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Turner, J. (2018) On Writtenness: The Cultural Politics of Academic Writing

Reviewed by Christina Healey

19 January 2019

Joan Turner (2018) On Writtenness: The Cultural Politics of Academic Writing Bloomsbury Academic, London, 287pp ISBN 9781472505071


Joan Turner enjoys a high reputation in EAP circles so I was excited to hear about her latest book and volunteered to review it. The title indicates its topic ‘academic writing’ which all BALAP readers are interested in and many of us teach. The sub-title indicates the approach, certainly not a ‘how to‘ guide, more of an opinion piece about ‘politics’ and how power is conditioned by different contexts or ’cultures’. However, an uncertainty still lurks about the purpose of the book. Is it a collection of essays on philosophical sociolinguistics or a purposeful de/re-construction of the relationship between language and learning in contemporary higher education?

Turner identifies ‘writtenness’ in the HE context as:

“institutional expectations of student writing such as clear and transparent meaning, precision and accuracy in the use of language, and a smooth and easy read.” (p.9)  She claims that this ‘writtenness’ is generally approved. However she is sceptical about the validity of the values that underpin it.:

“It is an aim of this book to disrupt this perception and to foreground the extent of uncertainty and flux that surrounds academic writing in contemporary international higher education ” (p.1)


For Turner, ’writtenness’ is underpinned by a three-part textual ideology (pp. 9-14):

  • an ‘expository ideology’: Turner places this so-called’ ideology’ in the historical context of European seventeenth century scientific revolution (p.11) and re-visits this idea in Chapter2.


  • the ‘smooth read’ ideology: Turner suggests that the assumption that all written texts should be easy to read is unrealistic in the context of international higher education.


  • ‘linguistic conflation’: in other words “clear and rational thought begets clear and rational text” (p. 13). Turner blames Locke for this. As far as can be made out Turner does not dispute that there is a relationship between thought and text, she just says that the conflation of the two can be over–simplistic.


Identifying ideologies is only the beginning. Turner points out the complexity underneath:

“In the context of higher education, the institutionalised Lockean perspective that language is a tool for communicating pre-established meaning clashes with the functionalist perspective that language is a pro-active shaper of meaning. However this clash is unarticulated.” (p. 5-6) .

As writing teachers ourselves most readers would recognise these clashes and perhaps agree that it is time they were better articulated. Turner goes on to compare ‘writtenness’ to Received Pronunciation (RP). This is a seductive comparison. Shaw’s Pygmalion (first performed in 1913) testifies to the power that RP once wielded. And now no-one cares very much. All over the world speakers of different varieties of English negotiate the particular systems of sounds which will work in their own communicative contexts. In the UK, estuary English is now perfectly acceptable. So is she suggesting that the same is happening to RW (received writing)?


After the introductory overview ON writtenness is divided into eight Chapters, each with a clear title signifying its content. In Chapter 2 On the historical construction of writtenness as an ideological regime Turner equates an epistemology of observation and experiment with an ‘expository’ style of communication “historically locatable with the scientific revolution in Britain in the second half of the seventeenth century” (p.35). She does not claim that her placing is original, in fact she cites many different authorities to support her. What is less clear is whether she thinks this historical construction is still applicable now. She links seventeenth century scientific and expository forms of language to contemporary phenomena like the Academic Word List (Coxhead, A. 2000, referenced in Turner p.46).Turner may be implying that, if one set of writing requirements can be explained by one identifiable historical context, then perhaps other contexts require other kinds of writing.

“the notion of an ideal referentiality for words, or that language in general is a neutral, transparent means of representation, is no longer current in contemporary linguistic or social scientific understanding. Nonetheless, traces of this epistemology remain as a value system, especially in judgements of written text.” (p. 47)


Chapter 3. On the underlying value of writtenness as a transdisciplinary criterion is part of Turner’s contention that ‘writtenness’ is valued independently of any particular academic discipline. In this Chapter, Turner draws evidence from book reviews in the weekly magazine ,the Times Higher Education (THE). Turner’s data consists of 271 reviews from 37 different issues of the magazine. She found that 49% of the reviews included reference to qualities of ‘writtenness’ and she identifies positive key qualities such as ‘ elegance’, ‘brevity’, ‘concision’ and ’clarity’. This close analysis is very entertaining. However, what needs to be proven is that academics transfer these expectations from their Saturday afternoon reading to the assessment of student work and also that this transfer disadvantages their students.


Chapter 4. On polished prose and its frictions: the contemporary politics of academic style. In this Chapter Turner continues with the uses of the word ’elegant’ and adds two more, ‘polished’ and ‘pristine’. She looks at the range of style tips currently available to prospective writers and notes that they are often contradictory and therefore unhelpful. She cites ‘you should always hedge’ (p.103) and ‘avoid colourful/colourless words’ (pp. 99-100). The Chapter title includes the term ‘academic style’ and yet it is only marginally about writing within institutionalised HE and much more about formal, print-based writing in general. Turner comments on ‘the strength of feeling that individuals bring to these issues’ (p.106) However, it could be argued this feeling has something of the ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ aspect to it. How far does it impinge on student achievement or on the fundamental question of the inter-relationship between thought and language?

She then touches on the issue of English as a second/third language users trying to get published in anglophone journals (p.116):

“It is unlikely . . .  that a discourse analyst will identify features of ‘elegance’ (reviewer’s own quote marks), yet it forms part of the preconceptions of academics reading student writing, such that it may be awarded higher marks, and may be seen as intrinsic to the value of a PhD thesis.”


Turner’s point is that, however much we EAP professionals, schooled in discourse analysis and much else besides, help our international doctorate students, they may still be disadvantaged by examiners with an underpinning ideology of ‘polished’ style. Her claim needs deconstructing. Firstly the operative word is ’may’. Yes this may happen. Lots of us have a hunch that it does happen but what is needed is evidence. Does it apply across all academic disciplines? Does it apply particularly to PhDs or has Turner raised an issue with the problematic nature of doctorates that goes beyond language choice? Can ‘elegance’ be irrefutably equated with ‘native-speakerdom’? What about the increasingly large numbers of ‘home’ students without privileged access to formal ‘writtenness’?  Hopefully Turner’s ‘disruption’ will provoke discussion within EAP on all these questions.

Chapter 5. On the elite and remedial economy of English in international higher education has a more explicit focus on international higher education and contains a critique of the role of international language tests such as IELTS and TOEFL

“While the gate keeping function is one thing . . . tests cannot provide a full picture of what’s required in terms of language use once students have begun their degree courses. The reification of language  . . . can lead to a sense of shock and incomprehension when students who have gained the requisite score on one or other of the tests, subsequently fail to perform in English as expected.” (p. 132)


Chapter 6. On producing writtenness: misrecognised value, mystical process, misunderstood processes, misaligned roles deals with the ‘misrecognition’ of writtenness, how it is only noticed when it is absent (the deficit model) and how the challenges students face to achieve writtenness are not acknowledged. She gets down to the nitty–gritty of academic writing and deals with student (mis)use of Writing Centre drop-in sessions for proof-reading purposes and how much their subject tutors may be encouraging them to do so. Turner draws her examples from listservs from BALEAP, European Association for Teaching Academic Writing (EATAW) and Learning Development in Higher Education Network (LDHEN). She returns to the theme of the ”institutional frictions between what discipline-based academics expect and what writing practitioners can, and feel they should, deliver.”(p.169


Chapter 7. On writtenness and textual trade: ethical boundaries, inequitable assessment and institutional complicity is about “the role of writtennness as a source of ethical deliberation” (p. 178). By ‘textual trade’ the author means fraudulent practices involving commercial agencies such as proofreading and ghostwriting “equally ethically murky” (p. 188). She extends this focus on ethical matters to include the issue of inequitable assessment. She again refers to the ‘disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ variety of discussion about language but this time from within the academic community. “‘Appalling’ writing skills drive tutors to seek help” (Melanie Newman THE 2007 as quoted by Turner p.179). And she again points out the contrast/possible conflict in approach between discipline-based colleagues and academic writing specialists.

In the same Chapter, Turner states: “. . . stigmatising a student for a minor grammar or spelling mistake is educationally dubious. It does little for the confidence of a student not yet fully in command of academic discourse.” (p. 193). Turner’s research seems to suggest that this practice is more common at doctoral level than with undergraduates.


Chapter 8. On proof-reading and its indexicalities: social attitudes, the student experience, textual mobility   deals with proof-reading i.e. an activity undertaken on the text by someone other than its author in some detail because it encapsulates the cultural value of ‘writtenness’ in a way that is not applied to spoken language


Chapter 9. On written English in flux: disrupting the smooth read reiterates the theme of ”the conversation that needs to be held institutionally about international English, greater acceptance of variation in form, greater tolerance for the ‘awkward’ expression, and greater attention to the assessment criteria” (p. 230). The Chapter then looks at examples of variation in English including the different forms and uses of the article. This serves as a summary for all the ideas in the book and, as such, is probably the one to read first.


In conclusion one is left with two lurking doubts.

The first is the evidence used. Turner has clearly read very widely and the Bibliography is most comprehensive (unlike the Index which is scrappy). However the ideas cited are only referred to briefly and never explored in detail although they will be well-known to many in the field. The author offers some small sample qualitative research namely ten semi-structured interviews with academics, four semi–structured interviews with PhD students and five focus groups with students. However this research is only used anecdotally in order to support the writer’s opinions.

The other concern is the way the argument is organised and the style that is used. Sometimes, while reading, it would seem that the volume should have been entitled ‘AGAINST Writtenness’ rather than ‘ON Writtenness’.  Rather strangely for a book on writing, certainly until Chapter 9, we get to read very little actual writing other than Turner’s own. A hypothetical review in THE would be unlikely to commend its ‘polished’ style or indeed its ‘brevity’. It is not a ’smooth read’. For example try deconstructing this sentence: “This culturally embedded sentiment retains ideological resonance in the workings of ontological complexity, which subordinates writtennesss, how meaning is shaped, to its outcome as conceptual object.” (p. 43)


So who is it for?  It is doubtful that discipline -based academics can be persuaded to read it even though they ought to. Although Turner claims to act as their advocate most international students would not find it accessible unless they were already at PhD level and planning to make a career in academic writing. What about trainee EAP teachers? Perhaps not, although their tutors will find it stimulating. ON Writtenness should be read for what it is, a series of essays written to be provocative by someone who knows her field very well.

Words: 2040


Coxhead, A.(2000) A new academic word list, TESOL Quarterly, 34, 2, 213-38


Reviewed by:

Christina Healey, a retired EAP tutor is now an independent tutor, researcher and writer:


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