A Guide to Academic Writing: The Main Structures and StylesArticle Date | 11 October, 2022
Academic writing is a formal style of writing used in professional settings such as university and scholarly publications, which must be grammatically correct, clear and simple (Scribbr, n.d.; McMillan and Weyers, 2011). There are certain do’s and don’ts in academic writing, learning these is a gradual process and a skill you will develop over practice.
It is important that you are careful and follow the professional advice, here are some introductory guidance:
Assignments at university challenge you to write in different forms (McMillan and Weyers, 2012). You are required to read books, journals, articles and other academic publications to complete your assignments which can be in the form of an essay, report, presentation, case study and dissertation. This blog focuses on the two main structures of academic writing that you will most frequently need to use throughout your academic journey.
What are the two different structures of academic writing?
Essay writing is one of the most common forms of an assessment (Burns and Sinfield, 2016). It usually requires you to answer a question, discuss concepts and issues in depth. When writing an essay, you will be required to be analytical and think critically. Which gives you a flexibility in the way you produce arguments, using evidence, analysis and interpretation to support your argument.
A traditional essay has three basic components:
-Introduction: What is the essay going to be about? Provide the reader with some background information.
-Main body: Present the information, the argument or key points of your response in greater detail.
-Conclusion: What are the consequences of your findings? Sum up your answer, reinforce the position outlined in the introduction, and summarise your findings.
(Creme and Lea, 2008; McMillan and Weyers, 2012)
Report writing is commonly used within academia. During your academic journey, you may be required to write many different types of reports, such as business reports, lab reports, research reports or maybe other types. A report is a formally structured set of findings of an investigation that is set in a clear and logical way, which also communicates with the reader in a professional manner.
A report generally has three main functions:
- To explain why something was done
- To describe how it was done
- To summarise and conclude the outcome of a particular action, or set of actions
(Creme and Lea, 2008)
The content and structure of your report will be determined by the assessment brief and module learning outcomes, which will identify a set of instructions and requirements for your research process (Reid, 2018). At this stage, you should start planning how you will structure your report to meet the assessment requirements.
The structure of a report follows:
- Executive summary: A summary of the findings in your report to allow the reader to have an idea of what to expect.
- Introduction: An explanation of what you will discuss and any background information you think the reader must know.
- Main body: Explains all of your findings under a variety of headings and sub-headings. The main body makes up a majority of the report and may take up pages, whereas the introduction and conclusion may only be a few paragraphs.
- Conclusion: Where you bring together all the findings of your report and come to a definitive interpretation.
The differences between reports and essays
It is important that you are able to distinguish the difference between an essay and a report, as you need to understand why you may need to write one and not the other.
In summary, essays are more descriptive, subjective and evaluative, whereas, a report is descriptive, objective and analytical (Surbhi, 2020). Sadly, you cannot choose which structure you want to write your assessment in. This is decided by the awarding body, which is the university you are studying at. However, you need to develop strong writing skills within both structures, as both essays and reports will be mandatory within your academic and professional career.
The purpose of both structures is to give you the opportunity to demonstrate:
- Your knowledge and understanding
- Your ability to research a specific topic to meet the assessment criteria
- Your ability to use references and evidence to support your arguments/findings
- Your ability use the correct structure of academic writing
(McMillan and Weyers, 2012)
The Different Academic Writing Styles
Now that we’ve gone over the different structures of academic writing, let’s dive into the different writing styles that you will need to use in your assignments.
Descriptive, analytical, critical/evaluative and reflective writing are the four essential elements of academic writing. What writing style you should mainly use will depend on the nature and context of each assignment. Assignment guidelines will typically define how to address a topic, and may specify the appropriate writing style. However, generally, there needs to a balanced use of the different writing styles. In a successful academic assignment, you will need to include a certain amount of description, but the majority of your writing will need to be analytical and critical.
In order to successfully meet the assessment criteria, it is very important that you know the key differences between the different writing styles and understand how to use them correctly.
Think of descriptions as the backbone of all academic assignments. Descriptions convey information about a subject, however, they do not engage in any kind of analysis or reasoning, nor do they make judgements or draw conclusions about the information they contain. When you write descriptively, you present background information that is necessary for the reader to understand what they are reading, and you support your arguments rather than develop new ideas.
The main purpose of analysing is to compare and contrast. To be able to present the full picture of any chosen subject, you must try and find information from more than one source. By compiling results from previously published studies, you will be able to identify frequent patterns and contrasts, explore relationships, and potentially provide new responses to the subject in question.
Throughout your studies, you will come across the term “critical” quite frequently, for example critical thinking, critical writing or critical review. Critical writing entails constructing a reasoned argument or point of view that is supported by credible evidence. In other words, you are not only gathering existing information, but you are also developing your own argument and incorporating your understanding of the subject at issue, therefore participating in academic literature.
Reflection is a tool that encourages you to draw on prior experiences to improve your future performance. When you write a reflective account, you analyse “what, why and how” something happened, aiming to identify how you can achieve better outcomes in the future.
Although you have been advised not to write in the first person in academic assignments, this style of writing is more “personal”, and frequently requires you to write in the first person. If you have been asked to write a reflection or personal narrative, you can use phrases like “I had the experience of …”, “I learned …”, “In my future encounters, I will pay more attention to …”. However, please note that although you can use personal pronouns like "I" and "we" when discussing your opinions and feelings, you still need to use formal academic language in reflective writing.
How to choose the correct writing style
All academic writing styles serve a fundamental purpose, and must be used correctly according to assignment requirements. If you're unsure whether you have used the appropriate writing style or not, below are some questions you can ask to guide you to observe your writing to ensure it is in the right style, and if it is not, to transition your writing from one style to another.
For example, if you only rely on providing facts about a topic when you are asked to write a reflective account, you may get feedback from your lecturer informing you that your writing is too descriptive and not critical enough. In this case, try asking questions like “What did I notice or realise?”, “How can I deduce from the information I have gathered?” to modify your writing to meet the assessment criteria. Likewise, when you are working on a literature review, if you find that your writing seems very opinionated and persuasive, you may want to ask questions such as “How do the parts fit into the whole?”, “What is the main point?” to help you objectify your writing.
It would be a mistake to assume that a guidance on academic writing is irrelevant to you. Regardless of field of study, academic interests, or level, you’ll be required to complete a variety of different assignments, such as reports, critical reviews, or reflective essays - which will all call for different structures and writing styles.
If you are interested in reading further about how to manage your studies and how you can improve your academic writing skills, you can find a range of resources here at LSST, such as library, one-on-one support from your lecturers, and academic support.
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Crème, P. and Lea, M. R. (2008). Writing at University: A guide for students. Open UP Study Skills. 3rd edition, England.
Critical Thinking, by Learning Development with Plymouth University, 2010 (https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/student- life/services/student-services/learning-development). Copyright 2006 by Learning Development, University of Plymouth.
Ellis, M. (2021). ‘How to Write a Report: A Guide’. Available at: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/how-to-write-a-report/ [Accessed on 30th September 2022].
McMillan, K. and Weyers, J. (2011). How to Write Essays & Assignments. Pearson Education Limited. 3rd edition. England.
McMillan, K. and Weyers, J. (2012). The Study Skills Book. Pearson Education Limited. 3rd edition. England.
Reid, M. (2018). Report Writing. Palgrave. 2nd edition. United Kingdom.
Scribbr (n.d.). ‘What is Academic Writing Do’s and Don’ts for Student’. Available at: https://www.scribbr.com/category/academic-writing/ [Accessed on 27th September 2022].
Surbhi, S. (2020). ‘Difference Between Essay and Report’. Available at: https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-essay-and-report.html#google_vignette [Accessed on 30th September 2022].