What characterises academic writing?

It is perhaps tempting to think that Academic Writing (AW) is guided by a fairly homogeneous set of rules and aspects. This is so, possibly because we frequently see books with titles such as Academic Writing and Writing Academic English, and we hear from fellow students, teachers, colleagues and friends about the need for skills within written academic English.

However, even if there arguably are core aspects and skills, it is important to acknowledge the fact that many differences exist when it comes to how certain disciplines grapple the challenges of writing academic discourse. The question, then, is whether we should rather talk about Academic Writings, to highlight this heterogeneity.

A General Approach

Indeed, in the debate on teaching approaches to Academic Writing (AW), there are proponents of a more generalised stance. The advocates of such an approach argue that there are commonalities across academic writing and that a number of core skills can and should be taught (see e.g. Bloor & Bloor, 1986). These core skills could have to do with features of academic prose and text-type patterns that recur in academic writing across disciplines.

One of the more frequently proposed arguments in favour of a generalised approach is the lack of subject knowledge and expertise among writing instructors. Such lack of knowledge places restrictions on what can be taught and consequently focus should be placed on more broad principles.

Examples of more general features of academic writing and characteristics that are frequently argued to exist across disciplines are specialist vocabulary, impersonal voice, and the way in which ideas are packed into relatively few words (Hyland 2006). It is not uncommon, for example, to see authors of books on academic writing postulate generalised, clear-cut differences between academic writing and non-academic writing. An example of this can be seen below (taken from Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (2006)). To see the full list, click on the link below.

Alleged key attributes of academic and non-academic texts (click to expand/contract)

Key attributes of academic and non-academic texts (Hamp-Lyons and Heasley 2006:20)

Academic Writing  


Non-academic Writing

Full forms

Short forms

There is
The test did not show

The test didn’t show



The theory appears to provide an explanation for this phenomenon. However, this is not the case on a closer examination of the facts.

I want to go to the cinema, only I have to work late.

The experimental design was weak. Moreover, the methodology was faulty.

Because of work, I can’t go to London this weekend. Anyway, I don’t have enough money.

Use of nominal groups (verbs made into nouns)

Use of pronouns

The application of the results needs to be carefully considered

rather than:

We need to carefully consider how we apply the results.

We need to carefully consider how we apply the results.

Use of the passive voice

Use of the active voice

In recent years, several analyses of survey data have been published.

In recent years, researchers have published several analyses of survey data.

Concise vocabulary

Informal vocabulary

...the focus is on x
Researchers assumed that...

...talks about x
They thought that...

Point of view

Point of view

- Objective and impersonal, e.g.
This essay attempts to...
- Using qualifying language, e.g.
One possible reason may be...

- Subjective and personal, e.g.
In my essay I will attempt to...
- Asking rhetorical questions, e.g.
How can this be so? 

On the whole, this means that academic writing is generally characterised by a high degree of formality. However, the characteristic of impersonal voice, for example, is not without contention. Even though tables of comparison like the one above can sometimes serve the purpose of highlighting differences between writing that is more academically oriented, and less formal writing, which is used in other domains, it can indeed be dangerous to paint such a polarised picture.

We need to remember, for example, that a more subjective and personal style does occur in some text types in some academic disciplines. Therefore, a table like the one presented above should be treated with caution and only be seen as a very coarse and simplified view of the characteristics of academic writing.

Another example of advice given to students on how to write academic English is taken from a textbook for graduate students written by Swales and Feak (1994). In the introductory chapter, the authors present six characteristic considerations of academic writing: audience, purpose, organisation, style, flow, and presentation. When discussing style, they give the following advice on how to maintain a formal academic writing style.

Swales & Feak (1994) on how to maintain a formal academic writing style (click to expand/contract)

The following are some nonvocabulary-related recommendations for maintaining a formal academic style.

1. Avoid contractions

Export figures won't improve until the economy is stronger.  --->
Export figures will not improve until the economy is stronger.

2. Use the more appropriate formal negative forms

not ... any ---> no
not ... much ---> little
not ... many ---> few

The analysis didn't yield any new results --->
The analysis yielded no new results

The government didn't allocate much funding for the program. --->
The government allocated little funding for the program.

This problem doesn't have many viable solutions. --->
This problem has few viable solutions.

3. Limit the use of "run on" expressions, such as "and so forth" and "etc."

These semiconductors can be used in robots, CD players, etc. --->
These semiconductors can be used in robots, CD players, and other electronic devices.

4. Avoid addressing the reader as "you" (except, of course, if you are writing a textbook).

You can see the results in Table 1. --->
The results can be seen in Table 1.

5. Limit the use of direct questions.

What can be done to lower costs? --->
We now need to consider what can be done to lower costs. or
We now need to consider how costs may be lowered.

6. Place adverbs within the verb

Adverbs often are placed midposition rather than in the initial or final positions. In informal English, adverbs often occur as clauses at the beginning or end of sentences.

Then the solution can be discarded. --->
The solution can then be discarded.

The blood is withdrawn slowly. --->
The blood is slowly withdrawn.

Taken from Swales & Feak (1994, pp. 18-19)

A Discipline-specific Approach

Proponents of a more discipline-specific approach to academic writing instruction argue that there is no strong core of academic writing. Rather, as expressed by Hyland (2002: 386), there is a need to foster skills which are "appropriate to the purposes and understandings of particular communities", whereby he sees communities as social groups with members sharing a professional context.

Often, he claims, academic literacy is typically treated as something that students have failed to acquire and something that can be remedied through a set of discrete, value-free rules and technical skills that can be applied in any situation.

Hyland’s stance is echoed by Elbow (1998: 148), who claims that the problem of teaching academic discourse is that "there’s no such thing to teach". The central argument in favour of a discipline-specific approach to academic writing, then, is that academic writing is too broad to be taught as a generic set of practices (Macbeth 2010).

For further reading: North (2005) on academic writing and disciplinary differences (click to expand/contract)

In an analysis of three articles from different disciplines Bazerman (1981) notes that "each text seems to be making a different kind of move in a different kind of game" (p. 378). For example, while the shared assumptions of biology allowed minimal reference to the literature and less overt persuasion, the lack of such a framework in sociology meant that the writer had to do more work, both to establish the context within which their article was to be read and to persuade readers along their lines of thought.

(North 2005: 520)

Attempting to Account for Variation

Various disciplines in the natural sciences, technology, social sciences and humanities all have their more specific, conventionalised ways of describing ideas, knowledge, methods, results and interpretations. This makes it necessary also to go beyond a more general and generalised view of academic writing, and try to pin down specific characteristics of the academic discourse in each of these disciplines. It is our aim to try to achieve this on the AWELU platform too.