Explain How You Write in Your Discipline

Discuss writing in your discipline with your students. Since writing is different in every discipline, so too are the formatting requirements and even organization of texts. Just as you model the kinds of practices used in your discipline, model best practices for writing.

Although it would seem an easy task, explaining "how physicists write abstracts" or "how literary critics write a feminist critique" is very difficult indeed. In fact, because we are so familiar with writing conventions in our respective fields, asking us to explain details of particular genres is tantamount to asking us to explain the grammar of our native language; our knowledge is tacit, unanalyzed. Unfortunately, our students, as outsiders to the field, need to know how to write important genres in the field. While models of annotated bibliographies, research articles, and book reviews are helpful, describing moves in the genres is even more helpful.

Thankfully, for twenty years linguists have been looking at corpora (large collections) of academic writing across the disciplines. They have developed a step-by-step method for analyzing genres that is quite simple for academic specialists to apply. Here are two examples:

Example 1: Research Paper Introduction

Very general; varies by discipline.

Move 1: Establish a territory

Step 1: Claim centrality
Step 2: Make topic generalizations
Step 3: Review items of previous research

Move 2: Establish a niche

Step 1A: Counter-claim
Step 1B: Indicate a gap
Step 1C: Raise a question or questions
Step 1D: Continue a tradition

Move 3: Occupy the niche

Step 1A: Outline a purpose or purposes
Step 1B: Announce present research
Step 2: Announce principal findings
Step 3: Indicate research article structure

Source: Swales, J.M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Example 2: Methods Section in a Biochemistry Article

Specific to biochemistry. Moves 1 and 2 are obligatory; Moves 3 and 4 are optional.

Move 1: Describe materials

Step 1: List materials
Step 2: Detail the source of the materials
Step 3: Provide the background of the materials

Move 2: Describe experimental procedures

Step 1: Document established procedures
Step 2: Detail procedures
Step 3: Provide the background of the procedures

Move 3: Detail equipment

Move 4: Describe statistical procedures

Source: Kanoksilapatham, B. (2005). Rhetorical structure of biochemistry research articles. English for Specific Purposes, 24, 269-292.

Once you have applied this method to explain one genre in your field, students themselves may be able to do the same for other genres.

Updated 6/2012

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