Graduate School Writing

This article provides an overview of style as it relates to elements of audience, purpose, and context in graduate writing. Recommendations for avoiding common style pitfalls are offered along with further resources for developing clear scholarly prose.

What is style?

“Style” in writing refers to the way a writer constructs their sentences (syntax), chooses their words, and uses their tone (see our general resource on style here). Because this definition is rather broad (and it needs to be, given how many different kinds of writing and therefore different styles there are!), graduate writers might find it more useful to identify some concrete applications of style in academic writing. This list of elements of style includes (but is not limited to):

Style is also a part of the writing process, which means it is rhetorical and discipline-dependent; in other words, the style used by scholars in an individual graduate writer’s field is defined by a decades- or centuries-old scholarly conversation. This long scholarly discourse is usually codified into a style guide for your field, which defines a lot more than just citations — the APA manual, for instance, also tells users how to use syntax and diction in their academic writing, and its advice differs from that of other style guides in other disciplines. One of the best ways to make choices about style in your writing is to take a rhetorical view of the writing style of your discipline, and determine where you need to conform to common writing conventions as well as where you can diverge from those conventions for the purpose of conveying meaning.

How do I use a rhetorical view of style to improve my writing?

The rhetorical situation can be broken down and analyzed in several ways, but one of the most common and simplest is to examine audience, purpose, and context. You can use these concepts to understand the style expected of you in a given rhetorical situation.

Audience

In our context as grad student writers, our audience could be the instructor of a class, but generally we are being trained to write for other scholars, researchers, and sometimes industry professionals. This means we need to learn to write for several audiences:

  • a very expert audience, who is trained in our field and works on the same topics as us;
  • a less-expert audience, who is trained in our field but doesn’t work on our topics;
  • an interdisciplinary expert, who might be trained in an adjacent field and is reading our work because it’s related to a problem they are working on in their field;
  • a professional audience, who trained in our field and now works in industry, and who may be looking for concrete takeaways applicable in their professional context;
  • a student audience, who is becoming disciplined in our field in graduate school but likely has some background from college;
  • the general public, who is often not disciplined in our field beyond a general understanding but has some stake or interest in the issues we’re researching (you might mostly encounter this audience in the context of public-facing work or science communication, like social media outreach or a community organization’s newsletter).

Readers in these audiences may also be non-native speakers of English, or they may have learning or other related disabilities. So, using style to make your work appealing for multiple audiences is a complex endeavor. There are two key ways style and audience relate in our situation:

  • Managing Knowledge. Since all these audiences have varying levels of knowledge, but few are completely new to the entirety of the work, writers need to balance these knowledge levels by defining key terminology and limiting jargon on the one hand, and on the other hand assuming a certain base level of knowledge in the field that doesn’t need to be defined for any audience member.
  • Managing Expectations. Style is part of the scholarly conversation of a field — scholars agree on the ways sentences should be constructed and language should be used, usually because these things are codified in style guides and by journals where they might publish. Audiences expect to read in certain ways that differ by discipline (for instance a literature scholar would expect longer sentences and far more direct quotations than a chemistry scholar); you can determine yours by reading your field’s style guide and reading examples of published work in your journals. Following these patterns helps your audience understand that you are part of your field, because they establish your ethos as a scholar.
Purpose

Purpose for graduate student writers is perhaps less complex than audience; when we write, we have a few common purposes, one of which may be more important than the others depending on what we’re writing:

  • to communicate knowledge (may take the form of a literature review, study results, theory; might be communicating to a professor that you have understood the knowledge taught in their class, or might be communicating to other scholars via a conference talk or publication that you have found new knowledge in your research)
  • to persuade others to take up the work you are doing (as in calls for further research or pedagogical changes)
  • to persuade others that your work is relevant and fills a gap in your field (especially in introduction and literature review sections), or to persuade others that this topic is worth your field’s attention

Our main purpose is usually to communicate knowledge, with the other items in this list being typical secondary purposes. These purposes usually drive scholarly writers to use plain style in their language (avoiding flowery words or unnecessary descriptors, avoiding metaphor or simile) and to choose simple sentence structures (one main clause and perhaps one additional clause; subject and verb usually begin the sentence). Both of these style choices make it easier to convey meaning to every audience, so they serve our rhetorical purpose. You can find more about choosing sentence types to achieve rhetorical goals here.

Context

Context refers to where and when a message will be encountered by an audience. For grad student writers, audiences will usually encounter their work in a class, at a conference, or in a journal. In class, stakes are typically low — the course grade is important, but the professor and fellow students are all coming together in the class to teach and learn, i.e., no student is expected to be an expert. Stakes are higher in journal publications and conference presentations where grad student writers are expected to present themselves as part of a scholarly conversation contributing to their field as a whole; therefore, the biggest or most important differences in style are usually related to the differences between conference presentations and journal publications. For instance, in conference presentations you’ll usually be speaking with a time limit and a visual aid, so you’ll be writing for oral, person-to-person communication, whereas in a journal article you’ll be writing a static piece for audiences that are removed from you (i.e., not in the room with you, so you can’t adapt your talk to their body language, questions, or signals).

Context also ties back to audience, in that both of these relate to long-running scholarly conversations in your field and the subsequent expectations your audience will have about how you should choose your language and structure your sentences.