The nature of academic writing
The nature and process of academic writing
A major challenge for many students is to write assignments in an appropriate academic style, with a suitable structure, that develops an argument in an appropriate way. As we shall see later, there is no single kind of academic writing. Unless you are taking a generic, introductory writing course, writing academically usually has a specific disciplinary context. Almost invariably you are writing for a particular audience within a certain discipline and with a specific purpose in mind.
Features of writing that assessors value
Given that academic writing is about developing your learning, and evaluating your learning, the assessors of your academic writing are normally looking for some or all of the following features in your writing:
✵That you reveal your knowledge and understanding of the subject.
✵That you show that your work is original in the sense that you are not simply copying word for word from someone else. You are crafting your own account.
✵That you are following the conventions of your discipline, such as document structure, writing style and viewpoint.
✵That you are using scholarly method. Your account must show accuracy and skill in investigating and discussing its subject. This usually means that you reveal the sources of information you are using by citing (referring to sources in the text) and referencing (listing full entries for your sources, typically at the end of your document). You are usually expected to show evidence of critical analysis, which includes considering the strengths and weaknesses of an argument and coming to
your own conclusions about it.
Conventionally, most essays have a structure with a clear beginning (introduction), main body (development of an overall argument) and end (conclusion). This is based on the traditional notion of a lecture, which itself dates back to the conventions of the political debating chambers of ancient Greece and Rome: tell the audience what you’re going to talk about, talk about it, and then tell them what you’ve talked about.
Tailoring writing to a specific discipline
In reading an essay, what your assessors are looking for to some extent reflects the culture of the discipline. A science lecturer is likely to have different expectations, and use different assessment criteria, compared with a history lecturer.
Thesis statement or not?
Imagine you are writing an essay in humanities or in a social science. That being the case, your lecturer or tutor might ask you to express a clear opinion about the topic in your assignment. She or he might ask that you make this apparent in the introduction by making a thesis statement.
Commonly, a thesis statement is taken to be a sentence or two at or near the end of an assignment’s introduction that summarises a student’s argument and their point of view on the topic they are considering. For example, consider an essay assignment in Economics or Marketing entitled ’By reference to one or two large companies, and drawing upon appropriate economic or marketing theories, discuss strategies for making best use of the online environment in a business context.’ A student might respond with an assignment that includes this thesis statement in its introduction: ’Given that the world wide web offers large companies huge potential for marketing and promotion, businesses should make best use of it. They can do so by taking every opportunity to target their advertising to specific potential customers while at the same time offering strong support online to existing customers.’
✵Being asked to include a thesis statement can make for ’stronger’ writing, insofar as you are writing to defend your thesis (argument). In doing so, you still need to consider both sides of the argument - evidence and reasoning both for and against the position you have chosen to take.
✵Be aware, however, that in some disciplines the use of a thesis statement is not encouraged. Instead, in writing your essay it is expected that you allow the evidence and reasoning in support of your overall argument to unfold gradually. You are not expected to give away your conclusion at the beginning. This second approach - not having a thesis statement - is common in scientific and engineering disciplines.
Personal or impersonal?
Imagine you are writing a practical report for a scientific discipline. The report is likely to have a structure indicated by sections such as: Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion and Conclusion(s). Commonly, scientific reports are written in a formal, objective style, in which the person carrying out the investigation is not mentioned, but actions are referred to in the impersonal, for example: ’An investigation was carried out ...’ rather than ’We investigated ...’ or ’I investigated .. ’.
In many university programmes, students go out on work placement at some point in their course. When they do so, they are often required to write a reflective report about their experience of the placement. In doing so they are usually encouraged to write a more personal account, using the ’I’ form to discuss their experiences, for example, ’In the second month of the placement I encountered a problem with ..’. Clearly, different kinds of academic writing have distinct conventions.
Nevertheless, there are generalisations we can make about what many kinds of academic writing have
Some common features of academic writing
The following features apply to many kinds of academic writing:
✵It is usually written for a narrow range of purposes, to develop or assess learning.
✵Depending on its purpose, academic writing has particular requirements in terms of structure, organisation and presentation.
✵It usually presents a structured argument overall, supported by secondary arguments.
✵Arguments are built up from evidence and reasoning, either your own or from what you have read, heard or observed.
✵Academic writing adopts an appropriate writing style, usually in formal written English.
✵It follows the conventions of a particular discipline, using appropriate technical vocabulary and agreed principles for citing and referencing.
We will now consider some of these features.
Academic writing as argument
I have used the word ’argument’ several times already. I find it helpful to keep in mind that academic writing is almost always about argument. This moves you beyond writing description - recalling a theory or fact, for example. Description is important, but usually it is a starting point to building an argument, or part of an argument. Thinking of your writing as argument encourages you to weave facts, ideas or opinions into a reasoned overall account. Lecturers, tutors and other assessors of your work are often keen that your writing goes beyond mere description, to critical analysis.
As a starting point, I regard an argument as essentially:
What different disciplines regard as suitable evidence and reasoning can vary, and different assignments within the same discipline might require different forms of evidence. For example, on a psychology course, an individual’s own experience of being a pupil at school might be appropriate evidence to include in an essay about models of behavioural psychology applied to classroom practice. Another assessor, setting a psychology literature review in which there is an emphasis on quantitative research (analysis of numerical data), might not regard personal experience as suitable evidence.
You can recognise an overall argument in a piece of writing because it has the following features:
✵The author gives evidence and reasoning , assembled as reasons (sometimes called supporting arguments, premises or propositions) that support the eventual conclusion. For example, in responding to an essay title ’Is it never too late to learn?’ one of the supporting arguments might include the statement ’In the last 15 years, government schemes have helped millions of UK senior citizens (here, defined as males and females over 60) to learn to use computers and access the World Wide Web.’
✵Reasons are presented in a logical order, an overall line of reasoning, which
✵takes the reader convincingly through to the conclusion. For example, by compiling evidence for improvements in literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing among over 50s who have engaged in government-backed educational initiatives.
✵There is a conclusion - the position that the author wants the reader to accept. For example, ’The evidence presented suggests that, within certain limitations, it is rarely too late to learn.’
In short, an academic argument contains evidence and reasoning that guide the reader, through an overall line of reasoning, towards a conclusion.
Which of these is an argument?
By the criteria used above, which of the three items (a)-(c) below is an academic argument, and which is not?
(a)The main active chemicals in the Cannabis sativa plant are two forms of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), collectively called cannabinoids. A ten-year follow up study of recreational cannabis users, reporting in the British Medical Journal in 2011, showed a doubling in the risk of psychosis among cannabis users compared with a control sample. Previous studies suggest that there is great variation in individual susceptibility to onset of psychosis on exposure to cannabinoids. Pre-clinical studies show promise for THC and CBD, on their own or in combination with other medicinal drugs, in halting or at least slowing the growth of specific cancerous tumours in brain or lung tissue. Further pre-clinical testing, and if successful, then clinical testing, is required to establish the value of cannabinoids as anti-cancer agents. Even if their use is indicated, their psychoactive effects need to be considered carefully, and ways foundfor countering or minimising them. By that time, genetic screening may have determined which patients are likely to be most susceptible to cannabinoids’ negative psychoactive effects. Public attitudes to recreational cannabis use, or use of cannabis extracts in a clinical context, are very mixed. However, any public concerns about clinical use may be dwarfed by the potential for cannabinoids to treat aggressive cancers.
(b)Medicinal drugs can trigger an allergic reaction - an abnormal response from the body ’s immune system that can range from mild to life-threatening. The signs and symptoms of drug-induced allergic reactions include wheezing, swelling, an itchy rash, and nausea or diarrhoea. In the worst cases, so- called anaphylactic shock, sometimes brought about by extreme sensitivity to antibiotics such as penicillin, the person ’s airways narrow dangerously and their blood pressure drops dramatically. If not treated rapidly, normally by injection of adrenaline (epinephrine), the person can die within minutes.
(c)Complementary therapies are seen by many people as a valid supplement or alternative to conventional forms of medical treatment provided by doctors. Complementary therapies such as reflexology, homeopathy and chiropractic are provided by trained practitioners, with many patients claiming that they gain great benefit. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence in support of complementary therapies but I have yet to be persuaded by it.
Is it an argument?
Check your answers at the end of the chapter.
In the higher education traditions of developed Western nations, criticism is encouraged. Being critical involves evaluating what you read; in other words, making judgements about how relevant and important it is in relation to your task. Being critical does not just involve being negative about what you have read. It involves weighing up both sides - the pluses and minuses - of what you have read, seen or heard, and then drawing your own conclusion as to its value in relation to your assignment, or to your learning overall.
The best of Western academic traditions encourage you to think for yourself. In such traditions, if your reasoning is flawed or weak this should be noticed by your assessors, and perhaps by other students, who will help guide you in more fruitful directions.
By thinking for yourself, and helped by others’ questioning, you are encouraged to develop higher- level skills, including:
•Analysing. Reading the work of others and breaking down their arguments into component parts in order to better understand them.
•Synthesising. Building your own arguments, drawing upon the work of others.
•Applying. Taking facts or ideas and using them in another context, such as a practical, real-world one.
•Evaluating. Judging the validity of elements of an argument, whether your own or those of others.
Being critical, from start to finish
As we shall see, although there are times when you want to put your ’critical mind’ on hold and encourage creativity, being critical applies to many stages in completing an assignment. You will want to think critically about how you interpret an assignment, how you begin to devise your respons and what materials you need to read. You then need to think critically about the material you are reading, and decide which is strong and relevant and which is weak and irrelevant. As you write the text for your assignment, you will need to check that your writing is building a strong case. Finally, you will need to check that your submitted assignment is written to a high standard, with attention to detail - both in its text and its visual appearance. Being critical is a frame of mind you need to come back to again and again.
I am writing this book, for the most part, in a reasonably casual style. The writing you are asked to do in your assignments is usually much more formal. It normally needs to meet these requirements:
✵Employing words that have precise meaning; for example, ’analyse’ rather than ’think about’.
Avoidig jargon or colloquial English. For example, instead of writing ’ideas were knocked about’ or ’everyone pitched in with their ideas’, you might write ’ideas were discussed and considered’.
NoU using contractions. Instead of’can’t’ and ’doesn’t’, write ’cannot’ and ’does not’.
✵On many occasions one avoids writing in the personal (for example, ’you’, ’I’ or ’we’). Instead, the impersonal is often encouraged by assessors, such as, ’The analysis was carried out’ rather than ’We carried out the analysis’. The use of the impersonal is linked to the use of the passive voice, something to which we will return in Chapter 3.
✵Academic writing usually avoids using direct or rhetorical questions; for example, ’Was the solution to the problem within the hands of the protesters?’
Formal, with clarity
Writing formally does not mean that you cannot write clearly. Aim for formality and readability.
Using words with precision
Academic writing often goes beyond description. It usually involves being critical and making judgements about the worth of sources of information that are used in writing an assignment. In academic writing, words tend to be used with greater precision than in everyday writing.
Here, for example, I have chosen a range of verbs (doing words) that might be used in an assignment brief or in an examination question. Each verb has a specific meaning.
Words and precise meanings
Match the following verbs with their meanings. Draw a line between the verb on the left and its best meaning from the list on the right.
A. Make clear the meaning of something. This might include giving a personal judgement.
B. Set two views in opposition in order to highlight the differences between them.
C. Give an overview of the general principles and/or main features of a subject, omitting fine detail.
D. Give reasons for decisions or conclusions reached, which might include responding to possible objections.
E. Assess the value of something, which might include offering a personal opinion.
F. Point out similarities and differences between two or more views. This might involve coming to a conclusion as to the preferred view.
Check your answers at the end of the chapter.
During a lecture, a member of staff might use the phrase ’Now, let’s look at...’ to mean ’Now let us consider ..’ rather than ’Now let us observe ..’. Using ’look at’ (when it does not mean ’observe’) is perfectly acceptable in speech. In academic writing, however, the use of the phrase ’look at’ can be replaced by more specific verbs that are more precise in their meaning.
Avoiding ’look at’
Without using the words from Activity 1.3, write down six verbs that could replace the term ’look at’, but not in the sense of ’to observe’.
Imagine you are writing the first sentence in part of a report. You’ve started writing. ’This sections looks at ...’ You could replace ’looks at’ with ’considers’, as in ’This section considers ...’. Think of six other verbs you could use in place of ’looks at’.
Compare your answers with those at the end of the chapter.