Academic Writing

Rhetorical functions in academic writing


Students are asked to write many different kinds of texts. Depending on your subject, these could be essays, laboratory reports, case-studies, book reviews, reflective diaries, posters, research proposals, and so on and are normally referred to as genres (See: Writing Genres: Introduction). These different genres, though, can be constructed from a small range of different text types.

If, for example, you are asked to write an essay to answer the following question:

Discuss possible solutions to the problem of international credit control.

You could answer it in the following way:

  1. Define credit control, say what it is and give an example;
  2. Explain why international credit control is a problem in business today, support your explanation by evidence from your reading;
  3. Describe some possible solutions to the problem of credit control in an international context, again support your suggestions with evidence from your reading;
  4. Describe the advantages and disadvantages of each of the possible solutions;
  5. Decide which solution you would prefer and give reasons.

So in order to answer the question you need to be able to write texts to do the following:

  • Define
  • Give an example
  • Explain why
  • Support your explanation with evidence
  • Describe a solution
  • Describe advantages and disadvantages
  • Choose
  • Explain why

Bruce (2008) calls these various texts cognitive genres, but I have called them Rhetorical Functions.

Examples of texts and language.

A good source of language is Leech & Svartvik (1975). Typical rhetorical functions used in academic writing, based on: Werlich (1976) and Lackstrom, Selinker & Trimble (1973), are:


  1. Describing objects, location, structure and direction
  2. Reporting and narrating
  3. Defining
  4. Writing instructions
  5. Describing function
  6. Describing processes, developments and operations
  7. Classifying / categorising
  8. Giving examples
  9. Including tables and charts


  1. Writing critically
  2. Arguing and discussing
  3. Evaluating other points of view
  4. Comparing and contrasting: similarities and differences
  5. Generalising
  6. Expressing degrees of certainty
  7. Expressing reasons and explanations / cause and effect
  8. Expressing feelings
  1. Analysing
  2. Planning action
  3. Providing support
  4. Application
  5. Working with different voices and finding your own
  6. Taking a stance
  7. Using theory
  1. Introducing
  2. Previous research
  3. Indicating a gap
  4. Presenting findings from statistical analyses
  5. Presenting findings from interviews
  6. Discussing limitations
  7. Drawing conclusions
  8. Recommendations
  9. Practical implications


  1. Writing reflectively