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Academic Writing: structure and vocabulary
by Averil Coxhead

Academic Writing tasks aim to find out how well you can research a topic, argue a point of view, evaluate evidence, and organize your thinking. In this series on Academic Writing I would like to provide general advice about different aspects of academic writing and what resources you can use for more specific advice.

• Structuring an academic essay
Linking parts of your essay together
What words should you learn to prepare for academic study?
Low-frequency vocabulary
Further reading
Usage notes
Next in the series

Structuring an academic essay

Any academic essay should contain an introduction, a body of several paragraphs, and a conclusion. Each of these parts has a specific function. Let us look at each of these in turn:

The introduction usually begins generally and then moves to more specific details. It should contain your thesis statement or claim, an expression of intent or promise to the reader that states your main idea and sets up an expectation of what the reader will find in the essay. You should state clearly what your position is on the topic of the essay.

The introduction may also outline the key points of each of the paragraphs that follow in the body of the essay.

The body is a series of paragraphs that build your argument. Each new idea should have its own paragraph. Paragraphs often begin with a topic sentence that states the main idea of the paragraph. It needs to be supported by evidence and explanation, and followed by a comment or a link to the next paragraph. For example:

Recent research has suggested that extensive reading has significant effect on vocabulary development.
Some economists argue that the introduction of a joint currency between New Zealand and Australia would have few benefits for Australia.

The conclusion should summarize your main ideas and restate the thesis statement. It should not contain new ideas as this is not the place to develop your argument further. Some people find it easier to write the body of the essay first and then go back to write the introduction and conclusion last to ensure that the thesis statement and conclusion accurately reflect the content of the essay.


Linking parts of your essay together

Linking devices, or discourse markers, are used to ensure that your essay is coherent and cohesive. For example:

Wellington is the city of government and diplomatic activity in New Zealand, while Auckland is a centre of business.
Wellington is in a high-risk earthquake zone and therefore has a strict building code.

In these examples, while links two contrasting ideas, and therefore links a cause and a result. Below is a list of common linking devices that have been grouped under their usual function:

Sequencing ideas
firstly, secondly, ...
first of all
Expressing conditions
Expressing contrast
Adding further support
Stating results
as a result
Expressing similarities
Providing reasons
in order to
so as not to
so that
Concluding statements
in summary
to sum up
to conclude
Giving examples
for example

Activity 1
Which category do each of the following linking devices belong to? When you have finished, look at the answers.

in the same way
on the other hand*
for instance

in conclusion
in addition

* Be careful with on the other hand. It should always be preceded by a statement that begins with on the one hand.

Linking devices vary according to their position in a sentence, frequency, and punctuation. Supplement this list by noting new linking devices when you are reading academic texts. Learn their meanings and how to use them well before you try them in your own work.


What words should you learn to prepare for academic study?

When thinking about academic writing, we can divide vocabulary into three general categories:

general vocabulary: this means the very common words that we find in all types of written and spoken English. The entries in the Macmillan English Dictionary are marked with three stars if they are very frequent and the explanations of words are written using these general English words. Examples of these words include before, go, read, write, and you.
general academic vocabulary: this means words used in common across a wide range of academic subject areas. This includes words such as analyse, function, identify, and significant.
subject-specific words: this means words which relate to an academic subject area such as economics, for example current cost accounting, sustainable management, and business cycles.

Activity 2
Look at the words below, and put them in groups according to whether they are general vocabulary, general academic vocabulary, or subject-specific vocabulary. When you have finished, look at the answers.


Some words have a general meaning in everyday life but also have a very specific meaning in a particular subject area. For example, market, margin, capital, and demand are used in the area of economics with very specific meanings.


Low-frequency vocabulary

Outside the most frequent words of English and academic vocabulary there are many words that you may not ever need to know and use, for example ameliorate, fountainhead, and harrowing. These words are called low-frequency vocabulary and the usefulness of these words depends on your needs. In the Macmillan English Dictionary, these words have no stars because they do not occur often in written and spoken English. Some words are so rare that they are not included in this dictionary. You can often guess the meaning, or part of the meaning, of such words by looking carefully at the context in which they occur.



Activity 1

consequently — stating results
in the same way — expressing similarities
on the other hand — expressing contrasts
for instance — giving examples
because — providing reasons
otherwise — expressing conditions
in conclusion — concluding statements
in addition — adding further support

Activity 2

accident — general vocabulary
alternative — general academic vocabulary
clever — general vocabulary
fundamental — general academic vocabulary
inflation — subject-specific vocabulary (accounting)
microorganisms — subject-specific vocabulary (biology)
need — general vocabulary
ongoing — general academic vocabulary
phonetics — subject-specific vocabulary (linguistics)
specific — general academic vocabulary


Further reading

Here is a selection of websites and books that will tell you more about academic writing and vocabulary.

Academic writing
Allen and Unwin eStudy Pages
Day, S.X., McMahan, E., and Funk, R. (1997) The Practical Writer's Guide. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Leki, I. (1995). Academic Writing (second edition). New York: St Martin's Press.
Rodrigues, D. and Tuman, M. (1996) Writing Essentials. New York: W. W. Norton.
Wilhoit, S. (1997). A Brief Guide to Writing from Readings. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Academic vocabulary
Home page of the Academic Word List


Usage Notes

You can find Usage Notes on Academic Writing at the following entries in the Macmillan English Dictionary:

cause example quote significant
compare list related summary
definite paraphrase


evaluate prove


Next in the series

  Editing your writing: sentence structure and grammar
 • Spelling and punctuation
 • Seeking feedback