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The Many Types or Forms of Academic Writing

February 7, 2012

As a faculty member or student there are many types of academic writing that you engage in, some of them taught and some of them assumed. Often there is little recognition of the different writing styles needed to succeed or an assumption that one method/technique translates across styles. Here are some of the more common academic writing pieces and some tips and hints for each.

  1. The Scholarly Article: When talking about academic writing, this is typically what is assumed. Written for class requirement or for scholarly publication, it demands a high level of research, a clear thesis, and being able to convey a convincing and coherent argument. Writing a good scholarly article is necessary for an academic – it passes courses and publications are the currency of the academic world. There are hundreds upon hundreds of resources to consult but Chris Blattman has some good tips which underscore the importance of an outline (use section headings!), organization and supporting your claims and Mary Bucholz does similar with some of my favorite tips, including ‘abandon perfectionism’ and creating a publishing pipeline. For more, scholarly articles abound and the journal you wish to publish in likely has guidelines and perhaps even an article outlining their pro tips.
  2. The Grant or Funding Proposal: Perhaps even more so than the scholarly article, the funding proposal is the lifeblood of many junior academics. It means money to continue to write more scholarly articles; though, arguably, you need good scholarly articles to get funding (a vicious circle indeed!). Summing it all beautifully is Robert Porter’s presentation: “Why Academics Have a Hard Time Writing Good Grant Proposals“. Perhaps the best tips I’ve seen are in SSHRC’s “On the Art of Writing Proposals” and Adelphi University has a 50pg handbook with every minute detail you might need to know.
  3. The Conference Proposal or Abstract: It’s a little more complicated than cutting and pasting the first paragraph of an existing paper… GradHacker has some good general hints and also notes that proposals really vary from discipline to discipline. EDUCAUSE also has some great suggestions for improving conference proposals, including – Don’t underestimate the power of your abstract!
  4. The Reference Letter: Every faculty member at some time is inundated with requests for reference letters and some seem to have a permanent, never ending list of letters to write. It’s a common writing form and there is a particular skill to writing a good reference letter. Yale has done some research and come up with some great advice, especially in regards to what works and what doesn’t in reference letters. A column on the Chronicle of Higher Education wonders why ‘all the children are above average and answers, “Given the required rhetoric of excellence, how can a letter for a job candidate be written to be more useful?” And, for a Canadian example, Western breaks down all the elements of a successful reference letter. Related, Chris Blattman advises students on how to get the best letter from the faculty member they ask.
  5. The Email: Almost all correspondence between colleagues, professors, advisors, or really anybody is done over email. Arguably, email has ruined the art of correspondence (and even spelling and grammar!) but it the email doesn’t have to be a poorly written, short form jumble of mistakes. Chris Blattman takes it away again with some helpful hints for students emailing professors and The Professor is In has an excellent example of how an email to a professor (as a future adviser) should look. The Purdue OWL makes the most important points (among others) which is, write clear, short paragraphs and be direct and to the point (especially if you want a response!)
  6. The Short Article or Blog Post: Blogging is a different animal that scholarly articles and one that more and more institutions and academics are engaging in – a prime example is the FedCan blog which features pieces from well known academics in North America. Blogs are shorter, contain fewer references, are often on recent events, are more to the point, and use links if readers want to explore further – what you said in 10,000 words needs to be distilled to 1,000 words. Melonie Fullick discusses if you should start blogging, and even provides a follow up article. The University of Richmond has some good points such as ‘get to the point’ and the importance of images. I think there could be more writing on this…
  7. The Short Biography: If you ever present at a conference or publish articles or chapters in books, chances are you’ll be asked for a short biography detailing your current position, major achievements, area of work, etc. Often the maximum words count is 150-200 words so it is succinct, to the point and there is little room to tell about how stamp collecting is your hobby or how you have three beautiful children – unless it is somehow relevant. Whole areas of interest are summed up in a word or two and you have to decide which achievement or information is most pertinent.

These are merely some of the more common types of academic writing that is required (there are more!) – each with a particular set of guidelines and rules, each with different styles of writing and conciseness, and each with different skills to learn.

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