Friday 15 May 2009

Writing Skills

In your PhD you'll be learning to write again. Imagine almost that you're going to be asked to write with your other hand, so if you're left handed, you're going to have to master writing with your right hand or vice versa. That should give you some idea of the challenge you'll face. You may be great at written work in many other fields, and it may even be part of your core job at work. However, learning to write within the confines of the academic genre is a different thing.

First there is learning to write with brackets scattered over the text (Smithers-Jones, 2006), then there is writing in quotes "which is not the same thing as plagiarising" (Bloggs et al., 2009:15). You'll need to master the Harvard style or some similar citation protocol. But that is just the basic grammar. Beyond that you'll need to learn to summarise and critique other people's work and to write with an appropriate citation density. If you're not sure, pick up any top-rated journal article, squint your eyes so that its out of focus ... or if you're of a certain age, just taking your glasses off can achieve the same effect ... and look at the pattern of the text. The ratio of words to (citations, 1993) is critically important. Most good academic scholars have mastered the art of summarising the literature by using citations. They don't under cite with only one or two citations appearing sporadically, or by repeatedly citing the same text book. Equally, they don't over cite. Writing with the appropriate citation density is part of the apprenticeship of a PhD and it takes time to master. This is because you're beginning to write for a different type of audience. Your readers should be assumed to be on top of most of the literature that you've reviewed. So when you say that Mintzberg's views on strategy downplay predictability and control for key strategic actors (1973). You are assuming that the reader will have read and remembered the contents of "The Nature of Managerial Work" by Henry Mintzberg. Text books assume that you haven't and then proceed to tell you what the book was about, etc. Academic articles or literature reviews assume that you've read the original citation and that the author of the article is trying to help lead the reader through a particular take on the literature, or to synthesis it or to develop a critique. Most of the words available to the author are dedicated to developing an argument, not to re-telling you what someone else said.

Therefore, good academic articles tend to appear impenetrable to novice readers because they aren't designed with that audience in mind. Gradually, as you spend endless hours of your life getting to know your field of study, you'll become familiar with this shorthand style of citation writing. Then you'll find yourself better able to emulate it.

I have written a more detailed account of how to write well for academic purposes in Chapter 12 of Research Methods for Business Management (2nd Edition, 2015).  There are also two other great books on writing for academic purposes that you might consider looking out ...

One is Anne Huff's "Writing for Scholarly Publication" ... the other is "How to Write a Thesis" by Rowena Murray.


  1. This is a very insightful post. I learned this the hard way by imitation, trial and error. Now I'm marking stage 1 and stage 3 assignments and I'm finding myself offended by the lack of mastery of the citation game. Thanks for these observations, they help me think about this differently.

  2. Another useful text is Anne Huff's more recent book "Designing Research for Scholarly Publication"

  3. I have been visiting various blogs for my dissertation research. I have found your blog to be quite useful. Keep updating your blog with valuable information... Regards