Some people talk about academic writing as a skill. A skill is the ability to do something with a high level of expertise. Fair enough – we are all expected to ‘do’ academic writing with high levels of expertise.
However, a skill is often associated with technique… But achieving expertise is not simply a matter of technique – knowing how to write well by understanding grammar, how to write a paragraph, how to structure a sentence, how to stage an argument and so on. It’s not enough to master the techniques of writing. This is necessary – but not sufficient.
Academic writers also need to know when to use particular writing techniques, and when not to. We need to know our reader’s expectations. We need to know institutional norms, disciplinary conventions and why they exist, what they do, and what might happen if we don’t conform with them. This is more about know what – know what to do, why and when.
We do need know how and know what because we don’t just write for ourselves. We write for others. Academic writing is always social. It is a social practice. Academic writing helps us to communicate with others. And – we are judged by them on our writing. (And how we are judged!)
Let me offer a comparison. An artist isn’t usually judged simply on the basis of their dexterity with their chosen materials. Judgment is related to the ways in which they engage in ongoing conversations – with audiences and with the artistic traditions in which they are working. So it is with academic writers. We academic writers do need to know about audiences, purposes, styles, organisational conventions and genres.
Academic writing is a practice which requires both know how and know what – but also what might be called ‘know-who’. Let me go back to the artist example again. Judgments about what constitutes good or great art don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part and parcel of a complex ecology of art dealers, galleries, critics, university departments and so on. The artist may or may not be aware of these, or want to take account of them, or indeed might want to resist, but they are judged – funded, exhibited, purchased, ignored – in this context anyway.
Academic writers also operate in a complex ecology of disciplines, institutions, commercial and non-commercial publishers, reviewers and funders. How our writing is perceived – whether it is judged as being of ‘quality’ – is not simply about whether we have acquired both the necessary know how and know what – but also what is made of that by others, the know who. Understanding the invisible gaze(s) to which we are subject allows us to make better-informed decisions about whether to conform, resist, trouble or exceed expectations.
So to recap – writing a paper or thesis is never simply about know how. It requires the know what and know who as well. This means, I think, becoming a “student” of your field, as well as in your field. Understanding the academic field you work in leads to an academic writer not only in control of their text, but also more in control of what they write, when, how and for whom.
What have you found out lately about your know what and know who?
and how often. At least for me, that is important.
Years ago my supervisor said something which at the begging I wasn’t able to understand. It is different to read searching for the ways the author wrote his text than read for what is written. About who, he insisted that even a PhD should be written with a way that everybody could understand it easily. With this technique he forced me to get rid of useless and complicate senses and be more precise.
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Couldn’t be said better than this, Pat. Recently, I was supervising a phd student who was very good with “know how”, not as good with “know what”, but absolutely bad with “know who”. The candidate was reluctant to take advice as what can be communicated when, where and to whom and this continued even when the candidate was responding to the examiners assuming she should take issue with examiners’ comments and suggestions. The candidate’s tone was very defensive and in some cases rude and even offensive. I’m sure we’re all in for new ideas, perspectives, findings, etc., but knowing where, when and how to communicate these new ideas to others is another story. Personality perhaps has a role here and sometimes hard to change.
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Excellent piece! I love the combination on rigorous academic writing and engaged spirit. Bravo. I’ll keep reading your work!
Yes, thank you for saying all this. I think that being consistently and consciously aware that writing is a social practice can help us both read and write because it explains the complex network of relations and expectations that are at play (including an historical awareness of context when reading texts written for an even more unknown audience). But also I think that, crucially, it reminds us that it is impossible to fully know who your audience is at any given time, even if you have a specific reader in mind. This means that the writer’s communicative intentions are potentially mis-aligned with the reader’s reader’s expectations which can lead to a breakdown in understanding. This is why we need to constantly interrogate the who, why, when, how that you remind us of, but in the knowledge that even that doesn’t guarantee a perfect match between reader and writer.
yes – no total control possible! its about being better informed, more in charge, not absolute anything 🙂
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