Learning academic writing using model texts
Many of us learn how to write formal academic English (FAE) by looking at good examples of academic writing, and then imitating what we see there when we write our own papers.
This is not as simple as it sounds. There are so many important details that we must pay attention to in academic writing:
- Official style (APA; Chicago; MLA; etc.)
- Unofficial style
– the writing conventions of your field
– the writing conventions of your target journal
– English usage conventions
e.g. ‘decide to + verb’; ‘prefer A to B’; ‘make a decision/take a decision’
e.g. in FAE use latinate verbs (such as ‘examine’);
not two-word verbs (look into)
e.g. use ‘I/we’ only in reporting significant decisions/actions by you
– grammar rules (of course)
I. Learning FAE from papers written in ‘model’ English
It’s best to have a collection of 3 or more research papers which are good examples of HOW TO WRITE in Formal Academic English about research in your field. This means the model papers should:
– be on your topic or a similar topic
– have research design similar to yours
– both of the above (unlikely, given the demand for original content)
NOTE: conference proceedings papers are usually not good English models, since proceedings papers are not refereed or checked before publication.
NOTE: native speaker authors do not necessarily write good academic English.
NOTE: if a paper has multiple authors, different parts of the paper may be written by different people.
Judging the quality of English in a model paper
How can you tell if a research paper is written in good English or not?
First you should judge for yourself if the English is good.
Then you should consult with your research supervisor about the quality of the research reported in the paper. The quality of the journal is a good indication, but not perfect.
Finally, you should show the paper to a skilled writer of English who has some experience with technical writing, and get that person’s opinion about the quality of the writing in the paper.
[Hunter’s model paper check will look at part of each section of a paper for a) grammar/syntax errors; b) lapses in FAE style; and c) instances of poor readability.]
II. Building a collection of words and phrases
A glossary is a collection of vocabulary, model phrases and model sentences which you slowly collect as you read English research reports and technical articles. This is like a notebook in which you record any BITS OF ENGLISH that you think might be useful for your writing.
It’s useful to create an Excel spreadsheet or a Word table with pages for different kinds of vocabulary lists. Keep this file open whenever you are reading research, and you can quickly paste new ‘noticed’ vocabulary into the appropriate page of the file.
III. Collecting samples of informal academic English as speaking models
Collect model English for your speaking in discussions and conference presentations: make a collection of articles from popular level magazines or web sites with topics related to your research. These do not need to be on the same narrow topic as yours; the article topics should contain the kind of English that you will need for TALKING ABOUT your research – in a relaxed and personal way.
WARNING: magazine articles, even in science magazines are generally written using the journalistic structure called the Four Box Method (also called the inverted triangle method), so magazines are not generally a good source of model English writing.
IV. 20 learning activities using model papers
Note: passively reading a model paper will not help you much. It’s important to interact with the model text, particularly:
- Looking for answers to specific questions about how things are written in FAE.
- Observing to identify general writing rules from survey type observation.
Here are some techniques for getting something useful from your model papers.
Note: it’s best to study the English features in just one section at a time, since writing style varies from section to section.
- Extract all the verbs.
- a) In a given section of a paper, how much is the passive voice used?
- b) Are any casual verbs used (e.g. two-word verbs (a.k.a. phrasal verbs)?c) What tense is used for talking about the studies of others? about the findings of others? about one’s own study? about one’s own findings?
- Note the frequency of compound sentences.
-and note the links used in those sentences.
-and note whether the Topic/Stress rule is obeyed (or the Old/New rule).
- Note the frequency/density of citations in each section.
-also note the ways in which sources are referred to
-also note how sources are linked to the research being reported in the paper
- Note the frequency and reason for the use of I/we.
– all the logic links used to begin a sentence
– all the logic links used in the middle of a sentence
– all the logic links used to end a sentence
5b. Save an extra copy of the file from exercise 5 above: remove each logic link and replace it with an answer box (called a cloze). Two days later, try the cloze exercise that you created. Is it easy?
- Check for Topic/Stress at the paragraph level.
- Identify all the pronouns and other endophoric references and check what kind of reference they are used for. (e.g., it / that / which / this ____)
- Check the usage (per section) of ‘respectively’
- Note cases of large Subject-Verb separation, and the readability in each case.
- Note claim strength in the Results and Conclusion
-modals: could / would / might / should
-verbs: suggests, indicates, there is a need for…
- Do a communication moves analysis for at least the Introduction, Discussion and Conclusion sections.
- Note how the author writes about data (her own, and that of others). This is called Data Commentary, an important RP feature for all of us. See also 1c above.
- Note how the author writes about figures such as graphs and tables. This kind of writing is also called Data Commentary.
- Paragraph writing: how often is the first sentence the topic sentence?
- In the Results and Discussion sections, how much are past and present tense used? For what reasons?
- How many sentences begin with a logic link such as ‘If’ or ‘On the other hand’?
- In one or more model papers, are some sections organized SPSE?
Note the cohesion devices (logic links and other things) used to keep the reader aware of the SPSE structure.
- Does the author end each section with a sentence or two showing the connection to the next section?
- Does the author begin each section with a sentence or two linking back to the previous section or to the introduction?
Note: this is very important since some readers don’t read sections in order?
- Please add creatively to this list.
NOTE: this resource does not discuss plagiarism, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about it. Even famous researchers have lost their careers due to plagiarism.
ALSO NOTE: self-plagiarism is also unethical, so don’t copy and paste from your own published papers.
 An endophoric reference refers to something within the text. An exophoric reference refers to something that is outside the text.
 You can learn about communication moves in Swales and Feak’s Academic Writing for Graduate Students (any edition).
 SPSP: Situation – Problem – Solution – Evaluation (of solution)