Academic Writing 101

Academic Writing 101

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

For many students, the first time they communicate in actual academic writing is in their first semester of college. There, for the first time, students understand that what they had been writing was a very “forgiven” form of academic writing, nurtured by kind instructors. Now, in an ultra-competitive college environment, they are expected, in fact required, to display and excel in the only acceptable form of higher education writing. This is often difficult and frustrating for both students and instructors. But there are ways to make the transition easier.

Teaching students to become fluent academic writers can be a challenge. As educators, we know that good readers are much more likely to become good writers. Introducing students to well-written examples before teaching academic writing helps them understand the process and how to use academic writing for various purposes. Academic writing comes in many forms: rhetorical, logical, argumentative, and the dreaded essay, to name a few. Helping students discover and understand better writing begins with helping them discover and understand how to be better readers. And let’s face it — better writing means less red ink and more sighs of relief. The transition is often easier for good readers because they usually have a wider vocabulary and better context awareness, draw on background knowledge, recognize sentence structure, and understand why they are reading. These skills seem obvious, but they are lacking in, and are even foreign to, many readers.

Approximately one in six individuals cannot do what you are doing now — read. Of those able to read, many do not do so on a regular basis predominately because of lack of opportunity. This means that exposure to academic written examples may be lacking.

We want students to have strong, well-organized papers, and that means helping them understand reading, speaking, grammar, and writing in academic terms. Sometimes asking students to speak in logical, fluent sentences is a good way to have them begin the process of writing in fluent, logical sentences. The end result of academic writing is to teach, to help us understand something better than we did before, or to add insight into previously studied material. Information is wonderful, but what is more important is how we can use the information in practical ways. If the information is not presented in a fluent, logical sequence, it is useless.

People read what they are interested in, so let your students experience and benefit from appropriate material that engages their imagination, interest, and learning style. Elicit and introduce new vocabulary, idioms, and collocations so that hearing and using them becomes part of students’ background knowledge. Then ask them to relate the information orally before writing. Give them a purpose for their writing. This means asking them to read with a motive for writing. Is it to refute, to inform, to incite? If their motive is clear, their writing will probably be clear. Have them analyze word structure and usage. Is the writing straightforward or rambling? As students listen to themselves speaking, most of them will self-correct and realize there is a better way to express ideas, phrases, or facts. And the beautiful part is that they will love the process so that it becomes standard practice.

These generalizations get us started. In the following articles, we will examine specific examples to help students understand, apply, and master academic writing.


About the Author

John Caine is the author of several books, (Waldo and the Wackos, The Story of Pig and Giraffe, La Historia de Cerdo y Jirafa, My Name Sir?, In the Time of Big Trains, 4:56) short stories and poetry. He teaches English where he currently lives on Long Island, NY with his family