Throwback Thursday: Writing for your Discipline

This post first appeared on Thesislink in March 2015. We’ve chosen a post about writing for today’s Throwback Thursday in honour of those of you starting your November #acwrimo challenge today. Good luck!


We talk about academic writing a lot here at Thesislink, yet it feels like there might be an elephant in the room.

Sense it?

Yes, there it is…

It’s the Elephant of Disciplinarity!

There’s an old story about how, if a group of vision-deprived people each examine a different part of the same elephant, they’ll come to very different conclusions about what they are examining. Oliver Marsh over at Sideways Look at Science uses that story as a metaphor for disciplinarity.* He writes about how, in an academic discipline, you study your own little piece of the elephant. You analyse it, you draw conclusions about what it is, and you get to know it really, really well. If you take an interdisciplinary perspective, you might ask others in different disciplines what they’ve found out about other parts of the elephant. But generally, you stick with your disciplinary subject.

The same can be said of disciplinary writing styles. I could wax lyrical about writing conventions in English (my field) until the cows come home. I could tell you how literary scholars hate cliches like “elephant in the room,” “wax lyrical,” and “until the cows come home.” But if you want to know how to write as a materials engineer? I’ll be no help at all.

Academic disciplines can have totally different approaches to written research, even when dealing with the same broad object of analysis. My way of writing about the elephant’s tail might be totally different to your way of writing about its ears.

Mind if we switch?

So how do you learn the writing conventions in your discipline?

Read within your field

If you’ve been in your field for awhile, you’ve probably absorbed most of its writing conventions by osmosis. Reading others’ work within your disciplinary boundaries is not only a key part of doing research, but also a great way to learn what’s expected of academic writing in your field. In other words, if you research the trunk, read about the trunk.

Read outside your field

Sometimes it’s hard to identify what’s unique to your field without comparing it to others. Try reading an article from a different discipline. Or, for a quick comparison, explore Duke University’s series of short guides for writing in different disciplines. (They are aimed mainly at undergraduates, but can be useful if you want to quickly introduce yourself to another discipline’s writing style.) In other words, if you research the trunk, try reading about the toenails.

Read a style guide or two

If you’re relatively new to academic writing, or you’ve recently changed fields, it may help to read some guides on how to write for your discipline. There are lots of books out there – ask around in your School / Department for recommendations, or talk to the Liaison Librarian for your subject.

Peer-review with other research students

Set up a review group of research students in your School or Department. Meet once a fortnight to peer-review a member’s latest chunk of writing. You’ll get a good sense of how others in your discipline are writing, and when it’s your turn, you’ll get multiple perspectives on your style.

Keep a vocab list

I have a list of buzzwords that are frequently used in my field. Heuristic. Ontology. Autodiegesis. Writing them in my notebook feels a little like going back to primary school, only the words are bigger than I was back then. I love my list, though, because it helps me to locate technical terms when I need them. I also find it helpful to keep tabs on which words are trendy in my field, so that I can choose strategically in any given instance whether I want to use a field-specific buzzword, or explain my ideas in a more widely accessible way.

These are just a few ideas, but I’m sure you’ve got more. Tell us, postgrads – what has helped you to learn the writing conventions of your field?


*Thanks to Oliver Marsh for giving permission to discuss his metaphor.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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