What makes writing academic? Part III

Typologies and Continuums

In this post, I share Laurel Richardson’s advice on what to do with research writing that is in progress (eg all those bits and pieces that feel meaningful but don’t quite seem to cohere into an article or chapter, and therefore get discounted for being ‘non-academic’).

On pages 48 to 52 of Richardson’s short but sharp account of what scholarly writing is and can be, she outlines what to do when the writing and data we have don’t fit the conventional formats of journals. I am finding her insights helpful because I am still swimming in what she calls the ‘exploratory stance [of] in-progress papers [which] is toxic to the novice researcher because exploratory papers often end up being unpublishable, boring, or both’ (ouch! p. 50).

Form(ats) impose a shape on the knowledge we communicate: here, it is linear, sequential, ordered from left to right.

Having briefly stated that traditional academic journal conventions usually prescribe (impose) the shape and content of the articles they publish (conventions such as length, mode, format, methodologies, style), Richardson promises:

“to look at some ways in which qualitative work can be shaped to meet traditional academic standards, without the author being overwhelmed by feelings of self-annihilation in the process” (my emphasis, p. 49).

She also reminds us that ‘material is malleable’ and that ‘narrative stance, tone, and metaphor’ can be used to ‘write a number of different pieces, from different angles at different stages of the project’ (ibid).

Her two suggested rhetorical devices for shaping exploratory in-progress research – i.e. writing an academic paper that we want to write – are:

  • typology


  • continuum.

The Typology

In essence, this amounts to looking at the material you have and deciding whether it can be classified into an existing typology or category (in your field) and therefore extend what already exists; or whether you can propose a new category for it (which amounts to your contribution to the field):

The purpose of a typology for a qualitative researcher is not the creation of an exhaustive classificatory scheme, which may be the goal of logico-empiricists, but (a) to find something in your material worthy of classification and (b) to provide some of the categories (emphasis in original, p. 50).

The Continuum

This kind of rhetorical framing, the continuum, allows the writer to circumvent the binary dualisms that often characterise academic discourses. Such dualisms lead to territorial and bounded discourses (e.g. male/female; realism/postmodernism; dualism/monism; skills/social/discursive; left/right; innatist/sociological; determinism/free-will, etc.)  which, in turn, suit being represented within conventional academic writing formats (i.e. left-right, linear, sequential, tables and columns).

A Continuum Fingerboard affords a greater range of sound and pitch in music. Laurel Richardson foregrounds a greater range of rhetorical devices in academic writing.

Richardson uses an example from her own sociological research on being the Other woman in relationships with married men in which she re-configures the established binary of ‘Other woman = BAD; married man = GOOD’ into a power-imbalance continuum in order to “look at how power interacted with gender, rather than assume it did so in some prescribed way” (p. 52).

Rhetorical devices such as these are incredibly powerful in enabling us to argue our stance because they empower the writer to foreground the narratives they wish to advance, shaping knowledge in ways that allow new angles and perspectives on phenomena to emerge (cf. Charles Bazerman, 1988).

So, what is it that would make writing ‘academic’, on Richardson’s account? Well, it’s not whether it bows unquestioningly to a journal’s, or others’, criteria, but whether it is shaping (or framing) knowledge in the way the writer wants that knowledge to be understood.

Reflection: I wonder to what extent we need to question the modes, the purposes and the forms of academic writiting so that academic writing also comes to embody and perform – rather than simply represent – the shape of the knowledge we are foregrounding …

Any thoughts you may have on this post and previous ones really are most welcome. For example, to what extent do you feel empowered and constrained by the academic genres that you engage with? Do you think this kind of questioning is relevant to your research, to what you are reading and writing, to the media you engage with in the 21st century? What does it mean, presently, for writing to be ‘academic’?


Bazerman, C. (1988) Shaping Written Knowledge: the Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Richardson, L. (1990) Writing Strategies: Reaching Diverse Audiences Sage Publications, pp.5-65