Developing your writing capabilities is an important part of your study at university. You need to understand the different types of academic writing you’re required to use and how to plan and structure your work and appropriately acknowledge your references.
Academic writing is generally quite formal, objective (impersonal) and technical. It is formal by avoiding casual or conversational language, such as contractions or informal vocabulary. It is impersonal and objective by avoiding direct reference to people or feelings, and instead emphasising objects, facts and ideas. It is technical by using vocabulary specific to the discipline.
Different disciplines also have different styles and structures of writing. For example, some disciplines, such as in the humanities, expect longer paragraphs, which include topic sentences to show how your argument is structured. Other disciplines, for example in the sciences, expect short paragraphs, with no topic sentences, which are denser in factual information.
To be a good academic writer, you will need to learn the specific styles and structures for your discipline, as well as for each individual writing task. Some ways to do this are to:
You can make your writing more formal through the vocabulary that you use. For academic writing:
Although academic writing usually requires you to be objective and impersonal (not mentioning personal feelings), often you may still have to present your opinion. For example, you may need to:
To express your point of view and still write in an objective style, you can use the following strategies.
Different disciplines often have quite different expectations about how objective or subjective your writing can be. For example, in some fields it is fine to use first person, such as 'my view is that...', while in other fields this is not acceptable. You should look at the convention used in published articles in your discipline area, and check with your lecturer.
As well as using formal language, you also need to write technically. This means that you need to develop a large vocabulary for the concepts specific to the discipline or specialisation you’re writing for. To do this, take note of terminology used by your lecturer and tutor, as well as in your readings.
Be careful about the meaning of technical terms. Often the same word has a different meaning in another discipline. For example, ‘discourse’ is a technical term used in multiple disciplines with different meanings.
Make sure you also understand and use the key categories and relationships in your discipline, that is, the way information and ideas are organised into groups. For example, in the discipline of Law, law is separated into two types: common law and statute law. Knowing these distinctions will help you structure your writing and make it more technical and analytical.
This material was developed by the Learning Centre, who offer workshops, face-to-face consultations and resources to support your learning. Find out more about how they can help you develop your communication, research and study skills.
See our Writing skills handouts.