This is it: you’ve been assigned your first paper of the spring semester. It’s due in two weeks, and your palms are already sweaty. It’s not that you hate writing. You enjoy creative writing – poems, personal narratives – when you have the time. But writing papers for school has always filled you with dread. The ram-a-pencil-through-your-frontal-lobe kind of dread.
Or perhaps it has been years since high school, college, and graduate school. You’ve finally gotten the hang of How to Write Well – how to write college papers well, that is. Yet now that you’re out in the work world, the same qualities that made your English professor rave are the ones that make your boss rant. What is going on here?
The problem is that there are many kinds of writing situations: creative writing is distinct from academic writing, and academic writing is distinct from professional (business) writing. Each kind of writing has its own criteria for quality, and many of them do not overlap. (For example, I recently devoted an entire post to demystifying criteria for one specific kind of writing: the summary.)
The student in the example above likes the freedom of creative writing but finds academic writing intimidating. Conversely, the employee mastered academic writing but is struggling to make the transition to professional writing.
Like so many things in life, awareness is the first step toward improvement. If you’re a student, the following tips will help make you a more successful academic writer. If you’re not a student anymore, the following tips will help you realize which of your writing-related skills may need to be modified for workplace success.
The thing that sets academic writing apart from writing in other settings is that academic writing occurs within a community of scholars. Upon reading this, the first thing that may pop into your head is, “I’m not a scholar, I’m a student.” Quite right. But you don’t have to have a lot of letters after your name or a fancy robe to wear to commencement to be a scholar. A scholar is someone who seeks knowledge, not necessarily one who already has it. It’s the pursuit that defines the scholar.
This is just what you’re doing in classes: you are pursuing knowledge with your classmates and your teacher. This makes you a community of scholars. Within this community, each scholar is expected to contribute his or her original ideas to the scholarly debate. Thus, although the paper-writing process may seem like a solitary experience, the goal is not just to have ideas but to share them with your fellow scholars.
This is why you must define your audience for an academic paper, just as for other types of writing. If no audience is specifically dictated by the paper assignment, use this guideline: the paper’s audience consists of your classmates and your teacher.
Considering each segment of your audience is key. Think of your classmates: they are participating in the same scholarly endeavor (i.e., they are taking the same class). Therefore, they are probably somewhat informed about the material you’re writing about. If the paper is about Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, you can assume that your audience has read the play. However, your classmates are also not experts in the subject. They, like you, are students. Therefore, you must provide sufficient examples, explanation, and analysis for them to understand and accept your paper’s ideas.
Your teacher, on the other hand, is an expert. Your teacher has read King Lear a dozen times. Remembering this fact will help you to be exact and accurate in your paper. Likewise, remembering that this teacher will read it and grade it, remember to abide by all assignment requirements. Finally, keeping your teacher in mind will prevent you from using an overly conversational, casual tone when writing, even if you would adopt such a tone with your peers.
Scholars also are particularly scrupulous when it comes to giving credit where it is due. If you are indebted to any source, whether it helped you formulate ideas or whether it provided you with quotations, you must acknowledge that source by means of a citation. Not to do so constitutes a violation of scholarly and academic integrity, and I have never worked or studied at a school that did not severely punish this behavior.
What does this mean for you? Keep track of where your information is coming from (unless it’s coming from your head alone), and tell the readers where you found each piece of information. This practice is called citation. There are many different styles of citation: humanities courses often use MLA Style (which stands for Modern Language Association), while social sciences often use APA Style (which stands for American Psychological Association). Ask your teacher which style to use.
Academic writing also has particular organizational challenges. Papers may use a title, but they typically don’t use subheadings for organization like many documents in the professional world. Business documents may use visuals, like charts and graphs, to clarify a point, but many times in academic writing, it’s just your words.
To overcome this, you must use the organizational tools at your disposal: the title, the thesis statement, and the topic sentences. The title should give the reader an idea of the paper’s topic. Many titles incorporate puns or clever wordplay, which is good news for the creative writers out there. The thesis statement is the most important statement in your paper: the thesis tells the reader the claim you are making about the topic. A good place to put your thesis sentence is the last sentence of the paper’s first paragraph. This gives you some space to introduce your topic and thesis, but it also puts the thesis upfront, so the reader knows what your idea is. For details on how to use topic sentences for maximum flow, check out this post .
Finally, a caveat: many professors and teachers provide detailed instruction that tells students exactly how they want the papers to be composed. If that is the case, your professor or teacher’s rules supercede the general rules I have written here. I don’t think “Loren at Writing Power said I could” will work as a defense if they choose to knock points off your paper for failure to follow instructions.
Academic writing is like any other kind of writing: it requires certain tools. There is no skeleton key. However, I hope these tips will help you to approach your academic writing tasks (or your post-academic writing tasks) with a clearer sense of purpose.