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?