Communication moves

(from Hunter (2014) How Academic Writing Works)

When we communicate, our communication almost always has a purpose or goal, and we make a ‘communication move’ to achieve that goal.

Move: “Please may I have a Coke?”
Goal: getting a coke.

Move: “Do you have any butter?”
Goal: finding out if the store has butter.
Goal: finding out where the butter is.
Goal: getting some butter.

When technical academic writers present their ideas in a research paper, they make communication moves, for example,

-announcing a topic

-describing a process

-describing an observation

-making a claim

-citing a source for a statement

-comparing two studies

-comparing data.

The above communication moves are objective. We cannot use subjective[1] language in a research paper.

Technical academic writing must be objective. We cannot refer to feelings or beliefs in a research paper. For example, “The temperature of the solution was 30ºC.” is objective: the truth of the statement can be confirmed by measurement. On the other hand, “The solution was terrifically hot.” is subjective, because ‘terrifically’ is an emotional word. (It’s also a vague word, as is ‘hot’.)

Communication moves are a good tool for analyzing the structure of our academic writing. In each section of a research paper, the writer makes these ‘communication moves’ towards the overall goal of demonstrating the purpose and value of his/her research.

One very good use of the communication moves tool is in our dossier work (use of model research papers). If you analyze the communication moves in a given section (for example, the Introduction) in several research papers in your field, you will get a clear picture of how people in your field structure the sections of their papers.

There are 2 approaches to analyzing the moves in your dossier papers:

1. Use an existing model of the moves in a section of a paper.

2. Choose several papers from your dossier and identify the moves that are used in your field, or in your target journal.

Using existing models

Swales and Feak’s (2012) Academic Writing for Graduate Students (3nd edition) (here referred to as AWGS) analyzes the communication moves in the Introduction and Discussion sections of a paper. This is a very useful analysis, but it is for the general case of academic writing, not specifically for technical academic writing.

Glasman-Deal’s (2010) Science Research Writing (here referred to as SRW) analyzes the communication moves in every section of a technical research paper. Not only that, the book also teaches the reader how to analyze communication moves, and also lists the allowable phrases and words that can be used in each section. As far as communication moves, SRW is a fantastic resource for engineering and science researchers.

Moves in the introduction section: AWGS vs. SRW

The following is a comparison of the moves analysis of the above two books.

Example: AWGS and SRW moves analysis for an Introduction

Source: Understanding hypertext cognition: Developing mental models to aid users’ comprehension by Andy White.

AWGS analysis of the introduction, sentence by sentence:

SRW analysis of the introduction, sentence by sentence:

The above comparison may not leave the reader with a clear picture of the difference between the two systems.

Strategy suggestion: choose either AWGS or SRW analysis structures. Either will produce satisfactory results for your inquiry. Of course you may have to adjust the list of moves to suit the writing style of your field (or target journal).

You may think SRW‘s moves analysis systemis better than AWGS‘ because it provides moves for every section of the RP. However, there are two reasons why this may not matter:

1. AWGS analyzes the Introduction and Discussion sections, and these are the most difficult to write.

2. After you have worked with the idea of moves analysis, you will start to have your own opinions about what moves are made in each section of a paper in your field.

Weak point of conference proceedings papers as dossier material: Please remember that journal papers are almost always much better models of writing style than conference papers. Conference proceedings are usually published quickly, with little or no editing – and they are not reviewed before publication!

Note about Conclusion sections: There are many variations in type of research and writing convention in the many niche topics of technical research. For this reason it is very difficult to make any useful generalizations about how to write the conclusion section of a technical paper. Certainly it is very profitable to do extensive dossier work, carefully examining the writing of the conclusions in a number of well written papers in your niche topic area.


1. move is a rhetorical concept, referring to ‘moves’ in Pragmatics, the part of Linguistics that deals with communication strategies.

2. Not all RP introductions will fit the models presented by AWGS and SRW. Always check that the models are relevant for your field.

3. Often in introductions, moves are repeated, e.g. 1-2-1-2-3.

Model paper analysis chart: you will probably want to use some kind of chart for your moves analysis work. The following page provides a chart format for AWGS type moves analysis. You can easily adapt this chart to any AWGS or SWR moves analysis.

[1] Subjective language is all language that reflects feelings or values, e.g., “These are exciting results.” Sentences that tell the writer’s feelings or opinions are subjective.