Academic writing follow-up post 1

I appreciated your thoughtful reply to my post, but I’d like to re-examine a proposition you make when you argue that “paying attention to the meaning of the words we use is the most important element“. Rather, I would argue that although meaning is certainly important, Sword’s focus on individual elements detracts from what is actually more important: the creation of a well-structured argument. In this sense, what you write about David Crystal is more appropriate. The need to communicate ideas comprehensibly entails more consideration about the intentions behind the writing than the surface level words chosen. In this respect, attention needs to be focussed on a number of critical aspects of communication[1].

Prior to any communication occurring, an assumption in Aumann’s theorem (1976) that in fully open and rational discussion–which academic writing should aim for–, is that participants in the discussion aim for objective truth (Aaronson, 2004). Without this assumption, discourse results in polemic writing, i.e. arguing for an ideology without considering the validity or truth of that position. Once people enter an honest discussion,  Grice’s maxims, or rules, for communication apply (Chenail & Chenail, 2009). We need to be informative, truthful, relevant and brief[2]. Let’s call this paragraph the ‘before writing’ assumptions. Quintillian’s 12-volume study of rhetoric (95/ 1892) provides many areas for consideration at this level.

The ‘during writing’ stage is the time when writers hash out the differences between their thought and their words. The writer Flannery O’Connor summed up this difference in which she famously said, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say”. Having a powerful argument is only a start. A writer needs the skill to communicate that argument. I propose that a study of discourse analysis, i.e. the study of language longer than the sentence, is more useful for argument creation than semantic analysis, i.e. at the word level. Wallace and Poulson (2003) write about pretexts, contexts and subtexts. Focussing on these aspects helps writers identity areas that potentially require elucidation during discourse. If I assume that what is clear to me as I write is clear to you, the chances for miscommunication rise.

One of my own weaknesses is the relationship between sentences in a wider discourse. During writing, I constantly feel that the next sentence is a logical continuation from the previous one, yet upon review, frequently I see that the gulf between the two is large. Also, often I don’t see the gulf until much later and sometimes never at all. Allied to this is the purpose of a paragraph and how paragraphs interlink to support a larger argument. We could go further up the chain of scale.

In summary, I argue that word meaning is only a minor part of academic writing. For example, it doesn’t bother me if you write, “English has become the global language” or “The world language is now English” or “Academics need to write in English” or “Academically, the lingua franca is English”[3]. What I want after that are reasons for or implications of the statement. You give these well.


Aaronson, S. (2004). The Complexity of Agreement, 27.

Aumann, R. J. (1976). Agreeing to disagree. The Annals of Statistics, 4(5), 1236–1239.

Chenail, J. S., & Chenail, R. J. (2009). Communicating qualitative analytical results following Grice’s conversational maxims. The Weekly Qualitative Report, 2(12), 67–76.

Quintillian, M. F. (1892/ 95). Institutes of Oratory. (J. S. Watson, Ed.). London: George Bell & Sons (Google Digitized Book).

[1] I am acutely aware that sentences like these would ‘fail’ Sword’s test. What must be understood is that terms such as ‘aspect’ and ‘communication’ may be clarified later in the discourse.

[2] A serious problem with online asynchronous learning as opposed to face-to-face interaction is the necessity to demonstrate knowledge, often achieved at the expense of interactivity. I would never, for example, chew anyone’s ear like this over a coffee in a physical campus.

[3] I would add, though, that I feel uncomfortable quoting from articles that contain grammatical or other surface level errors.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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