- is writing that shows evidence of learning
- considers a subject in its different aspects, relations and implications
- reviews a subject with a sense of sceptical enquiry
- re-examines a subject in order to test and develop ideas and theories
Read the following opening sentences from articles in academic journals. What identifies these sentences as belonging to academic forms of writing? What characteristics do they share? Jot down some ideas before scrolling for some suggestions:
- 'Edwin Morgan will be seventy this year and his oeuvre is now a substantial one.'
- 'This essay examines some of the ways in which racialized ideologies were constituted in the nineteenth century in the context of British imperialism.'
- 'Edna O’Brien is a writer more often judged as dealing with private passions than the wider world of politics.'
- 'The rapprochement of bibliography and contemporary theory has become so familiar a fact of Shakespeare studies that it is now routinely invoked as a fait accompli.'
'Oeuvre' is clearly a more sophisticated choice of word than 'body of work' or 'output', hinting at the scholarly context for this writing. This short sentence demonstrates as concisely and confidently as possible that the writer is aware of the impact of Morgan's work on the wider field. It takes certain facts for granted and then moves on to explain the writer's particular take on the subject. Academic writers don't have to spend a lot of time proving that Edwin Morgan has a substantial oeuvre or that British imperialism involved racialized ideologies. There is a shared body of knowledge they are tapping into, appropriate for the audience they are writing for.Academic writing uses a particular register of language which shows evidence of learning.
Words like ‘oeuvre’ and ‘racialized ideologies’ are not used to show off, but because these are the words and terms that writers about these subjects habitually use. Complex language is not ‘jargon’ if the intended audience understands these terms and recognizes them to be the most precise way of referring to a particular thing or concept. Seeking out sophisticated words for appearance's sake , though, is not advisable in a context where clarity is essential. Peppering your supervision essays, for example, with elaborate vocabulary can make your writing seem contrived and laborious to read.
There is no 'in this essay I will discuss...' opening here. The writer uses vocabulary appropriately to establish a clear focus from the outset. It does not claim to be comprehensive, stating that there will be a focus on processes as much as facts. It is going to ‘examine' (i.e. look at in detail) the topic from a number of different angles. Where unfamiliar words and phrases are used, they are used in the context of clear, direct statements. Academic writing may feature specialist terms that are not familiar to all.
Seems to be a straightforward statement, but doubt is introduced by the phrase ‘more often’ – the writer is ‘more often’ judged in this way but there are other possible approaches. It is clearly implied that these will be the focus of the essay.
Tells us that it is going to re-examine its subject. We understand from the opening that something isn’t necessarily so just because we keep saying that it is, and that a fresh investigation is needed. ...is objective. For example, by telling us that they are going to take a new view of their subjects, writers in 3 and 4 are standing at a distance from them and from received ideas about them. Being objective means looking at the facts without letting feelings or prejudices (our own or other people’s) get in the way. An academic investigator should be like a detective weighing up the evidence.
Using the personal pronoun
When is it appropriate to write ‘I’?
Supervisors hold differing opinions on this, but here are a few hints to guide you in deciding whether a personal pronoun would be appropriate:
- One reason supervisors dislike the use of ‘I’ is that it suggests a lack of objectivity. A police detective does not say ‘I think X is guilty’, but rather ‘The evidence points to the fact that X is guilty’. Using ‘I’ can lead you to adopt an informal, chatty style in which it is easy to start spouting opinions rather than concentrating on the hard evidence. Supervisors are more interested in your ability to weigh up evidence than in your opinions!
- Sometimes the use of ‘I’ can add something specific and useful to your essay, as in this example: ‘While Jones argues strongly for the applicability of theory X in this context, on the basis of the evidence available, I would contend that Y is a more appropriate model’. Here you are distancing yourself from another critical view, and proposing a different one. The personal voice as used in this example is very effective in rhetorical terms, as your own voice and argument emerge clearly, but still within a formal, academic register. The impact would be lessened if you used the structure more than a couple of times in an essay. As a general rule, use ‘I’ if you want to distinguish your ideas or arguments from those of others.