An Introduction to Academic Writing: A Simple Guide

As a college student, the most prominent method of evaluation in one’s curriculum is engaging in the process of academic writing. Students at the university level are expected to write well-informed, un-plagiarized content that draws upon credible sources. Contrary to its purpose of serving as an outlet for creativity and ideas, many times, academic writing can turn into a burdensome activity for students who feel overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the rules and formats required for it.

Academic writing guide

The purpose of this paper is to list out the key points for writing an academic paper, to reduce any form of confusion/anxiety that students may face in the writing process and further spark their interest and motivation in academic writing. In this paper, I will cover several facets of academic writing, substantiate my point with examples and suggest credible sources one can refer to for further guidance and explanation.

Academic Writing vs Everyday Writing

Before undertaking this journey of academic writing, it is imperative to distinguish between everyday writing from academic writing. This allows for the student to understand the expectations that follow from an academic paper and what he/she must or must not include.

There are broadly three points for consideration. The first point of difference is the objective. Academic writing is essentially used for writing reports, research papers, abstracts, and conference papers. However, everyday writing can be used for journals, newspapers, diaries, emails, and so on. The second point of difference is the language and grammar. Academic writing makes use of formal and objective language without any slang and contractions. On the other hand, everyday writing is more relaxed and can make use of semi-formal/informal writing, contractions, and slang. The third and last point of difference is the citations and referencing. Academic writing must always make use of references and citations, however, everyday writing need not necessarily make use of them. (Hasa, 2016)

Purpose of the Paper

For an academic paper to deliver what is expected from it, it must contain a clearly defined purpose. These purposes can be classified into three categories.

  1. Persuasive purpose– This includes positional and argumentative papers. This paper aims to convince the reader to adopt the point of view presented in the paper. Therefore, this paper includes taking a side, corroborating it with evidence, and persuading the reader in the direction of the argument presented. (Whitaker, 2009)
  2. Analytical Purpose– This includes analysis and critical analysis papers. This paper aims to investigate, examine, and evaluate cause-effect relationships and solve problems. The paper is considered to be ‘synthesized’ when all parts are combined and one solution is presented for the given problem. (Whitaker, 2009)
  3. Informative Purpose– This includes objective-type papers that require to present all sides of an argument/situation. This paper aims to provide the reader with new information in an unbiased way to enlarge their point of view. (Whitaker, 2009)

It is possible for some papers to have a single purpose and for some to have a combination of the two. However, before writing the paper, the purpose must be made clear and the flow of the arguments, evidence, and information must be presented accordingly. (Whitaker, 2009) Identifying the purpose allows the writer to define what exactly his/her paper is set out to achieve.

The topic of Academic Paper

Depending on the instructor and the course a student undertakes at the university level, there can be three possibilities when it comes to deciding the topic of an academic paper. The first possibility is that the instructor allows the student to decide his/her topic. The second possibility is that the instructor provides the student with a set of 4-5 topics/prompts, from which he/she is required to make a choice. And the third possibility is that the student is provided with one topic and is required to write the paper on that topic itself.

In this section, I will list out the different ways of approaching the topic selection and ideation.

Choosing the topic

When choosing the topic of the academic paper, it is important to keep a few things in mind-

  • Choose a theme that is related to the subject matter- To ensure that the topic is relevant to the course, the student must select a theme that can be linked to the subject matter of his/her course. The student can either decide to expand on a topic that he/she has covered in class or cover a new topic in the academic paper and make linkages to the material studied. The point here is to ensure that the academic paper in some way or the other, reflects the classroom learnings and ideas and is of particular interest to the student. (Whitaker, 2009)
  • Narrow down the topic- After selecting a broad theme, it is necessary to narrow down the topic and make it more specific. Specifying the topic ensures that the academic paper fits the larger goal of academic writing. (Whitaker, 2009)

For example, in a course on ‘Stratification in India,’ a student decides to study the disabled individuals and their positionality in society. After the student decides to narrow down the topic, it becomes ‘Positionality of Disabled Women in India.’ In this example, the student has selected the topic of ‘disability’ and then decided to narrow it down to the aspect of ‘gender.’ All of this is included in the broader course purpose of ‘Stratification’ and is, therefore, relevant to the subject matter.

The purpose and topic of the paper are interrelated. Depending on the guidelines given for the academic paper, one must decide how these two can supplement each other. For example, if the guidelines specify writing an argumentative paper, then the topic selected must have two sides of arguments. However, if a particular topic is given, the student can himself/herself define the purpose of the paper. In any case, the purpose and topic of the paper, work side by side and not one after the other.

Research for the Paper

After the topic is selected and the purpose of the paper is defined, the next step is to find credible and relevant information sources that will allow the student to build his/her ideas and structure the academic paper.

Research is an ongoing process. Once the topic is selected, the student must devote a certain amount of time to find credible sources of information. The process of research continues through the course of writing. (Whitaker, 2009)

The student must find information sources that fit well into the categories of- Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Since it is possible that through the course of writing, the emphasis is steered into another direction as compared to the original plan, the student must continue researching and finding relevant sources.

However, the scope of the paper plays an important role in determining the duration of research and the number of sources used. The student must write and research simultaneously to ensure he/she does not over-use or under-use sources and that the number of sources used fit to the length of the essay required.

Researching for academic papers also brings about the question of finding credible sources. Some credible sources include- academic journals from Jstor, Google Scholar; government based websites such as .gov; news sources such as the New York Times, BBC. Non- credible sources include personal blogs, Wikipedia, .com, .net, and any other website that is not well-cited/referenced.

After the student finds credible sources, he/she must make a note of them by writing the links down separately or bookmarking them on their browser. This allows the student to keep all the information sources in one place for later use.

Thesis Statement

A thesis statement can be defined as a “declarative statement that expands your topic into a scholarly proposal, one you will prove, defend, or expand on, in your paper.” (Academic Learning Centre, n.d.) Thus, the thesis statement is the most important aspect of the academic paper since it pertains to the question of “What does your paper say?” (Whitaker, 2009)

The following points must be kept in mind while preparing a thesis statement-

  • The thesis statement must present the main idea of the paper
  • The thesis statement should neither be a question nor a fact, instead, it should reflect the point of view of the student
  • The thesis statement should answer your research question
  • The thesis statement must carry with itself an element of surprise which makes it engaging and interesting.
  • The thesis statement should be easy to understand and clearly defined. (Whitaker, 2009)

When should the thesis statement be written? The answer to this question depends on the student. It is possible that the student writes down the thesis statement before research, during research and writing, or even after finishing the writing process. It is useful if the thesis statement is prepared before writing the paper, however, it is also possible that the student changes the thesis statement during the course of writing as he/she learns more about the topic. (Whitaker, 2009)

For example-

Topic: Nature vs Nurture in the personality of individuals

Thesis Statement: Nature and nurture, both play an essential role in molding the personality of individuals, making it necessary to study both of them individually and in relation to one another to understand the personality development of individuals.

Referencing and Citations

There are various formats for citing the sources that are used in your paper. However, some of the most common formats are MLA and APA. Students need to understand and go over the different ways of citing books, journals, PDFs, and so on. The format of in-text citation must also be studied. A well-cited academic paper should follow a particular format and the number of sources in the bottom section under ‘References’ should be equal to the ones cited in-text.

Read: How to Cite – A Simple Guide

Organization of the Paper

There are three sections of the academic paper- Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Making an outline of the paper helps the student to understand what points/information should be included under what section of the academic paper.

Introduction

This section of the paper should fulfil the following purposes-

  • Giving a brief introduction/background for the topic
  • Providing definitions of keywords
  • Presenting the thesis statement
  • Outlining the main points that will be covered the academic paper (Ling, 2009)

The first line of the academic paper should be engaging and should immediately spark the interest of the reader. Some strategies for doing so are-

  1. Starting with a quote
  2. Using a rhetorical question
  3. Stating a fact (EssayPro, 2017)

Body

This section of the paper should fulfil the following purposes-

  • Using a topic sentence to indicate the main point of each paragraph
  • Supporting the topic sentence through reliable and relevant research/evidence
  • Synthesizing information
  • Displaying critical thinking by supplementing the arguments with one’s understanding (Ling, 2009)

The body of the paragraph includes ideas that support the thesis statement. (EssayPro, 2017)

Conclusion

This section of the paper should fulfil the following purposes-

  • Recapping the main points presented in the paper
  • Reiteration of thesis statement
  • Presenting final words/thoughts (Ling, 2009)

Drawing a link between the opening statement and the final concluding thoughts helps in tying the whole paper together and leaving the reader with a strong statement. Some ways of doing this would be by answering the rhetorical question asked in the introduction or rephrasing the quote used in the beginning, in your own words. (EssayPro, 2017)

All sections of the paper should include in-text citations as and when necessary.

References

This section includes a list of references used in the paper. (Ling, 2009) Though this section is not considered to be a part of the main writing in the paper, it has great significance since plagiarism is heavily criticized in academic writing.

Read: 10 Ways to Avoid Plagiarism in Academic paper.

Revision of Essay

The revision of any paper involves two steps- editing and proofreading.

Editing involves going over the entire paper to ensure that the paper is well organized, includes appropriate transitions between statements and sections, and an objective, well-defined tone.

Proofreading is the last step in the process of academic writing and it involves checking for spellings, grammar, and punctuation. Various websites have also been developed for checking the grammar in academic papers. One such website that students can make use of is Grammarly.

Websites for Academic writing further reference

Even though this paper aims to provide a basic introduction of the different facets of academic writing, a student can make use of the following sources to develop more knowledge and understanding-

  1. Owl Purdue: This website includes elaborate sections for writing the introduction, body, conclusions, thesis statements. It also includes different referencing formats and advice for academic writing.
  2. BBC Learning English: This website includes different components of academic writing and expands on each component separately. It also includes guidance for academic writing for different purposes.
  3. University pages: Many universities in the USA and UK have special websites dedicated to the process of academic writing. Example: Berkeley, Stanford, and so on.

The process of academic writing is such that the more number of papers a student writes, the closer he/she gets to mastering it and understanding its intricacies. It is guaranteed that over some time, a student will develop proficient writing skills, however, until then, it is imperative to not give up and continue practising this form of writing.

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References

Academic Learning Centre. Writing an Academic Paper [Ebook] (pp. 1-3). University of Manitoba. Retrieved from https://www.umanitoba.ca/student/academiclearning/media/Writing_an_Academic_Paper_NEW.pdf

EssayPro. (2017). How to Write an Academic Essay: Format, Examples | EssayPro. Retrieved 9 May 2020, from https://essaypro.com/blog/academic-essay/

Hasa. (2016). Difference Between Academic Writing and General Writing | Features, Choice of Language, Use. Retrieved 9 May 2020, from https://pediaa.com/difference-between-academic-writing-and-general-writing/

Ling, L. (2009). Writing an academic essay [Ebook] (pp. 3-8). National University of Singapore. Retrieved from http://www.nus.edu.sg/celc/research/books/cwtuc/chapter01.pdf

Whitaker, A. (2009). A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Academic Papers [Ebook] (pp. 2-7). Bratislava, Slovakia: City University of Seattle. Retrieved from http://www.vsm.sk/Curriculum/academicsupport/academicwritingguide.pdf

Stuti Banga is a sociology and psychology student, with a keen interest in exploring the different concepts and facets of these two subjects and their intersecting areas. She is passionate about writing and researching on various topics related to sociological and psychological phenomena. She has undertaken on-field research and engaged in several volunteering programs. She wishes to inspire individuals through her work and bring a revolution in the study of social sciences in India.