Basic Features Of Academic Essay

Although the accepted form of academic writing in the social sciences can vary considerable depending on the methodological framework and the intended audience. However, most college-level research papers require careful attention to the following stylistic elements:

I.  The Big Picture
Unlike fiction or journalistic writing, the overall structure of academic writing is formal and logical. It must be cohesive and possess a logically organized flow of ideas; this means that the various parts are connected to form a unified whole. There should be narrative links between sentences and paragraphs so the reader is able to follow your argument and all sources are properly cited. The introduction should include a description of how the rest of the paper is organized.

II.  The Tone
The overall tone refers to the attitude conveyed in a piece of writing. Throughout your paper, it is important that you present the arguments of others fairly and with an appropriate narrative tone. When presenting a position or argument that you disagree with, describe this argument accurately and without loaded or biased language. In academic writing, the author is expected to investigate the research problem from an authoritative point of view. You should, therefore, state the strengths of your arguments confidently, using language that is neutral, not confrontational or dismissive.

III.  Diction
Diction refers to the choice of words you use. Awareness of the words you use is important because words that have almost the same denotation [dictionary definition] can have very different connotations [implied meanings]. This is particularly true in academic writing because words and terminology can evolve a nuanced meaning that describes a particular idea, concept, or phenomenon derived from the epistemological culture of that discipline. Therefore, use concrete words [not general] that convey a specific meaning. If this cannot be done without confusing the reader, then you need to explain what you mean within the context of how that word is used within a discipline.

IV.  The Language
The investigation of research problems in the social sciences is often complex and multi-dimensional. Therefore, it is important that you use unambiguous language. Well-structured paragraphs and clear topic sentences enable a reader to follow your line of thinking without difficulty. Your language should be concise, formal, and express precisely what you want it to mean. Avoid vague expressions that are not specific or precise enough for the reader to derive exact meaning ["they," "we," "people," "the organization," etc.], abbreviations like 'i.e.'  ["in other words"] or 'e.g.' ["for example"], and the use of unspecific determinate words ["super "very" "incredible"].

V.  Punctuation
Scholars rely on precise words and language to establish the narrative tone of their work and, therefore, punctuation marks are used very deliberately. For example, exclamation points are rarely used to express a heightened tone because it can come across as unsophisticated or over-excited. Avoid using dashes and hyphens because they give the impression of writing that is too informal. Dashes should be limited to the insertion of an explanatory comment in a sentence while hyphens should be limited to connecting prefixes to words [e.g., multi-disciplinary] or when forming compound phrases [e.g., commander-in-chief]. Finally, understand that semi-colons represent a pause that is longer than a comma, but shorter than a period in a sentence. In general, there are four grammatical uses of semi-colons: when a second clause expands or explains the first clause; to describe a sequence of actions or different aspects of the same topic; placed before clauses which begin with "nevertheless", "therefore", "even so," and "for instance”; and, to mark off a series of phrases or clauses which contain commas. If you are not confident about when to use semi-colons [and most of the time, they are not required for proper punctuation], rewrite using shorter sentences or revise the paragraph.

VI.  Academic Conventions
Citing sources in the body of your paper and providing a list of references as either footnotes or endnotes is a very important aspect of academic writing. It is essential to always acknowledge the source of any ideas, research findings, data, or quoted text that you have used in your paper as a defense against allegations of plagiarism. The scholarly convention of citing sources is also important because it allows the reader to identify the sources you used and to independently verify your findings and conclusions. Examples of other academic conventions to follow include the appropriate use of headings and subheadings, properly identifying acronyms, avoiding slang or colloquial language, avoiding emotive language, avoiding contractions, and using first person and second person pronouns only when necessary.

VII.  Evidence-Based Arguments
Assignments often ask you to express your own point of view about the research problem. However, what is valued in academic writing is that opinions are based on a sound understanding of the pertinent body of knowledge and academic debates that exist within, and often external to, your discipline. You need to support your opinion with evidence from scholarly sources. It should be an objective stance presented as a logical argument. The quality of your evidence will determine the strength of your argument. The challenge is to convince the reader of the validity of your opinion through a well-documented, coherent, and logically structured piece of writing. This is particularly important when proposing solutions to problems or recommended courses of action.

VIII.  Thesis-Driven
Academic writing is “thesis-driven,” meaning that the starting point is a particular perspective, idea, or position applied to the chosen research problem, such as, establishing, proving, or disproving solutions to the questions posed for the topic; Note that a problem statement without the research questions does not qualify as academic writing because simply identifying the research problem does not establish for the reader how you will contribute to solving the problem, what aspects you believe are most critical, or suggest a method for gathering data to better understand the problem.

IX.  Complexity and Higher-Order Thinking
Academic writing addresses complex issues that require high-order thinking skills to comprehend [e.g., critical, reflective, logical, and creative thinking]. Think of your writing this way: One of the most important attributes of a good teacher is the ability to explain complex ideas in a way that is understandable and relatable to the topic being presented. This is also one of the main functions of academic writing--describing and explaining the significance of complex ideas as clearly as possible. Often referred to as higher-order thinking skills, these include cognitive processes that are used to comprehend, solve problems, and express concepts or that describe abstract ideas that cannot be easily acted out, pointed to, or shown with images. As a writer, you must take on the role of a good teacher by summarizing a lot of complex information into a well-organized synthesis of ideas, concepts, and recommendations that contribute to a better understanding of the research problem.

Academic Writing. Writing Center. Colorado Technical College; Hartley, James. Academic Writing and Publishing: A Practical Guide. New York: Routledge, 2008; Murray, Rowena  and Sarah Moore. The Handbook of Academic Writing: A Fresh Approach. New York: Open University Press, 2006; Johnson, Roy. Improve Your Writing Skills. Manchester, UK: Clifton Press, 1995; Nygaard, Lynn P. Writing for Scholars: A Practical Guide to Making Sense and Being Heard. Second edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2015; Silvia, Paul J. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2007; Style, Diction, Tone, and Voice. Writing Center, Wheaton College; Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Personal pronouns
In general, academic texts are impersonal in nature. This means that the main emphasis should be on evidence and arguments and not based on personal opinion and feelings.  The use of personal pronouns such as “I”, “we” and “you” should be avoided as much as possible.

Some types of academic writing encourage the use of personal pronouns. For example, in reflective writing the use of the personal pronoun is accepted.

You should be aware that the use of personal pronouns may be different between academic fields and that some disciplines do not accept it at all. Make sure to check what is recommended, either by asking your instructor or by reading other academic texts within your subject.

Active and passive voice
One way of avoiding the use of personal pronouns is to use the passive voice.


I used a variety of techniques to analyze my material. (Here the “I” is the subject performing the action).

A variety of techniques were used to analyze the material. (This sentence is impersonal and the action is performed upon the subject, “A variety of techniques”, by an unnamed agent. The choice of “the” instead of “my” also serves to make the sentence more objective).

Use of the passive voice can be somewhat heavy and sometimes imprecise. Nowadays, many writers avoid an excessive use of the passive voice. A way of writing objectively and still use the active voice is to use your material, your text or your research as the active agent.


As this this thesis will show….

The research reveals that….

Read more about the use of the passive voice 

Take a look at this short video for more information about personal pronouns and active and passive voice.


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