Close Reading Journal Articles

Academic articles are scholarly conversations. They often reference and speak to each other and allow scholars to acknowledge, criticize, engage, learn from, disagree with, and add to each other’s ideas. This conversation happens between peers with a shared language, knowledge base, and training.

Like any genre, the genre of scholarly writing has a function: conversation/dialogue between scholars, and, ultimately, building new knowledge.

To ensure quality scholarship, before any article is published in a reputable journal it must be peer reviewed. Peers, in this case, are other scholars with a vested interest in maintaining the relevance of the work and the quality of the conversation. Like any genre, the genre of scholarly writing has a function: conversation/dialogue between scholars, and, ultimately, building new knowledge.

How does a new scholar learn to read journal articles written by experts in the field?

Journal articles can often be densely written with complex sentences, nominal style (reliance on noun phrases rather than verbs), challenging vocabulary, and copious citations. However, these articles become more accessible once students understand the structure and conventions of this genre of writing.

This genre is a highly formalized scholarly conversation in which both writer and reader are well aware of the conventions. This genre’s intertextuality stems from its well-established convention of talking back, with citation and summary to acknowledge prior scholarship, and then talking forward and building new knowledge. Articles often follow the same basic format. Of course within those conventions there are many possibilities.

Rhetorical Appeals in Scholarly Writing

Rhetoric is the art of speaking and writing effectively. For the writer this means understanding how to respond to the exigencies (needs) of a particular writing situation—an academic essay has requirements not found in a letter to a university or an email to a professor. Each situation requires you to use different rhetorical strategies.

Understanding these rhetorical appeals helps both the reader and the writer enter the scholarly conversation. There are three main forms of rhetorical appeals in scholarly writing:

  • Logos means simply an appeal to logic. A writer may use inductive or deductive reasoning.
  • Ethos is an appeal based on the credibility of the writer. This can be done using credible sources, establishing shared values and interests as your audience, and stating your arguments clearly.
  • Pathos appeals to people’s wants, needs, and sensibilities. Examples of appealing to pathos include personal anecdotes to illustrate a specific point, sensitive issues under debate in society, and powerful quotations that appeal to a reader’s humanity as well as humour to connect with a writer’s sensibilities.

While academic articles aim for an intelligent, neutral, knowledgeable, and incisive tone, effective articles often use a number of rhetorical appeals to logic and emotion. While this is done, as apprentice scholars, you should avoid pathos as a rhetorical device. It can quickly become hysterical in tone or seem manipulative, when not handled expertly.

Discerning Tone in an Academic Article

Academic writing follows a convention of respectful and generous discourse, even when one scholar disagrees strongly with another. Understanding how scholars frame their opinions and tone helps apprentice scholars read and critique academic writing.

Scholars cite and summarize other scholars using what can be viewed as rhetorical signposts. These include words and phrases such as: but, however, purports, attests, agrees, and disproves.

As you read academic articles, you can train yourself to read for rhetorical signposts to help understand the thesis. Sometimes the writer’s opinion is obvious, as in Frank Davey’s essay Surviving the Paraphrase in which he attacks Canadian literary criticism that relies solely on a thematic approach:

Many of the academic critics (and I include here Douglas Jones and Margaret Atwood because of their acceptance of the thematic approach) appear almost as ignorant of movements in contemporary Canadian writing as their colleagues in the 1920’s were the formal experiments of Eliot, Pound, and Joyce. (5)

At other times a writer/scholar may overtly agree with another, and use citation to build upon and acknowledge previous work. Florence Stratton does this in Cartographic Lessons: Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water:

My analysis is intended to complement Graham Huggan’s study of maps and mapping strategies in Canadian (and Australian) literature, the most substantial work that has been done in the area. (82)

Being able to identify how authors situate their arguments within their own scholarly fields is important in order to find connections or oppostions to other scholarship. This will help you understand not only the context within which the author is writing, but will also allow you to navigate opposing ideas in order to come to your own conclusions.

When reading scholarly articles it is important to remember that the ideas you encounter are not simply meant to be memorized or accepted as truth. Articles invite readers to join a conversation, into which you can contribute your own observations and original ideas. Being able to identify tone, context, and rhetorical strategies will ensure that you enter the conversation in a meaningful way.

Works Cited

  • Davey, Frank. Surviving the Paraphrase. Canadian Literature 70 (1976): 5–13. Print. (PDF)
  • Stratton, Florence. Cartographic Lessons: Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water. Canadian Literature 161–62 (1999): 82–102. Print. (PDF)