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University of the Western Cape

September 2003


Compiling a Guide to Academic Writing is a tricky thing to do – there is no standard format of academic writing that can be applied to all topics across all disciplines. What counts as acceptable academic writing in your subject is rooted in the kinds of practices and conventions that have developed in your discipline area over time. So what is regarded as a suitable format of academic writing in History may not be the same as that in Botany.

Nevertheless, there are some general considerations that you may apply to your specific academic writing task. This Guide hopes to give you some generic insight into what the general demands of academic writing are. But what distinguishes “academic” writing from other kinds of writing? When is a text regarded as “academic” and when not? The point of academic writing is to clarify something so that you, and members of the academic community, develop a better understanding of it. Maybe the following image may help: think of writing your thesis or assignment as a similar task to developing an understanding of a particular tree. Now, in order to understand the tree, you’ll first need to be able to identify it as a tree, and not as, for example, a shrub. So you need to have an understanding of the concept / classification of a tree. Then you need to give a very accurate description of it – its shape, structure, texture, colour, describe the leaves, bark, fruit, etc. You want your reader to construct a vivid and accurate image of the tree you are describing. But this is not enough for understanding the tree. You will also have to go below the surface and inspect its roots – what underlying factors influence the tree’s growth? How has it developed from a seedling into a tree? How has it grown over the years? In other words, you also need to start to explain why the tree looks and grows like it does. But this is still not enough for a full understanding of the tree. You will also need to consider the tree’s environment – the weather conditions, the nutrition levels of the soil, the animals living in the tree, etc. These all affect the tree’s growth and appearance and the tree, in turn, affects the environment in which it is.

So, in short, what makes writing “academic’ is that it:

  • Demonstrates understanding

  • Is informed by the academic literature and debates in the subject matter (the literature will inform your interpretation of the concept, your perception, your description, the explanations, as well as the broader context.)

  • Has a clear interpretation of the key concepts used

  • Gives an accurate description of the issue

  • Investigates the underlying assumptions and the historical development of the issue

  • Explains the issue by tracing the reciprocal relationship between the issue and its broader context.

Part 1 of the Guide is a general orientation to help you plan and structure your writing. But the writing needs to be “academic” and Part 2 takes you through the stages of developing critical reading and writing skills. Because academic writing must be informed by the literature, Part 3 focuses on the Literature Review. The Natural Sciences often have specific requirements for scientific writing that are highlighted in Part 4. Given that academic writing draws on the ideas of others, you must know how to reference correctly and avoid plagiarism. Part 5 addresses this.

I gratefully acknowledge the substantive contributions from Susan Bassett, Vivienne Bozalek, Lucille Oliphant, Hermine Engel, Fatima Slemming (all from UWC) and Karin de Jager (from UCT). The responsibility of errors in the Guide, however, rests solely with me.

Nelleke Bak

October 2003



Part 1 - Writing a Thesis 3

The writing process 3

The pre-writing phase 4

The writing phase 6

Units of discourse: sentence, paragraphs, chapters 7

Prose style 10

The post-writing phase 10

^ Part 2 – Critical Reading, Thinking and Writing 13

How do I start to engage critically? 14

A technique for determining the author’s main idea 18

Blocks to critical engagement 18

Part 3 – Literature Review 20

What is a Literature Review? 20

Why do I need a Literature Review? 22

Where and how do I search for information? 24

How do I store and manage the information? 25

How do I read for the Literature Review? 26

How do I write my Literature Review? 28

Criteria of a good Literature Review 29

How many references should I have? 31

^ Part 4 – Introduction to Scientific Writing for Students

in the Natural Sciences 32

Research ethics and the requirements of scientific writing 32

Scientific communication and the writing process 33

Common structure of a thesis in the Natural Sciences 33

Introduction 34

Argument and evidence 36

How do I assemble the discussion and balance the argument? 37

How do I present and interpret the data? 38

Conclusion 45

^ Part 5 – Plagiarism and Citation 47

Plagiarism in academic writing 47

Good reasons for academic referencing 48

How do I cite correctly and avoid plagiarism? 49

Citation styles 49

Citing sources within the text 50

List of references at the end of the text 50

^ Appendix A – Resources 55

Part 1 – Writing a Thesis

Nelleke Bak, Susan Bassett, Vivienne Bozalek, Hermine Engel, Lucille Oliphant, Fatima Slemming

The Writing Process

Writing a thesis is not a straightforward matter, but there are certain general steps you can follow to help you in the writing process. Whether you are writing a thesis in the Natural or Social Sciences, the Humanities or any other broad discipline, you must be able to communicate your findings clearly and systematically.

The writing process is divided into three phases:

  • Pre-writing phase- (planning)

  • Writing phase

  • Post-writing phase (editing)

The writing process is cyclical. In other words, different parts of the process happen more than once. You will therefore write several drafts before the thesis is ready for examination submission.

It is advisable to consult with your supervisor and visit UWC's Writing Centre if you need assistance with your writing. A postgraduate consultant will work together with you and your supervisor from the initial phases of your writing (pre-writing phase) to the post-writing phase.

However, before you start planning, you need to have a clear idea about what it is you want to write on. In academic writing, we tend to rely on ideas based on written up research. By consulting a number of primary and secondary sources, you’ll start to get an idea of what you might be interested in researching. It is important not to ignore the value of our initial thoughts since they often provide the basis for your interests in a particular area. Don’t forget to start writing, or rather, jotting down these thoughts as soon as possible so that they can be referred to at a later stage. It is frustrating to try to recall these initial, and often rather innovative, thoughts if they’re not written down. Remember, you don’t necessarily have to know and understand everything before you start writing. Through the act of writing you learn and are therefore able to generate and further clarify your ideas.

A. The Pre-writing Phase – Planning your writing

The first phase involves planning your written piece, e.g. your thesis, scientific journal article etc. But, why do you need to plan? Planning achieves the following:

  • It gives your paper shape.

  • You will not dry up halfway.

  • You will not forget interesting ideas that sprung to mind.

  • You are less likely to repeat yourself.

  • Your paper will have a logical order.

Planning Hints:

1. Prepare paper / thesis well before the due date (time management). The preparation time varies depending on:

  • the length of the paper

  • workload

  • priorities

^ 2. Develop a (working) title

At postgraduate level you are most likely to have an interest in the field that you wish to research (topic). Together with the assistance of your supervisor(s) you will create a title for your thesis. When formulating a title, you need to:

  • Ensure that the title is succinctly formulated, captures the main focus, contains no ambiguities and grabs the reader’s interest.

^ 3. Use prior knowledge to generate ideas

This simply means that you should explore what you already know about the topic. Additional knowledge can also be acquired from various sources, i.e. books, journal articles etc. There are two methods of exploring prior knowledge within your field to assist in generating ideas: brainstorming and free-writing.

  • Brainstorming

This is a process of generating ideas by listing key words or concepts without attempting to organise or structure them in a logical order (yet!).



Characteristics Habitat

  • Free-writing

The main purpose is to generate ideas also referred to as ‘automatic writing’ with no logic. The method:

  • Write as quickly as possible without stopping for 5-7 minutes.

  • If you do not know what to write, write ‘I don’t know what to write’ or ‘and…and…’ until a new thought strikes you.

  • Do not worry about grammar, punctuation and spelling at this stage.

^ 4. Search for information

  • Use the library and databases for sources.

  • Use journals and papers from conference proceedings

  • Use reading techniques:

  • skimming (learning about a text before you read)

  • scanning (searching a text for specific information)

  • Always photocopy and keep a detailed record of your sources.

5. Mind mapping

The purpose of a mind map (also referred to as outlining) is to id

entify the main discussion areas and the supporting detail of those discussions. It is used when planning or organising information related to a particular topic.

It is a diagram showing a central or main idea/theme with branches presenting various ideas relating to the main theme.



Key words and phrases


Keywords and phrases = main ideas for the paragraphs

Materials and Methods

Keywords and phrases = main ideas for the paragraphs

and Illustrations.

^ 6. Planning the framework

  • Develop a storyline to direct the reader along a clear path. This means making sure that there is a broad outline which usually moves from the general to the specific details of your argument in a clear logical progression.

  • Outline the case/s on which the thesis is built i.e. the building blocks :

  • general research area

  • how the research problem or focus was identified and refined

  • methodology employed

  • emerging data

  • analysis of the data

  • solutions; conclusions; outcomes of the work

  • applicability in terms of recommendations, limitations and scope for further work

  • Developing the content of a chapter, consider:

  • Purpose

  • Links with other knowledge (earlier and later chapters; works of other people)

  • Constraints

  • Work carried out

  • Outcomes of that work

  • Where next

  • Sequencing the content of a chapter, remember:

  • the internal logic should be stated explicitly to guide readers

  • the different argument streams need to be linked by careful structuring and cross referencing

  • Linking the contents through effective introductory and concluding sections.

B. The Writing Phase

The pre-writing or planning phase is followed by the writing phase which is also the referred to as the 'drafting' of your paper.

To start with, there are some general writing rules in order to make your thesis more readable. The first rule is to proof read everything before you hand it in to your supervisor. Nothing detracts more from a piece of writing than errors! Sloppy work suggests a sloppy mind. Do your own proof reading or ask a friend to help you. Secondly, keep it simple. In other words, focus on getting your point across, writing clearly and to the point. Thirdly, leave yourself time between drafts so that you can mull over what you are trying to say. Also errors will be easier to detect after a couple of days. Remember not to procrastinate - don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Lastly, present your drafts in as neat a form as possible. In today's world you need to be computer literate, so make sure your font and spacing is consistent, use the spell and grammar checker, etc.

^ The drafting phase

The first attempt at drawing your thoughts together in a coherent piece of writing is usually more content based where you focus on what you want to say before considering the finer details of how it should be said. This is often regarded as the very important first step of “writerly based writing” rather than “readerly based writing”. The emphasis is on whether you understand what you are writing about. At this point you often realize the gaps in your own understanding. When you find it extremely difficult to express a concept in writing, it is usually a signal that you haven’t effectively understood the particular concept or idea. On the other hand, you may understand the logical connections implicit in the writing – it may make perfect sense to you - but remember, your writing must make sense to the intended audience (readers) as well.

The revising phase

This is the point at which you need to approach your writing as “a reader”. You need to revise the first draft in terms of the way in which the information is communicated. Consider whether:

  • the structural conventions for the particular section have been applied;

  • the argument flows logically;

  • the linking devices are appropriately used, effective and clear;

  • all the points made are relevant and contribute to the argument put forward;

  • any unnecessary repetition occurs;

  • the necessary cross referencing has been effectively indicated.

Once you have attempted to approach the draft revision from the perspective of a reader, it is also valuable to request an outsider’s perspective (e.g. a trained writing consultant) to indicate whether there are any gaps in understanding the argument presented. These gaps may occur simply because the linking devices were not as effective or perhaps misleading/ ambiguous.

A fundamental outcome of your research is its actual communication, hence you want to teach your reader something (Gopen & Swan, 1990). One of the most important rules of writing is to think about your readers' needs. In order to do this, consider the following:

  • Is the information in a logical order?

  • Are the sentences understandable?

  • Are the paragraphs well organised?

  • Are the ideas, results and analyses described fully enough?

  • Is there any needless detail?

But who is your reader? At first, your reader will probably be only your supervisor, who knows a lot about the topic you are writing on. However, later on you will have other readers who may not know as much about what you are trying to say. You need to write for every potential reader, keeping it simple for the general reader, yet technical enough for the scientific fraternity.

Next you need to understand how a reader actually reads. As you read, you interpret at the same time, based on clues you receive from the structure of the prose. Just as readers expect to find recognisable sections in a thesis, and are easily confused when the sections themselves are confused, they also expect structure in smaller units of discourse. Readers expect sentences and paragraphs to contain certain information in certain places. For example, each paragraph should contain a clear topic sentence that captures the general point that the paragraph makes, and the remaining sentences should be logically connected to the topic sentence, therefore maintaining a logical flow of ideas. If the readers’ structural expectations are not met, they waste time trying to unravel the structure of the prose instead of understanding its content. This is compounded when the context becomes complex, which increases the chance that the readers will misinterpret the prose.

^ Units of discourse – sentences, paragraphs, chapters

Units of discourse should provide linkage and context. In other words, they should define the relationship between past information and upcoming information and look forward to establish the relevance of upcoming information. This information prepares the reader for upcoming material by linking it to previous discussions. If the topic position is constantly occupied by material that fails to establish linkage and context, the reader has difficulty making the connections. Linking your sections enables the reader to follow the logical flow of the argument easily, and to focus her attention onto one strand of the discussion (Gopen & Swan, 1990).


We will focus on the sentence first as a unit of discourse. The very structure of the sentence helps to persuade the reader of the relative value of the sentence’s contents. Avoid sentences that are too lengthy – they are more likely to cause confusion. Check that your sentences are complete at all times. Remember:

  • a sentence should express one complete thought

  • a sentence must make sense and be complete

  • a sentence must contain a subject group and a verb group

  • punctuation in a sentence contributes to the meaning intended

Some basic rules to bear in mind when constructing a sentence:

Subject-verb separation

Keep the grammatical subject and its verb as close as possible to each other. Remember, the "subject" is the person or thing the sentence is about. The "verb" is the word that indicates action; the rest of the sentence depends on the verb. For example:

Mary played

Mary played the piano

Mary played the piano very well

^ Word order

Changing the word order often changes the meaning. The grammatical order in which words appear has a direct effect on readability. For example:

Child eats tiger

Tiger eats child

The rule to follow is SVO, which stands for Subject, Verb, Object. Remember, the "object" is the person or thing affected by the action described in the verb. For example:

The snake swallowed the mouse

subject verb object

The mouse was swallowed by the snake

object verb subject

In the second sentence, the reader has to unravel the backward construction, which takes a little longer to understand than the first sentence. This is compounded as the sentence gets more complex. The second example is in the “passive voice” and is generally avoided in academic writing.

^ Length of Discourse

When learning to write, keep the length of sentences to below 30 words or so. As you get better, so the length of the sentence can increase. Generally, paragraphs should be at least 3 sentences long. Divide paragraphs between ideas. Each paragraph should focus on one idea, so there is no set limit to the length of a paragraph. However, for visual “breathing” spaces, don’t make your paragraphs too long.

^ Stress Position

Readers naturally emphasise material that comes either at the beginning or at the end of a sentence. This is referred to as the stress position. Put important, emphasis-worthy information at the beginning or end of the sentence, when the reader is naturally exerting the greatest reading emphasis.

^ Topic Position

The topic position is usually located at the beginning of the sentence, where the reader expects perspective and context. The reader expects a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first; it provides them with focus. For example:

Bees disperse pollen

Pollen is dispersed by bees

These sentences contain the same information, but one tells about bees and the other about pollen.


The same rules apply to paragraphs and chapters - in fact any unit of discourse. All paragraphs have the same building blocks, i.e. the core idea or topic of a paragraph should be stated in one sentence, called the topic sentence, which is located in the topic position – often first. The rest of the paragraph consists of sentences that support, develop or explain the main topic. They should be logically linked to the preceding and following sentences. Lastly, the concluding sentence is usually a summary of the argument of the paragraph, and should look ahead to the next paragraph. For a paragraph to be coherent, most of the sentence subjects should be the same, the ideas should have a clear and logical relation to each other and information should flow from old ideas to new ideas. It helps if every now and then you orientate your reader. You do this by means of signposting:

Signposts (conjuncts)

These help show the connection (relation) between one idea, sentence, or paragraph and another. They help the reader by telling her which way the argument is going:

  • To show contrast: - use “however”; “on the other hand”, etc.

  • To show continuation / similarity: - use “in addition”, “furthermore”, etc.

  • To signal effect / conclusion: - use “consequently”, “as a result”, “therefore”, etc


Similarly, chapters should also have structure. There should be an introductory paragraph, which outlines the main sections of the chapter, followed by a body of text/series of paragraphs which provide support for the argument, finishing with a conclusion which reviews the main arguments presented in the chapter. Interspersed in the chapter will be bridging (backward and forward-looking) paragraphs which help the reader (and writer!) to follow the main points of the argument.

The introduction should make clear how the chapter fits into the rest of the thesis:

The introduction:

  • Orientates your reader to the development of your argument

  • Sets the scene of the chapter – the general area(s) that the chapter considers, the main question it addresses

  • Identifies the gap in knowledge or understanding that the chapter addresses – usually identified as an issue in earlier chapters

  • Indicates how the chapter fills the gap, or responds to the chapter’s posed main question

  • Gives a brief overview of what is in the chapter

  • Contains a clear thesis statement that reflects the essence (or gist) of the chapter

  • Offers intellectual stimulation to your reader.


The conclusion of the chapter should remind readers of the key conclusions drawn, outcomes and how its theme will be dealt with or carried on elsewhere in the thesis. It should not merely restate the introduction or list the aspects covered, but should show growth and reflection in terms of:

  • what the chapter has done – the main response to the question the chapter addresses

  • what new questions the chapter has identified.

  • where these questions are dealt with.

Prose style

Plain and clear language

The point of research is to illuminate and clarify, not to obscure and muddle. So, use language that is clear, straightforward. Avoid a flowery style, obscure words, buzz words and long complex sentences.


Most of your empirical research will be written in the past tense since you are reporting on the data collecting process you have already undertaken and the findings that resulted from this. Some sections, like the Review of Literature, will be written in the present tense since you are discussing what others are thinking, and the Discussion will be a combination of past and present.

First person authorship

The trend in academic writing is to use the “first” person as the author of the text, e.g. “I will discuss …” etc. However, check with your Department first whether this is acceptable in your discipline. Some disciplines still insist on the use of the “third person” (e.g. “the researcher found that …”). Check with your supervisor.

Gender pronouns

In order to avoid clumsy constructions when the gender is not clear, (e.g. “A personal trainer would advise his or her clients on…”), scientific writers use plural constructions (e.g. “Personal trainers advise their clients on…”). Use gender-neutral constructions like “speaker”, “police officer”, “representative” instead of “spokesman” or “policeman”.

Active and passive voice

Use of "voice" shows whether the subject acts or is acted upon. When the subject of the sentence performs the action expressed by the verb, the voice is said to be "active". When the subject undergoes the action of the verb, the voice is "passive". A simple example of the active voice is "we carried it" which, when written passively, becomes "it was carried". Writing in the active voice is more interesting for a reader, and is increasingly the preferred style in academic writing because the agent in the active voice is clearly identified (e.g. “Smith found that aflatoxins infected the blood”) rather than obscuring the agent (e.g. “It was found that the blood was infected by aflatoxins” ).

Clear referents (determiners)

With words such as “it”, “we”, “this”, “them” it is important that you have indicated very clearly who at what is being referred to. Look out especially for the use of “it” when the previous sentence doesn’t make clear what “it” stands for, e.g. “The response indicated a link with previous research. It is an issue that needs further research?” What does “it” refer to: The “response”? The “link”? “Previous research”?

Also, ensure that danglers (dangling participles ending in “ …ing”) match with the subject that follows immediately after the comma. E.g. “Drawing the sample for the case study, time constraints limited the size.” Who drew the sample?, the time constraints? No, you did. So re-write to read “Drawing the sample, I had to limit the size because of time constraints.”

See also Section C in the Thesis Guide

^ 3. Post-Writing Phase

The post-writing phase is all about editing your work and checking the finer details before submitting the final version.

Edited version

Check your writing for grammatical correctness and adherence to academic conventions. Academic conventions involve the appropriate use of discourse vocabulary (subject–specific jargon), formal style (less personal) and formal register (avoid shortened forms). Grammatical clarity more often involves appropriate sentence structure and punctuation. Remember that appropriate grammar usage effectively contributes to the intended meaning. Therefore if you are considering employing the services of a professional proofreader, be sure to reconsider the effect of any changes suggested.

^ The Final Version

Here you need to focus on the presentation of the written piece in terms of the layout (consistent headings, fonts, spacing; numbering etc) and technical academic conventions (e.g. correct referencing methods etc.)

Editing Checklist:

1. Structure and organization:



Outlines the problem and your responses


Each deals with one aspect, clearly stated in a topic sentence

All sentences within each paragraph are related

Paragraphs in each section of my article are linked, in a logical order

2. Argument:

All aspects are covered

Each aspect is adequately discussed

Definitions are provided (where required)

Argument is developed logically

Argument is convincing

Generalizations are supported with specific examples / evidence

Argument draws on a number of sources

3. Plagiarism, direct quotations, references:


Set out correctly, according to the accepted convention

Used for specific purpose (functional)

All direct quotations, maps, tables, diagrams are acknowledged


All facts, theories and opinions that are not my own are properly acknowledged

There is a clear distinction between references and my own statements / interpretations

All references in the text are correct and included in the list at the back

4. Style

Logical outline of headings and subheadings

The article / thesis flows (reads easily)

The style is concise

The language is clear

Appropriate use of abbreviations and acronyms

5. Spelling and grammar

Correct spelling (use spell check)

Consistent use of capitalization

Correct grammar, punctuation, and tense use

6. Presentation and layout

Consistent numbering and layout of headings and subheadings

Standard size paper (A4) with 1,5 spacing and printed single sided

Pages are numbered

Accurate typing

Proofread by a proficient language person

All relevant sections included (e.g. title page, abstract, references, appendices, etc)

Keep an electronic file and hard copy of the paper / chapter for yourself.


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