What Makes Academic Writing Academic?

writing

What makes academic writing academic?Photo: © 2014 Mikael Wallerstedt

This is not an academic text. You have probably already figured that out. The question is, how do you know? In other words, what makes an academic text academic?

Well, one of the things that reveal that this is not an academic text is that I address my audience directly. That is fairly uncommon in an academic text since it is considered informal. My choice of words and expressions like “figured out” and “well” is also rather informal and suggests that this is not an academic text. Another giveaway could be the layout of the text, with a photo inserted, blockquotes, and the introduction in bold type.

A conversation with sources

Having established some of the reasons why this text is not an academic text, let’s turn the question around and consider what makes an academic text academic. In The Craft of Research, Wayne Booth et al write that you should “think of your project not as solitary work but as a conversation with sources whose work you read and with those who will in turn read your work” (7). I think this is a wonderful way of describing what research is (and the fact that I describe the quote as “wonderful” is another dead giveaway that this text is, in fact, not academic — in an academic text, subjective and imprecise words should be avoided). When you do research you enter a conversation that has been ongoing for hundreds, maybe thousands of years and you need to formulate your contribution in a way that takes into account what other people in this conversation have said before you and also present your own contribution in a way that helps those who enter the conversation after you to understand what you have done.

Your language should be transparent, leaving as little room for interpretation as possible

Exact language

The question is, of course, how this will affect the way I write my text. First of all, in order to take into account other people’s contributions to this conversation you need to use references in your text. You should present your own study in the context of other, related studies and show how your contribution fits into this bigger puzzle. Also, you need to describe your contribution in a very exact manner so that other scholars can repeat your study. This means that you should use exact language — your language should be transparent, leaving as little room for interpretation as possible, and it should be concise, containing no unnecessary words.

It is not enough to present your results and expect your readers to understand the significance of them

In an academic text, your readers should not have to interpret your text to understand what you want to convey to them (in this sense it is the very opposite of a poem…). This entails not only the language you use, but also what you say. For example, it is not enough to present your results and expect your readers to understand the significance of them and your greatness as a scholar. You should also interpret and discuss your results and show your readers what you think they mean. To put it differently, an academic text is expected to be analytical.

Remember, when you do research, and when you write about it, you are taking part in a conversation that has been going on long before you were born and that will go on long after you are gone. Make sure to present your piece of the puzzle so that those who come after you understand what it is and how it fits into the big puzzle that is human knowledge.

PS. Reading tip: The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams (3rd ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2008)

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