Written by: Abdel Rahman Mitib Altakhaineh
MA student, Applied Linguistics, University of Salford, UK.
Many students and researchers are still confused about how to write good academic papers of various different kinds in English. Academic writing must be distinguished from other formal styles of writing such as official and business as stated by Jordan (1986 p. 18). The main characteristics of “good academic writing” have been the focus of much debate in the general field of writing skills, as have the significance of language discourse functions and the important role that they play when it comes to producing “good academic writing”.
This essay will define what “academic writing” is and identify the main characteristics of “good academic writing”. The ultimate aim of this essay will be to analyse the role that language discourse functions have in such texts and give suggestions on how to overcome the challenges that might arise from such characteristics and functions for non-native speakers of English.
2. What is “academic writing?”
First of all, we must define what “academic writing” is to identify its features. Jordan (1999, p.
states that “academic writing” must be written in a proper formal style.Hamp-Lyons and Poole (2006, p. 16-17) also define “academic writing” in terms of formality. They state that academic writing is a formal piece of paper for which credit has to be given to the writer and that the work will contain specific grammatical patterns, organisation and argument.They outline the formality of academic writing suggesting it comes from its readers who must be academics. Its contents that must be a serious thought and it should be constructed using a variety of complex grammatical structures which have no errors. The vocabulary utilised should be varied and of a technical level appropriate to the subject matter. This will be discussed further in Section 3.
Moreover, Anderson and Poole (2001, p. 9) focus on defining the problem in academic writing. They assert that the first step must be to define the problem which involves determining what is being asked in the question or the title.
As mentioned before, I can summarise that Academic writing can be defined as the way that we express our ideas, knowledge and information clearly in terms of discussing an academic problem. It must address a topic or title clearly. It has some characteristics that must be addressed in the text such as accuracy, organisation, argument, coherence, cohesion, appropriateness and referencing. These characteristics help the reader to understand the academic problem in a crucial way by discussing many points of view relating to it.
3. The main characteristics of “good academic writing”
There are many characteristics of “good academic writing”. Many researchers such as Anderson and Poole (2001), Jordan (1986, 1999), Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (2006), Treciak (2000), Greetham (2001), Brown and Hood (1998) and Carter (1999) discuss those features in different ways. I have outlined the main characteristics under the following sub-headings:
When we talk about organisation in academic writing, we really need to focus on a clear introduction, body and conclusion. The progression of ideas and paragraphing must be clear and supported with examples. We also have to present a reasonable number of alternative points of view and to achieve a sense of argumentation.
Greetham (2001, p. 182-202) focuses on the importance of the introduction, paragraphs and conclusion that must be clear and coherent. He thinks that the introduction is a key part in which the writer must interpret the title or question and tell the readers the map that they are going to follow through the piece of writing.
He also emphasises that the paragraphs, which are in the main body of the academic writing, must follow the map the writer outlined in the introduction. He recommends that the writer should have a topic sentence for each paragraph which gives the reader a brief description about what is going to follow. Regarding conclusions, Greetham (2001 p. 197) says:
“The opinions you express in the conclusion must reflect the strength and balance of the arguments that have preceded them in the body of the essay.”
Anderson and Poole (2001, p. 17) suggest that we should have an introduction, body and conclusion. They believe that the introduction has to begin with an obvious statement of the problem and provide the readers with all essential data that is to follow. Anderson and Poole (2001, p. 17) argue that the body “should be an attempt at a progressive solution to the problem stated in the introduction”.They believe that the conclusion should present the results of the investigation and provide a solution to the problem that has been set. Furthermore, the conclusion can be used to suggest further areas of investigation.
Although both Greetham (2001) and Anderson and Poole (2001) generally emphasise the significance of organisation in the academic text at the same level, I strongly agree with Anderson and Poole especially in terms of having an argument in the body. I feel that academic writing is created to have an argument that must be developed throughout the body especially at postgraduate humanities level. I also believe that examples play an important role to convince the readers with your point of view.
3.2. Task achievement /Relevanceto Question (title)
In academic writing, your work must be directly relevant to the title. You have to approach the task in a direct and efficient way. The development of the argument must be relevant, accurate and appropriate.
Davies (2008) believes that successful academic writing must address a topic or title clearly. He suggests that writers must be careful what information they include in the essay noting that “interesting information” may not necessarily be orientated towards the question that is being asked. When doing a final review of your work, it is important to focus on the relationships between the ideas that have been discussed.
In addition, online resources can be invaluable in order to provide excellent definitions of key words such as analyse, define, criticize, discuss, describe, explain, justify, illustrate and many more.
In accuracy, we have to have high standards of grammar, word choice, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation.
Brown and Hood (1998, pp. 26-34) believe that spelling and punctuation are writing sub-skills. Therefore, they provide many examples, exercises and strategies to avoid having mistakes that generally cause confusion. For example, the use of comma in the following statements changes the meaning as shown below:
“1.The passengers, who travelled early, were killed in the accident. (It means all passengers)
2. The passengers who travelled early were killed in the accident. (It means only some passengers)” (Altakhaineh, 2008, p. 135).
In addition, Jordan (1986, pp. 10-18) also provides many examples and exercises that reveal the importance of grammar, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation. The misuse of tenses changes the meaning and spelling mistakes causes confusion. I do not think it is the reader’s job to guess what words the writer chose. He also distinguishes the differences between some verbs lead to confusion such as ‘lend’ and ‘borrow’, ‘rise’, ‘arise’, ‘raise’ and ‘increase’, ‘make’ and ‘do’ and ‘say’ and ‘tell’ as a part of taking care of word choice and the use of words.
3.4. Range and style
It is important to show a good range of vocabulary and sentence structures and to avoid repetition. The message should be clear to follow without effort on the part of the reader by using a good style.
In my experience, the use of limited vocabulary and inadequate sentences structures are a sign of a writer’s weakness. In addition, repetition can appear awkward and inappropriate in English as compared to some other languages such as Arabic.
In terms of style, Davies (2008) mentions five constituents for “good style” which I have summarised as follows:
: Although the reader may have a general background in the general subject it is essential to explicitly state the conclusions.
Use signposts: These help guide the reader through the text.
Avoid long sentences: Avoid long and over complicated syntactic structures.
Avoid long paragraphs: Excessively long paragraphs can have a negative impact on the reader.
Don’t imagine that the reader knows what you mean: Include clear definitions to avoid ambiguity.
I think these five features are very important in an academic text because it is not written for a specific individual but for the benefit of many. It should be written in a way which is accessible and understandable to people in various academic circles.
3.5. Coherence and cohesion
In an academic context, it is necessary to have good use of linking words to join the ideas within and between sentences and paragraphs, and an excellent usage of ‘signposting words’ to show the development of your argument. This is called cohesion.
Defining coherence, Carter (1999, p.245) states “A text is perceived as coherent when it makes consistent sense, with or without the help of devices of cohesion“. He defines cohesion as “the demonstrable pattern of the text‘s integrity, the marks of its ‘hanging together’”. In other words, coherence implies that the text must make sense and cohesion means that it must be appropriately structured and interlinked by suitable signposts and linking words. For instance, ‘In the next section we will…’ and ‘As we have argued previously…’ are good examples of signposts. Linking words include ‘moreover’, ‘however’, ‘therefore’ and many others.
3.5. Appropriateness and referencing
The language must be appropriate to the given topic within an academic context. The writers have to make appropriate use of source texts and of direct and indirect quotations too. They also have to provide adequate references and/or bibliography details.
Jordan (1986, p. 18) points out the most important features in academic writing. He outlines them as follows stating that written academic English rarely contains the following:
Contractions: ( I do not agree…..) would be used instead of ( I don’t agree…); (I am trying..) instead of ( I’m trying…)
Hesitation fillers: (er, um, well, you know,… which are common in spoken English)
Familiar language that would be inappropriate in the academic texts:Some phrasal verbs are more suitable used informally:
Formal : search, raise
Informal : look for , go up
The use of personal pronouns such as I, you, we should be avoided.
However, in my experience, when the writer is asked to provide personal evidence or experience, the use of personal pronouns is essential. This leads to the writer’s increased involvement in the text. The writer’s point of view is important especially in research in order to discover the solution and help others investigate further. However, I also believe the writer must be careful not to be too opinionated and look to be appealing to the audience. This is supported by Smalzer (1996). He provides two example texts to identify an opinionated view which are:
1. The potential for abuse of the proposed voluntary euthanasia legislation, quite
clearly necessitates that every state in Australia reject the proposal outright.
2. The pain that legalising euthanasia would bring to unwitting victims of such
legislation far outweighs the pain of any terminal illness and thus such legislation
should be rejected immediately.
He states that the second example is not academic writing because it uses emotive words like ‘unwitting victims’ and ‘pain’.
Thurstun and Candlin (1998, pp. 19-52) point out the importance of referencing and the use of suitable vocabulary while referring to others’ work by using words like ‘suggest’, ‘claim’ and ‘state’. Moreover, Trzeciak (2000, pp. 56-57) says “The inclusion of references and quotations in academic work is an important part of your writing, particularly in research work”. He thinks referencing is vital because:
It shows that writers have done considerable amounts of reading and research into the subject they are discussing and are able to select appropriate information from this.
It gives credit to work that others have done and show how writers have approached their work.
He also focuses on the use of quotation, paraphrasing, footnotes and references or bibliography details. However, Trzeciak (2000, p. 59) only supports the use of quotation in the exceptional circumstance that it is not possible to express an author’s words in another way or, the manner in which it is expressed is especially concise and unique. He adds that the writer may misrepresent the source material or the wording of the original.
Paraphrasing can be defined as using your own words to describe other people’s opinions. The use of quotation can be an easy way out, in other words, writers may use quotation in preference to paraphrasing because they think the quote supports their work but are unable to understand it sufficiently to paraphrase it. I think paraphrasing is better, it proves that the writer understands the author’s work.
Regarding footnotes, Trzeciak (2000, p. 60) believes that their purpose is to give extra information about the author at the bottom of the page.
There are many referencing conventions in existence. The most common is the Harvard
system. Although there are many others, the most important thing is to maintain the same system through an individual piece of work i.e., one must not change from one system to another in the same text.
4. The role that language discourse functions have in academic writing:
Discourse functions play a significant role in academic writing. Jordan (1986, pp. 28-68), Jordan (1999, pp. 14-63) and Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (2006, pp. 25-102) discuss how the effective use of language discourse functions can help writers produce good work. I will now focus on seven of these functions and discuss the role they play in producing good texts.
Jordan (1999, p. 21) observes that there are three types of descriptions that occur in academic writing:
Physical description that can appear in many disciplines and subjects.
Descriptions of people, places, relationships, jobs, and other social and institutional ideas will be made by anthropologists and sociologists.
Descriptions of apparatus, equipment and procedures occur in the science field.
He comments that the present simple active ‘he has long hair / they wear / she looks like ….’ and present simple passive ‘it is described / it is well known/ it is located….’ verbs are generally used in all these descriptions.
The use of these grammar structures in this discourse function allows writers to easily describe all of the above. The role of this discourse function can be to introduce and explain ideas and topics, for example, in the introduction. I believe it provides the reader with an overview. I also think description may be used in other parts of the academic text where required.
Jordan (1999, pp. 34-35) believes that definition is very important in academic writing. He claims definition makes our ideas clear to the reader. He provides an example sentence structure which can be used as follows:
(A teacher is a person who imparts knowledge or gives instruction to at least one person.)
Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (2006, pp. 50-51) believe definitions are necessary because readers may not always have a good knowledge of a specialised field. For this reason, they define definitions as “the basic tool for ensuring clarity in referring to concepts. Definitions are important because wherever we write – and especially when we write academic texts- we must be clear”.
They suggest a general structure of the definition that is almost the same as Jordan. However, they also suggest a simple structure that can turn what is found in a dictionary into an academic definition. For example the Cambridge Online Dictionary http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=100740&dict=CALD&topic=physical-and-chemical-processes states for (nuclear fusion):
(the process of joining two nuclei to produce energy)
In academic writing the definition could be as follows:
(Nuclear fusion is a process that joins two nuclei in order to produce energy)
This discourse function plays an important role. It helps the readers to understand the meaning of particular words that may be unknown to them. I also feel that it makes the text more comprehensible and unambiguous, and it can motivate the reader to continue reading the text.
Jordan (1999, p. 27) emphasises that the form of narrative is an essential part in academic writing since the introductions to many pieces of academic writing contain some kinds of “historical background or development”. He defines narrative as an account or description of events in the past which entails following a description in chronological order.
He also points out the language that is commonly used in narrative is in the past simple active such as (it recognised / they found) and past simple passive such as (it was established / it was built….) and past perfect active (it had improved ….).
The following phrases and words can help to create good chronological order which is an important part in narration:
Sequence: Firstly, secondly, after that, then,………….finally.
Connectives: before, after, when, while, during, as soon as …………
The role of this discourse function is to give a logical sequence of an action or event. Thus it will make the text more organised and coherent. It has a lot of similarities to “description” and I would consider it as a type of description because it describes events in sequence.
4.4. Cause and effect
Jordan (1999, p. 58) states that many events and actions are often linked by cause and effect in academic writing. He feels that the language that is used to make cause-effect relationships plays an important role of creating a good academic text. He shows the most significant connectives of this discourse function as shown below.
therefore, so, as a result, as a consequence,
1. cause (;) + accordingly, for this reason, + effect
because of this, thus, hence ,
Alex worked hard; therefore/ accordingly /thus /……, he got a high mark
2. Because, as, since + cause (Verb phrase), effect
Due to, because of + cause (Noun phrase), effect
Because /as /since James worked hard, he got a high mark.
Due to / because of working hard, James got a high mark
3. Cause + causes, results in, leads to, produces + effect
Studying hard leads to high marks.
In addition, the effect could be named before the cause or vice versa as follow:
Y (effect) is caused by X (cause)
Many deaths are caused by air pollution. (Passive verb)
X (cause) causes Y (effect)
Air pollution causes many deaths. (Active verb)
The role of this discourse function is to explain why something happens. It helps to persuade the reader of the writer’s point of view by giving the reasons behind his hypothesis. It is very important to support our argument by providing evidence consisting of cause and effect.
4.5. Comparison and contrast
Jordan (1999, p. 51) focuses on the significance of comparison and contrast in most academic subjects especially when we study tables and other statistical information. He adds that it is essential to point out the similarities and differences in such texts. In my experience, comparison and contrast help the reader comprehend the text by making the idea very clear. I feel that they contribute to making the text coherent. Highlighting the main points can guide the reader to the most relevant and important information.
Jordan (1999, p. 56) suggests a variety of structures and vocabulary aids and Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (2006, p. 39) also add some examples. The use of these can be exemplified as follows:
(Crime rates are considerably higher in London than in other smaller cities in England.)
(Mount Everest is the highest mountain in the World but it is not the tallest. Mauma Kea in Hawaii is 4,436 feet taller.)
‘The birth rate in England and France are the same.’
These examples show equivalence (i.e. the same), non-equivalence (i.e. not the same) and one item compared with a group (i.e. the best, the most, the highest). It is obvious that the language that is used relies on comparative or superlative statements.
This discourse function has two main functions. The first is to show the similarities and differences in ideas or data which has already been presented or, it can be introduced as new information. The second is to highlight the most significant differences which give weight to an argument.
Jordan (1986, p. 66) thinks that argument is very significant in academic writing. He claims that it is the way that writers discuss positive and negative points about a specific idea. The writers have to assess the different opinions, comparing and contrasting, and eventually give their views.
Hamp-Lyons and Poole (2006, p. 104) say “knowledge is created by original research, and original research requires original thinking. If someone is to think originally, they have to think critically and be able to argue”. They believe that it is essential that the academic argument starts with a thesis that is debatable. In other words, it is an idea you believe in, but other people might disagree. He also states that the writers’ goal is to persuade their readers of the correctness of their thesis by providing evidence.
In my opinion, there is no academic writing without argument since it focuses on an academic problem and wherever we have a problem, we have different opinions. As a result, we have an argumentation.
Hamp-Lyons and Heasley (2006, p. 109) mention examples of the language of argument that can be used including, argumentative verbs, emotionally charged words, personalization using pronouns, formulaic phrases and connectives.
‘Some people strongly agree that the death penalty is fair, on the other hand, I believe this is not the case’.
‘In my experience this idea has definitely changed’.
Argument is an important discourse function because it is used to show that the writer agrees or disagrees with something, someone or an idea. It is a way of showing how or why the writer agrees or disagrees by providing reasons or examples to prove a hypothesis.
Jordan (1999, p. 39) announces that exemplification is useful in definitions. I agree with him in this point but I also think it is more useful when we use it to support our argument. I believe that exemplification is the gateway to convince the readers of our point of view by providing examples
Jordan (1999, p. 32) mentions the popular language that is used for this purpose. Examples of its use would be:
‘A vehicle is a means of transport used on roads such as a car or a bus.’
‘Studying abroad is very useful when learning another language. For example, 90% of jobs were obtained by people who spoke two languages’
‘Some people argue that death penalty is a fair punishment. Treason that leads to killing 100 people in……..is a good example which supports this argument’
This discourse function is helps the writer with clarifying definitions. I can, as I have shown above be, used to support an argument.
“The classification is normally made according to criterion or several criteria (standards or principles on which judgments are based”, (Jordan 1999, p. 43).
The most common language used in texts which have classification as their purpose can be seen in the following example.
‘There are three categories within this group and they can be classified as……I will discuss them further in the next section.’
This discourse function’s role is outlined by Jordan who states that we need classification when we divide things into classes or groups. Classification can be used at the beginning of an essay as a means of sub-dividing topics which will be discussed. This is a form of ‘mapping’ and it helps guide the reader.
5. The challenges that might arise from such characteristics and functions for Arab students
There are many challenges which arise from the characteristics and language discourse functions for non-native speakers of English. Paltridge (2004: 88) discusses the work of Ballard and Clanchy (1997), which says academic writing is harder for non-native speakers since they lack familiarity with English. Al-Mukhareg (1985, p. 4) states that mother tongue interference causes most of challenges in academic writing. Furthermore, I also believe that the reason these challenges arise is generally because of electronic illiteracy. I will focus on the most common challenges that I encountered since my mother tongue is Arabic. My discussion depends on some of Al-Mukhareg’s ideas as well as my own experience as a learner of English for ten years and as an English teacher for four years in Jordanian Ministry of Education.
5.1. Punctuation and spelling
Punctuation is important as it helps the reader to understand text. In other words, the reader will be confused if he reads an unpunctuated text. Arab students find it difficult to use commas and full stops due to them being used less frequently in Arabic. Arabic also favours long sentences joined by ‘and’. As a result, they face difficulties in the use of commas and full stops. For example, in Arabic, we can replace commas by dashes and full stops by a series of dots like the following sentences:
‘First——- we went to school.’ for ‘First, we went to school.’
‘I lived in England………. I was a student at Salford University.’ for ‘I lived in England. I was a student at Salford University.’
In terms of spelling, Arabic does not have capital letters, so Arab students might not capitalise where necessary in English. For example, ‘i lived in London. last year, i went to york with my family’ for ‘I live in London. Last year, I went to York with my family’. Moreover, there are no silent letters in Arabic; every letter that is pronounced must be spelt. As a consequence, Arab students tend to guess the letter (e) at the end of the word in English. English has a lot of silent letters such as ‘k’ in the word ‘knight’, ‘w’ in the word ‘write’, ‘e’ in the word ‘site’. It is obvious that any mistakes in the previous words will make the meaning of the following sentences unclear as follow:
‘I do not know where is the sit of…..’ for’ I do not know where is the site of…..’
‘I will rite / rit the essay.’ instead of ‘I will write the essay’
‘I hope to be a night’ for ‘I hope to be a knight.’
5.2. Misuse of words
Arab students tend to misuse some English words. For example, they are confused about using words such as ‘also’ and ‘either’. They may say ‘Alex was not happy at the party. He did not want to see Steph, also’ for ‘Alex was not happy at the party. He did not want to see Steph, either’ as in Arabic, ‘also’ is used in the positive and negative statements. Consequently, Arab students could apply the Arabic rule into English while writing. In English, ‘also’ is only used in positive statements.
Another example is the misuse of the verb ‘know’. Arab students are likely to make mistakes by using ‘know’, in place of ‘discover’, ‘learn’ or ‘find out’ since the verb ‘know’ is used to mean ‘discover’, ‘learn’ and ‘find out’ in Arabic as in the following sentences :
‘I will know English if I live in England’, for ‘I will learn English if I live in England’
‘He will know his errors one day’ for ‘He will discover his errors one day’
‘She will know the solutions for her problems’ for ‘she will find out the solutions for her problems’
These statements are examples of how Arab students might translate from their mother tongue into English.
5.3. Misuse of tense and omitting of the verb (to be)
Arab students can make mistakes when they use continuous tense forms (present continuous, past continuous, present perfect continuous and future continuous) with verbs that are almost never used in the continuous forms. These verbs include state verbs such as verbs of possession like the verb ‘have’, verbs of perception like the verb ‘hear’ and verbs of esteem like the verb ‘love’. For instance, ‘they are loving each other.’ for ‘they love each other‘. This problem could arise as the simple present and the simple present continuous are expressed in the same way. For example,
Ivan cuts the trees. ???? ???? ??????? (Back translation – Ivan he-cuts the-trees)
Ivan is cutting the trees. ???? ???? ??????? (Back translation – Ivan he-cuts the-trees)
Arab students are also familiar with omitting the verb (to be). For example, ‘This book mine for ‘This book is mine’. Both of them have the same meaning in Arabic /??? ??????? ?? /h?ð?lk?t?b?l?/. This kind of error might be made since there is no equivalent to the English copula (to be) in Arabic. Because of this, Arab students may apply the Arabic rule to English.
5.4. Task achievement and repetition
In Arabic, it is preferable to write many statements before going to the main point. Because of this, Arab students are always criticised for not going directly to the main target of their academic work. In English, it is very important to approach the task in a direct and efficient way. For this reason, Arab students lose one of the main characteristics in academic writing which is task achievement.
In terms of repetition, it is normal to use words again in a text in Arabic. It is also usual to present the ideas several times. In addition, many Arab students do not have large English vocabulary bank since there is a big gap between these two languages. For example, there is no match between Arabic letters and English at all if we compare English with other languages such as French and Spanish. For this reason, it is very difficult for Arab students to memorise a lot of English words.
However, in comparison with English, this is not the case. We have to avoid repeating our ideas and using the same words several times in the text.
In English, we have to write some information about the author inside the text either before the quotation or after paraphrasing. In addition, we can use footnotes in English. Trzeciak (2000, p. 60) points out that footnotes can be used to give extra explanations of the writer’s work within the main part of the text. In Arabic however, this is not the case. We have to use footnotes by putting different signs, which are usually raised number, before or after the quotations. Then, we write the information about the author in the footnotes. We do not have to write any information about the author inside the text.
5.6. Electronic illiteracy
Arab students can utilise electronic media such as the Internet while writing an academic paper. They can download articles, journals and books to help them present a good piece of work. Jarvis (2001, p. 208) figures out the crucial importance of using sites. He says “Students now have a range of sites offering language work and study skills advice”.
It is clear that English is the language of the internet and since it is considered as a foreign language in Arab countries, they may have problems exploring and surfing the Internet. They may not have the ability to interpret some phrases and words which may lead them to avoid using the Internet. I think most Arab students do not use electronic media due to the problem of not understanding English.
Another reason that may cause electronic illiteracy is the lack of experience that Arab students have in exploiting electronic fields. We are not generally asked to use the Internet while we are undergraduates because of the limitation of Internet access in Arabic universities in comparison with European ones.
To conclude, it is clear that “good academic writing” occupies many researchers finding out about its main characteristics and the role that language discourse functions play in such texts. Many of those researchers such as Jordan, Anderson, Hamp-Lyons and Trzeciak also point out the problems that students may face, especially Arabic students to achieve accuracy in writing academic texts. These features can be utilised by the writers to draw their readers’ attention to follow the development of the argument. Finally, I strongly agree with the crucial importance of having the characteristics above especially having a logical argument throughout the text.
Many thanks to Mr Huw Jarvis who helped me improve my academic writing skills on the English for Academic Purposes Module at Salford University.
I am also grateful to my close friend, Faisal Albisher, for everything.
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Abdel Rahman Mitib Altakhaineh
MA student, Applied Linguistics, University of Salford, UK.
Abdel Rahman Mitib Altakhaineh
MA student, Applied Linguistics, University of Salford, UK.
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