This month I was asked, “What is academic writing?”

I kept getting message after message in my inbox asking that question. It was so common, I wrote a little 3-sentence description answering it.  The description was seared into my brain so that I could write it over and over again. Then I thought about it.

Did I share what people need to know about academic writing?  I wasn’t sure.  I felt like they deserved something more complete—something longer than 3 sentences.

So here I share what academic writing is, key elements of academic writing and why it matters.  Spoiler alert: Academic writing changes lives.

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What is Academic Writing?

Academic writing is writing you do in a specific field of study or in school.  You have a thesis statement and the rest of your writing is about proving or demonstrating your thesis.

A thesis statement includes your topic and your point of view (POV) about it.  It is what you will show, reveal or prove about your topic.

It differs from personal writing because you need to have facts and sources.  The online writing lab at the University of Massey points out that theories and causes are discussed in academic writing.  So, it is very different from fiction and everyday writing we do as we go about our lives.

Academic writing is supposed to be unbiased or objective.   An academic text needs to be based on facts and evidence.  Objectivity is a goal of academic writing, but not everything you read is unbiased.

Sometimes authors will pick and choose specific research that supports their points of view without examining all the evidence.  You need to be a critical reader and evaluate a piece of writing.

  • Did the author have facts and research from credible sources?
  • Did the author look at more than one side?
  • What was that author’s purpose?

Learn how to analyze academic texts, and you’ll be a much better researcher and writer.


Organization of Academic Writing

In English academic writing, there are 3 main parts to academic essays and research papers: The introduction, the body, and the conclusion.

  1. The Introduction—includes important background information about the topic or issue. The introduction ends with a thesis statement.
  2. The Body—has all the main ideas relevant to your thesis statement, and the details and evidence that support your thesis statement.
  3. The Conclusion—summarizes what was proven (rephrases the thesis statement) and shows the significance of what was proven, and/ or it suggests next steps or actions people should take.

Other forms of academic writing such as studies and journal articles follow a similar format, but they also have other necessary elements.


Elements of Academic Writing

There are elements of academic writing that make it unique from other types of writing.  It has a unique style and different content.  Here are some important features:


# 1 Uses (most of the time) the third person point of view(POV). 

Most academic writing uses the third person POV which has the pronouns she, he, her, him, they, and them.  The third person POV sounds objective because it places a distance from you and the topic and evidence.

In first person POV you speak as yourself.  It reflects your thoughts and ideas.  It has a personal tone.  Most times you will not use this point of view.  However, it is sometimes used in pieces of writing that are reflective.  I see this in a lot of education papers.

The second person POV is where you use the pronoun you.  Don’t use this POV because it sounds as if you are telling the reader what to do.  The second person POV is common in blog posts (like this one).  It is helpful when you are explaining how to do something, but it sounds casual (and you don’t want that tone in academic writing).


#2 Includes Academic Vocabulary

Academic writing has a higher-level of vocabulary compared to other writing. It’s important to understand these words and use them correctly.  Yet, you want to be careful not to overuse academic vocabulary.  Too much academic vocabulary can make a sentence hard to read.

There are 2 types of academic vocabulary you need to know. The first is general academic vocabulary. These words are common across all fields of study like analyze, concept, and constitute.  The second type is subject vocabulary.   Subject vocabulary is used in a particular field of study.

If you want to know how to learn academic words check out my blog post, “5 Unique Ways to Boost Academic Vocabulary and Elevate Your Essays”

#3 Includes Research, Sources, Citations, and References

Not every piece of writing you see (even ones that state facts) uses evidence from credible sources.  Academic writing must have research from reliable sources such as books, studies, articles in journals, interviews with experts, and other trustworthy sources.

It’s important to evaluate sources so that the research and evidence you include is accurate.

Another key aspect is that you need to follow specific rules and guidelines on how to quote, paraphrase and summarize texts.   Also, you need to provide in-text citations and follow the reference and style guide for your field: Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA) or The Chicago Manual of Style, etc.

The last crucial piece is a reference list.  A reference list is there so people can find and read the sources you used.  Check your style guide (MLA, APA, etc.) to see how to format your reference list.


Why does academic writing matter?

An “A” is great and it impacts how successful you are in high school, college or graduate school.

But, an amazing piece of academic writing informs and enlightens us. Click To Tweet Studies give us medical breakthroughs, change our understanding of the world and help us live better lives.  A person can read an academic article, essay or paper and find the research and analysis compelling.  It can change how that person thinks, behaves or what they value.

A study about how sea turtles are choking on plastic straws convinced me to switch to using stainless steel straws.   That same study was shown on the news, in magazines and online.

Now, how many other people were convinced to get rid of plastic straws?  How many restaurants have switched from plastic to paper straws?

When you master academic writing, you have the potential to influence those in your class, your field and in the world.  Do you want that power?

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