Rigour in research and writing
The sharing of research is central to the academic community. Probing unanswered questions and leaning on the shoulders of the giants who preceded you in your discipline to seek and validate new insights and theory is of little use if your manuscript neither passes muster during the peer review process nor gets the nod from editors. Writing is a large part of the process of learning, as this articulation of thought helps the author to reach the accuracy, clarity and brevity that are the hallmarks of good academic writing.
There are 7 key elements shared by published authors:
- Separate your Tree from the Woods
No academic discipline has all the answers. If anything, it is the beauty of human enquiry that with each perplexing question, and with each attempt to find answers and solutions, even more, and better questions will arise to intrigue the next generation of researchers. That is how knowledge is constructed.
Your own research endeavour will encounter these cross-roads. Just as you drilled deeply into your line of enquiry, you will be presented with new, interesting alternatives to explore and to rethink your expectations. It remains an eye-opener to be reminded with each turn how one does not know what one does not know. Be open to changing direction.
Your task at hand, though, is to remain focused on your original question and not to lose yourself or your audience in the woods. Each sentence, paragraph, section and chapter needs to work towards offering the audience the answers for which they set out. You may not present the same answers you anticipated, but deepening the process of your writing will leave you and your audience with more satisfactory answers.
- The Abstract
We live in an era of instant gratification and Twitter soundbites; the erosion of deep literacy. It may be the biggest challenge of your writing process to succinctly condense all the years of reading, discussions, thinking and re-thinking, argument construction and searching for answers into one short abstract or executive summary that will immediately grab the attention of your intended audience.
This introduction to your version of “truth” will be the most iterative process of all your writing. Start out by constructing your abstract as a scaffold upon which to build your project, realising that with every change of direction or new evidence, you will need to return to this original draft to edit and check whether your overall flow of logic across the entire project still makes sense.
- Argue for your Pebble
In the grand scheme of time, our process of scientific enquiry is still in its infancy. Yet, in this very short time, so much has been gained by each next generation of academic researchers relying on the hard work of disciplined and curious predecessors to add their pebbles of learning to the piled stone edifice of modern knowledge.
Stake your claim and add your pebble by arguing for the truth you believe you have uncovered. To hold a good argument means that it can stand up to counter-argument time and again. Your writing should reflect this confidence. Address the counter-arguments and demonstrate how your research sheds new light. Many a great academic career has been launched on the back of polite adversarial argumentation that spilled over into the public eye.
Writing in the fields of Natural Sciences is different from the Social Sciences, where the latter has proven more openness to personal voice and subjective opinion. Empirical research, similarly, will take on a different form of writing than new theory construction, for instance.
Your goal is to follow the methodologies and the tone and tenure of academic writing that are best respected and valued within your field and in the reputable academic journals that tie fellow researchers into your community.
Academic writing is about persuasion; about presenting your version of a “truth” and asking readers within the academic community to adopt your ideas as such. Persuasion requires evidence to back up your claims and could take on several forms: data, facts, quotations, arguments, statistics, research, and theories. Back each claim you make with evidence that meets the same standard you would have required to be persuaded personally; or even higher.
- Spelling, Grammar & Style Guides
It should go without saying that peers and editors will only take your writing seriously if your writing shows the same seriousness. Make the time to familiarise yourself with the style guide for your targeted publication, and consider appointing a professional editor or proofreader to review your manuscript before submission.
- Admit your limitations
Academics live in the world of facts, truth-assertion, contesting opinion, critique and larger-than-life egos. There is little harm done by publicly and honestly addressing the limitations of your own research efforts. Patricia Werhane, Professor Emeritus of Applied Ethics at UVA, famously warned PhD candidates against trying to publish the “grand unifying theory of it all”. Suffice to say that yours is but a drop in the ocean of emerging knowledge, so present your work showing this modesty.
Be forthright about the gaps that are troubling you and turn them into a positive by laying out the challenge for a future research agenda; either for your own deepening learning or for colleagues to consider.
Remember, each new pebble of knowledge constructed started with someone raising a question yet unanswered. Keep questioning.
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