Refining Technique in Academic Writing



I wrote briefly last week about the importance of technique in academic writing.   Academic writing is, above all else, a specialised form of communication, which remains true whether we are teaching essay writing to first year students or working on a journal article addressing our research. Articles, essays, theses, and dissertations are all modes of communication that serve to share with readers how we have approached our topic and the conclusions to which we have come. And the success of this communication is dependent each writer’s display of technical mastery. This does not, of course, mean mindlessly following the model, although many writing teachers would agree that is preferable to write with good technique and be a bit monotonous than to write with no technique and lose the reader from the outset.

The aim of good technique is to create a fluid and organic microcosmic structure. What this means is, simply: 1) each paragraph is a self-contained unit, 2) which contributes to the argument of its individual section, 3) which contributes to the argument of its chapter, 4) which contributes to the argument of the work as a whole. No matter the length of the writing, these key building blocks will always stay the same, and should always help your reader to enter into your analysis with the tools to engage meaningfully with what you have to say.

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Developing Student Self-Reflexivity In Secondary Source Research

Library Word Find Puzzle #2

(Photo credit: herzogbr)

Yesterday I wrote about how I introduce secondary source research to students.  Those 7 questions, are, of course, only the starting point for helping students to get the full benefit from engaging with the work of other thinkers.

When our students are working with secondary source material in their writing, we should be encouraging them to use their sources to explicitly support, develop, or refine their own argument.  We sometimes forget that student writers can become part of the wider critical conversation on a topic.  By helping them to use their sources to develop their argument, rather than simply reiterating the arguments of others, we can help them to enter that conversation as well.

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7 Questions to Help Students Use and Understand Secondary Sources

May 2009: Academic Writing & ESL Resources Display

(Photo credit: tclibrary)

The university-level study of English is paradoxically both an individual and collaborative effort, with students developing their own analytical skills while simultaneously learning to think in collaborative ways with tutors and fellow students.  What this paradox demonstrates, of course, is that communicating with those around you plays a significant role in the development of ideas, including communicating with the critical body of material surrounding the topic (even if the line of communication is, in this case, distinctly one-way).

Academic writing, even at the most introductory level, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, any piece of writing that students produce will be be a conglomeration of voices—some contemporary, some more distant—and their success in that writing will be dependent upon how well they harness this mass.

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The Art and Science of Academic Writing

Informal, Academic, Writing Experiences

(Photo credit: nashworld)

Academic writing is both an art form and a science.  Various conventions of style and argumentation have emerged because they tend to produce clear, effective pieces of writing. To a great extent, the conventions of grammar that we will be covering must be taken as rules that must be followed.  But conventions of structure, organization, and argument formation are merely tools that you must learn to make work for yourself.  They might sometimes seems overly reductive or formulaic, but it is important to remember that they are only guidelines to help you develop your own personal, authentic critical voice.  In the same way that a painter, sculptor, dancer, actor, or architect must practise and refine his or her art, academic writers must practise and refine the art of writing.

Analytical Evidence

TCLC - Twentieth Century  Literary Criticism

TCLC – Twentieth Century Literary Criticism (Photo credit: CCAC North Library)

Textual Analysis, or ‘close reading’

You might be surprised to discover that the academic discipline of English literature, as we know it today, only came into existence around 1900.  Eager to make the study of English literature an academically rigorous undertaking, early twentieth-century literary critics sought to codify and professionalize their discipline, and developed a technique that is now called ‘close reading’. By paying careful, specific attention to the ways in which words are put together, we can form some significant evidence for what we believe to be happening in a literary text.  In many ways, close reading forms the backbone of what we now know of as literary criticism, and is the skill that differentiates English literature students from students in other Humanities departments.  Historians, art historians, theologians, and philosophers share many of the same skills that we do, but what sets us apart is our sensitivity to the words on the page.  The skill of close reading is an important one, and one which you will develop over the course of your degree.

Historical Context

Much of the debate in twentieth-century literary criticism centred on the role which historical and authorial context should play in analysis.  Should the critic be concerned that Charles Dickens’ childhood experience in a workhouse contributed to many of his most famous novels?  When reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library should the critic be aware that AIDS-victims were heavily stigmatized during the early 1980s?  The answer is almost certainly ‘yes’ in both cases.  In order to put forward a clear, convincing argument about a text, it is important that the critic has a working knowledge of the relevant contextual material which bears weight upon the text.

Critical Context

Literary analysis does not happen in a vacuum, and the changing understanding of texts across generations is important.  We know that Bram Stoker was convinced that Dracula was a moral, ethical parable about good versus evil.  Literary critics, however, have been unable to leave unacknowledged the significant, and sometimes subversive, sexual imagery which marks that text.  Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw was left purposefully ambiguous as a stylistic feature, and that is an issue with which generations of critics have contended.  It is for this reason that a compelling argument about a literary work must take into account the critical context and what other critics have said about it.

Theoretical Context

A theory is a system of acute observations of the material world, which can provide the literary critic with a useful framework for exploring meaning in literary texts. Through the accumulated conventions of style, lexis, and incentive, theory creates cogent models of analysis.  These models often seek to foreground the sociological issues which bear significant weight in English literature (e.g. psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, eco-criticism, and disability studies).  Theory can provide a powerful, robust route into texts, but it is important that you do not allow theoretical context to overpower your analysis.  Remember, your argument is about the text, and theory is only one of four analytical tools which you have at your disposal.

The major debates between various schools of twentieth-century literary criticism came from the differing levels of importance afforded to each of these four categories.  For example, New Criticism favoured textual analysis at the expense of historical context; psychoanalytic literary criticism saw historical context as significantly more important than critical context; the Poststructuralists thought that theoretical context was of prime importance.  Literary criticism in the twenty-first century tends to acknowledge the value of all four of these categories of evidence, though each critic will inevitably develop his or her own personal style of working with these.  As you develop increasing confidence and skill in analysis, you will likely find yourself moving through these categories.  It is important to remember, however, that it is impossible to produce sophisticated, well-nuanced essays if appropriate attention is not paid to textual analysis.  It is for this reason that many of your tutors will focus a great deal of attention on the skill of close reading.

This post is based upon teaching materials developed while I was teaching at the University of Leeds.

Topic/Theme Analysis

Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main focus of any essay should be your argument about the text or texts that you are studying. So, how do you form an argument about a literary text?  It is important to point out that contemporary literary criticism no longer accepts that there is simply one meaning in a text, a meaning which the critic must work to uncover.  Instead, it is seen as the job of the critic to uncover his or her unique interpretation of the text, which might then impact upon the interpretations of others.  This is not to say, of course, that all interpretations will be equally valid, or that a critic is given complete freedom (we will get to evaluating argument validity later on).  What this means is that it is your job to articulate—with the aide of certain discipline-specific principles and conventions—what you believe the text to be saying.  This is your argument.

Because your argument is a unique, personal reading of the text, it is your job to communicate your argument in as clear and comprehensive a way as possible.  A sophisticated argument does not begin as an abstract idea, but a clear statement of what you believe to be going on in the text.  How might one go about articulating an argument about a text?  There is a three step analytical model that you can follow.


The first step is selecting which one topic from the text you will be addressing. We all know that a text will concern itself with many different topics and ideas: love, death, revenge, anxiety, public vs. private, gender, sexuality, etc.  In an essay or exam response it will be impossible to address all of the topics covered in any one text.  Instead, you must move into the text with surgical precision by drawing out just one main topic.  The first step in forming your argument about a text is to select the one topic that you will be examining.  Customarily, essay titles give you a specific topic, and ask you to consider how that topic is operating in the text.


In order to form your argument, you must ask yourself what you believe the text to be saying about the topic you have selected.  If you are writing on the topic of mental illness in Mrs. Dalloway, for example, your statement of theme might be: ‘the novel portrays mental illness as a feminizing force, which is feared and misunderstood by the patriarchal medical establishment.’  That is your argument.  That is what you believe the text to be saying about the topic you have selected, and it will then be your duty to provide your reader with evidence and support for your argument.  Why should someone agree with what you perceive to be happening in the text?


Topic: Mental Illness

Theme: In the novel, mental illness is portrayed as a feminizing force, which is feared and misunderstood by the patriarchal medical establishment.


The final step in this analytical model is to prove the validity of your argument to the reader through your own reading of the text.  You must demonstrate to your reader that the text does, indeed, say what you claim it to be saying.  While literary critics have an extraordinary amount of power and control in shaping texts, it is important to remember that not all arguments will be equally valid.  An argument can only be perceived as valid through:

  1. The extent to which it takes the full text into consideration.
  2. The extent to which it successfully acknowledges appropriate, substantial analytical evidence.

This post is based upon teaching materials developed while I was teaching at the University of Leeds.

Drafting: The Reader Sees / The Writer Sees


Essay (Photo credit: emilybean)

Once you have finished the draft of your first essay and you are happy with your work, leave it for a few days and move on to something else. Then, when you come back to it, read through it twice. The first time, imagine that you are a reader who has never seen the essay before and only knows a little bit about the topic. The second time, image that you are a professional writer reviewing his or her own manuscript that is about to be sent off to a publisher. Answer the following questions.

The Reader Sees (reading the essay as an outside who only knows a little about the topic):

  1. What did you find most interesting about the argument posed in this essay?
  2. What confused you about this essay?
  3. What questions do you have after reading this essay?

The Writer Sees (reading the essay as a professional writer):

  1. What are you proud of in this essay?
  2. Which section(s) did you skim over or read through very quickly? Why?
  3. Are you convinced by your own argument? Why or why not?


This activity asks you to consider the important relationship that exists between reader and writer. It is crucial to think about the needs of your reader because your writing always exists independently of you — you will not be there to explain your ideas if your reader has any questions. Responding to the questions that a reader might have, or clarifying and streamlining a section that might confuse them will allow your essay to stand on its own, and will ultimately allow your reader to trust you more. The relationship between reader and writer is based upon how well the reader thinks the writer understands him or her, and anticipates the kinds of concerns that they might have. Stepping into the shoes of your reader for a few minutes can be a big help.

This post is based upon teaching resources developed while teaching at the University of Leeds.

Prewriting: The Three Questions

Academic essays at university level arenʼt just a form of assessment. Academic essay writing is part of the learning process itself, and the research that you will undertake is a part of your intellectual growth. You are not expected to simply summarize the ideas that you have learned in your module. Instead, you are expected to explore these ideas in the context of your own unique perspective and put forward an argument of your own.

As you begin writing, think not only about what you already know about the topic and what you have learned about the topic in your module, but also what you might learn about the topic through your research and the writing process itself. Use these three questions during the prewriting stage of your next essay to help identify where your knowledge strengths lie, and to identify what questions or ideas you might need to research in order to fully develop your argument.

  1. What did you know about this topic before you began this module?
  2. What have you learned about this topic thus far in this module?
  3. What do you need to learn about this topic in order to form an effective argument?


This post is based upon teaching resources developed while I was teaching at the University of Leeds School of English.

The Sources at Your Disposal



In the contemporary study of language and literature, single-author books customarily run to around 250 pages because that is generally just about the length needed for a highly sophisticated, yet tightly focused argument based upon the conventions of argumentation in these fields. It is likely that a great deal of your research will come in the form of printed books, physically contained within the library.  Your reading list should always be your starting point when researching an essay or reading around a topic. Reading lists will contain some of the most important and relevant sources on the topic under consideration, but remember, reading lists represent a beginning, rather than an end.  When you find an especially helpful source on a reading list, take a look at its bibliography.  What sources does that author refer to?  Are there any sources that you see several authors citing?  Which scholars seem to be most authoritative on the topic that you are addressing? Paying attention to issues such as these can help to give you a richer and ultimately more valuable understanding of how to discover relevant and helpful books.


Edited collections are a very common format for the dissemination of knowledge in academia, primarily because they allow for a wide array of voices to present quite a broad perspective on a topic.  It’s important to point out that edited collections are listed in the library catalogue under their editor, rather than under the names of the authors of individual chapters. Finding an edited collection on a topic that you are working with can be a fantastic starting point to the research process.  You will have in front of you 8 or more writer’s ideas on your topic, and since it is likely the case that those authors have also written about this topic elsewhere, you will already have a list of ‘leads’ to help you move more deeply into the literature

Journals are a bit like academic magazines, and can range from the general (e.g. The Publication of the Modern Language Association) to the specific (e.g. Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies). Articles in most reputable academic journals go through a rigorous peer review process, which makes sure that only the finest pieces go to press.  Because of this, journal articles carry a great deal of academic authority, and will be an important type of source for your research. Articles in academic journals are often around the length of one chapter of an academic book — enough space to develop one element or component of a broader argument. It is very often the case that academics ʻexperimentʼ with new ideas in the form of a journal article before developing that idea into a full-length book.


Although academic research is becoming increasingly digital, paper publications are still vitally important in academic communities. The great thing about databases such as JSTOR, Literature Online (LION), EEBO and others is that they make getting your hands on paper publications much easier than ever before. The great thing about the accessible of electronic sources is that you can access a wide variety of important sources directly from your computer.  There are several important research databases that you can access through the library catalogue.

If you use Google regularly, and feel comfortable with its features, then it may be a great idea to begin your research with Scholar Google. The interface will be familiar, and the sources that you find listed there can then be traced either through the library catalogue or through primary and secondary source databases. Google Scholar gives you the scope and power of the Google search engine, yet still generally turns up only high-quality academic sources.  It is important to note that your search results on Google Scholar will not likely give you direct access to digitized publications.  Instead, you should note down the relevant bibliographical material, and see if the article of book is available in digital or hard copy from the library

This post is based upon teaching materials developed while I was teaching at the University of Leeds.

Advice for New Students of English Literature

AP English Books

English Books (Photo credit: Dave Kleinschmidt)

Read Widely

Perhaps the most important advice for English literature students is to read widely.  While you will certainly be doing a great deal of reading for each of your modules, don’t forget about your own personal reading interests.  Periodicals such as The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, The Atlantic Monthly, and Monocle are known for their high-quality features and book reviews.  Newspapers such as The Times, The New York Times, La Monde, and The Financial Times are world-famous for their reportage.  And, as we are living in a digital age, don’t forget about relevant blogs and other important online news sources such as Slate and Salon.  There are two main goals in casting your net widely: 1) you can begin to observe and appreciate how professional writers communicate, and 2) you never know what might spark an idea for your next great essay.

Write Regularly

Writing is an art form, and, as such, it must be practised regularly. For centuries, writers have kept journals (sometimes called ‘commonplace books’, ‘morning pages’, or ‘author’s day books’) that keep a record of insights, ideas, and observations.  It doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is—you choose. The important thing is to get a feel for how you write and to get into the habit of crafting and re-crafting your sentences and paragraphs. Be prepared to be your own worst critic! Show other people your writing and see what they think. Above all, learn to see writing as an active creative and intellectual process. You will improve if you keep practising.
 A regular record of what you have read and what insights you have come to will not only allow you to practise the art of writing, but will prove to be an invaluable tool for working through new and complex ideas explored in your modules.

Take Downtime

It can be very easy for English literature students to begin to lose sight of what led them to their degree in the first place: a genuine love of language and literature.  Don’t forget about reading for pleasure, and allowing yourself time to relax and to step away from your coursework. Begin to think about what speaks to you in your recreational reading. What draws you in?  Sometimes the greatest insights come during those moments when the mind is relaxed and simply enjoying something fun.

Develop Critical Interests in Other Areas

As you begin to read widely, and to discover new writers and publications, it is very likely that you will come across subjects that you find very interesting.  Vinology, evolutionary psychology, trench warfare, fashion history, Kabuki theatre—it could be anything!  Trust your instincts and follow your interests.  You never know what important new insights will come out of your own critical interests in other areas, or how your own personal study of an intriguing topic might contribute to your coursework.   The study of English language and literature is not an insular field—it speaks in many important ways to a wide variety of topics.

Develop a System

Developing a coherent, consistent system of note taking is an essential first step in achieving academic success.   Everyone’s note taking system will be personal and unique, sometimes even to the extent that it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.  What is most important, though, is that your system works for you, and allows you to keep track not only of your class notes, but also your own independent reading and research. While notebooks are often still the preferred method for many students, you may find it worthwhile to investigate some digital options. Evernote (free), Mendeley (free), and DevonThink (around £30) are some of the most popular digital note taking systems used by professional writers and academics.

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