#acwri: academic writing

Updates: the Academic book of the future project kicked off in October 2014, holding #acbookweek from 9-16 November….see the open access essay collection, written as an “accelerated publishing challenge” during #acbookweek…på dansk, the poetic turn in academic writing and a moan about academic writing as incomprehensible to normal folkfinal report/s (again) from the academic book project…But Why is academic writing so academic? See Engage 2014.

Aug 2017: notes from latest FutureLearn MOOC, Learning English for academic purposes: first steps  (#FLEnglishatUniversity), at foot of post.

I may have spent over 10 years editing writing by academics into something more accessible, but heck! academic writing is a thing, and as written by non-native speakers offers some opportunities for editorial and translation interventions. Can we boil things down to some rules?

First off, I took a look at FutureLearn/Reading’s Beginner’s guide to writing in English for university study, aka #FLeng4study, which started on 6 October and ran for five weeks. According to the organisers there were over 28K learners from 55 countries enrolled. Like most FutureLearn MOOCs the level felt sub-HE to me, but the following emerged:

  • the key features of academic writing are content (the main ideas and information you want to give plus evidence, ie details and examples), organisation (well structured and linked, giving a coherent whole), language (accurate grammar, good spelling, formal and objective rather than personal style)
  • more on organisation:
    • introduction – two parts; the first part gives some background to the topic, the second part has a narrower focus, telling the reader exactly why you are writing the essay (the thesis statement)
    • paragraphs – also two parts; the first part introduces the reader to the focus of the paragraph (the paragraph leader or topic sentence), the second, the paragraph body, develops the idea as introduced in the first part
    • conclusion – the first part summarises the ideas in the essay, the second part has a wider focus, giving a suggestion for the future, eg a prediction, recommendation or solution to a problem

Week 3 was on using academic language, perhaps rather basic, but illustrates some basic errors:

  • use the present simple for facts, which are permanent or always true and activities, which are repeated or regular; note that the auxiliary verb do is used with the present simple to form negative sentences and questions
  • use there is/are to introduce new information, followed by more information in the rest of the sentence or the next sentence
  • describe general situations using plural nouns without ‘the’
  • use the present continuous for situations which are temporary or changing; formed by using the auxiliary verb to be and the present participle
  • use a variety of clause structures:
    • compound sentences with two simple clauses linked by linking words (and, but, or, so)
    • complex sentences using subordinators (although, because, when, whereas)

Week 4 had some tips on writing a plan, perhaps using mindmapping software:

  • collect all the ideas you have
  • identify the main points and focus on these
  • draw a diagram to show which ideas and evidence to use, organised in a way to answer the hidden question in the title
  • don’t forget evidence (details, examples, facts) to expand on your points

Next up, #acwrimo, aka Academic Writing Month, which with impeccable timing started on 1 November. Find it on Twitter | Facebook | Scoop.it | spreadsheet | map. Launched in 2011 on PhD2Published, #acwrimo is not about quantity over quality but rather about “positive attitudes to writing and established regular and sustainable practices”, with participants encouraged to commit to six basic rules. There’s loads of activity already. Interesting reflections from regular participant Explorations of Style (2012 | 2013).

There’s also a permanent hashtag, #acwri, with fortnightly chats, which I shall keep an eye on no longer run, plus subhash #acwribomo.

And cue linkage!

English for Academic Purposes (EAP):

Style and alternatives:



Aimed at learners, we have Learning English for academic purposes: first steps (course | Twitter), FutureLearn MOOC, six weeks from 3 July 2017, from the Open University. Active learning: “each week of this course will take you through a process of input, transformation and output, where you are introduced to language and then are taken step by step through the process of creating an academic output”. Splendid.

  • week 1: building academic understanding
  • week 2: finding and interpreting information (skipped; see effective searching and referencing primers)
  • week 3: describing problems – listening and note-making, learning language for describing problems and cause and effect
  • week 4: proposing solutions – using a table for note-making, being concise, writing a coherent paragraph, referencing
  • week 5: writing a report – structuring, planning and writing

Useful points:

  • academic vocabulary – formal, precise and complex; includes general academic terms and specialised subject-specific terms; “it is a good idea to record and study new vocabulary in a clear and systematic way” (still!); Academic word list
  • tools for memorising vocab: Quizlet | AnkiMemrise

Basic features of academic texts:

  • designed for study and learning purposes
  • include facts and information based on evidence and research and can be used to develop arguments, ideas and theories
  • use language that is precise and concise; often you will find technical terms relating to a specific subject
  • carefully structured, often in the form of reports, essays, articles or book chapters
  • language is usually formal and abstract, avoiding slang, idiomatic language or friendly terms
  • can contain long, complex sentences that have many nouns
  • aim to be neutral or objective – the language is not emotive or subjective

Strategies for reading an academic text:

  • scanning – letting your eyes run quickly over a text to find the precise piece of information you need, for example scrolling quickly to find a date, heading or name
  • skim reading – reading quickly to get the main ideas of a text because the details are not so important, for example when you read an article but only need the main points, not all the precise details (the main ideas are often found in the first sentence of each paragraph, the introduction and conclusion)
  • intensive reading – taking time to read very closely, and possibly taking notes, when you need to understand the ideas in a text very clearly or when you might need to explain the information to someone else
  • reading for the main ideas – find the main ideas as above, make a note of them using a note-making technique that suits you and keep them for future reference; check any new vocabulary and make a note of it

The importance of paraphrasing:

  • an important skill when communicating information for an academic purpose, as it shows you have understood what you have read
  • also helps you to avoid copying sections of text when you write
  • should be accurate, formal and concise; you do not have to change every word, as there are some words and expressions that have very precise meanings

Ideas about what makes information ‘coherent’ vary from culture to culture. As a general rule, in English:

  • long texts are divided into paragraphs to help the reader find the main ideas
  • each paragraph usually contains one main idea, which is developed over several sentences
  • the main topic of the paragraph is usually presented in the first sentence
  • the following sentences develop the topic by providing supporting examples or further details
  • signposting words and phrases are used to show the reader how the ideas link together, for example; ‘however’, ‘consequently’, ‘and’ or ‘therefore’

Writing a report:

  • report types: reporting on research, writing up a case study, explaining a process
  • be clear about the purpose of the report, eg to inform, persuade, recommend
  • structure:
    • explain the issues; then offer potential solutions and comments on those solutions, (optional) make a recommendation of how to fix these issues
    • address each aspect of the issue in turn and offer suggestions and opinions before moving onto the next one
    • introduction: state the issue by giving some brief background information, and tell your reader how your report will be organised
    • conclusion: summarise the main points very concisely, with a recommendation/s
  • plan: c200 words
  • draft: paragraphs, linking words, formal style (no idioms, contractions, sloppy sentences etc)

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