Academic Writing Skills

Whether you're a student, teacher, or businessperson, academic writing skills are necessary in today's world. Essays, reports, presentations and research papers are just some examples of documents written in the academic style. Academic writing, when used appropriately, presents a polished and professional image.

Male student writing in library Male student writing in library

Know Academic Writing Characteristics

Academic writing refers to a particular style of expression. Characteristics of academic writing include:

  • A formal tone
  • Good research praxis
  • Close adherence to the appropriate format and structure
  • Use of the third-person rather than first-person perspective
  • Clear focus on the issue or topic rather than the author's opinion
  • Precise word choice

Write in Formal Style

One of the most important academic writing skills is the ability to write in a formal style and manner. Writers employing the formal academic style avoid jargon, slang, and abbreviations.

Many novice writers have trouble telling informal writing apart from formal writing. They resort to informal writing, since it's easier and more familiar. Characteristics of informal writing include using colloquialisms and jargon, writing in the first person, making direct personal statements, and making imprecise word choices. In comparison, the most formal writing of all can be found in legal documents.

Informal writing is fine for diary entries, blogs, personal writing, letters or emails to friends. However, writers working on school papers, college application essays, scientific papers, research papers, conference presentations, and business proposals generally employ a more formal style akin to donning a suit or dress to attend a wedding.

Informal vs. Formal Writing

Consider this example of informal writing:

I think he's a loser.

Now, contrast that sentence with this example of formal writing:

Macbeth's horrific choices cause him to lose everything he holds dear: children, wife, friends, crown and kingdom.

In the first example, the writer speaks in the first person and states an opinion. The author employs the slang term "loser," which is inappropriate in a formal context. They also use the contraction "he's." If this were in the middle of a paragraph, it could be easier to understand to whom the author is referring. Taken as a simple statement, however, it's impossible to know whether the writer thinks their best friend, his dog, or a rock star is a loser!

The second example uses an academic, formal style typical of what professors might expect at the college level. Written in the third person, the sentence omits references to the writer and focuses on the issue. Strong, specific adjectives like "horrific" convey the author's view clearly without resorting to slang.

The use of the colon is sometimes discouraged by professors as an antiquated punctuation mark, but is still valid in formal documents. It helps to create a strong, formal feel when properly used, as is the case here to introduce a list.

Conduct Good Research

Good academic writing cites its sources, uses only high-quality sources and guarantees the sources in question support the argument the author is making.

Consider this statement:

According to this website I found, the blood on Lady Macbeth's hands represents her guilt over the crimes she committed.

And compare it to this one:

The blood on Lady Macbeth's hands symbolizes the crimes she has committed and the guilt she refuses to admit publicly, taking on religious as well as moral significance (Ogletree pg. 77).

Note that both sentences above are making the same argument. The difference is that, while the first author simply mentions that they have done research to support their point, the second states the argument it makes and cites it specifically, allowing the reader to make an assessment as to its value. This also enables the reader to seek out the original source for more information.

Use the Correct Format

Adherence to an academic format can make or break an assignment. Your teacher may have a specific format they require, or they might only require that your paper stick to one of the accepted forms. In either case, it's vital to know what that style is and how to write in it. If you don't know, ask!

There are three common formats for academic writing. We have guides for them all.

Having to stick to a strict style may sound like a pain, but it's actually an advantage. Every style above lays out exactly how to format your paper, cite evidence, construct your bibliography and generally make your paper look professional. Each one is practically a cheat sheet for turning informal writing into a valid academic paper.

Follow the Three Laws of Academic Writing

Writers seeking to improve their academic writing skills should focus their efforts on three key areas:

1. Prepare Rigorously

Thinking precedes writing. Start by reading over your notes and sources. Mark text that's worth quoting or paraphrasing. Write detailed outlines. Ensure you have all the information you need for proper citations. If you plan well enough, the actual writing will be the easiest part of the assignment.

2. Proofread Ruthlessly

Learn the major and minor points of grammar. Spend time practicing writing and seek detailed feedback from teachers, professors or writers you respect. English grammar can be detailed and complex, but strong writers achieve clarity through practice. Using a good writing reference, such as YourDictionary, can provide advice on the more troublesome points of grammar. Proper punctuation use and good proofreading skills improve academic writing as well.

3. Format Religiously

Whether your school or employer requires use of the MLA, APA or Chicago style, be sure you stick to it. Each of these style guides clearly describe how to write out numbers, references, citations, and more. All are freely available online, or in hardcopy at your local bookseller.

Get Schooled

Academic writing is fundamentally a question of form rather than function. By developing sound and logical arguments, checking your grammar, correctly citing your sources and sticking to a required format, you don't end up with a different argument. You just make your argument clearer, more rigorous and easier to understand.

Additional Resources

Visit our sister site Bibliography.com for more articles on academic writing and how to cite your sources correctly.

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