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The Art of Academic Writing (for Policy Makers & Everyone Else)

April 21, 2015

Many of my students in the MA in Conflict, Security, and Development at King’s College London have come directly from the policy world. They are diplomats, military commanders, NGO workers, social activists. They bring with them diverse knowledge and skill sets to the classroom, but they also bring with them particular ways of communicating that are very different from what is required of them in academia. Key to this is academic writing.

For people who worked as practitioners, it is hard to understand what could possibly be more important than deriving policy recommendations from a piece of writing. What is the point of writing about something if you can’t decide what to do about it? This is a common complaint of academic writing.

The first thing practitioners should appreciate is that deciding what to do is not the goal of an academic essay or article. The goal usually has to do with understanding the nature of the problem. With a proper diagnosis/analysis/explanation of the phenomenon, policy recommendations will follow.

So, how can practitioners-turned-students learn to write academically? The key point that needs to be appreciated is that what matters is not the impact of the argument on the real world, but rather, how this argument impacts upon the existing literature. The foundation upon which an academic essay is constructed is the literature.

First you need to build comprehension. Start your academic writing journey by reading deeply and understanding how the literature fits together. How are the debates constructed? On what ideas do they build? Where are the agreements and disagreements? How are leading thinkers grouped? What are the big ideas? You need to synthesize these ideas for yourself to figure out what fits where and who is arguing against whom.

Once you fully grasp the importance of the literature, the next task is to mimic the form. The goal here is to learn to write academically (tone, style, word choice, format, methods, presentation style, terminology, citation practices). This is like learning the grammatical rules of a new language. The goal is to look and sound like others in the discipline. If you are writing a sociology paper, you want your work to mimic the way that other sociologists write.

Once you’ve mastered the form, then you need to be able to meaningfully ‘engage with the literature‘. What does that mean? Well, you have to be able to play with it, to dance with it, to critique it, to comment on elements where you agree and disagree. When you’re able to do that, then you’ve found your ‘voice’ and you should put your own ideas into this form.

Once you’ve mastered the form and learned how to engage, you can subvert academic form- if you want. This is the fun part. Now, you can disregard the rules- up to a point. Having developed the confidence to express your ideas in your own style, you can start to improvise, and decide whether you’d like to continue using existing formats, or whether you’d like to create hybrid forms, or whether you’d like to create your own forms of academic expression.

Think about Picasso. He first had to learn classical drawing techniques. He began by copying traditional forms. Then he had to master them, and find his own style within a classical tradition. Finally, he was able to question existing forms, and discard them in order to create new styles and modes of expression.

To recap:

1. Build comprehension.

2. Mimic the academic form of your discipline.

3. Engage with the literature and find your academic voice.

4. (Optional) Experiment with new forms of expressing your ideas.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2015 4:42 pm

    this article is SO good, Christine! helpful, thoughtful, concise, and good-natured. I so wish you’d been around as I was trying to master the arcane form of academic discourse.

    • April 21, 2015 5:49 pm

      Thanks for that Dona. I have to say that it took me years to figure it out. The hard way.

      For me, writing this piece is sort of like creating a map of understanding to guide people through a process where it often feels like you have to hack your own way through a giant thicket of knowledge. The thicket being your discipline or your subdiscipline.

      The problem is, you can really only appreciate this ‘map’ once you’ve hacked through a certain amount of it with brute force! I remember in those first few stages how it was all a big muddle and how it felt like I was trying to do all the steps at once. ESPECIALLY because I was emigrating from the policy world. I had to unlearn certain ways of thinking, and bend my mind to a new way of writing.

      The good news is that if you learn to write academically, learning how to write in other non-fiction forms (e.g. blog posts, op-eds) seems a lot easier by comparison.

      • April 21, 2015 7:02 pm

        so true, Christine, that learning to write academically is excellent intellectual discipline that makes one a better writer in other non-literary non-fiction formats like blogs. At the same time, however, it’s been my experience that moving beyond academic writing into popular writing or fiction is almost as hard as learning the academic form. The habits of mind that make good publishable academic work fight with the intellectual mindset required for the more artistic forms of writing. I had to learn to write all over again!

  2. centraleurasian permalink
    April 22, 2015 2:40 am

    touche, Christine. While as a writer I do believe very much in l’art pour l’art, it’s not a coincidence that “academic” (e.g. in “but that argument is purely academic”) has come to mean “devoid of connection to the real world.” I do get what you’re saying (and agree very strongly) – but that’s precisely why academic writing is not for me.

    1. Build comprehension.

    2. Mimic the academic form of your discipline.

    3. Engage with the literature and find your academic voice. 4. (Optional) Experiment with new forms of expressing your ideas.

    It’s 1 and 4 I’m interested in – 3 is only helpful as long as it doesn’t confine your work, and 2 is precisely what I don’t want to do (thank you for making that so clear to me – 20 years after I struggled with just that in my Masters thesis). The thing is that rather than focusing on the “one language of our discipline” we need to look beyond the confines of our disciplines and our native tongues. Of course you’re right you can only do that once you’ve mastered at least one discipline in one language, but I really don’t have the patience or time to become a “champion shadow boxer.”

    Very best regards, need to get back to reviewing two theses and writing up a 14-country study on regional cooperation (conducted in 5 languages, precisely so that we could break the mould of the dominant discourse),


    Johannes Chudoba KG mobile: +996 (0) 708 822 138 skype: dushanbechudobas

    • April 30, 2015 10:13 pm

      I know what you’re getting at Jo. And initially, especially when we were at Princeton, I could not really see the utility in academic writing either. But setting aside that this is a post for those who are learning to write for academic audiences (e.g., academics & students writing for school and other academics), I still think there is a lot to be said for learning to speak in the academic language of your discipline, and in mimicking those forms. Both of these two things require a high level of critical thinking. Even with mimicry, you take from it what you like, and throw away the rest.

      Perhaps the most important thing about academic writing though is that it forces a clarity of thought, a logical way of presenting ideas and calling up evidence, and a precision with words that is not as important in other forms of writing. When you’re faced with this kind of strictness, your overall ability to express yourself improves. That’s why I’m a convert.

  3. Norton, Anne-Lucie permalink
    April 22, 2015 10:49 am

    Christine: good one! Will be helpful to many.

    • April 24, 2015 12:59 pm

      Cheers Anne-Lucie! Feel free to share- especially with your War in the Modern World MA students who have to take off their policy hats and put on their academic ones on a regular basis for your course.

  4. April 23, 2015 5:33 pm

    Reblogged this on Richard Cheeseman's blog and commented:
    This is a wonderfully clear and concise piece by Dr Christine Cheng of King’s College London explaining how to learn the art of academic writing.
    I am reblogging it here because it makes an interesting companion to my ongoing series 10 things to avoid when writing for a policy audience. While academic writing is a distinct form in its own right, with different objectives, the principles I outline for policy writers apply equally.
    As Sir Ernest Gowers put it: “Your purpose must be to make your meaning plain.” Which does not mean you have to water down difficult ideas; simply describe them in a way your readers can understand without first penetrating a tangled undergrowth of densely written prose. Do them a favour by avoiding obscure, complex, abstract and passive language.

  5. Percy Mabvuto Ngwira permalink
    April 26, 2015 9:47 am

    This is a great piece of scholarship and as an MA student in Diplomatic Studies i have found it useful thanks Christine


  1. The Art of Academic Writing (for Policy Makers & Everyone Else) | Security, Conflict and International Development (SCID)

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