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academic writing from language and learning online

Language and Learning Online http://www.monash.edu.au/lls/llonline/writing/general/academic/2.xml, 2010-9-4 What is academic writing? Different traditions, conventions and ways of thinking have developed in different areas of knowledge over the years, so you will find that academic writing differs from discipline to discipline. Researchers, when they publish their work, are always putting forward an argument of some kind, but how much this is obvious, how it is structured, what counts as evidence, depends on the discipline or field: whether it is history, zoology, physics or whatever. Features of academic writing 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Authority and credibility style and clarity Structure An analytical approach Attribution of references

Authority and credibility
You need to develop your own credible academic voice – as a marketer, a sociologist, an art historian. These voices will all sound different, but all the time you are developing your repertoire. This practice will be of great value once you are a graduate and needing to produce different types of texts with different conventions for different audiences in your workplace. In academic writing, your ideas and claims must be supported by evidence and argument, and the sources of all ideas and data must be acknowledged. A point worth remembering is that your lecturer will ask the same types of questions when reading your essays as you ask when reading critically. That is, they will be looking to see how well supported your ideas or arguments are, and whether that support is valid, relevant, sufficient and convincing. They will consider any claims you make in the light of the evidence and support you provide, and in terms of the range and currency of sources you have consulted and referred to. Which of the following statements reads as most credible and convincing? Why? 1. Emotional intelligence is essential in the practice of management.

2. In my opinion emotional intelligence is essential in the practice of management. 3. According to Smith (1967) emotional intelligence is essential in the practice of management. 4. Jones (2004) argues that emotional intelligence is essential in the practice of management. In his view successful management practice hinges on effective communication between people, and emotional intelligence can contribute to that.

Key: 1. 2. 3. Presents someone's opinion as a factual statement. Presents the same statement as your opinion. Simply states the view of a writer (who may have done research on the topic or who may be expressing just a personal opinion – we don't really know from 'according to…') Presents the view as something which needs to be argued for, not something which can be accepted just because an author has said so. It is fine to say 'according to', but it does not (yet) really prove anything or give an idea of what sense you made of the information.


Supporting your ideas
Rather than explicitly stating your opinion, in academic writing often your opinion can emerge through your choice of sources and how you present and examine the ideas of others. In academic writing, we tend to avoid making categorical or emphatic statements. This is in order to: acknowledge that there may be exceptions acknowledge that there may be a range of possible causes or explanations avoid making statements that cannot adequately be supported or defended. It is therefore often wise to: qualify your ideas explain your ideas explore your ideas. Some ways we avoid making emphatic statements: referral to tendencies

using qualifiers and quantifiers acknowledging exceptions and limitations. When you write or make a statement, ask yourself – Is this true in all cases? Are there exceptions?

Referring to tendencies
These examples contain useful expressions to refer to tendencies Examples The evidence suggests that diet was an important factor in the health of the respondents. This appears to indicate a tendency to ignore the warning signs. The results would seem to suggest that… One possible explanation for the findings is that… The findings suggest that age may be a contributing factor to the observed behaviour. The findings indicate a possible connection between…

Acknowledging exceptions and limitations
Acknowledging exceptions in your writing (or limitations in a research study) reduces the likelihood of the reader raising those issues to criticize your argument or dispute your findings. There are a variety of expressions you can use to convey precise shades of meaning like qualifiers and quantifiers. Examples Whilst the findings of the study could be applied in most instances, there were some important exceptions. In particular, it was found that people with food allergies did not benefit from the changes to their diet, and in fact in some cases experienced negative reactions. The argument that sport is good for your health is hard to dispute, with the exception of instances when it leads to serious injury. For the majority of participants adventure sports like rock-climbing are very beneficial;

however, for an unlucky minority such sports result in permanent injury or even death. A limitation of the study was the relatively small sample size. For this reason, these findings cannot be generalized to the broader community based on this study alone.

Examples Generally,… In most cases,… In general… As a general rule… Generally speaking… On average,…

Style and clarity
What does style and clarity in academic writing involve? precise use of formal language impersonal style clearly constructed sentences care with abbreviations and acronyms logical and systematic development of ideas.

Formal language
When writing or speaking, we choose the words which seem most suitable to the purpose and audience. In academic writing we use formal language, avoiding the use of slang and colloquial language. Try to learn a range of appropriate language for expressing your opinions and referring to those of others. Some of the language in the following examples is more appropriate for speaking than writing. Identify which expressions are too informal. 1. When I look at the situation in emergency wards, with many staff leaving, it's hard not to worry about how many doctors will be available to treat patients in the future.

2. If we consider the situation in emergency wards, with increasingly low staff retention rates, there are concerns about the capacity of hospitals to maintain adequate doctor to patient ratios. 3. It's so obvious that people were given jobs just because they were male or female. I don't think that is an acceptable approach and is even against the law. 4. It appears that in a number of instances jobs were assigned on the basis of gender. Given the current anti-discrimination laws, this raises serious concerns. In contrast to spoken English, a distinctive feature of academic writing style is for writers to choose the more formal alternative when selecting a verb, noun, or other part of speech. English often has two (or more) choices to express an action or occurrence. The choice is often between, on the one hand, a verb which is part of a phrase (often verb + preposition), and a verb which is one word only. Often in lectures and in everyday spoken English, the verb + preposition is used (eg speak up, give up, write down); however, for written academic style, the preferred choice is a single verb wherever possible. For example Informal: The social worker looked at the client's history to find out which interventions had previously been implemented. Academic: The social worker examined the client's history to establish which interventions had previously been implemented. Exercise 1 Rewrite the sentences in a more academic style using verbs from the list below. Note that you may need to change the verb tense. investigate assist raise discover establish increase eliminate

1. Systems analysts can help out managers in many different ways. 2. This program was set up to improve access to medical care. 3. Medical research expenditure has gone up to nearly $350 million. 4. Researchers have found out that this drug has serious side effects. 5. Exercise alone will not get rid of medical problems related to blood pressure.

6. Researchers have been looking into this problem for 15 years now. 7. This issue was brought up during the coroner's inquest.
Adapted from Swales, J. and Feak, C. M. Academic Writing for Graduate Students, pp. 5-9

Impersonal style
Compare the changes in these sentences from informal to academic style. Comparison of sentences from informal writing to academic writing Informal writing Academic writing

If we consider the situation in emergency When I look at the situation in emergency wards, with increasingly low staff wards, with many staff leaving, it's hard retention rates, there are concerns about not to worry about how many doctors will the capacity of hospitals to maintain be available to treat patients in the future. adequate doctor to patient ratios. It's so obvious that people were given jobs just because they were male or female. I don't think that is an acceptable approach and is even against the law. It appears that in a number of instances jobs were assigned on the basis of gender. Given the current anti-discrimination laws, this raises serious concerns.

You will notice that, in general, in academic writing we: minimize the use of the personal I in the text: avoid writing 'When I look; I don't think this is an acceptable approach' use formal verbs, and fewer verb phrases (verb + preposition), use consider rather than look at use impersonal expressions: there are…, this raises use more nouns than verbs: concerns, rather than to worry avoid emotional expressions, such as it's so obvious ( it appears is preferable); just because ( assigned on the basis of is preferable) aim for concise, often abstract expression, gender, rather than male or female. Objective writing In general, academic writing aims to be objective in its expression of ideas. Therefore specific reference to personal opinions, or to yourself as the performer of actions, is usually avoided. Expressing opinions Expressing opinions

Personal In my opinion I believe that… In my view…

'Objective' It has been argued that Some writers claim… Clearly,… It is clear that… There is little doubt that…

Avoiding too much reference to yourself as agent in your writing Avoid reference to yourself as agent in your writing Agent or performer I undertook the study… I propose to … No agent or performer The study was undertaken… It is proposed to…

In this essay I will examine… This essay examines…

There are times when it is important to emphasize authorial stance – ie that it is specifically your position or view. Check with your tutor in the unit as to how much of yourself as the author it is appropriate to acknowledge and include in your writing.

Clear sentences
For clarity, it is also important to keep a check on sentence length. If sentences are too short, your writing will sound childish; if they are too long, the reader will lose track.

Sentence length – not too long and not too short
Note: A skilful writer can produce much longer sentences which remain clear and effective. Some topics and some tasks may tend to require longer sentences. What is important is not that you count up every sentence, but that you think about sentence length when writing, monitor your own writing to ensure that the meaning is always as clear as possible, and explore opportunities to vary sentence length when appropriate. Short sentences aid coherence, whilst longer sentences aid cohesion. Look at the three texts below, all on the same topic. Which is the best text? Which is the worst text? Why?

Text 1 Two canine cadavers with orthopedic abnormalities were identified which included a first dog that had an unusual deformity secondary to premature closure of the distal ulnar physis and a second dog that had a hypertrophic nonunion of the femur, and the radius and femur of both dogs were harvested and cleaned of soft tissues. (54 words) Text 2 Two canine cadavers with orthopedic abnormalities were identified. The first dog had an unusual deformity. It was secondary to premature closure of the distal ulnar physis. The second dog had a hypertrophic nonunion of the femur. The radius and femur of both dogs were harvested. They were cleaned of soft tissues. (51 words; average 8.5 words per sentence) Text 3 Two canine cadavers with orthopedic abnormalities were identified. The first dog had an unusual deformity secondary to premature closure of the distal ulnar physis; the second, a hypertrophic nonunion of the femur. The radius and femur of both dogs were harvested and cleaned of soft tissues. (46 words; average 15.3 words per sentence) What are the problems with each text? You can tick more than one. Key: Text 1 Two canine cadavers with orthopedic abnormalities were identified which included a first dog that had an unusual deformity secondary to premature closure of the distal ulnar physis and a second dog that had a hypertrophic nonunion of the femur, and the radius and femur of both dogs were harvested and cleaned of soft tissues. What are the problems with Text 1? Your answer: sentence too long too complicated

unclear what 'which' refers to the and' in bold doesn't express a logical connection unconnected sentences not clear what 'it' and 'they' refer to theme of paragraph not clear Problems with Text 1: 1,2,3,4. Problems with Text 2: 5, 6, 7

Text 3: the best---the first sentence introduces the topic simply but clearly. The second contrasts the two conditions and so arouses reader interest. The third connects the two by summarizing what was done on both.

Use of acronyms and abbreviations
Explain any terminology which you think may not be familiar to the reader – or which they may not necessarily know you know. Always write a long name in full the first time you use it, regardless of how well known it is. For example The World Health Organisation (WHO) is affiliated with the United Nations (UN). The UN provides funds which help the WHO perform its role effectively. Research into weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has increased the potential risks from bioterrorism. Agencies involved in the development of WMD have on occasion failed to maintain adequate levels of security, and this has led to potentially hazardous materials falling into the wrong hands. Abbreviations should generally be avoided. However, it is appropriate to use standard abbreviations sometimes in scientific writing. For the first reference to a term in the text, the term should be used in full with the abbreviation included in brackets. For the remainder of the text the abbreviation should be used. However, abbreviations should not be used in the abstract or in the title. For example Where the patient exhibits these symptoms it is appropriate for the doctor to request an electrocardiagram (ECG). An ECG may help to establish…

Adapted from Peat, J et al, (2002) Scientific writing, London: BMJ. Note that, in academic writing usually the full form is used rather than contractions, as follows Avoid abbreviations in academic writing Full form do not cannot will not must not he would Contraction don't can't won't mustn't he'd

Logical development of ideas
Coherence In writing which is coherent the ideas are expressed clearly and logically, and supported with reasons and examples. These factors make it easy for the reader to follow the argument and intentions of the writer. Cohesion In writing which is cohesive, the writing flows, and is linked together well at the: sentence level paragraph level whole text level. Some features of cohesive writing are: a range of sentence structures using punctuation correctly well-constructed paragraphs effective use of linking words transitions between paragraphs and sections of the assignment.


What does structure in academic writing involve? Explicit organization Conformity to required formats and conventions Logical presentation of sections and paragraphs. Organization in academic writing involves putting yourself in the reader's position and thinking about what is the best order and presentation for your work to make sense to them. Once you have thought about this, you need to signal to your reader throughout your piece – not just what you are saying – but what you are doing. This enables them to see where you are going, follow your direction, and therefore be more sympathetic to your writing. To keep your reader on your side, you also need to follow carefully the specific format and particular application of academic conventions for your subject which you will find set out in your unit guide. For structure of particular types of assignments, look at the features of these sample assignments in Writing for Subjects. Structuring an argument for English Focusing on the topic:tie in your introduction and conclusion closely to your topic Writing a qualified answer to a question Linking main points

Writing effective paragraphs
An important key to good essay writing is effective paragraphing. Basically, when you start a new idea, you should start a new paragraph. A paragraph is '…a self-contained expression of a single main idea.' (Higgs et al 2005:49) A paragraph generally consists of 3 parts: 1. topic sentence o not just mentioning the topic but presenting the controlling idea (what you are saying about the topic) 2. supporting sentences 3. concluding sentence ('clincher'). paragraphing in science Paragraph length – not too long and not too short

Paragraphs that are overly long can be tedious to read, and reduce coherency in your writing. On the other hand, paragraphs that are overly short (consisting of only one or two sentences) can be distracting for the reader, making your writing appear disjointed and less cohesive. The following is an example of an essay with good content, but poorly constructed paragraphing. Patient self care, lifestyle and stress There are a number of lifestyle factors that have an effect on the health of an individual, particularly when suffering from a heart condition. Following the onset of his heart condition, Eric became aware of the need to modify his lifestyle. In particular he realized that he had to reduce his consumption of alcohol, as he was previously a heavy drinker. Eric did a very stressful job, so occupation was also a significant factor affecting his health. He worked long hours and describes his job at that time as extremely demanding. Read the text below. Notice how the first paragraph introduces the broad theme for the section, and the topic sentence in the second paragraph continues that theme. Patient self care, lifestyle and stress There are a number of lifestyle factors that have an effect on the health of an individual, particularly when suffering from a heart condition. These include diet, exercise, social habits, occupation and stress levels. In Eric's case, his social habits were particularly significant, as prior to the onset of his condition he was accustomed to spending almost every night at his local hotel. In a typical night he would consume several alcoholic drinks and smoke a number of cigarettes. At his doctor's advice, he has now modified this behaviour, and only visits his local hotel once a week. Another significant lifestyle factor affecting patients with heart conditions is occupation. Clearly problems can arise where an individual with a heart condition has a high pressure, stressful occupation. At the time of his first heart failure, Eric was working as an editor on a national newspaper. He worked long hours, did shift work, had irregular meal breaks and sometimes worked to very tight deadlines. In his own words, his job had 'an adverse effect' on his health – it was a significant cause of stress in his life at that time. Although it is not possible to have a firm rule on the ideal length of a paragraph, what in your view is a reasonable range to aim for in terms of the number of sentences?

Exercise Choose a text that you have written previously, and examine your writing, focusing on the paragraphing. Are your paragraphs of a reasonable length, or are they tending to be too long or too short? Do your paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Note your writing style and what modifications you need to make to produce more effective paragraphs.

Imagine trying to find your way around a new city if there were no street signs or traffic signs. In academic writing, signposts are very important. In a longer essay, it is not sufficient to simply outline the intended essay structure in the introduction – you need 'signposts' throughout the essay to remind the reader where he has come from and to tell him where you plan to go next. Signposts can take the form of words signalling the order in which ideas are presented or sentences explaining the transition from one section of your writing to another.

Transition sentences
Example 1 Having examined the role of the liver in breaking down alcohol within the body it is now necessary to consider the effects of excessive consumption of alcohol on other parts of the digestive system. Example 2 To this point the focus has been on the potential health benefits of genetic modification of foods, particularly in addressing specific dietary deficiencies. However, it is important to recognize that genetic modification is not always motivated by a desire to address health issues. I will therefore now consider some examples of genetic modification which appear driven more by marketing than health considerations. Example 3 In the above discussion several advantages of the proposed new surgical techniques have been considered. It is important however to also examine some potential disadvantages. In terms of patient recovery times, for instance, there are real concerns regarding…

Example 4 Clearly bioterrorism presents a number of serious challenges for law enforcement agencies in Australia, and these have been outlined above. However, dealing with bioterrorism is even more complex in regions where the impact may affect populations in several countries at once. This requires agreements on jurisdiction and a high level of cooperation between enforcement agencies from the different countries. Issues related to this situation will now be considered, with a focus on Western Europe.

Often in discussing a particular point within an essay we list several factors, sometimes using 'sequence markers' ( Firstly , Secondly, Thirdly). If there are a number of factors to consider, it is useful to remind the reader of the point to which they relate. In the examples below the particular point is underlined. Firstly,… Secondly,… A third factor in healthy liver function is… You will notice this involves a linking word or phrase + restatement of particular or central point. If there are several factors then a suitable phrase can be used to introduce additional ones: Firstly,… Secondly,… Thirdly,… Another significant factor in assessing the risks of bioterrorism is… Another key implication of the shift to new surgical procedures is… A further factor to consider in the debate on genetic modification is… Finally,…

An analytical approach

By setting essays as an important mode of assessment, universities are not simply aiming to assess the ability of students to understand and recall information. Essay tasks are intended to assess your ability to: analyse concepts and arguments synthesise ideas and evidence drawn from different sources construct consistent and well-supported arguments discuss an issue in a balanced way evaluate the ideas and arguments of others make judgements and express informed opinion. Lecturers often complain that students tend to write essays which demonstrate lower level thinking skills, whereas what they are seeking is evidence of more complex thought.

Cognitive level of your response
From simplest to most difficult, the six key 'cognitive domains' (or thought processes) are: 1. recall 2. comprehension 3. application 4. analysis 5. synthesis 6. evaluation. It is important that your essays do not simply describe or reproduce key facts, or only outline the perspectives of various writers, but that they go beyond that, introducing elements of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

What you need to do
When you plan an essay, and as you are in the process of writing an essay, check whether you are addressing levels 4 to 6, or only the first 2 or 3 of the 'cognitive domains' listed above.
Adapted from Greentham, B 2001, How to write better essays, Palgrave, Houndmills, pp. 63-64.

Attribution of references

Careful thinking and note taking underpin good academic writing and appropriate acknowledgement of sources. Keeping good bibliographic records of the texts you have read will save lots of time when you are citing sources in your assignment later on.

Some common problems – checklist
Checklist of common problems Problem Comment A common complaint of lecturers is that students in general tend to describe rather than analyse in their writing. It is usually not enough simply to outline what you have read. You need to evaluate the ideas, compare them with those of other writers, and examine issues and perspectives critically. What helps: linking words transition sentences careful paragraphing 'signpost' expressions sub-headings consistency between introductions and conclusions Do not use contractions. Use academic written, not spoken English. Avoid slang or colloquial language and idiom. Avoid 'patchwork paraphrasing'. Whilst it is important to refer to other writers in academic writing, it is also important not to rely too heavily on their words. Try to paraphrase much more than you quote.

Too much description, not enough analysis

Poor structure

Wrong register (language too informal)

Ineffective paraphrasing

Too many quotes

Poor choice of quotes

Only use a direct quote if it is particularly well-expressed or the ideas are particularly significant. Appropriate quotes used sparingly can greatly improve your writing, but using too many quotes, particularly if they are not well chosen, will detract from your writing. Quantity of your references Quality of your references Ensure you understand the style required for the particular assignment. Failure to acknowledge the source of all ideas is a serious matter. Copying directly from another text without acknowledgement is even more serious.

Insufficient or inadequate sources

Incorrect referencing


Further academic writing resources
General writing resources
Assignment Builder Cre`me, P & Lea, MR 2003, Writing at university: a guide for students, second edition, Open University Press, Maidenhead. Greentham, B 2001, How to write better essays, Palgrave, Houndmills. Higgs, J et al 2005, Communicating in the health and social sciences, OUP, Melbourne. Leki, I 1998, Academic writing: exploring processes and strategies, second edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Matthews, J Bowen, J & Matthews, R 1996, Successful scientific writing, CUP, Cambridge.

For more advanced writing

Swales, J & Feak, CB 2004, Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills, second edition, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. Taylor, G. 1989, The student's writing guide, New York: CUP.

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