6 MIN READ
This week, I asked some experienced friends and professors for advice about academic writing. Here is their advice.
Academic writing is difficult. Standards for evidence, argument, and citation must be met. That said, a lot of academic writing is unnecessarily hard to follow. The fondness for abstraction and the passive voice kills a lot of what could be good writing. There’s also often an attempt to be sophisticated that causes a lot of people trouble. Better to express complicated ideas in simple, straightforward language. I hope readers find the tips below useful. I found them interesting and useful.
My favorite piece of writing advice is to find someone outside of your field (preferably a non-academic) and explain your main argument in a concise and clear 3-4 sentences. If you can’t do this, you need to keep thinking about it!
—Andrew Nelson, University of North Texas
I prefer succinct prose unencumbered by jargon. I get annoyed by incomprehensible writings by fellow anthropologists who deploy baffling terminology and hyperbolic overkill. This often happens when a scholar becomes so immersed in a theoretical perspective or disciplinary convention that they end up writing for an exclusive audience with similar proclivities. Please expand your potential audience by writing in a manner that most can comprehend. Don’t you want scholars outside your main area of specialization to understand the significance of your research?
Writing should begin before commencing the main research (e.g., literature review) and continue during the main research phase (e.g., methods section, observations for contextual background). Once the main research phase is completed, my advisor, Emilio Moran, had his students write a 20-page dissertation precis. The purpose was to summarize each chapter in terms of objectives, data to be analyzed, and how they fit within the overall argument. The dissertation committee then met with the student to discuss the precis and identify omissions, structural issues, and other potential problems before the final writing phase commenced. Afterward, the student could move forth with the confidence that the committee knew and approved of where the dissertation was heading.
—Geoff Childs, Washington University in St. Louis
The best example I can think of for good academic writing is Clifford Geertz's ‘Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight’. It's a masterpiece and was acknowledged as such in the profession. It shouldn't be hard to find, since it was so often reprinted.
—Jim Fisher, Carleton College
This, like most things, depends on what type of academic writing one is doing. If students are writing a research-based paper, it helps to develop and state an intellectual position, or thesis, after having done substantial research. If the writing at hand is low stakes, just a little planning works. For expertise or opinion-based writing (like op-eds), it's important to have a good grasp of the issue and to make the writing accessible to a more general and mixed audience.
—Shyam Sharma, State University of New York-Stonybrook
Reading other academic articles/books that inspire you, but also reading plenty of other genres, like fiction, poetry, and creative writing helps with a diverse, non-stodgy, plural writing voice. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Paul Farmer, and Rachel Chapman are some of my favorites.
—David Citrin, University of Washington, Seattle
One thing that I have struggled with is the urge to include too much detail. Having worked hard to collect all kinds of ethnographic and historical data, I want to include it all! But, with the help/insistence of editors, I have learned that often, or even usually, less is more. That is, when it comes to holding a reader’s attention and leading them through a linear expository project, one really powerful illustrative point can be as or more effective than a string of three or four examples that may be redundant, rambling, and risk throwing the reader off course. The best academic writing doesn’t allow itself to get lost in the proverbial trees of detail in a way that risks losing sight of the forest that one is, ultimately, trying to describe.
—Mark Leichty, University of Illinois-Chicago
I enjoy reading academic writing that is simple, clear, and illustrative (use of concrete examples to explain complex or abstract ideas, theories, and so on). I also like short sentences and easy-to-understand words and vocabulary. I myself struggle to write short sentences and use simple and illustrative arguments.
Oftentimes, we are forced to read or assign academic reading for our classes because the text is considered to be a 'must read'. But, if I need to read that text more than five times to understand its major arguments, then it is not simply because of my lack of competency or the lack of cultural capital. That kind of academic writing, despite its brilliance in ideas and insights, will not be my favorite. I will skip the original piece and read an easier explanation of the author’s ideas by other scholars. Having realized that my students too will skip reading such difficult articles by renowned anthropologists and social scientists, I have opted for easier readings that students can read and understand better.
—Janak Rai, Tribuvan University
I am a hardcore advocate of Strunk and White's
Elements of Style for plain writing. I also advise graduate students to obtain:
1. A personal copy of a style guide (of which there are many excellent examples, including some specifically for non-native English-language writers, and some online) and expect that copy to become seriously page-worn as they should develop the habit of consulting it regularly for writing issues; they should get particularly good at consulting it for their personal issues of bad writing, and
2. A personal copy of one of the major guides to thesis research and writing, such as those by Kate Turabian. By this, I mean a guide that starts with formulating the question/hypothesis, designing the research, ethical issues, and identifying appropriate methodologies, all the way through more writing-specific guidance. I recommend that students read it all the way through once before they start, then use it as a reference guide thereafter.
I also think that good writing is found not only in words, sentences, and paragraphs. Although it is essential to pay close attention to choices made at the level of those building blocks, elegance in scholarly writing, I believe, lies in the argument: how it is structured, how it is sequenced, how evidence supports it, and where it ultimately goes.
In this, I think that Clifford Geertz’s essays are often inspired. Look, for example, at how, in 'Religion as a cultural system', he first defines religion in a single complex sentence, carefully parsed for the reader as five things—"(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (sic) by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” — and then uses precisely those five characteristics as section headings in the subsequent essay.
The work of two other authors whose research is specifically in Nepal is also greatly enhanced by the clarity with which they share the structure of their argument — Sherry Ortner in Sherpas through their rituals (Cambridge, 1978) and Laura Ahearn’s Invitations to Love (University of Michigan, 2001).
—Kath March, Cornell University
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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