What Is 'Academic Writing'?
ENGA14 Finnish Institutions Research Paper (Hopkins)
The focus of the ENGA14 Research Paper is academic writing in English.
But what exactly is "academic writing"? [Note that in English,
"academic" writing is what Finnish often refers to as
"tieteellinen" ('scientific') writing; the English
"scientific" writing generally refers to writing in the 'hard'
sciences, such as biology and chemistry see for example The Science of Scientific Writing
In brief, academic writing is 'structured research' written
by 'scholars' for other scholars (with all university writers being
'scholars' in this context). Academic writing addresses topic-based
'research questions' of interest to anyone who is seeking factually-based,
objectively-presented information on a particular topic. The objective of
academic writing is the presentation of 'new knowledge' via (a) a review of
what is currently known about a given topic as (b) the foundation
for the author's new views or perspectives on the topic.
In the case of FIN-1, the topics would all be relevant to current or
historical "Finnish institutions." With the topic, students must define
one or more "research questions" concerning the chosen "institution" that
the paper will address. The resulting paper will help readers understand
the topic more fully, or in a new way, on the basis of how the author has
treated the topic, in particular through the answer(s) given to the
research question(s). See for example Writing Games
(Taarluoto 2007) and
In Search of the
Essence of Clay (Kortelainen 2008), vs. Characteristics of Finnish Book Publishing [PDF].
Academic Writing vs Simple Description; 'What is Known' vs 'What May
Be Thought' or 'Questioned'
In academic writing, the author covers the selected topic from an
authoritative point of view. The writing is 'thesis-driven', meaning that
the starting point is a particular perspective, idea or 'thesis' on the
chosen topic, e.g. establishing, proving or disproving 'answers' to the
'research questions' posed for the topic. In contrast, simply describing
a topic without the questions does NOT qualify as "academic
Defining a research question requires the student to first consult
existing information on the topic. After this, questions may arise, such
as: Is it really this way? How or why did it get that way? Is it always
this way? Does 'everyone' see it this way? Do newer sources agree with
older ones on the topic? Or, to take another line of inquiry: What
influence did X have on Finland (or, of what significance was it to
Finland)? Why was the influence this great (or not greater)? What is
uniquely 'Finnish' about this topic?
The foundation of the research paper is the documented review of
what is currently known about the topic. On this foundation the author
constructs his/her perspective, e.g. how the topic may be understood more
fully or differently from what is "currently known." The author's
perspective may come from the use of (a) more extensive or (b) more
up-to-date sources than had been available to previous scholars, or by (c)
interpreting the details of these sources differently from how other
scholars have done. Totally new information may also be created to 'test'
or 'confirm' questions arising in the paper. For ENGA14 papers, the
creation of such new information would be via the (optional) independent
In short, academic papers distinguish between what is known
about a topic (via the review of existing sources on the topic) with what
new ideas may emerge, or be thought or questioned about the
topic, via the explication of the research question using the author's
logically-developed, factually-based 'argumentation'. However, these new
ideas will only be established as "fact" in their own right thus
joining the body of 'existing knowledge on the topic' after the
ideas have been published [in the paper] and subsequently validated by
Stylistic Conventions of Academic Writing
The basic stylistic conventions of the ENGA14 paper have been covered in
TRENAK2 Basic English Professional Writing, and summarized in its
Text Layout and Usage Guidelines. The
key points, which are common to any unambiguous formal writing for an
international English-language audience, include:
An additional characteristic of academic writing is the use of relatively
cautious or 'qualified' language, especially when documenting claims of
new knowledge. Inasmuch as the evidence of the paper can only be based on
what is currently known about the topic, this evidence may well
change as new knowledge emerges (indeed, the "new knowledge" proposed by
your paper will change what has been known about the topic before
you wrote your paper. Thus, since the 'knowledge' will never be
completely certain, it is useful to express claims with language such
- Writing in the third person. Academic writing must be objective; the
focus is not on the writer, but on the topic and ideas of the paper;
- Avoiding abbreviations and slang, both of which may be highly
culture-specific. The focus is clear, formal-register language which will
be unambiguous regardless of the variety of English used by the paper's
international readership. Similarly, one should also write out numbers,
currency designators, units of measurement, etc., in full.
- This report appears to show that . . .
- But on page 357, Virtanen seems to feel differently . . .
- In this context, Heiskanen apparently disagrees with Virtanen
. . .
- These two writers thus have views which differ from present textbooks
on Finnish history, as represented by Alanen, Nenonen and Salminen.
- (See the Language Style Appendix for
Stages in the Writing of an Academic Paper
Research papers usually are structured similarly to the IMRAD format, though in the Humanities this format
is normally not followed specifically, and for the Finnish Institutions
Research Paper only a subset of the full IMRAD structure will be used.
However, it would be useful to briefly review the IMRAD structure insight
into how one's B.A. or M.A. thesis might be differently structured, or
even as background for the optional 'independent research component' that
students may include in their FIN-1 papers.
Common to all research papers is an elaboration of questions such as
Sometimes it is useful to also reflect on the opposite perspective when
thinking about how to address a particular topic:
- What do I know about my topic?
- Can I answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, how?
- What do I know about the context of my topic?
- What historical or cultural influences do I know about that might be
important to my topic?
- Does my topic belong to any particular genre or category of topics?
- What do I know about this genre?
- What seems important to me about this topic?
- If I were to summarize what I know about this topic, what points would
I focus on?
- What points seem less important?
- Why do I think so?
- How does this topic relate to other things that I know?
- What do I know about the topic that might help my reader to understand
it in new ways?
As you consider the questions listed above you will discover that you are
moving beyond what you know about a topic and are beginning to
consider what you think, and/or additional knowledge that could
be thought. In the process of thinking about your topic, your aim is
to come up with a fresh observation. It is not enough just to summarize in
a paper what is already known. You must also add something of your own.
- What DON'T I know about my topic?
- What do I need to know?
- How can I find out more?
- What do I think, and why do I think that?
However, "adding something of your own" is not just bringing personal
associations, reactions, or experiences into the text. To create an
informed argument, your writing must be analytical rather than personal,
with all associations, reactions, and experiences framed in an objectively
Choosing An Appropriate Topic
Students often find it difficult to define an appropriate topic, even if
they have an idea of the general subject they wish to write about. When
considering possible topics, it may help to ask yourself the following
- Have you formed a research question for which there can be an informed
and useful answer? Can it be answered adequately within the length and
time requirements of the paper? Or is it too broad?
- If the question seems broad, how might it be narrowed?
- Does your question address social, historical, or other contexts
relevant to your topic, as well as what other scholars (including past
student papers) have said about it?
Research & Academic Writing
ENGA14 Class Schedule
Last Updated 10 January 2013