Academic writing is like a painful, upper middle class dinner party

This blog post is part of a series dedicated to developing ideas for a new book I am writing with Shaun Lehmann (@painlessprose on Twitter) and Katherine Firth of the Research Voodoo blog. “Writing Trouble” will be a Swiss army knife of a book, containing range of strategies and tactics for fixing academic writing that is good, but not yet great.

We generated chapter titles from the bad feedback PhD students have told us about over the years. Parts of this post will end up in chapter two: “Your writing doesn’t sound very academic”: how to convince your reader you belong”. The book will be published by Open University Press and will hopefully be out in late 2018. If you’re interested in knowing more about the book before we publish, you can sign up for our writing trouble mailing list.

Although I got reasonable marks for my creative essays in high school,  literary criticism was never my strong suit. One of the issues with my analytical writing was that I didn’t really understand how to use verbs.  It wasn’t until I nearly finished my masters degree that I found out that verbs function in academic conversation much like table manners at a middle class dinner party.

Let me explain.

I owe much of my education in verbs to the good work of Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler and their excellent book ‘Helping Doctoral Students Write’. This book was crucial for helping me understand that in humanities writing, the verb you use to describe someone else’s work indicates your feeling about the quality of the work. For instance, “Mewburn (2010) argues…” is kinder than “Mewburn (2010) asserts…”. By using the verb ‘argues’ I invite the reader to consider that what Mewburn is doing is actually arguing – a scholar who asserts is not really a scholar at all.

Looking up the verbs in a dictionary makes the difference quite plain. According to Google, the first definition of ‘argues’ is “give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view.” By contrast, the definition for ‘asserts’ is “cause others to recognize (one’s authority or a right) by confident and forceful behavior”. In the humanities, at least these days, we are meant to make knowledge by persuasion, not through authority. Authority is used more often in political or religious arguments. If you read back into the history of Western academia, you will find examples of writing that seems very strange to contemporary eyes. The tone is much more commanding and confident – this was because the origins of Western universities were monastic and it was acceptable to make an argument on the grounds that God had ordained something.

Times have changed (despite what some Australian politicians would like to think). When you think about it, most academic writing is highly passive aggressive. By using a verb to express your evaluation of someone else’s work you avoid directly stating your opinion, leaving it up to the reader to infer what you think. To read between the lines if you like. In academic writing you would never, for example, write “Mewburn (2010) is shit – don’t bother reading this paper. She’s a rubbish scholar”. You’d say something like: “Mewburn (2010) relies on insufficient evidence”.

You mean the same thing, but it’s you know – polite. At least it’s polite according to dominant cultural norms in academia which, it’s important to recognise, are not ‘natural’. While some people struggle mightily with the idea that verbs are like manners at a middle class dinner party, Indigenous students, and people who are first in family to get to University, tend to get it straight away. When I shared this analogy with one Wiradjuri woman she laughed and said “Right, so to succeed in the academy I have to write like an uptight white person? That makes perfect sense. I’m surrounded by them all the time”.

Sadly true.

Kamler and Thomson were writing for humanities scholars, but their work led me to develop an interest in deep nerd grammar within the sciences. The most interesting difference between science writing and humanities writing is the use of verbs, or rather – the lack of them. When scientists are evaluating the work of other scientists they tend to drop the verb altogether. In the brilliant “Disciplinary Discourses: social interactions in academic writing” (told you it was nerdy) Ken Hyland points out that scientists will make a statement and then put the reference for the fact at the end of the sentence, like so (totally made up example):

“The molecules in saline solutions cluster together tightly (Mewburn et al, 2010)”.

By placing the reference at the end and not associating it with a verb, the scientist ‘imports’ this idea without comment and effectively expects the reader to accept the idea as fact. Even when they do include verbs, scientists do it in ‘sciencey’ ways. If the scientist was inclined to more ‘flowerly’ language, they might use a neutral verb, for instance:

“It has been shown that molecules in saline solutions cluster together tightly (Mewburn et al, 2010)”

In this sentence, the passsive voice functions to leave out the identity of the person who showed how the molecules cluster, that’s because, generally, in the sciences the identity of the person who did the work is irrelevant. Scientists are assumed to be identical to each other and employ scientific methods and procedures exactly the same way. This point of view has been questioned by some who argue that scientists are human like the rest of us, but that’s not a Pandora’s box that I need to open here. To complicate matters further, not all scientists use verbs in this way all the time. Hyland points out that Biologists are the outliers of the science world and tend to deploy verbs much more like humanities people. In other words, it’s complicated, but you need to know the norms of your ‘tribal dialect’ to fit in.

So how can you operationalise this knowledge? Well, unless you want to take a risk challenge academic norms (and hey – don’t let me stop you!), give your writing an ‘uptight white person’ make over. Grab a few papers from scholars you admire and make a list of the verbs they use. Then cluster the verbs into three columns based on a passive aggressive index: “this work is great”, “This work is fine” and “this work is terrible”. You can look at my own verb cheat sheet as a model, but you’re best advised to make your own.

When you’re finished, stick your cheat sheet to your wall. While you are doing your literature review, examine your feelings about the work you are reading, and then pick a verb from the list that fits your judgment. Varied verb use will make your writing more interesting and precise If you are a science student, closely examine your own verb placement and compare it to work in your discipline – could you afford to use a few more verbs? Or do you need to pare it back?

I hope that’s clear – I’ll be making edits when I put this post into the book, so your questions are helpful!

More Writing Trouble posts:

Don’t let those ‘sticky words’ confuse your examiners

The vagueness problem in academic writing

47 thoughts on “Academic writing is like a painful, upper middle class dinner party

  1. LOL: “Mewburn (2010) is shit – don’t bother reading this paper. She’s a rubbish scholar” versus “Mewburn (2010) relies on insufficient evidence”!!!

    I have been getting similar feedback about my colloquial turns of phrase from my advisor. It was suggested that I take a professional writing course, and once I got over my pique (!) I took a couple of MOOCs, and it has helped. But they missed out the key advice to “write like an uptight white person” ;-D

  2. Oh, sorry: I forgot to say. Will you use your article title for the book chapter’s sub-section? If so, then I was thinking that there was not enough connection between the content and the title. A better title might be “Write like an uptight white person”…?

  3. I love the title and totally get it as a first generation New Zealander. I’d probably add a couple of words…”Write like an uptight white English-speaking person” because some of us are white, first in family to get to university AND come from non-English backgrounds. Your blog was a reminder to go gentle on myself.

  4. This is also incredibly useful for those switching disciplines. I am currently moving from Psychology to History and Theology, and I had never noticed my strong tendency to use neutral verbs and implied statements until it was raised in paper feedback earlier this year. Similarly I almost refuse to use the personal pronoun in academic work, likely a hangover from my prior disciplines too.

  5. This is super helpful – like another commenter here, I studied Psychology first (over 5 years ago) and am now heading into Business/Marketing.
    I’ve been out of practice in academic writing, but posts like this highlight the ways I can apply a more curated and specific style relevant to this field.

  6. Interesting regarding the use of more colloquial styles of writing, or some phrasing, because in my PhD (completed) utilising arts based methodologies, some very good advice I gained from literature and supervisors is to write for a wider audience than just academics, and to cut down on the more formal ways of writing. This doesn’t mean turn it into txt tlk, but to bring it into an approach that is more available to a wider variety of people who might actually be interested in the work. I loved that one of the inspirational books I read was by a woman who said she had to basically re-learn how to write in an entirely different ways to how she had been used to writing in academic writing as a university prof and former student.

  7. Thanks for this post Inga,

    In writing up my thesis, when referring to the work of others, I have mixed the styles I use. That is, I mostly use a verb at the start but it seemed a bit repetitive (and boring), so I sometimes use the scientific style (reference at the end). Is this mixing of styles unwise?

    A second question on style. I prefer to use ‘active voice’ but in writing up a quantitative section I found it easier to use passive voice (and a challenge to change to active). Does ‘voice’ need to be consistent throughout a thesis?

    Kind regards

    Warwick Pattinson PhD Candidate, Melbourne School of Design

    • It’s a case of ‘most advanced, yet acceptable’. If you break the mold too much in verb use, your writing will come across as ‘unsciency’. For instance, rarely does a scientist ‘argue’. Passive voice has a place in academic writing – I’m with Pat Thomson on this in that it’s a question about nominalisation (where verbs are turned into nouns and vice versa). Too much active voice can make you sound ‘breathless’. Too much nominalisation makes you sound stuffy. Mix of both is where it’s probably best to be – again, analyse good writers in your field and see what they do.

  8. Although in a non-science area I have also used the more science based approach of writing that you note, of just stating the information and reference rather than suggesting any comment on that information. Also largely used verbs such as X suggests, states, asserts or contends etc etc.

    • Some social science areas are more ‘distanced’ in verb use than others – this is why making your own verb cheat sheet is so important. The key is to match the dialect (if that’s what you want to do.

  9. Hi Thesis Whisperer,

    Thank you for your ideas and encouragement over my thesis-time. I’ve got it (at last!) and now need a good printer for hard copy. Can I ask you if you have any suggestions here- maybe I’ve missed them.

    Many thanks Marina

  10. In the sentence beginning, “In this sentence, the past tense functions to leave out the identity of the person…” you might consider saying “passive voice” instead of “past tense.”

  11. It has taken me a few drafts on my first three submitted chapters before being able to think I might be acquiring a ‘voice’. But a Masters thesis I am looking at from a related area is bringing me back to the “Oh, I am not worthy …” cringe.
    I wonder if using ‘I argue’ in your own arguments might be presumptuous. Sometimes it feels like “Two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back ….”

  12. Scientists’ mode of referencing (or verb/not-verb use) receives some good attention in Latour & Woolgar’s Laboratory Life, where the authors theorize how different statement types relate to producing scientific knowledge. Possibly useful, in this context, to reflect on how verbs used to reference others’ work in the social sciences and humanities reflect stronger non-positivist epistemologies in those disciplines compared with (much, still of) the natural sciences.

  13. This article generalises in a manner that justifies promoting the dominant paradigm – that of the white male – in an environment which should foster the reverse. The author invents their own lexicon to construct an argument that encourages future scholars to learn word usage based on individual authors, rather than improving the use of language in students.

  14. There is something about this post that makes me feel sad and angry. I guess it is along the same lines of Meryl Stenhouse’s post – that it justifies and promotes a dominant paradigm, which in my mind has been shown to exclude, denigrate, belittle and isolate. Encouraging scholars to write like an uptight white person is short-sighted, limiting and ultimately unfair if you’re just not able to do it. I think it belittles the efforts of those who do not fit into the mould. Think of the all the female scholars, and non-white scholars making discoveries or insights but who have been unacknowledged by history or the academy – because they didn’t say it right. Why not encourage good clear writing that is accessible and inclusive and focus on the substance of the work someone has done, the conclusions they reached, their method and do it without the uptight white person filter. You might be surprised. I will not buy a book that encourages me to write like an uptight white person.

    • I have to agree. The writer actually acknowledges how manipulative (“passive aggressive”) this style is, but then jokingly shrugs the problem off. If only academics had the courage to challenge conventions rather than endorsing them with a face-saving hint of ironic detachment.

  15. This was really enlightening for me about the differences between science and humanities citation methods, and what this implies for scholarly criticism. Thank you! Weirdly I hadn’t thought about it before, even though I converted from science (computer science) to humanities (history), and was a PhD student in both disciplines.

    When I retrained as a historian, from scratch, even though I’d done the bachelors and masters degrees first I did find it hard in my PhD to strike the right balance of wording and tact. I remember my history supervisor saying several times that “You can’t write that! It’s too critical.” In a weird way I swung too far in that other direction, even though as a scientist I’d been used to being very neutral in my writing. And I still think it’s something that I struggle with to an extent, so this blog has given me much valuable food for thought.

    Fascinating topic anyway. Thank you again!

  16. Along with the verb issue, one of the things I hate most when reading thesis works is the attempt to sound more intelligent and sophisticated. Using 15 words when 5 would do, or ten dollar words when simplicity would bring across your point with much more clarity. I have an extensive vocabulary, but when I have to bring out the dictionary constantly, I get really bored and annoyed. There is no need to change “the cow jumped over the moon” to “the bovine ascended vertically to eclipse the lunar body.” Be clear, be precise, and know that you wouldn’t be writing your thesis if someone hadn’t already concluded that you had a modicum of intelligence.
    My two cents…but I’m good with getting change.

  17. Useful advice, though I agree with others that there are tensions here about limiting oneself as a writer. I guess my feeling (30 years into my academic career) is that one saves ‘alternative’ styles for alternative vontexts – and, especially with the rise of blogging and other online outlets, thrre are plenty of these nowadays. On your ‘cheat sheet’, as a supervisor, I advise my (humanities/social sciences) students at all levels to ditch the word “prove” from their vocabulary. It’s still powerfully axiomatic that nothing’s ultimately proven, only ‘yet to be disproven’.

  18. Science is objective, and it must be. That’s why there is such things as double blind review. There is an inherent reason to separate the matters from the persons, and therefore, the facts from the feelings, to achieve that objectiveness.

    The common language, or that “I have to write like an uptight white person”, is there to even more separate the persons from the matters. You cannot judge the writer by the name, if you do not know it, hence, you must evaluate the paper solely on the content, not on your presumptions about the writer, his/hers background, or gender.

    So, you shouldn’t be able to separate the writer based on the way they write, either. This happens quite well, mostly you can only separate if the writer is native english writer or not. If we would accept more versatile way of writing, this would no longer hold, as many dialects and ways of writing are quite easy to tie to demographies.

    So in the nutshell, indigenous and non-native english people must write like uptight white english people for their own good to ensure as equal and objective as possible treatment in the peer review. It is universal language to hide the person and concentrate only on the matter.

    And that is not a sad thruth (that being surrounded by white people might be).

    Unfortunately, not all science is made using double blind review, but it should be.

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  21. Enjoyed your article ! Was wondering whethwr I was the only one that felt things were quite the opposite in sciences and engineering. If I were to imply that an author is not really my cup of it, I’d say ‘the author claims *something is true*’ or ‘the author suggests that..’. On the other hand, if I really like an author and agree with him, I’d say ‘the author asserts/emphasizes/proves …’ etc. to show that there is no room to doubt what he says.
    It’s very interesting to see this is not always the case !

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  23. A great post! And the verb cheat sheet is very helpful! .
    I just, I have to – I’m sorry to bring this up, but – “operationalise”? “Use” would be much better, yes?

    @Rana – I would say you need to think about how readers would interpret your verbs, which is, of course, the entire point of this article – speaking the reader’s (discipline’s) language, not your own. That, of course, can be it’s own kind of fun!

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  25. Thanks! As a supervisor, this is v helpful—I’m really looking forward to being able to recommend your book to my students. One lack of concord between subject and verb you will want to correct: ‘f you read back into the history of Western academia, you will find examples of writing that seems very strange to contemporary eyes.’ should read ‘…examples of writing that seem very strange…’, since the subject (examples) is plural.

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