Book review of: Trevor Day, Success in Academic Writing, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 216 pages, ISBN – 9 780230 369702

In his book Success in Academic Writing, Trevor Day provides a comprehensive guide to the general principles and techniques of academic writing.  His book is aimed at university undergraduates in a wide range of disciplines – whether they are new to university-level writing or in their final undergraduate year – and at postgraduates on taught courses with limited previous academic writing experience.

Day begins with an overview of the nature and process of academic writing and argues that writing is vitally important for students because it helps them to remember, to observe and gather evidence, to think, to communicate and most importantly, to learn. He describes how an ‘argument’ is generally a central feature in academic writing and how being critical via analysing, synthesising, applying and evaluating is an essential skill for developing a well-reasoned argument based on compelling evidence. He defines the academic writing features that assessors value. He identifies four different types of academic writer – diver, patchwork, grand plan and architect – and asks readers to consider the category into which they fall.

Next, he proffers his IPACE model (identity, purpose, audience, code and experience) to set a context for the task of writing. This helps students establish who they are, what their assessor’s purpose is, what kind of writing style to adopt and what existing skills they can employ.

He continues by exploring different kinds of writing, including report writing, critical reflective writing, researching and writing an assignment. He offers the RABT (relevant, authoritative, balanced/biased and timely) mnemonic as an aid to evaluating source material and points out the pitfalls of using Wikipedia and other sources which have not been peer-reviewed. He provides tips on being a purposeful reader and note taker and on avoiding plagiarism.

He suggests that many students are challenged when it comes to composing a first draft. He tackles this head-on with four different techniques – go for it, writing to a prompt, freewriting and no composing – to encourage the words to flow. He gives 12 handy techniques for overcoming writer’s block – including making a plan, discussing your writing with a trusted friend or colleague and taking a break.

In support of academic writing, Day explains how to use images, graphs, tables, which, in our digital age he claims, are becoming increasingly associated with words so that they enhance – rather than repeat – the written word. This is followed by an extensive guide to citations and references and an explanation of their importance for the academic community and in support of an academic argument.

Day recommends reviewing and editing any piece of academic writing as an essential part of the process by drawing on the three-stage approach used in publishing – developmental editing, copy-editing and proof-reading. He champions the effective use of the sentence and the paragraph, correct grammar and spelling and clear presentation to create convincing academic writing. He demonstrates how technology can be exploited to generate ideas, keep track of references and citations and check grammar and spelling.

He concludes by presenting Kolb’s learning cycle as a way of reviewing any writing experience to establish what went well, what went less well and what might be done differently next time. He advocates the use of a learning log, making the most of feedback and seeking help from the wide range of university staff who are available to help students.

This book is an invaluable resource for any student who wants to develop their academic writing skills and style. It is packed with sensible advice, useful models and practical examples to illustrate key points, and includes a series of self-study activities with answers at the back of the book, all of which enable readers navigate the academic writing process and improve their writing skills and style. One of the book’s key strengths is that it draws on examples from a wide range of disciplines. The glossary at the end is indispensable for anyone unsure of academic writing jargon and his ‘Cited References and Further Reading’ section is an exemplar of best practice for referencing.

What makes this book different to many other academic writing books is that Day writes in a casual and chatty tone which makes reading the book feel like talking with a friend. He takes care to point out that this style is not appropriate for students to use in their academic writing.

The book is well structured, allowing readers to dip into specific chapters of interest without having to read all the chapters or to use it as a reference guide after reading the whole book.  His exploration of the different types of writing styles needed for the various academic disciplines is particularly helpful for anyone navigating a hybrid degree programme or who has changed academic disciplines.

The importance of this book is that it is an easy-to-read and easy-to-access academic writing guide which will help students to realise that the effective delivery of compelling evidence-based arguments is key to achieving good grades. The book explains that academic study is just as much about students finding their academic voice as becoming an expert in their disciplines.

There are two potential shortcomings to the book. First, Day identifies and discusses the different types of writing in two separate chapters – introducing business reports, critical reflective writing and assignment writing in chapter 4 on Researching an Assignment and delaying his exploration of writing posters, presentations and dissertations until chapter six on Planning and Structuring your Writing. An alternative approach would be to include all the different writing types in one chapter to provide complete and accessible information in one place. Secondly, the book’s informal tone is a departure from comparative studies that could confuse readers because it is not a model for academic writing.

Nevertheless, this book is well worth reading for its broad overview of academic writing and for its wide range of tips, advice and practical examples to help students to develop their academic voice and academic writing skills. After reading this book, students will be equipped to tackle their university writing projects with confidence and fluency.  Consequently, it is recommended for any undergraduate or postgraduate student especially if they are new to academic writing.

Kathy Greethust

Staff Development Consultant
Oxford Brookes University
Kathy works as a consultant, trainer and a coach. She is also a creative writer and is now developing her interest in academic writing. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University.

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