Understanding Academic Language


Academic Language is used in the academic subject matter of the university.  It includes both formal conventions and the use of specific academic terms and technical language.  It also involves certain tasks, both academic and rhetorical. These tasks can be separated into three distinct categories: pre-writing, writing, and re-writing. 


Critical Thinking

Readers will look at an issue, argument, or piece of writing, and carefully identify the thesis, main points, and evidence provided, while questioning how effective they are. The reader might consider the values and assumptions of the writer, the logic and persuasiveness of the claims made, and the credibility of the evidence provided.  The reader might also consider what other perspectives that might be advanced and other alternative arguments that might be made.  It is always helpful to examine any piece of writing from multiple angles and then draw conclusions about its overall effectiveness.

Critical Reading

This is a process in which readers pay close attention to a piece of writing: its key points, patterns, rhetorical strategies, and supporting details.  Critical readers will “mark up” the text,” underlining or highlighting passages, scribbling notes into the margins, and taking note of any questions or responses that arise. This is a good way to “process” what is read.  It is important that readers do a “resistance read” of texts--raising doubts, asking challenging questions—rather than just being passive readers.


Specifically looking at the various strategies used in a piece of writing, the reader makes an ultimate determination as to what is most significant or important to an understanding of the text.


Readers will take a text “apart,” examining the various rhetorical strategies/elements and how they work collectively to make the whole piece effective.  One might consider the emotional impact of the examples/images used, for example, and then consider how the author’s word choice enhances that impact.  A good analysis will consider both the obvious and the more subtle ways that a text “works.”  


Readers will look at a piece of writing as a whole, describing the main points and overall purpose very concisely. The language used in the summary should be the reader’s own.


This process occurs while looking at the whole text and considering both its strengths and weaknesses. The reader then determines how successfully (to what extent and in what ways) the text achieves its intended purpose.


Informal Writing

This type of writing includes all “casual” forms of writing: journal entries, free-writing, brainstorming, etc. Typically, this type of writing is considered “free-form,” and does not have to follow any specific format conventions (such as those used in MLA- or APA-governed papers).

Formal Writing

This type of writing includes essays, research papers, and reports. This type of writing usually must follow specific formats and conventions, and topics may be limited to those specifically assigned.

Documentation / Citation

This indicates the writer’s ethical use of source material. The writer is careful to follow the requirements of whichever documentation style is required (i.e. MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.), by indicating both within the text, and on one final source list page, exactly when the writer has paraphrased or quoted from a source and the full publication details of those sources.

General Knowledge

This term categorizes anything that is thought to be common knowledge and therefore not needing citation.


This term is used describe how the thinking and the writing processes move back and forth as the thinker/writer deepens his/her thinking, researches repeatedly, changes/complicates his/her argument, and writes/rewrites the academic paper.  


In writing, this is a term used to describe speaking and/or writing effectively (i.e. persuasively).

Rhetorical Situation

The writer’s “rhetorical situation” includes considering a range of factors that will impact a piece of writing: the purpose, the intended audience, the form used, the roles the writer must play, the “persona” the writer creates, the kinds of support to be used to develop the piece, etc.  A good question to ask is do the writer’s choices collectively reveal a clear  rhetorical strategy, or an intentional plan?


This is a concept used in order to shape a piece of writing for a specific body of readers. For instance, if your audience is an instructor, you may want to demonstrate what you have learned. Or, if your audience is a possible employer, you may want to emphasize your job-related skills.


This term is used to describe how writers keep focus, how effectively they sustain a central idea throughout a piece of writing.


Within a piece of writing, the main ideas are supported with evidence. This could include facts, statistics, examples, case studies, expert testimony, personal experience, etc. These are the details that make the more general claims/argument of the paper convincing to a reader.


This occurs when the main points within a piece of writing are clearly related to each other, and organized in a fashion that creates unity.  This would include the logical sequencing of ideas and the use of transitional words and phrases.


This occurs within a piece of writing when the main points are demonstrated in clear, precise language.


In writing, how the choice of words, figures of speech, sentence structures, and rhetorical strategies collectively capture the author’s “voice.”



This entails writers “seeing” their papers fresh. Usually, this stage occurs when the “rough” draft has been written, but it can begin earlier and occur during any stage of the writing process. Reconsidering your critical thinking, critical reading, thesis, organization, and development are all aspects of revising. You may decide that you need additional research, or that you need to omit weaker sections and/or add significant segments to your draft. You may even decide that you need to start over and write a new paper after you’ve clarified a better direction for your work.


This typically occurs during drafting and revision, when a point is developed with greater thoroughness. Typically, more (or better) evidence and detail are added.    


This occurs when the revision process is finished, and you have a final draft.  Now, careful attention is applied to spelling, punctuation, grammatical issues, word choice, and format concerns.  This is a final reading to “proof” your text and correct any errors.


This occurs when unnecessary words or phrases are used repeatedly to express the same point.  This typically occurs during the writing of the rough draft, and should be removed during revision and proofreading.


This occurs when the phrases used to express ideas are contorted, oddly stated, or confusing. For the reader’s sake, the writer should reword such phrases during revision and proofreading. You can usually hear these phrases if you read your work aloud since they will sound unnatural to you.