Category Archives: language

Research update #35 – Writing like a proper academic

My writing style in this blog is intended to be conversational and focused on using the act of writing to help me to give form to my ideas. So sometimes it can be insightful and sometimes it can be somewhat more rambling. I’ve been very conscious the whole way through that this is not the style that I will need to employ when I’m actually writing my thesis.

Interestingly (perhaps) I had a bit of a mental to-and-fro in that last sentence between using ’employ’ or ‘use’. Nine times out of ten I would’ve gone with ‘use’, as I believe in simple and concise language but maybe because I’m thinking about how I will need to write in the future, I went with the more formal ’employ’. Or maybe the rhythm of the words worked better with ’employ’ as there is something strangely musical in language that seems important when I write. Anyway, I did mention that I can sometimes be rambly.

This self-consciousness about my writing style has risen up a little lately as I’ve been reading some of the blog posts of my SOCRMx colleagues. Many of them are doing the MOOC for course credit, so it could simply be that they are writing as they believe they are expected to or perhaps have gotten into the habit of doing, but it is still a style that I feel somewhat removed from.

Which is why I was happy to come across this post from one of my two favourite PhD gurus, Inger “Thesis Whisperer” Mewburn. With a title like “Academic writing is like a painful upper-class dinner party” you can probably work out where she is going with it. In a nutshell, her argument is that to be taken seriously in academia, you need to write like an “uptight white person”.

Meaning essentially that caution, nuance and form rule the day, with the choice of words offering worlds of hidden meaning about your actual, never to be expressed feelings. Using ‘assert’ rather than ‘argue’ is effectively a headbutt to the credibility of the author that you are discussing as it suggests that they are incapable of rationally supporting their idea and instead need to resort to an appeal to authority to make their point. (I have a feeling that I’ve probably used ‘assert’ at some point when I simply felt that I’d been overusing ‘argue’ so I’ll be paying particular attention here)

All of which brings me back to something that I’ve previously reflected on here, which is that your reader – and more importantly your reviewer and assessor’s personal tastes can carry far more importance in how your work is received than your ideas. I can appreciate that forms of communication evolve over time and become significant because they demonstrate an understanding of certain key concepts of scholarship but overall I find it a shame that vital ideas might be disregarded because they aren’t expressed in the appropriate fashion. A few commenters at the end of the post were outraged that Inger was reinforcing this dominant paradigm and vowed never to buy her book but I think they missed the point. Inger was talking about what is and they are focused on what should be. Her core idea was that communication should still be clear and accessible where possible but that it will be read in particular ways by an audience and it is important to be mindful of how that audience reads if you want to communicate with them.

She also includes a link to an incredibly handy verb cheat sheet divided by whether you think the work that you are describing is awesome, neutral or poor. She makes the point that this is written for research in her domain – part social sciences and part education – and people need to find their own but given that her domain is mine, I’m pretty happy to have it as a starting point.

Thanks Thesis Whisperer