How to write like an academic

How do we come to understand what academic writing is?

We all go on a journey when we learn how to write, and this section tries to identify some of the key stages in that journey. In Lee (2018b) I put them in a flow chart to try to get some chronological order, but this is necessarily generic and these issues will not necessarily be experienced by any one researcher or in this order.

Figure 9.1 identifies some key elements in academic writing. These may be altered to suit particular disciplines or genres or even individual student’s preferences, but the aim of producing such a flow chart is to give you a toolkit for identifying where you are in understanding what academic writing can mean.

In the same book by Carter and Laurs (2018, pp. 30-39) I explored this in a little more detail.

Words on a page

This refers to an early and naive conception of academic writing. There is little understanding of plagiarism, rigour or verifiability and anyone’s words that are relevant to the topic can be included in roughly any order. There may be an understanding of the need for a beginning, middle and a conclusion, but even that might be a cultural demand that is foreign to some.

Stream of consciousness

here I have borrowed the phrase frequently used to describe the approach to writing of the early twentieth-century author, Virginia Woolf. There is an increased introspection and self-awareness about writing at this stage (as well as a desire to have a comfortable space in which to write, ‘a room of one’s own’). There is a tendency to be highly self-critical and this can mark a time when students find it difficult to write anything because they feel that everything they do is inadequate. It also marks the beginning of a later stage which is about ‘finding your voice’.

A chronological approach to elements of academic writing

Figure 9.1 A chronological approach to elements of academic writing

A structured exercise

There is a growing understanding of the need for structure. It might be to understand the Anglo-American idea of how an essay is expected to be written, or it might be an understanding that another form of skeleton is needed. At this stage a supervisor or advisor might be looking to identify sub-headings, chapter headings or key themes for each paragraph. They will also need to emphasise the importance of keeping a file of references and some form of reference management system.

Writing is reading

There are two main reasons for encouraging reading. First, there is a need for the candidate to master the knowledge base needed to carry out the research, and here conceptualising the literature survey is key. In some countries and in some professional doctorates this first ‘mastery of knowledge’ phase of the doctorate is examined and assessed before the candidate is allowed to proceed. The second reason for encouraging reading is more of a cultural one - encouraging students to understand how writing is undertaken within a particular discipline (or disciplines - in a multi-disciplinary world) and how writing is undertaken in different countries, particularly the country of the language that the thesis is to be written in.

Style and use of language

Some supervisors struggle with their own writing when it comes to aspects of writing relating to grammar or even the use of words. A heavy reliance on the grammar and spell checkers available within computerised systems does not deal comprehensively with an inadequate or incorrect terminology or use of language. Some text books such as Swales and Peak (2004), Strunk and White (2011) or the classic by Fowler (Burchfield, 1996) can help both advisors and doctoral candidates identify and work on problem areas.

Using feedback

As many have observed, writing is usually a social (as well as a socialised) process. The art of encouraging and using critical feedback is something that all doctoral students need to understand. It is part of the academic endeavour to seek out criticism, preferably before a publisher rejects a piece or an examiner fails it! A dialogue between supervisors and researchers to manage expectations about how much feedback and when it can be expected is important. Equally, opening up researchers’ awareness of other sources of feedback is important (for example, can they engage in journal clubs or give and receive feedback from peer groups?).

Writing as perspiration

Closely linked to the idea of getting feedback is the understanding that academic writing is about rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. Sometimes this notion helps overcome the fears associated with writer’s block, because the idea that what you first put on the page is never going to be good enough can free people up to start writing something. Rowena Murray (2011) has published many ideas around generative writing and implicit in this approach is a requirement for constant editing.

Identifying your voice

This stage links the formulation of the researcher’s identity (possibly their identity as an academic) with an understanding of perspective, the audience and the eventual place of the research. As Kamler and Thomson argue, identity is plural (we have many and evolving identities) and identity is a performance (2006, pp. 16-17). As the writer begins to embrace an ontological perspective, so their voice becomes clearer. The supervisor will be asking ‘who are you writing for?’, ‘what do you want them to believe?’ and ‘what do you want them to believe about you?’

Writing as research

By now the accumulation of all the above elements is leading to a comprehension of the formulation of original knowledge: whether the author believes original knowledge is an incremental step in our understanding or a major reformulation and reframing of an idea will be becoming apparent. Inherent in the idea of writing as research is the proposition that research is only valuable if it is communicated in some way. There will need to be discussions about intellectual property, patents, copyright and creative commons licencing at this stage.

Formulation of publishable research

At a doctoral level there are many definitions of ‘publishable’. The ambition to publish several papers in an international peer-reviewed journal with a high impact factor is more talked about than reality. The threads of writing as a social activity are picked up again here when discussions about co-publishing and co-authorship need to happen. The medical profession has promoted the Vancouver protocol and many others have used it as a lever for negotiation over authorship. It states:

All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship. Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for the content. Authorship credit should be based only on substantial contributions to

  • 1) conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data; and to
  • 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and on
  • 3) final approval of the version to be published.

Conditions 1, 2, and 3 must all be met. Participation solely in the acquisition of funding or the collection of data does not justify authorship. General supervision of the research group is not sufficient for authorship. Any part of an article critical to its main conclusions must be the responsibility of at least one author.


Different disciplines have very different protocols in their publications. In some cases authors are always cited in alphabetical order; in others the first and last named authors are generally recognised as having made the most substantive input; and in other cases it might be the first and second named authors who are most prominent. Understanding these, sometimes implicit, rules is an important part of learning to negotiate (and renegotiate) one’s place in the authorial hierarchy. Where it becomes even more complex is when we have interdisciplinary teams publishing together.

Writing as power

Publishing research is in itself an insufficient objective. As many research councils and ethics committees are now demanding, there has to be some awareness of the potential use and impact of the research. Here the opportunity for research to change the world needs to be explored. We assume that the message has been ethically and rigorously arrived at, and how it is conveyed and to whom (finding your voice and adapting it to write for different cultures, disciplines and audiences) becomes the key objective. The written word has the power to outlast any single conference presentation and it creates the opportunity for reflective examination and testing. It can be built upon as part of a life’s work.

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