Effective academic writing
Academic writing is largely a process of rewriting. This may sound strange. However, rewriting does not mean simply copying or repeating but more importantly, drawing from, commenting on and adding to the work of others. Understanding this process allows you to integrate your reading and thinking with your writing practice.
When you read the work of someone else ask the following questions:
- What position is the writer taking to achieve her/his aims?
- Does the writer clearly integrate ideas (theory) with examples (case studies) and evidence (facts)?
- What methodological approaches are used: for example, is this a case study or a textual analysis? How successful are these approaches?
- How does the writer move from one idea (author) to another idea (author)?
- How is continuity sustained?
Preparation entails R&D: reading and discussion.
Reading means engaging with the “field” and its conventions, with current and emerging debates and issues. Why do we have to read so much? Here are five good reasons—and benefits.
- Reading helps you position your work among the most important debates in the field;
- It allows you to see approaches and strategies taken by others;
- It is a way of finding evidence to counterbalance what you have read;
- It is a way of mapping the “coordinates” on your own research territory;
- It prepares you for the task of “discussion”.
Discussion is critical reflection on issues arising from your reading. You can discuss:
- with your peers in informal discussion,
- in seminars,
- in conferences, or
- with your supervisor one-on-one;
In the research journey, writing and thinking are linked to reading and discussion: the process of discovering new things relies on extensive reading, thinking about ideas, doing fieldwork, and a great deal of writing and re-writing.
The key principles of academic writing are:
- Clear thinking: clear thinking leads to clear writing and clear writing stimulates clear thinking. You have to think clearly to produce a PhD or MA. Often the act of writing about a topic will produce new insights into that topic because you are required to put your thoughts down on paper in a logical manner.
- Clear structure: writing forces a structure on your raw material: raw material by itself is not engaging if it is messy and disconnected. Good sentences are not enough: you need to think about paragraphs, sections, introductions and conclusions
- A sense of audience: writing develops with practice and become clearer with frequent writing.
When you re-read your work, think about these questions:
- Do you understand your audience and the people who will read your work?
- Have you used the correct register (that is, the most suitable language for your audience)?
- Have you paid attention to grammar?
- Does each paragraph have an identifiable topic sentence?
- Are there any phrases that could be replaced by one word?
Some more helpful hints
Writing good prose is an acquired practice, even though taking the first step can be daunting, and especially if the ideas are still formulating in your brain and research questions have yet to emerge. Do not worry, this happens to all students.
Extensive reading is a good practice BUT only if you take notes and have a good system of organising ideas. You can combine reading and writing effectively if you use the R&D approach to writing; that is, read and discuss and then write a summary of the ideas. When you read an article, list the main points (you can add this to your ENDNOTE software).!
When drafting, it is a really useful idea to use a header. A good header might be something like Introduction chap. 1 2008-04-21 (use whatever dating, coding system you find works best). It will also help your relationship with your supervisor if you follow this practice. When you send your drafts to be read, always date the file and insert page numbers.
Cutting and pasting makes shifting text and ideas easier. But it can be a bad habit to get into, especially if you take ideas directly from someone else’s work. This is plagiarism. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to acknowledge all your sources, with the following exceptions:
1) Common knowledge for example, Canberra is the capital of Australia!
2) Widely available facts for example smoking causes bad health, and!
3) Findings from your own field research — such as interviews and survey results. Voice
People use language in different ways. We often use the word “register” to describe style. Because you are writing in an academic register the language has to be suitable for that register. It should be formal and not colloquial.
Use active verbs where possible.
When you are reading other peoples’ work, see how they use active or passive voice. Which works better?
Keep research question(s) near your computer. When you begin reading or writing, ask yourself “Does this research relate directly to my question?” If not, be aware that you are giving time to something that might not help your project. It is often useful to “read around” an area but too much reading can divert you away from your topic.
Have a general plan of your entire project, or a map, on your wall. You need to be able to see where you are placing effort. You might be avoiding a key area. The plan can change of course; keep track of your progress in a general way and mark the areas that need attention.
If you finish a period of writing before completing what you are wanting to say, add notes at the bottom of your last paragraph reminding yourself of what to do next. This gives a place to start when you next sit down to write.
Allow some time for editing work before handing it to a supervisor.
Try not to be drawn into other commitments that distract from your work.
When you come to write your first paper for publication you need some practical method. The following is a relatively simple plan for arranging your ideas in a logical sequence.
Make a decision about where to publish. If the target is a journal check some of the work already published. See if your topic fits. If you decide this is the best journal, take note of style and format. Does the journal prefer theoretical discussion or thick case study approaches? Are the articles structured around robust methodological discussion? How much attention is paid to theory and literature review?
If your work is just descriptive, rethink. What are you offering the reader in exchange for their time?
The article you write becomes a series of moves. How do you move to formulate and present your ideas in a convincing way?
The key processes are:1
- Translating the work of others into your own ideas;
- Pushing the discussion in the field forward, to say something new;
- Using weaknesses or gaps in other people’s work to develop a new line of enquiry;
- Adopting a suitable authorial style;
- Fine-tuning the document.
- Work out how many sections your article or chapter needs. If you have written an abstract [this is good practice], you should already know this.
- Make a series of dot points in each section: the dots are your ideas. These ideas can be connected later as you use your dot map to see what is missing. As this is a plan you will need to come back to critical texts. Add in book references in italics or ‘journal articles’ in inverted commas; add in ideas in bold or underlined.