What Makes Academic Writing Different?

One of the most common comments I hear from my college students is, “I’m not a very good writer; my grammar is really bad.” There are some variation on this, but that’s the general idea. Out of the gate, I have two problems with this statement. First, academic writing is about far more than just grammar; bad grammar alone doesn’t make someone a “bad” writer. Second, there’s really no such thing as a “bad” writer. Writing is a form of communicating. If someone can communicate effectively with others, then they can learn the skills specific to good written communication.

With that clarification made, it’s important to acknowledge that there ARE a few specific characteristics of academic writing that even good communicators and writers find challenging. What are the definitive characteristics of academic writing?

–          Specific, academic purpose

–          Interactivity with collegiate and professional audiences

–          Formal tone

–          Expository writing styles

There are three primary purposes for academic writing: to inform, to persuade, and to facilitate critical thinking. While many other forms of writing also inform and persuade, academic writing places the main focus on critical thinking, often combined with one of the other purposes.

Academic writing is also interactive in the sense that writers contribute to the conversation among academics worldwide, thereby broadening everyone’s education – not just their own. The audience for academic  writers are both fellow students and educators, lifelong learners who collaborate through research and ongoing study. This audience is NOT passive, waiting to be entertained or pacified. Also, writers rely on and interact with outside sources such as articles, research and interviews with established authorities to support and prove their claims. Professional courtesy (and copyright laws!) requires that they give credit to those sources.

The tone of academic writing is more formal than other forms of communication. A formal tone is established through word choice, sentence structure, and proper grammar. This is often the easiest characteristic to recognize, and the most difficult to master.

Finally, academic writing uses expository writing styles. These styles have specific rules and structure which makes them useful for learning about a variety of topics. Some of the most common expository styles include: comparative, evaluative, speculative, analytical, and persuasive.

Future posts will address the characteristics of academic writing more fully. But this is a good start. Did I forget any characteristics of academic writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know!


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