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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.
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.
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."
Three linguistic patterns that correspond to these goals, across fields and genres, include the following:
- a balance of caution and certainty, or a balance of hedging and boosting;
- explicit cohesion through a range of cohesive ties and moves; and
- compression, or dense noun phrases to add detail rather than more dependent clauses.
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. 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.: 4
One theory that attempts to account for these differences in writing is known as "discourse communities".
Academic style, particularly in humanities, has been often criticized for being too full of jargon and hard to understand by the general public. In 2022 Joelle Renstrom argued that Covid-19 pandemic has a negative impact on academic writing and many scientific articles now "contain more jargon than ever, which encourages misinterpretation, political spin, and a declining public trust in the scientific process."
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."
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.
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. 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:
"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."
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; it is instead a fairly low-involvement register characterized by the modification of nominal elements 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.
- 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.
- Scholarly monograph, in many types and varieties
- Chapter in an edited volume
- Book Review
- Conference paper
- Dissertation; usually between 6,000 and 20,000 words in length
- Essay; usually short, between 1,500 and 6,000 words in length
- Explication; usually a short factual note explaining some part of a particular work; e.g. its terminology, dialect, allusions or coded references
- Research Article
- Review Essay; a thematic review of several relevant monographs or trends across numerous research articles
- Technical report
- Thesis; completed over a number of years, often in excess of 20,000 words in length
- Research Paper; longer essay involving library research, 3000 to 6000 words in length
- Book report
- Exam questions and Essay titles; the formulation of these
- Instructional pamphlet, or hand-out, or reading list; usually meant for students
- Presentations; usually short, often illustrated
Summaries of knowledge
- Annotated bibliography
- Annotated catalogue, often of an individual or group's papers and/or library
- Creating a simplified graphical representation of knowledge; e.g. a map, or refining a display generated from a database. There will often be a 'key' or written work incorporated with the final work
- Creating a timeline or chronological plan. There will often be a 'key' or written work incorporated with the final work
- Devising a classification scheme; e.g. for animals, or newly arisen sub-cultures, or a radically new style of design
- Encyclopedia entry
- Journal article (e.g. History Today); usually presenting a digest of recent research
- Literature review; a summary and careful comparison of previous academic work published on a specific topic
- Site description and plan (e.g. in archeology)
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
- Experimental plan
- Laboratory report
- Raw data collection plan
- Research proposal, including research questions
- Structured notes
Disseminating knowledge outside the academy
- Call for papers
- Documentary film script or TV script or radio script
- Opinion; an academic may sometimes be asked to give an expert written opinion, for use in a legal case before a court of law
- Newspaper opinion article
- Public speech or lecture
- Review of a book, film, exhibition, event, etc.
- Think-tank pamphlet, position paper, or briefing paper
Technical or administrative forms
- Brief; short summary, often instructions for a commissioned work
- Peer review report
- Proposal for research or for a book
- White paper; detailed technical specifications and/or performance report
- Artist's book or Chapbook
- Belles-lettres; stylish or aesthetic writing on serious subjects, often with reference to one's personal experience
- Commonplace book
- Diary or Weblog
- Memoire; usually a short work, giving one's own memories of a famous person or event
- Collaborative writing, especially using the internet
- Hypertext, often incorporating new media and multimedia forms within the text
- Performative writing (see also: belles-lettres)
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:
- List of references
- Appendix/Addendum, any addition to a document
- Academic authorship
- Academic ghostwriting
- Academic journal
- Academic publishing
- Author editing
- Creative class
- Expository writing
- Knowledge worker
- Persuasive writing or rhetoric
- Research paper mill
- Rhetorical device
- Scientific writing
- Scientific publishing
- Scholarly method
- Scholarly skywriting
- Style guide
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