What is Academic Writing ?
What is Academic Writing ?
I have just finished marking a batch of over 50 essays of my MSc students in one of the subjects I teach. There were several well written essays but I also observe a few limitations the students could have easily avoided. Even though the students started working on their essays under normal circumstances, the last stages of this course was to some extent affected by the unforeseen circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 lockdown. While I had offered a range of options such as a reading week, office hours and drop in sessions to offer support to write their essay, only a few students made use of these opportunities productively. Thought I provided some pre-recorded guidance on exams and remaining coursework for some cohorts of students, my regular face-to-face briefings could not be held. Therefore, I could not have individual discussions with students regarding their coursework and offer additional support as I would have liked. So, I thought to write this blog-post that could be useful for those who are keen to do well in their academic essays!
Another particular observation was the majority of students enrolled in my subject comes from Asia/South Asia and/or with no human resource or sociological background but specialising in disciplines such as project management. Over the years I observe, the expectation from academic writing significantly differs among different countries and regions, for example, expectation within British Universities is different to that of other countries. Therefore, some of those students who study in the UK for a short period of time, say for one year, find it difficult to correctly grasp what it means to be writing academically to meet the expectations. I was one of such students when I first arrived in the UK many years ago, to do a master's degree and I still remember how big a transition it was for me to learn and meet the expected standards of academic writing in the UK.
Thus, considering some of the limitations of academic writing I observed in the work of my students and my own experiences, I gathered key areas of expectations in academic writing that could be useful for both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. In fact, I often draw students’ attention by pointing these out through the feedback I write on their coursework too.
Below, I outline these fundamental or basic expectations of academic writing:
1. Completeness of the answer
2. Understanding of the subject matter
3. Use of relevant theoretical and conceptual positions
5. Logical and coherent flow
6. Effective sentence and paragraph construction
7. Evidence of reading and research
8. Validated statements, claims, evidence and examples - referencing
9. Argumentation and critical analysis
13. Academic Honesty
1. Completeness of the answer
Your first and foremost task is to answer the question. You must set out to answer the question by identifying an aim derived from the question you are trying to answer. You must take some time to plan out and develop a structure for the essay which will be a ‘sketch’ of how you plan to answer the question. I observe students making a range of mistakes here. Some start writing without careful planning or structuring, which is a very risky strategy, often ends up being unsuccessful. I have come across some essays which do not have even a title or any reference to the question: such work does not generate a favourable impression. And some do not set an aim for the essay. Also, some work do not accomplish what they promise at the beginning or deviate completely from the question lacking focus. It is better to keep the reader in the mind and keep them interested, focused and engaged. So you could use a shortened form of the main aim of your essay to carefully repeate in some places so that you do not deviate from the set I am, allowing you to keep the reader informed. So rather than writing in a hurry taking time to plan out your answer will make considerable impact in the success of your answer. 2. Understanding of the subject matter
Another the key criterion in assessing academic writing is the understanding of the subject matter. Without proper subject knowledge you cannot produce a quality piece of academic writing. The subject knowledge reflects in accurate understanding of specific theories and Concepts related as well as awareness of the nature of empirical or practical situation. Such understanding will enable producing a successful answer. One major observation is that many students produce answers/essays without appropriate understanding of the subject matter. If you have doubts in your understanding of the question and the subject, then reading, discussing with friends and your lecturer will be vital. Understanding of the subject matter also relates to ongoing discussions and debates, key authors and the recognised work in the field: the examiners can very quickly will assess the academic quality and rigour of your work based on this criterion. Therefore, it is important that you take time to read the recommended literature in the first instance and any other relevant literature to gain adequate understanding of the subject matter prior to completing your writing, which will help you develop a successful answer. While reading you must ensure to take notes (electronically) with references so your reading is not going to be a waste.
3. Use of relevant theoretical and conceptual positions
A successful answer is necessarily an outcome of close association and integration of relevant theory and concepts. Theories and Concepts are required to validate and interpret empirical observations/situations identified through evidence, examples and statistics, which will add rigor and depth to your writing. So not only clear and accurate understanding demonstrating conceptual clarity but also an ability to successfully integrate them into your writing without breaking the flow and coherence is fundamental. I observe that some students do not fully understand or fail to identify relevant theories and concepts, thus simply produce descriptive essays based only on evidence and examples lacking depth to their work. A useful tip is to closely follow the lectures, particularly those aspects the lecturers emphasise, along with recommended reading as a starting point, so you cannot go wrong. And then your further reading must inform additional theories and Concepts that you might want to incorporate. Avoid picking and choosing random theories in your writing, that might appear odd. 4. Structure
‘Structure’ also relates to taking time to plan and sketch your answer. Structuring of ideas also relates to effective communication and presentation of your work. An effective structure is the backbone of your writing. A basic structure consists of three elements – introduction, body (discussion) and conclusion. The body or the discussion section of your essay then needs to be further sub-categorised and structured. The way you structure and present your ideas through sections and paragraphs will demonstrate your ability to command and demonstrate your knowledge. For relatively short essays, e.g. 2500 words, there is no need for subheadings, but of course this is a choice one has to make, there is no rule. Subheadings can be built into the first sentence of a paragraph rather than having them separately which will better ensure logical flow of ideas and enable avoiding repetition.
How you have structured your essay must be briefly mentioned in the introduction followed by the aim. A very basic example on how to write an introduction could be: this essay aims to critically discuss ... Firstly, the essay explores ... Secondly .... Thirdly... and so on... and Finally, essay presents a brief conclusion. How to structure your written essay does not have one best way: different students will approach answering a question in different ways. You must carefully think about the best way to construct your essay, which may depend on your writing style as well sa the nature of the question. For instance, you might start with providing a background, that might contain useful, current information, examples and statistics to draw attention of the reader. Or you might decide to focus on major theories and concepts to demonstrate your understanding of the subject matter and that you aim to use theory in the discussion/analysis that will be presented later on. Either way you must attempt to make a good impact in the readers mind. However stick to the structure so that your output will be well a written nicely flowing piece of writing. 5. Logical and coherent flow
Strongly connected to the structure of the essay is The Logical and coherent flow of ideas. Once you've designed and finalized an effective structure to organise different sections and paragraphs and your thoughts you need to think about the Logical flow. Here you can focus on effective organisation of of the paragraphs. Paragraphs how to be well written well constructed which I will talk about it in the communication section below. Each paragraph must start with some link to the previous paragraph and then must End by leading and and making background and for the next paragraph and it's content to be introduced. Your writing should not appear as just a collection of various unconnected ideas together but it must appear as well Thought Out logical flow. Each new concept or Theory or even subject terminology that has a complex or deeper meaning needs to be be introduced at least using a very brief acknowledgement for theoretical significance. One good way to do this is to assume that the reader does not know and needs to be explained or educated on the subject matter.
6. Effective sentence and paragraph construction
Another important consideration in academic writing is effective sentence and paragraph construction. Why some students may have had previous training in writing others might benefit from paying attention to these two aspects as well. When it comes to sentence construction the key is to write Direct short simple sentences rather than long complex sentences that might confuse the reader. It is also advisable the sentences and statements when they are not Direct quotes or validated by a suitable referencing to be kept neutral rather than being loaded or emotional like in a novel. If the sentence is very long try to break it down. Also so avoiding what is called widowed pronouns for instance that they their it etc to refer to whatever being discussed earlier need to be avoided as much as possible. Affect your paragraph construction is also no strength in academic writing. How do we construct such successful photographs and how do we know the new paragraph needs to be started. I have come across some children to write without any paragraph or very very long sections of writing without any break which make reading a tedious task and less interesting. The best way to focus on a paragraph is that they normally consists of three things. Each and every paragraph must have a principle or a team theme sentence. Usually in academic writing the first sentence of every paragraph could be this principle sentence that sets the purpose for the particular paragraph. A paragraph contains supporting sentences that complements the team or principal sentence or statement. And the rest of the sentences of a paragraph will be examples evidence and statistics. So once you finished relating relevant supporting sentences and evidence examples etc that paragraph needs to end and you must start a new paragraph also it is very useful to keep paragraphs quite short but this certainly depends.
7. Evidence of Reading and research
This is another vital consideration in academic writing. A common problem I often observe is that students are more concerned about the number of references rather than what to read – simply a matter of quantity vs quality. Also, some lecturers might provide a specific number of references as preferable. I usually try to avoid this question because this really depends on several factors such as the interest in the subject, ability to read, the nature of the subject matter and so on. However as a student you must aim to read around the topic beyond the recommended key text book/journal articles to widen your knowledge and understanding that will lead to gaining a higher grade. Just adding some random referencing, rather than producing written content informed by proper reading. A long list of references randomly picked up does not add much value: lecturers generally know what a guided/well informed bibliography would look like: they are smart people and subject specialists who are very familiar with irrelevant literature. There is no point in trying to have a long list of references without actually engaging in focused reading and research. A final piece of advice is: avoid highly depending on a single source of referencing. 8. Validated statements claims evidence and examples - referencing
A very common academic writing error committed by most students is the use of free writing without referencing to validate claims, statements and evidence presented. A further related problem is the use of first person, informal style of writing: informal writing sometimes tend to even be loaded and emotional. Unless specified otherwise, for example, writing a reflective diary which requires first-person format, neutral passive tense is more appropriate for academic writing. Students must aim to validate all their statements/claims: there is some leeway in writing introductions and conclusions, but the discussion area must be supported with valid referencing. The conclusion is a summary of what you already written so that there is no major requirement for referencing. The introduction also is about how you set out to write the essay so there is no specific requirement for referencing. However, some writers would prefer to use strong statements both in introduction and conclusion to project a powerful message to the reader, those need to be referenced. 9. Argumentation and critical analysis
Critical thinking is the foundation of quality academic essays: the fous must be on critical analysis and discussion rather than being descriptive. So what is meant by being critical? A good position to start understanding ‘being critical’ is that questioning what is given/told rather than accepting it as it is. Being critical about something also relates to considering different aspects/dimensions and/or breaking down broader concepts/categories relating to the problem/issue/subject matter. For example consider the statement ‘women are subjected to unfair treatment at work’. How can one be critical about this statement? Clearly, the broad category of women needs to be broken down, different levels of social circumstances these women belong to must be considered and avoid homogenising all women needs to be avoided. Different questions can be asked: is it all women? is it working class women? Is it middle-class women? is it single mothers? young women? older women? is it white women? is it ethnic minority women? is it Indian women? is it Pakistani women? or Chinese women? or is it Muslim women? can one woman belong to several of these categories ? and so on. Critical thinking and analysis is closely linked with the understanding of the advanced aspects of any subject matter as well, which could be accomplished by wider reading without depending on a single source for developing a piece of academic writing. The ability of critical thinking also closely linked with ‘originality’, the criterion discussed next.
Academic writing is not about simply reproducing what is out there. What is expected is to produce original, innovative and creative thinking, that develops from but moving beyond previous work in the field. Originality is about moving beyond but is informed by classroom learning as well as wider reading and research. Academic writing can and needs to contribute in enhancing our existing knowledge. Therefore, an essay that simply re-writes a lecture, or a book chapter in different words will not earn a higher grade. Original contributions and creative ways of thinking in fully answering the given question is the expectation. 11. Communication
Meaningful and effective communication of your ideas goes a long way. This is necessarily related to the previous points on sentence and paragraph construction and structuring of ideas but there are other things that you must keep in mind when writing. Effective use of the language, avoiding informal usage and bad writing habits such as repetition or use of unnecessary pronouns, incomplete or meaningless sentences or ideas grammatical errors and typos are some of the common mistakes. Most of these errors can be avoided by completing your first draft with enough time for you to edit, proofread and fine-tune the language. This point marries up with effective flow of ideas as well.
How to present your written work also is also important. Different courses and course leaders will have their own expectations so that having a good understanding of such expectations before submitting your written work is the starting point. Yet, there are common practices that students must keep in mind when they engage in academic writing. First of all, check if you have formatted your essay correctly an example the font type, font size, line spacing etc. Unless otherwise specified make sure the font size is always 12 and a readable font type such as Times New Roman. Line spacing should always be 1.5 or double. Another point to consider is a title for your work: I still receive coursework submitted without any reference to the question or a topic. So make sure you have a reasonable cover page unless otherwise specified in a particular course, indicating your student registration number, a topic or the question you are answering. Some students tend to mention the word count which is very useful as well especially you submit your coursework in another format other than MS Word. Avoid using highlighting, colourful graphics or funny fonts in academic writing exercises: keep your work formal. All these minor concerns adds to the quality of your writing. 13. Academic honesty
Finally, all our academic work must reflect academic honesty. We should not steal others’ ideas or work and use them as our own. Academic honesty goes hand in hand with what is called plagiarism or similarity. Students are expected to keep their similarity percentage to a minimum. The UK Universities carefully scrutinise plagiarism: for example, when and if I see a student essay contains a high percentage of similarity, I refer such work to an academic standards board and refuse to mark such an essay. The decisions on academic standards board may even result in those particular students being asked to re-write a different essay or being barred from taking that particular subject any further and so on. The best way to avoid such trouble is to ensure engaging in your work honestly without copying others ideas as your own! Also, learning to reference correctly will largely help avoiding high similarity.
In my experience, most South Asian educational institutions cannot afford a software such as Turn-it-in which is mostly used in UK Universities to detect plagiarism in students’ work. Students coming through such educational systems may not have a proper understanding of plagiarism or they may not take this seriously, thus subsequently run into trouble when studying in the UK. Plagiarism simply means copying from others and other sources: how far a student uses others’ work in producing a piece of academic writing without acknowledging or crediting the original author(s) or source. There are a multitude of ways in which a student can plagriarise, ranging from direct copying, patchwork type copying, paraphrasing without citations, inadequate or wrong citation and so on. Thus, a particular percentage cannot be designated as appropriate or inappropriate level of similarity: this will be considered on a case by case basis. Every University in the UK will take plagiarism seriously and therefore, will have a range of support mechanisms in place, such as short training sessions on academic writing, that extensively cover what plagiarism is. Also, all the lecturers will keep providing a range of support options and explain what plagiarism is and how you must ensure ‘academic honesty’. My simple advice for all scholars is that ‘academic honesty’ must be inculcated and practiced in their (academic) life journey!
What I have outlined above are the fundamentals of academic writing. Those who manage to write integrating most of those expectations will undoubtedly earn a higher mark/grade and vice-versa. Even though it appears a long list, once you have practiced writing an essay following these guidelines, it becomes natural and you do not have to think about all these. At the beginning you need to do the hard-work to train yourself on academic writing and then the practice and experience will perfect your skills.
Finally: below I outline, how I grade coursework written by my students for your information, which closely align with the criteria I have set out above:
Marks in the region of:
40s – Essays in this region of marks are either incomplete or lacks understanding of the subject matter. They may also be incomplete answers or lacks focus, direction, structure and logic. Also may characterise poor writing skills, and no association with theory and literature, therefore, are not able to reach reliable and successful conclusions.
50s – Good work: essays in this region of marks are generally descriptive and lacks critical analysis, consistent or accurate understanding of theory and concepts, and lack of theoretical validation of claims/statements or arguments. These essays may also be characterised by a lack of logical structuring of ideas, flow, link between paragraphs, missing aspects of essential elements in the discussion thus limiting the ability to reach successful conclusions.
60s – Very good work: generally demonstrates a very good level of academic writing and understanding of the subject matter. Inconsistent application of or understanding of theory, inconsistent or incorrect referencing style and presenting some statements without validation leading to high similarity in some cases, inconsistent flow of ideas or paragraph construction may be of the areas that fall short of excellent academic writing. However, essays in this region of marks may also demonstrate excellent level of writing but sporadically. However, these essays also provide complete answers in most cases.
70s – Excellent work: generally demonstrates excellent academic writing skills, high level of theoretical understanding and strong association of theory to support arguments, appropriate and adequate referencing, with acceptable/low similarity level. Also generally demonstrates wider reading going beyond the recommended sources. This level of coursework also provides complete, analytical and critical responses to the question demonstrating wider reading and research and excellent understanding of the particular subject matter. Mostly, flawless writing and coherent flow of ideas as well as fine ability to use theory and literature effectively without disrupting the logical flow of ideas.
80s - Exceptional and outstanding work: characterises all the qualities of excellent work as outlined above and stretches beyond excellent, perhaps with extra research and wider reading, adding a lot more than what is generally understood within classroom lectures, and flawless writing. These essays demonstrate a high level of skills in independent and original work.
If you read this blogpost this far, I am sure you will have picked up some useful points to improve your academic writing in the future. I wish you all the very best. Happy Writing!