Fundamentals of Academic Writing

Chad NILEP Associate Professor

Department: Institute of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Class Time: 2016 Spring Wednesday
Recommended for: Graduate students

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Course Objectives

The course introduces basic skills of academic research writing and logical thinking to help graduate students develop from readers into academic writers. Students produce a preliminary abstract for a major paper-typically their graduation thesis-and deliver an oral presentation analyzing a research paper in their own field.

The course uses group discussion among students and the instructor. For this reason, all participants must be able to communicate in spoken and written English. Participants should be prepared to discuss actively. This includes asking questions and sharing ideas.

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Date Topics Reading Other assignments
4/13 Introduction, registration;What is academic writing? none Optional reading: Irvin, "What is academic writing?"
4/20 Audience and purpose in academic writing Nilep, Audience, Purpose, and Tone (PDF, 172KB) Register at the administrative office of your department. (Deadline varies by department.)
4/27 What is a research question? Lecture notes: What is a research question? (PDF, 801KB)
5/11 What is a thesis statement? Weida and Stolley, "Developing strong thesis statements";
Lecture notes: Thesis statement (PDF, 405KB)
Preparation for assignment 1 (PDF, 52KB) Choose a research project to present. It may be your own project or a paper you have read.
5/18 No class meeting. Instructor is out of town.
5/25 Logical argument (I) Deductive reasoning Lecture notes: Deductive reasoning (PDF, 478KB) Group discussion: What is the thesis or conclusion of the project you will present? How does the data support the conclusion?
6/1 Logical argument (II) Inductive reasoning Weber and Brizee, "Using logic in writing"
Lecture notes: Inductive reasoning (PDF, 358KB)
Optional reading: Gasson, "Rigor in qualitative analysis"
6/8 Research design Lecture notes: Research design (PDF, 338KB)
Optional reading: Bhattacherjee, (PDF, 2074KB)
Social Science Research
provides a good overview of research design.
Preparation for assignment 1 (PDF, 52KB): Analyze the paper you selected. What argument supports the thesis? What are the paper's weaknesses or strengths?
6/15 Writing a strong thesis statement Lai, What is a thesis and how to build one from scratch (PDF, 66KB)
(Lecture notes (PDF, 738KB))
6/22 What is an abstract? Lai, How to build an informative abstract (PDF, 227KB)
(Lecture notes (PDF, 738KB))
Preparation for assignment 2 (PDF, 49KB): Write a (one sentence) thesis statement for your abstract project. If you want feedback from the class & instructor, email it before midnight 6/21 to Professor Nilep. Put "Fundamentals of academic writing" in the subject line.
6/29 Writing the abstract U. Queensland, Writing the abstract Sano-Franchini, Writing the Academic Conference Proposal
(Lecture notes (PDF, 152KB))
Find two abstracts that you think do a good job communicating what the paper is about. Bring them to class. You will discuss in your group what makes them effective.
7/6 Logical, rhetorical, and statistical fallacies Choose at least one:
(Lecture notes (PDF, 1055KB))
Preparation for assignment 2 (PDF, 49KB): Make an outline or plan for your abstract. Be sure to include information about your research question, methods or reasoning, and your thesis statement.
7/13 Student presentations none Major assignment 1: Oral presentations
7/20 Student presentations; Peer review none Peer review: Write a draft of your abstract. Bring two copies to class. You will read your peers' abstracts and offer advice on anything that is unclear. They will do the same for you.
7/27 Major assignment 2 Major assignment 2 (PDF, 90KB) due. Email your abstract to Professor Nilep.


Students who enroll for course credit are required to meet the following conditions

  • attend at least 80% of meetings
  • write one abstract
  • deliver one oral presentation.

Students who wish to observe the course for no credit may request to do so.


Any graduate student, researcher, or professor may schedule a tutorial with Mei-writing faculty (including professor Nilep) or Mei-writing tutors. Click here to make an appointment.

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Materials list

class 2
audience-purpose2016 (PDF, 1731KB)
class 3
research_question01 (PDF, 801KB)
class 4
thesis-statement-lecture (PDF, 405KB)
class 5
deductive_reasoning (PDF, 478KB)
class 6
inductive_reasoning (PDF, 358KB)
class 7
research_design (PDF, 338KB)
class 8
write_thesis_statement (PDF, 738KB)
class 9
What is an abstract (PDF, 227KB)
class 10
writing-abstract (PDF, 152KB)
class 11
Fallacies (PDF, 647KB)

Major assignment 1: Oral Presentation

The first of two major assignments in this seminar is to give an oral presentation. The 10 minute presentation will analyze and describe one research paper from the presenter's field of study.

You will select a research paper in your field. This can be your own research, or your analysis of a paper that someone else wrote. In either case, the paper must be one that is completed and either published or submitted for publication.

The audience for your presentation, the other participants in the seminar, are probably not scholars in your field. Therefore, your job as a presenter is not primarily to explain the research. Instead, your job is to analyze how the paper communicates its message and to explain the paper's logical and rhetorical structure to the seminar participants.

  • What is the conclusion of the research? What is the thesis statement of the paper? The answers to these questions are related, and are often the same answer.
  • What is the argument that supports the conclusion/thesis? What premises (or other reasoning) are used to support or deduce the conclusion? Explain this in general terms without too much specific detail. Remember the logical techniques we have discussed, including implication, syllogism, analogy, and generalization.
  • What can you tell us about the data? Was the data appropriate to the research question? Was there enough data to make strong inferences? Was it analyzed in appropriate ways? Remember that many participants in the seminar will not understand the specifics of data gathering and analysis in your field, so explain your evaluation in general terms.
  • No research is ever perfect. What weaknesses does this paper have? Are there problems or limitations on the data? Are there any threats to validity? Are there reasons to doubt the argument and its conclusions? Is the paper honest and clear about the shortcomings of the research?

You have only 10 minutes for your presentation, so you'll need to plan carefully and not include too much detail. Usually when you prepare a research presentation, you start from your thesis statement or research conclusion. Since this assignment does not ask for original research, you should start from your evaluation of the paper, not the thesis statement of that paper.

I advise you to prepare what you plan to say; write notes to speak from, or write what you plan to say in a spoken-English style. On the day of the conference, remember to look at the audience and smile even though you feel nervous. Remember, we are all on your side and want you to do a good job; try to relax knowing that you are among friends and colleagues.

This short video gives some advice on planning for the actual speech. Mei-Writing also has courses that teach more about presenting your research.

Please ask the instructor if you have any questions. Please discuss your plan for the presentation with the members of your study group.

Major assignment 2: Abstract

The second major assignment is to write an abstract for a paper you plan to write, or one you have written, presenting your own scholarship. Choose a project for which you actually plan to publish a paper. (Publication for this purpose can include an international journal, a local journal, or internal publication such as submitting your thesis to the university.)

The length of the abstract and its formatting should follow the requirements of the journal or other outlet where you plan to publish the paper. If you do not have a specific journal in mind yet, follow the style of a prominent journal in your field.

Generally speaking, abstracts for this course will be about one page long.

The abstract must contain a thesis statement: the one or two sentence statement of what the paper is about. The thesis statement should be specific, factual, objective, and non-trivial.

I expect your abstract to give the background of your research or to position your work in your major field. The abstract should state the research question or the purpose of the study. It should describe in general terms the kinds of methods you used or your approach to investigating the idea in the thesis statement. Your results and your conclusions should also be made clear in the abstract.

Abstracts will be judged on the strength and clarity of their logic. In other words: is the thesis statement clearly stated? Is the logical argument specified, and does the abstract explain how and why the premises support the conclusion? Is the data or evidence described clearly? Is there enough evidence to support the conclusion?

Mechanics — the grammar, word choice, spelling, and formatting — do matter a little, but they are less important than the other elements of the abstract. Your main goal is to communicate your thesis statement, your evidence, and your logical argument in a clear and convincing manner. If problems with mechanics make it hard for a reader to understand that message, that is a problem. If you can fix mistakes, you should. But don't let worries about English distract you from your most important goal: to communicate your research findings.

Please ask the instructor if you have any questions.

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Page last updated March 7, 2017

The class contents were most recently updated on the date indicated. Please be aware that there may be some changes between the most recent year and the current page.

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