2 Introducing Academic Writing

Ann Inoshita; Karyl Garland; Kate Sims; Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma; Tasha Williams; Core Curriculum; and Melissa Elston

Learning Objectives:

  • Understand the broad components of academic writing
  • Learn how academic writing is unique and distinctive, compared with informal or professional writing

What is Academic Writing?

Like all writing, academic writing is intended for a particular audience and context. The audience for academic writing includes individuals within the university community, some of them instructors with advanced degrees. Essays, proposals, laboratory research reports, annotated bibliographies, and article and book reviews are among the genres of academic writing; and different lengths, formats, and documentation styles generally are specified for each. Authors of academic writing are expected to familiarize themselves with models and stated expectations (including discipline-specific ones) and to demonstrate their ability to fulfill them.

In addition to following models and specified guidelines, authors writing for an academic audience should be attuned to unstated expectations. Academic writing is produced within a community, and any community has shared values and customary ways of communicating. Writers for an academic community need to learn and use academic and discipline-specific vocabulary. Writers should also develop the ability to use styles, tones, and forms of reasoning and argumentation that are accepted as appropriate for each academic genre. In many of these genres, for example, the writer is expected to adopt an objective tone and to rely upon logical argumentation with little or no reliance upon emotional or personal appeals.

The word “standard” is used to describe the level of quality that a given item possesses. So an “intellectual standard” is one that measures the overall value of a scholarly effort. Such standards apply to essays, reports, assignments, group discussions, and even notetaking. For overall success, students need to know their professors’ standards and need to develop their own standards, with the concept of  “intellectual standards” at the forefront.

There are nine primary intellectual standards to keep in mind: clarity, precision, accuracy, depth, breadth, logic, significance, relevance, and fairness. Keeping a list of these standards (or even using an actual checklist) and applying them to academic thinking, writing, and other scholarly interaction is an excellent way to ensure one’s continued intellectual growth and college and career success.

These standards can help scholars, both students and instructors, form connected and quality ideas (e.g., “critical thinking” or “analysis”) and craft written work (e.g., essays, reports, articles, reflections, and other writing sometimes known as “papers” or “homework”).

Clarity: Do You Get It?

Many of the editorial comments and corrections (e.g., those from peers, mentors, tutors, and professors) shared with students regarding their written work is related to clarity. When an essay is clear, it’s understandable and communicates information to readers with ease. None of the statements are confusing or ambiguous. There aren’t areas within the essay where the meaning is lost due to exaggerated narrative or forced and unnatural word choice. When an essay is clear, readers can follow the path that the writer is communicating. They can read smoothly without stopping to ponder what a word or even an entire sentence means.

Sentence Clarity

Misplaced Modifiers

One way sentences become unclear is when they include misplaced (or dangling) modifiers or vague pronoun references. Here are some examples:

Original: The sun, as he was surfing, sparkled on the water.

    • In this sentence, the modifying phrase “as he was surfing” is placed where it modifies the sun not the surfer. (i.e., It sounds like the sun is surfing.)
    • The sentence also loses clarity because the pronoun “he” is vague.

Revised: As Kalani surfed, the sun sparkled on the water.

Missing Punctuation

Punctuation marks can be tricky. However, within the English language, their correct usage is essential to be sure one’s intended meaning is clear. Here’s an example:

Original: Lets eat Grandma

    • Devoid of punctuation, it seems like Grandma is going to be dinner.
    • To clarify, an apostrophe and a comma are needed.

Revised: Let’s eat, Grandma!

Punctuation is for the reader, so it’s important that each punctuation mark’s usage is clear and that the writer knows how to use it correctly

Rhetoric: Is Meaning Clear for Everyone?

When words have more than one meaning, using them in a sentence or within an essay can pose problems related to clarity. The word “rhetoric” is one such word. Generally thought of as “the art of speaking or writing effectively,” the word enters many English writing classroom discussions.

Sometimes rhetoric is referred to in a negative light, as in the way some people sometimes express themselves using bombastic and hyperbolic words and expressions. The Merriam-Webster dictionary also tells us that rhetoric can be defined as “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion” or “skill in the effective use of speech.” It can even be simply considered as “verbal communication” and “discourse” (Rhetoric,” Merriam-Webster). So knowing the many definitions for this word is essential for college success because individuals, including instructors, will discuss rhetoric in a variety of ways.

The history of rhetoric is directly connected to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose rhetorical concepts are central for understanding the art of persuasion (also called argumentation) in both speaking and writing. Most high school students may know about logos, ethos, and pathos; however, other rhetorical concepts exist, as described below.

There is more information about rhetoric in Part 3: Rhetoric, Audience and Purpose, but below is a short list of rhetorical concepts.

Aristotelian Rhetorical Concepts: A Preview

  • Telos is the Greek word indicating the “purpose” of a speech or text. It refers to a writer’s intended purpose as well as to the audience’s purpose as readers who wish to be informed by the writer’s words.
  • Kairos translates from Greek to the “right, critical, or opportune” moment, and the term can be used when talking about the persuasion of an audience through writing or speaking. Analyzing the rhetorical techniques of a speech or text through kairos involves determining how the language within a text supports an argument using the setting, time, and place. (For a discussion of how kairos fits into writing, see the chapter “Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation.”)
  • Logos roughly translates to “word,” and it is consistently used when determining the logic of reasoning within an argument. Some students simplify this concept to mean facts, figures, and statistics, which writers use to appeal to readers’ sense of reason.
  • Pathos is the Greek word indicating not only “suffering” but also “experience,” and it is related to feelings, beliefs, and values, sometimes simplified as an emotional appeal. When authors use pathos as a writing technique, they are appealing to readers’ emotions, beliefs, and values.
  • Ethos is Greek for “character,” which speaks to a writer’s authority, expertise or other characteristics. Some students simplify this concept as the traits of trustworthiness or credibility, but ethos can be more complicated  — and the word can encompass many aspects of how the audience views the writer. (For more details of how ethos functions alongside logos and pathos, see the chapter “Understanding the Means of Persuasion”).

Precision: Is It on Point?

Precision with language is critical for true understanding. For written work to be precise, it must be sufficiently detailed and what some today call “on point.”  Precision within writing demands that words are not only spelled correctly but that their meanings are also clear and that the words are not overused.

Punctuation needs to be used in a manner that follows standard rules, and ideas must be expressed in ways that are direct while still allowing for the writer to perform with skill and artistry.

Writing with precision at the college level entails researching, reading, and evaluating, and studying to understand information in greater detail and depth. For example, the previous explanation of rhetorical concepts is a college-level understanding that goes beyond the high-school triad of pathos, ethos, and logos, but there are more detailed and deeper readings and discussions about rhetoric in upper-level college and graduate-level courses.

Using sources effectively by finding concrete examples to use in a paper–and then citing them accurately– is another way to demonstrate precision in your writing.

Accuracy: Is It Correct?

Accuracy is the difference between “dia” and “día” and  “resume” and “résumé” The subtleties that make all the difference. For example, English language speakers can resume (or pick up) where they left off. In French, the word “résumé” is a short, employment-related document detailing one’s education, work history, and job and people skills.

But today, the French meaning has become part of the English vernacular, and the accent marks are often omitted while the word retains its dual meaning. Using older technology, writers sometimes were unable to include Spanish or French accent marks. Today, software can automatically add them for precise, accurate spelling–but often, students will need to add the marks themselves. Accuracy in spelling in any language is essential, and being diligent about accent marks shows a respect for the language, escially when those accent marks are part of people’s names.

As scholars and writers across the world become more globally aware, they grow more accurate in the use of others’ languages. Students who are developing their expertise and college success skills also grow more aware of the importance of accuracy, not only when it comes to spelling, punctuation, and word usage, but also grammar, syntax, and conducting research within and outside of their respective disciplines.

Depth: Is It Sufficiently Complex?

When writing or speech is deep, it covers the complexity of a topic. It doesnt skim the surface. It dives deeply into the knowledge and understanding of a topic. For example, a list explaining rhetoric as made up of three concepts (logos, ethos, and pathos) is not as deep and complex as a list showing six concepts (the three plus bathos, telos, and kairos) or even longer lists with deeper descriptions and definitions. In another example, students progress from one-page book reports in elementary school to deeper, comparative, and analytical essays in college.

When analyzing the depth of any essay, including their own essays and those of their peers, students can ask these types of questions:

  • How deeply does this essay go into its topic?
  • Is it detailed enough?
  • Did it go far enough into the research and reviews of other texts to demonstrate a deep knowledge about the subject?
  • How thoroughly have specific subtopics within a major been researched?

Breadth: Are All Views Considered?

Breadth is how broad or wide a topic has been discussed in writing or in speech. For example, to attain breadth in a persuasive essay, a writer must consider not only one point of view, but all the multiple major perspectives about an issue. Breadth also entails considering multiple contexts of an issue and multiple analytical approaches to solving a problem.

Breadth means reading more than a handful of articles supporting one side of an issue; it means reading more articles supporting various perspectives so the writer can truly understand all viewpoints about the issue and can discuss the issue with breadth that builds a deeper understanding and fairness. When analyzing the breadth of any essay, students and instructors ask questions such as the following:

  • Is the content of an essay sufficiently comprehensive enough to cover a wide range of perspectives and angles on a given topic?
  • Is anything missing that should be included in the scope of the topic and which would help the essay achieve enough breadth?
  • Has the opposing view (i.e., the naysayers” perspective) been explored so as to strengthen the writer’s own argument? (This consideration is particularly key in the development of a fully supported and wisely composed persuasive or argumentative essay.)
  • What has not yet been considered to make this idea or essay complete?

Logic: Does It All Make Sense?

For students to create valid arguments through essays or other written works that are meant to be persuasive, they must use accurate reasoning and avoid logical fallacies. Fallacies are arguments that use faulty reasoning, thus making them illogical. If text makes a reader stop and think, Wait, what?” it may mean the writer needs to work on logic.

Logic exists as the essence of philosophy, mathematics, computer programming, computer science, and most other science and technology disciplines. It requires step-by-step thinking and progression in order to design a machine that works or to research and write a report worthy of submission for potential publication.

When analyzing the logic of any text, students and instructors ask questions such as the following:

  • Does a sentence, paragraph, or argument make sense?
  • Does one point follow another point with reason and connected ideas and transitions, rather than jumping from point A to point Z without sufficient explanation of how they are related?
  • Are all assertions fortified by sufficient evidence?
  • Does all data collected, whether determined as relevant or not, follow a logical approach?

Significance: Does It Matter?

The intellectual standard of significance indicates the importance and weight of a topic or point and is connected to logic and depth. For example, the deeper, broader definition of rhetoric” from the Aristotelian perspective is more significant than the everyday, newspaper use of the word.

Significance is related to the level of importance of one thing in relation to the grander scheme of things and to the additional standards of priority and value. For example, students might write about an 18-year-old person’s right to drink alcohol, but that essay would be less significant than essays about increased drunk-driving-related fatalities in the community. Some 18 year olds might argue that, if they can be drafted into the military and be required to go to war, they should have the right to drink. However, the other side of the argument asserts the right of people of all ages to travel safely on the roads, and holding back on allowing hundreds more individuals from potentially driving drunk has more weight.

When analyzing the significance of any document, students and instructors ask questions such as the following:

  • Is the information important enough to include?
  • Does the information answer the question asked in an assignment?
  • What key points are most important for writers to include and for readers to consider?
  • Is this topic important in relation to other topics in the same subject area?
  • What’s the most important thing to focus on?
  • Is this topic worth the writer’s time researching and the reader’s time reading?
  • Would there be enough readers interested in this topic?
  • So what? Why is a topic or point more important than another topic or point?

Relevance: Is It Essential to the Main Idea?

If paragraphs in an essay are relevant, they are related to the main topic and help support the main idea with additional, related, relevant details and evidence. If paragraphs are irrelevant, a reader might think, “Wait, what? How is this on topic?”

If, for example, an essay begins by stating that government officials should take five major actions to solve the issue of homelessness in Hawai‘i, but then the majority of the body paragraphs wander into opinions focused on the history of governmental decision-making in the islands for decades, a reader might feel lost and wonder how much of the content of the essay is related to solving homelessness in Hawai‘i.

When analyzing the relevance of any essay, students and instructors ask questions such as the following:

  • Does this point help readers understand the main issue?
  • Does this essay focus on the assignment question or prompt?
  • Does it answer the main question?
  • If this paragraph is slightly off-topic, what can be done to refocus it so that it does its job in supporting the main idea in the thesis statement?
  • If a point is confusing readers who don’t understand how it’s related to the main idea, does it belong in this essay?

Fairness: Is It Objective and Judicious?

The word “fair” is often used synonymously with “just” or “judicious” and is related to “justice.” Especially in essays that are meant to persuade through logical argumentation, topics and points of view (POVs or perspectives”) need to be treated fairly and diplomatically. A fair, even-handed treatment doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing to opposing (or naysayer’s”) POVs, but strong, college-level writing must acknowledge the opposing POVs, then must either accommodate or refute them. For example, an essay may state, The opponents have valid points regarding X and Y. They are right about this and that. However, they are innaccurate about this specific point about X, and their argument doesn’t negate A and B, which remains the most accurate ideas and still strongly support this argument.”

Fairness is an important element of expository writing as well, where you may be analyzing others’ POVs but not arguing for any side in particular. Representing all the different facets of a topic accurately is part of fairness.

When analyzing the fairness of any essay, students and instructors ask questions such as the following:

  • Does the writer of this essay exhibit the ability to fairly assess the viewpoints of others, even opposing viewpoints?
  • Are there any fallacies, such as ad hominems that unfairly label opponents rather than speak directly and precisely about the opposing argument or POV itself? (Note: The term ad hominem” is short for argumentum ad hominem” and is a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself.)
  • Does the writer or speaker have a conflict of interest? Does that conflict of interest appear as bias in the text? Given today’s political scene and questionable statements by government officials, this question may bear more significance.

Apply the Intellectual Standards to Studying and Writing

Students and instructors in colleges and universities often consider the quality of their own and others’ work by applying the concepts of intellectual standards, whether or not they are aware of them or have had them articulated for them. Scholarship is evaluated for quality in terms of clarity, precision, accuracy, depth, breadth, logic, significance, relevance, and fairness. Successful college-level studying involves reading, annotating, writing, discussing, and analyzing information and involves practicing skills to apply new knowledge, all of which result in learning and building expertise. Writing to communicate, writing to learn, and writing to demonstrate learning and skills are key skills in college and should demonstrate the mindful application of intellectual standards.

Works Cited

Rhetoric. Merriam–Webster Online. Merriam-Webster, LLC.

Additional Resources

Elder, Linda, and Richard Paul. “Universal Intellectual Standards.” The Foundation for Critical Thinking, October 2010.

Foundation for Critical Thinking at CriticalThinking.org.

Hill, David Jayne. “Bathos.” The Elements of Rhetoric and Composition: A Text-book for Schools and Colleges. Sheldon, 1878.

Paul, Richard, and Linda Elder. “Critical Thinking: Intellectual Standards Essential to Reasoning Within Every Domain of Human Thought, Part Two.Journal of Developmental Education, Volume 37, Issue 1, Fall 2013, pp. 32-36.

Rapp, Christof. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Smith, Robin. “Aristotle’s Logic.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [forthcoming]

Adapted from English Composition: Connect, Collaborate, Communicate by Ann Inoshita; Karyl Garland; Kate Sims; Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma; and Tasha Williams, CC BY 4.0 


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introducing Academic Writing Copyright © by Ann Inoshita; Karyl Garland; Kate Sims; Jeanne K. Tsutsui Keuma; Tasha Williams; Core Curriculum; and Melissa Elston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book