Get academic writing into your bones
How do you get academic writing into your bones—and mind? If you’re an experienced professor, you may not need to immerse as much as your students do. In my dissertation editing and coaching practice, I’ve noticed that many student writers write like they speak—conversationally and colloquially.
If you’re a closet novelist, fine. Write like your characters speak. But academic writing is a breed unto itself, and not giving it the proper attention is the downfall of many a previously good student.
The quandary of what constitutes good academic writing is widespread. In a book chapter called “The Paradox of Writing in Doctoral Education: Student Experiences,” Starke-Meyerring (2011) quotes a particularly perplexed doctoral candidate:
I never had any problems [writing]. Then finally coming here doing my PhD, . . .I didn’t know how to write anymore! . . . [S]uddenly I was just bad. (p. 69)
Part of the quandary is that academic writing carries certain “disciplinary expectations,” as Casanave (2008, p. 15) says, and conventions are demanded. A few: no contractions, no colloquialisms, few or no passive voice constructions, no “emotional” words, especially adverbs (completely, extremely, very, utterly, fantastically, amazingly), no redundancies (period of time), no jargon (with exceptions, depending on your field and topic), no euphemisms (“After ingesting licorice-flavored cyanide, the rat gave up the ghost.”), no anthropomorphisms (“This book comforts you.”). The latest edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association ([APA], 2020, 7th edition) has a roundup of such expressions on pages 116-117.
What Is Good Scholarly Writing Style?
Good scholarly style is not that of a conversation, personal essay, or work of fiction. But neither should scholarly writing be stuffed with incessant polysyllabic words that went out of fashion with nineteenth-century classical education.
Or with overstatement, wordiness, and redundancy in the budding-scholars’ mistaken belief that these repetitions make the case better or sound more erudite—I mean learned (see APA, pp. 114-115).
Yet, as you may know, articles in scholarly journals are notorious for incomprehensibility, obfuscation, and superfluity (pardon my polysyllables). To get academic writing into your bones, I suggest you read articles you can understand in respected journals. Such articles do exist. Also read dissertations that have won awards and have been recommended by colleagues you trust (a caution: the quality of accepted dissertations, as you may know, varies excruciatingly).
Piling on the polysyllables does not make everyone think you brilliant. Sword (2014) recommends in “Inoculating Against Jargonitis” that you ask yourself some hard and maybe embarrassing questions. Are you jargoning to:
Impress other people?
Signal your membership in a disciplinary community?
Demonstrate your mastery of complex ideas?
Enter an academic conversation that is already under way?
These questions and others on Sword’s list are incisive and maybe discomfiting. Respond honestly. The answers will help you write, revise, and edit for the greatest clarity.
Sword’s (2012) book Stylish Academic Writing is also a golden guide of commonsense. Like others critics of scholarly style, she recognizes that much academic writing defies meaning (p. 3). Rather, in her terms, “Stylish scholars . . . express complex ideas clearly and precisely” (p. 7). They “produce . . . carefully crafted sentences, convey a sense of energy, intellectual commitment, and even passion; . . . tell a compelling story; avoid jargon” except where essential, “and write with originality, imagination, and creative flair” (p. 8).
A similar point: In their guide to writing the “winning” dissertation, Joyner et al. (2012) summarize that elusive scholarly style: “[S]cholars write in a style that is formal, not colloquial, and is objective, not subjective” (p. 7). This formality means detachment, impersonality, and neutrality (except in some qualitative dissertation sections).
But formal doesn’t have to be stiff, and objective doesn’t have to be inhuman. Encouragement of the qualities Sword (2012) lists—energy, intellectual commitment, passion, originality, imagination, and creative flair—can make the writing less tortuous, the reading more comprehensible and pleasurable, the acceptance by authorities more frequent, and the satisfaction greater all around.
How to achieve these wondrous qualities? Write—and then edit. All these tips, tricks, and techniques may be fine, but I feel dutybound to tell you that nothing substitutes for actually writing. Sorry—it can’t be avoided.
To write good a scholarly articles or dissertation that doesn’t get you exiled from The kingdom of Academe takes practice. The goal is a balance of formality and understandability, with judicious shots of enthusiasm, commitment, and passion. Despite the critique that students write like they talk, some professors, editors, and coaches advise (such as Joyner et al.) that you begin your drafts in your own words, without bothering about proper dissertation style. This approach has advantages and drawbacks.
The main benefit is that it gets you going. The main shortcoming is that it may get you going in the wrong direction. But the colloquial start at least does start you. It’s hard enough to get the words down without fretting about their Greek roots. With the list of APA “no’s” in front of you, you can fancy it up later.
In the end, academic writing is a process, as Greene and Lidinsky (2011) point out. And you will get better with practice and consistent editing, especially as you keep reading as well.
Settle Into It
With all this direction and advice, I share one more thought: settle into it. The processes of writing, thinking, digesting, rethinking, revising, re-rethinking, and re-revising cannot be hurried.
Settling in means giving the process—and yourself—time to sit, ruminate, play with ideas, jot a few notes, write a few words, hobnob with your Inner Mentor, wander to the living room or faculty lounge, come back, take a swig of iced tea, and write a few more words. Maybe you label most of these actions as diversions or stalling. They’re not; they’re all part of the precious creating process.
Settling in also means going away. Once you have the first draft, leave it before returning to edit. An essential of the entire process, paradoxical as it may seem, is to take appropriate breaks (I don’t mean two weeks). Time between drafts gives you distance to correct vagueness, redundancies, fudge words, obscurities, faulty logic, and gaps in thinking. During your breaks, your subconscious will do its work.
Sometimes we feel, in the headiness of finally finishing our first draft, that it’s an unblemished diamond or work of genius waiting to be recognized. But that wise fiend Time knows how to purge our ego. When we go back to the draft after a few days, we shriek, “How could I have written that!” And we attack it and rethink, remove, revise, and rewrite, coaxing the work into better and more precise (and less turgid) expression.
So, settle in, and focus only on the draft. Know that a few more drafts will make the work even better. Think of how good you’ll feel afterwards. You may even start to enjoy the whole thing. And you will have gotten academic writing into your bones.
American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). Author.
Casanave, C. P. (2008). Learning participatory practices in graduate school: Some perspective-taking by a mainstream educator. In C. P. Casanave & X. Li (Eds.), Learning the literacy practices of graduate school: Insiders’ reflections on academic enculturation (pp. 14-31). University of Michigan Press.
Greene, S., & Lidinsky, A. (2011). From inquiry to academic writing: A text and reader (3rd ed.). Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Joyner, R. L., Rouse, W. A., & Glatthorn, A. A. (2012). Writing the winning thesis or dissertation: A step-by-step guide (3rd ed.). Corwin.
Starke-Meyerring, D. (2011). The paradox of writing in doctoral education: Student experiences. In L. McAlphine & C. Amundsen. (Eds.), Doctoral education: Research-based strategies for doctoral students, supervisors and administrators (pp. 75-95). Springer.
Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Harvard University Press.
Sword, H. (2014). Inoculating against jargonitis. In S. Pinker, M. C. Munger, H. Sword, R. Toor, & T. MacPhail, T., Why academic writing stinks and how to fix it (pp. 13-16). Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sword’s article is also available at Chronicle of Higher Education, 58(38)
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
© 2022 Noelle Sterne
Noelle is a contributor to TAA’s book, Guide to Making Time to Write: 100+ Time & Productivity Management Tips for Textbook and Academic Authors. Available as a print and eBook.
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com