Why formal analysis is the key to bringing your research to life – University Affairs


This practice of art history can improve academic writing in all disciplines.


As I progress in my career (still at the beginning) and get used to academic writing, I feel more and more depressed that it can be dry. I like to write in style, but my thesis supervisor always wants me to cut those moments out of my drafts. Can Academic Writing Be Fun?

– Anonymous, Psychology

Response from Dr Editor:

“Fun” is a high bar to cross in most academic genres. This is not to say that academic writing is never allowed to be humorous – see, for example, Onnela et al. justifying their decision-making process: “the Louvain and simulated annealing algorithms are much more popular than the spectral algorithm in community structure surveys (and life is short)” (2012, p. 13). Small moments of humor won’t distract from the overall message of a manuscript, but it’s important that you don’t let the desire for fun dominate your writing. People don’t bring up your journal article, grant application, or book chapter because they want to laugh, and their needs count more than your feelings about academic style.

I don’t mean to say that your writing should be dry – just that you should keep your reader’s needs at the forefront of your mind as you write and edit your text. If fun writing helps you progress with your dissertation, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it appropriate for the manuscripts you submit for review and publication.

So aside from the occasional parenthesis interjections, what strategies can help you bring your writing to life? To answer this question, I turned to my colleague Cara Jordan, editor of writings in art and art history, to learn more about a technique that art historians regularly use in their work: formal analysis.

Formal analysis, explains Dr Jordan, focuses on what the eye perceives when examining an object: “colors, shapes, light, composition, texture. This type of writing is the cornerstone of the historical analysis of art. The writing should really paint a picture for the reader of the work of art or whatever is observed. To learn more about formal analysis, she recommends this short intro video de Smarthistory: The Center for the History of Public Art.

Dr Jordan told me that in art history, simply reproducing an image is not enough, because a reader may not perceive the same things as the writer – whether it is because he did not notice, say, the angle of bodies in a painting; because they are not specialists in the specific sub-domain of the writer; or because they have a visual impairment and use a screen reader to access your text.

And the techniques used by art historians – their focus on the shapes and colors the eye perceives, the textures the fingers can feel – are a strategy that translates well to academic writing across disciplines. . Take, for example, this description of the “social avoidance” of your discipline, dear writer, psychology:

In animals, social avoidance can function as a survival technique or is part of submissive behavior, often brought on by a social threat, such as an intrusive dominant conspecific. (Gellner et al, 2021)

Gellner et al’s description of social avoidance is accurate, but its lack of any sensory detail could lead someone to accuse it of appearing dry. In contrast, imagine a description of social avoidance that incorporates sensory details into verbs: “Social avoidance lurks behind psychological research on anxiety disorders. This animated and specific verb personifies social avoidance: it presents the action as if it had a physical body that can “hide”, bringing life into the text.

But such a personification may not be appropriate in all disciplines, and the more you read in your field, the better you will understand whether verbs that carry a sensory connotation fit well in the documents you need to write.

If personification by verbs sounds too ‘out there’ for your field, consider providing examples that focus on what your eyes might see if you look at your research topics: ‘When a mouse curls up in the corner of a shared cage, we are seeing social avoidance in action. “As an art historian, you can paint a picture of what you observe, detailing, however briefly – the body position and location of our socially avoidant mouse.

By verbally describing these visual details, you can take your writing from the realm of the abstract to concrete, tangible and perceptible reality, with all its colors, shapes, lights, positions and textures. Incorporating this form of verbal illustration into your text can liven it up just as much as a personifying verb. In contrast, much of conventional academic writing resides in the abstraction, in the space of “social avoidance”, “survival skills”, “submissive behaviors”, “social threats” and “dominant conspecifics” – none of which can be represented so easily in the mind’s eye as a curled up mouse.

A simple way to practice this strategy? Dr Jordan recommends providing alternative text images that you include in your social media posts. You’ll make your posts accessible to people who use screen readers, and practice writing about the tangible and physical world – a practice you can then apply in your academic writing.


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