poor writing advice

There is some very poor academic writing advice out there in the ether. And crappy academic writing advice drives me crackers. So, a health warning, this post is a bit of a rant. What do I mean by poor writing advice? Here’s some I found earlier, a little snippet from a university library website. It’s written for undergraduates and you can guess the problems that the advice is meant to fix.

MAKE YOUR WRITING FORMAL AND IMPERSONAL

·       Avoid too much personal language (I, my, we etc). Some tutors prefer you to avoid it completely.

·       Never use emotive language; be objective rather than subjective

·       Avoid being too dogmatic and making sweeping generalisations.

It is usually best to use some sort of “hedging” language (see below) and to qualify statements that you make.

·       You should consistently use evidence from your source reading to back up what you are saying and reference this correctly.

·       Use nominalisation; that is, try to write noun-based phrases rather that verb-based ones.

For example, instead of

Crime was increasing rapidly and the police were becoming concerned.

Write:

The rapid increase in crime was causing concern among the police.

In general, academic writing tends to be fairly dense, with relatively long sentences and wide use of subordinate clauses. Remember, however, that your main aim is clarity, so don’t be too ambitious, particularly when you’re starting to write.

HEDGING/AVOIDING COMMITMENT

In order to put some distance between what you’re writing and yourself as writer, to be cautious rather than assertive, you should:

·       Avoid overuse of first person pronouns (I, we, my, our), use impersonal subjects instead

(It is believed that …, it can be argued that …)
use passive verbs to avoid stating the ‘doer’ (Tests have been conducted)
 use verbs (often with it as subject) such as imagine, suggest, claim, suppose

·       Use ‘attitudinal signals’ such as apparently, arguably, ideally, strangely, unexpectedly.

These words allow you to hint at your attitude to something without using personal language.

·       Use verbs such as would, could, may, might which ‘soften’ what you’re saying.

·       Use qualifying adverbs such as some, several, a minority of, a few, many to avoid making over-generalisations.

So your undergraduate assignment can’t sound like you’re talking to your mates…fair enough. Nothing to argue with there. I’m not saying you don’t need to give advice about these things. As long as the advice is sound. OF COURSE students need to know how to argue their case so it doesn’t sound like they are still in third grade at primary school.

BUT and it’s a big but… is this the best way to formulate advice that will help students write good undergraduate assignments? Really? Let’s look at what’s said.

Make it formal – but too much nominalised, hedged, impersonal writing can be deadly dull. It’s what gives academic writing a very bad name. Don’t overgeneralise so use some, several, a minority – but this is likely to be read as just plain vague. Don’t be too ambitious – why not be ambitious in your writing? Do the advice-givers here really mean don’t try too hard to write the way you think academic writing goes?  *facepalm*

Why am I so bothered by this well meant advice? Is it really so dreadful?  Well. I’m partly in sympathy with people who have to mark the work of any student who unthinkingly follows these maxims… but more seriously, I’m concerned because of the academic writing lessons that are being taught here for the future.

Setting up these kinds of writing patterns at undergraduate level doesn’t lay firm foundations for the academic writing that is most desirable in postgraduate courses. Quite the contrary.  In fact, this kind of advice sets people up to think that dense, stodgy, vague, impersonal, detached prose IS academic. And that’s what they must do.

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But that’s not the case. It’s quite possible, in academic writing, to be well evidenced, nuanced and, if it fits with the topic, even let your feelings be known. You can have style. A bit of pzazz. You can be clear, engaging and informative – and more.

You don’t have to be formal, impersonal and avoid commitment. You do, of course, use hedges and nominalisations, as appropriate, but you can keep these under control and not let them run amok through pages and pages of text.

‘Be non committal and formal’  is lousy academic writing advice, and misleading, even if very well intentioned.  It’s certainly advice which won’t do the future of academic writing any good at all. At all.

Rant over. Note to self, just breathe deeply now…

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, advice, poor advice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to poor writing advice

  1. Joanne Wood says:

    Hi Pat. This is brave territory you wander into – and I salute you for it! I started a document once called “things we shouldn’t say to our students” intended for very well-meaning teaching colleagues, but bottled out before it turned into anything. I have a strong suspicion that our students would find it easier to be better writers if there was less advice for them to feel obliged to follow. If only we could move away from ‘criteria’ and allow people to develop their own judgment! Imagine if we could say to our students: ‘Write a good essay that answers the question’ and they felt confident to interpret that for themselves!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations for having managed to keep this post relatively emotion-free! There are so many examples like this, too many to be ignored, and I see this advice as problematic not only for UG writers, but for EAP writers, too, who in many cases are already hitting the ground running because they are already doing their MAs, PhDs, etc. whilst also playing catch-up on academic discourses that they haven’t been brought up with, and who therefore rely heavily on this kind of advice. Yet, their PG writing is judged by the same standards as all research writing, and if they are trying to transform all their active sentences into passive ones, for example, then they are also changing (losing) meanings, not simply modifying syntax.

    Karen Bennett has called this kind of advice the ‘transparency trope’, and her article on this is worth reading if anyone still has any doubts about what is damaging about this kind of advice when it is given/received/downloaded/printed with no qualification and no discussion about when and why it is appropriate:

    https://www.academia.edu/21794980/The_transparency_trope_deconstructing_English_academic_discourse

    Liked by 1 person

  3. leohavemann says:

    Great post Pat. As a former academic writing teacher, I was always striving to make it clear that there are genres and conventions in academic writing, and you need to know about them, but hard and fast rules are not very helpful. It was extremely useful to those students, I think, to study academic writing as a proper subject (not compulsory, but credit bearing), rather than be expected to absorb the rules via a list of do’s and don’ts (even a really good list!).

    Already in the 90s I felt there was much questioning of the ‘never write in the first person / never acknowledge your personal connection to the research topic’ rule, and yet I have had that feedback, as if this rule is carved somewhere on a stone tablet, from a journal reviewer not long ago. I do think that as well as writing and rewriting (and then rewriting some more), reading the work of people who write in your discipline and especially, paying attention to how they do things and whether you think they are doing it well, is key. But rather than following rules or emulating the experts, we should all hope for our own voices to emerge, and sometimes, that way, when we’re at our best, we can do something that surpasses the merely competent, that becomes something people actually enjoy reading. Wouldn’t that be nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great blog Pat. I’m a journalist who teaches American undergrads but I also train UK academics in communication skills and public engagement. In all those capacities, the snippet of “writing advice” you’ve quoted is indeed rant-inducing. It further mythologises academia, tempting the poor student into the Ivory Tower while at the same time telling them they’ll be lucky to get their foot on the first step.
    Surely the only advice needed can be boiled down to something like: Write clear sentences whose meaning YOU understand. Don’t include personal feelings or beliefs unless specifically asked to. If something is unproven or unclear then say so. And above all, support your assertions, theories and claims with clearly-sourced evidence.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Speaks my mind! My research interest is exactly stance in academic writing… I still find it annoying to hear people say academic writing SHOULD be objective and lots of ‘hedges’. Some best writing in my dataset is assertive and authoritative (with ‘I’s and ‘we’s). How does one negotiate his/her knowledge without display stance?

    Thanks for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Spot on as usual, Pat! So many social scientists should take notice 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Richard Whitecross says:

    Love this post. I am an oddity in my department. I encourage students to take a position and defend it. I do nt penalise for first petson but caution it as they do other courses. My feedback was generally liked for being individual…though maybe not by those who did nt get the grade they like. But working with my doctoral students I find myself focussing on helping them write..not analyse, but write. It has caused tension and I have found it really hard.because as a dyslexic academic it always feels a bit rich to comment on writing…yet I found myself feeling better in myself after reading this post. So thank you.

    Like

  8. tlizzy says:

    Reblogged this on My Little bit of serenity and commented:
    need this for my uni course. thanks

    Like

  9. Richard Lyon says:

    Excellent advice. I also believe all students should read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.”

    Liked by 2 people

  10. DANIELA TROCILO says:

    It was so liberating to read this. Here in Sweden there is a widespread unspoken rule in academia that one should NOT take a position and defend it with sound arguments, as it was said above, but to approach two different sides of a discussion highlighting their pros and cons as if they weighed exactly the same. An example: even if you are a well-informed GMO critic sitting on tons of evidence against it, you must tone your criticism down and include criticism of organic production as well, at the same time that you bring up the “benefits” of GMO in order to make it look like the very opposite sides of this matter stand on completely equal grounds, creating a false symmetry. I believe that this way of writing is not only boring and lacking in style but also politically dangerous. Unfortunately, pretty much the whole of Sweden believes in the neutrality unicorn and the academic environment is no exception.

    Liked by 1 person

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