Academic writing – no one best way



My approach to writing about and teaching academic writing is underpinned by some key principles. One of them is this – no one best way. Or I can alternatively express this as one size does not fit all.

Let me explain.

Not all of the writing that is done in the academy is the same. Different disciplines have different conventions. A piece of science writing can be very different from philosophy for instance. Psychology writing is likely to be very different to that done in history. But of course sometimes they look remarkably similar, depending on the subject matter and the audience.

But what you write when doing academic writing also changes –the texts are different. You might have to produce a report, a journal article, a book, or a press release. These different text types are often written for different audiences. Each of these readerships and forms of writing have their own conventions and possibilities. So academic writers need to know what’s involved in producing a range of texts.

But academic conventions can be pushed, even broken. You can write about the very same topic in the same discipline for the same readership in very different ways, being more or less challenging of the conventions. Understanding the unwritten rules of academic writing also means you can choose when, where and how to do something else.

So this all suggests that an academic writer needs to not only be familiar with the conventions of academic writing done in their discipline, but also with the variety of texts and the various ways in which these might be written.

But there are also different strategies for getting the writing done – for the process of writing itself. Take the various tasks of: actually sitting down to write; generating ideas, argument and text; dealing with stuck points; revising, editing and proofreading for example. There are many different strategies for dealing with each of these.

And not all strategies work for everyone. The writing habit that one writer has won’t suit another. And the same writer may find that things that work in one situation don’t work in another. Writing different kinds of texts may require different strategies. Some weeks you may find yourself writing with ease, and at other times not. Sometimes the text that you have to write just seems harder and to take longer. You may well need to try out various approaches in order to get at the writing and finish it off.

So this suggests that an academic writer needs to not only be familiar with the various parts of the writing process, but also have a range of strategies that they can call on.

And of course you can change how you write as well as what you write. You may be a writer who needs a deadline. However, you can change this, if you choose, to become a regular writer. Or you may have been a regular writer who now finds this almost impossible – you have young children and must now learn to produce text in fits and starts, stolen moments and the occasional long immersive stretch. You may become ill and find you need to radically change the ways in which you have worked. Or you may find that you can write papers using one approach, and thesis/books in another. You need to have a set of strategies you can call on to cope with changing circumstances and demands.

Getting on top of academic writing means building a repertoire of strategies for physically getting the writing done, diagnosing problems, and producing a range of texts. While you will have some preferred strategies which work for you most of the time, there will almost inevitably be occasions when you have to try other things, to modify what you do, to improvise.

We can learn a lot of academic writing strategies these days from other writers – there is a huge amount of information in books and online. Some of it is offered as the one best way. But of course, it isn’t. But even if something is offered as The Way doesn’t mean that it’s not useful. It is A Way. Seeing what other people do is helpful because it allows you to acquire another potential strategy you can adopt and adapt for your personal writing repertoire.

However, it’s important to remember that there isn’t necessarily anything wrong if the strategy that you read about doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t make it wrong. It doesn’t make you wrong either. It just means it’s not something for you, or it’s not for you now, or for the writing you are currently doing.

Writing. There is no one best way. One size doesn’t fit all writers, all disciplines, all texts, all readers, all purposes and all times. Academic writing requires building a personal repertoire of strategies.

Building a repertoire of academic writing strategies means being writing-conscious. It means thinking about the learning involved and the ways in which this learning can be achieved. And building a writing repertoire means thinking about academic writing as a practice that you are in charge of.