Required, desirable and delightful elements of academic writing


This is the time of year that I run writing workshops and courses. And because I’m preoccupied with teaching, I’m also thinking about new and different strategies for authoring and revision. Authoring and revision strategies are inter-related – heuristics used for authoring can often be converted for revision purposes and vice versa.

I sometimes find inspiration for teaching in surprising places. Like the design literatures. This post features a modification of a tool used by designers to prioritise the features and attributes of an artefact and to assess potential user satisfaction. Meet the Kano Analysis.

Kano Analysis is a tool designers use instead of, or as well as, a cost-benefit analysis. I was initially interested in KA because one of its concerns is delight. Designers assess an artefact not simply on essentials such as durability, utility and ease of use, but also on whether it somehow pleases/excites the potential user.

Now I know there is a real intellectual problem in thinking about an academic text as a product, and using terms like usability and customer satisfaction. Nevertheless, I think there is some mileage in adapting the Kano Analysis for academic writing, not least for its unexpected emphasis on delight and its prioritising of the reader. It also assumes the designer-writer has agency, they make deliberate authoring choices.

So to my beginning play with Kano Analysis… the KA works with five key criteria around (1) required elements, (2) desirable elements, (3) neutral elements, (4) anti-features and (5) exciters. The first three seem really helpful for authoring and all of them in revision. Here, I’ve worked with four of the KA criteria – I’ve left out neutral. My workshop idea is to pose a big question about each of the KA elements and then have workshop participants to fill in the details themselves.

But I think the KA could work for DIY too. In the working that follows, I’ve taken the thesis/dissertation as the example. But you could use any other genre from refereed paper to blog post. I hope you can see how this adapted Kano Analysis might be used in a workshop situation or as a self-guided process. It might also be the basis of a conversation in a writing group or with your supervisor.

  1. Required elements

Big Question: What elements does the thesis have to have?

A thesis needs a defined focus, clear question(s) or hypothesis, sound knowledge of scholarly and other relevant literatures, a robust research design, evidence that the research has been conducted thoroughly and ethically, a clear argument and organisation, a clean text with accurate referencing, and an explicit contribution.

The examiner looks to these required elements to make the decision about whether the thesis is “doctorate worthy”. If the thesis has these required elements the odds are in favour of the writer having only minor or tiny corrections to make. Perhaps even none. Major corrections usually signifies that one or more of these required elements is missing or dealt with in a cursory way.

These required elements are not the same as the thesis structure, nor are they a style or mode of presentation. There are various ways to structure and write a thesis to incorporate the required elements. But some disciplines and examiners may see a particular thesis structure as required, and if this is so, you need to add that to the above list together with any other disciplinary necessities.

2.Desirable elements

Big question: What desirable attributes will lead the examiner to evaluate the thesis more favourably?

Now this is where things get interesting. A desirable thesis attribute in my discipline is likely to be different from yours. And examiners will differ too within disciplines. However, I’m guessing that the vast majority of examiners desire/want the thesis to be a ‘good read’ – that is, they want the thesis to be elegantly written, not simply technically correct. I also like the thesis to tell me something about the researcher, not simply via a personal narrative, but also in the ways in which they show understanding: this goes to the ways in which the thesis writer expresses their interpretations, what is sometimes called “voice”. And isn’t this a good conversation to be having about the thesis? Getting beyond the required to what’s additionally desirable.

Having desirable on top of required elements doesn’t necessarily get the thesis writer into the no corrections category, but it can certainly favourably dispose the examiner in that direction. However, a well written thesis which doesn’t have the required elements will share the same fate as its less well written thesis counterpart.

3. Anti-features

Big question: What thesis attributes will examiners perceive negatively? 

Pretty well all examiners complain about poorly presented texts. Academics are used to reading reasonably error-free texts, and examiners will be distracted and annoyed by mistakes on every page, a muddled reference list, inconsistent referencing style or incorrect citations. Most examiners are also irritated if they get lost in the text, particularly if they are reading it over several sittings. Economical signposting helps the examiner know where they are, but you might alternatively take a more creative approach. I also get annoyed when I have to frequently skip backwards and forwards between an appendix and chapters, and I am distracted by too much important information in footnotes or endnotes.

Disciplinary differences are important in relation to anti-features and often relate to the ways in which data is presented. And there are other things that put particular examiners off. My discipline expects that the researcher will write about their connection to the research and subsequent implications for research conduct. However I get bothered by a lot of “I” writing if the “I” is not the major research focus. I also hate to get a thesis which frequently repeats itself, and where there is a lot of essay-like writing, particularly about literatures and methodology. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

It is helpful to consider anti-features when writing, but it’s particularly helpful when revising.

The next and final KA element is not compulsory. It’s delight. You don’t have to have exciting elements in the thesis. The very thought of having to delight will worry some people. Don’t read on if this is you. But for those who are not put off by the idea of delight, then..

4. Exciters

Big question: What surprising elements of the thesis will delight the examiner?

I rarely hear this question asked. It is an even more interesting proposition than thinking about desirable elements. I haven’t seen delight given a lot of space in academic writing literatures or writing advice. I haven’t done this myself, largely because I think that it is important to focus on the bottom line of required elements and anti-features. However, exciting the examiner might be, well, exciting to consider.

There will certainly be disciplinary and examiner differences in answers to questions about delight. An examiner might well be exhilarated by the thesis that produces insights that are novel and innovative (but not the Nobel prize), and/or where the thesis writer has shown creativity in their analysis and/or has played with the thesis structure and/or has used multiple media in the final text in engaging ways. None of these of course are a substitute for required elements. No examiner is keen on style over substance. But substance plus style? Yippee.

The theses that get through without corrections are generally exciting in some way. They offer the examiner something that is compelling, truly captures them. But many theses with minor corrections also have something for examiners to get enthusiastic and energised about. Examiners are not too hard to interest. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many theses do delight their examiners!