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Academic writing

What is academic writing?

Academic writing should be clear and logical. Writing requires a structure, which usually involves:

An introduction (which indicates the aim and the scope of the assignment and acts as a map for the reader).

A main body (which addresses the learning outcomes in detail) and

A conclusion (summarising what has been found).

Academic writing should be balanced. You should highlight the different views you have encountered during your reading and draw conclusions on the weight of evidence

Well Sourced

Academic writing uses sources to support its claims. Sources are other texts (or media objects like photographs or films) that the author analyses or uses as evidence. Many of your sources will be written by other academics; academic writing is collaborative and builds on previous research.

It is important to consider which sources are credible and appropriate to use in academic writing. For example, citing Wikipedia is typically discouraged.

Don’t rely on websites for information; instead, use the academic databases on the Libguide Databases tab to find credible sources.

You must always cite your sources in academic writing. This means acknowledging whenever you quote or paraphrase someone else’s work by including a citation in the text and a reference list at the end.

One of the first things to remember is: ‘Don’t panic.’ Whilst academic writing is an important part of assessment, your tutors understand that it is something which you develop over time and you are not expected to be a competent academic writer at the start of your course. In fact, many suggest that developing as an academic writer is an on-going process, which all writers are engaged in. You may be asked to produce writing in a number of formats, such as, writing an essay, a report or reflective article.  As such, academic writing follows certain rules or conventions. Learn how to adopt the norms and conventions associated with your area of study.

Qualities of academic writing

In a nutshell, a good academic essay is well-researched, well-structured, and well-argued. However, you will only get a good mark if you fully understand and answer the essay question.  Take a look at ‘Keywords in assignment briefs’ and breakdown the assignment question.

Qualities that contribute to academic writing:

  • Formal
  • Others 
  • Cautious
  • Succinct
  • Impersonal


Be Formal – avoid common, colloquial or spoken language

Avoid casual language in your assignments such as:  

Words like ‘stuff’, ’really’ and ‘things’

Phrases such as ‘a bit’ and ‘sort of’ (there are lots of others)

Sentence fragments that are perfectly acceptable in everyday speech – such as ‘Not at all.’ and ‘which he didn’t.’ – must be avoided in writing.

Contractions including 'isn’t', 'didn’t', 'couldn’t', 'wouldn’t' and 'it’ll'

Avoid abbreviations such as ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e. – it is better to say 'for example...'



Academic writing normally builds on what others have previously done and thought about your subject. This means reading and thinking about what others – practitioners and theorists – have written, and using their ideas in your writing through accurate quotation and citation. Your ideas should be based not only on what you know and think but also on what others have thought and done. You are part of an ongoing community of learning.


Be Cautious – not too black and white

Academic writing is usually cautious because it discusses complex knowledge. Academic work is open-minded and enquiring – so as a student you should question arguments rather than being too certain. Beware of words like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, and think carefully about using words like ‘definitely’ which suggest no room for debate around a statement. 

Cautious words to use in academic writing:

  • possibly
  • probably
  • likely
  • seems
  • may
  • could


Be Succinct – not too wordy

Academic writing is succinct. Reading some books and journals might make you think that academic writing should be complex and long-winded, but in fact the opposite is true. Readers of your assignments need to understand exactly what you mean, and in as few words as possible. When re-reading what you’ve written you should always check that you have been as precise and concise as possible.


Be Impersonal – write in an impartial style

Academic writing is usually impersonal. In essays in particular, you cannot normally write in the first person, so you cannot use ‘I’, ‘my’ or ‘me’ (first person singular) or ‘we’, ‘our’ or ‘us’ (first person plural). So instead of writing:

‘I am surprised that…’

you might write

‘It is surprising that…’.

Exceptions to this rule include reflective writing assignments and portfolios – these reflective assignments often require you write in the first person, especially if you are reporting your actions to evaluate your own experiences or actions, for example: 

‘I observed a group of…’ 

or reflecting, for example:

‘I have learned that…’. 

In these instances a more personal style is appropriate.