What is academic writing?

Activity time: 20 Minutes

Types of media: Handout/s, Webpage, Helpsheet


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This resource identifies the common key features of academic writing, such as formality, correct grammar and a logical structure, and how this may be different from other forms of writing.


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Date Added

This information/resource was last updated in June 2021.

This post was originally added to LearnHigher on: January 9, 2012

About this resource


Most academic writing follows a number of specific rules and you are expected to follow them whilst writing at university.

Academic writing contains a number of consistent features:

  • Uses clear formal language (no colloquial/slang words)
  • Includes evidence from other experts in the field (references)
  • Answers or debates a specific question or field (focused)
  • Has clear organisation and layout (logical structure).
  • Is grammatically correct.

It might sometimes feel like academic writing doesn’t come naturally to you. This may be because it includes words that we don’t use in everyday conversation. Remember that the more you read within the context of your discipline, the more familiar it will become.

Academic writing usually… Because
includes subject specific terms You must prove to an expert (your tutor) that you understand what these words mean
is written in the third person (for example ‘the research uncovered’) This removes bias and can allow the reader to see the evidence of the piece and not simply the author’s voice
adheres to specific rules (referencing) Referencing is evidence of the research you have undertaken to inform your assignment
seems formal and conservative (does not include slang or local dialect words) Academic writing may be read by scholars all over the world and a chatty conversational tone or slang words may not be understood by those outside of your geographical area

There are many types of academic writing and if you have been asked to write a personal account or a reflective piece then it may not necessarily include all the features listed above.

So how is academic writing different to other types of writing? Look at the types of writing below and identify the stylistic differences.


R U out 2nite? It will b gr8
This example includes numbers instead of words, and abbreviations.

Newspaper article

Hoodies are lowering the tone of our town centres
This makes assumptions and contains personal opinion; it doesn’t back up points with references and uses quite colloquial language (hoodies).

Sixth Form/College level Essay

Emotive language shows influential power because everyone reading the advert will feel the same way, therefore all having the same attitude. Being that child abuse needs to be stopped!
This example uses personal and emotive language; symbols such as exclamation marks and includes no evidence to support the argument.

University essay

The badger handler has to be aware of and alert oncoming traffic to the obstruction by signalling and wearing reflective clothing. Gloves do not offer appropriate protection, because badgers are fully capable of biting through leather gloves or PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). If the handler becomes incapacitated, both the handler and the casualty are at further risk (Stocker 2005).
This extract is typical of academic writing; it uses references, formal tone and language and also some subject specific words.

Academic Journal Articles and textbooks

The natural world came to be understood by studying what could be observed as facts. As such, metaphysical notions of explanation were disregarded. This idea, as applied to the social world, can be traced back to the work of nineteenth century philosopher August Comte (1798-1857) in The Positive Philosophy (1971) (Extract taken from Henn, Weinstein and Foard 2006, p.11).
This extract includes references to other writers or thinkers from the field, it is written in the third person (does not use ‘I’) and uses quite formal and detailed language. Undergraduate students are not normally expected to write at this level of complexity.

Common mistakes

Students often use language they don’t understand to make their writing seem more ‘academic’ but this can often make it seem more confused. Use words you know and keep your writing clear and concise.

Now you’ve read the guide, we suggest that you have a go at the .


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