Academic writing

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UC Davis geotechnical engineering graduate students discuss research posters, a common genre of academic writing

Academic writing or scholarly writing is nonfiction produced as part of academic work, including reports on empirical fieldwork or research in facilities for the natural sciences or social sciences, monographs in which scholars analyze culture, propose new theories, or develop interpretations from archives, as well as undergraduate versions of all of these.[1]

Though the tone, style, content, and organization of academic writing vary across genres and across publication methods, nearly all academic writing shares a relatively formal prose register, frequent reference to other academic work, and the use of fairly stable rhetorical moves to define the scope of the project, situate it in the relevant research, and to advance a new contribution.[2]

Academic style

Academic writing often features a prose register that is conventionally characterized by "evidence...that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study"; that prioritizes "reason over emotion or sensual perception"; and that imagines a reader who is "coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response."[3]

Three linguistic patterns[4] that correspond to these goals, across fields and genres, include the following:

  1. a balance of caution and certainty, or a balance of hedging and boosting;[5][6]
  2. explicit cohesion through a range of cohesive ties and moves;[7] and
  3. compression, or dense noun phrases to add detail rather than more dependent clauses.[8]

The stylistic means of achieving these conventions can differ by academic discipline, a fact that helps explain the distinctive sounds of, for example, writing in history versus engineering or physics versus philosophy.[9][10] Biber and Gray suggested that there are significant differences with regards to complexity in academic writing in humanities versus science, with humanities writing often focused on structural elaboration, and sciences, on structural compression.[11]: 4 

One theory that attempts to account for these differences in writing is known as "discourse communities".[12]


Academic style, particularly in humanities, has been often criticized for being too full of jargon and hard to understand by the general public.[13][14] In 2022, Joelle Renstrom argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on academic writing and that many scientific articles now "contain more jargon than ever, which encourages misinterpretation, political spin, and a declining public trust in the scientific process."[15]

Discourse community

A discourse community is essentially a group of people that shares mutual interests and beliefs. "It establishes limits and regularities...who may speak, what may be spoken, and how it is to be said; in addition [rules] prescribe what is true and false, what is reasonable and what foolish, and what is meant and what not."[16]

The concept of a discourse community is vital to academic writers across nearly all disciplines, for the academic writer's purpose is to influence how their community understands its field of study: whether by maintaining, adding to, revising, or contesting what that community regards as "known" or "true." Academic writers have strong incentives to follow conventions established by their community in order for their attempts to influence this community to be legible.

Discourse community constraints

Constraints are the discourse community's written and unwritten conventions about what a writer can say and how he or she can say it. They define what is an acceptable argument. Each discourse community expects to see a writer construct his or her argument using their conventional style of language and vocabulary, and they expect a writer to use the established intertext within the discourse community as the building blocks for his or her argument.

Writing for a discourse community

In order for a writer to become familiar with some of the constraints of the discourse community they are writing for, across most discourses communities, writers will:

  • Identify the novelty of their position
  • Make a claim, or thesis
  • Acknowledge prior work and situate their claim in a disciplinary context
  • Offer warrants for one's view based on community-specific arguments and procedures

Each of theses above are constructed differently depending on the discourse community the writer is in. For example, the way a claim is made in a high school paper would look very different from the way a claim is made in a college composition class. It is important for the academic writer to familiarize himself or herself with the conventions of the discourse community by reading and analyzing other works, so that the writer is best able to communicate his or her ideas.

Writing Across the Curriculum designates educational programs that support improving student writing in the different disciplinary communities, through writing centers, courses in writing programs,[17][18][19] and disciplinary courses with substantial writing requirements. The Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse provides resources for such programs at all levels of education.

Novel argument

Within discourse communities, academic writers build on top of the ideas established by previous writers.

Good academic writers know the importance of researching previous work from within the discourse community and using this work to build their own claims. By taking these ideas and expanding upon them or applying them in a new way, a writer is able to make their novel argument.


Intertextuality is the combining of past writings into original, new pieces of text. Usually attributed to Julia Kristeva, the concept of intertextuality is helpful for understanding that all texts are necessarily related to prior texts through a network of explicit or implicit links, allusions, repetitions, acknowledged or unacknowledged inspiration, and direct quotations.[20] Writers (often unwittingly) make use of what has previously been written and thus some degree of borrowing is inevitable. One of the most salient features of academic writing irrespective of discipline is its unusually explicit conventions for marking intertextuality through citation and bibliography. Conventions for these markings (e.g., MLA, APA, IEEE, Chicago, etc.) vary by discourse community.

Summarizing and integrating other texts in academic writing is often metaphorically described as "entering the conversation," as described by Kenneth Burke:[21]

"Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."

Key elements

There are a number of areas of importance in all academic and scholarly writing. While some areas, such as the use of appropriate references and the avoidance of plagiarism, are not open to challenge, other elements, such as the appropriate style, are contested.[9]

Contrary to stereotype, published academic research is not particularly syntactically complex;[22] it is instead a fairly low-involvement register characterized by the modification of nominal elements[23] through hedging and refining elaborations, often presented as sequences of objects of prepositions.
Appropriate references
Generally speaking, the range and organization of references illustrate the author's awareness of the current state of knowledge in the field (including major current disagreements or controversies); typically the expectation is that these references will be formatted in the relevant disciplinary citation system.[24]
Typically this lists those articles read as background, and will include the sources of individual citations.
Plagiarism, the "wrongful appropriation of another author's language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions", and the representation of them as one's own original work is considered academic dishonesty, and can lead to severe consequences.[25]

Academic genres

Academic journals collect research articles and are often categorized as "Periodicals" in university libraries. Here, the periodical collection of the Foster Business Library at the University of Washington

For students

Summaries of knowledge

Collating the work of others

  • Anthology; collection, collation, ordering and editing of the work of others
  • Catalogue raisonné; the definitive collection of the work of a single artist, in book form
  • Collected works; often referred to as the 'critical edition'. The definitive collection of the work of a single writer or poet, in book form, carefully purged of publishers errors and later forgeries, etc.
  • Monograph or exhibition catalog; usually containing exemplary works, and a scholarly essay. Sometime contains new work by a creative writer, responding to the work
  • Transcribing, selecting and ordering oral testimony (e.g. oral history recordings)

Research and planning

Disseminating knowledge outside the academy

Technical or administrative forms

Personal forms

These are acceptable to some academic disciplines, e.g. Cultural studies, Fine art, Feminist studies, Queer theory, Literary studies.

Newer forms


A commonly recognized format for presenting original research in the social and applied sciences is known as IMRD, an initialism that refers to the usual ordering of subsections:

  • Introduction (Overview of relevant research and objective of current study)
  • Method (Assumptions, questions, procedures described in replicable or at least reproducible detail)
  • Results (Presentation of findings; often includes visual displays of quantitative data charts, plots)


  • Discussion (Analysis, Implications, Suggested Next Steps)

Standalone methods sections are atypical in presenting research in the humanities; other common formats in the applied and social sciences are IMRAD (which offers an "Analysis" section separate from the implications presented in the "Discussion" section) and IRDM (found in some engineering subdisciplines, which features Methods at the end of the document).

Other common sections in academic documents are:

See also


  1. ^ Nesi, Hilary; Gardner, Sheena (2012). Genres across the Disciplines: Student Writing in Higher Education. Cambridge Applied Linguistics. Cambridge UP. ISBN 978-0-521-14959-4.
  2. ^ Swales, John (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Applied Linguistics. ISBN 978-0521338134.
  3. ^ Chris Thaiss and Terry Myers Zawacki (2006) Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life, Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, [5-7].
  4. ^ Aull, L. L. (2020). How Students Write: A Linguistic Analysis. New York, Modern Language Association
  5. ^ Lancaster, Z. (2016). "Do Academics Really Write This Way? A Corpus Investigation of Moves and Templates in" They Say/I Say"." College composition and communication 67(3): 437.
  6. ^ Hyland, K. (2005). "Stance and engagement: a model of interaction in academic discourse." Discourse Studies 7(2): 173-192.
  7. ^ Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis : English in academic and research settings. Cambridge [England]; New York, Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Biber, D. and B. Gray (2010). "Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness." Journal of English for Academic Purposes 9(1): 2-20.
  9. ^ a b Catterall, S. J.; Ireland, C. J. (October 2010). "Developing Writing Skills for International Students: Adopting a critical pragmatic approach". Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 5 (2): 98–114. doi:10.6084/m9.figshare.14213669.v1.
  10. ^ Hyland, Ken (22 July 2004). Disciplinary Discourses, Michigan Classics Ed.: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-03024-8.
  11. ^ Biber, Douglas; Gray, Bethany (2016-05-26). Grammatical Complexity in Academic English: Linguistic Change in Writing. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-00926-4.
  12. ^ Swales, John. ''The Concept of Discourse Community." Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990.21-32. Print.
  13. ^ Pinker, Steven (26 September 2014). "Why Academics Stink at Writing". Archived from the original on 2020-09-04. Retrieved 2021-09-01.
  14. ^ Blyth, Mark (2012-03-09). "Five minutes with Mark Blyth: "Turn it into things people can understand, let go of the academese, and people will engage"". Impact of Social Sciences. Archived from the original on 2011-01-31. Retrieved 2021-09-01.
  15. ^ Renstrom, Joelle. "How Science Itself Fuels a Culture of Misinformation – The Wire Science". Retrieved 2022-06-22.
  16. ^ Leitch, Vincent B. Deconstructive Criticism. New York: Cornell UP, 1983: 145.
  17. ^ McLeod, Susan H. (2007). Writing Program Administration. Parlor Press; The WAC Clearinghouse.
  18. ^ C. Bazerman, J. Little, T. Chavkin, D. Fouquette, L. Bethel, and J. Garufis (2005). Writing across the curriculum.  Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse.
  19. ^ C. Bazerman & D. Russell (1994). Landmark essays in writing across the curriculum. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.
  20. ^ Roozen, Kevin. (2015) "Texts Get Their Meaning from Other Texts." Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies, Adler-Kassner & Wardle, eds. Logan: Utah State UP, 44-47,
  21. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1941). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 110-111.
  22. ^ Biber, Douglas; Gray, Bethany (2010). "Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness". Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 9 (1): 2–20. doi:10.1016/j.jeap.2010.01.001.
  23. ^ Brown, David West; Aull, Laura L. (2017). "Elaborated Specificity versus Emphatic Generality: A Corpus-Based Comparison of Higher- and Lower-Scoring Advanced Placement Exams in English". Research in the Teaching of English. 51 (4): 394–417.
  24. ^ Giltrow, Janet and Michele Valiquette. (1994). Genres and knowledge: Students writing in the disciplines. In Freedman, Aviva; Peter Medway (Eds.), Learning and teaching genre. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook (pp. 47-62).
  25. ^ "Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices". Princeton University. 2012-07-27

Further reading


  • C. Bazerman, J. Little, T. Chavkin, D. Fouquette, L. Bethel, and J. Garufis (2005). Writing across the curriculum. Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse.
  • C. Bazerman & D. Russell (1994). Landmark essays in writing across the curriculum.  Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.
  • Tony, Becher; Paul, Trowler (1 October 2001). Academic Tribes And Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Culture of Disciplines. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). ISBN 978-0-335-20627-8.
  • Booth, Wayne C.; Colomb, Gregory G.; Williams, Joseph M. (15 May 2009). The Craft of Research (Third ed.). University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-06264-8.
  • Borg, Erik (2003). 'Discourse Community', English Language Teaching (ELT) Journal, Vol. 57, Issue 4, pp. 398–400
  • Canagarajah, A. Suresh (2002). A Geopolitics of Academic Writing. University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-7238-9.
  • Coinam, David (2004). 'Concordancing Yourself: A Personal Exploration of Academic Writing', Language Awareness, Vol. 13, Issue 1, pp. 49–55
  • Phyllis, Creme; Mary, Lea (1 May 2008). Writing At University: A Guide For Students. McGraw-Hill Education (UK). ISBN 978-0-335-22116-5.
  • Goodall, H. Lloyd, Jr. (2000). Writing Qualitative Inquiry: Self, Stories, and Academic Life (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press)
  • Johns, Ann M. (1997). Text, Role and Context: Developing Academic Literacies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • King, Donald W., Carol Tenopir, Songphan Choemprayong, and Lei Wu (2009). 'Scholarly Journal Information Seeking and Reading Patterns of Faculty at Five U.S. Universities', Learned Publishing, Vol. 22, Issue 2, pp. 126–144
  • Kouritzin, Sandra G., Nathalie A. C Piquemal, and Renee Norman, eds (2009). Qualitative Research: Challenging the Orthodoxies in Standard Academic Discourse(s) (New York: Routledge)
  • Lincoln, Yvonna S, and Norman K Denzin (2003). Turning Points in Qualitative Research: Tying Knots in a Handkerchief (Walnut Creek, CA; Oxford: AltaMira Press)
  • Luey, Beth (2010). Handbook for Academic Authors, 5th edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • Murray, Rowena, and Sarah Moore (2006). The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach (Maidenhead: Open University Press)
  • Nash, Robert J. (2004). Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative (New York; London: Teachers College Press)
  • Paltridge, Brian (2004). 'Academic Writing', Language Teaching, Vol. 37, Issue 2, pp. 87–105
  • Pelias, Ronald J. (1999). Writing Performance: Poeticizing the Researcher's Body (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press)
  • Prior, Paul A. (1998). Writing/Disciplinarity: A Sociohistoric Account of Literate Activity in the Academy (Mahwah, NJ; London: Lawrence Erlbaum)
  • Rhodes, Carl and Andrew D. Brown (2005). 'Writing Responsibly: Narrative Fiction and Organization Studies', The Organization: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organizations and Society, Vol. 12, Issue 4, pp. 467–491
  • Richards, Janet C., and Sharon K. Miller (2005). Doing Academic Writing in Education: Connecting the Personal and the Professional (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum)
  • Zamel, Vivian; Spack, Ruth (6 August 2012). Negotiating Academic Literacies: Teaching and Learning Across Languages and Cultures. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-60891-9.
  • The University of Sydney. (2019). Academic Writing.

Architecture, design and art

  • Crysler, C. Greig (2002). Writing Spaces: Discourses of Architecture, Urbanism and the Built Environment (London: Routledge)
  • Francis, Pat (2009). Inspiring Writing in Art and Design: Taking a Line for a Write (Bristol; Chicago: Intellect)
  • Frayling, Christopher (1993). 'Research in Art and Design', Royal College of Art Research Papers, Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 1–5
  • Piotrowski, Andrzej (2008). 'The Spectacle of Architectural Discourses', Architectural Theory Review, Vol. 13, Issue 2, pp. 130–144


  • Baldo, Shannon. "Elves and Extremism: the use of Fantasy in the Radical Environmentalist Movement." Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric 7 (Spring 2010): 108–15. Print.
  • Greene, Stuart. "Argument as Conversation: The Role of Inquiry in Writing a Researched Argument." n. page. Print.
  • Kantz, Margaret. "Helping Students Use Textual Sources Persuasively." College English 52.1 (1990): 74–91. Print.
  • Porter, James. "Intertextuality and the Discourse Community."Rhetoric Review. 5.1 (1986): 34–47. Print.