“How To”: Academic Writing

By Dr Joshua Specht

No part of my graduate coursework emphasized writing. It was assumed that we could all construct a sentence, a paragraph, and (hopefully?) a dissertation chapter. As someone who struggled with his writing in the early parts of graduate school, this was frustrating. Since then, I’ve realized people with PhDs don’t talk about improving academic writing very much either. But they should. Everyone should. Below are some strategies I’ve used to improve my writing.

Improving your writing in the short term

Think about writing as three different stages: planning, writing, and revision. In reality, the lines between these stages are blurred and its okay to revise each paragraph as you go or to change the outline as the chapter unfolds, but when you’re trying to improve, thinking deliberately about each piece is critical. The three small suggestions below address each of these stages. If you feel the first two are too obvious, you can ignore them, but you should try the third one if you don’t do it already.

1. Work from an outline. You want to have a clear sense of how your chapter or article should unfold. Once I have my plan, I go back to my evidence (or material) and often sort it based on the outline. An outline is also the best cure for writer’s block. If you can’t start writing, just make the outline more detailed. This refines your argument and you end up writing a lot of the topic sentences for the chapter. An outline is also handy when it’s time for revision. In fact, if you’re struggling with the structure of an already written draft, make a reverse outline, which is an outline constructed with the actual topic sentences (in order) of the written chapter. You can then compare your actual structure—and the clarity of your topic sentences—with the original plan.

2. Topic sentences. Again, this feels too basic. It’s not. As I was finalizing my manuscript, I realized that bad topic sentences were responsible for almost all the problematic or confusing parts. Topic sentences guide the reader as well as keep you honest: you can’t write them clearly unless you really understand the point you want to make. If you revise nothing else, make sure your topic sentences are clear.

3. Print your work and edit in pen. You probably edit on the screen. That’s totally fine. But if you want to improve your writing, I strongly suggest actually printing your work. First, it forces you to treat revision with the respect it deserves. Secondly, I think it alienates you from the text, which is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to see how the piece is constructed since you’re coming into contact with it in a new way. It also means you revise in two stages; when you first make the edits in pen and again when you enter them into the manuscript on the computer. Even if you aren’t persuaded, just try it. I’ve convinced a few people to do it and they all found it useful. There’s not much to lose, though be sure you like the technique before buying a new laserjet printer.

Improving your writing in the long term

The cliche is that you should read a lot (and widely). It’s good advice, but I’m guessing you already do that. The key is to train yourself to read like a writer. You should be reading not just for enjoyment and/or information, but to understand how the piece you’re reading is constructed.

1. Go through your favorite books and think about how they are written. Ask yourself why you enjoyed your favorite academic book so much. Can you apply any of the author’s techniques? How did they open your favorite chapter? Similarly, look at a prize-winning article you like. How is it constructed? You’re already familiar with the content of these works, so focus on the writing. Initially this requires deliberate effort, but over time you’ll learn to think about the writing whenever you read anything.

2. Read other people’s drafts. It teaches you to think about writing. When you revise one of your own pieces, you face familiar challenges. When you look at something you never would’ve written about or something written in a completely different style, you train yourself to be attuned to alternate stylistic choices.

3. Write as much as possible. Revision counts. Almost everyone I’ve met who writes beautifully kept a diary growing up. I didn’t, but since it’s a little late for that, I write as much as possible. It’s okay to write things that never go anywhere. Experimentation is a good thing.

Annotated bibliography of academic writing resources

William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

My favorite. Zinsser emphasizes simplicity and clarity. While this is all relative (particularly in academic writing), his philosophy of writing and concrete suggestions are great. The book is beautifully written, so it makes for a good read if you need inspiration.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

Basic, but if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP. Lots of specific examples.

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing.

This one is useful because it’s written specifically for academics. It’s also practical, dealing with questions like titles, chapter openers, etc.

Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space.

Bad title, great book. Based on Sword’s conversations with academics about their writing.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot.

I like this one because it deals with the mental aspects of writing. Silvia is a psychologist and he gives motivational suggestions as well as practical advice on writing and submitting articles.

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor.

Save this one for when you’re moving to the revision for publication stage (particularly for a book). I found it really useful when I was revising my book manuscript.

Wendy Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

The title says it all. If you want a step by step guide to writing, revising, and submitting a journal article, this is it. I’ve never tried to follow the plan exactly, but I found it an interesting read.


[Editor Note: This piece originally appeared on Joshua Specht’s fantastic blog, and is republished here with permission from the author. Josh blogs on his research & offers advice on academia. We will be re-publishing a few of Josh’s posts in the weeks to come, but in the meantime: make sure you also head over to his blog, follow him on twitter, and keep an eye out for his first book, Red Meat Republic, out with Princeton University Press soon!]

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