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