Academic Writing Blues? 3 Tips to Help you Find your Groove
I love working with academic writers.
They’re intelligent, self-motivated and focused on achieving good results. However, many haven’t had any teaching of writing since in their mid-teens.
The problem with that is that you’re trying to write complex thoughts with a beginners’ writing toolbox.
That’s like expecting a racing car driver to compete in that second hand Toyota they bought off their friend’s mum when they were 16.
Trying to write without the proper tools is frustrating, time-consuming, repetitive, and usually unsuccessful.
And the result of all that time staring at a page, not quite expressing your thoughts clearly? Your supervisor commenting, ‘You need to think about this more,’ ‘I need evidence of critical thought,’ or even (of your hours of work),’I think this section is unnecessary.’
Academic writing is laborious, sure. But it doesn’t need to be soul destroying. Try these three things to upgrade your style.
Plan off the Page
Sure, you’re writing to a model – maybe using sections like methodology, findings and discussion. But there’s a lot more to planning than that. Planning is your best friend – your future self wants to quietly cry with gratitude every time your current self leaves a trail of breadcrumbs.
You can plan sentences and paragraphs too. In fact, a great tool to see if you’re on track is reverse planning – that is, can you make a clear plan from something you’ve already written? Because if you can’t follow what you said, there’s not much chance anyone else can.
So plan off the page -whenever you falter, turn to that deskpad, pick up a pencil and PLAN!
Convince your Readers
I bet, if you thought hard, you could remember your Year 11 English teacher telling you that paragraphs needed to follow a ‘Statement, Explanation. Example’ formula. And I bet that formula failed pretty quickly – because it doesn’t explain how each of those elements functions.
Let’s consider them in turn.
Statement – otherwise called Topic Sentence.
This is your position -your statement of intent, your promise. Your statements need to be clear, unambiguous and coherent.
In an essay on Wilfred Owen’s famous poem about WW1, Dulce Et Decorum Est, I might make the point:
“At the heart of the poem’s power lies contrast.”
My reader is unlikely to believe me based on that statement alone. So I need to offer some proof.
This is the proof of what you’re asserting. It might be data, or a quotation from an expert, or the results of a survey. Nobody’s going to believe you without this element.
In my example, I’d offer evidence from the poem: the quotation he opens with, , ‘It is sweet and proper to die for your country’ and the reality of death from poisonous gas: “floundering like a man in fire or lime,” and “guttering, choking, drowning”.
Explanations have two functions: they expand on your statement, and they link the evidence to it.
In my example, I need to explain what I mean by contrast, and how my evidence proves my point. I’d need to explain the ‘sweet’ death Horace talks about, and how and why Owen shows that it’s a lie.
Link your Ideas
It’s absolutely necessary to point out connections to your reader. And there will be connections everywhere: between words, between sentences, paragraph and sections.
And always, the most important connection is between what you’re writing at the moment and the topic/thesis itself.
Link ideas in sentences with words like: however, meanwhile, although, because, in contrast, and similarly.
Link paragraphs with phrases like:
- This evidence seems clear. However…
- On the other hand…
- That is not the only compelling reason…
- Another set of data…
Link sections with subheadings that are clear and offer a signpost about content:. Instead of ‘Summary, write ‘Summary of First Case Study.’ Instead of ‘Results of Interviews,’ write ‘Interviews with Older Adults.’
To test your subheadings, ask yourself the following: do my subheadings help my reader understand:
- The content of whole document?
- The content of each section?
- How each section fits with the others?
Polish Your Writing
The point of good grammar, spelling and syntax is to help you clearly communicate with your reader. Also, in your case, you need to look brainy.
No matter how good your thinking is, if you don’t employ the basics, you’ll undersell your ideas. The end!
Once you have the punctuation and grammar sorted, what’s next?
Editing to include signposts for your thinking. Add value to your writing by using words that show you’re thinking for yourself.
You’ll know the kind of word I mean if you think about it.
- ‘Significantly’ is shorthand for “I can work out which the most important thing is.”
- ‘Conversely’ means “I know I’ve just told you about one thing, but here’s another that I think is worth considering as well.”
- ‘Without doubt’ means ‘I’m completely confident I’m right.
These words signpost your critical thinking. Employ them in your writing.
Too many academic writers struggle to express their thinking and research.
That’s a pity, because it means they’re not showcasing their own achievements well.
Let’s face it – every writer needs to learn the craft – and there’s no shame in needing a hand to hone in on the specific skills needed for this high-level writing.
If this sounds like you, contact me for a chat about how I can help.
The best way to find out what I can offer you is to ask. I’d love to hear from you.
JO MORRIS AT HOME
027 361 8376