top of page
  • Writer's pictureMarc Abernathy

A reading list for academic writers: Five essential books

Updated: Apr 5

If you're serious about improving your academic writing, these five books are worth having on your shelf.

Finding good advice on academic writing can be challenging because the choices are overwhelming. A recent search for "academic writing" on Amazon yielded over 10,000 hits. Here are five books to have on your shelf when you're working on your next journal article or proposal.

Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published

Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler

ISBN: 978-0415809313

This book is one of the few I've come across that addresses an existential challenge of academic writing that few people talk about: the identity work required to become a confident academic writer. As Thomson and Kamler write, "the vast majority of researchers are very good at reporting and describing a set of findings. They can tell you what they did, what they found, and what the research site looked like...But they lack the confidence to argue and package what they have to say in the kind of format and language that a journal will find acceptable." To be authoritative is a stance that many early-stage researchers are not comfortable with, and Thomson and Kamler provide advice on what it takes to make that transition.

They go on to list questions that researchers have to answer before they can get published, offer strategies for doing the writing, provide excellent advice and questions about how to choose the right journal, explain the realities and layers of academic publishing, and provide valuable before-and-after examples. They also focus on developing and refining an argument, explain why writing an abstract first is an efficient way to start writing a paper, tell readers how to identify and explicitly state the contribution, and explain why you should have a publication plan and how to create one. The most valuable part of this book for me is their focus on the writer and the difficult and sometimes painful work of developing an academic identity. As someone who edits journal articles almost daily, I can confirm that identity work (or lack of it) is an intrinsic and palpable element of writing that comes across clearly in a text. Half the work of writing is being confident that you have something worth saying.

"[T]he vast majority of researchers...lack the confidence to argue and package what they have to say in the kind of format and language that a journal will find acceptable." - Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, Writing for peer reviewed reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published

They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

ISBN: 978-0393538700

While the focus of Writing for peer reviewed journals (above) is on the important work of developing the academic identity needed to engage with peers in academic journals, Graff and Birkenstein focus on positioning one's research in the context of academic discussions and debates within a field. The incredibly easy-to-use, thought-provoking templates in this book are designed to help researchers position their work by having them consider how it relates to the work of other researchers. Graff and Birkenstein make it easy for researchers to think about how other readers will (or might) respond to their work.

This book provides one of the most-accessible and relevant entry points on academic writing that I've found. I've used it with a number of clients who have fallen in love with the "Readings" section, which shows how the template formats they provide appear over and over in published articles in the natural and social sciences. In addition, this book helps researchers identify the significance of their research and – even more important – discover what it is they want to say in the first place. If you've ever heard advice that you should answer the "So what?" question in your academic writing and that you should anticipate reader responses, but haven't been able to figure out how to apply this advice to your own writing, this book will help you do both.