Writing for Academic Purposes (from a lecture)

This lecture is about the skill of writing prose for academic purposes. It may be more relevant to writing up research itself but much still relates to writing up a research plan.

The first important point is lucidity. The need is to communicate precisely and to the point. Too many essays consist of paragraphs which are unclear and waffle. If a paragraph conveys nothing or nothing much, it either needs to disappear or be cut down. Also, avoid jargon, for reasons of clarity and helping the reader.

Introductions need to be short and to the point. You can tell the reader what you are going to say, but not too much and in no detail. If possible, don't give away the ending - instead whet the readers appetite. The introduction should motivate the reader. So it is better to outline the basic issues and suggestions for resolution no more. The detail comes in the main body of any piece of writing.

You should try to interweave factual information and argument in the main body of the work. This is better than writing lots of facts and then later presenting an argument or your opinion. Many essays or pieces of writing lay down this fact and that, contrary facts, and then stick the deciding opinion at the end. More skilful however is not to divide up the main body of your writing - excluding appendices and bibliography - into two or more chunks of factual presentations and then argument. This is because almost certainly you'll have to repeat the facts anyway in order to conduct the argument or opinion later on. Secondly, it is a more interesting piece of work to interweave factual material and argument. You can also add in whatever is appropriate regarding wit or irony, and also develop your own style of writing.

Purely factual detail can be put in appendices and you can reference to them for when you really have to get into the detail. Appendices are generally statistical presentations or, say, the findings of others. Appendices can be presentations of raw data from your research or secondary sources. When you refer to them in your main text, however, the raw data will be summarised and mixed with explanation and interpretation. It is the job of the main body of work to explain data that sits in appendices.

The Appendices, on the other hand, should be strictly limited to factual data. if you are tempted to make arguments within them, then there is something missing in the main body of your writing. However, there is a get out for this, and this is in the notes.

There are times when argument is necessary, but would be a diversion from your main piece of work. This is where you use notes. You reference a paragraph you have written to your notes. The notes then may enter into a discussion about a particular detail that is not part of your main central argument. It might be, for example, a comment on a book or author, one that is non-essential to your argument. However, lately, I began to think that notes are essentially the result of badly written books or essays. I might be wrong in this, but in my MA I took the extreme position of deliberately writing no notes at all. I did a bibliography of course, and I did an appendix explaining terminology, and another appendix with some extracts of web sites to show how Unitarian Univeralism presented itself, and I did another still with an overview of figures regarding membership, but there were no notes. When a piece of terminology was ambiguous within a text, I was able to reference it to the Appendix - and this is how I built up my Appendix of terminology. When there was mention of numbers and membership, I was able to point to another Appendix. The Appendix on how the organisation represented or advertised itself - the web sites - was mainly left to itself, it was just a support to my main text. But there were no notes. If an argument was peripheral well it had no place in my work at all; if an argument was not peripheral then it should be in the main body. The other point is often the notes are a second place that a literature review takes place - authors comment upon sources. Again, however, the relevance of literature should be discussed in the proper place.

The advantage of no notes meant that the reader did not feel obliged to keep going to the back of the work, or look below, or lose the flow of the argument. The disadvantage for me was that everything I wanted to say had to be in the main body of the text. However, my exclusion of notes was rather extreme, and I did it because of a what the hell attitude in the way that my minority opinion was being treated anyway. But that's another story.

In a long piece of work it is a good idea to use titles. It helps you as author and the reader to organise the work. Titles are helped by numbering. Chapters 1, 2, 3, sections a, b, c, subsections in Roman numerals. This is one way of doing it, depending on how long is a piece of work. My Ph.D thesis was perhaps too extreme in its reliance on sections and subsections. I tried to write some of my MA work without any chapters or numbers, and it was a complete failure. I returned in my dissertation to 1,2, 3, 4, and a, b, c, d etc.. How many numbers and letters, sections and subsections, depends upon the length and type of your own work. But whilst they help, it does not take a way the need for organising the work as having throughout its length one general narrative stream - a sense of beginning, middle and end, and the end should bring everything together in conclusion.

Now I turn to how to write. My advice, for what it is worth, is to get on with it. Others suggest losts of planning and essay plans but I reckon as soon as you think you know what you want to say, start writing. This may be a section you know most about, or you may wish to go for the steamroller approach and just bang out the words throughout the whole thing. You may find that you have a natural or developed talent for producing well ordered text straight away. More likely, however, is that at first what you have written will look dreadful and most of it can be either got rid of or edited. It does not matter: at least you have formed your ideas into written material and something you can work on.

You can write page after page like this, and there is no harm in doing this loosely. However, whilst some sort of plan jotted out may be useful at various stages this should not get in the way of your creativity. In just writing you should find - well I did - that the act of writing itself suggests alternative structures. If you are writing by hand , at least initially, then you could write one paragraph per sheet of paper. It's not waste as correction and rewrites can use the same paper. Alternatively use a word processing package - and in any case the finished product must be typed.

So you write creatively. It's the literary equivalent of brainstorming. In this first phase it is best not to edit - you can but it could be wasted. The priority is to get these ideas on paper or disk.

The second phase is editing with writing. This editing involves writing brand new paragraphs as well, and these are invariably better than what you first thought of. The new paragraphs are written in between the existing paragraphs. Many of the original paragraphs can either be removed or heavily re-edited. So this is why it is a good idea to write - if by hand - on separate sheets for separate paragraphs. You can then edit and rewrite them, and you can shuffle the paragraphs. You could become an expert in cutting and pasting when word processing.

The act of cutting and pasting, or rearranging, is more complex and more essential should you be handling several areas of argument. Do you present this point, then that, then that and argue them separately? There is not one answer to this - except that one mustn't allow the reader to forget one argued point when moving on through others. The skill of writing to structure is to keep everything alive and integrated. Everything must be active in the reader's mind, and everything must relate to everything else somehow.

There is a case against word processing which you might like to consider. It is where you are forced to think about the overall shape and tone of the piece. In the past when people did not word process they did have to get it right. They wrote prose and with skill with structure. However, they did shuffle around pieces of paper. So today you might take some paper and write with a pen simply for style, or as with a typewriter, whether you are word processing the actual work or not. The fact is that writing these days writing tends to be far more compact as pieces get edited and reduced down, and edited again and again.What I'm suggesting then is that the process of editing does compress and contract work, and it may be a good idea to watch how the style changes and keep its literary sense.

So we have the third phase - and perhaps the longest. It is editing. It's where the compression comes in. You cut out the waffle. You rearrang paragraphs.You are at your most critical. When you put in new material it is only to smooth out the paragraphs. Though I have suggested watch it that a sense of style is not too much a victim. So rightly you may find yourself oscillating between stage two and stage three, especially as you come across new material. At that point you backtrack, put it in, and edit with that, and then move on to editing more seriously and removing the obvious joins.

So you have the first draft. The next phase, number 4, may be to leave it and come back to it later for a fresh view. You can get so stuck in the detail that you lose the overall picture. Or show it to someone else and get an opinion. Try someone who only knows something of the subject: it may be that terms cannot be understood. It may be that although the order of the work made sense to you it makes someone else confused. A good idea may be to read out the text to that person, thus seeing whether it flows and getting suggestions for changes. Or why not go further and have a get together where two or more can take it in turns to read some or all of draft papers. In the case of reading out there is a good argument for some ground rules, something like matching any two negative comments with at least one positive one (etc.) because no one wants wholly negative sessions.

So the next phase after that, number 5, is revision. This editing may be slight or comprehensive; it all depends. The rewriting - which means editing but also new ways of saying the same thing - is to produce a second, third or final draft. Any further read out sessions should be done with time to spare for corrections and alterations.

Phase 6 is the comprehensive linking the text to notes, appendices and bibliography, including sorting out the notes, the appendices and the bibliography. Of course you do this all the way through, but if you are like me there is always that lost reference or twenty that need finding for sure. What was the publisher, what was the date, which pages, when was it on the internet? Don't know so better go back and check if it is till there and so a very late date can go in. And, whoops, you discover a book that's just come out on your subject so you make a slight change here and there - just a few pages to reprint - and altered references and bibliography and, bingo, this is an up to date piece of work! So everything has to be right.

When done it is submitted. And the day after submission you might think you wish you did part of it this way or that way instead. It's never right. In my case for the Ph.D I discovered all these spelling errors that I thought had been corrected the last time I checked spelling and grammar, and my tutor happily crossed out words and respelt them above the wrong spellings. I said, "I'll have to get much of it redone," and he said, "Oh no, submit the thing just like that." I had done everything so beautifully in terms of binding and presentation and I wanted to do it right. Unlike the two library versions my own copy has instead an inserted page pointing out errors elsewhere. And there are other errors even he missed too, like in the bibliography. What I am suggesting then is that there is never the perfect moment to submit a piece of work. The world changes, others are writing similar things, you can never remove all errors. And everyone knows this so there is no need to be too wound up about it. So when it is done, submit it.

So you can see that writing is more of a marathon than doing the 100 metres, and this is especially true with writing research. So you have to work on building your presentations and arguments for the long haul. It becomes necessary to get those paragraphs well arranged and you are looking for a thread or threads of argument to run right through the whole work. You've got to know the work you have written right through the whole distance of it like a map of it in your mind. And then you need to be able to write it as if your reader is someone who doesn't know that subject very well at all. In a long haul piece of work, keep the language simple and straightforward, because, believe me, complexity and technical jargon will take care of themselves. Don't go down the false road of impressing with jargon, because it never does; it simply leads to confusion and all research writing is trying very much to get its message across.

For another and overlapping view see:

Marshall, L., Rowland, F. (1993), A Guide to Learning Independently, Buckingham: Open University Press, 152-179.