By Gordon Rugg
Academic writing is very different from most other types of writing. There are sensible reasons for this.
Unfortunately, not many students have been taught about those reasons. The result, predictably and understandably, is that most students, and most members of the general public, think that academic writing is dull and heavy because academics either don’t know how to write in an interesting, accessible way, or because they don’t care.
So, why is academic writing deliberately dull and heavy, and what are the implications, and how can you use academic writing style to your advantage? That’s what this article is about.
First, the reasons for academic writing being the way it is. I’ve written about this in some detail here and here.
The short version is that academia has had its fingers badly burnt by charlatans, crooks, well-meaning but hopelessly wrong researchers, and by shameless self-publicists. Most of those people were very good at writing extremely interesting, persuasive, colourful, engaging prose. All of them set back honest research by years or decades, because they persuaded a lot of people to waste time trying approaches that were hopelessly flawed from the outset.
Researchers want to find out what the truth is, and they don’t want to waste time digging through layers of juicy half-truths in exciting articles intended more to entertain than to inform. As a result, academic writing style deliberately takes a form that makes it very hard for anyone to mislead the writer by colourful, persuasive writing. This usually makes academic writing look dull and fact-heavy to outsiders, but that’s a price worth paying. If you’re trying to solve a problem like finding a cure for a currently-incurable disease, you want to get to the facts in an article swiftly and efficiently, without wasting time reading colourful misleading claims.
So, academic writing aims to be brutally functional and efficient, as a way of getting a job done. In that respect, it’s like legal writing, or technical writing, for the same reasons. The detailed forms that academic writing takes are slightly different across disciplines; the humanities don’t use exactly the same style as the sciences, for example. However, core features, such as the way they use referencing and the way they use technical terms, are pretty much the same wherever you are.
That’s the background. What about the actual features of academic writing?
I’ve listed some key features below, with explanations for why they are the way they are, and with a contrasting description of what general-readership magazines do instead.
I’ve then listed some key features of general-readership magazine writing, in a similar format. That table isn’t quite the mirror image of the previous one, since magazines have various features that academic writing doesn’t have.
|What academic writing does, and why||Magazines, in contrast|
|Written almost entirely in third person passive (“It was observed that…”) so the reader can maintain emotional distance and assess what’s being said more impartially||Written almost entirely in first, second or third person active (“I saw…” or “you saw…” or “he/she/they saw…”)|
|Deliberately avoids colourful, exciting language, so the reader can focus on the facts and the argument||Uses colourful, exciting language, to entertain the reader|
|Deliberately avoids slang and references to current fashions, so that the article can be easily understood by readers from other countries, and by readers years in the future||Uses slang and references to current fashions, to make the article relate to the target readers right now|
|Uses a lot of journal article references, as reasonably trustworthy peer-reviewed sources of information||Uses no, or very few, journal article references (the usual exception is when they are writing about a recent scientific discovery, and they cite the relevant article)|
|Uses a lot of conference article references, as reasonably trustworthy peer-reviewed sources of information||Uses no, or very few, conference article references (the usual exception is when they are writing about a recent scientific discovery, and they cite the relevant article)|
|Usually has an explicit structure that is standard within its field (e.g. Abstract, Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion and Further Work, References, Appendices)||Usually does not have an explicit standard structure|
|Attempts to survey previous work on the topic across time, from the earliest work to the present, so that the reader knows what has been tried before||Gives little or no account of previous work; usually, just a few colourful past examples|
|Attempts to survey previous work on the topic across schools of thought, covering the main ideas about the topic, even when the author disagrees with them, so that the reader knows what the contender ideas are||Gives little or no account of other schools of thought; the usual exceptions involve portraying two schools of thought as adversaries, e.g. the “maverick genius versus the establishment” trope|
|Attempts to analyse the evidence fairly and impartially, to eliminate ideas that don’t fit with the evidence||Usually advocates one viewpoint, and presents mainly evidence supporting that viewpoint|
That’s academic writing. There are plenty of other features that you’ll find in guidelines online and in textbooks; if you’re lucky, there will be explanations for them. Some of those features are applicable in a broad range of settings; others are much more specific, such as the use of the abbreviation “c.f.” to send out a shorthand signal to the reader about how to treat the reference that will follow it.
Magazine writing also has features that writers use deliberately, though for very different reasons. The list below contains widely used features of magazine writing for a general readership; specialist magazines are often in a style much more like academic writing. Again, you’ll find plenty of other features online and in books.
|What magazine writing does, and why||Academic writing, in contrast|
|Written almost entirely in first, second or third person active (“I saw…” or “you saw…” or “he/she/they saw…”) to engage the reader||Written almost entirely in the third person passive, to help the reader assess the evidence impartially|
|Uses colourful, exciting language, to entertain the reader||Uses deliberately unexciting language, to help the reader assess the evidence impartially|
|Uses slang and references to current fashions, to make the article relate to the target readers right now||Avoids slang and references to current fashions, so the article can be understood by readers from other cultures, and in the future|
|Uses easily accessible sources such as Wikipedia and websites so readers can easily follow up points from the article||Deliberately doesn’t use sources such as Wikipedia and websites, since these don’t usually have quality control; Wikipedia’s content is written for a general audience, so it’s often simplified, and it is also prone to hacks in its entries|
|Typically uses a striking, vivid opening story to grab the reader’s attention||Deliberately doesn’t use striking, vivid stories, to help the reader assess the evidence impartially|
|Gives vivid everyday examples to illustrate and explain key points in simple language||May use everyday examples to illustrate key points, but with deliberately impersonal language; will usually explain key points using technical terms, for accuracy and precision|
|Often has well-established underlying structures such as key message, juicy example, factoid/statistic, but seldom uses these as explicit section headings||Has well-established standard structures for articles, that are used explicitly|
|Uses deliberate hooks to get the reader’s attention, such as eye-catching titles and opening sentences (clickbait is when this goes too far)||Uses hooks, but with deliberately understated language (e.g. “A long-standing problem in computing is…”)|
|Aims to entertain and inform||Aims to inform|
|Is often about advocacy, trying to persuade or encourage people towards a particular position||Is about finding out the truth, by working impartially through the evidence|
So, in summary, academic writing deliberately uses an unemotional style as part of its focus on handling the facts swiftly and precisely and efficiently; magazine writing deliberately uses an exciting, emotional style because it wants to sell stories, and to entertain and persuade the reader. Very different styles, for very different purposes.
This doesn’t mean that academic language has to be unclear. On the contrary, academic writing tries (though with varying degrees of success, depending on the skill of the writer) to be clear and accurate and precise.
I’ve blogged here about how you can combine clear, accessible language with heavy use of facts and references, by having a topic sentence in each paragraph that gives the key point of that paragraph in clear, simple words; the rest of the paragraph then unpacks that key point with facts, technical terms and references, that the reader can then go through in more detail if they wish.
There’s more about academic writing elsewhere on this blog, and also a variety of articles about how to make sense and make use of the previous literature on the topic you’re grappling with. You might find these articles useful as a starting point:
Different writing styles for different purposes
Useful writing tips for stressed students
The underlying structure of scientific writing
The three golden rules of scientific writing
Humour: Getting that “special” paper published
Making sense and making use of the literature
Finding the right references, part 1
Finding the right references, part 2
Finding the right references, part 3
Making the most of bad references
The purpose of literature reviews
A quick and dirty approach to reviewing the literature
Using review articles to get an overview of the literature
Doing meta-analysis, and Systematic Literature Reviews
I hope you find this article useful.
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 book Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.
You might also find our website useful: http://www.hydeandrugg.com/
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Thank you! As a mature student coming (back) into higher education from industry, I have continually struggled to glean what is considered a good academic writing style. I am coming from a background of writing reports, proposals and business cases and have been looking for an introduction to the differences or, at least, ideal format of academic writing. Your article has helped with that. I wonder if universities could/would provide an introductory guide to this as part of courses, particularly part time courses or courses with a high proportion of mature students.
Universities often provide support for writing, but they vary considerably in how they address the differences in between writing styles between different areas, and the reasons for these differences. In some places, these are well covered; that’s how I learned about them. In others, they’re not so well covered. That’s why Marian Petre and I ended up writing our book about the unwritten rules of academic research; we kept encountering good students who had never been told about this, and we realised that there was a systemic problem.