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ACADEMIC WRITING - WHAT IS IT ?

A WRITING CENTRE HANDOUT

If you are new to the academic world, it is important to understand that academic writing follows
certain conventions that you have to become acquainted with. The most important one of these
is that ideas are backed by reasoned analysis and support before they are accepted by readers in the
academic community. Generally speaking, the purpose of academic writing is to demonstrate the
result of your research process or inquiry. That is what the readers of academic writing expect.
But of course there are other purposes for writing. Just try writing a memo at work, a personal
letter, or a job application and you will realize how important it is to know how to communicate a
message, give a personal response, and persuade your reader. No matter what kind of writing you
undertake, you always have to know from the outset of the writing process what your purpose is
because it lends focus and structure to your writing.
Knowing the purpose for a text can also help you understand the different types of texts
available and their conventions. If you look at the communication triangle below, you will see the
four elements of written communication: language, writer, subject matter, and reader. These
elements are always present when you write no matter what the topic or the purpose is.

The Communication Triangle

Subject Matter

Language

Writer

Reader

When you compose a text, you write about a particular subject using a particular language for a
particular group of readers. However, these four elements of written communication do not always
get the same emphasis. In fact, different types of texts emphasize different elements of the
communication process depending on why you are writing.

So if you know why you write, it will help you understand what type of text it is you are
composing and how to write it. Texts are often divided into four groups according to their aim or
purpose: expressive, persuasive, informative or referential, and literary writing.
1. Expressive Writing: If you write to express yourself, you, the writer, are the focus.
Text examples: Journals, Prayers, Political Manifestos, Minority Protests
2. Persuasive Writing: If you write to persuade your reader, it is the reader's possible response
that is the focus of your interest.
Text examples: Advertising, Political Speeches, Religious Sermons, Legal Oratory
3. Referential Writing: If you write to discuss the world outside yourself and the reader, it is
the world of facts and ideas - subject matter - that you focus on.
Text examples: News Articles, Textbooks, Reports, Essays, Seminars, Scientific Papers
4. Literature: If you write to appeal to your reader's delight in language, it is language that you
focus on. Text examples: Novel, Poem, Short Story, Drama
( This model of the aims of discourse is developed by James L. Kinneavy in A Theory of Discourse. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1971.)

Of these four standard aims of writing, referential writing is by far the most dominant in the
academic world because it demands facts, analysis, and argument. You may from time to time
be asked to write a personal response to a topic, but that is not the typical assignment given at
university. Reports, essays, and case studies, on the other hand, are standard academic fare.
When you write lab reports, case studies, book reviews, essays etc., your writing is referential; you
refer to the world outside yourself, and the facts and ideas of your subject matter have to be subjected
to rigorous, detailed analysis. The purpose of the analysis will be either to inform or to argue a case,
though often a combination of the two. There is an element of persuasion in all effective argument,
but in academic argument, persuasion is not the main purpose; giving detailed, logical support for
an idea is.
If we go back to the communication triangle for a moment, it becomes clear that the writer who
focuses on the subject matter has to avoid self expression because it gets in the way of the facts
and ideas. To write referential or academic writing you have to stand back emotionally to be able
to do a thorough analysis of your material.
Some students, however, find this very hard to do, and their difficulty is understandable. In our daily
contact with people, we are more personal than analytical in a rigorous academic sense. We never
stay with a topic long enough to cover it in depth, and most of us can't come up with the kind of
evidence that would be required in an academic essay, so we end up generalizing. Although we can
get by with a "conversational" response at the kitchen table, it will not do in an academic paper.
So what are the personal or "conversational" responses that should be avoided in academic
writing? Some of the most detrimental are moving abruptly from topic to topic, using
generalizations to prove a point, stating facts without analysis, and reaching conclusions before you

have thoroughly argued a point.


What we have to do in academic writing is to select a very narrow focus for our investigation, use
analysis to generate and develop ideas on the topic, structure the analysis logically by following the
implications of statements made, stay with each idea long enough to show its significance, subject
evidence of any kind to rigorous analysis, create logical connections, and suspend conclusion in
favour of extended inquiry.
If you tend to have an emotional or "conversational" response to your assignments, there are ways
to deal with it. One approach is to accept it and write it out of your system before you attempt any
real analysis. For more suggestions see the handouts on prewriting, the writing process, argument,
and basic versus advanced writers.

Emmy Misser, Writing Centre Manager, Wilfrid Laurier University


Website http://www.wlu.ca/writing