Academic Writing: Being of service…but to whom?

Long have I agonised over what we are doing here, as academics. Five years of writing within the restrictive, opinion-less neutrality of science left me feeling so disenchanted that I had to question what it meant to the world we were supposedly setting out to assist through knowledge sharing. If I – after years of training – struggled to be engaged by the writing I and my colleagues were producing, how on earth could science as a discipline expect to share anything but confusion? Interestingly, things are not much different in the humanities once you get past the bedazzlement of the decorative language in abundance! When I think about the past year in my new disciplinary shoes, I feel a certain empathy with Helen Sword (2012) when she talks about not  knowing if she was cut out for this, the imposter syndrome sneaking in a little more with every disciplinary buzz word, jargon term, or confounding sentence. I, too, wondered for a long time if I was knowledgable enough to be a legitimate contributor to my discipline.

brain cheese

Admittedly, as a higher degree research student, I hold myself to a set of standards that are largely governed by not quite being there yet. Like Howard Becker’s (2007) stunned research student unable to consider simple, clear language as sufficiently ‘academic’, I often feel my writing contained, imprisoned by disciplinary standards and the pressure to prove oneself so often encountered by lowly students. But we aren’t lowly! We have made it this far for a reason, and that success requires ownership of our unique styles and the inherent self-confidence that comes with it. Easier said than done, though, right?

Academia, to me, has always been about knowledge-sharing and challenging ‘the way things are’ alongside suggestions for ‘the way things could be’. It’s about changing the world, the betterment of lives and societies so that they may flourish in a world that is healthy, just and creative. But is that what we are doing here? Becker (2007) suggests that “the academic-intellectual world has an ambiguous and uneasy relationship to the ordinary world, and many academics worry about their own relation to ordinary people”. What is the point of producing and disseminating knowledge that is understandable only to a few? How do we challenge unjust societal privilege, for instance, when we privilege knowledge through our writing? And what is this ‘relation to ordinary people’ business, anyway? Aren’t we supposed to be writing for the good of all? Are we not ordinary people with our own mundane ordinary lives, too?

It seems to me that academic writing – and dare I say, particularly the writing of research students who have yet to be fully indoctrinated into their disciplinary frameworks – ought to be produced in a spirit of service to ‘the ordinary folk’. Who is ordinary anyway? Let’s face it, there is nothing more stifling to inspiration and motivation than forcing your way through a dry, or perhaps over-moist, piece of writing, and I know I’m not the only higher degree research student to have encountered plenty of those.


Academic writing – the sharing of knowledge, the gift of learning together – should be pleasurable, engaging and stimulating. It should outrage and infuriate, astonish and inspire, grab hold and not let go until the very last word. It should provoke those subtle, quiet smiles that give away the moment of solidarity, impress, or perhaps even kinship you have just experienced through the words of another. Most importantly, academic writing should have these effects on the everyday reader, not just the privileged academic circles.

And if it is difficult to read, perhaps it isn’t really worth reading…? Or is it? We must be careful here, because as Sword (2012) mentions – style is unique. Some writers will resonate with you more than others, and that’s okay. You may not like the particular style of a writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a bad writer. In my discipline of more-than-human geography, Donna Haraway and Sarah Whatmore are amongst those key contributors who everyone cites in their own work as a matter of giving the disciplinary nod to pioneers in a field, (or perhaps just to make it look like they know what they are talking about!). But I have yet to make it through a single example of their work feeling inspired, or even that I have grasped the deeper concepts that they genuinely have spearheaded in important ways. These are good researchers, and good writers – for their particular audiences. That audience, however, simply does not include me, or my style of writing. I do not relate to Haraway’s tongue-in-cheek rhetoric, though I can appreciate the cleverness behind it; nor do I find inspiration in Whatmore’s sophisticated language, though I can appreciate the elegance and grace with which she wields it. We must always consider our intended audience, and the audience of those whom we read, and have the reflexivity to acknowledge that some good writers just don’t work for us, and that’s okay. It doesn’t – or at least, it shouldn’t – reflect negatively on us as capable academics and researchers.

I would like to see academic writing that is enlivened, that seeks to enchant readers and draw them in. Perhaps it is time for academia to catch up with the times, or risk becoming irrelevant to the societies it intends to contribute to. If we are not relevant in both the content and style of our work, we are not accessible, and thus not doing our jobs effectively. This means having the courage to step out of ways of writing that are comfortable, and I am inspired here by the collaborative work being undertaken in Bawaka Country in North-Eastern Arnhem Land (see, for example, Wright, et al. 2012; Bawaka Country et al. 2015), where geographers co-author papers with Indigenous people and with Bawaka Country itself. The writing style of these works diverges from traditional academic structures and instead reflects a more storied and relational account that is meaningful to the people and places that the research is about (and with). The writing is relevant, and is thus of meaningful service. And academia should – as its primary function – be of service to a progressive world.

Welcome to My Country | FINAL COVER REVISED (17 April 2013)

Academic writing in service to Country: co-researched and co-authored work with Bawaka Country, an exemplar of academia that is relevant to audience.


Becker, H., 1986. Persona and authority. Writing for social scientists, pp.26-42.

Country, B., Wright, S., Suchet-Pearson, S., Lloyd, K., Burarrwanga, L., Ganambarr, R., Ganambarr-Stubbs, M., Ganambarr, B. and Maymuru, D., 2015. Working with and learning from Country: decentring human author-ity. cultural geographies22(2), pp.269-283.

Sword, H., 2012. Stylish academic writing. Harvard University Press.

Wright, S., Lloyd, K., Suchet-Pearson, S., Burarrwanga, L., Tofa, M. and Country, B., 2012. Telling stories in, through and with Country: Engaging with Indigenous and more-than-human methodologies at Bawaka, NE Australia. Journal of Cultural Geography29(1), pp.39-60.


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