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A Breakdown of the Four Styles of Academic Writing

Christina Crampe

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Regardless of field of study, academic interests, or grade level, people find themselves writing. Ranging from academic papers in a college-level class to a formal email that a person is sending to a potential employer, there are technical skills that need to be learned to write well. There are four main types of academic writing: descriptive, analytical, critical, and persuasive. To understand what each type of writing requires, let us break these forms down into categories, assign definitions and techniques to each style, and provide examples to provide a better understanding of how these styles are different and how they often interact with each other to create the best writing possible.

Descriptive writing

Descriptive writing is the most common style of writing, as it appears in academic and non-academic settings regularly. Descriptive writing is based largely on writing statements without providing any explanation. Descriptive writing often answers the basic questions of "who", "what", "when", and "where" to depict people and setting. The key to descriptive writing is to describe and define but not to explain. Unlike in analytical writing, in descriptive writing, there is no argument to be made and no analysis to consider the points that are being stated. In short, there are no answers to the questions "how" or "why".

Some examples of descriptive writing include:

  1. Summary: A summary of anything (e.g. book chapter, TV episode, article) is considered to be descriptive writing, so long as there is no further explanation or analysis.
  2. Definition: Defining what an object, event, or place is with no further details.
  3. Creative writing: The orange and red leaves were rustling in the strong breeze, tree branches snapping and breaking under the force.
  4. Storytelling: Describing the contents of a dream from last night. These stories include sensory details and a basic plot without analyzing the potential underlying meaning of the dream's content.

An example approach to descriptive writing

Prompt: Summarize the findings of a sociological study done on teen coping methods.

Response: The study surveyed a group of 135 teens, ranging from ages 13 to 18 years of age. The results found that there were five themes of coping: meditation, reflection, avoidance, isolation, and communication. 30% of participants reported having isolated themselves when they were struggling with a problem. Isolation methods were characterized by staying in their bedroom and not attending social gatherings. 5% of participants said that they found solace in meditation characterized by personal quiet time to connect with their surroundings. 40% of participants reported having avoided the problem that they were facing. 10% of teens coped most with reflection, allowing them to think about what was bothering them. 15% of teens coped with communication which was characterized by verbal communication between peers, friends, family, and therapists.

Analytical writing

Analytical writing is characterized by the questions "why" and "so what". Although analytical writing and descriptive writing share some similarities, they are not the same. Instead of just stating the facts, like in descriptive writing, analytical writing is all about interpretation of the facts. In analytical writing, there is typically an argument being made, and there is evidence being used to support this argument. Merely stating the facts or an opinion will not work in analytical writing. Organization of thoughts and subsequent evidence is essential to analytical writing. Examples of analytical writing include analytical essays about a specific topic in a novel, the interpretation of results on a sociological study, the interpretation of a historical event and its consequences and impacts on modern society.

Analytical writing is also influenced by the writer, themselves. For example, an environmentalist is going to approach statistical information about environmental concerns and global warming differently than a politician. Depending on the writer's stance, the answers to the "so what" and "what next" questions will vary. To get a better understanding of the process of analytical writing, here is an example model to approach analytical writing.

An example approach to analytical writing

Prompt: A student in a college English course is asked to write an analysis paper on the significance of a small character in the novel that the class just completed.

  1. Identify the character that you want to write about.
  2. Identify key characteristics about the character that make him/her stand out from the other characters. These can include physical characteristics, such as habitual body language or appearance, or patterns in behavior.
  3. Ask yourself these questions: What do these accumulated characteristics tell us about the character? When do they perform certain actions? Who are they with when they perform these actions?
  4. Formulate a thesis statement, the argument that you are going to be making throughout the paper.
    Perfecting Your Thesis Statement
  5. Compile the evidence and break them down into paragraphs characterized by a specific focus. It is important to not be redundant.
  6. Analyze the evidence and explain its importance, always going back to supporting your thesis.
  7. Apply your thesis to the world today. This is the "so what". Why is your argument important, and how does it relate to today's world? What are its modern implications? This is what makes strong analytical writing.

Persuasive writing

Persuasive writing is like analytical writing, but it is characterized by a person's own point of view on a specific topic or idea. Writers analyze their own argument with the intent to persuade readers to agree with them. It is important to incorporate analysis that answers questions like "why" and "so what". It is more than just stating an original opinion. Just as it is essential to support a thesis or argument with evidence in analytical writing, it is also necessary to provide researched evidence to support a persuasive argument. Persuasive writing requires that the writer evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his/her own argument. It is important to not come off as biased in the writing, so it is important to acknowledge an opposing viewpoint to the central argument, also providing researched evidence for that contrary argument. This demonstrates that thorough research has been completed and an argument has been chosen and based on concrete reasoning. In doing this, writers can call attention to potential weaknesses of their argument and provide solutions for them, thus answering the "so what" question.

An example approach to persuasive writing

  1. Argument: Chiropractic care and alternative healing methods are valid forms of healthcare and can supplement traditional medical practices.
  2. Support: Include research and evidence that supports your argument that alternative forms of healing are legitimate medical practices. Point out the strengths and weaknesses behind your argument.
  3. Acknowledge the opposing view: Alternative medical practices such as chiropractic care and meditation are not valid forms of healthcare, and traditional medical practices cannot be replaced.
  4. Support: Provide a piece of research that supports this opposing view.
  5. Evaluate: Evaluate the potential strengths and weaknesses of the opposing viewpoint.
  6. Bring it back: Return to your central argument and explain how the opposing viewpoint is weaker than your own. Provide potential solutions to your argument, as this will strengthen your writing and make it more legitimate.

Critical writing

Critical writing is characterized by consideration and critique of multiple sources on a particular argument. Where persuasive writing relies on a central argument and at least one opposing argument, critical writing demands that writers evaluate more than two sources. Research is an important and essential part of critical writing, as it demonstrates the writer's ability to consider and evaluate multiple points of view and then focus on what they believe to be the most accurate argument. This type of writing requires the consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of multiple arguments before the formulation of the writer's idea. Critical writing is largely academic, and the type of sources that will be used and critiqued will depend largely on the background and point of view that a writer is coming from. It is essential to have strong reading comprehension skills, effective reasoning skills, and a strong command of language.

An example approach to critical writing

  1. Choose a topic: To begin your critical writing journey, select a topic of interest. This should be familiar to the writer or something that the writer wants to explore more in depth.
  2. Research: Compile a list of academic and researched sources that are relevant to the topic. It is important to include a wide variety of sources with different arguments. This will strengthen the foundation for the writing.
  3. Evaluate and critique: Once the necessary sources have been gathered, carefully read each argument, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of them. Consider where these arguments could be strengthened with more research or consideration and consider which parts of the argument are strong and grounded in valid, legitimate evidence.
  4. Formulate your own argument: Once you have researched and considered multiple resources and their arguments, develop your own stance on the chosen topic.
  5. Support: Provide evidence and research that supports your informed argument. Like persuasive writing, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of your own argument will strengthen the overall writing.

Header photo by Kaitlyn Baker.

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