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What is Medical Academic Writing Part 1

What is Medical Academic Writing Part 1

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SLC recently gave a webinar to a group of Chinese doctors working on research projects on medical academic writing.

We looked at the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing before analysing how they are used in practice, when writing abstracts and research articles.

This post summarises what we covered in this section and provides the powerpoint of the whole presentation to download. Part 2 looks at how to write abstracts and research articles and some of the grammar commonly used here.

In this section, we started with words before moving onto sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts.

Words

There is a clear difference in register between formal academic language and more everyday language, highlighting the use of specific lexical items with precise meaning. This is similar to using medical terms, which use affixation to create univocal words which cannot be confused with other terms, such as laparoscopy, cardiovascular and cholecystitis Together, these terms form a set of words used by healthcare professionals and students worldwide.

The use of precise academic language is illustrated by the Academic Word List, collated by Professor Averil Coxhead of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. The AWL consists of 570 words and their associated word families. These words stand outside the General Service List, the most common 2284 words in the English language, and are drawn from the analysis of 3.5 million words from a written corpus covering a wide range of academic texts. The 570 words are then divided into 10 lists, arranged by frequency of use.

Sentences

Broadly speaking, there are three types of sentences. The first, a simple sentence, contains one clause and is generally short and to the point, though may be extended by fronting the sentence with a long adverbial for example.

The second, a compound sentence, contains two clauses of equal value. These clauses are typically linked with one of the seven words delineated by the acronym FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so.

The third, a complex sentence, contains a main clause and a subordinate clause. The main clause can stand independently and is the most important part of the sentence, whereas the subordinate clause does not stand alone and serves to add information such as examples, explanation and description. These subordinate clauses are adverbial, adjectival, or nominal. Discourse markers which link clauses within sentences together include which, despite, while, because and if.

Discourse markers between sentences

Using a variety of discourse markers, also called linking words and phrases, is essential to show precise relationships between different ideas and information. Markers like ‘In addition’, ‘Moreover’ and ‘Furthermore’ add weight to the sentence before, while ‘Alternatively’, ‘Conversely’ and ‘On the other hand’ introduce contrast.

Knowing how to use a range of markers enables a writer to accurately show cause and effect, qualify ideas, make comparisons, give examples, sequence events and place emphasis among others.

Paragraphs

Using paragraphs effectively provides clarity and readability to a text. This is particularly important for academic writing as they enable readers to understand complex ideas, arguments and information more easily, so making a text more accessible to a wider readership.

Paragraphs tend to be structured by starting with a sentence which states the topic of the paragraph and the controlling idea affecting the topic. The sentence ‘New research on epigenetics is showing how children can genetically inherit experience from their parents.’ introduces the topic of new research on genetics with the controlling idea of what the research shows, i.e. that children can genetically inherit experience from their parents.

A paragraph then continues with a number of sentences which support the opening sentence by providing examples, information and explanation. This may be a claim with evidence to underpin that claim, for example. The paragraph needs to stay on topic throughout, so it has clear unity.

Texts

When every paragraph demonstrates unity as outlined above, it creates a text where a reader is able to follow complex arguments with relative ease.

Broadly speaking, texts can be broken down into three types; descriptive, analytical and argumentative. A description provides the reader with information about something. This may be introducing new concepts or providing more detail about concepts they are already familiar with. An analysis looks at different aspects of a subject or topic and shows the reader how they fit together or interact. An argument describes a particular stance and provides evidence to support that stance.

Clearly some texts may seek to combine these types. In these cases, the writer needs to use discourse markers and paragraphing effectively so the reader is not lost in any way. This may involve, for example, comparing two concepts point by point in successive paragraphs rather than describing one concept and then the other.

In conclusion

In all cases of medical academic writing, a text must address the question or issue set as its title. The topic sentences starting every paragraph must provide the structure that shows the reader how you are doing this. Each paragraph must contain sufficient detail to support the topic sentences set out. And finally, the language selected, so register of vocabulary and variety of sentence type and connection, must be used to express ideas and information precisely and succinctly.

Together, these elements of academic writing enable medical texts to be written that express complex ideas with clarity, precision and accessibility.  

Download the materials:

This article uses material from SLC's English for Medical Academic Purposes course

The material in these articles and powerpoint come from SLC’s course, English for Medical Academic Purposes. This course is designed specifically to enable medical students and academics to engage successfully in the international world of medical research and study.

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