The myths exploded
As a teacher and coach of English academic writing skills, I often hear students complaining that having to write in the somewhat rigorous style required for English language scholarly journals and theses is, and I quote, “boring, dull and restrictive.” This always strikes me as being unfair because while I understand it doesn’t allow for much creativity or literary flights of fancy – well, none at all, actually – academic writing is a skill that can involve appealing and well-composed English texts, which can also be immensely rewarding to produce.
But let’s face it. Great creative writing is an art form, isn’t it? And even I wouldn’t describe academic writing as that. All the same, I can say it’s every bit as much of a craft as any fiction. The point we tend to forget is that everything an academic writes has to be read by someone else, and as such, it needs to be easily readable. In fact, it’s a long-outdated myth in English language circles that such writing has to be complicated, verbose and obtuse; the trend now is to focus on clarity and precision.
The great scholarly debate
Think of it this way. It’s frequently been said that academics are engaged in a great scholarly debate, so bearing that in mind, it should go without saying that writing is the most important expression of that engagement. In other words, whatever these scholars write is not for their own satisfaction, but for someone else to read and consider. With this as their motivation, the academic researcher’s prime objective should be to write as clearly and well as possible in order to present credible and convincing ideas and arguments.
Writer or Reader? Who is responsible?
Another force behind the case for focusing on clarity first is the concept that the English-speaking world has an underlying ‘writer responsible’ culture. This responsibility means that the onus is on the author to publish work that makes few assumptions about the readers’ ability to understand and follow their texts. As a result, their arguments should be as logical and unambiguous as possible.
The other side of this coin is the ‘reader responsible’ cultures, where the onus is placed on the reader to figure out what the writer’s intentions are without assistance. Academics in these cultures are often placed on a pedestal and readers accept the labour needed to find the intrinsic meaning to their works. Eastern cultures, such as China and Korea, are usually given as examples of more reader responsible cultures. However, since English is now widely regarded as being the international language of academia, writer responsibility has taken precedence.
So what does all this amount to? Well, if academics want to be read and to be taken seriously in the ‘great debate’, they need to master the craft of well structured and coherent texts that combine sound arguments with clear, precise and readable language. Added to that, their papers should be both appealing to the reader and erudite in their content. This is a far more challenging task than many students appreciate and it takes far more skill and practice than they often anticipate.
Learning the craft
In the Erasmus Language & Training Centre’s academic writing courses, the teaching centres not on the topic of the texts but on the requirements of different text types in terms of their form and style. Students learn much about what coherence means; why paragraphs are such important textual building blocks; and why ‘signalling and signposting’ are crucial to the notion that the writer guides the reader through the text – the writer responsible writer, that is. What’s more, they discover the value of punctuation when defining specific meanings and the power of the discursive sentence. For many students, seeing how the mechanics of this craft enhance their writing is like watching a sculptor honing a piece of wood or stone into beautiful shapes. For others, it can be quite a lightbulb moment; a “so that’s how it works!” revelation.
Reaping the rewards
For some non-native speakers who claim to enjoy writing but have found it difficult to develop the style they admire in native speakers’ work, these techniques can be a major breakthrough. The advantage is they don’t require artistic talent; nor do they draw on creativity. They do, however, form the tools of the craft, and used with skill they can result in a work of elegance, clarity and, yes, beauty too.
So next time you think academic writing is a boring necessity whose only purpose is to help you achieve your place in the scientific world, give this a thought: every type of writing is a skill with its own challenges, styles and rewards. Academic writing is one such skill, but luckily for students, the creativity is in the ideas, and in fact everyone can learn the craft, no matter what their discipline or field of study.