Key characteristics of academic writing

Academic writing
• is more objective
• is more complex
• has a more formal structure

Academic writing is more objective
Phrases such as I think, I believe and In my opinion should not be used in academic writing. Examiners are not looking for what you think or believe – they want to see what you can show, demonstrate and prove through evidence.
Three specific strategies for achieving objectivity are outlined below:
• Standard writing: I think there are 4 main areas where I can see big differences between standard writing and academic writing.
• Academic writing: Generally speaking (1), there are (2) four main areas where differences between standard writing and academic writing can be seen (3) …

Strategy 1: hedging language (generally speaking) increases the ‘distance’ between the writer and the text, thereby creating more objectivity.
Strategy 2: Empty introductory phrases (there are) provide a platform for objective statements.
Strategy 3: The passive voice (can be seen) removes the need for a subject in the sentence. This can be particularly useful to avoid using I.

Academic writing is more complex
As a general principle, academic writing is more complex than other forms of writing because academic writing often discusses difficult, challenging ideas which can only be expressed with particular grammar and language. Areas where this complexity may be seen include:

Formality of language
Academic language is more formal than the vocabulary used in other writing.
• Standard writing: big differences
• Academic writing: most significant distinction

Grammatical structures
There are particular grammatical forms which appear more frequently in academic writing than other writing. For example: the passive voice, noun phrases and, as below, relative clauses.
Academic writing: A specific set of sub-skills which are required for successful performance.

Density of language
In the passage below, the average number of letters per word of the e-mail is 4.8, whereas it is 5.4 for the sample of academic writing. This ‘density’ can be achieved through a greater use of content words (such as verbs and nouns) rather than structure words (such as prepositions and conjunctions). In the example below, the adjective form found in general writing is substituted with a verb form in academic writing.
• Standard writing: Academic English and general English are different…
• Academic writing: ‘Academic English’ is differentiated from ‘general English’ …

Essay (academic writing)
Characteristics of academic English
‘Academic English’ is differentiated from ‘general English’ in its focus on ‘those communication skills in English which are required for study purposes in formal education systems’. Within these systems, there are three main areas of focus: the lecture, the seminar and the essay, each of which has a specific set of sub-skills which are required for successful performance. It is essays where the most significant distinction between academic English and general English is made. Generally speaking, there are four main areas where differences between standard writing and academic writing can be seen: the inherent objectivity of academic writing, its complexity, its formality of structure and its adoption of academic style.
E-mail (standard writing)
What is academic English?
Dear Professor Plum,
Please find below my answers to your questions.
I believe academic English and general English are different for the main reason that they have very different goals. Lectures and seminars need a different approach to general spoken English. And, of course, academic essay writing is not the same as standard writing.
I think there are 4 main areas where I can see big differences between standard writing and academic writing. They are:
• You should not be subjective.
• You should be more complex.
• You should have more structure.
• You should use academic style and systems.
Best wishes,
Sophia

Note
Do not mistake ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’. Academic writing should not be complicated.
It should be relatively easy to follow, written in a clear, direct style. Therefore, you should not:
• use long, difficult words which you do not understand.
• use difficult grammatical structures that you are not confident with.
• make strong, general statements about issues which you are unable to justify.

Academic writing has a more formal structure
All writing has some kind of structure. The structure of academic writing is more formal than other types of writing. The following characteristics may be observed:
• The text as a whole has a specific, formalized structure – the introduction, main body and conclusion.
• The text must have cohesion and coherence – it must link together clearly so that it is possible to follow the writer’s argument.
• Paragraphs should be roughly the same length throughout, so there is a good overall balance.
• Paragraphs often follow a similar structure – topic sentence, outline of argument, supporting evidence, short conclusion and transition to the next paragraph.

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