There are three major genres of academic writing that we use most of the time. It’s good to understand the differences between them and where they are used, and how.
A recount is a text which talks about what happened, and what we/I/others did. Two types of recounts occur regularly in scholarly texts: (1) a personal recount in which the writer retells events/activities in which she has been involved; (2) a factual recount which recalls the details of a particular event or sequence of events.
Academic writers often mobilize personal recounts. They write about events in which they have been involved as a form of evidence or to trace an intellectual history. While some disciplines frown upon the use of personal experience, in others, such as those in which practitioners/professionals are now actively engaged, the use of personal recounts is more accepted: ‘My experience of this policy is important and it informs the way I have developed the research design’. Personal recounts are also used to establish the mandate for research or for a particular methodological approach: ‘I am using this approach because the following happened to me and because I don’t want to do that to others, I’m going to do this instead’. However, a reﬂexive and critical approach is more desirable than a simple recount, and ‘relocating the personal’ often shifts the writing into a different genre – an argument (argument coming up).
Many academic journal articles use a factual recount when they detail the process of constructing the research: ‘We used this kind of method and sample and generated this kind of data. We wanted to do this but something got in the way and we couldn’t. Therefore our research ﬁndings can only address this aspect of the issue’, or, ‘We consulted these particular books in the library and spoke to the following people for the following reasons’. In research papers and dissertation texts, factual recounts can be more extended and some go as far as providing an ‘audit trail’ of steps taken in the research – from conception to implementation through to analysis. This kind of recount certainly makes it easy for examiners to follow what doctoral researchers have done, although the risk can be that too much detail is provided.
A summary is an economical and accurate representation of events, actions, ideas, texts or speech. To produce a summary, the writer needs to make decisions about what to include and exclude, what to highlight and background and how to frame the text.
Summaries form the basis of much academic work, but they are less often a published genre. Scholarly summaries, for example, underpin engagement with literatures. Doctoral researchers may be asked by their supervisor to summarize sets of texts in order to advance their understanding and/or to begin the process of identifying their position within the ﬁeld.
Janet Giltrow (2002) suggests that a good summary shows a knowledgeable reader that the writer understands something important. This knowing is not accomplished by cutting and pasting together the words of others taken out of context, but through doing new work. This new work entails identifying important ideas and evidence and providing abstract terms to capture major themes and enough detail to provide ‘proof’. Such text work requires careful reading and/or highlighting of key ideas, grouping these ideas together to produce commonalities and differences, and then developing evaluative categories to describe them. The writer can then use these summary blocks to build a cogent introductory framing or a coherently structured narrative.
But doctoral researchers are generally required to do much more than simply produce economical summaries: they are expected to take a critical, evaluative stance. This positions them within the ﬁeld of knowledge production and allows them to demonstrate the intertextuality of their research and its dependence on, and position in relation to, the work of others.
Writing an argument involves taking a position on a particular issue, event or question, and justifying that position. An argument attempts to persuade the reader to a particular point of view and to the veracity and worth of that point of view. In its simplest form an argument consists of:
• a statement of position (a thesis),
• a series of points arranged in logical order, supported by evidence and examples, linked together by connections that emphasize their cumulative nature, and
• a summary in which the thesis is reafﬁrmed and restated. There may also be recommendations at this stage.
A scholarly argument generally follows this structure. It may also entertain counter points of view, in order to strengthen the case being made. Scholarly arguments can be concise, as in the form of an abstract, or in their most extended form they become a dissertation or book. Because scholarly argument does not take evidence and examples as givens, it also incorporates analysis, interpretation and evaluation. There are generally sub-arguments contained within the larger overarching case being made.
Most academic writing takes the form of argument.