Academic Writing

Introduction

Writing is necessary for all students in higher education. It is a process. It starts from understanding your task. It then goes on to doing the research and reading. The next stage is planning and writing various drafts. This is followed by proof-reading and editing. All this should lead to the final text.

Academic writing is a social practice. By a social practice I mean that it is what people do together. This means that you always write with a readership in mind. You always write 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, colleagues 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.

When using English for academic purposes it is important to be accurate in your writing. It is, however, very difficult to produce language which is intelligent, appropriate and accurate at the same time. It is therefore important to break down the task into stages: an ideas stage and an accuracy stage.

In Writing and the writer, Frank Smith distinguishes between "composition" and "transcription" in writing. "Composition" is deciding what you want to say, and "transcription" is what you have to do to say it. His advice is "The rule is simple: Composition and transcription must be separated, and transcription must come last. It is asking too much of anyone, and especially of students trying to improve all aspects of their writing ability, to expect that they can concern themselves with polished transcription at the same time that they are trying to compose. The effort to concentrate on spelling, handwriting, and punctuation at the same time that one is struggling with ideas and their expression not only interferes with composition but creates the least favorable situation in which to develop transcription skills as well" (Smith, 1982, p. 24).

Therefore, you need to decide on the content of your text and perfect the presentation. There are many ways of doing this. Joy Reid (1984) distinguishes between the two extremes of the radical brainstormer and the radical outliner. The radical brainstormer starts quite early by writing down all their thoughts in a - probably - disorganised way. This might include words, phrases, sentences, diagrams, etc. It will probably include many deletions, lines, arrows etc. The next stage is to organise these ideas and then to put the ideas into sentences and paragraphs. This method will probably involve several drafts. The radical outliner will probably start more slowly, with a lot of thinking. The writing will start by the construction of a clear outline plan. Gradually the plan will be filled out with ideas, notes, references etc. The main writing then follows quite easily. You may have a preference for one strategy, or you may use a combination of the two. Whichever method you choose, though, will involve organisation and writing.

Academic writing in English is clearly defined by having an obvious audience; a clear purpose, either an exam question to answer or a research project to report on. It is also clearly structured.

Academic writing 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 you are producing and you, the writer, are responsible for making this line of argument clear and presenting it in an orderly fashion so that the reader can follow.

Your written 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 writing. 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 and explain, to some extent, how this will be done. This must be closely connected to the assignment or research question. 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 writing.

Common pieces of writing in the academic world are essays and reports, but there are many other kinds: See Writing Genres. Most students will have to take written examinations.


Acknowledgements

It is impossible to write anything about writing without acknowledging the many text books that I have used during the last 25 years. I have been influenced and learned from them all. The first EAP writing book I ever used was Janelle Cooper's Think and Link (Edward Arnold, 1979) and this was followed closely by Bob Jordan's Academic Writing Course (Collins, 1980). Liz Hamp-Lyons and Karen Berry Courter's Research Matters (Newbury House, 1984) helped my thoughts on the process of academic writing. Robert Weissberg & Suzanne Buker's Writing up Research (Prentice-Hall, 1990), John Swales and Christine Feak's Academic Writing for Graduate Students (University of Michigan Press, 1994) and, more recently, Ian Bruce's Academic writing and genre: A systematic approach. (Continuum, 2008) answered some of my questions about whole pieces of academic writing and how they are made up.