On “other” academic writing



Academic writing is not all introduction, literature, methods, results, discussion. While this is the dominant mode of writing across the social sciences, and in other disciplines too, it is not all that there is. IMRAD, and the variations on it, is certainly the academic writing structure and style that is most recognised and rewarded, but there are other approaches to academic writing out there.

Doctoral researchers wishing to get away from this pre-dominant form of academic writing need to find supervisors and examiners who are knowledgeable about # acwri alternatives and prepared to help and support them write against the grain. They also need to become very knowledgeable themselves about the range of non-standard writing approaches open to them. It is still the case that, particularly in the social sciences, doctoral researchers choosing a different mode of academic writing generally have to explain why they have made a particular textual choice and how it allows them to do something that conventional academic genres and styles do not. Doctoral researchers using alternative forms thus still need to know how the norm works, and what it does and doesn’t do.

Readers of this blog might think that I am completely wedded to IMRAD and the usual forms of academic writing. That’s actually not the case. But I do think everyone needs to know what the main writing game is. However, in my own academic writing I do play about with other forms. My PhD used transcript poems, fiction and narrative photography as interleaves in a thesis structured around themes that emerged from my data analysis; I wanted to present two ways of coming at my topic. I’ve subsequently used a fair bit of visual material in my academic writing, as well as writing a number of multi-voiced texts. These often incorporate autobiographical with more sociological material. I like to write book chapters because editors often allow more latitude with the writing and that’s generally where I play with style and structure.

And of course, I’m an ethnographer. This is a research tradition where there’s an emphasis on writing, where the researcher is expected to be highly reflexive about the ways in which participants are represented. There’s an expectation that the writer ethnographer will think about the crafting of their text so they can help the reader to appreciate and understand the lives and ways of life of those in their research. While this is most generally understood as the production of ‘rich description’ it is also, these days, just as likely to be about creative non-fiction – and sometimes also fiction.

It seems that writing in non-standard forms means that a researcher often has to meet two burdens of proof – they must assure the reader that the material on which their writing is based is thoroughly and ethically generated, and they must also produce an aesthetically pleasing text. Social science doctoral researchers using non standard forms generally have to do all the usual things – review the literatures, justify methods and provide an audit trail, show the data and analysis, make a convincing argument about the contribution to knowledge – as well as produce an interesting piece of writing – or film, images, theatre. This is of course not dissimilar to requirements for the practice based PhD. The difference is that the social science researcher is working on a non-normative text, the binary other to IMRAD – they are the “not IMRAD” researcher-writers.

It is now possible to point to a range of people and resources in this “not IMRAD” category. The annual Qualitative Inquiry journal and conference, Patricia Leavy’s social science fiction series for Sense Books and Routledge’s innovative ethnography series, research methods writings published by Left Coast Press, reflective writings by Harry Wolcott, Bud Goodall, and Laurel Richardson, online resources from Kip Jones and academic diary… I could go on. There’s a lot out there now for those interested in alternative genres and texts and mine was a very selective list – but these are some places to start if you are interested.

These “other” ways of writing are still a minority interest in the social sciences. Most doctoral researchers don’t find them in their mandatory training programmes, at least in the UK. They only come across writing the academic otherwise if a staff member puts a text their way, or if they accidentally stumble across a conference presentation or a text-book. When there are workshops for doctoral researchers about academic writing – and there’s still not that many – they generally focus on presenting the IMRAD norm, rather than its other. And audit regimes of course nearly always reward and reinforce the most conventional academic genres and texts.

Rachel Toor talks about the benefits of peer support for writers. I can imagine the creation of a community which functions like a creative writing workshop but with “not IMRAD” social science in the conversational mix. I suppose these groups do exist in some places. But for those who don’t have access to such face to face groups, I suspect that there is still room for some of these “not IMRAD” communities to develop online.

But maybe things are shifting just a bit. For example, Helen Kara’s latest book on Creative Research Methods breaks the binary between the conventional social science approach and its other(s), as does much of the work that has gone on via the AHRC funded Connected Communities progamme. Small signs perhaps, but ones that suggest that it may be possible at some stage in the future to talk more inclusively about academic writing and its very many different forms.