The four main types of academic writing are descriptive, analytical, persuasive, and critical. Each of these types of writing has specific linguistic characteristics and purposes.
In many academic texts, you will need to use more than one type. For example, in an empirical thesis:
- you will use critical writing in literature review to show where there is a gap or opportunity in existing research
- the methods section will be mainly descriptive to summarize the methods used to collect and analyze the information
- the results section will be mostly descriptive and analytical when reporting the data you have collected
- the discussion section is more analytical, as you relate your results to your research questions, and also persuasive, as you offer your interpretations of the results.
The simplest type of academic writing is descriptive. Its purpose is to provide facts or information. An example would be a summary of an article or a report of the results of an experiment.
Types of instructions for a purely descriptive assignment include: “identify”, “report”, “record”, “summarize”, and “define”.
It is rare for a university-level text to be purely descriptive. Most academic writing is also analytical. Analytical writing includes descriptive writing, but also requires you to reorganize the facts and information you describe into categories, groups, parts, types, or relationships.
Sometimes these categories or relationships are already part of the discipline, while in other cases you will create them specifically for your text. If you are comparing two theories, you can divide your comparison into several parts, for example: how each theory deals with social context, how each theory deals with language learning, and how each theory can be used in practice.
Types of instructions for analytical work include: “analyze”, “compare”, “contrast”, “relate” and “review”.
To make your writing more analytical:
- spend a lot of time planning. Brainstorm facts and ideas, and try different ways to group them, based on patterns, parts, similarities and differences. You can use color codes, flowcharts, tree diagrams or tables.
- create a name for the relationships and categories you find. For example, advantages and disadvantages.
- build each section and paragraph around one of the analytical categories.
- make the structure of your article clear to your reader, using topical sentences and a clear introduction.
In most academic writing, you need to go at least one step beyond analytical writing to persuasive writing. Persuasive writing has all the characteristics of analytical writing (i.e. information plus reorganization of information), with the addition of your own perspective. Most essays are persuasive, and there is a persuasive element to at least the discussion and conclusion of a research paper.
Viewpoints in academic writing may include an argument, a recommendation, an interpretation of results, or an evaluation of the work of others. In persuasive writing, every claim you make should be backed up with evidence, such as a reference to research findings or published sources.
Types of instructions for a persuasive mission include: ‘argue’, ‘evaluate’, ‘discuss’ and ‘take a position’.
To help reach your own perspective on facts or ideas:
- read the views of other researchers on the subject. Who do you think is the most convincing?
- look for patterns in data or references. Where is the strongest evidence?
- list several different interpretations. What are the real implications of each? Which are likely to be most useful or beneficial? Which ones have problems?
- discuss facts and ideas with someone else. Do you agree with their point of view?
To develop your argument:
- list the different reasons for your point of view
- think about the different types and sources of evidence you can use to support your point of view
- consider the different ways in which your perspective is similar and different from the perspectives of other researchers
- look for different ways to divide your point of view into parts. For example, cost effectiveness, environmental sustainability, real-world scope.
To present your argument, make sure:
- your text develops a cohesive argument where all the individual claims work together to support your overall point of view
- your reasoning for each request is clear to the reader
- your assumptions are valid
- you have evidence for every claim you make
- you use compelling and directly relevant evidence.
Critical writing is common for research, postgraduate, and advanced undergraduate writing. It has all the hallmarks of persuasive writing, with the added characteristic of at least one more point of view. While persuasive writing requires you to have your own perspective on an issue or topic, critical writing requires you to consider at least two points of view, including your own.
For example, you can explain a researcher’s interpretation or argument and then assess the merits of the argument, or give your own alternative interpretation.
Examples of critical writing assignments include a critique of a journal article or a literature review that identifies the strengths and weaknesses of existing research. Types of statements for critical writing include: “critique”, “debate”, “disagree” and “evaluate”.
- accurately summarize all or part of the work. This could include identifying key interpretations, assumptions or methodologies.
- have an opinion on the job. Appropriate types of opinion might include pointing out certain issues, offering an alternative approach that would be better, and/or defending the work against criticism from others.
- demonstrate your point of view. Depending on the specific assignment and discipline, different types of evidence may be appropriate, such as logical reasoning, reference to authoritative sources and/or research data.
Critical writing requires strong writing skills. You must fully understand the subject and the issues. You should develop an essay structure and a paragraph structure that allows you to analyze different interpretations and develop your own argument, supported by evidence.
This material was developed by the Learning Hub (Academic Language and Learning), which offers workshops, face-to-face consultation and resources to support your learning. Find out how they can help you develop your communication, research and study skills.
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