strictly speaking, objective.   

Bear in mind, too, that being objective does not mean objectifying your part in the research. For example, research does not conduct itself, so it inaccurate to say, “This research focused on…” It would be better to say, “This research was focused on…” or “In this research, the focus was on…” That phrasing makes the agent present but not explicit. It is very important to be clear when writing with the intention of discovering truth that one is clear about who or what has the agency in the sentence. Inanimate or externalized objects do not have the ability to act, so it is inaccurate to suggest that a ” study claimed…” It is the authors who claimed that based on the study they conducted.

To Sum It Up

Ultimately, academic writing is about presenting a clear, concise, well-structured report about how you applied appropriate methods in a rigorous, methodical, and systematic fashion to answer a question about a topic that is relevant to the field with which you are engaged. The claims or statements made are carefully and logically argued and/or supported by evidence. The intention is to present the truth discovered about the topic whilst acknowledging that all human experience and thinking is perspectival and in that sense limited.

So, while your concluding paragraph or chapter will bring the research report to completion and add your “sliver or truth,” be that a new way of looking at the topic, a refinement in the current thinking about the topic , a refutation of a finding supported by previous research, or a challenge to assumptions that have been taken for granted, your conclusion will not (and should not) ever be the final word on the topic.  


[1] The next blog focuses on the problem and purposes statements.

[2] Consider reading the previous blog, “Whittling Down the Word Count”

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