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May 25, 2005 - U.S. Academic Writing Style, Part 1 - 2005-05-24

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: we talk about the American style of academic writing, and the challenges to foreign students.

JANE DUNPHY: "Grad students often come here without ever having had to write a document. Never in English, often in their own language, they haven't had to really write anything."

Jane Dunphy directs the English Language Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

JANE DUNPHY: "I suppose when they're training for the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] or something, they'll practice writing essays for the TOEFL with the many practice books that are out there that really produce these useless, canned essays that don't have anything to do with anything. But they haven't had to write up research. They haven't had to write up critical analysis of a text or of a program or of a piece of equipment. So they're really behind conceptually. Even if English wasn't a problem, that would be a problem."

RS: "So where do you start?"

JANE DUNPHY: "That's a good question [laughs]. I start culturally. I talk about how English cultures in general are reading cultures. I talk a lot about that kind of thing, the role of text, because I think it's something that's not necessarily -- well, I know it's not universal. I just know it's not."

AA: "Could you describe the American academic style of writing?"

JANE DUNPHY: "Typically the American academic style, or what most people think of it as, the American academic style, I think comes out of the humanities more than anything else. We were all trained starting in elementary school to say what we're going to say, say it and say what we said, in a five-paragraph essay. That's sort of the classic model."

AA: "Which is good or bad or what?"

JANE DUNPHY: "Oh, I think the five-paragraph model has a place somewhere. In school, maybe? I think if you look at extended essays in journals like The Atlantic Monthly, you do see at the core the same idea. It's not five paragraphs, of course, but you do see the same kind of idea where you introduce your topic, you develop your topic and then you summarize your topic. That's really not the way any kind of professional writing works at all.

"The whole style in professional or academic writing outside the humanities is a very direct approach. You say exactly what your main point is. You don't make anybody wait. When you think about scientific and technical subjects, there's an abstract that provides the key message, and in the introduction often you provide the results of your experiment. So you're constantly hammering home the key message. It's not about the pleasure of the text the way essays are typically seen in a humanistic context. The writer should be invisible in other areas of academic writing. The goal is to make it as easy to possible for your reader to get your key message."

RS: "How do you do this in context in your classes? Do you use the information for the classes that the students are attending?"

JANE DUNPHY: "In a typical class I have between 12 and 18 students. The majority of them are grad students, though I usually have one or two undergrads in the same workshop. So the only way that we can sort of have any kind of quality control is by having them bring a published article from a prestigious journal in their field. And that is each individual student's basis of comparison.

"So everything we talk about, they go back and look at that. When we're talking about grammar, like verb forms, they go back and look at that. When we're talking about relative clause use, we use that as the basis for everything we talk about. Tone, informal/formal, we use those as the bases. I've collected over the years also a ton of examples from students, samples from before-and-after and different formats, from writing for a general audience -- which is how we start, typically -- to writing for a specialist audience and the difference in tone and the difference in length and where you find the key message and all that kind of thing."

RS: "So they can relate it to their own work."

JANE DUNPHY: "So they can relate it to their own field on the one hand and to their own lives on the other, because it's useful for them to see work written by their peers."

AA: More with Jane Dunphy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next week on Wordmaster. Our e-mail address is And our Web site is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.