What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more)

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible…

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Why can’t I say ‘I’ when I’m doing the writing?

In South African universities, the dominant trend in academic writing is to use the 3rd person and to write in the passive voice. For example: ‘In this essay it will be argued that…’ or ‘This essay will claim that’ – so there is no ‘I’ obviously doing the arguing and claiming, and the passive voice particularly lends the essay a more serious and ‘academic’ tone. This post considers why this trend continues; whether we can question and change this or any trend; and what change could require from us.

The arguments for writing like this tend to go like this (broadly speaking): the 3rd person is a more academic way of writing. It sounds more formal and it goes some way to preventing students from making wild claims that they cannot support – just saying ‘I think’ all the time. Writing in the passive voice also has a more academic or formal tone, and it makes the writing more scholarly in tone and style. It’s also the way many disciplines have always written, and so perhaps this trend continues uncritically because those who set and assess written tasks do not stop to ask themselves why they want their students to write like this and whether they could do things differently.

Now, I know I am generalising and that not all disciplines in South African universities ask their students to write like this. But many do, and many students don’t understand why they can’t say ‘I argue that’, or why they can’t use ‘I’ at all. After all, many of their tasks say a version of ‘You must evaluate the arguments and motivate your answer’. I should probably come right out and say that, in general, I don’t think you have to be either hidden behind the 3rd person or be passive in order to sound and be academic or appropriately formal in your written register, tone or style. But I do think that using ‘I’ and understanding that this is not  followed with your own personal or un-researched opinions and thoughts is not something novice student-writers necessarily understand, and I think that learning how to write appropriately and well in the disciplines takes time and needs guidance.

I think (along with many other writing centre and academic literacy specialists) that any writing in academic disciplines, whether in the 1st or 3rd person, needs to be carefully modeled and taught, and I think the best way to do this is by showing students why we make the choices we do when we write, and what the effects are on our writing. This, however, is always easier said than done, especially for lecturers who don’t spend much time thinking about their students’ writing (except when they assess it and then call the writing centre for help 🙂 ). Many academics who research, write and also teach in their disciplines find it easy to show you a piece of writing that meets the standards and a piece of writing that does not but struggle often to say, explicitly, why the good piece is good and why the other piece is not. Even though lecturers often design rubrics and try to spell out assessment criteria, some of what goes into assigning this mark or that mark is tacit, and is borne of years of experience as well as their own sense of what counts as good writing.

Good writing tends to be writing that makes sense, not just in terms of what it is about and how well researched and structured it is, but also in terms of how well it fits with the assessor’s idea or sense of what writing in English Lit or PoliSci or Sociology looks and sounds like. We often find it much easier, when we are asked about what good writing is, to focus on things like the referencing style and the grammar and spelling; the organisation into clear paragraphs – these things are identifiable and you can more easily assign or take away marks when students have hit or missed the mark. It’s harder to pin down tone and style. A lot of what makes an essay stand out is students’ ability to really get the tone and style right – to find the nuances and explore them; to be critical and inventive and have a clear and engaging voice. This is, really, what makes any piece of writing stand out. But this kind of writing is hard to do, both as an academic researcher and as an undergraduate student.

I have digressed a bit, so back to the ‘I’ in writing: I can’t say here that writing in the 3rd person should be scrapped wholesale or that we should all start writing in the active voice. I don’t write in the 3rd person all the time, but sometimes I do and I must say it feels safer than saying ‘I’. If I write ‘This paper/thesis/study has claimed that…’ and I’m a little (or a lot) off in my claims, then I feel a bit protected by the passive 3rd person. ‘I wasn’t wrong – the study was!’ I know I’m the person who did the study and made the claims, but the 3rd person gives me a little bit of distance from being so personally involved and sometimes that helps writers, I think, to take a leap and make bold claims they may otherwise hesitate to make. I was reading recently that scientists in many fields still tend to use the 3rd person because it enables them to present their work more objectively, as a kind of truth. Perhaps they too feel safer behind the 3rd person rather than coming out and say ‘we/I have found the answer/cure/etc’.

At any rate, whatever the reason is for using these conventions (whether they are the ones focused on here or others) the important point for me, working as an academic development/writing specialist helping academic and students alike with the challenges of academic writing, is that we focus not just on the content of the writing but more explicitly on the rules and conventions that shape the writing itself. We, in the academic development sphere, need to be brave enough to ask, and keep asking, those working in the disciplines tough questions about why they make the choices they make when they write, and why they want from their students the kinds of writing they do; we need to understand more about the what that students are writing about, as well as the why and the how of the writing itself. In asking these questions, and in forging relationships with lecturers and tutors who want help with their students’ writing, we can begin to cast this understanding back onto the disciplinary insiders, and so begin to think more carefully about why we maintain or challenge any of the rules and conventions that shape the way we write.