Academic writing scares many people who have lots of good things and ideas to put forward. Others have been told they should write better without being helped to understand how. But it's not magic and it's not rocket science; it's a set of skills, and you can learn them. Through my first year as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Goldsmiths, I've been shaking out and clarifying my ideas of how academic writing does and should work, with a little - or rather, a lot - of help from the RLF's own resources. Not everyone will agree on which are more important, and disciplines do vary, in both their nature, and their traditions and current forms: an account of an astronomical observation is different from a reflective essay on dance therapy casework. But there are plenty of overall, general ideas which it helps immensely to understand and, suitably adjusted, many of them will help with other kinds of non-fiction writing: reports, articles and talks. So here are the things I find myself exploring with students over and over again; I hope they help you.
If you're panicking, procrastinating from fear, or just in a muddle, take a proper break, even if it's only short. Another twenty minutes of panic-stricken cutting and pasting won't get you a better grade. Twenty minute's coffee, walk and deep breathing just might.
Academic thinking is almost always a process of relating the particular, through the general, to the theoretical, and vice versa. How is the behaviour of your art therapy client Jesse, and that of your colleagues' different clients, explained by your understanding of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or would another theory fit Jesse better? How does the theory of evolution predict what will happen to the AIDS virus in the population of Africa in general, and Johannesburg in particular, and does the data coming in confirm or contradict those predictions?
Work out the spine of your essay: the route you're taking through the topic. The simple, safe spine is to take one of the main things you're discussing at a time - one period, one country, one text, one theory - and say everything that needs saying about that one, before moving onto the next. The more fruitful option may be to pull out topics or themes (economics, politics, terrain; imagery, language, structure) or arguments (the different theories; the different historical contexts;) and discuss all your periods, texts or countries together under one heading (topic number one; theory number one), and then do the same for the next heading. Having a spine of topics, themes or arguments helps you go beyond merely describing what goes on in that country or that text, and encourages you to analyse the hows and the whys of what's going on, because it highlights the differences between them.
Write the first draft for yourself, to work out what you think, and the second draft for your reader, who doesn't yet know what you're trying to say.
- Know what today's job on the essay is, and do it. Try not to get side-tracked into another section, or a different job (editing, say, when you should be checking references); if you're worried about forgetting an idea or correction, make a note. Don't fiddle, in other words.
- Find ways to get distance from that first draft so you read it as a reader: put it away for a few days or hours; change the font; print it out; put it on your e-reader; do a swap with a friend.
- Write the second draft trying to hold on to that sense of distance. Would someone who doesn't already know what this essay is doing or saying, be able to understand what you're saying, and stay with you as you lead them alond the spine, vertebra by vertebra?
- Then finish by going through looking for slips and typos, checking all the references are done correctly, and finding the places where you've moved bits around and not tidied up the loose ends.
- Forgive yourself for all the things there wasn't room to say, and the fact that you're a beginner (yes, even a PhD is a training degree) and haven't got everything right, and hand it in.
Reading aloud is your friend, because in order to speak the words your brain has to understand the sense of them, and get its tongue round the shape and rhythm of the sentences. Either your mind or your tongue will trip up if the sentence doesn't make sense, or isn't written in manageable units of meaning. It's therefore also handy for spotting typos, repetitions and gaps, and where the punctuation should be.
The introduction is a map of the essay, so use drafting it as a way of thinking about what you're going to do but, when you've finished the essay, check the introduction-map is still accurate. It should probably include:
- a succinct description of the route you're taking through the topic
- any definitions of terms or concepts that a grumpy tutor might contest; a sensible "working definition" is fine
- the boundaries of your discussion: the period you'll cover, the texts you'll explore, the secondary sources or theories you'll mainly draw on
- in some disciplines, the conclusion you'll come to. In other disciplines, you'll lead the reader through to that at the end. You may well not know your conclusion till you've worked through the body of the essay, so that's another job for the second draft.
- perhaps in a new paragraph, any preliminary scene-setting which is essential: the war that ended in the treaty you're analysing, the psychotherapeutic theories that gave rise to the establishment of the CAMHS that your placement was in. But keep it succinct: this isn't what the essay's about.
Each paragraph in the body of the essay is the next vertebra of the spine, the next stage on the route: one idea or piece of your discussion. The first sentence - the "topic sentence" - is a signpost for what we're going to be discussing: "Betrayal is a theme which runs throughout Hamlet from the moment that Old Hamlet reveals that he was murdered." Then each sentence leads to the next ("Hamlet sets up the Play scene to embody this betrayal in the hope of Claudius betraying himself"). The last sentence sums it up and, ideally, holds out a link to the beginning of the next paragraph/topic. So, if you finish with "... and the ultimate betrayal, for Hamlet, is Gertrude's marriage to Claudius", the next paragraph could start, "This marriage, however, also embodies the play's exploration of the inconstancy of women..." and then we're off into that topic.
The conclusion pulls together the big, general idea or theme that you want us to take away and sets it out. It will have emerged in stages along the way, but here you make it clear in a way that answers the question or implied question in the essay title. Don't bring in new material or ideas: if you find yourself wanting to, then go back and fit them into the body of the essay.
Don't be afraid to write plainly; it helps you to think clearly. The very best in your discipline think well and write well. They're only difficult to understand inasmuch as the ideas are difficult. Good thinkers who are more difficult to understand than they need be are, by definition, not the best in your discipline. Try to notice what you're reading in terms of good and bad writing: Who makes difficult things clear? Who makes you fight through how it's written before you know if an idea is useful and interesting or not? Who's a pleasure to read? How does each make their sentences work, to have that effect? This will help to train your own intuitions for your own writing. Click here for some examples of good and bad writing.
Formal writing is not the same as fancy writing. What matters is precision. Casual language is inexact, but so are elaborate words used wrongly or vaguely. Use technical and abstract terms where you must, look them up to check they really do mean what you think they do, and surround them with clear and simple ones which you are also using accurately. There's no shame in looking those up too; professional writers do it all the time, just as professional writers write second and third and tenth drafts, to get the words and the argument to say exactly what they want them to.
Beware of hidden metaphors: "This action unleashed a flood of hidden opposition which burned everyone implicated in it", has three explicit metaphors (unleashed, flood, burned), none of which make sense with the other. It also has three figurative words which aren't quite metaphors, but do have an underlying physical origin, which confuses things even more (hidden, opposition, implicated).
Beware of value-laden words: You're in a court of law, but you're not making a case for the prosecution, you're the judge explaining what actually happened to the jury, as fairly as possible, so they can decide if the case is proved. Not "Napoleon was a tyrant so he made a cruel decision," but "Napoleon decided that this rebellion must be put down with exemplary force". You are also the jury, of course, since it's your job to come to a conclusion.
Beware of ordinary words used in technical ways, especially adjectives co-opted by your discipline as abstract nouns. "...we need to examine the many manifestations of the public which shaped nineteenth-century politics..." (Rappaport, 2001, p.78) makes me stop to ask "the public what?", before realising it's an abstract concept: "the Public [sphere]". It's not that you should never use such terms, but you need to avoid wrong-footing the reader and so making the argument stumble.
Embody abstracts ideas in concrete forms where you can because human brains deal more easily in concrete things. "[...] this is a history of the shapers more than the shaped" (Schama, 1987 , p.6) is a much more effective way of making a statement than "By concentrating on how economic power is deployed by dominant global actors, analysts of globalizing processes have largely overlooked the ways in which quotidian acts such as consumer demand across the globe influence economic relations, however asymmetrical those relationships might be.". (Prestholdt, 2004, p.755) They mean almost exactly the same thing, and the more concrete one - the Schama - is also much shorter. Why wouldn't you write that way where you can?
Follow your discipline in whether you can use "I". Even if you're allowed to use it, keep "I think" and the like for the times when you are clearly stating your action or judgements in shaping this argument. Then back up why you're doing and saying this.
Remember "Somebody Did Something". In English the meaning of a sentence is built into the shape subject + verb + object. If your sentence is in a muddle, check that each chunk of it has that shape.
Verbs are your friend in trying to write clearly and with energy, especially because it's so important to avoid car-crashes of nouns.
- Avoid things like "The rebel generation of law avoidance strategies conflicted with the government-determined military solution option.". This has one main verb, conflicted, making one unit of meaning; two nouns used as nouns, strategies, option; one adjective used as an adjective, military. The car-crash is caused by no less than five nouns used as adjectives, rebel, law, avoidance, government-determined, solution. And one of those is a made of a noun stuck together with an -ed verb. Plus, making nouns work as adjectives (rebel) and verbs work as nouns (generation) has landed the sentence in a classic idiocy with "the rebel generation".
- and say instead, "The rebels generated strategies to avoid the laws, but the government decided to use military force, and this led to conflict.". This has three main verbs, generated, decided, led, making three units of meaning; six nouns used as nouns, rebels, strategies, laws, government, force, conflict; one adjective used as an adjective: military.
Long sentences are fine when they're built as a series of clear and clearly-related units. For this, commas, colons and semi-colons are your friends, because they help to make those units of meaning clear, and to relate them to each other in a way that short separate sentences can't. And do exploit the connecting words which can express how the two units are related: but, and, in contrast, at the same time, instead of, whereas, subsequently...
Keep the main verb phrase towards the beginning of the sentence. Don't make the reader wait too long to find out what the main somebody-did-something of your sentence will be. In the sentence about rebels, the first version is a single unit, with a long car-crash of nouns before we get to the one main verb, "conflicted". The second version is three separate short units of somebody-did-something, and it's clear as a bell.
Avoid passive voice even when you're having to leave out "I". In other words, avoid "Somebody had something done to them" where you can.
- Not: "Inflation was slowly beginning to be defeated by laws which had been passed by the government in the turbulent autumn of 1875". Inflation was defeated and laws had been passed are both passive voice verbs: inflation and the laws are both having Something done to them. Plus, as so often, using passive contstructions makes the structure of the sentence more complicated.
- but instead: "Laws that the government passed in the turbulent autumn of 1875 slowly began to defeat inflation". This is clear, and active voice - Laws ... began to defeat inflation - but there's a long gap between laws as the Somebody, and what they did. Plus, was it the passing of the laws, or the defeating of inflation, that happened in the autumn of 1875.
And then you can link several clear, shortish units of "somebody did something" together, to make an actual chain of cause-and-effect:
- So, more elegantly: "In the turbulent autumn of 1875, the government passed laws that slowly began to defeat inflation". Here, the government is the Somebody, actively passing laws, and the laws are also actively defeating inflation. Plus, by starting with a brief, introductory phrase of scene-setting, the heart of the sentence is all together in the middle: the government passed laws, and then we have an amplification about what the laws did.
- and if you want to say more, add another unit as a tailpiece: "In the turbulent autumn of 1875, the government passed laws that slowly began to defeat inflation, although it was not until 1877 that prices in the shops stabilised."
Tell the story in the order in which it happened, unless you've got good reasons not to, because that's how humans experience things - forwards in time - so that's how they tell stories too. Making the main point first is usually a good idea, not least because it means the main somebody-did-something comes early on. But if that main point is the last thing to happen in the story things easily get confused and confusing:
- "Shop prices did not stabilise until 1877, after inflation had begun to be defeated by laws that had been passed by the government in the autumn of 1875", tells the story backwards.
- If the main point is the shop prices, so you want to do it that way round, use words and punctuation which make the relationships very clear: "Shop prices did not stabilise until 1877, some time after the turbulent autumn of 1875 when the government had first passed laws to control prices."
Notice how after the first section, the rest of the sentence goes straight back to the beginning and then tells the story forwards from that point on. And notice the proper use of the past perfect - "when the government had ... passed laws" - so we're safely reading this as having happened before the main "now" of the sentence, which is about shop prices in 1877.
And, finally, I've assembled a small collection of short extracts of good and bad academic writing, so I'll repeat the link here which is also further up. Have a look at them, and try to decide why the good ones work, and how the less-good ones could work better.
References, because in academic writing everything that's said is either assumed to be the writer's, or must be traceable:
Prestholdt, Jeremy, ‘On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism’, American Historical Review 109 (3) 2004 pp.755-81
Rappaport, Erika Diane, Shopping for Pleasure, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2001
Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches, New York, Vintage 1987