Conventions & Genres in Academic Writing

The Conventions of Academic Discourse

What makes academic writing different from other kinds of writing? What are the rules or conventions that academic writers follow? A study of scholarly papers across disciplines—including psychology, biology, literature, and engineering—identified six practices that academic writers commonly follow:1

  1. Respond to what others have written about their topic.
    Academic writers take part in a conversation; they refer to what others have already written about a subject to show that they are addressing an issue that matters, and to show that they have something to add to the discussion.
  2. State the value of their work and announce the plan for their papers.
    Academic writers “sell” their work to readers by emphasizing why their topic is important or how their approach is different. They also help readers more easily read and understand their texts by giving cues such as a statement of purpose, preview sentences, review sentences, and a summary conclusion.
  3. Recognize that others might disagree with the position they’ve taken.
    Academic writers use qualifiers or hedge words, such as “probably,” “possibly,” “maybe,” “it suggests,” and “it seems” to make statements more accurate and to avoid appearing dogmatic.
  4. Adopt a voice of authority.
    Academic writers use the active voice and the first person (“I” or “we”) when appropriate, but they do not preface statements with phrases like “I think…” or “It seems to me…” They also write concisely and use a high percentage of meaning-carrying words—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—rather than purely functional words such as prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and linking verbs.
  5. Use academic and discipline-specific vocabulary.
    Certain formal words and expressions—e.g. “in order to,” “the fact that,” “in the case of,” “furthermore,” “nevertheless”—make up 20% of all words in academic writing. Academic writers often use technical terms or use common words in specialized ways that are understood by members of their scholarly community.
  6. Emphasize evidence, often in tables, graphs, and images.
    Academic writers use multiple techniques to communicate quantitative data and other forms of evidence to their readers, including graphical figures.

1Teresa Thonney, “Teaching the Conventions of Academic Discourse,” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 38, no. 4
(May 2011): 347-362.

Common Genres of College Writing

What are common types of writing assignments that college students encounter? One study of college writing goals across disciplines categorized writing assignments into four broad types:2

Research from Sources: This type of writing, common in both the humanities and sciences, is not based on first-hand observations; rather, it relies on third-party sources. Often, the purpose of such writing is not to deal with contemporary real-world problems but to contend with theoretical issues in a particular discipline. Here are some examples:

  • Literary analysis/criticism
  • Historical narrative
  • Scholarly literature review

Empirical Inquiry: This type of writing, common in the natural sciences and social sciences, identifies questions about the world and establishes a hypothesis to answer the questions. The hypothesis is tested by gathering data from first-hand observations. This kind of writing often follows the “IMRD” structure: Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion. Here are some examples:

  • Lab report
  • Research proposal
  • Scientific research paper

Problem Solving: This type of writing is common in economics, business, international studies, and applied sciences. It describes a real-world problem, establishes criteria for a desirable solution, evaluates possible solutions, and justifies a recommendation for what action to take next. Here are some examples:

  • Case study
  • Business plan
  • Policy proposal

Call for Performance: This type of assignment is common in rhetoric, journalism, business, and communication courses. It demonstrates knowledge of important ideas in a particular field through performance or the creation of a media artifact.

  • Newspaper opinion or editorial
  • Informative or persuasive oral presentation
  • Persuasive letter or e-mail message
  • Advertisement or public service announcement (PSA)

2Michael Carter, “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines,” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 3
(Feb. 2007): 385-418.