Academic Writing: Expectations

Students are often both frustrated and intimidated by the challenge of expressing themselves through the constraints of what they consider “academic writing.”

(To see the following tips in action, click here.  To see an example of what NOT to do, click here.)

The tips on this page are adapted from several principles I emphasize with my students.

The Expectations of Academic Writing

It is true that “academic” writing demands a certain style which many students may be uncomfortable with at first.

However, the key to writing successfully in academic settings is understanding the expectations. After all, it’s hard to produce to a particular standard if you aren’t sure how that standard is defined or measured.

In my experience, the following are the chief expectations for any piece of academic writing:

A. Clear and Focused Thesis

This is a simple but essential element of academic writing. Your paper must be centered around a distinct (and clearly stated) main point. For example, you might be writing a paper on the topic of instant-messaging being used in the workplace. In that case, your thesis might look something like this:

“Instant-messaging programs can provide distinct advantages for efficient communication in corporate settings, however, they do come with certain risks.”

Notice that the thesis statement clearly points out the main focus of the paper, and also gives the reader a hint as to how the paper will be organized (that it will address both advantages and risks).

An effective thesis statement will be concise, to the point, and located somewhere within the first paragraph (or so) of the paper. If you take too long to present your thesis, the reader will be struggling to figure out what your main idea is, and will lose interest very quickly.

B. Introduction

Related to the topic of the thesis is another important element: the introduction.

An effective introduction contains three main elements:

–Hook (something to capture the reader’s attention)

–Lead-in (several sentences which develop the hook and prepare the reader for the content of the paper)


A successful introduction will combine a hook, lead-in, and a thesis. Typically, an introduction should last no more than a paragraph. By the end of the first paragraph of your essay, the reader should have a clear idea of what the paper is about and where it is headed.

Regarding the hook, this could be almost anything which captures attention, including an anecdote, an interesting fact, a cleverly worded phrase, etc. The important thing is that it introduces your topic in a way that immediately gains the reader’s interest.

C. Development of Ideas — Supporting Evidence!

In academic writing, it is very important that any assertions or arguments made are backed up with supporting evidence. Generally, this refers to citations from outside sources, but this could also refer to the use of anecdotes or personal experience.

The main thing to remember about Development of Ideas within an academic essay is the concept of Specific Examples. Don’t argue in generalities; give examples to support your points.

For example, if one of your main points is that “Instant-messaging can lower production in the workplace,” then you need to develop that idea by giving examples to illustrate your argument. A developed argument may look something like this:

One of the possible dangers of instant-messaging is lowered production in the workplace. This is due mostly to the misuse of the technology for personal conversations, which can severely distract employees from staying on-task. Serena Matthews, an employee at a local advertisement agency, stated that her daily output has been greatly diminished since the installation of instant-messaging programs at her workplace. “I get personal IMs from co-workers all day long,” Serena said, “from complaining about the bosses to telling me about their weekend plans. It’s very distracting, and it’s very hard for me to complete my work” (Matthews 5).*

(*Names, quotations, and citations in this paragraph fabricated for the purpose of illustration).

Notice that in the paragraph above, the general statement (Instant-messaging can lower production) is supported with a specific example and a quotation from an outside source as supporting evidence.

In this way, your arguments become more concrete and more credible, and as a result, your essay becomes much more relevant and believable to your readers.

(It is also very important that you choose credible academic sources for this supporting evidence; see point E below.)

D. Conclusion — with a “So What?”

Finally, an academic essay must have a strong conclusion. The conclusion should briefly wrap up the main ideas of the paper, yet it should be more than just summary. A strong conclusion must also offer a “So What?” to the reader — an application that makes the reader feel as if there was a purpose to the paper.

The “So What” could include a suggested response to the problem, a statement of an area of the topic that needs more research, or a call-to-action for the reader. In any case, when your reader has finished your paper, they should feel both a sense of closure and of application, as if your paper has contributed something important and worthwhile.

E. Research — Using Credible Sources

The main concern with research for an academic paper is to ensure that all sources are credible. Often, you may be asked to locate “academic” sources. Again, the main concern here is that your sources are credible and accurate. Avoid personal websites, blogs, and any website which doesn’t go through an editorial publication process (in other words, avoid Wikipedia and other such sites).

The safest bet for academic sources is to use books, journals, or magazines which are located through your educational institution. Many colleges and universities have access to large numbers of online journal databases on a variety of different topics. Also, the reference librarians at any university library should be able to help you locate books and journals which are relevant to your topic.

Otherwise, try to stick with websites which are associated with universities or well-known research centers. You could also try to think of the foundational institutions for your topic, or to think of topical magazines which contain scholarly articles. For example, if you were trying to locate statistics to support your argument that a Chicken Pox is still a serious threat in our society, you could try checking the website for the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control in order to obtain statistics on that topic.

Again, the main concern is that your sources are credible. You want to make sure that the information you’re quoting was written by an expert or by someone experienced in that field, rather than by your neighbor Bob.


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