September 2014
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REVIEW OF ACADEMIC WRITING FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS: ESSENTIAL TASKS AND SKILLS
Sally Ashton-Hay, Southern Cross University, Gold Coast, Australia

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. (2012). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press. 418 pages.

Swales and Feak have long established their niche as eminent and influential experts of academic writing. After 20 years, the third edition of Academic Writing for Graduate Students continues to build on the success of two previous editions. Aimed at postgraduates, undergraduates, and junior and senior researchers, the newest edition shines with a fresh appeal and abounds with bigger and better features while maintaining some of the previous favourites.

As in earlier editions, the value of this book emanates from extensive research literature and classroom experience. The third edition not only extends teaching tips, but also provides more writing activities than most instructors could ever use in a semester. Readers will recognise that there is a clear emphasis on authentic texts from the hard sciences and engineering. Another valuable feature is the use of Michigan Corpus of Upper-level Student Papers (MICUSP) as examples and an invitation to access the corpus with over 830 high standard student papers freely available. The third edition companion Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students has also stretched to 193 pages of suggested responses to writing activities, explanatory material for all eight units, and two appendixes. Each unit of the Commentary features the main aims and important take-home messages, an inventory of language focus sections, a list of tasks and general notes, and more detailed commentary.

The structure of the book remains familiar. Similar to the original eight-unit organisation in previous editions, the first four units are preparatory and cover: 1) An Approach to Academic Writing; 2) General-Specific and Specific-General Texts; 3) Problem, Process, and Solution; and 4) Data Commentary. The next four units focus on developing academic writing skills: 5) Writing Summaries; 6) Writing Critiques, with an expanded section on book reviews; 7) Constructing a Research Paper l; and 8) Constructing a Research Paper II. The appendixes have slight variations: Appendix One (The Grammar of Definitions), Appendix Two (Articles in Academic Writing), and Appendix Three (Academic English and Latin Phrases).

Academic Writing for Graduates continues to map typical rhetorical moves and compare authentic texts across discipline models using new themes and updated tables. Some of the engaging topics highlight the trend toward scientific texts and include acoustics, fog harvesting, counterfeit money detection by intrinsic fluorescence lifetime, and the increasing dominance of teams in production of knowledge, among others. These newer scientific texts have not replaced classic favourites such as the general-specific texts on road rage, procrastination, and theories of humour. The test-retest data in Chapter Four is still there, too. Updated tables demonstrate the frequency of appearance of individual moves and interdisciplinary differences, in addition to common fixed phrase expressions and the number of hits on Google Scholar as of May 2012. The updated tables endorse identified moves in academic writing and validate the in-depth analysis of various academic genres with current research.

One special feature is the focus on part-genres such as problem-solutions, methods and discussions sections, and genres covered in the book review and research paper sections. As in previous editions, each sentence is labelled in model texts and followed by focus questions so students can analyse and discuss each text as a class, a small group, or self-access. Student papers from the MICUSP are highlighted as authentic examples alongside published research. These features enhance the practicality of the book as a useful genre reference for academic writing skills.

Another valued and appreciated feature of this enhanced edition is the focus on “positioning” right from the beginning. The authors describe positioning as “the means by which you create in writing a credible image as a competent member of your chosen discipline” (p. 1). The index lists 17 other references to positioning in this edition, as opposed to the second edition with only five references, clearly an indication of the increasing significance of positioning in academic writing. Positioning is often an area that international students overlook because of the focus on vocabulary, grammar, and referencing. Positioning may also be less frequently addressed in academic writing due to lack of familiarity with the concept and lack of credible resources. This edition offers exercises and advice on concluding a commentary by positioning one’s self as “knowledgeable and capable” (p. 172), certainly an advantage to any student, educator, or researcher.

Swales and Feak claim their book “remains a work in progress” (p. 192) and hint that the fourth edition may be released before the end of the decade. In an age of internationalisation and English language education, the marketing of academic writing books often promises much but actually delivers little. Nonetheless, these two authors have a highly regarded reputation for pioneering the field, charting the domain, and conquering the territory. Each consecutive edition is a cultural artefact highlighting fluidity in the changing scene of academic research, discipline trends, and the role of higher education in society. It is a pleasure to highly recommend the third edition of Academic Writing for Graduate Students as a “knowledgeable and capable” guide in the field of academic writing.


Dr. Sally Ashton-Hay lectures in academic skills development, Division of Teaching and Learning, at Southern Cross University in Australia. She was honored to attend Christine Feak’s presentation “Best Practices in Academic Writing” at Anadolu University Conference in Eskiṣehir, Turkey in 2005.
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