is academic writing changing?

Just the other day. Just the other day someone asked me if I thought that academic writing was becoming more ‘authentic’. I didn’t really understand what this meant. But then I got it – ‘authentic’ writing was when academic writers no longer had to contort themselves into writing straitjackets. Write as if they have been taken over by some kind of remote, generic writing genie. Forced to write stuffy, distant and excessively formal prose. Conform to a style of academic writing that William Germano often refers to as inert. Instead, the authentic writer could write as if they were more ‘themselves’.

I had to think a bit about my answer. What choices do academic writers now have, I wondered.

It is certainly now possible for academic writers to make poetry, social fiction, narratives and very experimental texts. There are journals that specialise in these kinds of writings, and others that are not entirely closed off to more experimental texts. There are examiners who are happy to see  dissertations written in different genres and media. And you can now buy any number of academic books where writers have played with structure and style. All of these texts now pass the muster as academic because they argue, produce evidence and offer explanations which are connected with other scholarly works, often works that are written in a more conventional register and format.

And many scholars, in and out of the academy and across disciplines, now write for a range of audiences and publications. These writers have had to adjust their writing practices. They learn to switch their writing to suit their purpose and context. For many, this means learning to write in more relaxed ways, using less technical terms and more imaginative examples and categories. They use language, syntax and style tailored for different readers.

However, there are truckloads of academic publications where the writing is more restrained and perhaps constrained. Where changes in academic genres and styles seem not to have made any impression. Now, I haven’t done a formal study of writing genres and styles journals and books. But my hunch, as a regular reader of some of the more conventional journals is tha, even here in the bastions of formal scholarship, there are some signs that writers are loosening up.

Perhaps this is a result – Result!!!- from the relatively recent urgings for academic writers to make their writing clearer. To become more “stylish” as Helen Sword puts it. Perhaps it is because graduate schools pay more attention to writing. Maybe it is also in part the influence of an exponentially increased quantum of writing advice, books, courses, coaches, workshops and retreats. Mea culpa.

Whilet it does seem that those who want to write a touch less formally and/or insert a bit more individuality into their writing are now generally able to do so, you can still find a lot of writing where writers don’t. Won’t. (Can’t?) There’s still enough tortured prose out there for critics to take pot shots at. To write those columns about how academics can’t write. To give out smart-arse prizes for the most obscure and difficult to grasp text. Apologies for the slightly off colour term here, but I can’t think of a better one. 

I’d like to think that the day of the smart arse writing critic and dead academic texts are coming to an end. And that there is enough evidence to suggest that this is true. 

But what do you think? How would you sum up the current state of academic writing? Are the textual experiments just interesting activities in the margins? Or they are one end of a writing practice that is expanding and in flux? Are the various audit practices that exist in various countries pushing people to stay within narrow genres and styles? Or are audit criteria the last stands of disciplinary tribes whose writing practices are under duress? Ghosts of texts and practices past. Or is academic writing just not what it used to be? Do academic writers have more choice than ever before? Are we now taking the craft of writing seriously? 

I’m still thinking about my answer to the question I was asked. Is academic writing becoming more ’authentic’? I’m not sure I know an answer.  

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in good academic writing, Helen Sword, reader, style, style and structure and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to is academic writing changing?

  1. brigittenerlich says:

    One might start out writing an article for an academic journal in a more ‘authentic’ voice. However, with every round of revision that voice is silenced a bit more, until, when the article finally comes out, after a long time of waiting, watching and fiddling, that voice is dead and the authentic and enthusiastic author has lost all interest in it. (There are some exceptions)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. fortuneall says:

    This text, this message, and this response speak volume. Even though one might have thought that an answer to the posed question(s) was yet to be arrived at, I strongly believe that this text, this message , and this response may have spoken the minds of many other people.

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  3. meahunt says:

    Ha! I have just finished a progression report in which I reflected on my battle with having to conform with a dry academic writing style! My supervisors tell me to rewrite my ‘too journalistic style’ while simultaneously reminiscing on how they’d had similar struggles during their own PhD times. Thus the straight-jacketing of today’s ECRs’ writing is perpetuated. I find it particularly galling that we ‘newbie’ writers are forced to conform when I read articles from established academics writing in a much freer – and often more readable – way. I’ve been inspired by Julia Molinari’s book: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/what-makes-writing-academic-9781350243927/

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  4. Julia Molinari says:

    Thank you for writing and raising this, Pat. These are questions that are at the forefront of my research right now.

    To my mind, the issue of ‘authenticity’ in academic writing is challenged even further by 2 factors you haven’t mentioned in this post: the first being the inter-related question of multilingual writing & alleged bias in academic publishing (eg Canagarajah, Hyland and others, and related work on the place of multilingual literacies in the predominant monolingual academic writing culture), whereby publishers’ & readers’ perceptions of standard/non standard academic language may or may not be disadvantaging multilingual scholars (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jeap.2020.100895). This is a deeply structural question because it requires a socio-economic reflection on how academic publishing works and whose interests it serves (I’ve articulated some thoughts on this here: https://sites.psu.edu/publishing/blog/having-your-cake-and-eating-it-towards-a-just-and-diverse-ecology-of-academic-writings/). Consequently, it is not so clear what agency writers have and when they can have it within the structural landscape.

    The second is the rise of machine-generated texts (GPT3 via Open AI), which increasingly challenges what it means to be ‘authentic’ in a post-human or ‘new’ human academic writing landscape. In my own writings, I’ve tried to argue that we need a much broader understanding of what makes a text academic and that there are academic as well as ethical & epistemological rationales for ensuring academic writing is allowed to as diverse as the writers who generate it.

    I very much look forward to how others react to your post … 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • meahunt says:

      I meant to raise the multilingual point too, Julia! Being an EMI researcher, this is very much on my radar – that speakers of languages other than English have to contend with all that goes with operating in an Lx when submitting their work.

      Liked by 1 person

    • pat thomson says:

      Interestingly the question came from someone not in England who felt that they would benefit from the changes, and perhaps more from these changes than from recognitions of many Englishes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Julia Molinari says:

        That also makes perfect sense to me – academic writings and their perception of ‘authenticity’ are not reducible to language alone (linguistic ‘appropriateness’ is usually a necessary consideration but never a sufficient one). In fact, when only language is the focus, this perpetuates the misplaced idea that ‘as long as the language/English is fine’, then there is nothing else to worry about. Far from it! In my comment, I wasn’t thinking so much of ‘many Englishes’ but of research on translanguaging & multilingualism, whereby monolingual academic writing conventions, specifically, can be challenged by the inclusion of multilingual text (which can be justified on epistemological grounds, eg when keeping the original language or script becomes a methodological decision that justifies delaying the translation or omits the translation all together when the meaning of the untranslated text is made accessible in other ways). I was thinking of that ‘authenticity’ (whatever that means) can be achieved through translanguaging, too.

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  5. M J Curry says:

    I’m really interested in this post because I’m writing a book-length auto ethnography and a companion book chapter for an upcoming Handbook on Pierre Bourdieu in Education. His 2007 book, sketch for a self analysis, is highly aligned with the aims of autoethnography—both foreground the impossibility of doing research separately from our subjective selves. The dominance of positivist research methodologies in social sciences, and bleeding into humanities, has resulted in a false sense of objectivity being promulgated in academic writing. I’ve done plenty of that myself, so I understand how it comes about, but there’s something deeply satisfying and authentic about bringing yourself into your academic writing, and using a methodology that fosters this work. In addition to the more humanistic genres you listed in your piece, there is a tranche of genres/methodologies that are more hybrid across disciplines.

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    • pat thomson says:

      Interesting MJ. I was thinking autoethnographically here. I wrote my first little piece on stodgy academic writing in 1998 (!) as I was dabbling with stories and prose poems. Looking back, it does seem, to me at least, that things have loosened up quite a bit since then…

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      • Mary Jane Curry says:

        absolutely! ironically, the editor of the Bourdieu Handbook who’s working with me tried to ‘edit’ the more casual style I’d used in some phrases (mainly contractions, first person pronoun) until I pushed back and said I was doing that intentionally. Shows how ingrained these responses are from gatekeepers–also that writers do have agency in standing our ground–granted, I have more agency at this stage of my career than I did 20-25 years ago–or FEEL I have more agency!

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  6. Jane S. says:

    Dear Pat: You recently wrote that “It is as well to understand the potential for uneasiness between what you have experienced and understood before the PhD, and how it sits with the doctoral process.” Yep. As was Mea’s experience, I, too, was told to rewrite my ‘journalistic style.’
    Academia has its problems, only I had to adjust to it, not it to me. However, granted that mature postgraduate students can be set in their ways, especially those of us who have pursued previous writing careers, and, given all the time and labour invested in research and writing, it was dispiriting and frustrating. I now have a jaundiced view of the inadequacies of many university practices, and their curious lack of responsibilities, preparations and procedures. I don’t know if the ‘red bricks’ are more advanced in their approaches to how we research and how we write, but anyone going up to one of the ancient foundations could easily be overwhelmed – not only because of a perception of esteemed status but also because these universities are steeped in traditions, early histories, and an atmosphere of erudition and learning. With all the ghosts of practices past, as you neatly put it, any attempt to go beyond the accepted rules of academic writing is doomed. ‘Academic’ academic prose is the ideal and the goal, but often its prolixity underlines obscurantism. It certainly stifles the authenticity of an individual voice. Is this deliberate?
    (Incidentally, I have not discovered the same inert prose writing in Germany, where one might have thought to find the weight of the dead hand of tradition!)

    PS: In the past month or so, I have responded a couple of times – but uploading failed. Perhaps it is / was my computer, rather than the WordPress software? 😦

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  7. sharenpaine says:

    There IS a truckload…. Not, there ARE a truckload. Surely.

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  8. Miss PT says:

    The sooner we rid ourselves of the passive voice, the so-called objective view of hard-won knowledge through meticulous research, the idea that we should still be writing our findings as if we were 10th-century white males (or females that seem to think this is necessary), the better! If the research is solid, the connections to scholarship secure and the conclusions derived from both, that is what counts. It is about time we, as academic writers, took ownership of what we write and not hide behind a style that seeks to hid our authorship.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. barbaraleckie says:

    Interesting! I do think there’s a shift in academic writing over the past, say, decade. For what it’s worth, I’ve just written a book that seeks to be more experimental (although I’d probably hesitate over the term authentic), Climate Change, Interrupted: https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=31102. It responds to my sense that our climate-imperilled times require movement out of long-established academic categories. Not sure if it succeeds or not but what’s important to me is trying new stuff and encouraging others to do the same. Barbara

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  10. I argue the future of academic writing cannot be entertained without exploring what role, if any, artificial intelligence will have on academic writing in the years & decades ahead. Almira O. Thunstrom, a doctoral researcher at Sahlgrenska University, wrote an article featured by Scientific American on GPT-3, an artificial-intelligence algorithm, that researched, referenced, & composed an academic research paper. The question is: will the academic writer of the future be reduced to designing a programmable algorithm to negotiate & produce the nitty & gritty prose invested in the structural making of the traditional academic paper? Can artificial intelligence liberate academic writers from more technical & laborious concerns to allow for greater originality turned creativity?

    The basis for such curiosity entertains a future transforming academic writing into the assembly of source code for algorithms unique to individual research area. In this future, academics would no longer write long, laborious, & drawn-out research papers; rather, their primary focus would be directed to designing theses, research papers, & case studies by designing sub-algorithms using a primary algorithmic source code. The approach is simple: come up with the idea & the “primary algorithmic operator” will do the rest of the work for you. This hypothetical academic would review what the algorithm produced allowing for topical expansion & editing as needed. One cannot resist entertaining the ethical costs of such a radical transformation to the development of “original academic prose” in the ivory tower. Can the academic writer take full credit for their work without referencing the algorithmic operator?

    This seems most suggestive of what will happen when that much forecasted technological singularity meets academia, but is such an outcome inevitable let alone desirable? Efficiency in the deliverance of academic discourse is not indicative of personability; on the contrary, it may prove to have the opposite effect. We are already witnessing the beginning of such transformations with programs like Microsoft Word & Grammarly designed to screen for effectiveness & clarity in our writing.

    A great deal to consider indeed…

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    • Julia Molinari says:

      I agree with you, Omar – I am doing research on this right now. GPT-3 (see also recent work by Mike Sharples & Rafael Perez y Perez on ‘Story Machines’) is incredible and forces us to confront what it means to be a human academic writer, author and knowledge ‘producer’. It is a fascinating interdisciplinary area. It is already impacting pedagogy, with some educators assigning academic writing tasks that *require* students to generate AI machine text as part of the writing assignment. This in turn changes the identity of the student-writer to that of a student-curator or editor of co-produced knowledge (machine and & human-authored). Thank you for commenting on this.

      Liked by 1 person

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