Preparing for Academic Writing & Speaking

Introduction

Formal writing and speaking are necessary for all students in higher education. They are both processes; they both start from an understanding of your task. They then go on to doing the research and reading. The next stage is planning and preparing various drafts. This is followed by proofreading and editing. All this should lead to the final written text or oral presentation.

Academic communication is a social practice. By a social practice I mean that it is what people do together. This means that you always write or a speak with a readership or audience in mind. You always write or speak  with a purpose: to explain, to persuade etc. It also means that what is right and wrong, appropriate or inappropriate is defined by the users in the social community. In your case these are other students, lecturers or examiners. There is nothing natural about the organisation and the way language is used in a scientific report, for example. It is as it is because that is the way it has developed through centuries of use by practitioners. For that reason it has to be learned. No-one speaks (or writes) academic English as a first language (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1994, p. 8). It must be learned by observation, study and experiment.

Academic writing and formal spoken English are clearly defined by having an obvious audience, and a clear purpose, either an exam question to answer or a research project to report on. They are also clearly structured.

Formal academic communication in English is linear:

- it starts at the beginning and finishes at the end, with every part contributing to the main line of argument, without digression or repetition. This line of argument must be made clear whatever kind of writing or speaking you are producing and you, the writer/speaker, are responsible for making this line of argument clear and presenting it in an orderly fashion so that the reader or listener can follow.

Your work should have the following sections:

Preliminaries
Main text
End matter

 

The preliminaries and end matter will depend on the kind of text you are producing. The main text will, however, generally contain an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. The introduction will usually consist of some background information, which will give the reason for the writing/speaking and explain, to some extent, how this will be done. This must be closely connected to the essay or research question or presentation topic. The main body will then contain some data - either experimental, from ideas or from reading - and some argument. This will then lead to the conclusion, which will refer back to the introduction and show that the purpose has been fulfilled. The actual form of the main body will depend on the type of text - spoken or written - you are producing.

Common pieces of writing in the academic world are essays and reports. Many students will take a written examination. Formal spoken language often means a seminar or a formal oral presentation.

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