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The University Writing Center (UWrite): Writing in the disciplines

Writing in the disciplines

AWARE Writing Centre: Writing in the disciplines

Does academic writing have general rules which apply to all fields, or is it discipline-specific? In other words, is an engineering student expected to produce the same types of assignment and use the same language as a law student? The answer is yes and no! Academic writing style has some common traits that apply to all or most disciplines. Academic writing is generally considered to be ‘objective not subjective, intellectual not emotional, serious not conversational, impersonal not personal, and formal not colloquial’ (Clanchy and Ballard, 1992 cited in Jordan 1997, p.244)[1]. It also tends to be cautious and succinct, and it should be accurate in terms of information, citation, and language.

On the other hand, academic writing clearly differs in various ways from one discipline to another. For example, the language conventions and format of a lab report differ from those of a humanities essay. According to Alexander et al (2008, p.6)[2], an academic discourse community is ‘a group of practitioners (teachers, researchers and students) who share a particular discourse or way of representing, thinking and talking about the world.’ In other words, there is a commonality of purpose, knowledge and language among the particular group, although some (e.g. professors) will be more fluent and accomplished within the discipline than others (e.g. undergraduate students). Therefore, students who wish to enter and participate in this community require specialised knowledge of discipline specific vocabulary and the types of writing assignments that they will be expected to complete (lab reports, essays, annotated bibliographies etc.).

One way to become more familiar with the finer details of writing in your discipline is to read widely within it. When you read, you will notice patterns in both structure of the text and language choices. You should then try to replicate in your own writing the patterns that you have discovered. For example, when reading research reports in academic journals, you may notice that they tend to follow an IMRAD format (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion). You will probably also notice that the methods section is written almost exclusively in the past tense while recommendations/ suggestions tend to use cautious language such as: One possible solution would be to…

The following websites will help you become more familiar with the finer details of writing in a variety of different disciplines:

[1] Jordan, R., 1997. English for Academic PurposesA guide and resource book for teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Alexander, O., Argent, S. & Spencer, J., 2008. EAP essentials: A teacher's guide to principles and practice. Reading: Garnet.