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Thing 9: Effective Academic Writing

Updated: Apr 9


Navigating the vast and intricate realm of academic writing is no mean feat. Success demands an ability to negotiate complex ideas with clarity and precision, effectively arguing for your position while demonstrating an awareness of diverse perspectives and engaging in meaningful disciplinary discourse. In addition to the diverse array of genres and styles, expectations and standards may vary significantly within and across disciplines, institutions, and scholarly traditions, adding another layer of complexity to the process. In this Thing, Elizabeth Tynan and Daniel O’Sullivan explore the multifaceted nature of academic writing, encouraging you to reflect on how and why we write.


Part 1

Prof Elizabeth Tynan ~ Higher Degree by Research Professional Development Coordinator, James Cook University, Australia


Writing is a great adventure and can be satisfying and enjoyable. However, some find it daunting as well, particularly if they have not done a lot of writing in the past. Having some guidelines helps, and here we begin that process.


two hikers going towards a mountain with snow on its top
We're all fellow travellers on the adventure of writing (Photo by Toomas Tarteson Unsplash)

1. Strive for Clarity

Many elements go into great academic writing. All of these elements support the overarching aim of clarity. The principle of clarity has a number of consequences. Firstly, clarity relies upon a robust understanding of the rules and conventions of good English expression (or whichever language you are writing in). If you know how to write a clear, grammatical and well-punctuated sentence, your chances of transmitting your original thinking to the audience without confusion are good – although not guaranteed. Strong writing skills are complemented by strong editing skills. Editing in essence involves holding each word, phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph to account. Each of these elements must, individually and collectively, pass the test of clarity.


Another consequence of the iron rule of clarity is that you have to be clear in your mind what you want to say. The best way to ensure this inner understanding is to begin writing early in the process. The reason for this is simply that writing is part of thinking. Drafting and redrafting deepens understanding. Clarity comes from moving words around on the page. Another consequence of adopting clarity as a guiding principle is that you have to question lazy but pervasive habits, such as overuse of jargon and cliched expressions. New ideas demand fresh writing, and fresh writing aids clarity.


Developing and refining your academic writing takes instruction and practice, but it can be mastered by anyone who works at it. Because good academic writing is bound up with clear, critical thinking and a logical approach to communication, it will provide strong generic skills. All professions value these qualities.


Effective writing is different to spoken communication. The written word follows different rules of logic, structure, conciseness and clarity that are not expected in speech. In most cases, written communication is more “formal” than spoken, and this is certainly the case in academic writing. Formal writing requires some discipline, but its strong structure can be liberating as well, because it provides a strict architecture to hold your ideas up. This makes formal, written academic writing more suitable for contributing to the fund of human knowledge. Formal, correct academic writing can (or should) be durable.


Writing is part of thinking. Part of working out intellectual problems involves finding the words to describe them. We cannot communicate to others our understandings of problems and solutions unless we use sequential words. This may seem obvious when stating it so bluntly, but in practice it can be difficult to articulate exactly what we know internally about an intellectual topic or problem. The challenge in academia is finding the best words to express a difficult concept. Your job as the writer is to make the meaning clear; the reader should not have to interpret the meaning. All writing, whether academic or otherwise, must consider the reader as the most important person in this communication transaction.


Characteristics of Academic Writing

  • All statements are supported by evidence

  • All paragraphs have a single, developed, theme

  • All paragraphs begin with a theme sentence

  • The writing is in neutral (non-emotive) language, without slang or jargon

  • The prose is concise, precise and efficient, without excess words

  • The structure of the document makes logical sense and adheres to disciplinary convention.


2. Develop the skill of planning, drafting and editing

The best academic writers are also strict and disciplined editors. Good writing includes the ability to edit your work as a stranger would; that is, considering how your reader will view your writing. The key is taking on the persona of the reader – you will edit most effectively if you can do this.

A polished, critical document emerges from you questioning your ideas, then shaping and polishing them until they are sound, logical and clear to the reader. This refined writing cannot come from the first draft. Allow plenty of time to carry out the various stages of drafting and editing to ensure that you maximise the promise of your raw material. Remember too that good writing is unambiguous. The reader should not have to make a choice about what the writer may mean. To avoid ambiguity, use concrete terms where possible, usually to give examples of more abstract ideas.


Before you attempt the first draft, create a strong logical structure through preparation of a detailed outline. An outline, sometimes known as “draft zero” (that is, a preparatory document before you start drafting) can become an important planning tool for the academic writer, particularly if you have a large and complex research document to produce. An outline is a roadmap, a way of ensuring a logical and complete structure. Draft zero involves more than just naming some of the elements involved but rather fleshing out the ideas you will write about. This planning leads to a document that is logically organised, concise and straightforward to read.


The outline should contain descriptive headings of each significant part of the document, showing its complete scope, relationships between various parts, the amount of space to be given each section, logical order, the places for inclusion of tables and illustrations and conclusions. Remember, the more detailed the outline is, the more useful it will be. Each heading, sub-heading and sub-sub-heading should have as much detail as you need to prompt you when you later write the corresponding sentences and paragraphs.


Several methods can be used to arrange the subject matter for your outline. One of the best ways to quickly write down all the points that you want to include without regard to their order. Some authors then place these points onto post-it notes that can be easily moved around on a large surface such as a piece of paper or a whiteboard. Others choose to do their outlining on a computer, using the cut and paste function to move items around. Move the elements around until you are satisfied that you have the beginnings of a workable structure. Compile the elements into a table, which becomes the starting point for your outline. A table with three columns is one way of doing it. The first column contains the outcome of your arrangement of the subject matter, in the form of headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings. Your middle column should show what evidence/data you will require to write that section. Your third column is where you write the “theme sentences” (info on these to come) for each of your paragraphs. This preliminary work makes the structuring of your document easier and can make the latter stages quite straightforward because the bulk of the work and the thinking occurs at the start.


Once you have created a detailed outline, you will begin your first draft. Note that the outline document should be dynamic: you will revise it as new possibilities become apparent. You should refer to it frequently and it should be a true working document. Once you are happy with it, you can begin drafting.


First drafts are messy and incomplete. Fully argued, reasoned pieces cannot emerge spontaneously but must be worked on. Therefore, first drafts should always be seen as an intermediate stage and an essential step in creative effective academic text. Do not despair at the apparent weakness of the first draft; this is the opportunity to start engaging with the material and deciding what is relevant and what is not required for the argument. All writing, no matter how seemingly “bad”, is the essential first step to a finished, polished piece. See the first draft as a process of pouring out the clay that becomes your raw material. The rest of the process involves moulding this material into the finished piece, just as an artist works the clay into a finished object.


a few wooden toy blocks with a number on each side
Don't forget to number the drafts too! (Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash )

Ideally, you should begin each paragraph with a theme sentence, then use the rest of the paragraph to give examples and explanations of the theme sentence. Do not include ideas that are not in the theme sentence. The discipline this imposes on you yields rewards in terms of persuasive, comprehensive and well-structured writing. Theme sentences help you to organise your thoughts, as well as showing the reader what that paragraph is about.


Once you have your theme sentence, write quickly, without pausing for attention to details of grammar or terminology at this stage. Leave spaces if necessary, but ensure that the central ideas are written down. Supplement the first draft with precise, concrete information to answer the reader’s questions. Then read your second draft and again ask questions of every paragraph:


  • Does it contain specific information that backs your argument?

  • Is it in its logical position?

  • Does it repeat information that is in other parts of the chapter?


Use this draft to ensure that the structure and flow are correct. Shift any information that is out of sequence, then read the draft to ensure that the paragraphs flow from one to the other. Ask yourself: is all the information concisely expressed? Eliminate unnecessary words such as excess adjectives or phrases. For example, instead of writing “…this is a subject that…”, edit it to just “…this subject…”. There are always ways to cut. Eliminate tautologies and redundancies, such as “…estimated at about…” or “…consensus of opinion…”.


Have someone whose judgement you trust read the draft and note any ambiguities or unclear passages for you to consider.


Your fourth draft is where you tidy up the language. Polishing your work at this stage to make sure that the language is strong, clear and precise. You will be ensuring that no gaps remain, and of course checking that your references are all present and correct.


Summarising the drafting process

  • Outline the possible structure

  • Research, then outline again

  • Write, to fill in the outline (first draft)

  • Supplement the draft with precise information (second draft)

  • Check for structural logic and restructure as required (third draft)

  • Strip back: be concise and remove non-essential verbiage and information (third draft)

  • Check for grammar, spelling, punctuation and references (fourth draft)


Pod Discussion point

How do you approach planning, drafting and editing? To what extent do you follow the steps listed above? What advice would you give?


So, to finish, if you think clearly about what you want to say and write it in plain, simple and strong English that the reader has no trouble following, you will be in a good position to contribute to the scholarship of your field.


Part 2

Daniel O’Sullivan – Learning Advisor (Research Literacy), James Cook University, Singapore


Academic writing is like entering an intellectual labyrinth—a thrilling adventure often coupled with formidable challenges. I’ll start by being honest and say I’ve always struggled with my writing; I only began to appreciate its complexities and nuances during my Master’s at the University of Sydney. It was in this space that I learnt to view language as a set of tools for effective communication as well as for analysing how meaning is created and communicated through various social and cultural practices. My lecturers were experts in scaffolding student development of academic language and literacy, helping me understand that academic writing is deeply embedded within disciplinary discourses and communities, each with its own set of norms, practices, and conventions. This shaped my belief that students at any stage of their academic journey require specialised support to develop the skills necessary to engage in specialised discourse expected in professional and disciplinary communities. The question remains how to best achieve this…


In my role as a Learning Advisor, I am lucky to work with students from a range of disciplines engaging in a range of fascinating research projects. To help them better articulate their research and craft their manuscripts, I draw on the explanatory power of linguistic, cognitive and sociological frameworks to develop awareness of language as a system of contextually-bound choices. Here I point out some common issues I encounter in research proposals, literature reviews and draft chapters that can obscure the clarity and impact of academic writing.


1. Clarifying the Research Context: The Power of Articulating the Problem

One issue with much of what I read is a lack of clarity in articulating the problem situation that contextualizes and makes the case for the research. A great deal of effort is put into writing a manuscript that demonstrates detailed knowledge of a topic and the existing literature but I often struggle to see the significance of all the information and the connections between the elements – I can’t see the wood for the trees. I often can’t identify what is motivating the research, what problem is being addressed, or a convincing reason why a reader should invest their time and effort. This foundational step, often underestimated, holds the key to unlocking the broader elements of academic writing. By clearly defining the problem your research seeks to address, you not only anchor your work in a meaningful context but also establish the research warrant that positions and highlights the contribution your work makes to the field. For greater clarification on providing a context for your research and crafting research warrants, check out some of Pat Thomson’s blog posts (e.g., what is a ‘research warrant’?; making the case for your research; the problem with gap talk) For similar discussions, check out some blogs about a ‘red’, or ‘golden’ thread, which is what can create coherence, and ‘sew’ your PhD together.


Pod Discussion point

The question for you as a reader is “can you clearly and succinctly state the problem statement of your current research project?” It would be great to see you sharing yours in your pod.


As a source of inspiration, I’m going to share the challenges I’m having in articulating the problem situation that warrants my own PhD research. I work in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and I’m interested in the knowledge, skills and expertise that inform teachers’ practices. The macro-problem is the positioning of the field of EAP as a service industry that struggles for legitimacy within higher education (e.g., it lacks a disciplinary ‘home’). The meso-problem is that existing conceptualisations of the EAP knowledge base are limited and there is a lack of clarity around the fundamental constructs of the field, limiting understanding of the knowledge that guides EAP practice itself. The specific problem situation (at this stage of my research) is that there is little empirical research to identify the types of knowledge legitimated by practitioners and there is no theorisation of the principles that underpin practitioner knowledge. You might see that I’ve got a good idea of my focus but I’m yet to clarify and provide a persuasive argument as to why this is a contribution – will it be a theoretical, methodological or practical?

2. Navigating the Ebb and Flow of Information: Enhancing Coherence

Another hurdle I commonly encounter is issues with information flow. Flow is a term used to describe writing that is logically consistent and easy to read. When writing ‘flows’ well, readers don’t have to stop, reread or work hard to identify connections between ideas. As a writer, it can be challenging to view the text from the perspective of a reader, who needs to be guided through the text and included as a participant in a dialogue. One of the best ways to do this is to ensure there are predictive and summative layers within and across the entire text and its chapters or sections. A predictive layer acts as a guide, preparing the reader for what is to come, enhancing the overall coherence of your work. Including a summative layer at the end of sections or paragraphs can help reinforce key points, ensuring your reader grasps the significance of the information presented. This principle is well illustrated in this short video, and can help ensure a smooth and impactful information flow within and across chapters, sections and paragraphs. Another great tip is to follow the ‘old-before-new rule’, where the ‘old’ (or known) information is put at the beginning of the sentence and the ‘new’ is placed at the end of the sentence. This helps achieve coherence and cohesion between sentences by making you think about what information is placed in which part of a sentence, and how to organise it so that it ‘flows’ (here’s a nice article for anyone wishing to read more). Understanding the flow of information and thematic organization in writing is a complex yet crucial aspect that maintains coherence and guides readers through the text.


The maze in Glendurgan gardens
Where I am in the labyrinth of writing? (Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash)

Pod Discussion point

Think about information flow in your own writing – How well do you think you do this? Do you consciously consider flow of information? What strategies do you use in your own writing to achieve this?


3. Navigating the Landscape of Concepts: Conceptual Clarity and Taxonomies

Another challenge involves developing taxonomies that clearly establish relationships between concepts and information. Much of academic writing is knowledge management, selecting and organising information in clear and visible ways to achieve a specific purpose. Each discipline possesses a fascinating array of terms, ranging from specialised foundational terms to describe an object of study, to theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. However, these conceptual taxonomies, specifically the relations of classification and composition, often remain implicit, assuming that readers already comprehend these intricacies. This can result in confusion between common-sense definitions and specialized/technical meanings, impeding reader understanding. There is even potential for misinterpretation or misunderstanding between the experts in the field, who may subscribe to alternative perspectives or align to different theoretical or methodological approaches. For example, ‘genre’ is a concept used in Applied linguistics as a framework for analysing the form and function of academic discourse. However, there are different definitions and analyses of genres based on three main traditions: (a) English for specific purposes (ESP), (b) North American New Rhetoric studies, and (c) Australian systemic functional linguistics. While this may seem trivial to some, it is key to anyone conducting research into genre theories and teaching applications. To overcome problems such as this, it’s important for a writer to untangle conceptual intricacies, clearly operationalizing concepts and making explicit relations between what might be obvious to the writer and the reader. This not only avoids potential misunderstandings but also facilitates a smoother transition from the writer's perspective to the reader's understanding.


Pod Discussion point

Are you aware of any terms/concepts that may be easily misunderstood or need to be carefully operationalised in your research project? Can you identify any potential conceptual blind spots in your research area or speciality?


Suggested tasks

In this Thing, we’ve explored only a few elements of the enormous topic that is academic writing. We hope this has proved fruitful and we’re keen for you to share your thoughts and reactions in your pods. In addition to the discussion points in the sections above, we’ve included some other prompts and questions here to generate discussion…

  • Reflect on your own writing practices.

    • How do you approach writing?

    • How often do you write?

    • What strategies do you have in place to keep yourself accountable?

    • Have you set yourself any ‘rules’? (NB. I recently came across these ones, which I’m currently experimenting with).

    • What is the role of language in successful academic communication?

    • To what extent is knowledge about language important (See this great blog for information on Language in the academy)?

  • Do you read, or subscribe to, any academic blogs? There are so many good ones out there providing a range of awesome ideas and tips. I’ve found myself returning to those by Pat Thomson, Rachel Cayley, Sherran Clarence, Raul Pachego-Vega, and the Whisper Collective. Which of these blogs do you know about? Can you find any specific posts that resonate with you? Are there any others you’ve found useful?


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22 abr
Obtuvo 5 de 5 estrellas.

This article is a good balance between the detail of writing techniques and encouragement to write.

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07 abr

Check out the DoctoralWriting blog ( https://doctoralwriting.wordpress.com/) too - it's full of useful information and tips on research writing.

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08 abr
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Handy, thanks!

Mike

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