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What is Effective Academic Writing?

 

Workshop 1: What is Effective Academic Writing?

 

Differences in speaking and writing

Effective communication on paper is not the same as communicating through speech. Written communication follows different rules of logic, layout, conciseness and clarity which is not expected in speech. Learn these structures and format, and anyone can write clearly and effectively.

 

Good writing and critical thinking work together

Writing is not separate from thinking: we cannot think through really complex problems and solve them mentally. We certainly cannot communicate to others our mental understandings of solutions unless we use sequential words. If you want a critically sophisticated argument/thesis, then you need to learn how to draft and edit your work.

 

A thesis is not your results; it is a whole story

We need to think about what the reader needs to know, not just think about describing the results. Good writers learn to stand back from their work and see it as others need to see it. They tell the whole story and not just one aspect.

 

You are examined on your thesis, not just your data

Don’t think that because your data is good, your thesis will be good! Your thesis will be good if it is properly drafted and thought through and considers the reader.

 

Your examiners, not your supervisor, read the thesis

We should write for our reader, and it is important to remember that your reader is not your supervisor who already knows your story. You are writing for someone who does not know  your story and has to be told what it is in a logical and expected format.

 

All these points apply equally to any form of academic writing, not just theses.

 

The central principles of effective academic writing are the following:

 

  • A reader-centred approach
  • Outlining and drafting
  • Clear lay out
  • Logical presentation of material (key points first, sequential ordering)
  • Pre-emption of reader’s questions
  • Parallel structure (of sentences and of information)
  • Concise writing
  • Precise details and information (concrete, not abstract)
  • Good grammar, spelling and punctuation

 

The writer’s job is to make the meaning plain; it is not the reader’s job to have to interpret the meaning.

 

 

What does the academic reader want?

 

  • Clear outline at the beginning of what the whole thing is about
  • Introduction and conclusion to match
  • Clear definitions of how terms are used
  • Clearly presented evidence and reasons for the conclusions
  • Concise writing
  • Concrete and not abstract writing
  • No jargon, circumlocution, tautogology or clichès

 

 

Over the semester we will look at examples of all the following. These are essential aspects of all good written communication – not just academic writing.

 

Characteristics of Academic Writing

All statements can be supported by evidence

Paragraphs have a single, but a developed, theme

Paragraphs begin with a theme sentence

Neutral language /omit slang/omit jargon/avoid pronouns

Judicious use of adjectives

Precise information, precise verbs and word choice

 

 

The reader asks questions such as these:

 

  • Why should I read this? (Relevance)
  • What is this about? (Conclusions)

·        What is this paragraph/chapter/quote doing to support the overall argument?

 

 

Non-reader centred opening paragraph to a published book:

(Walker, R.B.J. 1993, Inside/Outside: international relations as political theory. OUP Melbourne: x-xi. )

 

In an old joke, lately invoking the perverse wisdom of some archetypal pre-modern Celt, a request for direction to get “there” inspires advice about the inadvisability of starting from “here”. In this book, I offer similar advice on the basis of a series of meditations on the constitutive distinction between political theory and international relations; between discourses that invoke an externally present political community within and those that project an eternally absent community between modern sovereign states. I do so in two related senses.

 

Affirming the significance–thought not the truth–of some of the most entrenched assumptions about the ‘realities’ of modern political life, I develop a sceptical stance about the possibility of understanding “world politics” through the categories of modern theories of “international relations”. This stance permits me to explore some of the boundaries of modern political imagination confronted with demands that we move “beyond” a geopolitics of static fragmentations. Challenging these same assumptions, however, I offer a reading of modern theories of international relations as a discourse that systematically reifies an historically specific spatial ontology as a sharp delineation of here and there, a discourse that both expresses and constantly reaffirms the presence and absence of political life inside and outside the modern state as the only ground on which structural necessities can be understood and new realms of freedom and history can be revealed.

The inadvisability of attempting to get “there” from “here” derives from a specific construction of what it means to affirm a here here and a there there, not from the impossibility of being other than we are now……

 

Contrast this with the following:

 

4.  Astrocytes derived from glial-restricted precursors promote spinal cord repair

Jeannette E Davies , Carol Huang , Christoph Proschel , Mark Noble , Margot Mayer-Proschel  and Stephen JA Davies1 ,2  Journal of Biology 2006, 5:7  doi:10.1186/jbiol

Background:  Transplantation of embryonic stem or neural progenitor cells is an attractive strategy for repair of the injured central nervous system. Transplantation of these cells alone to acute spinal cord injuries has not, however, resulted in robust axon regeneration beyond the sites of injury. This may be due to progenitors differentiating to cell types that support axon growth poorly and/or their inability to modify the inhibitory environment of adult central nervous system (CNS) injuries. We reasoned therefore that pre-differentiation of embryonic neural precursors to astrocytes, which are thought to support axon growth in the injured immature CNS, would be more beneficial for CNS repair.

Results: Transplantation of astrocytes derived from embryonic glial-restricted precursors (GRPs) promoted robust axon growth and restoration of locomotor function after acute transection injuries of the adult rat spinal cord. Transplantation of GRP-derived astrocytes (GDAs) into dorsal column injuries promoted growth of over 60% of ascending dorsal column axons into the centers of the lesions, with 66% of these axons extending beyond the injury sites. Grid-walk analysis of GDA-transplanted rats with rubrospinal tract injuries revealed significant improvements in locomotor function. GDA transplantation also induced a striking realignment of injured tissue, suppressed initial scarring and rescued axotomized CNS neurons with cut axons from atrophy. In sharp contrast, undifferentiated GRPs failed to suppress scar formation or support axon growth and locomotor recovery.

Conclusion:  Pre-differentiation of glial precursors into GDAs before transplantation into spinal cord injuries leads to significantly improved outcomes over precursor cell transplantation, providing both a novel strategy and a highly effective new cell type for repairing CNS injuries.

 

Now, you may understand nothing about glial precursors but that is beside the point. Most readers would have understood at least the gist of the abstract and most readers would say that they can see there is a problem, what the study was about, and why the study is important. That is, the writers have conveyed or communicated the essential information to the reader. The first extract did not consider what the reader needed to know.

Good writing involves considering the reader but also becoming aware of the underlying logic and structure of documents. Editing does not need knowledge of a discipline, but knowledge of how writing functions as a structure.

Good writing means being able to edit your work as a stranger would; that is, considering how your reader would view your writing.

 

Say what you want to say clearly and precisely

 

The effective writer should use

  • Concrete not abstract language
  • Specific not general terms
  • Facts, data or examples

 

 

 Look at the following:

 

The controversy in the literature about this field shows how important it is to incorporate metastudies in assessing data.

 

What are the questions that are raised here?

  • What is the controversy in the literature?
  • How does this controversy encourage the need for metastudies?
  • What is the relationship between metastudies and data?

 

The questions are not answered and the reader could interpret the words to mean many  different things.

 Try: Whether argonite actually encourages tumour development is controversial; only 6 small-scale studies  have been carried out and a metastudy  may provide less ambiguous results.


Good writing is unambiguous. The reader does not have to make a choice about what the writer possibly means. To avoid ambiguity, use concrete not abstract terms.

 

Abstract Terminology: Prosthetics have advanced beyond mere substitution to the ability to restore function.

 

Prosthetics have advanced beyond mere substitution (for example?) to the ability to restore function (how? For example?)

 

Concrete Sentence: Prosthetics have advanced beyond wooden legs and glass eyes to new devices, such as cochlea implants for the ears, which restore the patient’s use of the missing or defective body part.

 

 

Look at the sentence from the  preceding example:

 

Affirming the significance–thought not the truth–of some of the most entrenched assumptions about the ‘realities’ of modern political life, I develop a sceptical stance about the possibility of understanding “world politics” through the categories of modern theories of “international relations”.

 

Who is affirming? What is the distinction between significance and truth? What  are the most entrenched  assumptions of political life? Why are these entrenched assumptions  not really “realities”? What does “reality” mean? What is an example of the difference between the significance of these assumptions and the truth of these assumptions? Why is the writer sceptical?  Why cannot world politics be understood?  What are the theories of international relations? Why is the author sceptical of the term “international relations”? Is it the term that is wrong, or the relationship?

 

That is, 10 unanswered questions from one sentence. If I have no clarity about those ten points, how can I understand what the author is saying? If I can not understand what the author is saying, how can I be impressed about how brilliant  the ideas are? 

 

Be Precise

 

Organisational information science resources will need to be rationalised.

 

(The computers will be moved from X block and the postgraduates will have to share them?)

 

Photocopiers should have appropriate performance parameters.

 

Photocopiers should be able to produce fifty stapled copies of twenty double-sided sheets in under three minutes.

 

Use precise verbs

The development of the car industry impacted the Australian economy.

 

Impacted?  How? Did it increase the economy? Did it damage the economy? How did it damage the economy? Did the environmental damage wrought by cars reduce the overall government surplus …..There are endless questions and no information. 

 

Avoid the ugly verb  to impact.

 

Try: reduce, damage, increase, decimate, chipped, disturbed, pressed, flattened, broke, destroyed, compressed, annihilated, diminished,  ….

 

Think of what you want to describe, then choose the word which paints the picture of that in the head of the reader. Don’t make the reader have to imagine for herself what the impact was, how it affected the economy and what the result of that effect was.

 

 

 

EDITING

Developing Writing

We do not know what we want to say, until we have written it. Write anything, then question it. Critical writing emerges from the your interrogation of initial ideas, from shaping and polishing those initial ideas until they are sound, logical and clear to the reader.

 

Such polished writing cannot come from the first draft, but can only be achieved after you have thought about, countered, and supplemented your initial vision. First drafts are messy and incomplete, because fully argued, reasoned pieces cannot emerge spontaneously  but must be worked on.

 

Do not despair at the apparent weakness of the first draft; this is the opportunity to start engaging with the material and really deciding what is relevant and what is not for the argument.  All writing, no matter how seemingly “bad”, is the essential first step to a finished, polished piece.

 

1. Outline chapter/article/essay/report into sections, and then divide each section into its logical subsections or paragraphs.

2. Research

3. Outline again: insert key words per paragraph

 

4. First draft:

Write a theme sentence for each paragraph; then give examples and explanations of the theme sentence. Do not include ideas that are not in the theme sentence.

Write quickly, do not pause for correct terms, spelling, syntax, grammar etc

Leave spaces if necessary, but ensure the central ideas are written down.

 

5. Read first draft. Ask questions of each paragraph. What is the point of this paragraph for the chapter/thesis? Is this point stated clearly in the paragraph?

Ask questions of the sentences. Supplement unanswered questions with concrete information.

Ask questions of every assertion. Is there evidence to support the assertions?

 

6. Second draft: Supplement the first with  precise, concrete information to answer the reader’s questions.

 

7. Read second draft. Ask questions of every paragraph. Is it in the logical position? Does it repeat information that is in other parts of the chapter?

 

8. Third draft: Shift all information so that what belongs together is next to each other.

Read draft; ensure paragraphs flow from on to the other.

 

9. Read draft: Is all information concisely expressed? Eliminate extra words, turn phrases into single verbs, eliminate tautologies and redundancies.

            Have someone else read the draft and mark any ambiguities or unclear passages for you to reconsider.

 

10. Read fourth draft.

 Is it clear? Could the sentences have another meaning (is it unambiguous?) Find more precise words to express ideas.

11. Correct again for ambiguity, imprecision etc.

12. Redraft for correct punctuation, grammar, references.

Note: Ideally, the supervisor or editor should see the third draft, to check for the logical flow of ideas and completeness of information.

 

Writing will progress more quickly if you can get used to the idea of writing in stages.

Big ideas first – then discuss these with supervisor – are they sound, in order, complete (do you need to do more research?)

Then the next stage is writing again and refining the drafts by supplementing and by concise and precise writing.

 

In summary, the drafting process has these stages:

1. Outline possible structure.

2. Research, outline again

3. Write  (fill in the outline)

4. Supplement that draft with precise information

(If all the information is there, and in the right place, then)

5. Strip back: be concise and remove anything that is not essential information

6. Check for grammar, spelling, punctuation, references.

 

 

Outlining

 

If students hand in a detailed outline to the supervisor, it can be checked rapidly, and the student sent off to write it up knowing that the essential information and order is already acceptable. It is better that changes to content occur before the student has spent weeks polishing sentences, as whole sentences, paragraphs and even pages may  have to be  abandoned.

Additionally, the logic of layout and development of argument is obvious in an outline. Students should be encouraged to think of the big picture first, even if the first draft is only of one of the paragraphs in the middle.

It is easy to write up a first draft when you have some confidence about what you want to say.

 

Often, people do very sketchy outlines, without really precise words or sound thinking. They can easily fools themselves into thinking that they have thought through the document, when they have merely named some of the elements involved.

For instance, the following looks like a clear outline of a document, but when you read it, consider whether you have enough information to be able to write up a first draft.

Alcohol Testing for Mass Transportation Employees

1. Congress mandates testing for transportation employees

Background on why

Explanation of new policy

 

2. How and why alcohol testing is used

Circumstances for Alcohol Testing

Pre-employment

Post-accident

Reasonable suspicion

Random

Return to duty/follow-up testing

 

3.  Method of Alcohol Testing

Blood

Urine

Breath

Performance

4.  Options for Alcohol Abusers

Retesting

Treatment

Termination of employment

5. Conclusion

 

Now compare it with the following more detailed outline

 

Alcohol Testing for Mass Transportation Employees


 

Introduction

 

Background on why

truck accidents increase 25% DMR: hospital costs increase-Smith & Wesson 225.

Explanation of new policy

 

Outline of whole and overall response

 

 

 

2.  How and why alcohol testing is used

 

2.1 Pre-employment

Compare Williams and Smith’s studies

 

2.2 Post-accident :       

Data from Sweden (Smith, 234), contrasts with Germany’s experience (Jones 236)

2.3 Reasonable suspicion       

What constitutes drunkeness? Blogg’s (2004) paper- but see Thomas  (67) on personal liberty and presumption innocence

2.4 Random  - 

reports from random testing Sweden and France  show ambiguous results (Allan & Jones; Smith and Willis)

2.5 Return to duty/ Follow up testing

worked well in Sweden (Harris,p567) but they used civilian not police testers -psychological difference?

3. Methods of Alcohol Testing

 

3.1 Blood 

most reliable, but invasive, danger of contamination (contrast Hughes and Jones)

3.2 Urine 

effective-Williams’ report, but significant chance of fraud- (both Lee and Mustafa)

3.3 Breath 

Thompson and Lee, p 235-only sometimes - but methodology of study  weak? Sample size too small?

 

3.4 Performance 

Not effective- Johnson p. 546

4. Options for Alcohol Abusers

 

4.1 Retesting 

USA vs Sweden’s experience Brown 1989, Terry 26. Wills 47

4.2 Treatment 

USA vs Britain’s – successful only when person willing to participate Whetherby, 249

4.3 Termination of employment     

Threats prevent effective  testing, Smithers. p.669                          

Conclusion

Enforced testing will be ineffective because of ….

Sweden’s less costly, and more successful program is a good alternative because…….

 

 

 

From outline notes to full paragraph

 

The notes for each paragraph refer to specific articles and specific points which the authors have made. It is also clear how the writer of the document is going to use these authors. The preliminary thinking has been done. The supervisor has approved the outline.

 

Now the student can pick any of the paragraphs and start writing:

  1. Theme sentence to summarise the main point for that paragraph.
  2. Then the evidence to support that point,
  3. Then an evaluation of that point.

 

For instance; writing up 3.1:
 

Theme sentence: Blood tests are considered the most reliable (1st point) of all methods of testing for alcohol levels, but they are also controversial (2nd point). 

 

Support for point 1: The reliability of these tests has been clearly established by Jones et al.  (2004) who, in a meta study, showed blood tests were 98 % reliable, compared to urine tests (48%), and breath analysis (62%).

 

Supports for point 2:  Although blood tests deliver accurate readings, they are invasive, and require qualified medical practitioners, so are also more expensive. There are fears about the safety of blood tests. Hughes (2003) has shown that 6% of all those who had blood tests contracted lupus lupusmania from contaminated needles.

 

Evaluation: Although only a small percentage, the excessive anxiety amongst drivers who feared becoming werewolves following blood tests must make this form of testing inappropriate in a democracy, particularly at times of the full moon.

As a real  paragraph: 

Blood tests are considered the most reliable of all methods of testing for alcohol levels, but they are also controversial. The reliability of these tests has been clearly established by Jones et al. (2004) who, in a meta study, showed blood tests were 98 % reliable, compared to urine tests (48%), and breath analysis (62%). Although blood tests deliver accurate readings, they are invasive and require qualified medical practitioners, so are also more expensive. There are fears about the safety of blood tests. Hughes (2003) has shown that 6% of all those who had blood tests contracted lupus lupusmania from contaminated needles. The excessive anxiety amongst drivers who feared becoming werewolves following blood tests must therefore make this form of testing inappropriate in a democracy, particularly at times of the full moon.

 

 

Rosemary’s  Rules of Good Writing

 

A reader-centred approach

Pre-empt reader’s questions (supplement)

Keep things together that belong together

Use theme sentences at beginning of paragraph

One idea=one sentence

Full information in each sentence

Key information to front of sentence/paragraph (don’t lead in with ‘dead’ words)

Eliminate FPs (floating pronouns)

Use concrete not abstract terms : Be precise

Be concise

Avoid Floating Participles Fparts (–ing words)

Avoid beginning sentences with prepositions

 

 

Circumlocution (talking in circles)

On a daily basis                                    daily

 

The envelope containing the electricity bill was delivered today.

The electricity bill came today.

 

 

Tautology (saying the same thing twice)

A distance of four metres

Finally ended

In actual fact

Equal halves

Collaborate together

 

 

Cliché (tired expression)

To the tune of $100                              $100

On the cards                                         probable, likely

Off the top of one’s head                      spontaneously

To put on the back burner                     to postpone

 

Use neutral language

Negative                     Neutral                       Positive

Corrupt                        change                          reform

Spendthrift                    open-handed                generous