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.
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.
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.
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…