Academic writing I: Lots of opinions no right answers or dealing with uncertainty

In a previous post I wrote about the concept of ‘rhetoric’ and the interplay between the audience, the writer and the context (Fig. 1).  This helps explain why there is no right or wrong way to set about a piece of academic writing or coursework.  Ultimately the audience is always right and is often fickle.

writingret

Figure 1: The use of rhetoric.

There are lots of reasons for this, different disciplines have their own way of doing things and everyone has their own personal ‘writing experience’.  Essentially they ‘do unto you, what was done (rightly or wrongly) unto them’.  Different bosses like things done in different ways and in truth most of your tutors at University will have different opinions.  These will depend on their academic history, how much they publish and where they publish.  As the phrase says ‘what is breed in the bone will out in the flesh’.

In the case of your boss you may be able to slowly challenge them and educate them into your (hopefully better) way of writing, but in most cases you will need to confirm to your audiences expectations.  Just because all your tutors are from the same faculty don’t assume that they all write in the same way or expect the same output.  Your audience will always have different perspectives, experiences and values.  Your tutors are all different and hurray for individuality!  In most cases therefore you are appealing to the likes and dislikes of your audience and to ‘like-minded’ readers, but it is always good to remember that if you always conform you cannot change minds and opinions.  Ultimately it is about the way you go about this.

The lack of certainty about what is required can be a nightmare for students.   You are not going to solve this however much you wish or demand conformity, so best to embrace it and work within the constraints that you do have.

balls and control2

Figure 2: Your tutors are individuals each with their own perspective of how things should be done.

Figure 2 tries to crystallise this.  The known constraints are the assignment brief, the style guide to which you are working and your aim is to land the assignment in the ball-park remembering that each ball (i.e. tutor) is different.  They are kept broadly (and I mean broadly) by external examiners and professional benchmarks.  A good illustration of this is the use of the first person.  When I was a student and a young lecture the first person was a big no, for some academics it remains a no, but in the last 30 years this has changed and many journals now encourage the use of the first person.  In my own writing practice I embrace it.  There are people in my own faculty, however, who still think it is a huge sin.  This is an example of the uncertainty around how to land an assignment.  Well in this example the simple answer is to ask the tutor for whom you are writing and/or check out what the style is in the journals specific to their subject area or in which they write.  A bit of simple audience research can really help.  If a tutor tells you to never use the first person, take it with a ‘pinch of salt.’

This level of uncertainty is not just specific to Universities; you will find a similar set of uncertainties in professional practice to (Fig. 3).  And academics work with uncertainty in the form of the opinions of peer reviewers and their audiences all the time (Fig. 4).

balls and controls3

Figure 3: Landing your report in the right space.

balls and controls2

Figure 4: Landing an academic paper (publication) in the right space. 

So the first thing to remember is to know your audience and write for them within the formal and informal constraints that are set.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not in favour of just writing any old rubbish to conform and flatter your audience.  Some messages are easier however:

  • ‘I found the same as them!’
  • ‘We are doing a wonderful job.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your case.’
  • ‘This evidence supports your site model.’

It is much harder to challenge:

  • ‘We have to change the way we are doing things, and now!’
  • ‘The evidence doesn’t support the Boss’s view.’
  • ‘Your prime suspect couldn’t have done it!’

Conforming to your audiences views does not mean ‘rolling over’ but you need to tread carefully and build a strong evidence case when challenging the status quo.  The so called ‘tempered radical’ usually wins the day, if slowly.  The second lesson is to always evidence your claim and build a reasoned argument which considers alternatives and provides context.  You can conform to audience expectations while also punching them in the face!  Gently!

Uncertainty can extend to definitions of different types of written work.  Take the humble essay for example much loved as an assessment.  Personally I think that the use of sub-heading is appropriate to help provide some structure, but others argue that there should be none at all.  The dictionary is of little help:

‘Short piece of writing on a particular subject’

‘A short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.’

Generally, a piece of writing that gives the author’s own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper or an article.  Formal essays are characterized by “serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length,” whereas the informal essay has a more personal element.   Nowhere is the any guidance about the use of subheadings!  Now an essay is not a report.  A report is a more factual and any argument is confined to the discussion or conclusion once the data/evidence has been presented.  Here are some definitions but they are mine, not necessarily everyone’s!

  • Essay – a continuous piece of prose which explores/evaluates one or more concepts and/or develops an argument (a thesis or claim). The word thesis is not to be confused with a PhD or Master Thesis, but refers to a central claim or idea which is then argued.  Generally an essay may have broad headings to act as a guide and has a clear logical development of ideas normally around a single thesis.  It can contain general illustrations but is usually free from data.
  • Report – a factual description of a set of results (field and/or laboratory) followed by analysis and discussion of those results. Usually sub-divided into sub-headings following AIMRaD structure (Fig. 5): aims, introduction, methods, results and discussion. It normally contains data, graphs and analysis
  • Dissertation/thesis – an extended piece of work based on original research and/or a systematic review of secondary sources/literature.
  • Literature review – a structured summary and synthesis of previous work on a subject. Note this may be a component of a report, essay or dissertation.
  • Paper – in academic circles this normally refers to a peer reviewed and published paper/article. In some countries especially the USA it is synonymous with ‘essay/report’.

Again the key to dealing with uncertainty is to find out what your audience expects and wants and to give it to them.

AAFS Study Skills_Session#14_15_16

Figure 5: The classic AIMRad structure.

One of the hardest things to do is to write, especially when you are working with uncertainty, but writing is part of the creative scientific process.  It provides a way of working through your arguments and making your case.  Unfortunately there is only one solution and that is to practice and to never forget your audience.

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