Academic versus non-academic writing

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The following is a summary of the more typical characteristics of ordinary, colloquial, non-scientific, or non-technical writing, versus technical, academic, and scientific writing. See also: Academic versus non-academic sources, paragraph styles, and academic writing genres.

1 General characteristics

ordinary & informal writing academic & technical writing
sentence structure simple sentences consisting of simple main clauses; and compound sentences formed from simple coordinate clauses complex sentences with subordinate clauses - complex and compound-complex sentences
vocabulary simple, non-technical vocabulary more technical vocabulary, especially terms from Latin & Greek; other words are used in a more specialized sense.
verbs common verbs, especially of Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) origin, and shorter, more common Latinate verbs; more phrasal verbs (which are Germanic), and light verbs (high frequency, general-meaning verbs like do, make, go, come, give) more specialized verbs from Latin and sometimes Greek; few light verbs or phrasal verbs
nouns, noun phrases simpler nouns and noun phrases more nouns of Latin/Greek origin; more complex noun phrases, such as nouns post-modified by a following prepositional phrase, participle phrase, or relative clause
tone, style more colloquial, even biased or subjective tone more formal style; more objective, rational tone
structure, organiza­tion, flow less structured; more topic reshifts and digressions follows a more tightly structured organization and a more strictly logical flow
using information from other sources few or no citations; if sources are mentioned, they tend to be more informal sources, and citations are done in an informal footnote or endnote style more citations and references, particularly to expert academic sources

Academic writing generally goes beyond descriptive and persuasive writing to forms that are more analytical, evaluative, or critical (as in providing a critique or a theoretical interpretation). The writer is expected to develop an original analysis, critique, interpretation, or proposals, in a formal and structured manner. See more on the page for academic writing genres. Paragraphs in body text tend to follow more formal and analytical paragraph styles.

1.1 Academic vocabulary

Many words have specialized meanings that differ from their informal, colloquial counterparts. For example, in common parlance, theory can mean conjecture or guess, while in academic English, especially in science, the term theory has a more specialized meaning ( = a complex, explanatory, conceptual framework). Similarly, mathematicians and scientists have more technical, nuanced definitions for many terms like gravity or chaos, and psychologists have more technical, nuanced definitions for terms like self-esteem and happiness.

2 Structure of academic papers

Published academic papers in journals (and book articles) often follow a format like the one below. Science papers follow this rather rigidly, while qualitative papers social sciences may deviate from this, and humanities papers can be much more free-form, as the topic requires. But papers will generally have these elements to some degree.

Abstract A paragraph, separate from the body of the paper, that provides an overview and summary of the paper and its findings or conclusions; this is useful for indexing purposes, and to see if you want to read the whole paper
Introduction One or several paragraphs introducing the issue, including the thesis statement and overview of the paper
Literature review Previous published research studies (literature) or scholarly writings about the topic are reviewed and critiqued

Research question or hypothesis The main question that the writer wants to investigate (this is usually part of the intro or lit review in science and social science papers; this is not usually explicitly stated in humanities and theoretical papers)

Main body & discussion (humanities) The author’s original research, analysis, and/or findings.
Experiment / study (science / soc. sci.) Science & quantitative papers (e.g., social sciences):

Details of the study or experiment conducted, including: subjects / participants, materials, procedures, statistical results

General discussion (science / soc. sci.) Interpretation of the quantitative study and how it addresses the research question / hypothesis, and critique of the author's findings cf. previous research; implications
Conclusion Summary of main findings, implications, or rationale of the research

3 Common types

ore serious non-fiction, rhetorical (i.e., persuasive) and academic writing can include the following. See also the page on academic writing genres.

  1. Rhetorical, persuasive, or argumentative essay
  2. Analytical essay
  3. Problem-solution essay
  4. Critical essay
  5. Review article
  6. Research essay or paper
  7. Thesis: a major work involving original research for an advanced university degree
  8. Conference paper
  9. Monograph: a research-based academic book
  10. Abstracts
  11. Grant proposals

4 See also