Academic Writing Lesson 1

July 31, 2017

Lesson 1.

What Exactly is Academic Writing?

Let’s examine two texts:

Text A: ‘The Crucible’ written by Arthur Miller is a great example of an allegory which explores the conflict existing between individual choices and social expectations. In Salem the society may have power over certain individuals such as Mary Warren but not over strong willed characters such as Abigail and Proctor. This community holds power over individuals who fear other individuals and is made up of a dominant group. Miller uses this idea to make a comparison to McCarthyism in the 1950’s. During this time in McCarthyism the government had most authority over America and almost brainwashed them, while in Salem people were ruled over by the Church and Court. Miller conveys this in ‘The Crucible’ to strengthen and prove the purpose of the play. In this play power and reputation are the key elements which cause conflicts between individuals and society and expectations society holds. Also there are some individuals who rule over other individuals e.g. Abigail and the girls.

( extracted from https://getrevising.co.uk/resources/an_a_graded_essay_example_3 )

Text B: The people nearest the platform edge moved forward expectantly. He glanced up from his crossword. The 14:38 must be pulling in. He folded the newspaper, tucked it under his arm, picked up his briefcase as he stood and moved forward with the rest of the herd.

The train gasped and wheezed into view, settling down for a moment’s respite under the wrought-iron arches, pausing to peruse the advertising placards along the far wall.

He waited politely as business suits, scruffy jeans, chunky cardigans, and leather jackets spewed onto the concrete, flowing along the platform, before draining away down the graffiti-garnished steps. He slid inside the carriage, spotted a vacant seat next to some fat, bearded, sweaty-looking oik, decided it was better than standing and, nodding politely, sat down, re-opened his newspaper and prepared to re-engage sixteen down and eight across in cerebral combat.

 

( taken from a short story by D.B. English from http://dbenglish.simplesite.com/ )

Can you see how these texts are different? Can you explain the differences?

Academic versus Creative Writing.

Text A above is an example of academic writing; Text B is an example of creative writing. During this course, we will be examining the differences between these styles, but the principal variation is that Text A was written to develop an argument. It presents facts and opinions, supported by evidence, and refers to characters within the play which it is examining, as well as wider themes outside the text. This is the essence of academic writing.

Text B, on the other hand, tells a story. We do not know who the man is, there are many examples of literary devices, such as personification and colloquial language, and we do not know how the story might end. It was written to make the reader interested and want to know more.

When we are asked to write a text, there are four main considerations which we need to take into account, which we can represent by the acronym GAPS. This stands for:

  • Genre
  • Audience
  • Purpose
  • Style

Let’s look at these a little more closely. What do you think they mean?

Genre.

This refers to what kind of text we are writing. As a student, you will mostly be writing essays. These may be quite short or very long. They will need to have certain features which show that you understand the conventions of essay-writing, as well as showing that you have understood the task. We will go into more detail on different kinds of essay in Lesson 2.

However, you will also have to read many texts during your time at college or university. The exam question may ask you to comment on features of a text related to its genre, or to compare and contrast one text with another, explaining the similarities and differences between them. These ‘compare and contrast’ questions are almost always included in English Literature courses.

The point here is that texts which you are required to read or discuss can belong to more than one possible genre, and so the kind of essay you need to write will also have to be adapted to the course assignment or exam question.

Therefore, it will be useful if you can identify the genre of a text. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello falls into the categories of a play, drama, and tragedy. A recipe from a cookery book, on the other hand, is an example of a semi-formal, instructional text.

Can you think of any others? List them here:

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Audience.

When you write something, you need to consider who will read it? This is your audience. Usually, the audience will be your college or university tutor, but it may be an external assessor, especially if you are writing an exam answer.

This is important because the person who reads your work may not know you personally, so they will not know how much you know about the subject. This means you will have to demonstrate your understanding; you cannot assume that the reader knows what you mean. However, it is also likely that the reader will know something about the topic. Therefore, you will not usually need to define every single term. This is sometimes a difficult issue. Consider this example:

‘Blake’s use of quatrains in The Poison Tree demonstrates how a simplistic poetic structure can be used to explore complex social or theosophical issues.’

The writer has not needed to explain exactly who ‘Blake’ is, nor what a ‘quatrain’ means. The writer has assumed, possibly perfectly reasonably, that the reader already knows, perhaps because this text was written for an English Literature course, specialising in poetic analysis. In that case, this would be an acceptable answer.

However, if this was an essay for a history course, examining the role of literature as social commentary, then the writer would need to explain that ‘Blake’ is William Blake (1757-1827), an English poet, painter, and printmaker, and an important figure in the Romantic movement, and that a ‘quatrain’ refers to a stanza of poetry containing four lines.

As with genre, it is equally important, when reading texts, to consider the audience the text was written for. This can be an important consideration when planning your work. A scientific paper on nuclear physics will obviously have a very different audience to a magazine article about a pop star. The first is written for an expert audience, the second for a general one.

Can you think of any others? List them here:

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Purpose.

This refers to why you are writing. Generally speaking, academic writing is not to entertain the reader; it is written for a specific reason. For example, it may be to inform, i.e. to give the reader facts. It may be to explain your point of view. It might be to argue for or against a proposition.

The main point is that, whatever you write, you have to be very clear about the reason or reasons for writing. If you are not sure of the purpose of your text, then it is highly likely that the reader will not understand what you are trying to say either. The purpose of the text is going to influence your choice of what to include and what to leave out. Academic writing always requires evidence to support your point or argument. The more certain you are about your purpose, the better your writing will be.

This is also something to bear in mind when you are reading. Political articles, advertisements, newspaper editorials, in fact almost everything you read as part of your studies or in your daily life was written for a very specific purpose. Advertisers want you to buy their products or services, newspaper editors want you to accept their point of view, political writers may want you to agree with them, and disagree with someone else.

When you know the writer’s purpose (which may not be obvious at first), you should be able to better understand why they chose to use certain words, phrases, or images. As an academic writer, your principal purpose is to present facts or arguments.

Can you think of any others? List them here:

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Style.

Style refers to how you write your text. The main consideration here is on how formal it should be. Remember that formal and informal are not absolutes; they exist on a spectrum. For example, post-graduate scientific theses are expected to present empirical evidence and observations, and therefore will be at the extreme formality end of the curve. An email to your best friend, inviting them to a weekend pizza party, would be at the opposite end. A letter to your college tutor apologising for missing a lesson might be somewhere in the middle. We will look at this in more detail in Lesson 5.

There have been some changes over the last few years in how colleges and universities expect essays and assignments to be written. Until relatively recently, all writing was expected to be extremely formal. This meant that it was considered wrong to use the personal pronoun ‘I’, because the facts or arguments were meant to be objective and impersonal. Therefore, it was very common to read statements like ‘Olivier’s portrayal of Richard III has been considered a cinematic classic since it was first screened in 1955.’ These days, it is possible to read something like ‘I think that Laurence Olivier gave the best performance of Richard III when he played him in the film which he made in 1955.’

However, there is more to think about than just the level of formality; should you include pictures, or graphs? Does the text need sub-headings, or bullet points? How do you organise your work into paragraphs? We will look at paragraphs in more detail in Lesson 2.

When you are submitting assignments, you will almost certainly have a course handbook which will tell you which font/s and size to use. Most colleges and universities will expect you to include your name, personal identifier number, and the assignment number or title at the top of the page. Always check the handbook before you submit your work, or ask your tutor for guidance.

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar.

It is absolutely vital that you can spell and punctuate correctly, and also that you use correct grammar. This is for three reasons: first, it shows that you have proof read your work. We will look at this in more detail in Lesson 6; secondly, it ensures that you make your meaning clear; finally, institutions are much stricter about these matters than they used to be. If you are studying at college or university level, you are expected to know how to spell, punctuate, and use the right grammar.

If you have difficulties with spelling, there are ways to improve:

  • Read as much as you can, and keep a notebook of words you have problems with.
  • Make sure you have a good dictionary.
  • Some people use the look – say – cover – write – check method. This means you have the word in front of you. First, you look at the word. Are there any consonant clusters, such as str- or psy- ? Are there prefixes (un-, il-, anti-, etc) or suffixes (-ment, -ness,   -ation, etc). Next, say the word aloud. How many syllables are there? Then, cover the word with your hand. Now, write it down from memory. Finally, uncover the word and check. If you were right, do it twice more to fix it in your mind. If you were wrong, go back to step one and try again.
  • Use mnemonics (from the ancient Greek word ‘mnemonikos’, which means ‘mindful’). For example, many people have trouble with the word ‘accommodation’. It can be difficult to remember how many c’s and m’s it contains. It means ‘a place to live’, so if you make up a sentence like ‘Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse live together in a house’, it helps you remember both the spelling and definition.

There is a useful list of links and books at the end of Lesson 12.



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