What is academic writing?

Whether you’re writing a dissertation, a five-paragraph essay, or an academic article, it’s important to remember the purpose of academic writing, and some general guidelines.

As you work on an academic paper, you should use a different set of writing rules than you would use for something like a blog post or a novel. The purpose of academic writing is to to convey to your readers that you are knowledgeable and reliable. A great way to do so is to use proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation; follow basic academic writing rules; and consult trustworthy information sources.

Ensure you use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation

When someone reads an academic paper riddled with errors, his or her first impression may be that the author isn’t knowledgeable about the topic. Furthermore, incorrect usage can make your points unclear or incorrect. It’s important to ensure that your academic writing is free from grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors so your audience understands your meaning.

Spell checkers don’t catch everything

To check spelling, you can use the spell check in your word processing program to catch most errors. However, spell checkers don’t catch everything, particularly when you use homophones (e.g., words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently, like “to,” “too,” and “two”). You should always go back through and read your document at least one more time after you’re done writing to ensure that you have used the correct words and that everything is spelled correctly. If you’re not sure whether a word is spelled correctly, you can check online sources, such as dictionary.com.

Some word processing programs check grammar and punctuation, although like spelling, they don’t catch everything. It’s helpful to have a good grasp of basic English grammar and punctuation rules. You can find a number of sources online to learn and practice your grammar and punctuation skills, such as our article on basic English grammar or websites like Edufind.com. In addition, if your school or university has a writing center, you can ask the staff to recommend sources of help.

Follow writing rules for formal academic work

Writing an academic document is very different than writing a novel, blog post, or web page. You should follow a specific set of writing rules when you’re writing something like an essay, report, or dissertation. These rules include the following:

  • Depending on the type of document you are writing, you will likely need to use third-person voice (e.g., “he,” “she,” or “it”) instead of first person (e.g., “I” or “we”) or second person (e.g., “you”).
  • Whenever possible, try to use active voice instead of passive voice (e.g., use “The boy threw the ball” instead of “The ball was thrown by the boy”).
  • Avoid using contractions.
  • Avoid gendered language (e.g., use “he or she” instead of simply using “he”; use “police officer” instead of “policeman”) and stereotypes.
  • Make sure you provide the full terms for acronyms followed by the acronym in parentheses; for example, the term “local area network” should be followed by the acronym “LAN” in parentheses. However, some acronyms have become so familiar that you do not need to spell out the full term (e.g., NASA and CDC).
  • Be concise; for example, instead of writing “I will be able to go to the store in order to buy groceries,” write “I can go to the store to buy groceries.”
  • Make sure your meaning is clear. Avoid using pronouns such as “it,” “they,” or “them”; instead, specify to whom or what you are referring.
  • Avoid using jargon or slang; your readers may not know the jargon, and using slang reduces the level of formality.

Cite trustworthy reference sources

With the vast amount of information available online today, you may think it will be easy to perform research using a quick search. However, much of the information available online isn’t reliable or trustworthy. By following a few simple guidelines, you can ensure that you find reliable information.

  • Look at what type of website you are viewing. Anyone can create a site with a URL ending in .com or .net, so the information provided on sites with those domains could be biased or inaccurate. On the other hand, only schools or universities can have sites ending in .edu, and only government or military organizations can have sites ending in .gov or .mil. Therefore, information provided on sites with these three domains are generally viewed as trustworthy. The .org domain is generally used by non-profit organizations, so you should think carefully about the information presented there. Some of these organizations may present information that is heavily biased toward one particular point of view.
  • Determine who wrote the information on the site. Check for an “About the Author” page or a page describing the organization hosting the site. If you are reading a page about heart disease, make sure the author is someone with expertise in that field.
  • Determine when the information was published. Since people have had the ability to post information online for a couple of decades now, it is important to make sure the site you are referring to presents up-to-date information. You don’t want to refer to a page discussing health treatments that was last updated years ago.
  • Think critically to determine the author’s main goal in presenting the information on the site. Does the author present an unbiased, full view of the topic you are researching, or is the information skewed to one perspective? It’s best to refer to sources that are unbiased.


Many students today refer to Wikipedia for information. Generally, you should avoid referring to Wikipedia when conducting research. Due to the nature of the site, which allows anyone to edit articles, you can’t be sure whether the information presented is accurate. While glaring errors may be caught and corrected quickly, other smaller errors may linger on the site, and biased opinions can be presented as fact. However, Wikipedia can be helpful in one way: the lists of sources at the end of each article can be a good way to find information. Just make sure the sources cited are trustworthy using the guidelines above.

If you have trouble finding the information you need or determining whether a source is trustworthy, visit your local public library or your school’s library to ask for help with your research.

Writing an academic assignment can be hard, but by using correct grammar and punctuation, following guidelines for formal academic writing, and ensuring that your sources are trustworthy, you can make sure your hard work results in good feedback from your readers.

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