I asked people in one of my Australian writing workshops to tell me what they thought was essential in good academic writing. The purpose of the activity was to generate criteria that participants could use to steer their own writing. The list was not meant to be an evaluative rubric, something that could be used to assess distance from the ideal. No, the list was an expression of aspirations.
So here is the list that the workshop participants produced – with just a bit of editing from me.
The text is written clearly – complex ideas are explained and difficult terms are defined – the content is accessible to the reader. Even when concepts and theories are obscure, complex or difficult, they are not overcomplicated, but made comprehensible.
The text is well organized – it is clearly structured so that you know where you are in the argument.
The text is credible because the writer does what they say they are going to do. The writer explains and justifies their interpretation.
The author makes their position known but also recognizes and deals fairly with other people’s ideas, interpretations and views.
The text is generous – it offers readers different meaning making possibilities.
The text is stimulating – there is an invitation to get into dialogue – you have an argument going on in your head when you read it.
The writing is uncluttered, elegant and clean. The words are enjoyable, beautiful, powerful, not parsimonious. There is humour and playfulness. The writing affects you, the text does more than transmit knowledge. The text may be metaphorical, allegorical or it may ground you in everyday practice. Either can be a rewarding read.
The effort you make in reading the text is worthwhile – there is something to be learnt.
The text takes you to other writing – it leads you to other texts and writers
You forget you are reading.
How does this list differ from the usual academic writing that you read? What would you add to this list? Are there any things here that you don’t want from academic writing?
And would your list help you to think about how to revise your drafts? Would it give you something to aim for?
A great list. One I’d share with my composition students at the next opportunity.
Yes, me, too! The next challenge will be to find texts that are representative of all of the above: I think I’ll get my students to do that!
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Thank you for sharing this list (and thank you to the workshop participants for contributing to it).
Could you elaborate a bit on the “The text is generous – it offers readers different meaning making possibilities” point, please? It is not clear to me what this means. Maybe one example? Thank you.
Points are made using more than one process, so narrative,metaphor and explanation… not just dry facticity…. there are also pointers out to other texts. Bakhtin would say the text leans to “heteroglossia”.
This sentence really stuck with me: “There is humour and playfulness.” I think there is very little of this in academic writing. I’m in a Social Sciences PhD program, and my profs tell me my writing should be “more academic” (I had a career as a newspaper journalist before returning to grad school). I understand, but so much academic writing is so esoteric and tired. I’d love if you could elaborate on how academic writing can employ more humor and playfulness without coming across as “folksy” (as my writing has been criticized for being). Thanks for this wonderful blog!
I totally agree, Kelly, with your “esoteric and tired” comments, and received similar feedback on my writing at various points when I tried to break away from what felt cold and boring to me. Pat–any comments on this? How does one employ humour without coming across as “fluffy” or light?
Aspirational and inspirational 🙂 Thanks, Pat! This reminds me of why I love reading and writing.
Thank you. This list is a big help. I am still struggling through academic writing. So I look for inspiration so I wont feel so lonely in this journey.
Salam from Indonesia
Your list reflects exactly what I think about what writing is. I actually love reading and when I read something that follows those rules, it becomes pretty enjoyable!
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Pat, what a wonderful list. I printed out a copy and put it in my writing journal. Thank you!
Much has been written on humour in academic writing (eg. http://journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/alls/article/view/2342/2045), and a lot of academic writing is humorous. But since humour tends to be culture-discipline-specific, what each of us may find humorous (and acceptable) in an academic context will vary. Which means not everyone will get the joke.
Steven Pinker (psycholinguist) can be very humorous (but you have to know that he is a cognitive linguist who often has digs at psycholinguists like Vyvyan Evans who in turn has a dig at Chomskyists, like Pinker); as can Richard Dawkins (evolutionary biologist) and the late Stephen J. Gould (creationist paleontologist) wrote books to and for each other using sarcasm and humour to invalidate each other’s arguments; and John Law (sociologist) played with notion of mess to argue that reality is a mess and therefore our writing also has to be messy; Alan Sokal (mathematician/physicist, whose famous hoax actually embodies humour, if not satire/parody!); Jacques Derrida (post-modernist and philosopher who was accused of being charlatan by Cambridge philosophers) and Bruno Latour (social scientist and science historian, derided for being a relativists) or Richard Feynman (a very playful and artful scientist and anti-philosopher who allegedly claimed that ‘scientists need philosophy as much as birds need ornithology) or Paul Feyerabend (philosopher of science whose book ‘Against Method’ I find very funny as well as persuasive …).
Humour/sarcasm can also be found in journal responses and rebuttals (eg Issue 34, 2016 of The Journal of Second Language Writing, for instance, has a tense, almost uncomfortable, exchange between Ken Hyland – an applied linguist – and others on the question of whether being a native speaker gives you an advantage when it comes to being published in academic journals – the controversial nature of the topic lends itself to irony and sarcasm).
What works for me is being clever and humorous, ie when the humour serves to distil cutting insight, like the Feynman quote above … the humour has to serve an academic purpose, such as nailing the argument.
Errata (sorry) – I meant ‘sociolinguists’ like Vyvyan Evans: the debate is between cognitive/psycholinguists like Pinker and Chomsky and sociolinguists.
Thank you, Pat, for sharing this fascinating list, and to others for very interesting comments.
I wonder if good academic writing can be ‘persuasive’ (a little more than ‘credible’). While a text is unlikely to convince all its readers all the time, it should encourage sufficient agreement with the writer’s stance and enough benefit of any critical doubt for most to read on with confidence. Part of this is being watchful with words and phrases – for example: http://bit.ly/1dHF1vX.
On a more stylistic note, good academic writing has ‘cadence’, taking the reader along like a leaf in a meandering stream. A simple way to check is to read the text aloud and assess the extent to which its intonation supports its meaning. Changing word order or punctuation can improve this. Cadence can be sought in individual sentences (particularly long ones) and in paragraphs as a whole: http://bit.ly/2gYqr9l.
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