Some Key Traits of Academic Writing

Let’s identify some of the primary characteristics of academic writing in English. Before we make lists of our own, we can look at an example of an article to remind us of some of the general conventions.

Excerpt from “Propositions as Types,” by Philip Wadler


“As the 20th century dawned, Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica demonstrated formal logic could express a large part of mathematics. Inspired by this vision, Hilbert and his colleagues at Göttingen became the leading proponents of formal logic, aiming to put it on a firm foundation.

One goal of Hilbert’s Program was to solve the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem), that is, to develop an “effectively calculable” procedure to determine the truth or falsity of any statement. The problem presupposes completeness—that for any statement, either it or its negation possesses a proof. In his address to the 1930 Mathematical Congress in Königsberg, Hilbert affirmed his belief in this principle, concluding “Wir müssen wissen, wir werden wissen” (“We must know, we will know”), words later engraved on his tombstone. Perhaps a tombstone is an appropriate place for these words, given that any basis for Hilbert’s optimism had been undermined the day before, when at the selfsame conference Gödel18 announced his proof that arithmetic is incomplete.”

18.  Gödel, K. Über formal unterscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I. Monatshefte für Mathematik und Physik 38 (1931), 173–198; reprinted in Heijenoort.37

37.  van Heijenoort, J. From Frege to Gödel: A Sourcebook in Mathematical Logic, 1879–1931. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1967.

Wadler, Philip. “Propositions as Types.” Communications of the ACM, Association for Computing Machinerey, 1 Nov. 2015,

After having read the excerpt from Professor Wadler’s article, take a few minutes to jot down important dos and don’ts of academic writing in English.

Once you have your own list, identify which of the following traits listed below you agree with.

  1. Contractions are avoided, and instead, words are written out completely (cannot rather than can’t).
  2. Distance is maintained, which means not using “I.”
  3. Strong, sophisticated sentence starters are used, rather than starting sentences with “And” and “But.”
  4. Use of information from outside sources is indicated, through in-text citations and a list of references at the end of the document.
  5. The reader is not directly addressed; this means avoiding “you,” and imperative formulations like, “Think about it,” in which the person being addressed is the implied subject.
  6. Diction is sufficiently formal, and informal phrases, such as “a lot,” are avoided.
  7. Objectivity is maintained by avoiding evaluative words, such as “good,” “bad,” and “interesting.”
  8. Precise language is used (“obtain,” “receive,” “become,” instead of “get”).
  9. Formulations are concise.
  10. Information is sequenced logically.
  11. Transitions are used to show relationships between ideas.
  12. Wording that exactly matches another source is put into quotation marks (“We must know, we will know.”)
  13. Quotations are used sparingly, and information from other sources is, instead, accurately summarized or paraphrased.

After you determine which statements above you agree with, count how many of them you thought of on your own. Are there any other academic writing conventions you think should be added to the list?

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