50 Steps to Improving your Academic Writing (Garnet) review

As usual, as published in Modern English Teacher magazine. And as usual, the published version probably seems at least more positive than I was in this original version…

There is no lack of well-respected ESL academic writing books on the market, including many others from the same publisher as this title, Garnet Publishing. This course, however, is the first that I have seen that is specifically and only designed for self-study by students. Its overall structure is also unusual, with 50 short four-page “Steps” that all answer a question that forms the chapter’s title such as “How do I write a good abstract?” and “Should I use ‘I’ in my writing?” These are arranged into ten larger sections of five Steps each called “Units”, such as “Unit G: Using functional language in your writing”.

Each Step starts with a quotation and is then divided into Reflection, Contextualization, Analysis, Activation, Personalization and Extension, always in that order. For example, Step 36 “How can I stop repeating the same language?” starts with students trying to work out the difference between lists of near-synonyms like “slender” and “skinny” in Reflection, before doing something similar with seeming synonyms for “research” that like “It was an extremely successful piece of study”, this time with all examples given in context. The questions raised in these two sections are at least partly answered in Analysis, where students read a text explaining why avoiding repetition is important, the problems that can occur when doing so, and ways of learning how to do so.  In Activation they rewrite a five-line text to avoid repetition, which they can check with the answer key at the back of the book. In Personalization they are asked to reconsider their use of an electronic dictionary, check if they really understand the words that they have used in a recent essay, and try to identify and find synonyms for words that they overuse. The Extension section then guides them to related parts of the book.

Many of the Steps are questions that no one has ever asked such as “Why is proofreading important?”, “How can I avoid using vague and unnecessary words?” and “How can I show cause and effect?”, and there is a danger that some of the higher level students using this book (described as suitable for “Upper Intermediate to native speaker”) might for that reason find them off-putting. However, the format does seem to have helped the writer focus the advice and exercises on exactly the kinds of things that my students do need to concentrate on, although that could also be due to the obvious experience of the author with this kind of teaching. The back of the book is also packed with useful stuff like passive forms of verbs which are common in academic English, common affixes in academic English, and examples of good titles, paragraphs, introductions and conclusions in different academic areas. I’ll certainly be keeping this book handy as I try to switch to a more needs-based way of teaching academic writing this year and so have to prepare lessons on their various weaknesses in the few days between receiving their homework and teaching the next class. I’d also recommend it to almost any EAP teacher, however much or little their experience, as a source of a list of points you could teach, useful advice to pass onto students, models that you or students can refer to, hints on which things are most important to include in a course, things that could be corrected and discussed, and links to useful websites.

The more important question is obviously how much I would recommend it to my students as a self-study resource that they can use on their own, as is its stated purposes. To start with, I certainly couldn’t recommend it to someone with IELTS 5.0 as it suggests on the back cover. This is partly due to language used in the book, with the first two pages of Step 26 “How can I write a good sentence?” including expressions like “a common myth”, “no specific or required length”, “problems can arise”, “its core principles”, “precede” and “are composed of”, none of which are explained. There are then the five expressions which are explained in the glossary, including “syntax” and “coordinating conjunction”. It is almost impossible to explain the concepts without those grammar expressions and students will need that kind of academic vocabulary in their academic studies sooner or later, but I have students who already have IELTS 6.5 who would have to struggle so much with their dictionary to understand the advice that they’d probably lose sight of the fact that they are getting actual advice on their academic writing rather than doing an academic reading task. This is made worse by the continual use of texts on the topic as models to talk about the topic, e.g. finding different kinds of sentences (complex-compound etc) in a text that tells you what those types of sentence mean. This always seems like a good idea given limits of time and space on the page, but I’ve almost entirely abandoned this approach in class due to the confusion it can cause, so I can only imagine the mental struggle would be worse for students studying at their desks or on the train on their own. Also, although the answers to most of the questions raised in the Reflection and Contextualization sections come up in the Analysis texts, my students, particularly the lower level ones, would be much happier also having the answers in the apparently “detailed answer key”, one which actually only has answers to the Activation sections – and even those could do with more explanation of why the answers are correct and some other possible answers wouldn’t be.

Given the oddness of some of the questions that make for the titles of the Steps such as “How can I make my writing more emphatic?” and that the book is organized in logical sections rather than in order of how important the points are for most students, it is also difficult for students to structure their own way of working their way through the book. There is no needs analysis-style section at the front of the book to help with this, and generally the one and a half page introduction doesn’t really give students enough guidance on how to make the most of the materials, including almost no guidance on how to use the very useful resources at the back of the book.

For the reasons given above, I’d have difficulty recommending this book as a purely self-study resource to anyone under genuinely Advanced level, which is a shame because obviously I most often want to offer extra practice to my lower level students. As the publishers have taken the brave step of not pretending that the book is suitable for both class and self-study use that so many publishers try on nowadays, it’s a pity that they couldn’t also have been more realistic about the levels it is for.

However, as in my own courses I have to write all my own materials and am often stuck for any homework or suggestions for extra practice apart from actual essay writing, I am considering introducing this title as a kind of workbook for my academic writing classes next year to help me set homework, recommend extra work for students who have particular needs, and give students a way of analyzing their own needs and so being able to tell me what they want to study in class.

If you were making recommendation to someone who for some reason couldn’t take academic writing classes, it would also be very useful. For example, a student already studying an MA in an English speaking country and getting more content-based feedback on their essays from their professors would certainly get a lot out of being able to refer to this book and do the reflection and activities that it suggests. Although it is “primarily intended for students who are new to or inexperienced in academic writing”, I’d also recommend it to my postgraduate students who are already thinking of getting published in English and so are starting to write actual papers rather than just essays to hand into their professors.

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4 Responses to 50 Steps to Improving your Academic Writing (Garnet) review

  1. CT says:

    Although it’s a long way from being perfect Alex, Significant Scribbles is a pretty good way to get Low Int/Int students thinking more about their writing, esp. Japanese Ss.

  2. alexcase says:

    Thanks CT

    For class materials I usually end up making my own stuff (https://tefltastic.wordpress.com/worksheets/eap/academic-writing/) but always looking for more self-study recommendations and sources of ideas for me. Is it any good for self-study?

  3. CT says:

    There’s not enough meat for it to be worth considering for self study Alex, unfortunately. I’ve found it a useful way to introduce a wide range of topics (esp. various forms of sentence-level complexity) to Korean/Japanese low/mid level teens which I then use as a springboard for tasks of my own devising,

    Many of the points you’ve made above ring true for a lot of the Garnet books I’ve seen. I always get excited when I get sent inspection copies and after 30 seconds I’m already thinking ‘who is the hell is this actually for?!’

  4. alexcase says:

    That’s often my feeling too, but just as much so with the Collins Academic Skills books I’ve just posted a review of. I do like Garnet’s Extended Academic Writing textbook, though, perhaps because its purpose is so clear.

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