Academic Writing

When writing papers for college, it is helpful to be aware of the following conventions. 

Titles

Every paper needs a title. The title is not the name of the assignment. Typically, it should indicate something specific about your argument. Two-fold titles are very common, i.e.,  “Something catchy/interesting/metaphoric: Something that clearly ties to my argument”

Introduction

Don't include too much information in the beginning. A common error is to begin too broadly. Three crucial components go into every introduction:

  • Brief explanation of general concepts (often course concepts/themes that essay will deal with)
  • Introduce your sources
  • Introduce your argument making direct use of the language in the preceding elements

Beware of Hooks 

Hooks are common in high school writing; they take the form of anecdotes or quotes from famous people, or rhetorical questions. They should be avoided in college writing as they will lead you away from your argument and set the tone of your essay as noticeably conversational.

Argument” vs. “Claim” vs. “Thesis”

There is different terminology for every discipline, every class, and every instructor: argument, focus, claim, thesis, thesis statement, focus sentence, claim with stakes. However, they all mean same thingan academic claim with meaningful repercussions. You do not have an argument without explaining why it is significant.

Topic Sentences

Students typically think of topic sentences as the theme of a paragraph (e.g. “this paragraph will explain 18th century British economic structure”). However, in college writing, the main goal of a topic sentence is to communicate what the paragraph will prove/argue/explore, rather than introduce its general focus. Instructors will often call topic sentences “sub-claims” because they perform the above tasks. Evidence should match what the topic sentence promises to demonstrate.

Evidence, Quotations & Analysis

No citations should occur in your paper's introduction or conclusion. This section usually needs an introductory phrase, i.e. “According to So-and-so…” Quotes must be incorporated grammatically and can be altered using brackets, for example: "[In the case of the Amazon river] water flows uphill."

Use the essential portion of a quote and give it context. Quotes longer than two lines should be avoided. Analysis has two primary components: explaining what the quote means in one’s own words and why it is significant to your argument (which may also involve explaining the quote’s significance within the text it was taken from). Analysis must come immediately after the quote. For longer quotes, refer to specific phrases within.

Concluding Sentences

This is the final section of your paper and it has two main tasks: to give the reader a “take-home message” of the paper (the point of the paper's analysis, rather than a restatement of the topic sentence), and more importantly, to make explicit the connection between the body of your paper and your overall argument.  Topic sentence = what will be proven, and concluding sentence = why that matters. 

Paragraph Content/Length

Two to three sources of evidence is a good goal for most paragraphs. There is no literal limit on length, but paragraphs exceeding one page usually wander. However, introductions of 5-7 page papers should be less than one page because of the essay’s overall proportions. Every paragraph must make use of evidence and/or contribute a new piece of analysis. Paragraphs that reiterate each other without bringing up new implications/perspectives do not add to your argument and should be combined or avoided.

Conclusions

This is the most debated portion of typical academic paper structure. Unless your instructor asks for “something new,” don’t try to reinvent the wheel. It should reiterate the “take-home messages” of all the body paragraphs; in other words, the concluding sentences = the meat of your conclusions (typically no more than two sentences per body paragraph). 

Audience/Tone

Unless otherwise noted, your audience is an average educated reader. Thus, jargon/course terms should be explained, context given to examples/evidence, and all steps of your thought process made explicit. Maintain a tone that is professional, clear, objective, and makes your argument via a logical progression of thought rather than appealing to emotion or common knowledge within the discipline.

Use of Personal Experience

Unless your instructor asks for personal experience, use sparingly and only to reiterate a point found in other evidence. It should never be the only evidence in a paragraph.

Tense

Academic papers are almost always written primarily in the present tense. This gets confusing in papers that deal with social/cultural phenomena, history, or anything that has literally already “happened.”  In these instances, the simplest solution is to present anything from your sources in present tense, and anything from general knowledge in present perfect, past perfect, or present perfect continuous, i.e. “this has happened,” “this had happened,” or “this has been happening.”

First Person

In general, avoid usage of “I,” “my,” “we,” and “our.” Do not presume to speak for the reader. Often, first person is either redundant or renders your tone as “hesitant.” For example, “I argue that” is redundant and “I think that” reminds the reader of the writer’s fallibility. This topic is somewhat debatable; check with your instructor for more information.

Controversial Topics/Ideas

These can be acknowledged, but typically should never contribute to sub-claims or the main claim. Controversial concepts often stray outside academic/objective realms into emotionally-biased territory. Thus, claims should only speak on controversial topics in terms of what can objectively be proven, as the academic community will not respond to anything else.

Affected Text

Try not to use italicized/bold text to indicate emphasis. For the most part, emphasis should come from diction and syntax, rather than “text effects." Exclamation points are very rarely appropriate, nor are ellipses ("...").

Rhetorical Questions 

A rhetorical question is asked in order to make a point, or produce an effect, not provide an answer. These do not belong in college level writing and by using them you will risk sounding conversational. More importantly, these questions take for granted that the reader understands your implied answers to the question. As a responsible writer, you should assume that unless made explicit, your points will not be comprehensible to the reader.

Parentheticals

In general, no parentheses should occur within academic writing that does not denote a citation. Parentheses are typically interpreted as asides/digressions which do not belong in academic writing. In other words, if it’s important enough to say, say itif not, don’t.