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Introduction to Academic Writing: Writing

Overview of academic writing

'Your success with academic writing depends upon how well you understand what youare doing as you write and then how you approach the writing task.' - L. Lennie Irvin

The main task of academic writing is to refine and focus an idea through research and interrogation, then to clearly state and properly support that idea with effective argumentation and adequate evidence. Any style of writing that stands in the way of your ideas is not serving your task: to communicate. Be sure to ask for specific requirements within your discipline.


Guide contents

The tabs of this guide will support you in developing a strong foundation for your writing at university. The sections are organised as follows:

  • The Six Cs - Presents a quick, helpful overview of the main qualities of effective academic writing.
  • Essay Structure - Defines the primary building blocks of an academic essay, with videos to illustrate.
  • Argumentation - Distinguishes between argument in academia and common usage, and conveys the importance of evidence in academic writing.

The six Cs of academic writing

There is a common misconception that academic writing should be difficult to read. How many books or articles have you read where the language obstructs the clarity of the writing and the meaning of the text?

Good academic writing should be complex, but the complexity of your work should stem from the ideas presented and the depth of your discussion, not from the style of communication or the language used.

The six Cs provide a helpful way to prioritise and think about the qualities of effective writing in academic contexts:

Considerate

Have a clear picture of your intended reader and tailor your writing to meet those expectations. Consider what knowledge they might possess and whether they have any potential biases.

Critical

Don’t absorb information in a passive manner. Engage with your sources and the topic by investigating ideas thoroughly.

Clear

Your primary aim should be communicating your ideas and your argument as clearly and directly as possible. Avoid confusing punctuation, long and convoluted sentences and any unnecessarily complex language.

Before you submit an assignment, read it aloud to yourself. If you find it difficult to recite or run out of breath before you reach the end of a sentence, you should consider simplifying your prose.

Concise

Be direct and avoid any unnecessary phrases or paragraphs. Be mindful of any repetition and always try to ensure that your language directly communicates your ideas. Also, resist any unnecessary deviations that distract from your focus.

Coherent

Ensure that the ideas and evidence presented directly relate to your main point. Think carefully about the structure and linearity of your argument. Does your argument progress in a logical manner? Give careful thought to the ordering of your paragraphs and consider how they relate to one another.

Correct

Be sure that the information presented is accurate and that the general formatting and referencing adheres to the standards set by your discipline.


Practicing the six Cs

Academic writing entails a whole suite of skills that you will continually develop throughout your degree. It takes time, trial, and error to discover your academic voice. To scaffold your abilities in writing clearly and critically, consider studying phrase banks to explore the kind of language typically used to convey ideas in academia.

Academic phrasebank (University of Manchester)

'They say / I say': the moves that matter in academic writing (Graff, Birkenstein, & Durst, 2012)

The importance of structure

An academic essay should explicitly state its purpose and outline the way in which it plans to achieve that purpose. It should then methodically move through critical points supported by evidence until it supports all its claims and achieves its purpose. Therefore, the strength of an academic essay lies in its logical argumentation through sound evidence and clear structure.


The basics of structure

Despite the variety you will find in the topics covered and arguments made across academic essays, the same basic structure underpins the writing. Here are the building blocks you will normally use to build an academic essay:

Title

Check the rubric or assignment brief for any details about the essay title. In some cases, the module lead will ask everyone to use a predetermined title. If this is the case, follow those instructions.

If you have a chance to write your own title, make it short, but pertinent. Don’t just write the essay question. Capitalise it in the manner dictated by your subject area's style guide (find the link to your style guide for details). Many markers love a clever pun in the title, but do get to know your instructor's personality before trying this out!

Introduction

Introduce us to your topic, your main argument, and how you plan to support that argument. Explain what you plan to write and why it matters. The introduction typically opens with broader context and then narrows to your specific aim and thesis.

For a detailed exploration of the introduction and its components, please see our Crafting the Introduction guide.

Body paragraphs

Each paragraph should have a central focus that helps to develop and validate your central thesis. Establish that focus using a clear topic sentence. Within each paragraph, you should then move methodically through specific pieces of evidence and focused commentary connected to the topic sentence. Finally, you transition to the next topic (in a new paragraph).

In this way, your whole essay can move from more general writing (i.e., introducing) to more specific writing (i.e., citing evidence, supporting claims). If you cannot summarise each body paragraph into a few words easily, think about reorganising the essay's body, perhaps by amending the focus of your paragraphs.

Tip: There aren't hard and fast rules governing how long a body paragraph can be. However, if your paragraph lasts for an entire page, think about breaking it up. Consider your own experience as a reader: if you shudder when an author forces you to wade through a whole-page paragraph, then why subject your readers to that tedium? 

Conclusion

Some people like a conclusion that reiterates the thesis and summarises the evidence. Other people like the conclusion to offer a new synthesis of the evidence to propose a solution. Others like a conclusion that offers new questions that have been raised. Ask your tutor which they prefer.


Diving deeper into structure

The two recorded webinars linked below expand on the concepts introduced on this page. Check them out to develop your skills in devising and honing the building blocks of a strong academic essay.

Argument in academia

There are different ways to understand the concept of argument. Indeed, scholars have created many frameworks and definitions to express exactly what an argument entails.

When writing an essay for university, the most important distinction to make is that between argument as it's understood in academia versus common usage. In daily life, the word argument gives the sense of something adversarial or even aggressive. Arguments depicted in the media can be very binary in their presentation: 'Stance A' versus 'Stance B', for example, with each side believing the other to be wrong, wrong, wrong.

In academia, however, argument is often far more subtle and nuanced. Emphasis is placed on how you use critical thinking and evidence (e.g. journal articles, statistics, experiment results, etc.) to support claims.

The Greek triad

The Greeks had a famous triad of components informing the appeal of a specific argument: ethos, pathos, and logos.

  • The identity and background of the writer is often referred to as their ethos. Expertise is proved in the academic world through research, publication, and experience.
  • Pathos refers to the emotional component of a piece of writing - does the text make its argument by causing panic, fear, love, comfort, etc.?
  • And lastly, logos refers to the ability of the evidence to support a logical conclusion based on facts to remove doubt/disagreement.

Perhaps the most common place we see all of these traits working together is in the courtroom. Think of legal dramas and how sometimes lawyers appeal to the identities and emotions of the jurors, or how they attack the character of a witness, or when they argue that the evidence in the case itself is all that matters. Some people say that a trial is merely a war of competing narratives, but it could also be called a war of argumentation styles. Each case requires its own approach based on the people involved, the evidence, and the audience.

In academic writing, logos is the most important element. Any scholar wishing to publish based more on their name than on their evidence will find themselves in trouble eventually. Also, any academic writer wishing to appeal to the reader’s prejudices or desires will also find that their writing, however exceptional it may be, does not meet the required level of argumentation.

It is through sound reasoning and quality evidence, communicated clearly, that academic writers most often succeed. That is not to say there isn’t a place for compelling writing or the power of experience to support an argument. But, there must always be a foundation of solid evidence and reasoning in academic texts.

– Watch this brief video on how to use evidence in your academic writing for more on using sources to logically support your points.

For some more good tips on strong and weak arguments, be sure to check out our Writing Critically guide and Critical Writing webinar recording!