Academic writing v/s popular writing

When scientists write journal articles their main purpose is to inform the readers about the new discovery or invention that they have made. But that is not all, to be able to communicate their results they often weave a ‘story’. Journal articles consist of not just data and its interpretation but also a ‘narrative’.

General structure of a journal article:

  • Introduction: Brief background, limitations of current state of the art
  • Discussion of how the authors dealt with the problem
  • Results of their work and discussion of why they think things worked or why things were better in their research
  • Conclusion: short description of what was achieved and raise challenges for the future

Essentially, an academic paper is a lot of facts tied together in a coherent narrative. The purpose of such narrative being not to entertain the readers but to inform them effectively.

In comparison, popular non-fiction books are also a lot of facts tied together in a coherent narrative but the narrative is meant to be entertaining and compelling. The writer develops his theory by drawing on examples that the reader can either relate to or feel wowed on reading. There is a structure to the book but it is never as rigid as the structure of an academic article. The books are written in active voice as against the passive voice used in academic writing. The illustrations used are carefully chosen such that they can appeal to a large audience.

The result of such differences in the two types of writing is that non-fiction books seem to hold on to your attention for a longer time (without you feeling exhausted) than academic papers seem to achieve. In the process of informing the reader in a succinct and yet coherent manner, academics end up condensing many ideas in fewer words and causing too much information to flow in a reader’s mind.

The one idea per paragraph rule doesn’t exist in academic writing. Actually, I am surprised at how irrelevant does the idea of paragraphs seem to some academics. Many a times authors seem to create paragraphs for no good reason and also not create paragraphs when actually they should have.

There are many lessons that academic writing can take from good non-fiction authors. And similarly, there are many lessons that academic publishers can learn from book publishers but I am not here to share those ideas. Instead, today I want to talk about how can you improve your effectiveness at reading technical documents.

Note taking: Because academic papers are essentially so ‘fact-heavy’, it is a good idea to note down the important facts as you read through a paper. This essentially means that you are sifting through the facts and choosing the important ones. And even without taking notes, in your mind you are doing that sifting. Note taking only helps you further by helping you unload the brain from sifting and also remembering.

Pausing: When I am reading many papers at a time or reading about a subject in which I have to refer to many sources, I tend to take many breaks. These breaks are more a necessity than just for fun. They are necessary because I tend to feel overwhelmed by the amount of data I am taking in. The breaks aren’t like a tea break but more like short pauses. In those short pauses, I stop reading and review what I have read till now in my head (or using my notes if necessary). I try to understand if I have a coherent idea in my head yet and if not, then I try to understand what is lacking.

Ideas: More often than not, while reading an academic paper, I come across some ideas related to the subject matter that I am reading. Most of those ideas may be useless but I have found that if I note them down, irrespective of their quality, it helps me understand things faster. Note taking becomes even more important.

I think this happens because those ideas may be born out of my incomplete understanding of what I am reading. It might be that I missed out on an important factor that has caused me to think about something new. Putting those ideas on paper and then getting back to them after I have finished reading helps me understand what I was missing.

And of course, there are those rare times when the ideas are actually useful! So even if there is very little chance of coming up with a brilliant idea, it is worth noting all of them down.

Hopefully, these three points might make the whole process of reading a lot of academic papers a lot more easier than it is now and in the meantime, there is no harm in dreaming about that time when all academics will write papers like good non-fiction authors do!

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About Akshat Rathi

Science and Technology Journalist
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Academic writing v/s popular writing

  1. alexflint says:

    Brilliant practical advice. I would also like to see better-written academic papers. Sometimes I feel that non-fiction writers prolong their writing unnecessarily, taking whole chapters to cover ideas that could’ve been expressed in a few pages.

  2. Anil Nair says:

    Nice piece, buddy! I don’t know how much of the fundamentals of writing, or of any art for that matter, are followed any more. Designers have decided that the ubiquitous hyphen is best done away with, so now the onus of finding the noun or the verb is left to the reader. Designers also decide how many zeroes to add to the headline on earthquake toll so that the page looks visually balanced. Internet has made reading onerous, so every line in any news report is a paragraph, else readers will watch the video on the right panel on the benefits of natural breast enhancement techniques. The point is, success lies in titillation. As media guys’ most common refrain is: how many people watch Fashion TV because they are interested in clothes?! Ergo.

  3. Time needs academic writing, while practical writing needs time. :-)

  4. Shirin says:

    Very untimely advice, in that I really could have used this advice during my years at University! This is really succinct and vital advice for anyone who wades through piles and piles of academic writing. I too was overwhelmed by the amount of sources we were asked to read, and unlike your suggested methods for note-taking/’sifting the article, my note-taking was often excessive and in retrospect, futile! I would write as a way of absorbing/understanding the writer’s views through my pen, only to realise on re-reading that my notes were either direct quotes or less-than-creative paraphrasing! Rather than being useful as ‘notes’ should, when the time came to write the essay, I would run the risk of plagiarism because I would forget which words were mine and which were direct quotes…this lead to hours of double checking! The bottom line: note taking is futile if you aren’t doing it right. Sifting is not just for cakes!

    As for the ‘pausing’, it made me think: ‘Wow, Aki is soooo diligent! That’s the difference!’ My breaks were very much ‘tea breaks’ as you put it (though my drug of choice was more often coffee!), or music breaks, or sitcom breaks, or piano breaks…anything to ESCAPE from the data; definitely not process it! While utilising break time to think and revise stuff you’ve just read may not be such a genius idea, it struck me as an epiphany! Where were you when I was handing in sub-standard papers in my undergrad years!?

    • akshatrathi294 says:

      Hahaha…I wish we had met earlier. But you know it’s never too late. I will wait for you to use the art of reading lots of academic papers and write that blog post for this blog. :)

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