Writing Academically Part II: A Lexicon

writingLast week’s blog post, “What’s the Point?”,  hopefully convinced you in some small way of the significance of academic writing. Now it’s time to focus on the most important elements of the academic essay. I’ve already covered a few of these in previous posts, particularly the thesis statement and motive. But of course, there are so many more! What terms are crucial to the genre of academic writing? What do you need to know to write a convincing, elegant academic essay?

Let’s look at A Writing Lexicon, a list of the essential essay elements, to find out.


Check out my past posting on The Thesis Statement. But for a quick reminder, the thesis statement is the crux of your essay. It is the paper’s central claim or argument that, nonetheless, can be reasonably argued against. Your thesis is the backbone of your essay and should be traceable throughout the entire piece.


Once again, scan over my blog on Motive. In a nutshell, your paper’s motive should drive your thesis. It is the puzzle, problem, limitation, disagreement, etc. discovered in data or literature, out of which you may craft an argument. It is often introduced by the word “But.”


Generally speaking, an essay’s structure is its line of reasoning or argument. Structure is conceived of on a large scale (beginning to end) as well as within individual paragraphs. Structure is much like “organization,” a concept you have most likely heard of in your high school English courses. A successful structure is coherent and clear, and constructed around your thesis. A basic structure generally follows the five-paragraph format—introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion—but academic essays like those you will be expected to write in college should challenge and expand this basic structure.

Key Words/Terms

These are your essay’s main concepts or terms. For this blog post, for example, my key terms would be “academic writing,” “writing lexicon,” and all of these elements I am currently discussing. Key terms should be defined early on in your essay in order to orient your reader (and yourself!), particularly if they are crucial to your line of reasoning.


These are the materials used to assist your argument. These include basic information, facts, ideas, and artifacts. There are two main types of sources, primary and secondary. Primary sources are original documents, artifacts, or data that are uninterpreted and function as evidence. Examples of primary sources include diary entries, novels, plays, letters, original manuscripts, films, paintings, documents, and field data. Secondary sources are texts that are written about a specific topic or primary source; these make direct claims about this topic. These often include essays or articles written by professors and scholars about a specific subject, particularly within literature.

If you are writing an essay on John Keats’ poetry, your primary sources would be the poems themselves; your secondary sources would be articles or essays written by scholars about such poetry.


This is the interpretation of your sources. In academic essays concerning literature, such analysis will be central to your main claim, particularly because often you will be asked to “analyze” a certain passage or poem. Analysis should ground your thesis within each paragraph. But it can also take the form of engaging with secondary sources. Often a strong thesis comes from taking another scholar’s argument and modifying it or weaving it into your essay’s main point.


You have probably heard the word “bibliography” already; most likely you will have made citations in research papers in high school. A bibliography is a list of the sources you have used in writing your essay. We’ll talk more about different methods of citation in future posts–such as MLA, Chicago, and APA–but for now, know that sources are always cited within the essay. This is to orient your reader, but most importantly to give credit to other authors’ ideas.

For more of these lexical terms in detail, check out Princeton University’s “A Writing Lexicon” as well as Gordon Harvey’s “Elements of the Academic Essay.” Stay tuned for more in-depth descriptions of these essay elements in future weeks.

Additional Reading:

Check out the next posts in this 8 part series on writing academically:

Check out my previous post:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *