What academic writing looks like

By Gordon Rugg

Students often ask what good academic writing looks like. It’s an important, simple, question. Answering it in words is tricky. However, answering it with words plus highlighter makes answering easier. The answer is that good academic writing features mainly highlighter 2, with some highlighter 1 at the beginnings or ends of paragraphs, and as little grey as possible.

What does that actually look like? I’ll use a worked example to illustrate it, on the topic of the growth of the Internet. This is a difficult topic, because the key points are well known to the general public, so there’s a real risk that your opening text will look like something that a twelve year old without Internet access has hacked together at the last minute for an overdue essay.

Here’s a set of bullet points in clear English illustrating one way of handling this:

  • It is widely claimed that X is true.
  • A counter-example is Y.
  • However, Z means that Y is not completely comparable to X.

Note that each bullet point contains information that is non-trivial (X, Y and Z). Each bullet point maps neatly onto what is known as a topic sentence, i.e. the sentence in a paragraph that contains the crucial information about the topic of the paragraph.

The image below shows how they map on to academic writing. Non-trivial insights are shown in light green highlighter. Non-trivial facts are shown in lorem ipsum (meaningless text so there’s no content to distract the reader) with yellow highlighter. Text that anyone on the street could write is shown with grey highlighter.

Note that the topic sentence is usually at the start of the paragraph, but may be elsewhere (usually at the end of the paragraph).

Note also the use of the conjunction “however” at the start of the third paragraph, in a way that implies that the topic sentence will come later in the paragraph.

What’s happening here is that the opening words “It is widely claimed” act as a flag, signalling that the writer is treating this as just a claim, not as a solid fact. This flag in the opening words tells the critical reader that what follows won’t be just general knowledge; instead, there’s going to be something more insightful.

I’ve distinguished non-trivial insights from non-trivial facts and general knowledge.

As a rough rule of thumb, general knowledge won’t get you any marks or credit in academic writing. Sometimes you have to say something that is general knowledge because it’s true and necessary; when this happens, it’s wise to treat the piece of general knowledge as a sandwich in the middle of some non-trivial content.

Non-trivial insights are intelligent, non-obvious insights. Non-trivial facts can take various forms, including statistics, historical facts, and references to the literature. Ideally, you should have both non-trivial insights and non-trivial facts facts in your academic writing; that’s how you get a distinction. If you display only non-trivial insights, or only non-trivial facts, then you may manage to get a reasonably good mark, but you’re unlikely to get a distinction.

The precise preferred ratio between the different colours of highlighter varies between disciplines, but the general principle described above is widespread.

This approach also helps make sense of the apparent contradiction between academic writing needing to be clear, but also needing to be information-rich. A common way of squaring this circle is to use short, crisp, topic sentences about insights, and to put the heavy information into the rest of the paragraph. It’s usually possible to phrase the insight in the topic sentence using surprisingly small simple words that anyone can understand; the key thing is that the insight should be something significant and non-obvious.

There are various common deep structures for bullet points. One example is the following:

  • X is a significant problem
  • Previous unsuccessful attempts to solve it failed because of Y
  • However, using method Z should avoid the problem of Y

I’ve written more about bullet points and writing here.

If you’re interested in the telegraph and its massive effect on the Nineteenth Century world, there’s a fascinating book on the subject; The Victorian Internet, by Tom Standage.


Notes, references and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book: Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese


You might also find our website useful: http://www.hydeandrugg.com/



3 thoughts on “What academic writing looks like

  1. Pingback: Academic writing versus magazine writing | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: Presentations 101 | hyde and rugg

  3. Pingback: Reflective reports 101 | hyde and rugg

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