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I teach a course in academic writing covering the writing aspects, the very basics of research skills, such as referencing works, plus related college skills. At this point in the term, quite a number of foreign students have begun to express frustration:

  • Some wish they can organize their papers in more “creative” ways.
  • Some want to share their feelings and personal experiences.
  • Some see the style guide rules as overly pedantic or finicky.

They don't like the many “restrictions” dictating how they should gather information and organize and present their ideas.

I compiled a short list explaining why such strict conventions are necessary:

  • Predictably-organized writing helps readers to access information quickly.
  • The various research procedures generally raises the quality of the work, so others can benefit from the ideas presented.

Most of these students, however, have no intention of ever becoming “academics”, and maybe they don't care so much benefiting readers. They just want to get a degree and get a good job.

Can I help them to see some personal benefit to learning all of these conventions?

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    why can't they be creative ? – krammer Dec 3 '13 at 16:13
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    They can indeed write in any way that they find comfortable. Then they should call the result a draft and rewrite it. "Good writing is good re-writing," if I'm remembering correctly the wise words of a textbook that I can unfortunately no longer identify. – ajm475du Dec 3 '13 at 17:15
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    ...don't care so much benefiting readers. They just want to get a degree and get a good job. — "Oh, sorry, you want the plumbing department; they're down the hall." – JeffE Dec 3 '13 at 22:17
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    I'd consider changing the title to say "rules of academic writing". – Irwin Dec 4 '13 at 0:30
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The points you list are key, and a good starting point. I am not sure you need to add to that list but rather expand on the points to set them in a wider perspective.

There are several misconceptions that needs discussing. There is the idea that academic (scientific) writing is complicated and uses difficult language. Well, it does not have to be, and really should not be. With the huge onslaught of information, we must all learn how to express ourselves concisely and clearly. This is an art that requires training, not only in science but also in writing. Regardless of which sort of work we have, assuming communication is part of it, we need to be able to get our points across. Hence it is key to impress on students the importance of learning to write well. So point at the goals: being able to present information in a way that it can be understood by the intended recipients. You then need to be able to take complicated issues and express them clearly and in language that can be understood. Understanding terminology and concepts is the basis for being able to explain them and making necessary simplifications. Badly written reports will not serve the author, the company (equivalent) the author works for, or the recipients who need the information. I therefore think it is important to make these wider perspectives clear to students.

Companies usually have very strict rules for how reports should be written and formatted. Getting used to following such instructions may seem like a limitation, but understanding the necessity is a good preparation for the work place. With commercial reports come legal aspects that puts much restriction on how to express oneself. Learning about such rules and restrictions is therefore a key to become a successful contributor in the future, inside and outside of academia.

The fact that most (if not all) employers look for people who are good at presenting information, written as well as in speech should be emphasized (often included in social skills). These skills require much training and a solid foundation to build on. Courses in scientific writing and presentation as well as term papers and other reports (including a final thesis) are all parts of this education.

So, in the end, I am totally convinced that skills such as these will make a difference when applying for jobs. We just need to point out the fact. Getting feedback from employers about the necessity for these skills to share with the students is very valuable. Some students have better basic skills than others but none are good at writing concisely and clearly without the training we can provide. It is also important to make students understand that in the longer term they will have to develop their own skills, not just take whatever is served and think it is enough. It is a life-long learning experience which requires solid a foundation. and that is what we can offer.

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    +1. I work in one of the larger software companies and work on specifications for software developers, user stories and so on. I shudder to think what would happen if we got "creative" with the way we presented the information. As you write, the point is to get the information across, and there are good reasons why a set of rules evolved. On the other hand, we should of course be as creative as possible in the content. It might be best to explain the difference to the students. "Save your creativity for what you say, don't spend it in how you say it!" – Stephan Kolassa Dec 5 '13 at 8:07
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  • Some wish they can organize their papers in more “creative” ways.
  • Some want to share their feelings and personal experiences.
  • Some see the style guide rules as overly pedantic or finicky.

I'm not sure why there are "rules" about organizing papers, and what's wrong with more "creative" approaches. As for style guides, they are often overly pedantic and finicky, and in any case are mostly appropriate for an actual publication.

It's possible you're referring instead to the way to organize a paper (in terms of introductions, related work, methods, discussion, and so on). In which case you can explain the particular roles these components serve, while emphasizing that these components achieve a certain purpose and if that purpose can be achieved using other methods, there's nothing wrong with it.

As for sharing feelings and personal experiences, it's common for students with little experience of writing formally to confuse the "what" with the "how", because they're focused so intently on the "how". One way to help them is to identify places where they're spending too much space on process words, and ask them to describe the outcomes instead. In other words, their goal should be to describe WHAT was done, rather than WHO did it, in order to ensure that the process can be repeated by someone else.

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I would encourage a peer-exchange assignment that is not marked. Each student writes a technical paper (or maybe a short technical paper), and then each student has to read every other person's paper and then "mark" them on a scale of criteria such as "clarity of presentation" and "I was able to decipher the main ideas of the paper" and "This paper was easy to read" and "I clearly understood the technical contributions of this paper".

After they finish that with others' papers, then they should go back and read their own paper, and then mark their own paper. (I would also recommend in parallel that you or other markers also mark the paper to "check" that the marks given to the particular paper are not outrageously out of line).

By comparing their own work with those of others, they will get exposure to a large number of different writing styles, get constructive feedback, and a large portion of the class marking will be done for you as well. With so many papers to read, many of them will start getting a feeling of what works, what doesn't, what they skip, what they absorb, and so forth.

I wish I could say that I thought of this all by myself, but many of the ideas were mentioned in a talk by Scott Klemmer about innovation and evaluating innovation in a massively open course situation.

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Consider emphasizing the potential personal benefits that come with good communications skills:

  • Organizing information in an easily accessible manner makes others more likely to read your writing and follow your thoughts.
  • Presenting ideas concisely helps make your idea more accessible, and therefore make it more likely that the reader will actually understand your point.
  • Presenting methodology along with your idea demonstrates transparency, showing that you have nothing to hide, making you appear trustworthy.
  • Citing other people's work has two benefits: Firstly, it demonstrates your knowledge scope by showing that you're familiar with the literature, and secondly, it improves your standing with the people you cited, as it shows them you found their work useful.

All of these apply to academia, but apply equally to all other areas of life. I used to work in academia, and I know work in operations for a health care company doing analytics. I use all of the above when I write white papers, and I have seen numerous times how following these guidelines helps others understand, appreciate, and build upon your work.

By emphasizing these points you may be able to better connect with your students.

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