There are no writing “rules”


Look.  I don’t really want to start the new year off with a rant. But I just can’t sit on this any longer. I’m climbing onto my soap box now, taking up my megaphone and shouting.


Why do I feel the need to say this? Why now? And why am I concerned?

Well, it’s because I’m seeing increasing numbers of people circulating writing advice, usually in the form of extracts cribbed from bigger books or links to papers in discipline specific journals, often of the niche variety. More often than not, these extracts and papers offer, at best, one way to approach writing a paper and, at worst, a set of rules about how to “do” academic writing.

Almost without exception (but yes there are a few) the rules or formats or templates that are offered are IMRaD, as it is known by genre theorists. IMRaD, that’s Introduction. Methods. Results and Discussion.

IMRaD is the form that lots of papers take. But it’s a form that has evolved because it covers the things that researchers have to tell readers if those readers are to believe what they are reading.

So conventions about research, not writing, come first. And these conventions say that:

  • readers need to know the big context for the research they are about to read. If the research is going to make a contribution to their understanding, what is the larger problem, puzzle, or debate that it sits within? And perhaps readers need to know that there is an urgency for knowing about this particular topic now. Readers need to appreciate that they are not reading something trivial, but something significant, something worth them paying attention to.
  • If the paper is empirical then readers need reassurance that the research has been done well. So this means that the reader can see that the researcher knows what else has been done on the topic and has related their research to the existing body of work. And they have thought seriously about how they will do the research and can demonstrate that they have been thorough and ethical. They have probably worked in a particular tradition too and can situate their work with other inquiries that use the same family of approaches. Giving the reader access to this procedural information helps to convince them that they can believe the research results.
  • But the point of writing the paper is to tell the reader the research results. There has to be enough detail about the research for the reader to see what has happened. And enough analysis to help them know why these results are as they are, and why they matter. The reader needs to finish reading understanding the point that the writer is trying to make. Then they need to understand what the paper adds to what they already know. And they generally like to know if there is anything that they or anyone else needs to do about it.

Now you can see that doing IMRaD is A way to write what is required. It is often the easiest and most straightforward way. But it isn’t the ONLY way. It’s quite possible to start with some of the results, or to put the methods as an appendix, or to infuse the literature throughout the paper. A paper doesn’t HAVE to be a straightforward linear narrative. As long as the writer argues the case and deals with the key research tasks and questions (conventions, above) then the text can be considered scholarly.

IMRaD is commonly used as it gets the job done – and it is what is often expected/demanded by reviewers and editors. But it’s not a rule. There are other ways to approach writing a paper or thesis. But because alternative texts work against the dominant IMRaD form, writers often have to explain much more what they are doing and why they haven’t adopted the usual form.

Bu I haven’t really said why I think there’s a problem saying IMRaD is a rule. There’s clearly an upside to thinking this way. If you are new to academic writing, or struggle with it, you know that adopting the IMRaD structure is likely to be a good starting point. IMRaD does point you to some of the things you have to cover – although not all of them. (That’s my next post).

However, I reckon there are two pretty big downsides.

Downside One. Saying IMRaD is a rule means that IMRaD becomes ever more consolidated, and we don’t encourage diverse ways to communicate our research. Journals all look the same and become more and more formulaic. And research is not a formulaic practice – it is about imaginative thinking as well as routinised processes. Why put barriers around our creativity – not allowing it out in public, as it were.

Downside Two. Saying IMRaD is a rule acts as a kind of straightjacket on writers who may want to try out different approaches. And this restriction can be off putting to some people, and frustrating to others. While it is certainly helpful to be able to write something in IMRaD, it is also rewarding to play and experiment with text, and to work on forms of communication that both persuade and delight our readers.

OK. Enough, now. End of rant. You know I’m not saying you can’t use IMRaD. Of course you can and you probably will need to in order to get published in some journals that operate with a narrow approach to texts. But you can also leave IMRaD behind if and when you choose to, as long as you can meet research conventions, which actually do function much more like rules – but that’s another story. You do have to tell the reader what they need to know in order to take you seriously.

But you get it. IMRaD is not a rule written on tablets of stone. Academic writing is not about RULES, but conventions.