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Home / Opinion - How to improve writing style for academic success (Part 2)

Opinion - How to improve writing style for academic success (Part 2)

2022-09-02  Prof Jairos Kangira

Opinion - How to improve writing style for academic success (Part 2)

Well-coached and grounded postgraduate students are aware that good academic writing style is achieved also by basing their arguments on credible sources or researches of scholars in their areas of specialisations. In other words, students should carefully use citations or quotes and paraphrases from peer-reviewed journals, academic books and other reviewed sources to strengthen their arguments and writing style. 

The presentation of direct citations and paraphrases from other sources is not just done arbitrarily. The student must consider carefully how to report other scholars’ ideas and views so that there is no misrepresentation of these views. Hence the importance of having a clear grasp of how to use appropriate reporting verbs in academic writing. There is a wide range of reporting verbs that students can use in appropriate contexts, for example, ‘stated’, ‘found’, ‘observed’, ‘refuted’, ‘argued’, ‘asserted’ and ‘claimed’. (Remember that these verbs can be used in the present tense forms.) The seven reporting verbs given above cannot be used to report the same views or set the same citations or paraphrases. 

A conscientious student should regard these verbs as completely different, sometimes performing complementary functions in the thesis or dissertation. It is sad to note that most students count the number of times they have used a reporting verb and only change the reporting verb without reasoning, only telling themselves that they have overused that verb. One of the most abused reporting verbs is ‘argued’ which students use everywhere even where there is no argument at all to talk about. 

A related practice that students should avoid is to use synonyms of the reporting verbs they are using in an attempt not to repeat the verbs; they should know that they are fooling themselves since the synonyms have the same meaning. The best advice I can give to students as far as using reporting verbs appropriately is that they must read as many peer-reviewed papers and other scholarly literature in their areas of specialisations, and study how various reporting verbs are used to set direct citations and paraphrases. They say practice makes perfect. They do not have to re-invent the wheel.

In the business of scholarly communication, objectivity and achieving the necessary degree of precisions of propositions are also of paramount importance.  If there was no acceptable level of exactness, academic writing would be full of generalisations and unfounded statements. Special words called hedges assist students to improve their academic writing style, thereby making their propositions accepted by their discourse communities. The overarching function of hedges is for students to achieve caution and tentativeness when making claims and arguments in writing the thesis or dissertations. For instance, a student might write: “From the evidence gathered in secondary schools in the northern region of Namibia, it appears likely that the high failure rate in English is due to mother-tongue interference.” In this proposition, the student has used the hedge ‘appears likely’ to give room for other factors that might have contributed to the high failure rate of English by secondary school learners.  

Hedging (the use of hedges) also gives room for readers to judge for themselves the truth of a proposition. This explains for sentences like “It is arguably the biggest killer disease in the region”; “Most probably, water boundaries caused the war between the two nations”; and “This could mean that the results of the elections are not a true reflection of the voters’ will”. Hedging is very useful in academic writing in the fields of the arts, humanities, education and social sciences. When it comes to pure sciences, hedges are used sparingly, mainly because of experiments and observable phenomena whose results are more definite and need little or no moderation. Above all, hedges are used to achieve objectivity in propositions students make in their theses and dissertations. 

Students can also use words we call boosters in their academic writing. When students use words like “certainly”, “definite”, “will”, ‘should’ and “must”, they are actually boosting the propositions they are putting forward. They are assuring the readers that their propositions are certain, largely because the propositions are buoyed by strong evidence that they have gathered during their researches.

In conclusion, students are advised to implement these and other strategies in order to improve their academic writing style and present effective and informed arguments in their theses or dissertations.

2022-09-02  Prof Jairos Kangira

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