Academic Writing Part 2

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This is a follow-up to my previous entry on this subject.

If you are looking for a website to help you teach academic writing to university students (whether EFL students or native-English-speaking students), I recommend those by Gavin Budge (Writing for the Reader), and by Andy Gillett: Academic Writing.

As many of my students don’t seem to be clear on what academic writing is, or what it is for, I found the following sections of Writing for the Reader particularly helpful: I paraphrased some sections or translated them into Japanese for my students. I don’t actually teach Academic Writing, but two of my courses require students to write several essays which must include references and citations in the MLA style. Judging from my experience this year (academic year 2009-2010), most students don’t really have much of a clue. Students who wrote an essay comparing a British children’s story with a Japanese children’s story, for example, often wrote more just describing the plot than actually comparing the two stories.

I found the pages below particularly useful when helping me explain the why’s and wherefore’s of academic writing to my students. If this year’s experience is any guide, I shall need to spend more time on these basics.

I discovered several problems with my students’ academic writing.

  1. Problem #1: many of my students wrote lots describing the plots of the stories they were using for their comparison essay. See “writer-oriented prose” from Gavin Budge’s website.
  2. Problem #2:  students were making all kinds of assumptions about who their readers would be and what they would know. Essentially, they assumed their “readers” would be Japanese college students like themselves; in other words, they had not thought about who the readers would be at all, they were still writer-oriented. In the case of my writing and blogging students, they assumed the readers would be their classmates; in the case of the more academic classes, they assumed their readers would be their classmates and/or me, their instructor, a gaijin familiar with Japan and things Japanese. (See “rhetorical situation” below.)
  3. They seemed unaware of the purpose of proper referencing,  paragraphing and formatting. Gavin Budge wrote the following in an explanatory article, and it was this that first caught my attention and made me want to explore his site more:
  4. The other fundamental problem with most existing guides to academic writing, whether in book or electronic form, seemed to me to be that they don’t explain the purpose behind the advice they presented, a purpose often clear to those who have already mastered the craft of academic prose, but whose obviousness can’t be assumed for the students the guides are supposed to be addressing. Referencing conventions, for example, are often set out in considerable detail, but the purpose of providing references is rarely discussed. And yet all studies of the learning process show that material which is assimilated superficially, without an understanding of its purpose, is quickly forgotten, so that it is little wonder that even those students who have consulted a writing guide often fail to reference effectively, by which I mean not just with mechanical correctness but with an understanding of the rhetorical purposes served by referencing in academic writing.

  5. They wrote their essays as “reaction papers”, or what the Japanese call “kansou-bun” 感想文: they started off with explanations about why they had chosen the topic and added all sorts of irrelevant, personal details. They also threw in their personal opinions helter-skelter, anywhere, and failed to adhere to my rule that they at least leave out all personal opinions until the concluding paragraph: they simply could not understand why. (See “rules” below.)
  6. They also did not really understand the reasons for splitting their writing up into paragraphs, or the importance of the order of the paragraphs. When they remembered to do so, they only did it (I felt) because I insisted on it. They did not understand the need for a clear, introductory paragraph, and indeed found it very difficult to write one. (See  “cues” below.)

Unfortunately, I came across this excellent website too late to make much use of it in my classes for this (Japanese) academic year, which is now drawing to a close (end of January). I plan to translate some of the key points below and make them available to my academic writing classes next year (starting in April, with the cherry blossom).

  • writer-oriented prose:
  • Writer-orientated writing may be appropriate in a note-taking context, but should be avoided in the context of a university essay, which is expected to be reader-orientated. The requirement in university work to take account of the reader’s perspective is one of the main differences from the kind of writing you may have done at school. Typically, when revising, you can improve the effectiveness of your writing by making it more orientated towards your imagined reader.

    The tell-tale symptoms of writer-orientated writing may be summed up as a lack of synthesis. Although it may sometimes be necessary briefly to remind your reader of the content of a text you are discussing, if you find yourself taking more than a half a page to describe the plot of a novel, for example, it indicates that you haven’t really arrived at any overall view of what the novel is about. In the same way, if you are aware that you are presenting information in a particular order simply because that is the order you came across it yourself, it shows that you haven’t really worked out what the significance of the information might be for someone else.

  • rhetorical situation
  • It’s very easy to assume that simply by producing a piece of writing you have succeeded in communicating. Everything seems perfectly clear when you read it over, so why wouldn’t somebody else understand it? The short answer is that, if you haven’t put considerable effort into providing cues, you are expecting your reader to be a mind-reader. You have spent hours preparing and writing your essay, and as a result have formed a very detailed mental picture of the topic, which you automatically relate to the words you have put down on paper. But the reader can’t see this picture inside your head; they can only form their picture of the topic through a process of creative reading. Your job as a writer is to make it possible for your readers to reconstruct an adequate version of your mental picture, or approach.

  • expectations
  • Unlike the essays you may have written at school, writing at university level is expected to be reader-orientated and aware of its rhetorical situation, rather than an essentially writer-orientated display of knowledge. This means that nobody can give you a simple checklist of the differing expectations that apply at university level, because what is being marked by your tutors is often the structure and the cues you provide for the reader, rather than anything which can be reduced to discrete items. You can only understand these aspects of essay-writing by actively exploring writing strategies.

    One of the fundamental differences between writing and speaking is the lack of interaction with the audience when you’re writing, which makes it easy to forget to put design for a reader into your essay. The lack of audience interaction is also responsible for the feeling of not knowing what is expected which you may have. This is why it is often useful to give an oral presentation when working on an essay, since it helps you develop your sense of audience.

  • rules
  • Impersonal forms of expression are preferred in academic writing. This does not mean that you should never use the word “I” in a university essay. The word “I” is quite acceptable in contexts where you are talking about what you are doing as a writer (e.g. in expressions such as “I am now going to discuss…”). The reason you may have been told not to use the word “I” (perhaps at school) is that you were being discouraged from taking a writer-orientated perspective in which the meaningfulness of assertions in the first person (e.g. “I think that fox-hunting is wrong.”) is assumed is to be obvious. Making this kind of claim using the word “I”, and without providing any evidence or supporting argument, is very like citing from unpublished sources, because it gives your reader no way to examine the basis of what you’re saying. Using the word “I” in this way, in order to substitute for evidence rather than to clarify your approach as a writer is fundamentally in conflict with the reader-orientated perspective that is one of the expectations attached to essay-writing at university level.

  • cues

When we’re in conversation with somebody, or listening to an oral presentation, we’re provided with a running commentary on how to understand what is being said by the speaker’s tone of voice or their body language. A reader is cut off from all such signals, and unless you take care to provide plenty of explicit indications in your writing about how one part of your argument relates to another, will quickly become disorientated. One source of these cues is the structure of your writing, particularly the introduction and, to a lesser extent, the conclusion, which perform a framing function for your argument, allowing your reader to place what you’re saying in a context, and thus understand its bearing by answering the so what? question. But it’s a waste of time doing the work to provide this context and then allowing your reader to forget about it – readers have fairly short memories and will simply be puzzled if your argument refers back to something you said more than about three pages previously, so you need to keep this context in your reader’s mind by regular signposting.

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