Section 5. Academic writing skills in English
Laura Mendoza, Aalto University
Key question: What perspectives could you consider as an academic writer?
In today’s internationalized university studies, academic writing in English is prevalent in various tasks: course papers, group projects, lab reports, exam essays, and theses. I have had the opportunity to coach academic writers as an English teacher at Aalto University for the past 15 years. In addition to being a teacher, I am also a doctoral researcher, engaging in research writing in my discipline (educational research, focusing on academic writing in higher education). Most of the writers I have worked with write in English as a second language. I am writing this text based on my experiences as teacher, student, second language writer, and researcher. I decided to organize this text based on points I wish I had known about academic writing as a bachelor’s and master’s student as well as common concerns I have heard from my students. I hope that some of these perspectives are of use to you as you approach your studies through academic writing.
Referring to earlier work properly is essential
An important starting point for academic writing is that it always builds on earlier research and previous work. This distinguishes the academic essay from the types of essays written in upper secondary school or in standard English level tests, which tend to be more personal and argumentative and usually lack citations and references. The must-know lessons in academic writing are related to the norms and conventions of citations and references. Not only does one need to know how to mark in-text citations and references properly, but also the art of paraphrasing becomes of utmost importance. It is essential to understand what constitutes plagiarism in academic writing and how to avoid it. For that, luckily, we have modern tools such as Turnitin, which helps us writers identify similarities between our own texts and those of others. Choosing a citation standard, for instance, APA or IEEE, dictates the nuances of how to mark citations and format references. Fortunately, there are numerous automated tools for citations today – Mendeley, Zotero or Citavi to name a few. Remember that, with academic texts, it does not matter how well you have organized your text or how sophisticated the sentences are that you have used if everything fails because of plagiarism. Thus, the first essential starting point for academic writing is referring to previous work and using your own words properly.
Academic writing entails much more than ‘just writing’
Referring to previous work, however, is a time-consuming task, as you must read a lot of source material, take notes, think, and organize your ideas. The process of academic writing consists of many overlapping phases, such as reading, planning, writing, revising, and editing. Many novice writers think that the process is linear and straightforward: first you read, then you write, then you edit, and then you are done! However, with academic writing, it would be impossible to remember all the points from your source material at once and then write perfectly cohesive and coherent sentences in one sitting. That is why most academic writers engage in a messier looking iterative process, which involves going back and forth from one stage to another. When I was writing my first pieces of academic writing as an undergraduate student, I wish someone had told me this. I erroneously assumed that my writing process should be smoother and more linear. When it was not like that for me, I assumed I was doing something completely wrong (which I now understand I was not). Once, my doctoral supervisor remarked that “when the research and writing process of a doctoral student seems simple and straightforward, I get worried”. Activities such as research writing on complex ideas entail complex processes.
What if my English is not good enough?
One very common concern of academic writers writing in a second language centres around questions concerning ‘not being good enough at English’ or ‘not being native-like’. What is important to remember is that although academic writing requires standard grammar, spelling, and punctuation, the conventions of academic writing (which I will refer to as ‘Academese’) are not anybody’s first language. Academese follows strict established norms and conventions, which require learning by all, regardless of their native tongue. These norms and conventions are also highly tied to discipline-specific contexts. Indeed, native speakers of English may possess an advantage with their potentially better grasp of grammar and punctuation (not always…), but multilingual writers also have a superpower, the ability to read source texts in languages other than English and think in multiple languages. As non-native writers of academic English, it is important to remember that an excessive focus on grammar and vocabulary (through a negative lens) may take your attention away from the more important aspects, such as structure, cohesion, and the main message(s). Try to focus on the readability and communicative aspects of your text first. Afterwards, you can pay attention to grammar, punctuation, the appropriate tone and style of words, and other language-related aspects.
Practice and rounds of feedback are important
This takes me to my last point. The best way to develop your academic writing skills is by writing and getting into the habit of both giving and receiving feedback. Receiving feedback is the cornerstone of improving one’s text, as it helps to understand the readers and their expectations. Feedback on writing is the standard in international journal peer reviews; even the most experienced academic writers modify their texts according to peer feedback. This is why published articles seem so polished – they have undergone a rigorous process of peer review (often in several stages) and possibly a separate language editing stage. Feedback is also an essential element in the writing processes of master’s and doctoral theses. Academic writers should learn to listen to feedback and respect it by making modifications to their own text (even if they feel these modifications are rather unimportant). The feedback you receive is a window to the needs of your audience, and catering to the needs of your audience should be among your top concerns as an academic writer. I highly encourage you get into the habit of showing your writing to peers to start becoming comfortable with receiving and giving feedback.
In your studies, you can also seek opportunities to take courses in academic writing or sign up for writing consultations! Opportunities are available for curious minds! I will include a few amazing links below, through which numerous academic writers have received useful help (including myself).
Last modified: Tuesday, 12 September 2023, 11:02 AM