Dr Mike Rose, Researcher Development Training Officer, Doctoral College
Academic writing is a strange beast. It often looks like botched taxidermy, especially in the editing phase. (I was going to include an image here, but they were all a bit upsetting. Image search ‘weird taxidermy’ at your discretion.) The conventions are often rigid but implicit, and remarkably difficult to articulate.
One thing that does remain constant is that the writing is a form of argument. Within the constraints of specific traditions and formats, you are ultimately proposing a new idea, position or finding, for the scrutiny of other researchers. Keeping this in mind can be one way of hacking through all the possible things you could write about, to find the things you really should include.
There’s no formula to writing a good argument, especially since what counts as good evidence, appropriate style, or critical use of sources will vary by context. Instead we recommend to you a few common ideas that should help you to evaluate your writing (or others’) and plan for maximum effectiveness. For memorability, we have of course arranged these into a short acronym. Good arguments should be CLEAR.
- Audience appropriate
Each of these elements can act as a rough guide for what’s expected from strong academic writing, and a check list for when you are planning your next piece. I’ll run through the implications of each briefly.
Confidence is a measure of your control over the problem under discussion and the resources available to you. The further you get into your research, the more expert you become, able to synthesize information and make the best selections to support your argument. Authoritative writing is one of the things editors of top journals look for, and it is revealed in your writing. Think about places where you may be being too hesitant, relying too much on established sources rather than you own arguments, or have been indirect in showing what your research does and contributes. If you are early on in your project, confidence may seem a long way off, with so much reading to do and work still to complete, but you will get there. And the more you write about it, the more your confidence will build. Try reading papers by respected people in your field and think about their style (rather than the content). Which elements can you make use of yourself?
Logical thinking and writing are of course essential to any argument, making sure that your claims and ideas follow on from each other, with no missing steps or false deductions. Partly this relates to using precise language to moderate your arguments correctly – are you claiming that something has been demonstrated, indicated, suggested, proven, established, exemplified, made likely, been argued for, or simply stated? All of these levels of logical connection have their place in academic writing, and it’s important to keep track of how you employ them. Partly, logical writing is also about structure. Do your sections and ideas come in a sensible order? Have you explained all the key ideas and definitions from the start? Have you cut out irrelevant or distracting sidenotes?
Evidence can come in many forms. First of all, make sure that you substantiate any claims you’re making. Critical awareness might start with acknowledging your assumptions, which may be more or less implicit. Depending on your audience, some assumptions can be taken as agreed upon, while others will need backing up with citations, figures or arguments. How you use evidence will also be part of your authoritative writing: be aware of when you are simply acknowledging a source in order to underpin a matter of fact, when you are synthesising multiple papers to show some commonality or examples in the field, and when you need extended engagement with a source or author. For each of these you will need to provide a different degree of describing the sources: only include description about another source that is necessary for the effectiveness of your argument. This could be a simple reference, or an intricate discussion, but remember that you do not need to tell your reader what previous research did in full detail – if that’s the information they need, your referencing can direct them to read the original for themselves.
Audience appropriate writing starts with a plan. Not only thinking about who is likely to read your text, but also what you want to accomplish from this publication or presentation. Keep in view the main points you want to get across, and make sure they are prominent and integrated into the text. This might be because particular information is relevant to that audience, or because you have strategic ideas about how you want to present your work to a specific group. Include as much contextual information as is needed for a reader to orient themselves, and use language that will be accessible. Generally speaking, if writing for a lay audience you should provide plenty of context and keep the methodology and jargon to a minimum; for examiners and fellow researchers, context can be minimised and jargon can be used to communicate efficiently, but they will want more detail about your methods and analysis. Remember that even an expert audience will need some guidance though; make sure you explain your key definitions and abbreviations, and that you signpost for the reader the ’why’ and ‘why now’ of each element of your discussion.
Refined writing shows. Almost no-one writes a first draft with no need to come back to edit. It would be very nice to splash things down on to the keyboard and go out for the day, but generally speaking efforts to revise and refine will be rewarded. If you go into your writing expecting that you will redraft, it also takes a lot of pressure off you first attempts; things don’t need to be finished or perfect, and the ideas are the main thing. Re-ordering, re-phrasing and minor adjustments can come later. Try being kind to yourself in early drafts, and remember that this is a process. No one is going to see what you’re writing now until you’re ready, so switch off the critical, pedantic reader in your head for a while, and just go for it. It’s much easier to edit a document that’s been written – in whatever state – than to start from a blank page. When you come back to refine the draft, you can approach it with a checklist of aspects to note: appropriate language used, signposting for the reader, explanation of key contributions and ideas, evidence supplied, logical ordering, precise language and sentences that don’t go on for ever. Finally, and only in the later stages, do give yourself the time to proof for typos, grammatical errors or formatting issues. There’s not much point worrying about these until the text is already well developed, but it is important for the final form of things; substantial typographical mistakes dent a reader’s confidence, even if your content is strong.
Writing is process, in several ways. The more you write the easier it will get, and the more you will find your own style and expert voice. It’s also an important part of your thinking – often writing down vague notions or complex webs of related ideas is crucial to understanding them yourself. So, give yourself the opportunity to try things out (and then improve them). You may find that keeping these qualities of good arguments in view will help to organise your writing and recognise effective strategies. I hope that’s CLEAR.