Let’s start big and think of academic writing as a massive or umbrella genre, under which there are lots of sub-genres. The flow-chart below gives some idea of what we mean by a massive or “umbrella” genre.
To explain by way of metaphor, if academic writing is a container ship, then all of the containers on that ship are the sub-genres. Remember at the very start of the chapter, when we discussed conventions and how genres are formed? You already know what the expectations and conventions are for lots of social situations. For example, you could easily explain whether you are expected in your culture to nod, wave, shake hands, bow, or hug when you greet someone – and you probably understand that the ways in which you greet a peer aren’t exactly the same as how you address your professor or a respected elder.
For some everyday writing situations, you might have a lot of familiarity with expectations and conventions. If you text your friends, you know that it’s appropriate to write just a few words, to abbreviate, and maybe even to use emojis. When texting, spelling doesn’t matter much since everyone understands typing on a small phone keyboard with your thumbs can lead to errors and speed matters when texting. If you text quickly and effectively, you are familiar with that genre of writing. You have internalized the formal expectations and conventions.
Why not try another experiment? Take out your phone or open a chat window and start texting a message to your best friend (you can send it or not). Now, text a parent or an employer (maybe don’t send this one?). Take a look at your texts: How are they different? How are they the same? Did you notice that you wrote differently for two different audiences? You probably did so without even realizing that you were trying to meet your reader’s expectations, which means you were writing to align your writing with certain CONVENTIONS. Aha! Now you are learning that your writing (and really any act of communication) is guided by genre conventions.
But you also know that the features of a great text (or tweet or Instagram post) aren’t exactly the same as what we expect to see in a piece of academic writing. There are some conventions that you can expect across multiple genres of academic writing produced across a range of academic disciplines – but there are also some variations worth keeping in mind.
Like we’ve said before: understanding genres of academic writing enables you to be a more effective academic writer. Becoming more familiar with academic writing genres you will very likely need to produce again and again in a variety of classes will make that work seem easier, maybe even feel more akin to how you think (as texting probably does).
But before we launch into a detailed discussion of some common features, it’s worth taking a moment to cover a few myths about the conventions of academic writing.
- Academic writing isn’t better than any other type of writing. Sometimes academic writing in the form of essays produced for high school and university classes gets discussed as though it is the only “real” writing that counts. Certainly, in academic communities (including classrooms), writing that aligns with a particular set of conventions for length, content, style, organization, and mechanical correctness is highly valued. But these aren’t the only communities that exist or even the only set of conventions that matter. A journalist who communicates to the general public complex information – about, say, important medical research – might violate lots of the expectations for formal academic writing while producing an article that is stylish, memorable, clear, and effective. And please don’t try to write a love letter or a heartfelt thank you note in the form of a formal academic essay. Our main point here is that there are lots of ways to write effectively that are not academic.
- Academic writing isn’t worse than any other type of writing. On the other extreme, there are regular complaints that academic writing is, well, bad. Some academic journal articles can be long, dense, and uninviting. Academic writers sometimes use jargon and phrases that are off-putting to anyone who isn’t part of a very small community of experts. And since the content of a piece of academic writing can have so much importance – communicating a new discovery or invention or argument – there may not be much value placed on style. But remember that sometimes a piece of writing can seem “bad” because you’re simply not part of the intended audience. The words and phrases you find off-putting in a chemistry journal article could be perfectly clear to someone with a PhD in biochemistry. And, believe it or not, there are academic writers who work hard to make their writing as clear and elegant as possible as well as some who experiment with style. (Look at Dr. Helen Sword’s book for professional academic writers Stylish Academic Writing for some notable examples.)
- Academic writing isn’t anyone’s native language. You might suspect that some people are naturally better at writing essays than others. While it is true that some individuals seem to have a knack for noticing and replicating conventions, you should understand that no one can produce a successful example of academic writing without having encountered examples of the genre they are trying to write – and maybe not even without some explicit guidance (which is why academic writing courses are often required). We are going to make a radical claim here informed by the work of Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young: there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” academic writing. There is only effective writing or writing that does the job of getting its point across. Language functions differently based on cultural context, which means that you do not need to memorize a bunch of rules about ‘Standard English’ but instead have some understanding that academic writing is just another form of communication with its own set of actions and conventions. Some of your classmates might have more experience or practice with some types of academic writing, but all of us – even your instructors – struggle when faced with a new writing situation, especially one that forces us to work within an unfamiliar set of generic conventions. Like we said previously, you learn to be a more effective academic writer by reviewing genres of academic writing and by practicing a range of genres.
- Academic writers don’t all agree about what constitutes good academic writing. Even so, the end goal is not to have everyone write in exactly the same way. Chemists write journal articles differently than do historians – and that makes sense because these two types of scholars work to communicate different types of information to different audiences. Even among those in an academic field – say, sociologists – you might find one writer who uses first-person voice and includes vivid descriptions and another who creates an impression of objectivity through stylistic and content choices. Reading a wide range of academic writing in a field that interests you can help you see what’s possible – and you might even choose to put your own spin on some of the conventions of a particular academic writing genre. Certainly the aforementioned Dr. Kerry Dirk does so in her essay, Navigating Genres, and discusses her process to write in a new way within a common genre: the academic essay.
In summary, there isn’t one set of rules to follow to produce an effective and successful piece of academic writing – and, even if there were, we would encourage you to learn those rules so that you could think about when it might be appropriate and effective to change some of them. As you familiarize yourself with conventions and genres of academic writing, keep in mind that you still need to make choices about what will work best given your purpose, audience, and subject matter.
Now that you have a good idea of what genre is and why it matters, let’s talk about writing in genres that are completely new to you.
- Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). ↵
- Vershawn Ashanti Young, Performing Anti-Rascist Pedagogy in Rhetoric, Writing, and Communication, ed. Frankie Condon and Vershawn Ashanti Young (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2017), https://wac.colostate.edu/books/atd/antiracist/. ↵