A Word from the JALT PSG Coordinator
Possibly one of the hardest tasks that new (and old) writers face is the task of getting their writing to sound academic. A common myth is that academic writing is complex and hard to understand for people unfamiliar with the topic. However, when I read scholarly journals, the articles that stand out as well written are not the overly complex ones, but the ones that are clear, concise and easy to understand–not just by the experts, but by everyone. When I sit down to write an academic paper I realize that achieving this kind of clarity and simplicity is not an easy task. In order to write this column I culled through several websites concerned with writing stylistics. I’ve narrowed down their advice into four characteristics of academic writing that I believe can help you as a writer to get a grip on your academic writing style. I also recommend that you later take a closer look at the websites listed in the references to provide yourself with further help and inspiration as you proceed through your own journey with academic writing.
Characteristics of Academic Writing
The purpose of academic writing is not entertainment, but to provide factual information on a given subject (Hubpages, 2013). That being said, aside from the information being presented in a body of writing, there are also stylistics, or characteristics of academic writing, that need to be adhered to as the educator or researcher presents their ideas to the reader. The four main characteristics of academic writing that need to be considered and adhered to are: voice, clarity, hedging, and responsibility.
The purpose of an academic paper is to present new information or ideas on a certain topic. Therefore, you should write in a confident, yet objective, voice. One of the first steps in doing this is to limit the use of “I” or “the author”, and write in the 3rd person instead wherever possible. Refer to the authority of your work and your research rather than to yourself. Also, be sure to choose your words and phrases carefully. They do not need to be complicated, but they do need to portray a high level of formality in their use. Try not to use slang or colloquialisms, and also avoid using contractions in your writing (Hubpages, 2013; De Montfort, 2016).
It is easy to fall into the trap of using academese when writing academic papers. We have all read papers filled with convoluted phrases and complicated vocabulary; they may sound very smart, but in reality would be much more accessible if written with simple vocabulary and clear, linear phrasing. In 2014, Steven Pinker wrote a booklet for the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled, “Why Academics Stink at Writing.” It provides an entertaining look at some of the reasons why writers fall into the academese trap, and is well worth reading if you are involved in academic writing.
A basic rule of thumb to give your writing clarity is to keep your vocabulary simple, avoid any vague words or phrases, and make certain that every word counts for something (De Montfort, 2016). The information presented in your paper should be understandable for a large audience, not just those familiar with your field or topic. Your writing should also be precise and supported by evidence. Any factual information, figures, or charts needed to understand the topic fully should be provided in your paper (Hubpages, 2016). However, also be cautious not to include too many graphics. If particular facts and figures can easily be explained in paragraph form within the writing, this often proves better than presenting the information through a graphic. An excess of graphics in your writing can have the effect of disrupting the flow of information in the paper, thus making it harder for the reader to concentrate and grasp the arguments you are presenting.
Many believe that academic writing merely conveys facts and information. However, an important feature of academic writing, particularly within the humanities and social sciences, is the concept of cautious language, often called “hedging”. For example, compare the following two sentences from Gillett (n.d.).
“It may be said that the commitment to some of the social and economic concepts was less strong than it is now.”
“The commitment to some of the social and economic concepts was less strong than it is now.”
The first sentence uses hedging by incorporating more of a suggestive tone; this is important as your writing should present your discussions in an objective manner. As an academic professional, your writing is contributing to a much wider debate surrounding your given topic, so your use of language must show that you are simply making suggestions within your selected field (De Montfort, 2016). For a more extensive list of words, phrases and examples regarding hedging, look under “Features of Academic Writing” at http://www.uefap.com/writing (Gillett, n.d.).
In academic writing you are responsible for providing evidence to justify any claims that you make in your paper (Gillett, n.d.). Assumptions are not allowed and everything stated should be accompanied by accurate reporting of where you found the information or how you conducted your research. (Hubpages, 2013). One way to do this is by correctly citing your sources as you paraphrase and summarize your research. Within the fields of TESOL and Linguistics, papers should follow APA guidelines. For a more in-depth look at using the APA format, please see “The Writers’ Workshop Quick APA Referencing Guide” (Gallagher, 2016) in the March issue of TLT.
Academic writing is fundamentally different from other forms of writing and requires the writer to use a unique set of writing conventions. Learning to write in an academic style can be difficult, but as with most things, it becomes easier with practice. If academic writing is new to you, or even if you would consider yourself an old hand at the process, there are a couple of techniques I recommend for improving your writing style. Firstly, read a lot! As you read various academic articles you will find yourself beginning to recognize and acquire the rhythm and language of academic writing. The second is to have a friend or colleague outside your field of expertise read your writing; if they can understand it, you can think of yourself as being on the right track. Finally, consider contacting the JALT Peer Support Group: a group of writers and reviewers available to help you improve your writing in the hope of publishing your work. We are here to help you—and your writing!
De Montfort University (2016). How to write in an academic style. Retrieved from http://library.dmu.ac.uk/Support/Heat/index.php?page=488
Gallagher, B. (2016). The Writers’ Workshop quick APA referencing guide. The Language Teacher, 40(2): 33-34.
Gillett, A. (n.d.). Using English for academic purposes: A guide for students in higher education. Retrieved from http://uefap.com/writing
Hubpages.com (2013). 8 Characteristics of Academic Writing. Retrieved from http://hubpages.com/literature/8-Characteristics-of-Academic-Writing
Pinker, S. (2014). Why academics stink at writing. The Chronicle of Higher Learning. Retrieved from http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/why_academics_stink_at_writin...