This is my new series of posts on academic writing for international students. Having the experience of being a non-UK student myself, I am familiar with many challenges that international students experience when coming to the UK to study for the first time. I am writing these posts to help students achieve better results, hoping that my tips will be of some use to the UK students as well.
I would like to inform my readers that these articles are based on my experience, as well as on what I have read in books. However, I am not able to provide references at this stage. Therefore, I would like to apologise to anyone whose ideas I have plagiarised unintentionally. When I decide to write a book on the subject, I will search up the proper references.
This post is about the structure of an academic assignment. Roughly speaking, the structure of any piece of academic writing – an essay, a research report, a dissertation, a case study, a reflective journal – looks the same:
Introduction – Main Body – Conclusion
Or, in other words, you have to:
1. Say what you are going to say
2. Say it
3. Say what you’ve just said.
In plain English, it means introducing your topic, informing your reader what your essay is about, then outlining all your arguments and backing them up with evidence and references, and finally summarising all your arguments into a final, concluding paragraph (see the picture below).
This structure is familiar to almost every student. However, students from the Anglo-American academic culture and students from the Far Eastern academic culture have different views regarding what these three parts should contain and what the structure within each paragraph should be.
In the Chinese academic culture, for example, writing is a communication act in which the receiving end (the target reader) must make the most effort. First of all, writing is structured in a way that makes it impossible for the readers to understand the main points without having read the entire text. The background is given first; then the arguments that are supporting a particular conclusion are introduced; finally, in the conclusion, the main idea of the text is given. Each paragraph is also structured in the same way – the main thesis, the topic statement of the paragraph is at the end.
Anglo-American academic writing, on the contrary, presents the main arguments on the surface, in the beginning of the text and of every paragraph. This way, everything that the reader needs to know is immediately available. This is regarded as good because readers are considered busy people who need to know the main facts immediately to determine whether they want to read the paper at all, whether it is relevant to them.
However, from the literary point of view, Anglo-American academic writing is unusual. For example, if a British academic writer decided to write a detective novel, applying the rules of academic genres to his/her book, page one would look like this:
The gardener was the killer. Now, for the next 300 pages, I will be explaining how I have come to such a conclusion.
From the literary point of view, it is boring. From the pragmatic point of view, the first page has given me all the information that I needed to know. The rest – the background of the murder, previous research, the clues, the methodology of analysis, etc. – is only relevant if I’m interested.
Another distinct feature of Chinese academic writing is almost deliberate vagueness: texts are full of metaphors and writing is vague because it is the job of the reader to ‘decode’ the meaning. In the Anglo-American academic culture, writers try to be as clear as possible: there are fewer and fewer ‘big words’ that send the reader running for the dictionary; the writing is clearer and simpler because it is the job of the writer to convey the meaning and make the paper as easy to understand as possible.
For this reason, Chinese international students often experience problems in British universities as their lecturers say they are being too vague in their writing because they ‘hide the meaning’ and do not openly state the main idea of the text or the paragraph in the beginning.
Personally, I regard this situation not as an issue but as a great example of cultural diversity in approaches to academic writing. However, I’m not the one who decides what grades students will get. For this reason, it is very important for international and overseas students to learn the language of academic writing in the Anglo-American context.
Thank you for reading!
My next post will be about packing your introduction with information and guiding your readers through the text so that they see clearly where you are leading them.
Enjoy writing. Be successful.
P.S. This article is based on Vlad Mackevic’s book From Confusion to Conclusion: How to Write a First-Class Essay. You can download sample chapters of the book for FREE by clicking here or by entering your email address below.
The book can also be purchased on Amazon.co.uk in paperback and Kindle eBook formats. If you do not own a Kindle reader, Amazon provides a range of FREE applications for your computer, Smartphone or Tablet.