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Doing Academic Writing in Education: Connecting the Personal and the Professional

By Janet C. Richards and Sharon K. Miller
American Association for Higher Education
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
213 pages
ISBN: 0-8058-4840-1
$24.50 (paper)

Reviewed by

Katharine Peake

Department of Management
California State University, San Bernardino


Authors Richards and Miller situate Doing Academic Writing in Education: Connecting the Personal and the Professional within a longstanding debate among composition scholars: Should traditional academic discourse remain the paradigmatic genre for professional writing at the university level, or should other styles be granted academic approval? Advocates on both sides of the issue are cited and quoted, David Bartholomae best representing the traditional view long opposed by expressivists Donald Murray and Peter Elbow.

Scholars favoring a traditional approach value a connection with past scholarship to create new knowledge, through the “network of affiliations that constitute writing in the academy.” Christopher Burnham describes an expressivist approach: “Expressivism places the writer in the center, articulates its theory, and develops its pedagogical system by assigning highest value to the writer and her imaginative, psychological, social, and spiritual development….” Patricia Bizzell has modified her position from early advocacy of traditional academic discourse to an appreciation for diversity in academic writing styles. Richards and Miller advocate a middle ground, with personal expression finding its place as both a pedagogical tool and as a scholarly genre. They argue that using personal experiences in the narrative may serve to mitigate stress among students confronting the novel language of a university. They also point out scholars, such as Candace Spigelman, who argue that as long as scholarship contributes to the expansion of knowledge within a discipline, variations in delivery should be accepted (45-9).

The self-stated goal for Doing Academic Writing, these co-authors emphasize, is to enhance their readers’ academic writing skills. They describe this goal as “the process of connecting to our writing selves” (3), and contend that making the personal self visible in academic writing contributes to achieving it. To underscore their commitment, they bring together many personal voices, each offering experiences about writing and making practical suggestions intended to help readers complete the varied writing responsibilities that accompany academic careers. These contributors to the volume represent the wider education profession–teachers of all educational levels who write as part of their job duties. In addition, quotations from authors such as Flannery O’Connor and John Updike foreground the book’s focus on writing strategies and techniques, and to demonstrate that all writers can benefit from continuing effort and study to improve written expression.

The book is formatted with instructional segments written by Richards and Miller, followed by related narratives from the other contributors that emphasize and personalize each idea or writing strategy. This textual pattern enhances the readability of this book. As educational professionals, we all can relate to the experiences and feelings the authors and contributors express. We realize, in reflecting on our writing, that we share positive and negative experiences with the contributors even if we do not actually know them.

For academic professionals outside the composition field whose job responsibilities nevertheless require extensive writing, this book is an easy-to-read and -follow writing primer. Are you a “heavy planner, heavy reviser, sequential composer, a procrastinator or a discovery drafter”? (15-20), or do you vacillate between types? Chapter 1 discusses the writing process in general, including its negatives, such as the writing obstacles we all experience, and its positives. Suggestions are given how to overcome them, such as commitment to and development of consistent writing practices. Richards and Miller summarize various academic writing requirements in Chapter 2, identifying four basic categories:

  • Preparing job-related reports, syllabi, class materials and grant applications
  • Publishing articles and books
  • Reporting on teaching experiences
  • Writing dissertations

To help academic writers succeed in these diverse writing tasks, Chapters 3 through 7 cover the traditional steps in the writing process: prewriting or invention, drafting, revision, and editing. The authors cite such composition scholars as Flower, Hayes, and Elbow, noting the accepted understanding that while writing involves these stages or steps, it is often recursive, with the writer going back and forth between steps before deciding any piece of writing is ready for dissemination. There are twelve suggested invention strategies, many making use of current technological innovations. These include preparing concept maps, webs or flowcharts, employing electronic notes, using the “track changes” option in Microsoft Word, or taking advantage of invention software. The authors suggest thinking aloud by dictating into a tape recorder and transcribing the results. With the advent of dictation software, the transcribing step can be omitted. They also recommend on-line handouts from various universities, including Purdue, the University of Kansas, and Empire State College (SUNY).

Many writers may experience difficulty going from the prewriting stage, perhaps consisting of a list or an idea map, to creating a draft. Again, Doing Academic Writing offers practical advice, the most important of which directs readers to allow themselves to write poorly at first, learning that through revising and editing, an initial, disjointed draft can become a final draft. Richards and Miller stress the efficacy of learning the difference between the revising and editing steps. Revision should focus “on our audience and not on ourselves” (129) through refinement of ideas, attention to organization, selection of appropriate voice or tone, and on fluidity through word selection and sentence structure.

Editing looks further at fluidity and structure while emphasizing the elimination of surface errors. Writers can relax by separating their revision and editing efforts rather than attempting to correct for all issues simultaneously. Specifically, the editing process should include successive reviews to eliminate

  • confusion, potential misunderstanding, or “lapsing into academic jargon if it is inappropriate” (168);
  • unnecessary passive constructions;
  • clichés; and
  • sexist or culturally-biased language.

The authors discuss the importance of setting pace in writing, using Donald Murray’s definition: “the speed at which the writer causes the reader to move through the text” (171). Audience awareness is essential in making rhetorical or stylistic decisions about appropriate pace. If, for example, the audience possesses extensive background knowledge about the subject, the pace can and should be quickened.

For academic professionals immersed in literature, composition and rhetoric, or related areas, and for those with extensive professional writing experience, this book presents ideas and strategies that may either be novel or that bear revisiting. Richards and Miller often return to their belief in the incorporation of personal identity in academic writing. They suggest reading one’s own writing to isolate personal biases, and then to eliminate or to emphasize these individualized biases to strengthen the message. They discuss the emergence of alternative styles of academic writing that are gaining acceptance in academia, even suggesting resolution of the long-standing debate between proponents of expressive and traditional academic discourse. Particularly interesting here is their extrapolation of this debate into the arena of dissertations, a genre, typically and still, of traditional academic expression. Even graduate students writing dissertation can find personal identity from their location in the “liminal space” (51) between the communities of students and faculty. On the other hand, graduate students may express themselves through an increasing trend, in many disciplines, to approve variety in language, accept personal experience as evidence, and encourage the use of new technology for dissertations.

The final chapter urges readers to reveal their personal selves in professional writing, and offers many ideas to help in that process, beginning by questioning those long-standing rules about writing, such as never using the pronoun “I”, in order to break free of a “disembodied voice” (181). Andrea Fishman, one of the contributors, urges authors to reveal themselves in their writing, “unless, of course, you believe that knowledge is separate from the knower [. . .]” (182). The primary advice here is to read one’s own writing with a reader’s rubric, looking for writing that will interest the reader, looking for instances where the reader can connect with the author, looking for places where the author reveals his or her identity. Richards and Miller recommend that both writing teachers and writing professionals review a handout from Dartmouth on teaching a balanced approach to academic writing.

The authors believe that self-revelation reveals the strength of writers’ involvement with their subject matter and shows honesty about who they are. They and many of their contributors have participated in writing groups. In addition to technical help and constructive criticism, they relate benefits in their growth as professional writers. First, the sense of a group spirit is comforting as, frequently, writing alone creates stress. A writing group provides discipline, through structured activities, and emphasizes individual improvement. In addition, such groups advocate talking about writing to clarify the thinking that leads to writing. Each group member’s personal voice is valued as each demonstrates commitment to writing through group participation.

Finally, Doing Academic Writing observes that as the demographics among academic professionals are becoming more diverse, so are professional writing expectations, and that allowing our identities to become visible can provide yet another avenue for academic learning and discovery.

Posted July 7, 2006.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2006 by Gail G. Evans.

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