What Is an Academic Essay?

Lee Johnson

An academic essay is a piece of writing that addresses an academic problem or question on subjects such as science or literature. It typically adheres to an accepted tone and purpose, and is usually written as part of completing a degree or qualification. Academic essays are formal pieces of writing and usually take the form of an argument, with a brief introduction, a series of points that address the question and form a logical argument, and a conclusion to tie together the content of the work. Academic essays also use sources, which can include books, journals and the Internet; generally, these references must be listed at the bottom of the essay in accordance with a relevant referencing style.

Students may have to write an academic essay.
Students may have to write an academic essay.

Typically, an academic essay is formal in tone and aims to address a specific question or argue a specific point with reference to the ideas and works of academics. As a formal piece of writing, the essay should be clear, with good grammar and concise explanations. For example, a more colloquial style that uses the words "and" or “but” to start sentences would be considered informal writing. In addition, each section of an academic essay should be purposeful, either referring to the question posed at the beginning, or supporting a point that addresses it.

An academic essay might focus on an aspect of literature.
An academic essay might focus on an aspect of literature.

Each of the paragraphs in an academic essay should transition smoothly into the next and work together toward the formation of an argument. For example, one paragraph may make a declarative statement, and the next may elaborate on the reasoning and history behind this statement. Each paragraph should build up the argument.

Another key element in an academic essay is references and citations. Academic essays are intended to convey authority on the subject, and this is done more effectively when the writer presents background research to strengthen his arguments. Quoting respected scholars help to legitimize an argument. Each point stated throughout the paragraphs should ideally be backed up by a piece of research. In academic essays, the sources used for research are typically either footnoted at the bottom of each page or listed in a references section at the end of the essay.

Writing tutors might help students improve academic essays.
Writing tutors might help students improve academic essays.

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