Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018
Why is writing so important?
The nature and process of academic writing
Whatever programme of study you are taking at university, at some point you will need to put words
on paper or enter them in an electronic file. You might wish to make notes from a lecture you’ve attended, a book chapter you’ve read, a professional organisation’s website you’ve visited, or an academic paper you’ve studied. And then there are the assignments you need to complete. These might be essays, practical reports, slide presentations, a review of an article, webpages you’re designing - the list could be long.
Each kind of communication you create has its own particular cluster of features. It is written for a particular audience with a certain purpose in mind. For example, in a social sciences, humanities or arts discipline you might be asked to write an essay. In a science or engineering discipline, you might be required to submit a report on a laboratory investigation you’d just completed. In completing either writing task, you would need to follow certain conventions. There are likely to be certain rules to follow about structure (how the writing is organised around a beginning, a middle and an end). You will normally be expected to adopt a certain kind of writing style; such as how informal or formal the writing is, the viewpoint you are going to adopt, what level of knowledge is assumed for the reader of your writing, how citing and referencing will be used to underpin the argument in your writing, and so on. How you do these things, and more, is what this book is about.
A note about style
The style in which I’m writing this book is not the style you’re likely to use when completing assignments for your course. For one, it is quite a casual style. I use contractions such as ’I’ve’ instead of ’I have’ and ’you’ll’ instead of ’you will’. Also, I write as though I am talking directly to you, the reader. Much of the time I’m writing as though I’m actually sitting with you, talking you through a process. I use ’I’, ’we’ and ’you’. The use of contractions and direct style is not normally acceptable in academic writing. However, be aware that I am choosing to write in this manner as a means to help you write in a more academic manner, much as a tutor or lecturer might sit with you to discuss writing, and how you can write more effectively.
Notice the difference between my writing style in guiding you through this book, and the academic and other styles of writing I’m encouraging you to use (and that you’ll be expected to use on your course). Noticing these distinctions in structure and style will help you develop your writing overall. Doing so will be invaluable to you now, later in your course and in your future career.
1.1 Why is writing so important?
Of course, some people write because they gain a great deal of satisfaction from doing so. It is in their blood. They write to express themselves. Being a writer is a major part of their identity. It is how they express their creativity. Taking that into account, for you as a university student there are, in addition, at least five very good reasons for writing. They are probably so obvious that you’ve rarely, if ever, stopped to think about them. Robert Barrass, in his book Students Must Write (2007), lists four reasons. To me, those first four underpin an all-important fifth reason:
1Writing helps you to remember. By taking notes - whether from a lecture, a video, a book, an article, or some other medium - you are keeping a record of that interaction. In doing so you are being selective about what you record. You are organising your thoughts around that experience. Keeping notes helps you to recall the experience. In fact, if we didn’t take notes, which we can review afterwards, many of us would forget much of what we experienced. Fundamentally, therefore, notetaking is keeping a record. As we will see later, it is much more than that. Good notes are dynamic. They can be added to as our knowledge and understanding grows. But more of that when we turn to note-taking in Chapter 5.
2Writing helps you to observe and to gather evidence. Whether observing what is happening during a laboratory experiment, at a tutorial meeting, or when watching a video programme, writing
notes (perhaps accompanied by drawings) focuses our attention. It aids our concentration and provides a descriptive record of the event. The recording of observations - concisely but in detail - is key for gathering and analysing evidence in many disciplines, whether in science, engineering, social sciences, humanities or the arts.
3Writing helps you to think. Writing is both an expression of your thinking and a vehicle for helping you think. When writing an essay or preparing a practical report you set down what you know. Doing so helps you identify gaps in your knowledge and encourages you to seek answers and deepen your understanding. When you write and see your thoughts expressed ’outside of yourself’, your relationship with those ideas shifts. You can reflect on what you have written and can evaluate its worth. In so doing, you shape, refine and clarify your ideas. They become transformed through reflection and rewriting.
4Writing helps you to communicate. It is through writing that, in many cases, your academic progress is assessed, whether by coursework or in examinations. Writing, of course, is also the common medium by which academics report their research findings and opinions to the world. And writing may not be the final form of that communication. It could be a stepping stone to another medium of communication, such as a talk, a speech, a video clip streamed on a website, a radio play or a television documentary.
5Above all, writing helps you to learn. Taking all the above points together, writing is a powerful device for helping you to learn. Writing is a key way in which you reveal your knowledge and understanding to yourself, as well as to others. It is a vital ingredient in your learning, both as a process and as a product. Writing is clearly a key part of your educational process. Without writing, most of us would not reach the depth and clarity of thinking required in our discipline. And it is through writing that we reveal some of our thinking to the scrutiny of others. By showing our work to others, gaining feedback and reflecting on it, our thinking and writing develop. Writing can be transformative, changing the way we interpret our world.
Added to these five, of course, is the value of writing for other aspects of your life. Writing is a uniquely powerful, precise and satisfying form of expression. It is also a vital skill for future employment. In the UK, university graduates’ writing ability (or lack of it) is a recurrent press story (for example, Paton, 2014). In the latest UK Confederation of British Industry’s survey of employers, the Education and Skills Survey 2016 (CBI, 2016), more employers were concerned about graduates’ literacy and communication skills than they were with their numeracy. Writing ability is a key concern for employers, and so it should be for you.
Writing for academic purposes, and shaping your communication to match your specific purpose and audience, will stand you in good stead for other kinds of writing. Universities are increasingly aware of the need to cultivate graduates with skills of value to a range of employers, not just those in a specific discipline. With this in mind, some course assignments are likely to require you to write for non-academic audiences.
Most of us have become used to writing from an early age. It is therefore easy for us to take it for granted. Much of the writing we do, we carry out almost automatically, without much thought. If English is not your first language, forming phrases, sentences and paragraphs may require more thought. But over time, drafting flowing text (prose) will become more and more an automatic process. It is helpful to take stock of the writing you already do. For example, you might text and email your friends every day, and you might have a blog or a Twitter account. These various kinds of communication in technological media each have their own conventions. On Twitter, of course, you are currently limited to 280 characters, and abbreviations are almost essential in getting your message across.
For your study programme the kinds of writing you will be asked to do are usually much more formal. You might be asked to write practical reports, literature reviews, essays, and so on, each according to
certain conventions. So, it is likely that you’re already involved in writing in a wide range of styles, from casual to formal. Take a moment to think about the range of writing you already do.
The writing you already do
Jot down the kinds of writing you do (not all of which might be in English):
✵For day-to-day communication with other students
✵For academic staff
✵For administrative and other university staff
✵For wider communication within your university
✵For wider communication outside your university (this could be study-related or not)
✵For yourself (for example, writing a diary, personal log, short stories or poetry)
Making an inventory like this of the kinds of writing you do shows that you are already writing for a wide range of audiences (readerships) and purposes. In other words, you already have a wide range (repertoire) in your writing. This is a strong foundation on which to build.