How to Write an Academic Paper
Academics and other researchers want to know what each other have achieved.
Some or all of the work carried out is communicated via a paper. Papers are
presented at conferences, distributed in journals or are available via the internet.
Conference organisers and journal editors generally specify a format for page-layout
and some of the heading titles (eg abstract), and only indicate the theme for the content. Papers can describe something,
present results, develop an argument or theory. For other aspects, such as style, there seems to be un-written rules. This
paper suggests an approach of writing an academic paper.
This paper is set out in the order in which most papers are written: title,
abstract, introduction, ‘main sections’, discussion, conclusions and references. Section 2 is in the order that
papers are often read.
The abstract and references are not part of the main-body of the paper. The
following sections are written in the order that they are often read: title, abstract, conclusions, discussion, introduction
and other sections.
The title of the paper is
followed by the name(s) of author(s), contact details and affiliation. Titles and author names of papers appear in the contents
lists of conference proceedings and journals. Thus titles are the first contact readers have of the paper, so titles must
represent the content of the paper.
The abstract, synopsis or
summary is a statement of the main points in the paper. However, it should include all of the important conclusions. It is
not a contents list, nor an introduction.
The title and abstract should
reflect the essence of the paper to enable others to understand what the paper is about. These and the names of authors are
catalogued to enable others to find the paper.
Conclusions and Further Work
Conclusions are not ‘concluding remarks’, but are deductions or
inferences drawn from the discussion (see section 2.4). If there is no discussion then there wont be any conclusions.
Conclusions are either fully substantiated or items for further work. ‘Negative’
conclusions, such as dead-ends, should be included to warn others not to pursue that route in the same way.
The discussion should be complete, consistent and balanced. Here is where the
work described is reviewed, the argument is developed, the precision /applicability of the theory is justified, the results
are shown to be valid and anomalies explained.
Evidence generated from this work should be compared with evidence of related
and preceding work. Criteria for comparison should be considered, and a fair comparison made. Highlight the novelty generated
in the work.
Reflect on the work and deduce generalisations. If felt sufficiently substantiated,
then the deductions are conclusions, if not, then they become items for further work.
The work and the paper are introduced to the reader, and their boundaries are
set; hence sections 1.1 and 1.2.
The introduction should preclude work that appears in the rest of the paper,
except in the final paragraph. It should include the background and the motivation to the work. If your work continues from,
or builds on, other work, then briefly describe the previous work and the reason for continuing.
Formats and styles to the paper and any exceptions are provided here.
These sections contain the evidence that will substantiate the case, which is
made in the discussion.
Enough of preceding and related work should be described to provide sufficient
evidence for the discussion, and provide enough information for the reader to understand. Fuller explanations are left to
the references cited.
If evidence is generated from this work, eg experiments, proofs, then describe
it here and discuss it and how it was generated in the discussion.
Consistencies in terminology, meanings, formats and other conventions, i.e.
in style, make reading more easy and reassuring. This section consists of referencing, cross-referencing, figures, items to
help the paper reader and items on writing style.
Wherever a statement, assertion or description from other people’s work
is made, then this must be referenced. For example: the Harvard referencing style (BS 1629 1989) uses name and date.
Unless referenced, work is assumed to be the author’s, so omitting to
reference is plagiarism. Cite references early in the context in which they are used.
Reference the original work. If it can not be obtained for examination, then
reference the original through the intermediary, eg (BS 1629 1989 via Gray 2001).
If related or similar ideas are described in different section of the paper,
then refer to them. For example: ‘refer to section x.x’ or ‘as just described in section y.y’.
Diagrams, tables and graphs are referred to as figures which give examples.
Figures should be numbered, preferably by chapter, and referenced correspondingly in the text and in the list of figures.
Figure captions must be descriptive, and are positioned below the figure.
It is convenient to the reader to have everything provided in the paper, but
papers are meant to be brief, so exploit referencing. If the reader is experienced, then the reference is likely to be familiar,
or if not, then the reference will be sought.
Abbreviations and acronyms should be expanded when first used. Introduce new
terms by highlighting in bold, italics or in quotes, and explain them sufficiently and/or use referencing.
Structure the paper in sections. Give sections headings and numbers for cross-referencing.
Academics write formally, so do not use colloquialisms and be impersonal. Use
mainly the present tense when describing the current work, and the past when referring to previous work.
Writing Conference Papers
1. The nature of a conference
paper vs a journal article
journal article should contain the reporting of an essentially complete piece of work. A conference paper could be more appropriate
for several reasons, such as:
work is new.
is one completed component of a larger project.
it is best as a Short Paper or a Long Paper is likely to depend on the degree of significance and the degree of completeness
of the work.
that a Poster might be the most appropriate presentation mode to use for quite new work needing feedback.
2. Why are conference
improve the quality of your paper
gain government or institutional ‘brownie points’
improve the quality of the conference for attendees, so that the program has the best selection possible
3. Criteria commonly used
for refereeing: a valuable guide to writing
– to the conference topics and to the area of education in general. The ideas in the work need to be usable by others.
of work – showing some originality (Is it worth while for colleagues to read this paper?), well planned, context well
– showing an awareness of good practice. For example, in papers which are reports on actual projects, it is essential
to include some evidence of reflection and evaluation. The work also should be grounded in relevant literature (see below).
of presentation – must to be written in a suitable academic style and in clear and accessible English. Diagrams and
tables should be used appropriately.
4. Role of the literature
should assist the story of the paper. A few points here:
and complete citations are important. Citations indicate that you understand the relationship of your work to other peoples’
work, that you are not just ‘reinventing the wheel’. They also assist readers who wish to find other relevant
work in your area.
lists of references may be appropriate in a theoretical paper. A smaller number of references to key principles may be all
that is needed in a more practical paper. Referees (most anyway) are not fooled by long lists of unnecessary references.
quite clear about the use of terms is vital. A vague reference to being constructivist is not acceptable (this is a very common
problem). Unpacking the principles on which your work is based is crucial.
5. Structure of the paper
at past conference proceedings. You might like to examine the papers that were given ‘Best Paper’ awards.
clear and accurate about the title. Catchy is OK, but with clear meaning. The title is what will determine whether many colleagues
attend a conference session.
the papers with clear headings.
clear and concise English. Avoid the use of unnecessary ‘jargon’. It is acceptable to write in the first person
when describing work that the author(s) have actually done.
out carefully what diagrams are useful. Be careful about using screen dumps. Make sure they are a) interpretable and readable,
and b) add value to the paper.
sure the opening sentences of your Abstract and your first section are not identical. Your Abstract should be a succinct summary
of the whole paper and not just an introduction.
not submit a paper which promises that ‘data will be collected and analysed before the conference’. A referee
cannot evaluate the value or quality of the work not yet done.
any guidelines carefully and adhere to them – length, formatting, etc. Please note that very short papers will be automatically
rejected. It is also inappropriate to submit something that is clearly a long chapter from a recent thesis; it will almost
certainly be rejected. The paper submitted must be an essentially complete Long or Short paper.
provide attributions where the work of others has been used. If you alter it, use ‘after’, e.g. (Figure x. Title.
After McNaught, 2001).
complete references. In particular, note that online references need to have the date of accession of the URL recorded. There
are many online sites that give guidance on APA style. Check that any you use are current. University libraries often have
nice guides, e.g. <http://lisweb.curtin.edu.au/guides/handouts/apa.pdf> [31 July
a spell checker!
a grammar checker. You don’t have to accept all the suggestions, but they are often correct.
authors with relatively little experience, the peer review of a few colleagues is invaluable.
Information about conferences:
Guide to Writing a Good Abstract
that the use of on-line publication databases is prevalent, writing a really good abstract has become even more important
than it was a decade ago. Abstracts have always served the function of "selling" your work. But now, instead of merely convincing
the reader to keep reading the rest of the attached paper, an abstract must convince the reader to leave the comfort of an
office and go hunt down a copy of the article from a library (or worse, obtain one after a long wait through inter-library
loan). In a business context, an "executive summary" is often the only piece of a report read by the people who matter;
and it should be similar in content if not tone to a journal paper abstract.
on-line search databases typically contain only abstracts, it is vital to write a complete but concise description of your
work to entice potential readers into obtaining a copy of the full paper. This article describes how to write a good computer
architecture abstract for both conference and journal papers. Writers should follow a checklist consisting of: motivation,
problem statement, approach, results, and conclusions. Following this checklist should increase the chance of people taking
the time to obtain and read your complete paper.
What is an abstract?
An abstract is a condensed version of a longer piece of writing that highlights the major points
covered, concisely describes the content and scope of the writing, and reviews the writing's contents in abbreviated form.
When do we write an abstract?
An abstract is written after the report is completed, although it is intended to be read
In a technical report, the abstract appears on a separate page after the table of contents
and list of illustrations.
In an essay written for a humanities class, it most likely should appear on a separate
page, just after the title page and therefore just before the essay itself.
There are two distinct types of abstracts:
readers what information the report, article, or paper contains.
the purpose, methods, and scope of the report, article, or paper.
not provide results, conclusions, or recommendations.
always very short, usually under 100 words.
the subject to readers, who must then read the report, article, or paper to find out the author's results, conclusions, or
specific information from the report, article, or paper.
the purpose, methods, and scope of the report, article, or paper.
the report, article, or paper's results, conclusions, and recommendations.
short - from a paragraph to a page or two, depending upon the length of the original work being abstracted. Usually informative
abstracts are 10% or less of the length of the original piece.
readers to decide whether they want to read the report, article, or paper.
Several potential uses for abstracts:
executive preparing a comprehensive report might ask her assistant to abstract articles from different levels of periodicals
to provide information quickly and to help her decide whether to read the complete articles.
professional might read the abstract accompanying a journal article to decide if it is worth her time to read the full article.
subscribe to abstracting journals and series (including Dissertation Abstracts International)
to provide an overview of content.
congressional and association newsletters provide abstracts of newspaper articles that pertain to issues relevant to their
conferences require abstracts from candidates to determine suitability of the paper.
Checklist: Parts of an Abstract
the fact that an abstract is quite brief, it must do almost as much work as the multi-page paper that follows it. In a computer
architecture paper, this means that it should in most cases include the following sections. Each section is typically a single
sentence, although there is room for creativity. In particular, the parts may be merged or spread among a set of sentences.
Use the following as a checklist for your next abstract:
do we care about the problem and the results? If the problem isn't obviously "interesting" it might be better to put motivation
first; but if your work is incremental progress on a problem that is widely recognized as important, then it is probably better
to put the problem statement first to indicate which piece of the larger problem you are breaking off to work on. This section
should include the importance of your work, the difficulty of the area, and the impact it might have if successful.
problem are you trying to solve? What is the scope of your work (a generalized approach, or for a specific situation)?
Be careful not to use too much jargon. In some cases it is appropriate to put the problem statement before the motivation,
but usually this only works if most readers already understand why the problem is important.
did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? Did you use simulation, analytic models, prototype construction,
or analysis of field data for an actual product? What was the extent of your work (did you look at one application
program or a hundred programs in twenty different programming languages?) What important variables did you control,
ignore, or measure?
What's the answer? Specifically,
most good computer architecture papers conclude that something is so many percent faster, cheaper, smaller, or otherwise better
than something else. Put the result there, in numbers. Avoid vague, hand-waving results such as "very", "small", or "significant."
If you must be vague, you are only given license to do so when you can talk about orders-of-magnitude improvement. There is
a tension here in that you should not provide numbers that can be easily misinterpreted, but on the other hand you don't have
room for all the caveats.
are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant "win", be a nice hack,
or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful). Are
your results general, potentially generalizable, or specific to a particular case?
Below is a sample abstract with its elements illustrated:
(Purpose) The purpose of this study was to examine
the short-term effects of a two-way bilingual education program on the literacy development of students in kindergarten and
first grade. (Methodology / Approach) Two groups of children
were compared in terms of their academic achievement in English language arts. The groups included students with limited English
proficiency (LEP) as well as students who were not LEP. One group was instructed in English approximately 70% of the time
and in Spanish approximately 30% of the time in a two-way bilingual education (Extended Foreign Language (EFL)) program. The
academic performance of these students was compared with that of a group of students who attended the same school but were
enrolled in a regular program. Participants were 46 treatment group students in kindergarten, compared with 41 other kindergarten
students, and 57 first graders, compared with 71 other first graders. (Results)
Results indicate that after 1 year of the intervention, there were statistically significant differences between the two groups
only in sight vocabulary (at kindergarten and grade 1) and in alphabet (kindergarten). In all other areas of language development,
there were no statistically significant differences between the achievement scores of the two groups. (Conclusions) Results show that students in the EFL program make adequate academic progress,
confirming the usefulness of the two-way bilingual program in reducing the achievement gap between LEP students and others.
(Recommendations) Educators need to increase their knowledge
of the effects of instructional programs on the language acquisition of LEP students in order to improve the students' academic
development. (Contains 3 tables)
Steps for Writing an Effective Abstract
To write an effective abstract, follow these steps:
the article, paper, or report with the goal of abstracting in mind.
specifically for these main parts of the article, paper, or report: purpose, methods, scope, results, conclusions, and recommendation.
the headings, outline heads, and table of contents as a guide to writing your abstract.
you're writing an abstract about another person's article, paper, or report, the introduction and the summary are good places
to begin. These areas generally cover what the article emphasizes.
you've finished rereading the article, paper, or report, write a rough draft without looking back at what you're abstracting.
merely copy key sentences from the article, paper, or report: you'll put in too much or too little information.
rely on the way material was phrased in the article, paper, or report: summarize information in a new way.
your rough draft to
transitions from point to point.
important information you left out.
errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
your final copy and read it again to catch any glitches that you find.
abstract must be a fully self-contained, capsule description of the paper. It can't assume (or attempt to provoke) the reader
into flipping through looking for an explanation of what is meant by some vague statement. It must make sense all by itself.
Some points to consider include:
the word count limitation. If your abstract runs too long, either it will be rejected or someone will take a chainsaw to it
to get it down to size. Your purposes will be better served by doing the difficult task of cutting yourself, rather than leaving
it to someone else who might be more interested in meeting size restrictions than in representing your efforts in the best
possible manner. An abstract word limit of 150 to 200 words is common.
major restrictions or limitations on the results should be stated, if only by using "weasel-words" such as "might", "could",
"may", and "seem".
of a half-dozen search phrases and keywords that people looking for your work might use. Be sure that those exact phrases
appear in your abstract, so that they will turn up at the top of a search result listing.
the context of a paper is set by the publication it appears in (for example, IEEE Computer magazine's articles are
generally about computer technology). But, if your paper appears in a somewhat un-traditional venue, be sure to include in
the problem statement the domain or topic area that it is really applicable to.
publications request "keywords". These have two purposes. They are used to facilitate keyword index searches, which are greatly
reduced in importance now that on-line abstract text searching is commonly used. However, they are also used to assign papers
to review committees or editors, which can be extremely important to your fate. So make sure that the keywords you pick make
assigning your paper to a review category obvious (for example, if there is a list of conference topics, use your chosen topic
area as one of the keyword tuples).
Qualities of a Good Abstract
An effective abstract has the following qualities:
one or more well developed paragraphs: these are unified, coherent, concise, and able to stand alone.
an introduction/body/conclusion structure which presents the article, paper, or report's purpose, results, conclusions, and
recommendations in that order.
strictly the chronology of the article, paper, or report.
logical connections (or transitions) between the information included.
no new information, but simply summarizes the report.
understandable to a wide audience.
passive verbs to downplay the author and emphasize the information. Check with your teacher if you're unsure whether or not
to use passive voice.
The Differences between Descriptive and Informative Abstracts
As we mentioned above, there are two types of abstracts, descriptive and informative.
The descriptive abstract provides a description of the report's main topic and purpose as well an overview of its contents. As you can see
from the example below, it is very short—usually a brief one- or two-sentence paragraph. You may have noticed something
similar to this type of abstract at the beginning of journal articles.
this type of abstract, you don't summarize any of the facts or conclusions of the report. Instead, you write something like
This report provides conclusions and recommendations on the grammar-checking software that is currently
descriptive abstract is little like a program teaser. Or, to use a different analogy, it like major first-level headings of
the table of contents have been rewritten in paragraph format.
The informative abstract, as its name implies, provides information from the body of the report—specifically, the key facts and conclusions.
To put it another way, this type of abstract summarizes the key information from every major section in the body of the report.
is as if someone had taken a yellow marker and highlighted all the key points in the body of the report then vaccuumed them
up into a one- or two-page document. (Of course, then some editing and rewriting would be necessary to make the abstract readable.)
Specifically, the requirements for the informative abstract are as follows:
· Summarizes the key facts, conclusions, and other important
information in the body of the report.
· Usually about 10 percent of the length of the full report:
for example, an informative abstract for a 10-page report would be 1 page. This ratio stops after about 30 pages, however.
For 50- or 60-page reports, the abstract should not go over 3 to 4 pages.
· Summarizes the key information from each of the main sections
of the report, and proportionately so (a 3-page section of a 10-page report ought to take up about 30 percent of the informative
· Phrases information in a very dense, compact way. Sentences
are longer than normal and are crammed with information. The abstract tries to compact information down to that 10-percent
level. It's expected that the writing in an informative abstract will be dense and heavily worded. (However, do not omit normal
words such as the, a, and an.
· Omits introductory explanation, unless that is the focus
of the main body of the report. Definitions and other background information are omitted if they are not the major focus of
the report. The informative abstract is not an introduction to the subject matter of the report—and it is not
· Omits citations for source borrowings. If you summarize information
that you borrowed from other writers, you do not have to repeat the citation in the informative abstract (in other
words, no brackets with source numbers and page numbers).
· Includes key statistical detail. Don't sacrifice key numerical
facts to make the informative abstract brief. One expects to see numerical data in an informative abstract.
· Omits descriptive-abstract phrasing. You should not see phrasing
like this: "This report presents conclusions and recommendations from a survey done on grammar-checking software." Instead,
the informative abstract presents the details of those conclusions and recommendations.
This last point is particularly important. People often confuse the kinds of writing expected in
descriptive and informative abstracts. Study the difference between the informative and descriptive phrasing in the following
Based on an exhaustive
review of currently available products, this report concludes that none of the available grammar-checking software products
provides any useful function to writers.
This report provides conclusions
and recommendations on the grammar-checking software that is currently available.
England, drama was the prevailing form of literature in the seventeenth
century; the prose essay was the chief contribution of the eighteenth century; and the novel was the dominant form in the
major forms of literature produced in England in each of the three consecutive centuries are discussed in this article.
As you reread and revise your abstracts, watch out for problems such as the following:
· Make sure that the descriptive abstract does not include
informative abstract phrasing; make sure that the informative abstract does not include descriptive abstract phrasing.
· Make sure the descriptive overviews all the contents—all
the major sections—of the report.
· Make sure that the informative abstract summarizes all
the major sections of the report. (And don't forget—the informative abstract is not an introduction!)
· Make sure the informative abstract summarizes all
key concepts, conclusions, and facts from the body of the report (including key statistical information).
· Make sure that the informative abstract excludes general,
obvious, deadwood information and that the phrasing is compact and concentrated.
· Make sure that the informative abstract is neither too brief
(less than 10 percent) nor too long (more than 15 percent).
· Too long. If your abstract is too long, it may be rejected - abstracts are entered on databases. Abstracts
are often too long because people forget to count their words (remember that you can use your word processing program to do
this) and make their abstracts too detailed.
Too much detail. Abstracts that are too long often have unnecessary
details. The abstract is not the place for detailed explanations of methodology or for details about the context of your research
problem because you simply do not have the space to present anything but the main points of your research.
Too short. Shorter is not necessarily better. If your word
limit is 200 but you only write 95 words, you probably have not written in sufficient detail. You should review your abstract
and see where you could usefully give more explanation - remember that in many cases readers decide whether to read the rest
of your research from looking at the abstract. Many writers do not give sufficient information about their findings.
Failure to include important information. You need to be careful to cover the points listed above.
Often people do not cover all of them because they spend too long explaining, for example, the methodology and then do not
have enough space to present their conclusion.
Abstracts and Introductions Compared
first glance, it might seem that the introduction and the abstract are very similar because they both present the research
problem and objectives as well as briefly reviewing methodology, main findings and main conclusions. However, there
are important differences between the two:
Should be short,
but does not have a word limit.
Main purpose is
to introduce the research by presenting its context or background.
go from general to specific, introducing the research problem and how it will be investigated).
Has a maximum word
Is a summary of
the whole research.
Main purpose is
to summarize the research (particularly the objective and the main finding/conclusion), NOT to introduce the research
an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your
publications. Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next one you write.
Herbert, How to Write & Publish Engineering Papers and Reports, Oryx Press, 1990. Chapter 6 discusses abstracts.
Edward, The Art of Abstracting 2nd Edition, Info Resources Press, April 1996. This is an entire book about abstracting,
written primarily for professional abstractors.
The University of West Florida Writing Lab: http://uwf.edu/writelab/handouts/abstracts.cfm
How to Write an Abstract for the Undergraduate
Research Conference: http://urc.ucdavis.edu/urc_writing.html
Samples of texts and their abstracts: http://brj.asu.edu/content/vol27_no2/abstracts.html
Useful Links: http://www.languages.ait.ac.th/EL21LINK.HTM
How to Write a Research Proposal
In order to write a research proposal you have to overcome the most difficult hurdle of the whole
dissertation process, i.e. formulating and clarifying the research topic. This is an invaluable opportunity for you to contemplate
your research topic before you commit yourself to the detailed investigations, and time spent on this stage is always productive.
It is your chance to check out the literature and the primary research facilities before you commit yourself to a topic.
N.B. Remember to choose an area which will retain your interest for a minimum of a year.
What is the purpose of the research proposal?
The research proposal is a summary of the plan you are contemplating for carrying out in the form
of a dissertation - by making you put it down into a standard format and requiring you to discuss it with your supervisor,
it is intended that this will
you to order your thoughts
your preparatory material in a logical way
the way in which each section interrelates with the others
you in defining the boundaries of your study and the concepts to be included
The more you sort out your ideas at this stage, the more effectively you will use your time.
What is the structure of the
The research proposal form contains the following sections -
The title should reflect what you are proposing to do, as exactly as possible. You may find it useful to put this in the
form of a question or a hypothesis. This should reflect your proposed contribution to the current state of the research in
The rest of the outline further specifies the area for study.
to the proposed subject area
This section provides an opportunity for you to the current state of the research, including the main authors
and their findings in this field, and the context of the research, for example, the impact of legislation, the changing culture
of the organization, etc. You are asked to place your subject in the context of your current work role or in considering the
topic in its own right.
Here you should explore the issues that you intend to consider, and how they will impact on the purpose of the research
as a whole. You are asked to state these as clearly and as specifically as possible.
structure of dissertation
This section requires you to give a brief outline of the investigative work (both in terms of primary and secondary research)
that you intend to undertake.
to the completed proposal?
discussions between the student and their supervisor, the student will then submit the completed proposal to their supervisor
for their signature.
signature of the supervisor denotes that person’s agreement that the dissertation proposal has been completed to that
person’s satisfaction and that he/she is happy to supervise a dissertation that follows that proposal.
proposal is then considered by a committee of lecturers who teach on the program (Dissertation Committee) to ensure that it
is viable and of the required standard. No dissertations can be submitted to the Examination Board without consideration by
the Dissertation Committee. Any problems would be communicated to the student by their named supervisor.
What happens if I wish to change
you are unable to complete the dissertation along the lines discussed in the research proposal. Some small variation in title
or methodology will not require a new proposal form, but any major change of topic or emphasis may do so. Discuss this with
Checklist to consider before
completing the research proposal:
is the issue to be addressed?
is it significant and does it contain any controversial elements?
this issue of special importance at this time and why?
is the academic research which informs this area?
there recent discussion and any new conceptual frameworks in this area?
will the intended research add to the academic work in this field?
you access the relevant literature?
are the specific aims of the research you intend to carry out?
will the intended research add to the current understanding?
methodologies have you considered?
would be the most useful methodologies to use in this work and what kinds of qualitative/quantitative data do you intend to
these methodologies achieve the aims you have already chosen?
the methodologies you have chosen achieve the necessary triangulation of results?
access problems will you face in carrying out the research?
You wouldn't think of writing e-mail or a letter to a friend without using the first-person singular I, me, or my. If you were writing a
letter to an editor or a conference paper in which it is appropriate and important to claim opinions and feelings as your
own, you would, of course, use the first-person singular: I think, my opinion.
following paragraphs are taken from a Labor Day (2 September 1999) editorial by Jeff Rivers in the Hartford Courant:
[My parents] were workers, union people, assembly lines and lunch pails, typing pools and greasy-spoon
hot dogs. They worked as hard as they could for as long as they could. They gave out under the strain of their lives and dropped
in the dust. Neither lived to be 60 years old.
Because of my parents' hard work, I walk along a less rocky path, which
was their dream.
My parents were walkers. When I was a boy in Philadelphia, I'd go on long walks with one and then the other. When the three of us walked together, the trips
were always short and full of purpose, like my parents' lives. But when I walked with just one of my parents, the trips sometimes
became grand explorations of the city and life.
then goes on to tell us how his father would point out day laborers to his son, hinting broadly that his son should grow up
to work with his mind, not his hands: "'Don't be like them, don't be like me.' . . . He wanted me to grow up to use my mind
rather than my hands in work. I have, which was my dad's dream." And from there, Rivers goes on to say that today's workers
have become more like microchips than mules, but they are still not valued the way they ought to be. Rivers' conclusion about
society is allowed to grow out of his initial personal reflection; it feels personally justified.
the other hand, to avoid any hints of subjective bias or a "this is just little of' me talking" tone, most academic prose
should feel as objective as possible. One easy test of objectivity in writing is the use of the first-person singular. Text
in which I shows up over and over again will feel weighted with subjectivity, not objectivity. In the personal essay
and the letter to Grandma, that is perfectly all right, and a personal essay without I's can feel oddly detached and
cold. In objective, academic prose, however, that sense of detachment is often exactly what is called for.
is the introductory paragraph to a brief article in the online version of the September 1999 Atlantic Monthly:
The Kansas school board's recent decision to drop evolution from the state's required curriculum
represents the latest episode in an ongoing battle between religious fundamentalists and secular educators over whether public
schools should teach "creation science" or evolution — or both. The Kansas school board claims that because evolution cannot be replicated in a laboratory, and thus cannot
be directly observed, it should only be presented as theory rather than as fact. As a mere theory, they argue, it should be
omitted from the curriculum or presented alongside other, competing "theories" (namely, creationism). Educators and scientists
troubled by the Kansas decision point out that many scientific assumptions — like the existence of atoms — cannot
be directly observed in a laboratory, but are accepted because they are supported by the best scientific evidence.
this paragraph, there is not a single use of a first-person pronoun. The writer's opinions are undoubtedly lurking somewhere
behind the piece, but they are not visibly betrayed by personal statement. Taking an objective stance like this might be a
relatively easy matter if you, the writer, are removed from the events of Kansas and the creationism debate. What happens when your instructor asks you to write an essay about
what you think about scientific theory versus creationism or about what is going on in a short story, or about some
phenomenon in economics?
The vision of the poet is not just a private matter: "all who heard" and "all should cry." It is
a collective enchantment with the poet at the center of it. The magic of the final spellbinding lines — beyond explication
— is based partly on abracadabra incantation ("Weave a circle round him thrice") and our corporate recollections of
holy visionaries. The poet compels the vision of the public, but at the same time he is an outcast among them — untouchable
and even cursed ("his flashing eyes, his floating hair!") by his gift. The lines become completely suggestive in their wild
blend of holiness, sensuality, prophecy, and danger. The poet and poem have have become their own "miracle of rare device,"
and the reader has borne witness to the creative miracle.
would probably be a great strain to avoid using the first-person pronoun in such an essay — at least in the first draft.
It is OK to write "In my opinion," "I think," "I feel." In fact, it's probably a good idea; it helps us to sort out what we're
feeling and thinking from the more impersonal facts involved in the experience of reading the poem. Then, when we have them
down on paper — all these thoughts and feelings — we can go back through the paper and eliminate all the I
think's and all the in my opinion's. Many writers will move from what I think ("I think this shift in perspective
is a purposeful attempt to trick us, and I feel confused.") to a statement about the experience of a hypothetical third-person
reader: ("The reader has borne witness to the creative miracle.") to a simple assertion about the point of view ("The shift
in perspective can be confusing.") What begins as personal, subjective "guess": — "These lines feel to me like something
completely suggestive. . . ." — becomes an assertion of truth: "The lines become completely suggestive in their wild
blend of holiness, sensuality, prophecy, and danger." We don't need to say that this is our opinion; the reader already knows
that, and to reinforce that impression seems to weaken the text. The writer must learn to deal from strength — or at
least to appear to deal from strength.
objectively also means writing fairly. What
you feel about a poem, say, can never actually be wrong. Feelings can, of course, be based on misconceptions, but the feelings
themselves are neither right nor wrong. This makes it important to express things as if they were objective findings, not
personal feelings, as what happens to some reader (any reader), not what happened to me. Another part of objectivity
is avoiding evaluation: it is the writer's business to point out how something works. In doing so, we imply whether
or not it works well. Writing about the Kansas board of education's decision, we probably want either to praise the board
members as independent thinkers who refuse to kowtow to the Lords of Technology and Science or to condemn them as dunderheads,
but it is better to describe as objectively as possible what has happened and to allow our readers to form their own opinions.
(That process can still be shaped by the words we choose or the order in which we describe things. In the paragraph above,
for instance, the writer lets the Board have its say, but the last word belongs to science. But that is another matter.)
said this, we should be reminded that even in a largely third-person, objective essay the use of the first-person is not automatically
to be despised. I can play an important (however cameo) role in the objective essay. One very effective strategy in
writing about literature, say, is to briefly chronicle what professional critics and other people (casual readers, friends,
classmates, people we make up) have said about a novel; go ahead and set them up with their benighted opinions. And then tell
the reader what you think — "I, on the other hand, believe that . . . ." — blowing away the blunderings
of predecessors and revealing the best, true way of looking at things, your way. In this strategy, owning your opinions
and dealing straight from the self, from I, becomes a position of strength, not weakness. It would be a good idea to
discuss this strategy with your instructor, however, before using it.
How to Write Academic Articles for Publication
1. Make sure that your computer has a standard
software program. Most writers in the humanities use Microsoft Word or Word Perfect. Use a laser printer for the work you
submit. Avoid use of unusual type fonts or small type.
2. Obviously your submitted manuscript should
be meticulously formatted. Never staple the pages together. Never put notes at the bottom of the page. They should always
be separate (and double spaced) at the end of the manuscript (endnotes). Some journals state they want two paper copies of
the text. When you submit your paper copies usually state that the text is also available on diskette and in what format,
but don't send a diskette unless asked for or the journal instructs you otherwise. They will become interested in the diskette
only if the text is accepted for publication.
3. Always write a polite cover letter to the
editor in which you also state that the article is not being simultaneously submitted to another journal and that the text
has not been previously published.
4. Don't send a manuscript that is too long.
Be sure to give your full address together with your office and home telephone numbers, your FAX number if you have one, and
your e-mail address. Check in the journal for instructions on how to submit a manuscript. Most journals have websites nowadays,
with specific information on formatting, submission, length, etc.
5. If you receive a rejection slip, send your
manuscript out again soon to another journal with some adjustments especially if reasons were given for the rejection. Rejection
doesn't necessarily mean that an article is a poor one; it may simply indicate that the journal has another article on a similar
topic in the works or that the article's literary genre does not match the journal. Most articles that are accepted for publication
will be "re-writes"; the editor typically asks an author to resubmit the piece with some indicated changes, shortening of
manuscript, etc. Then the editor will do some copy-editing for stylistic elegance, punctuation, capitalizations, etc.
6. Write for a specific journal within a spectrum
of journals that you read regularly. Choose from among the list of journals that you presumably read regularly or at least
follow closely. Note its range of interests and any peculiarities of their formatting, especially of book titles and journal
articles. Consult your department professors about which journals to envisage. There are obviously different levels of journals,
and the more specialized the more difficult they are to get published in.
7. When you compose be prepared to rewrite
many times to create prose that reflects easy flow, clarity, etc. Write out your "first thoughts" in no particular order,
then compose a flexible outline of what you want to do. Write your introductory paragraph last. Read your semi-final text
out loud so that your ear can be attuned to judge whether the prose is smooth.
8. Have a good dictionary such as Merriam
Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary (not just for spelling but for standards on hyphens, etc.). This dictionary is available
through the MARQCAT system (via Britannica). Also have a good thesaurus, and a work such as Webster's New Dictionary of
Synonyms. Consult The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers 14th ed. (U. Chicago P., 1993) and Kate Turabian's A Manual
for Writers (See below). Use American spelling unless you are writing for a British journal. Use the style favored by
the journal you are submitting your manuscript to. (English Students: some literature journals use MLA; many use Chicago.)
9. Use a good book on matters of style, even
a simple one such as Strunk and White's The Elements of Style 4th ed. (Allyn and Bacon, 2000). (Also available online.)
Also very good is Joseph M. Williams, Style: Ten Lessons Toward Clarity and Grace 6th ed. (Addison-Wesley, 1999). Note
especially what they say about eliminating "dead wood," "avoiding passives," not using dummy subjects such as: it is, there
is, one finds, etc. Be careful to distinguish between the proper use of "that" and "which." Most publishers, especially book
publishers, are purists in this regard. Same with split infinitives. Avoid like the plague the word "we" or "our" because
you can not presume to know whether there is a bond between you and the reader. If you are talking about yourself say "I"
or "me" and avoid the use of the Victorian, polite "we." Use inclusive language.
10. Get a colleague, friend, spouse or agreeable
professor to read your semi-final draft. Organize an informal writers' workshop with other graduate students where you exchange
and critique essays.
11. Writing attractive prose is not easy. You
learn to recognize good prose by reading good published works, especially by British authors who frequently have a better
command of the written language. Note especially how good writers compose the opening paragraphs of their essays and how they
conclude. Read works (even fiction) by recognized authors. Read a major newspaper every day, especially the editorials, the
"op-ed" columns, the reviews of books, plays, films, etc. A magazine that has high standards ofwriting (such as Harper's
or The New Yorker) also attunes your ear to attractive, clear, idiomatic prose.
12. Good prose should never be dull. It can
and should draw upon other areas of creative intuition, especially the fine arts and literature. It should appeal to your
life experience and to that of your readers.
13. Remember Aristotle's golden rules: Every
piece of writing should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning should "render the reader benevolent, attentive
and docile." The "divisio" (after the introductory paragraph) should state baldly how you are going to proceed: points a,
b, c and d. Then in the "conclusio" repeat what you have done. Your first draft should read: "In this essay I will do a, b,
c, and d. " and "In this essay I have shown a, b, c, d" but then in subsequent drafts disguise the obvious character of the
divisio and conclusio.
14. Write for a specific audience with a designated
level of competence. This will be in function of the journal chosen. Remember the audience will be intelligent but not always
familiar with your data. Haute vulgarisation (high class popularization) is another level of publication, and at this
level you can make use of more general weekly periodicals.
15. Use endnotes to inform and to provide follow-up
information or source location especially if you are "borrowing" someone else's original insight. But don't overdo the footnotes
to try to impress. This is a common North American fault.
16. At first write shorter pieces. They are
easier to get published. Even a factual account of a professional conference you attended is worthwhile.
17. Historical pieces or surveys of literature
(or book reviews) are easier genres to begin with since they rely heavily on the work of others. If you use these genres be
careful however to include your own insights.
18. Have a clear idea of what you are doing,
in terms of bringing your field of learning "forward." Remember that every discipline publishes material according to different
functional specialties. Remember that your task is not complete if all you do is provide "oratio obliqua" (what others have
said) without the specialties peculiar to "oratio directa" (what you yourself judge to be the case).
19. Present what the Germans call the "Stand
der Forschung" regarding the topic about which you are writing. In other words, show a command of the secondary literature
in books and articles at least for the last five years. This will require bibliographical searches via the various bibliographical
tools available in your discipline.
20. Don't underestimate the book review as
a literary genre. Nonnally you should be invited by a book review editor to review a books. But if you have special competencies,
e.g., command of other languages: Spanish, Polish, Russian, German, Italian, Dutch, etc., or special competence in a period
or author (because that is the area of your dissertation) you might want to write to a book review editor and volunteer your
services. A book review should not just summarize the book, but should incorporate personal judgments. You should be polite
even if you disagree with the author (and especially if you are just beginning your writing/teaching career).
21. Keep an accurate list of your publications,
and a file set of your off-prints. Use off-prints (or photocopies thereof) for publicity purposes or when being interviewed
for a job.
22. Cultivate contacts at professional meetings
of your field. Try to give papers at least at regional meetings of professional societies.
23. Try your hand at translation of shorter
pieces from time to time, e.g., book reviews or editorials. It will help you better understand the genius of the English language.
Try to devote at least 30 minutes a day to writing.