When you’re asked to write an essay or report, you will likely be encouraged by your instructor to use what is called an “academic voice”. If you’ve been exposed to academic writing before, perhaps in a scholarly journal, you’ve likely noticed that it is quite different from what you might see in a magazine or novel.
Writing conventions do vary by discipline, but there are a few widespread practices that most academics agree on:
- First Person: The first person (I, we) is perfectly acceptable when writing creatively, but it is widely discouraged in academic writing as it can make one’s argument sound weak and opinion-based.
- Contractions: Contractions (“didn’t” instead of “did not”) are rarely used in academic writing.
Academic Register: When transitioning to university, some students can feel obligated to come off as “smarter” by using overly-complex, unfamiliar words. This is unnecessary; your professors will value writing that is clear, concise, and well-researched.
Understanding Your Assignment
Be sure to read your professor’s instructions carefully. They have been given to you for a reason, and following them (or not) can have a significant impact on your final grade. Look out for keywords as they can indicate the form of writing expected.
- Writing a Summary: During your academic career, you may be asked to summarize a passage or text. When summarizing, you should highlight the author’s main ideas without adding your own. A summary is not argumentative. It should be significantly shorter than the original work and will typically follow the author’s order.
- Writing a Critique: A critique gives you a chance to respond to an author’s work. Your professor will give you specific parameters, but most critiques include a thesis statement and a brief summary of the author’s original points with your response to them.
- Writing an Argumentative Essay: Many of the essays you will be asked to write will take the argumentative form, meaning that you must take a position (captured by your thesis statement) on a topic and, most importantly, support that position with evidence. Remember that establishing the relevance of your topic is just as important as your argument. Typically, an argumentative essay will include an introduction, body, and conclusion.
- Writing a Comparative Essay: A comparative essay demands that you not only contrast two things but find common ground between them (perhaps your professor has asked you to compare sanitation in the medieval period with modern practices). Students usually organize their comparative essays in either a block pattern, where they present each contrasting idea independently, or an alternating pattern, where the structure centres around points of comparison. The thesis of a comparative essay establishes the purpose and scope of this comparison.
- Writing a Research Paper: Research papers are either argumentative or analytical, usually emerging from primary and secondary sources. When writing an argumentative research paper, an academic takes a stance on a subject and aims to persuade the reader, while, in an analytical essay, the author asks a research question and is guided to a conclusion.
Don’t assume that all your professors share the same expectations, and if you’re unsure of any details, send them an email or visit them during office hours—they will be happy to help.