Academic Writing

Read this article and review the list of academic genres you could be expected to write in.

Academic writing and publishing is conducted in several sets of forms and genres. This article provides a short summary of the full spectrum of critical and academic writing and lists the genres of academic writing. It does not cover the variety of critical approaches that can be applied when one writes about a subject. However, as Harwood and Hadley (2004) and Hyland (2004) have pointed out, the amount of variation that exists between different disciplines may mean that we cannot refer to a single academic literacy.

Writing in these forms or styles is usually written in an impersonal and dispassionate tone, targeted for a critical and informed audience, based on closely investigated knowledge, and intended to reinforce or challenge concepts or arguments. It usually circulates within the academic world ('the academy'), but the academic writer may also find an audience outside via journalism, speeches, pamphlets, etc.

Typically, scholarly writing has an objective stance, clearly states the significance of the topic, and is organized with adequate detail so that other scholars may try to replicate the results. Strong papers are not overly general and correctly utilize formal academic rhetoric.

While academic writing consists of a number of text types and genres, what they have in common, the conventions that academic writers traditionally follow, has been a subject of debate Many writers have called for conventions to be challenged, for example Pennycook (1997) and Ivanic (1998), while others suggest that some conventions should be maintained, for example Clark (1997, p136).

Discourse Community

A discourse community is essentially a group of people that shares mutual interests and beliefs. "It establishes limits and regularities...who may speak, what may be spoken, and how it is to be said; in addition [rules] prescribe what is true and false, what is reasonable and what foolish, and what is meant and what not." (Porter, 39).

People are generally involved in a variety of discourse communities within their private, social, and professional lives. Some discourse communities are very formal with well established boundaries, while others may have a looser construction with greater freedom. Additionally, discourse communities have approved channels of communication in which members write or speak through. These channels can be a web page, a journal, a blog, or any medium people use to communicate through.

Examples of discourse communities may include but certainly not limited to: medicine, law, psychology, films (movies), general forums, technology, sociology, philosophy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, writing, rhetoric, and composition.

The concept of discourse community is vital to academic writers across nearly all disciplines, for the academic writer's purpose is to influence a discourse community to think differently. At the same time the discourse community does not expect to see any writing that appears too foreign. For this reason the academic writer must follow the constraints set by the discourse community so his or her ideas earn approval and respect.

Discourse Community Constraints

Constraints are the discourse community's written and unwritten conventions about what a writer can say and how he or she can say it. They define what is an acceptable argument. Each discourse community expects to see a writer construct his or her argument using their conventional style of language and vocabulary, and they expect a writer to use the established intertext within the discourse community as the building blocks for his or her argument.

Writing for a Discourse Community

In order for a writer to become familiar with some of the constraints of the discourse community they are writing for, a useful tool for the academic writer is to analyze prior work from the discourse community. The writer should look at the textual 'moves' in these papers, focusing on how they are constructed. Across most discourses communities, writers will:

  • Identify the novelty of their position;
  • Make a claim, or thesis;
  • Acknowledge prior work and situate their claim in a disciplinary context;
  • Offer warrants for one's view based on community-specific arguments and procedures (Hyland).

Each of the moves listed above are constructed differently depending on the discourse community the writer is in. For example, the way a claim is made in a high school paper would look very different from the way a claim is made in a college composition class. It is important for the academic writer to familiarize himself or herself with the conventions of the discourse community by reading and analyzing other works, so that the writer is best able to communicate his or her ideas. (Porter) Contrary to some beliefs, this is by no means plagiarism.

Writers should also be aware of other ways in which the discourse community shapes their writing. Other functions of the discourse community include determining what makes a novel argument and what a fact is. The following sections elaborate on these functions.

Misconceptions Regarding Fact and Opinion in the Discourse Community

It is important for any writer to distinguish between what is accepted as 'fact' and what is accepted as 'opinion'. Wikipedia's article Fact misguides writers in their interpretation of what a fact actually is. The article states that "A fact is something that has really occurred or is actually the case". But this is not how writers think of facts. Writing professionals hold that, "In a rhetorical argument, a fact is a claim that an audience will accept as being true without requiring proof".

Facts can be thought of merely as claims. The audience can be thought of as a discourse community, and a fact can suddenly change to become an opinion if stated in a different discourse community. This is how writers within discourse communities manage to present new ideas to their communities. Any new opinion would need to be proven by making a rhetorical argument, in which the writer would weave together what his or her intended audience will accept as 'facts' in a way that supports his or her idea. Therefore, knowing the intended discourse community is a very important part of writing.

Across discourse communities, what is considered factual may fluctuate across each community. As Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs wrote in their book Writing about Writing, in reference to Margaret Kantz's article "Helping students use textual sources persuasively":

A key concept in this change is learning to recognize that facts aren't so much inherently true statements as they are claims-that is, assertions that most of a given audience has agreed are true because for that audience sufficient proof has already been given. You, like most people, would probably classify the statement "the Earth is round" as a "fact". Its status as a fact, however, depends on our mutual agreement that "round" is an adequate description of the Earth's actual, imperfectly spherical shape.

What Kantz wants us to see is that what makes the statement a fact is not how "true" the statement is but that most people have agreed that it's true and treat it as true. Statements about which we haven't reached this consensus remain claims, statements that people argue about. Kantz's work here demonstrates why it's so important to read texts-even "factual" works like textbooks and encyclopedias-as consisting of claims, not facts.

Misconceptions Regarding Making a Novel Argument

Within discourse communities, writers build on top of the ideas established by previous writers. One of the most common misconceptions about writing is the idea of the 'lonely writer'; that great writers' papers are filled almost entirely with original ideas and messages. But this is simply not the case. Discourse communities introduce new ideas and claims, and from these, writers expand on them. James Porter, a scholar of Rhetoric at Indiana University, uses The Declaration of Independence as an example to illustrate this point. Porter points out that Jefferson merely pulled the phrase "That all men are created equal" straight from his commonplace book he made as a boy.

Porter also points out that, "'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness' was a cliche of the times, appearing in numerous political documents". In fact, according to Porter, almost nothing in the Declaration of Independence was written originally by Jefferson. Jefferson wrote this great work by weaving together the intertext of his discourse community.

As Greene describes in his article, "Argument as Conversation", academic writing can be thought of metaphorically as a conversation between those in the discourse community. "The metaphor of conversation emphasizes the social nature of writing" (Greene). Just like in a conversation when you listen to the ideas of the others who are involved and formulate your own opinion on the topic, a writer may be reading a paper done by another writer in the discourse community and from this paper, the scholar may obtain inspiration to expand the claims expressed in the paper or address them from other angles.

"Like the verbal conversations you have with others,' effective arguments never take place in a vacuum; they take into account previous conversations that have taken place about the subject under discussion" (Greene). Good academic writers know the importance of researching previous work from within the discourse community and using this work to build their own claims. By taking these ideas and expanding upon them or applying them in a new way, a writer is able to make their novel argument.

Intertextuality in Academic Writing

Intertextuality is the combining of past writings into original, new pieces of text. The term intertextuality was coined in 1966 by Julia Kristeva. All texts are necessarily related to prior texts through a network of links, writers (often unwittingly) make use of what has previously been written and thus some degree of borrowing is inevitable. This generally occurs within a specific discourse community.


Factoring in intertextuality, the goal of academic writing is not simply creating new ideas, but to offer a new perspective and link between already established ideas. This is why gathering background information and having past knowledge is so important in academic writing. A common metaphor used to describe academic writing is "entering the conversation", a conversation that began long before you got there and will continue long after you leave. A quote from Kenneth Burke encapsulates this metaphor:

"Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress."

Intertextuality plays into this because without it there would be no conversations, just hundreds of thousands of writings not connected or able to build on each other. The listening until you can join the conversation can be seen as doing research. All of the research you read, is built on research instead of self-knowledge. This can be connected to the part of the metaphor where no one in the parlor is qualified to bring you up to speed, just as the papers your researched were researched also.

Types of Intertextuality

There are two distinct types of intertextuality as defined by Porter: iterability and presupposition.

Iterability is the capability of a text to be reiterated and repeated in various contexts. Iterability is explicitly seen in texts, as opposed to presupposition, which refers to assumptions a text makes. One such example of this concept from Porter is the Declaration of Independence. Many texts and ideas of different centuries were integrated into the one document. Jefferson took the idea of John Locke's social contract theory, the Declaration of Rights for Virginia by George Mason, and the form of the English Bill of Rights in 1689 into the Declaration of Independence.

Some claimed that this was blatant plagiarism but others say it was iterability. He used the form of a list of grievances as used in the English Bill of Rights and this example proves that not only direct quotes can be reiterated but also the form of a text. When Thomas Jefferson proposed the Declaration to congress, they made 86 changes to his actual original ideas because they were so farfetched from the current discourse community. This is an example of the constraint a discourse community can place on a text.

Presupposition is the process by which implications are made without being specifically stated or explained within text. These assumptions are usually extremely basic thoughts made by a vast majority of the audience; such thoughts may be considered "common sense" or otherwise obvious to anyone who reads the text.

Example: "Rodrigo rode his bike to his friend's house". This simple statement implies several facts that the reader automatically assumes. Rodrigo owns a bike, he has a friend, his friend has a house, his house is within biking distance, and Rodrigo has the ability to ride a bike. Details can be added or removed by an author to give more or less creative license to the readers themselves; in this case, one reader could imagine the bike being colored red, while another may believe it to be blue.

Because the assumptions made by different readers can be drastically different from one another, it is important that the framework the author provides is sufficient to keep the assumptions that are crucial to the story itself constant between readers. Example: "It was dark and stormy night". This statement is iterated as a cliché opening to a story. The statement provides an opening for a fictional narrative while simultaneously implying an ominous, foreboding setting. When opening a story with this line, the author is able to instantly set a mood and tone before the story truly begins, giving the reader a sense that the story is already in progress.

Examples of Intertextuality

1. Ulysses: Ulysses, a novel written by James Joyce in 1918, is an example of intertextuality because the themes largely shadow those of Homer's Odyssey (an ancient Greek epic poem). Ulysses uses the plot line from The Odyssey and retells it with a new character in a new setting, thus using past writings to create a new, original one.

2. Aladdin: The classic Disney movie Aladdin has many distinct examples of intertextuality throughout. For example, one scene depicts the Genie that comes out of Aladdin's lamp being pinched by a crab – the same crab from another popular Disney movie, The Little Mermaid. In another scene, the two main characters are flying through the sky on a magic carpet and, for a moment, Zeus's temple from the movie Hercules can be seen in the background. These are examples of intertextuality because they pull from past Disney works and use them to create something new and original.

3. West Side Story: West Side Story is an example of intertextuality in that it is the modern retelling of Shakespeare's tragedy of Romeo & Juliet. Tony (Romeo) and Maria (Juliet) are both in love. However, their families and the rival groups with which their loyalty lies forbid their love. West Side Story uses themes from Romeo and Juliet (such as forbidden love and a tragic ending) to create a new, original story.

Academic Framework


A frame is the section in an academic paper in which a perspective that has already been accepted by a specific discourse community is presented in order to blatantly explain to the reader the point of view from which the rest of the essay will be analyzed. Because of the established framework, the reader will logically understand the progression of the writer's argument because the writer has legitimized his or her claim by citing an accepted theory (framework) and thus the reader will be directed towards a particular conclusion. When one uses an academic concept that has been accepted by the discourse community as a frame, this frame "forces you to offer both a definition and description of the principle around which your argument develops" (Greene).

As Stuart Greene explains, "Framing is a metaphor for describing the lens, or perspective, from which writers present their arguments". One can think of a frame as metaphorical glasses that are put on in order to see a topic in a new way. For example, if one is trying to analyze a situation from a psychological perspective, one may put on the "glasses" of Sigmund Freud and approach said topic from his "psychoanalytical" point of view. This frame has allowed the writer to see a topic from a particular angle.

This means that one may be disregarding the socioeconomic, biological, or other lenses from which one could view a particular topic. You are using the one frame of "psychoanalysis" to shape your argument and make an impression on the reader. An academic frame does not give the topic a bias per se, as the argument is not presented in a false way. The frame does however allow the writer to focus the reader's attention in one specific direction in order to reach a specific conclusion.

Framing in the Discourse Community / Intertextuality

Establishing a Place in the Conversation

A frame also establishes credibility for the author in a certain field of study, or "discourse community". A discourse community can be composed of medical professionals, historians, or even the individuals that make up the readership of Wikipedia. When establishing a frame, the author is telling the discourse community that he or she is aware of what is current in the discourse and that the paper being presented has something relevant to add. Without a frame, a paper is not grounded in any particular community and thus has no academic relevance, or any legitimate importance to an academic audience.

The framing concept that one chooses to use has already been accepted by the community and is thus a part of their intertextual matrix. A well-developed frame is the doorway into an academic conversation that has been going on for quite some time before one's arrival and is "still vigorously in progress" after the new argument has been established (Burke qtd. in Greene). If one guides the members of a specific discourse through a paper using an idea that the community already holds as true, the new argument is more likely to gain acceptance from the audience as they understand where it is coming from.

Establishing a Novel Idea

A paper is not about the frame itself. The purpose of an academic paper is not to rehash the concept used to frame it, but rather to use the frame as a tool (a pair of glasses) to "see" a unique claim as molded in a certain light. No text stands alone as "the individual writer's work is part of a web, part of a community search for truth and meaning" (Porter). In essence, a writer does not randomly come up with "new" ideas, but writes about already established concepts in novel ways.

This is where the frame comes in. Without a frame, an author is simply making a statement; one which has most likely already been made throughout the history of the topic or within the discourse. However, a frame gives you a way to look at your statement, an explanation for phenomena, and therefore questions to ask and research. It is the frame that allows one to establish the argument because it gives a tired topic new life or novelty.

Warning: Do not get lost in the scholar's voice

Many people have trouble creating a new claim out of a topic, as "many students… misunderstand sources because they read them as stories" (Kantz). By doing so, one could accidentally wind up regurgitating information that a scholarly article explains instead of using the information or concepts read as a frame to further develop one's own argument.

Make sure to relate the framework back to your original claim, the issue that you are addressing. Again, the frame is not the central focus of a paper, but rather a point of view from which to examine a topic. By incorporating this scholarly information into your paper and relating it to your own claim, you are maintaining the novelty of your argument.

Examples of Framework and Analysis

This section will guide one through an example of framework as it is being used in a published academic paper. One will observe how the sections on framework written above apply to a real world example.

The following excerpt is from an essay by first-year writing student Shannon Baldo entitled "Elves and Extremism: The Use of Fantasy in the Radical Environmentalist Movement". This essay was written for publication in the Young Scholars in Writing Journal under the section entitled "First Year Writing". All articles in the Young Scholars in Writing Journal focus on some aspect of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion in speaking and writing.

In Shannon Baldo's essay, the frame of "fantasy-themed criticism" is immediately defined in the introduction of her essay. Baldo quickly explains Ernest G. Bormann's academically accepted idea of fantasy-themed criticism to include "first, that a person's reality is created by communication and language, and second, that this communication can create a "shared reality" among many participants…[that allows them to] see themselves as heroes or villains and their actions as just or unjust" (Foss qtd. in Baldo).

"With just this initial piece of rhetoric, the authors of the movement transform their followers into mysterious and fantastical creatures. By repeatedly calling activists "elves" rather than humans, this artifact links the movement to fantasy, and on at least a subconscious level, the protesters begin to identify themselves as participants in this new reality.

When protesters begin to operate as "elves" rather than "environmentalists", they can shed conventions that constrain their choices and behaviors…the organization's name evokes this fantasy theme, the movement forming a new world in which violence is no longer a matter of moral or legal consequences but a "craft" that functions to protect a fantastical world that includes the protesters themselves."

When observing the extreme environmentalist movement on a whole, one may conclude that environmental extremists are naturally insane, driven to rage as they were not given enough attention as children, etc. By choosing the framework of fantasy-themed criticism, Baldo is narrowing this field of frames down to one way of viewing the movement. She then uses specifics about the movement, such as the fact that participants actually call themselves "elves" as seen in their literature, to explain that it is fantasy rhetoric that affects the environmentalist movement specifically.

As observed in the selected paragraph above, Baldo uses the framework of fantasy-themed criticism to argue her own topic: it is the fantasy-themed rhetoric of the environmental movement that allows environmentalists to justify their radical actions. Baldo does not focus her paper on fantasy-themed criticism in general, but uses it as a skeleton upon which to mold her argument about environmentalism specifically. Without Bormann's concept being accepted within the discourse community, Baldo would not have had the credibility with which to speak to an academic audience or a way in which to argue her point, instead she would have only been able to state her opinion.

Source: Wikipedia,
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Last modified: Thursday, November 21, 2019, 1:46 PM