3 March 2010

Academic writing for business

By Dr Yong Fung Lan

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Undergraduates of various disciplines, especially those majoring in business and engineering, need effective academic writing skills to fulfill their course requirements. These skills enable them to communicate succinctly in various situations, including research/report writing and presentations. In brief, scholastic performance and communication of undergraduates rely heavily on effective academic writing.

Characteristics of academic writing

Effective academic writing enables university students to achieve learning outcomes since most courses require it to demonstrate subject matter mastery. Most business or engineering students are required to take academic writing to gain expertise in professional writing. Besides helping them to write their final-year thesis, such writing skills are also needed for them to climb the professional ladder long after graduation.

To make a successful transition from school writing to academic writing at university, students need to know the main characteristics of an academic paper. It should reflect scholarship, presenting an informed argument on a topic or issue through analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of relevant information.

Analyzing requires students to dissect associations and reactions concerning an issue critically – by segmenting the topic and then relating each part to the whole.

Synthesizing encourages students to seek connections between ideas. While analyzing allows them to make disparate observations or perspectives, synthesizing requires them to create a coherent argument that merges the separate elements.

Evaluating a topic allows students to articulate and support their own response – by clarifying what aspects in a text lead them to respond in a certain way. In brief, while analyzing requires students to examine an issue from different angles, synthesis and evaluation encourage them to integrate information and make informed decisions concerning it.

Structure of an academic paper

Different courses have different expectations in terms of what effective academic writing is. Since business and engineering majors have their own formats for essays, reports, or case studies, students should know the expectations to be on target. Although there are many ways to organize an academic paper, it usually contains an introduction, some body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

The introduction conveys some background information on the topic and the writer’s rhetorical stance. Background information can be obtained by conducting a review of literature, usually by summarizing and integrating various views concerning the topic. The rhetorical stance reflects the writer’s stand on the topic, taking the audience into account. Stated as a thesis statement, the stance usually appears at the end of the introduction, presenting an arguable or controversial point.

After presenting the argument, the writer should also acknowledge the opponents, considering various opposing views. This can be done by anticipating what the opposition might say and then determining where and how to rebut it. The writer can dismiss the opposition in the first paragraph or rebut its arguments point by point.

To support the argument convincingly, body paragraphs are essential. Declaring its relationship to the thesis statement, a body paragraph contains a topic sentence upon which supporting ideas and details are established. The topic sentence declares the argument of a particular paragraph, usually appearing at its beginning. Besides declaring a single point of the argument, it should also be clearly related to the previous paragraph. To expand a body paragraph, primary or secondary sources (with proper citations) can be used as supportive evidence.

An effective conclusion should be persuasive; hence it requires more than just summarizing the main ideas. Writers can highlight their own contribution, for instance, by adding fresh insight and new dimensions to the literature review. Further, they may acknowledge the opposition to indicate that they have won the argument. They may also provide recommendations on how to deal with a contentious issue. Overall, an effective conclusion usually contains crucial points that will resound in the reader’s mind; by reinforcing the main ideas, the conclusion offers readers something to ponder.

Tips on effective academic writing

Successful academic writing conveys the intended message with an appropriate layout and sentence structure and vocabulary.

Layout is the first thing readers notice upon receiving a piece of writing. Since long paragraphs tend to be tedious, written documents should have a reasonable amount of white space and be presented in appropriate chunks.

Appropriate sentence structure and vocabulary enable writers to convey their intended meanings accurately and ensure understanding at the first reading. To maintain consistency and sequence, sign-posts and connective words/phrases should be used.

Business, engineering and older disciplines are rather rich in technical terms. However, business and engineering people often write for non-technical readers. Hence, to facilitate understanding among a broad audience, writers should put everything in layperson terms. Clear, concise writing on a complex topic prompts readers to continue reading, but unfamiliar language discourages them from continuing. While using technical words shows the writer’s penchant for jargon, producing a clear message reflects his or her subject matter mastery as well as mastery in verbal communication.

Finally, successful academic writing at university is an important graduate attribute; it prepares students to communicate effectively in both local and international settings. Hence, it is crucial for business and engineering students to acknowledge academic writing as a soft skill that demands critical thinking skills as well as knowledge of appropriate layout, structure and vocabulary, and language use.

Dr Yong Fung Lan is a lecturer with the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at fyong@swinburne.edu.my.