read what you want to write

One of the common pieces of advice given to creative writers is to read widely, work out what you like and then write like those you admire. This writing-like-admirable-others requires the aspiring creative writer to analyse various aspects of the admired texts – ranging from the way in which an author manages plot, character, dialogue and description to their technical construction of sentences, paragraphs and use of adverbs and adjectives.

Now this also seems like pretty good advice to academic writers too. Read what you want to write. The problem is of course how the doctoral researcher decides what is good academic writing. Is it simply something that they like? Is it something that is easy to read? Or is it something that has a particular style – say for example something written in the third person and in the passive voice? Is ‘academic’ necessarily densely packed with inter-textual references? Is an academic text one which makes the reader stop to think? Does academic writing always use a particular set of terms and conventions?

The answers to these questions are not simple. There are PhDs written on the topic. There are heated debates about the ‘academic’ in academic writing. People don’t agree, even within the same disciplines.

There is also a plethora of writing advice about, including mine, some of which assumes much more settlement about what counts as good academic writing than actually exists. Doctoral researchers need to become savvy readers of all of this online academic writing support as well as the resources in hard copy.

For me, becoming a scholar also means becoming a student of academic writing. Learning how to write doesn’t begin with the doctorate and it doesn’t stop there either. But I am not at all sure how much time and effort we actually put in, in mandatory doctoral ‘training’ courses for example, to discussions of good academic writing and how it is produced. This is pretty bizarre really, given that writing and speaking are THE ways of producing and communicating the research that we do.

There are well-established theoretical resources available to assist in understanding academic writing and its purposes, affordances and accomplishments, just as there are resources about research methodologies and methods. But we seem hell bent, in doctoral ‘training’ at least, in ignoring writing knowledge(s).

I reckon becoming a student of academic writing means at least three things.

First of all it means understanding academic writing as: the production of particular types of writing (genres); the means of participation in academic conversations; and the production of the scholar. These three things don’t happen in a vacuum, but within specific disciplinary, cultural, and policy contexts.

Secondly, becoming a student of academic writing does mean – just as creative writers are told – reading for the writing. There is considerable mileage in doctoral researchers looking at academic texts to see for example:
• how the writer stages an argument
• what scholarly lexicon the writer uses and how they manage the rhetorical task of interesting and convincing the reader
• how the writer presents data – use quotations, images, diagrammes of various sorts, charts and graphs and how these are captioned
• how the writer introduces and concludes chapters
• how the writer constructs paragraphs and sentences
It’s also interesting to see how academic writers push the genres and conventions.

Thirdly, becoming a student of academic writing means becoming active in thinking and talking about academic writing as well as ‘doing it’ – very consciously and explicitly thinking and talking. Ongoing and serious conversation can help us all become much more savvy about the kinds of writing choices we make from the kinds of genres and styles available to us.

I think that, rather than simply copping the stereotype of academic writing as willfully obscure and almost impossible for anyone to read, we do need to be able to justify our writing choices. For me, this means being able to call on a repertoire of writing genres and styles suitable for the different audiences I choose to engage in conversation. However, this may not be the same for you. The point is to be able to make an informed decision rather than to approach academic writing as if it were an homogenous practice out of our control – and out of our minds.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, conversation, creative writing, debates in the field, disciplines, doctoral education and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to read what you want to write

  1. mjordano2013 says:

    Reblogged this on Science and technology English Texts (2013-14) and commented:
    Very good recommendation!!


  2. Great insights! I like the acknowledgement that academic writing happens within fluid spaces or in your words: in “specific disciplinary, cultural, and policy contexts”.


  3. Jane S says:

    I’ve snipped this from one of my blog posts, scheduled for later this month, but your mention of pushing genres is valid. As a ‘creative’ I confidently imagined I was ready-prepared for writing-up.
    Mine is a Classical studies research project, not social science, but many of the same academic rules apply. I’m not convinced one should emulate those one most admires but, on the other hand, the homogenous IMRAD is a strait-jacket.
    I’m taking risks with this thesis. I don’t expect everyone to like it – maybe no one will! – but I was never going to write a dull, pedestrian narrative with no speculations or leaps of the imagination.

    In fiction, one avoids ‘info-dumps’ – e.g., where a character brings the reader up to speed by reporting data or happenings which an author cannot fit in any other way. A thesis can easily degenerate into a hundred thousand word ‘info-dump.’ There is no law dictating academic research MUST be written up as a tedious mind-numbing testament but, after your Herculean effort, you do want your supervisors / examiners / readers to progress beyond the first page. When this thing is printed out, double-spaced on one side of A4 paper, it’s likely to be a weighty tome coming in at approx. 295-odd pages, ca. an inch thick.

    My imagined thesis reader/examiner is someone not overly-familiar with the arcane topic, but not to such an extent that everything must be hammered to death. As far as I’m concerned clarity, flow and readability, are ‘musts.’ (I dislike in-line refs, but am working on my fondness for footnotes. If it’s relevant it should be up there in the main text.)
    I try not to embed salient argument/s or examples in the middle of dense paragraphs mid-chapter, as well as eschewing tautologies, adjective-laden statements, fashionable jargon and sub-sub-clauses. Easier said than done. But if the writer drops the ball and wanders off, how much more likely is it the reader will? Your theory / ~ies won’t convince your examiners if they’re terminally bored a few pages in but the exciting details of your research and findings are on p.199.

    These are only my personal opinions, but I’ve discovered one thing about my field: Classics heavy-weights tend to produce crystal-clear prose which is immediately understood. It seems many lower down the ladder are wont to generate reams of obscurantism – the kind of stuff which gives academic writing such a bad name.


  4. Pingback: read what you want to write | Construcci&oacute...

  5. I agree with this, but there is something to be said for reading other genres. I have found myself opening up my mind to new genres and it has gone a long way to help me see that my mind is full of ideas that I might not have otherwise realized I had.


    • jamharl says:

      Exploring is like a gateway to new ideas?


      • Oh, absolutely! For years I’ve been saying that I’m a fantasy writer. But by taking the time to read some sci-fi and even some general fiction, I realized that I was limiting myself with such a narrow scope. Now I’m contemplating making my novel more of a hybrid between sci-fi and epic/high fantasy.


  6. This is so interesting – thank you Pat! I don’t have references to hand but Gunter Kress, Bezemer, Fiona English and Charles Bazerman have also written about what different genres and different modes (transduction) do and don’t allow us to say. The history of academic writing also sheds light on how historical our ways of writing are – there is no ‘intrinsic’ academic property …. Styles, genres and modes need to be justified. The hard part is in the justifying!


  7. Pingback: Read what you want to write | Life as an academ...

  8. Pingback: style and structure – according to Berger | patter

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