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

Academic writing or scholarly writing is nonfiction writing produced as part of academic work in accordance with the standards and disciplines of each academic subject, 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 prose register that is conventionally characterized by "evidence...that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in the 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, which helps explain the distinctive sounds of, for example, writing in history versus engineering or physics versus philosophy.[9] 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.[10]: 4 

One theory that attempts to account for these differences in writing is known as "discourse communities".[11]


Main article: Academese

Academic style, particularly in humanities, has often been criticized for being too full of jargon and hard to understand by the general public.[12][13] 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."[14]

Discourse community

See also: Community of inquiry

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."[15]

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:

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,[16][17][18] 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.[19] 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:[20]

"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.

Contrary to stereotype, published academic research is not particularly syntactically complex;[21] it is instead a fairly low-involvement register characterized by the modification of nominal elements[22] through hedging and refining elaborations, often presented as sequences of objects of prepositions such as what, where, when, and whom.
Logical structure
Writing should be organised in a manner which demonstrates clarity of thought.[23]
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 materials read as background, evidencing wider reading,[23] and will include the sources of individual citations.
Avoidance of plagiarism
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
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

Academic writing encompasses many different genres, indicating the many different kinds of authors, audiences and activities engaged in the academy and the variety of kinds of messages sent among various people engaged in the academy. The partial list below indicates the complexity of academic writing and the academic world it is part of.

By researchers for other researchers

Technical or administrative forms

Collating the work of others

Research and planning

Newer forms

By graduate students for their advisors and committees

By undergraduate students for their instructors

By instructors for students

Summaries of knowledge for researchers, students or general public

Disseminating knowledge outside the academy

Personal forms often for general public

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


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:


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. ^ Hyland, Ken (22 July 2004). Disciplinary Discourses, Michigan Classics Ed.: Social Interactions in Academic Writing. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-03024-8.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Swales, John. ''The Concept of Discourse Community." Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990.21-32. Print.
  12. ^ Pinker, Steven (26 September 2014). "Why Academics Stink at Writing". Archived from the original on 2020-09-04. Retrieved 2021-09-01.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Renstrom, Joelle. "How Science Itself Fuels a Culture of Misinformation – The Wire Science". Retrieved 2022-06-22.
  15. ^ Leitch, Vincent B. Deconstructive Criticism. New York: Cornell UP, 1983: 145.
  16. ^ McLeod, Susan H. (2007). Writing Program Administration. Parlor Press; The WAC Clearinghouse.
  17. ^ C. Bazerman, J. Little, T. Chavkin, D. Fouquette, L. Bethel, and J. Garufis (2005). Writing across the curriculum.  Parlor Press and WAC Clearinghouse.
  18. ^ C. Bazerman & D. Russell (1994). Landmark essays in writing across the curriculum. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press.
  19. ^ 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,
  20. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1941). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 110-111.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ a b Open University, 7. Academic writing – general principles, accessed 10 January 2023
  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. ^ Council of Writing Program Administrators, "Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism: The WPA Statement on Best Practices". Princeton University. 2012-07-27

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