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2.2: What is Academic Writing?

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    Speaking versus Writing

    Now that we've established that writing adds your own view to a conversation that is already in place, we need to distinguish between speaking and writing, for while both mediums add to conversations, writing -- and especially academic writing -- does so with very different means. L. Lennie Irwin, in "What is academic writing?" talks about how the biggest problem first-year writers face is not understanding the differences between spoken and written conversation. The following excerpt talks about these differences and the challenges a writer faces as opposed to a speaker:

    The biggest problem I see in first-year writers is a poor sense of the writing situation in general. To illustrate this problem, let’s look at the difference between speaking and writing. When we speak, we inhabit the communication situation bodily in three dimensions, but in writing we are confined within the two-dimensional setting of the flat page (though writing for the web—or multimodal writing—is changing all that).

    • Writing resembles having a blindfold over our eyes and our hands tied behind our backs: we can’t see exactly whom we’re talking to or where we are.
    • Separated from our audience in place and time, we imaginatively have to create this context.
    • Our words on the page are silent, so we must use punctuation and word choice to communicate our tone.

    We can’t see our audience to gauge how our communication is being received or if there will be some kind of response. It’s the same space we share right now as you read this essay. Novice writers often write as if they were mumbling to themselves in the corner with no sense that their writing will be read by a reader or any sense of the context within which their communication will be received. What’s the moral here?


    Developing your “writer’s sense” about communicating within the writing situation is the most important thing you should learn in freshman composition. What is this "writing situation?" This situation is explained further in detail elsewhere and consists of:

    • knowing your audience
    • knowing the occasion or context
    • conveying the message clearly
    • understanding the formats and genres

    Developing your “writer’s sense” about communicating within the writing situation is the most important thing you should learn in freshman composition. Figure 1, below, depicting the writing situation, presents a wonderful image describing all the complexities involved in the writing situation.

    Looking More Closely at the “Academic Writing” Situation

    Writing in college is a fairly specialized writing situation, and it has developed its own codes and conventions that you need to have a keen awareness of if you are going to write successfully in college. Let’s break down the writing situation in college: Who’s your audience? Primarily the professor and possibly your classmates (though you may be asked to include a secondary outside audience). What’s the occasion or context? An assignment given by the teacher within a learning context and designed to have you learn and demonstrate your learning. What’s your message? It will be your learning or the interpretation gained from your study of the subject matter. What’s your purpose? To show your learning and get a good grade (or to accomplish the goals of the writing assignment). What documents/ genres are used? The essay is the most frequent type of document used. So far, this list looks like nothing new. You’ve been writing in school toward teachers for years. What’s different in college?

    Common Academic Writing Myths

    Students are often stymied by myths they have adopted throughout their schooling about writing, especially academic writing. All the myths listed below result in problematic writing.

    Myth #1:

    The “Paint by Numbers” myth. Some writers believe they must perform certain steps in a particular order to write “correctly.” Truth: Rather than being a lock-step linear process, writing is “recursive.” That means we cycle through and repeat the various activities of the writing process many times as we write.

    Myth #2:

    Writers only start writing when they have everything figured out. Truth: Writing is not like putting away ironed and folded clothing. Writers figure out much of what they want to write as they write it. Rather than waiting, get some writing on the page—even with gaps or problems. You can come back to patch up rough spots.

    Myth #3:

    Perfect the first draft. Truth: We put unrealistic expectations on early drafts, either by focusing too much on the impossible task of making them perfect (which can limit the development of our ideas), or by making too little effort because we don’t care or know about their inevitable problems. Nobody writes perfect first drafts; polished writing takes lots of revision.

    Myth #4:

    Some have got it; I don’t—the genius fallacy. Truth: When you see your writing ability as something fixed or out of your control (as if it were in your genetic code), then you won’t believe you can improve as a writer and are likely not to make any efforts in that direction. With effort and study, you can improve as a writer. I promise.

    Myth #5:

    Good grammar is good writing. Truth: When people say “I can’t write,” what they often mean is that they have problems with grammatical correctness. Writing, however, is about more than just grammatical correctness. Good writing is a matter of achieving a desired effect upon an intended audience. Plus, as we saw in myth #3, no one writes perfect first drafts. Finally, there is no point in having great grammar if you aren't saying anything worth saying with your writing.

    Myth #6:

    The Five Paragraph Essay. Some say, avoid it at all costs; while others believe no other way to write exists. Truth: With an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion, the five paragraph essay is a format you should know, but one which you will outgrow. You’ll have to gauge every writing assignment to see whether, and how, this format is useful for you.

    Myth #7:

    Never use “I”. Truth: Adopting this formal stance of objectivity implies a distrust (almost fear) of informality and often leads to artificial, puffed-up prose. Although some writing situations will call on you to avoid using “I” (for example, a lab report), much college writing can be done in a middle, semi-formal style where it is ok to use “I.”

    College Writing Assignments: What's Expected

    We've seen how college assignments have different expectations than high school assignments, but what about writing assignments specifically? How is college academic writing different from grade school essays? Lee Ann Carroll, a professor at Pepperdine University, performed a study of student writing in college and had this description of the kind of writing you will be doing in college: What are usually called ‘writing assignments’ in college might more accurately be called ‘literacy tasks’ because they require much more than the ability to construct correct sentences or compose neatly organized paragraphs with topic sentences. . . . Projects calling for high levels of critical literacy in college typically require knowledge of research skills, ability to read complex texts, understanding of key disciplinary concepts, and strategies for synthesizing, analyzing, and responding critically to new information, usually within a limited time frame.

    Academic writing is always a form of evaluation that asks you to demonstrate knowledge and show proficiency with certain disciplinary skills of thinking, interpreting, and presenting. Writing the paper is never “just” the writing part. To be successful in this kind of writing, you must be completely aware of what the professor expects you to do and accomplish with that particular writing task. For a moment, let’s explore more deeply the elements of the college writing “literacy task.”

    Knowledge of Research Skills

    In school, research has perhaps meant checking on Google and Wikipedia. College, however, will require you to search for and find more in-depth information. You’ll need to know how to find information in the library, especially what is available from online databases that contain scholarly articles. Researching is also a process, so you’ll need to learn how to focus and direct a research project and how to keep track of all your source information. Realize that researching represents a crucial component of most college writing assignments, and you will need to devote lots of time to researching.

    The Ability to Read Complex Texts

    Whereas your previous writing in school might have been based on your experiences, college writing typically asks you to write on unfamiliar topics. Whether you’re reading your textbook, a short story, or scholarly articles from research, your ability to write well will be based upon the quality of your reading. In addition to reading attentively, you’ll need to think critically as you read: separating fact from opinion, recognizing biases and assumptions, and making inferences. Inferences are how we, as readers, connect the dots: an inference is a belief (or statement) about something unknown made on the basis of something known. You smell smoke; you infer fire. Inferences are conclusions or interpretations that we arrive at, based upon the known factors we discover from our reading. When you, then, write to argue for these interpretations, your job is to get readers to make the same inferences you have made.

    The Understanding of Key Disciplinary Concepts

    Each discipline whether it is English, Psychology, or History has its own key concepts (ideas), and language, for describing their specific ways of understanding the world. What Is “Academic” Writing? Don’t kid yourself that your professors’ writing assignments are asking for your opinion on the topic from just your experience. They want to see you apply and use in your writing the concepts you've read about. This is called text-based writing. Though different from a multiple-choice exam, academic writing also requires you to demonstrate your learning. So whatever writing assignment you receive, inspect it closely for what concepts it asks you to bring into your writing.

    Strategies for Synthesizing, Analyzing, and Responding Critically to New Information

    To organize your research, you need to develop the skill of a seasoned traveler who can be dropped in any city in the world and is able to navigate his way. Each writing assignment asks you to navigate through a new terrain of information, so you must develop ways to grasp new subject matter in order, and then to use it in your writing. We have already seen the importance of reading and researching for these literacy tasks, but after finding the information, you will need to learn ways of sorting and finding meaningful patterns in this information.

    College Assignments & the Cognitive Domain of Learning

    The cognitive domain of learning is divided into six main learning-skill levels, or learning-skill stages, which are arranged hierarchically—moving from the simplest of functions like remembering and understanding, to more complex learning skills, like applying and analyzing, to the most complex skills—evaluating and creating. The lower levels are more straightforward and fundamental, and the higher levels are more sophisticated. College assignments require you to work at the higher levels. See Figure 1, below.

    Figure 1: The New Version of Bloom's Taxonomy

    Figure: .” Writing@CSU. 2010. Web. 10 March 2010. Used by permission from Mike Palmquist.

    The following table describes the six main skill sets within the cognitive domain.

    Table 2.2: Main Skill Sets within the Cognitive Domain

    Remembering When you are skilled in remembering, you can recognize or recall knowledge you’ve already gained, and you can use it to produce or retrieve or recite definitions, facts, and lists.

    Remembering may be how you studied in grade school or high school, but college will require you to do more with the information.

    identify · relate · list · define · recall · memorize · repeat · record · name
    Understanding Understanding is the ability to grasp or construct meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages.

    Each college course will introduce you to new concepts, terms, processes, and functions. Once you gain a firm understanding of new information, you’ll find it easier, perhaps later, to comprehend how or why something works.

    restate · locate · report · recognize · explain · express · identify · discuss · describe · discuss · review · infer · illustrate · interpret · draw · represent · differentiate · conclude
    Applying When you apply, you use learned material (or you implement the material) in new and concrete situations.

    In college you will be tested or assessed on what you’ve learned in the previous levels. You will be asked to solve problems in new situations by applying understanding in new ways. You may need to relate abstract ideas to practical situations.

    apply · relate · develop · translate · use · operate · organize · employ · restructure · interpret · demonstrate · illustrate · practice · calculate · show · exhibit · dramatize
    Analyzing When you analyze, you have the ability to break down or distinguish the parts of material into its components, so that its organizational structure may be better understood.

    At this level, you will have a clearer sense that you comprehend the content well. You will be able to answer questions such as what if, or why, or how something would work.

    analyze · compare · probe · inquire · examine · contrast · categorize · differentiate · contrast · investigate · detect · survey · classify · deduce · experiment · scrutinize · discover · inspect · dissect · discriminate · separate
    Evaluating With skills in evaluating, you are able to judge, check, and even critique the value of material for a given purpose.

    At this level in college you will be able to think critically, Your understanding of a concept or discipline will be profound. You may need to present and defend opinions.

    judge · assess · compare · evaluate · conclude · measure · deduce · argue · decide · choose · rate · select · estimate · validate · consider · appraise · value · criticize · infer
    Creating With skills in creating, you are able to put parts together to form a coherent or unique new whole. You can reorganize elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing.

    Creating requires originality and inventiveness. It brings together all levels of learning to theorize, design, and test new products, concepts or functions.

    compose · produce · design · assemble · create · prepare · predict · modify · plan · invent · formulate · collect · generalize · document combine · relate · propose · develop · arrange · construct · organize · originate · derive · write · propose

    The following video from the Center for Learning Success at the Louisiana State University discusses Bloom’s taxonomy learning levels with regard to student success in college.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    From Bloom’s taxonomy of learning skills, you can see that thought and thinking can be understood as patterns—systems and schemes within the mind. There is order and structure in the way we think and in the way we process and internalize information.

    As we look at patterns of thought, we can also think about the power of thought. As a result of many amazing and potent research and discoveries, the scientific community is learning a great deal about how plastic, malleable, and constantly changing the brain is. For example, the act of thinking—just thinking—can affect not only the way your brain works but also its physical shape and structure. The following video explores some of these discoveries, which relate to all the thinking and thoughts involved in college success.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    This page was most recently updated on June 5, 2020.

    This page titled 2.2: What is Academic Writing? is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .