Academic writing genres

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The term genre (/ʒɑn.ɹə/ or sometimes /(d)ʒɑn.ɹə/, from the French genre, meaning 'kind, sort') refers to a particular category of writing. A literary genre is defined by various conventions, or typical characteristics and expectations about form and style, that have developed over time. Conventions refer to typical stylistic criteria, characteristics, or standards that are socially agreed upon; for academic genres, that means that researchers have come to agree upon, and have standardized, various techniques and characteristics that they expect or typically use for communicating to colleagues and academic readers in their academic fields.

Academic writing generally goes beyond descriptive and persuasive writing to forms that are more analytical, evaluative, or critical (as in providing a critique or a theoretical interpretation). The writer is expected to develop an original analysis, critique, interpretation, or proposals, in a formal and structured manner. Paragraphs in body text tend to follow more formal and analytical paragraph styles.

1 General format classifications

Classifying academic genres can be complex and difficult, due to the variety and complexity of different forms of academic writing. A particular form can involve different kinds of genre elements. So to begin with, academic writing forms can simply be classified by their context, purpose and general format, such as the following. The essay types below are typical for written assignments in college, while the others are more typical of graduate student writing and research done by professors.

  1. Rhetorical, persuasive, or argumentative essay
  2. Analytical essay
  3. Problem-solution essay
  4. Critical essay
  5. Research essay or paper, e.g., in an academic research journal
  6. Edited volume or collection: a collection of original research papers, but published in a one-time book format rather than in an academic journal
  7. Review, such as an academic book review
  8. Thesis: a major work involving original research for an advanced university degree, namely, a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation
  9. Conference paper, including papers published in conference proceedings
  10. Literature review: a critique of published research on a specific research topic, often for the purpose of identifying or justifying a research question
  11. Case studies
  12. Monograph: a research-based academic book
  13. Proposals: research proposal, thesis proposal, research grant proposal
  14. Textbooks

Academic people may at times also write popular articles or books, that is, articles or books by academic experts that are intended to inform the general public. They are written at a professional level, reflecting the author's expertise and expert opinions, and are written at a professional level for college educated readers. They would be classified as professional sources or higher-level popular sources, rather than actual academic sources.

2 Typical genre elements

2.1 Form features

Academic writing styles can be distinguished by the following structural or formal features.

Formal structure

Academic papers often follow a formal structure, with at least some of these typical elements.

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction. The introduction consists of one or several paragraphs that lead directly to the thesis.
    1. Specific background information. This is not overly familiar to potential readers
    2. Formal thesis. A specific main argument that is to be argued for or proven.
  3. Body paragraphs
    1. Topic sentences that convey main ideas that directly support the thesis
    2. Support in body paragraphs for topic sentences, consisting of various genre-specific types of support (such as those below).
  4. Conclusion

Thematic structure

The body paragraphs are often organized into more specific bodily elements for rhetorical and argumentative purposes, and to develop a thesis or research hypothesis along with the empirical research. These are more rigidly followed in science fields and quantitative research. Along with the introductory and final material, academic papers have some of these elements.

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Literature review: A critique of previous research on the specific topic
  4. Research question or hypothesis
  5. Main body & discussion (humanities)
  6. Experiment / study (science / quantitative papers). This often consists of very structured subsections, e.g., design, procedures, participants, materials, and statistical results.
  7. General discussion: Interpretation, evaluation, and comparison of study results with others' research findings
  8. Conclusion. Conclusions are short, concise, and precise; they serve to recapitulate the objectives and findings of the paper, and maybe to sketch out future directions for further research.

Other formal features
  1. Tone. The formality of the writing, and how the authors distance themselves from the readers but also connect with the readers; thus, the feeling, mood, and writer's voice or presence.
  2. Expertise. In addition to tone, the writer's authority, credentials, and expertise, as reflected in the writing, and the degree of expertise that the writer expects of the readers.
  3. Purpose. The objectives, goals, and/or purposes of the writing. This includes the objectives of the writing itself, and the wider context of the purpose of research in that field.
  4. Focus. Topic or focus of the writing.
  5. Assumptions; e.g., prior assumptions of the writer; ideas or theories that writers assume the readers are familiar with.
  6. Setting. The research setting, and social setting, e.g., the community of scholars or scientists that the writer and readers belong to, and their expectations.

2.2 Style features

Academic writing can be characterized by these stylistic features.

  1. First person is dispreferred, especially in singular.
  2. Second person forms are never or almost never used.
  3. Contractions are avoided.
  4. Modals and other pragmatic markers are used to soften or hedge claims (hedges) or to indicate degree of certainty.
  5. Citations are used, as a basis for the current research, for developing the writers' ideas, to provide support or evidence for claims, or to compare with the research findings. Citations are necessary to establish credibility and tone. Formal citation formats are used.
  6. Passive voice may be regularly used.
  7. Precise, formal vocabulary is used, including nomenclature.
  8. Complex noun phrases are often used, including nominalizations, sometimes in place of simple verb phrases, and nouns with post-modifiers (prepositional phrases, relative clauses, participle phrases).
  9. High-frequency, common-usage nouns, adjectives and verbs are rarely used; phrasal verbs are rarely used. Latinate verbs (and nouns, adjectives, adverbs) are common.
  10. Complex and compound sentences are common. A rich variety of rhetorical phrases are used to achieve cohesion and coherence. Sentences tend to be longer.
  11. Formal tone and writing voice are partially achieved by sentence type, sentence length, word order, and word choice.
  12. Writing tends to be impersonal (but somewhat personal, yet restrained, in humanities writing); impersonal language is used to maintain an objective and unbiased tone.
  13. Unsupported claims are strongly avoided, as these can hurt the writer’s credibility, appear dishonest or unprofessional, and undermine the paper's arguments or objectives.

3 Classification by cognitive style and demands

Academic writing can be classified by the types of cognitive processes expected of the writers, ranging from relatively simple to more demanding and cognitively involved. The following may describe essay assignments in college, or elements of larger form works like those above, such as different sections of research papers.

  1. Descriptive
  2. Analytical
  3. Persuasive
  4. Critical

The simplest form is descriptive, which entails reporting facts, data, or information. Example include simple article summaries, literary précis of literary works, and lab reports that report results of experiments. Otherwise, such forms are not commonly used in college writing. Stylistic and grammatical elements typically include simple past and present tense verbs, and descriptive verbs like find, determine, ascertain, result, identify, report, record, summarize, define. Paragraphs may be narrative or descriptive style paragraphs.

Analytical forms may involve some descriptive contents, but then one must go beyond that to organizing and classifying data, identifying relationships, contrasting or comparing, or identifying causes and effects. The analysis might be guided by a particular research method or theory. Typical elements might include present, past and perfect verb tenses, and verbs and expressions pertaining to classifications, contrasts, comparisons, causes, effects, or results, such as analyze, compare, contrast, relate, examine, determine, find, ascertain, conclude, infer. Paragraph forms might include process, classification, contrast, comparison, or cause-effect paragraphs.

Persuasive forms or elements are common to many forms of academic writing, as one must convince writers of the validity of their analyses or ideas. Thus, persuasive writing includes elements of analytical writing, but goes beyond it by considering one's own perspective, and the perspectives of likely readers. This entails a greater need to provide evidence and argumentation for one's views or conclusions, such as data, other supporting research studies, comparisons with others' ideas or findings, and detailed explanations of one's ideas that can satisfy readers. This naturally entails citing other sources to support one's findings, as well as interpreting and evaluating others' ideas or findings. The language includes verbs and expressions of argument, recommendations, suggestions, critiquing, evaluation, evaluation, and discussion.

Critical writing is particularly common in academic research, especially for graduate students and professors. It includes elements of persuasive and analytical writing, but also involves examining different possibilities or points of view. The author may express his/her informed perspective, but must also consider and evaluate other perspectives or possibilities as well as his/her own. This may also be referred to evaluative or interpretive writing. This may involve critiquing different theories, different interpretations of events, differing interpretations of a piece of literature, or different ways of evaluating a program. This can involve arguing for one interpretation over another, such as different theoretical perspectives of social phenomena, or possible interpretations of literature. Such writing may be involved in analyzing research results, evaluating a program or methodology, engaging in scholarly debate, or writing a review of an academic book. The language can be more abstract and theoretical, involving expressions pertaining to evaluation, critique, debate, argumentation, evidence, and theories.

4 Epistemological classification

The type of support given for the main claims of a paper depend on standard methods of how researchers in the field for finding or discover new ideas, which in turn shapes how one proves or supports a point in a paper. These methods in turn depend on core assumptions about the view of knowledge in the field—whether one is attempting to find objective truth or get closer to it (as in science), or to find a novel and useful interpretation of something (as in humanities). These approaches to finding new truth or understanding shape the research methods, which in turn shape the type of support for ideas in body paragraphs. These epistemological approaches and research types pertain to the type of support for main ideas in body paragraphs, such as:

  1. Data, such as statistical data
  2. Examples
  3. Explanation of ideas
  4. Contrast and comparison of differing ideas
  5. Counter-argumentation and rebuttal of opposing viewpoints
  6. Empirical evidence

Different types of writing in different academic fields depend generally on the the research approach used, which in turn depends on the general view in the field of what research is, and how one can build new knowledge in the field. For example, humanities research depends on interpretation and critiquing, e.g., interpreting literature, ideas, historical events, or other phenomena. Such work is driven by a need for understanding the human condition and phenomena that people interact with, so the approach is more subjective and interpretative. Science, on the other hand, strives for an objective understanding of the universe and reality, so its approach is philosophically more realist and objectivist. Social sciences involve a complicated mixture or compromise between the subjective, interpretive approach and the objective realist approach. Science and social sciences thus depend on empirical data, such as quantitative research methods and argumentation for more scientific research, or qualitative research and argumentation for some social science areas. The research approach involves various research methods that are common in a particular field, which can influence the style of the writing. These research approaches can be briefly summarized as follows.


Research based on observation and/or holistic interpretation of data. The researcher makes decisions about how to classify data, or examine them holistically or based on a particular theory. The writing is somewhat structured, and can involve the writer's own perspectives more than other kinds of research. Common examples of this are seen in ethnographic research, where one observes individuals or people, how they interact, etc., such as work by some anthropologists, sociologists, language researchers, and education researchers.


This is scientific or experimental research, which involves statistical analysis, and examining or comparing specific hypotheses. This is often the type of research in science, engineering, and some social sciences. This would include various kinds of experimental and statistical evidence, including experimental and statistical comparison of groups.


Some research may be primarily theoretical, based on logical argumentation of ideas and facts, and little use of collected data, except maybe hypothetical examples or examples from the writer’s own mind or experience. Examples include philosophy, some area of math, and theoretical linguistics.


A theory or model is used to interpret a data set, situation, or phenomenon, to provide insights or analyses that would not be so apparent otherwise. For example, a set of data about a social problem in a city’s educational system might be interpreted according to a sociological theory to yield deeper theoretical insights into the issue. This is somewhat similar to, and overlaps with, the critical / evaluative category.

Critical / evaluative

A data set, situation, or phenomenon is analyzed and evaluated according to a set of norms or standards, often those established by a particular academic viewpoint or theory. For example, a particular educational program might be evaluated to assess its effectiveness, according to the standards of a particular sociological or educational model.

5 See also

Related pages
  1. Genre
  2. Paragraph styles
  3. Academic versus non-academic writing
  4. Research approach

Academic sources on academic writing
  1. Frow, J. (2006) Genre. London: Routledge.
  2. Genre and academic writing in the disciplines