What Distinguishes Academic Writing from Other Types of Writing?

College Advice

When students thinks of academic writing, they often think about stylistic features such as whether they “are allowed” to use the first-person, if they should use active or passive voice, or if they should format their papers in a certain style such as MLA or APA.  However, though mastering the stylistic features of a discipline can help students present themselves as in the process of mastering the type of discourse valued by a discipline ,arguably these markers are not the most important features of an academic essay.  Rather, if I had to choose one feature that distinguishes academic writing from other types, I would suggest that it is the sense that a writer knows what they are talking about.  They have done the research, read and reread the texts, and solved any conundrums they may have encountered along the way.  They are an authoritative voice.

Of course, there is a place for musings and ponderings in learning environments.  Instructors may assign journals, free writing, or short response papers that allow students to discuss things that interest or puzzle them, without having to forward an argument or come to any conclusions.  However, the academic essay is the place where these musings are supposed to come together and puzzles are meant to begin to be resolved.  The difficulty for students is, of course, that they often still in the process of learning about what they writing about, they are unsure what types of things they ought to know, and they are still in the process of figuring out what kinds of information they should provide to their readers.  But they still have to act like they have mastered the topic.

Fortunately, there are some easy ways to get started in terms of mastering a new topic and presenting yourself as one who knows.

Make More Specific Claims.

Writing “Taylor Swift is really popular” is a vague claim.  It is true that few readers will likely contest this claim, but you can strengthen it by adding specific details.  What is her estimated worth?  How many followers does she have on social media?  How many albums has she sold?  Details make your claim more interesting and provide some scope for your readers.  After all, popularity can be relative.  Maybe X book is really popular and it sold 20 million copies this year.  The next most popular book sold 6 million copies and the third most popular book sold 3 million copies.  Wow–it seems that X book is really popular!

Be Careful Making Historical Assumptions or General Historical Claims.

“Everyone knows the Middle Ages were a time of religious oppression,” you think to yourself, so you write all about how creativity was stifled and no one dared question the Catholic Church or write about anything but God.  Then your instructor directs you to all the medieval texts available about topics other than God, several of them seemingly condoning adultery.  Or “Everyone in the Renaissance accepted misogyny,” you think, so you write all about how The Taming of the Shrew was accepted blindly by the unthinking masses of earlier eras.  Then your instructor points out that John Fletcher responded to Shakespeare’s play with The Tamer Tamed.  Oops.  Rather than assume stereotypes associated with the past, do some preliminary research before writing.  Better yet, don’t fall into the trap of assuming that people in a historical period all thought the same.  Just like people today, people of the past were capable of independent thought!

Read All the Matter Contained in the Texts You Are Assigned.

If there is an introduction to the book, footnotes, or endnotes, read them.  These give you extra information that will help you make stronger claims.  These can provide information about historical context, information about the author’s biography, or ideas about how various scholars have interpreted a  line or allusion.  Likewise, you should also glance at the copyright page to get a sense of the work’s publication history.

Be Wary of Scare Quotes.

Sometimes students place scare quotes around vocabulary that is new to them.  So they might spend pages writing about “meter” and “rhyme” as if meter and rhyme do not really exist in the work or are some artificial construct, when that is not what they mean to say at all.  If you are working with new words, it is likely that people familiar with the topic you are writing on or people familiar with the field you are writing in know these words, so you should act like you know them, too.

In the same vein, try to present yourself as knowledgeable about other content that experts will likely be familiar with.  Try not to refer to “a text called Hamlet” as if Hamlet is a new concept or that must be explained or qualified.  If you are writing about Renaissance literature or Shakespeare, your readers surely know Hamlet and you’ll want to act as if you do, as well.   It’s an easy but effective way to give yourself authority.

Do the Research and Use Authoritative Language.

Present yourself as knowledgeable about your topic by doing the research and using authoritative language.  Make assertive statements and claims.  Take out anything that reads, “I am not sure but,” “I think that,” “Personally, it seems to me,” and so forth.  Simply present the claim without any qualifiers.  You can also use active language such as “I argue,” “I propose,” “I extend the work of X,” and so forth.

Fact Check Yourself.

Before writing all about how Shakespeare had to tailor his plays to Henry VIII, double check Shakespeare’s timeline and see which monarch was on the throne.  Before writing all about how Shakespeare is indecipherable because he writes in Old English, search the history of English (Shakespeare was writing early modern English!).  Doing an Internet search for such matters typically can save you from headaches down the road.

Providing evidence for any claims you make often works as an automatic fact check.  If, for example, you write that, “Author Y writes in blank verse and it’s not effective for their work,” and then go to find a relevant quote to explain why the blank verse is not working in a particular area, you may realize in the process that, actually, Author Y is not writing in blank verse at all!  (And, if you are new to poetry, it may also be beneficial for you to recheck the definition of blank verse before you make this claim.  Blank verse, free verse, and iambic pentameter often get jumbled up by novices!)

Read Other Articles on the Subject.

Reading published scholarly articles can be daunting prospect.  However, doing so will give you a good idea about the types of things others are talking about.  It will also enable you to see what kinds of information they assume experts already know.  And, if you read enough, you will be able to see which scholars are repeatedly quoted–they tend to be influential in their fields.  You can model your work on the experts by learning how to discern relevant information, how to frame your argument, and whom to begin with when you do research.

Conclusion

Writing a strong academic paper typically comes down to research.  Indeed, you may find that the bulk of the work of writing a paper is not always the physical act of sitting down at a laptop and typing, but rather the hours spent tracking down, reading, and verifying sources, as well as the hours spent rereading texts.  It will be hard work and sometimes you may spend hours only to feel like you have not made much progress.  That’s what makes your paper valuable–you’ve gone and done all this work and now you are qualified to speak as an expert on the matter.  And you should be proud of that!

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