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 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 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 essay 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) started me thinking about whole pieces of academic writing and how they are made up.