C. Munzenmaier Urbandale, IA

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Academic Writing

What is the difference between academic and personal writing?
Writing that simply expresses your ideas or feelings is private writing. No rules apply, because it's written for you and no one else.

Academic writing is public writing. You're expected to follow conventions, such as using standard English and documenting sources. You should also present an informed opinion that goes beyond your personal feelings to provide credible information or useful insights.

Suppose that you keep a journal. You notice that you deal with difficult situations better when you write about them. At this point, you have a personal opinion: Journal writing helps people deal with problems. The only basis for your opinion is your personal experience.

However, what's true for you might not be true for everyone. Is there any objective evidence that keeping a journal is good for you? Studies have shown that writing can help people deal with serious illness or losing a job. Now you have an informed opinion: one that goes beyond your experience to include evidence and expert opinion.

How do I develop an informed opinion?
This example shows how a writer moved from a personal reaction to an informed opinion. His first reaction to an article on suicide terrorism was "This makes no sense!" After doing more reading to prove that the author, Robert Pape, was wrong, he changed his mind about what causes suicide terrorism.

Personal writing

Academic writing

January 1, 2008 Today I read an article by Robert Pape about "The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism." Why does he think logic applies to people who blow themselves up without caring whether innocent bystanders get hurt? I find it hard to believe that logic has anything to do with their tactics. This guy must be wrong.

February 2, 2008 After reading more about my topic, I have to admit that Pape was right. Several studies have found that suicide terrorists are normal individuals. That's amazing. But I can't fight the evidence; I'm going to have to change my thesis.
  So why do normal people decide to blow themselves up for a cause?  Volkan's ideas about identification with a terrorist group may help me explain that.

Despite Americans' perception that suidicde bombers are insane, most are not mentally ill. Crenshaw found terrorists' “outstanding common characteristic ... is their normality” (as cited in Hudson, 1999, p. 30). Psychiatrist Marc Sageman (2004) studied 400 Al-Quaeda members and concluded that “only 4 of the 400 men had any hint of a disorder“ (The Data section).


Hudson, R. A. (1999, September) The sociology and psychology of terrorism: Who becomes a terrorist and why? Retrieved October 23, 2005, from Library of Congress Web site: http://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/Soc_Psych_of_Terrorism.pdf

Sageman, M. (2004). Understanding terror networks. Retrieved October 24, 2005 from National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT) Web site: http://www.mipt.org/

What style should I use in papers I write for class?
Notice the difference in style between the personal journal and the academic paper above. The personal writing is expressive and casual. It uses informal language like "this guy" and provides no evidence. In contrast, academic writing is objective and uses formal language. In research-based writing, you should avoid slang and spell out contractions like it's and don't. You should also write objectively, avoiding phrases like I think and as you know.

Your writing should show that you are familiar with authoritative sources in the field. For example, if you are writing about leadership, James MacGregor Burns is an important name to know. William Dement is an authority on sleep deprivation, and Carol Dweck is one of the leading researcher on how our beliefs affect success.

In formal academic writing, your opinion is not credible unless you have evidence to back it up. Any evidence you provide must also be documented. Providing intext citations like Sageman (2004) and a reference list allows readers to find your sources if they want to learn more. Documentation also proves that you did not plagiarize.

Why do I have to learn academic writing?
One answer is that grades in college courses often depend on academic writing. But another is that "Writing a research paper is in part about learning how to teach yourself....There is no better way to hone the skills of life-long learning than by writing individual research papers," according to Professor Charles King.

Doing research "forces you to ask good questions, find the sources to answer them, present your answers to an audience, and defend your answers," says King.

How do I learn to write with sources?
The best advice is to read. Check out the Resources on this site. Read magazines aimed at people in your field, subscribe to a free email newsletter about a subject of interest, or ask your teachers or librarian for reading ideas.

Want to become a better reader? Check out these reading strategies.

Want to become a better writer? Check out the links below.

What are some helpful resources?
You can also take advantage of Internet resources like model papers and the tutorials below.

What Academic Writing Can Teach You About "Real World" Writing (Temple U)

What Is an Academic Paper? (Dartmouth)

Writing Like an Expert tutorial (Drake)
Paradigm Online Writing Assistant (interactive tutorial; you need not log in to access the site)
Research Resources
Additional Academic Writing Resources

Need more? Go to your favorite search engine and type in "academic writing" and a keyword describing what you want help with, such as thesis
or grammar.








Copyright in these materials belongs to C. Munzenmaier © 2008.
Teachers are free to reproduce or modify them for nonprofit educational use. 

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