Writing Unveiled: Roundtable Reflections IV

When writing advice doesn’t work

When discussing whether we saw ourselves as ‘writers’ – in the academic sense – we felt decidedly ambivalent. In Roundtable III, we had identified ‘confidence’ as one root cause of not identifying ourselves as writers (which, given that our identities at all levels of academic study depend on our ability to write well, is surprising, and potentially disturbing – unfortunately, having a ‘good idea’ just ain’t enough!).

So, last week, we went through some of the academic writing advice that floats around online and elsewhere. There were only two of us at the roundtable, and I’m not sure how engaged my interlocutor was!

Nonetheless, what he said and didn’t say has made me reflect thus:

– students are not a homogenous bunch. Their rich academic literacies are as diverse and as similar as the human race is. Their expectations, ambitions and motivations are, too

– they/we have agency, imagination and autonomy that is often eclipsed, dismissed or somehow re-channeled/re-worded by institutional requirements/dictats

– much of the advice that is around does not seem to resonate with academic writers, or at least may not resonate at the opportune moments (eg. the timing of the advice may not be relevant for the stage the writer is at, or the advice may just not be fitting: some students just don’t get ‘writer’s block’ or may not need ‘metaphors’ or don’t want to rhetoricise their knowledge claims in terms of ’cause and effect’)

I have since been re-reading this popular handbook on academic writing for international students. Overall, what is in there broadly confirms these relfections.

For example, Bailey assumes throughout that students ‘are given’ essay titles. Yet, all my experience as a UG, PG and now PhD student is that it is me who has always had to come up with a title!

He also claims that academic essays are either ‘discussion’ or ‘comparison’ types. Yet, all my academic writing experience has been more nuanced than that (perhaps he is confusing IELTS with academic writing: IELTS is not academic writing, it is IELTS writing).

And more generally, the assumption that academic writing is neat and linear is naive and misguided. It creates misplaced expectations. Academic writing – the process, the fact that there never really is an ‘end product’, a ‘final edit’ because whatever we hand in scaffolds the next piece of writing – is fundamentally messy and requires us to tolerate ambiguities, unanswered questions and relative perfection (an oxymoron, maybe?).

Please let me know what you think of the writing advice you have come across, whether you are a student, a scholar, a textbook writer, an academic writing tutor …


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