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What is Academic Writing? (and Other Burning Questions About It)

Posted on: June 15, 2021

In this blog Zhihui Fang, author of Demystifying Academic Writing, discusses what academic writing is, why it's important as well as essential skills for academic writing.

What is academic writing?

Simply put, academic writing is the writing done for academic purposes. It is entering into a conversation with others, but the way this conversation is carried out differs from how everyday conversation unfolds. Yes, academic writing involves expressing your ideas, but those ideas need to be presented as a response to some other person or group; and they also need to be carefully elaborated, well supported, logically sequenced, rigorously reasoned, and tightly stitched together.

There is more than one kind of academic writing. In academic settings, we write for many different purposes. We write reading responses, book reviews, argumentative essays, literature reviews, empirical research articles, grant proposals, conference abstracts, commentaries, memoranda, and many other text types. Each of these types of academic writing has its own purpose, organizational structure, and linguistic features.

Why is academic writing important?

Academic writing is a means of producing, codifying, transmitting, evaluating, renovating, teaching, and learning knowledge and ideology in academic disciplines. Being able to write in an academic style is essential to disciplinary learning and critical for academic success. Control over academic writing gives you capital, power, and agency in knowledge building, identify formation, disciplinary practices, social positioning, and career advancement.

What makes academic writing ‘academic’ and challenging?

Compared to everyday writing, academic writing tends to be more formal, dense, abstract, objective, rigorous, and tightly knit.

  • Formality. Academic writing uses a unique set of grammatical devices that helps the author achieve precision and informativity, avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation, and establish authority and credibility.
  • Density. Academic writing uses long noun phrases with multiple modifiers to pack a heavy load of information into the sentence.
  • Abstraction. Academic writing deals principally with concepts, ideas, generalizations, and interpretations, instead of concrete individuals or tangible things.
  • Objectivity. Academic writing foregrounds ideas and arguments and backgrounds the author who presents the ideas or makes the arguments. 
  • Rigor. In academic writing, the author is expected to be meticulous in both word choice and logic of argument. Ideas or arguments are presented with care and then restated, clarified, explained, exemplified, and reasoned.
  • Tightly-Knit. Academic writing presents information and develops arguments in a highly structured way. Sentences and paragraphs are woven together to create an information ‘flow’ and a smooth texture within the text.

These six features are interrelated, and together, they are what makes a piece of writing at once ‘academic’ and challenging for academic neophytes.

What is the role of language in academic writing?

Language is not a set of prescriptive rules or grammatical conventions. It is, instead, a creative resource for making meaning. Writers use language by choosing from the grammatical options it provides to present information, develop argument, infuse points of view, incorporate others’ ideas and voices, engage readers, sharpen focus, and organize discourse in a way that realizes their intentions and meets their audience’s needs. One major source of writing struggles for non-native and native English speakers alike is language. In other words, it is unfamiliarity with the grammatical patterns of academic writing, above and beyond a lack of deep knowledge of the topics to be written about, that contributes principally to the difficulties that many students and scholars experience in writing for academic purposes.

What are the essential skills for academic writing?

Academic writing communicates complex ideas in a clear, precise, logical, reasoned, and evidence-based way. It is an advanced literacy task that requires a host of demanding skills. Learning to write for academic purposes involves, for example, learning

  • how to contextualize your ideas and arguments in the existing scholarship of the field
  • how to synthesize, summarize, paraphrase, quote, source, and evaluate others’ work
  • how to define and explain concepts
  • how to describe things or processes
  • how to express surprises or counter-expectations
  • how to classify/categorize and compare/contrast things
  • how to agree or disagree with others’ points of view
  • how to provide examples and offer explanations
  • how to engage with opposing views
  • how to integrate visual images with the linguistic prose
  • how to acknowledge limitations and make recommendations
  • how to express appreciation or make disclaimers, and
  • how to connect sentences, link paragraphs, and structure discourse

Developing these advanced literacy skills and a repertoire of linguistic resources and strategies that instantiate them is a challenging process that takes time, experience, and support.

How can I improve my academic writing?

Developing expertise in academic writing is a lengthy and challenging process that can take many years and involves constant mental and emotional struggles. It is simply not realistic to expect one to become a good writer overnight, let alone a good writer for academic purposes, by just attending one workshop, taking one course, reading one book, or completing a few sets of exercises. It takes time, effort, awareness, experience, reflection, stamina, and support to become proficient in academic writing. Here are six tips for improving your academic writing:

  • Foster productive writing habits that work for you
  • Read deeply within your field and widely in related fields
  • Develop linguistic awareness and grammatical sensitivity
  • Persevere through the recursive writing process of planning, outlining, drafting, revising, polishing, and presenting/publishing
  • Attend to key elements of academic writing, such as audience, purpose, organization, style, clarity, flow, and appearance
  • Overcome cultural barriers

How do I increase my chances of getting published?

Writing for publication can be a mysterious process that intimidates novice writers and academic neophytes. Developing and honing academic writing skills is key to having a successful publication record. Additional knowledge, skills, and dispositions are needed to increase your chances of getting published. These include

  • Write about something that you really care and know about
  • Know the publication outlet you are targeting
  • Find people of like interest to collaborate with
  • Be patient and persistent
  • Simulate dialogues with potential reviewers
  • Embrace feedback of all kinds to improve writing

The road toward publication may seem long and rough, but you will find that the journey becomes less bumpy the more you have traveled on it.