What Makes Academic Writing Academic?

In Uncategorized, writing on September 17, 2009 at 7:08 pm


Often, students think that writing becomes academic when you use lots of big words, or when a paper is really long. While it’s true that a large vocabulary can be useful in academic writing — and that it’s good to meet your teacher’s minimum page requirement, a long paper with big words doesn’t necessarily become an academic paper.

Then what is an academic paper?

When you write a business letter, you’re writing to get something accomplished (to take action or build business relationships). When you write a poem or a short story, you’re writing to create an experience for the reader and evoke emotions. When you write an academic paper (including all those research papers you have to write), you’re writing to help your reader understand an issue from multiple perspectives — to think differently about your topic. As teachers say when we get together, academic writing is all about critical thinking.

Let’s say our paper topic is public transportation. If we were to write an academic paper, our goal would be to understand the issue of public transportation fully, looking at the topic from as many different angles as we can and evaluating each of the different ideas we find to see if we think it’s any good. What do experts on public transportation talk about, when they talk about it? What do they argue about? How does public transportation affect different groups of people, like bus riders, bus drivers, children, tax payers, or the people who manufacture benches for the bus stops? Researching the topic and writing an academic paper about it might explore each of these issues.

Public transportation might seem like a specific topic, but if you imagine looking at it from as many perspectives as possible, you might see how it could get to be a big project. We’d have to write about public transportation in every city of the world, throughout history and up to the present day, and we’d look at how many people were affected by each mode of transportation, the major arguments of the experts, and then our own thoughts on those arguments. That’s a big topic. If we end up writing this paper (unless we’re writing a book), odds are that we won’t be able to get to everything. We might have room just to cover the basic facts. When writing an academic paper, though, our goal is to dig deeper — to get through more than just basic facts. We want to really know what people think about this issue, when they talk about it. We want to explore what the experts argue about, and we want to share our own thoughts on what the experts say.

The first step toward making your paper as academic as it can possibly be, then, is to narrow your subject as much as possible. This will give you more room to explore the topic fully. Instead of writing about public transportation in general, what if we write about public transportation in Los Angeles? Suddenly, we have a more manageable chunk of information to sift through. We can get into the details, and we can share our own thoughts. When I give this advice to students, often the fear is that there won’t be enough material to fill the pages. The irony, though, is that, when you get deep into a topic, you’ll usually find that you have more to say about it, not less. Let’s look at the issue of public transportation in Los Angeles. Here are a few topics we might cover:

  • What public transportation is there in LA, and who uses it?
  • What are the problems with public transportation in LA?
  • Was it always like this?
  • What might the future of public transit look like in LA?

Believe it or not, this could be a 15 to 20 page paper. With even just a little research, here’s some of the information I found:

  • What public transportation is there in LA, and who uses it? Mostly, public transportation is the bus system. There are Metro, Culver City, and Santa Monica buses, along with a couple of rail lines. While this isn’t always true, a large portion of public transit riders are of lower incomes than people who drive. If this were to be a paper, we might talk about why there’s such a class difference between people who use public transit and those who don’t. We might look at the different bus lines and where they go in the city. We might notice that, in some neighborhoods (particularly some wealthy neighborhoods), there’s no public transit at all or only very infrequent service.
  • What are the problems with public transportation in LA? Buses don’t run at night. Buses aren’t as frequent as they might be. Buses get stuck in traffic. The city doesn’t have enough funds for public transit, etc. If we wrote about this, we might explore why these are problems — and possible causes of the problems. Why doesn’t the city have more buses running at night? Who is affected most by these problems? What do people argue about, when they talk about these problems?
  • Was it always like this? LA has an interesting history. In fact, there used to be a streetcar system that ran all over LA — and was very efficient. In the 1930s, a car company bought out the streetcar system and closed it down, in order to encourage people to buy cars and drive more. If we wrote about this in a paper, we might explore what happened with the streetcar system and why car companies dismantled it. We might look at the issue of privately versus publicly run transportation (who owned the streetcar system?) and explore what that meant for Los Angeles.
  • What might the future of public transit look like in LA? There are a few plans underway to add more rail lines to the city. If we were to write about this, we could write about the plans for the future and explore who is for the new plans and who is against them, along with the issues that must be faced to make progress. We might question what progress is and who would benefit.

The goal in academic writing is to focus on a small topic and spend some time looking carefully at it. Notice all the details about the topic, and see what opinions surface as you do? This is the start, I think, toward critical thinking and writing that is truly academic. It’s a lot to think about (and probably more than you ever wanted to know about public transportation), but looking at the topic this way would give you so much to write about — and, I would argue, will be infinitely more impressive to your teachers than picking a broad topic, writing lots of pages, and using lots of big words.


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