Academic Writing is NOT a coca cola

You might think what the heck has coca cola got to do with writing?! Not much in fact, but there are some similarities. Let me explain it to you 😊 in this blog post.

Writing as a product

There are two approaches to teaching writing and learning how to write. I am sure many of you can relate to your English classes from your secondary school days, when your English teacher asked you to write a letter. These days we do not write too many traditional letters. What a shame! I cherish the moments when by accident I stumble across old letters written to my parents from summer camps. Anyway. Nowadays, we tend to send emails, instead. A lot of emails! So when I ask you to give me the most typical, special characteristic of an email, what would you say it is? The opening phrase? Dear Mrs Smith or Dear Sir / Madam when you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to. Then you explain why you are writing this letter or email. Let’s think of one of the most types of letters or email we write in English. Any ideas? It is a letter of complaint. I bet you all can recall the opening sentence. Dear Sir / Madam, I am writing to complain about …. Let’s say ‘the phone I bought on your website last Saturday’.  Then, you describe the item, and what happened with it. In the end, you ask for a replacement or a refund, depending on what fits you best. And finally, there is the ending phrase. So, again there are many ways of doing so, but one of the most common ways is just to sign off by saying ‘I look forward to hearing from you’. Yours Sincerely (when you know the recipient by name) or Yours faithfully (when you don’t), XYZ.  We all know this pattern, don’t we? If you have ever taken an exam in English, you remember writing either a letter, a report, a review, or an essay. For example, IELTS Writing Task 1 asks you to ‘Describe the information you can see in the diagram. Or IELTS Writing Task 2 says ‘Discuss advantages and disadvantages and give your opinion’. These are all examples of product writing. The idea behind this concept is that you can easily and quickly produce a short piece of writing. Let’s be honest. An essay of 250 words is not a lot. So, how can you do it quickly? You learn the structure, or so-called model essay, model report, or a model letter, and what you need to do is to take out the subject-specific words or phrases related to this very specific task and substitute them with your own content. For example, instead of writing a complaint letter about your phone, you will write a complaint letter about your laptop. The main elements of the letter of complaint stay the same. Because you work with a template, you do not have to spend too much time structuring your letter. All you need to have is a bit of vocabulary. That’s why I compare it to a coca cola. You produce a product that you can consume very quickly, just like a can of cola 😊 This is why, writing tasks that you learn to deal with for English exams are called product writing.

Writing as a process

However, things are different when it comes to academic writing. To start with, academic writing would never be limited to 250 words as it is with e.g. IELTS Writing Task 1. The shortest piece of writing starts at 1000 words and is reserved for foundation year students. What is more, there is no template whatsoever that you can use for you assignments as each assignment is pretty much different, and therefore, you need to approach each of them more individually. In this respect, whatever needs individual attention requires time as well. This is why, academic writing cannot be product writing. Instead, it is called process writing. And as any process, academic writing has got stages or steps. 

What are the stages of academic writing?

When I ask my students this question, they often tell me that writing starts with a blank page. What a dreadful feeling it is when you stare at the blank page in from of your computer and nothing comes out of you for ages. In fact, it does not have to be this way if you approach writing as a process as it is a process. So where does this process start? It starts with the research question. The research question is the main focus of your assignment. If you are a foundation year student or in the very first year of your studies, you will often be given a topic to write about. However, then you progress, you will be more often asked to come up with your own research question or if you prefer a topic for your assignment. The next stage is when you brainstorm ideas and simply put them on paper. At this point, you do not evaluate ideas if they are strong or weak, but instead you want to make as many connections with the topic as possible. Once you have completed these two stages, you are ready to start doing your research, which means looking for sources, reading them and taking notes. This part of the research is the most time-consuming, but when done correctly, will save you a lot of time in the future when you are actually writing up your essay or report. These three stages – looking for the right sources, reading and note-taking is what needs a lot of attention, and I will definitely talk more about those in my next episodes. The next step is planning. And here I need to say it even more loudly. Please, remember to plan! With years of experience in marking students’ papers, it is so easy for me to tell which students has planned their essay and which hasn’t. Again, in my experience, students who do not plan their writing, get lost, repeat ideas, or write short paragraphs, which lack depth. Or even they wander off the topic. They are just writing about the topic, but not on the topic.

The next stage is drafting, or as my student would say WRITING. I myself prefer to call it ‘drafting and redrafting’. Because as you can imagine, before you submit your essay, report or a dissertation, you will have changed it many times. You cannot expect to write any assignment at one go. It will take you time. Once you feel confident about your final draft, you can now check it for any mistakes, may it be spelling, typos, style, grammar or layout. And voila! Now, you are ready to submit your work. Congratulations!

Let's summarise those stages 🙂

Stage #1 is Formulating the research question

Stage #2 is Brainstorming ideas

Stage #3 is Doing research, which means finding the sources, reading them and note-taking

Stage #4 is Planning

Stage #5 is Drafting and redrafting

Stage #6 Proofreading

Stage #7 Submission

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