An Introduction to Academic Writing

Characteristics and Common Mistakes to Avoid

Student working at desk
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Students, professors, and researchers in every discipline use academic writing to convey ideas, make arguments, and engage in scholarly conversation. Academic writing is characterized by evidence-based arguments, precise word choice, logical organization, and an impersonal tone. Though sometimes thought of as long-winded or inaccessible, strong academic writing is quite the opposite: It informs, analyzes, and persuades in a straightforward manner and enables the reader to engage critically in a scholarly dialogue.

Examples of Academic Writing 

Academic writing is, of course, any formal written work produced in an academic setting. While academic writing comes in many forms, the following are some of the most common.

Literary analysis: A literary analysis essay examines, evaluates, and makes an argument about a literary work. As its name suggests, a literary analysis essay goes beyond mere summarization. It requires careful close reading of one or multiple texts and often focuses on a specific characteristic, theme, or motif.

Research paper: A research paper uses outside information to support a thesis or make an argument. Research papers are written in all disciplines and may be evaluative, analytical, or critical in nature. Common research sources include data, primary sources (e.g., historical records), and secondary sources (e.g., peer-reviewed scholarly articles). Writing a research paper involves synthesizing this external information with your own ideas.

Dissertation: A dissertation (or thesis) is a document submitted at the conclusion of a Ph.D. program. The dissertation is a book-length summarization of the doctoral candidate’s research.

Academic papers may be done as a part of a class, in a program of study, or for publication in an academic journal or scholarly book of articles around a theme, by different authors.

Characteristics of Academic Writing

Most academic disciplines employ their own stylistic conventions. However, all academic writing shares certain characteristics.

  1. Clear and limited focus. The focus of an academic paper—the argument or research question—is established early by the thesis statement. Every paragraph and sentence of the paper connects back to that primary focus. While the paper may include background or contextual information, all content serves the purpose of supporting the thesis statement.
  2. Logical structure. All academic writing follows a logical, straightforward structure. In its simplest form, academic writing includes an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The introduction provides background information, lays out the scope and direction of the essay, and states the thesis. The body paragraphs support the thesis statement, with each body paragraph elaborating on one supporting point. The conclusion refers back to the thesis, summarizes the main points, and highlights the implications of the paper’s findings. Each sentence and paragraph logically connects to the next in order to present a clear argument.
  3. Evidence-based arguments. Academic writing requires well-informed arguments. Statements must be supported by evidence, whether from scholarly sources (as in a research paper), results of a study or experiment, or quotations from a primary text (as in a literary analysis essay). The use of evidence gives credibility to an argument.
  4. Impersonal tone. The goal of academic writing is to convey a logical argument from an objective standpoint. Academic writing avoids emotional, inflammatory, or otherwise biased language. Whether you personally agree or disagree with an idea, it must be presented accurately and objectively in your paper.

Most published papers also have abstracts: brief summaries of the most important points of the paper. Abstracts appear in academic database search results so that readers can quickly determine whether the paper is pertinent to their own research.

The Importance of Thesis Statements

Let’s say you’ve just finished an analytical essay for your literature class. If a peer or professor asks you what the essay is about—what the point of the essay is—you should be able to respond clearly and concisely in a single sentence. That single sentence is your thesis statement.

The thesis statement, found at the end of the first paragraph, is a one-sentence encapsulation of your essay’s main idea. It presents an overarching argument and may also identify the main support points for the argument. In essence, the thesis statement is a road map, telling the reader where the paper is going and how it will get there.

The thesis statement plays an important role in the writing process. Once you’ve written a thesis statement, you’ve established a clear focus for your paper. Frequently referring back to that thesis statement will prevent you from straying off-topic during the drafting phase. Of course, the thesis statement can (and should) be revised to reflect changes in the content or direction of the paper. Its ultimate goal, after all, is to capture the main ideas of your paper with clarity and specificity.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Academic writers from every field face similar challenges during the writing process. You can improve your own academic writing by avoiding these common mistakes.

  1. Wordiness. The goal of academic writing is to convey complex ideas in a clear, concise manner. Don’t muddy the meaning of your argument by using confusing language. If you find yourself writing a sentence over 25 words long, try to divide it into two or three separate sentences for improved readability.
  2. A vague or missing thesis statement. The thesis statement is the single most important sentence in any academic paper. Your thesis statement must be clear, and each body paragraph needs to tie into that thesis.
  3. Informal language. Academic writing is formal in tone and should not include slang, idioms, or conversational language.
  4. Description without analysis. Do not simply repeat the ideas or arguments from your source materials. Rather, analyze those arguments and explain how they relate to your point. 
  5. Not citing sources. Keep track of your source materials throughout the research and writing process. Cite them consistently using one style manual (MLA, APA, or Chicago Manual of Style, depending on the guidelines given to you at the outset of the project). Any ideas that are not your own need to be cited, whether they're paraphrased or quoted directly, to avoid plagiarism.