Discipline-Specific Writing

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What exactly is a discipline? Perhaps you can name a few examples. Perhaps you find yourself coming up with disciplines like biology, engineering, philosophy, literature, law, and sociology. Perhaps you have a sense that some of these disciplines are more similar than others. Diagrams of the disciplines, based on this idea, are often laid out a bit like a family tree (see Figure 1), with each discipline categorised by the type of phenomena it studies.

The topmost box reads Academia and is divided into four other boxes: Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, and Applied or Professional. Humanities is further divided into History, Literature, Philosophy, and Languages. Social Sciences are further divided into Politics, Anthropology, Economics, Sociology, and Psychology. Sciences are further divided into Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, and Mathematics. Applied or Professional is divided into Business, Design, Education, Journalism, Medicine, and Engineering.

Figure 1. Disciplines in Academia

Disciplines are often categorised based on their area of research focus. Commonly, four large categories are used: the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and applied or professional fields.

A figure shows a tree diagram of different disciplines in academia.

However, these kinds of diagrams also hide a great deal of complexity. For example, many disciplines cross over or fall between the larger categories. Take geography as an example. Research in geography can take a more science-like or social science–like approach. Archaeology could also arguably fall into three categories – humanities, social science, and applied or professional disciplines. In fact, most of the applied or professional disciplines rely on knowledge from other disciplines. For example, it could be argued that medicine is applied biology, education is applied social science, and engineering is applied physics.

However, even if you can list a number of disciplines, it can be tricky to pin down exactly what one is. Perhaps you have a sense that a discipline is a category of human knowledge, and to some extent this is true. However, a discipline isn’t just a field of study or a set of facts to learn, it’s also a community or social group made up of scholars engaged in academic work. Over time, these scholarly communities have developed different ways of thinking and communicating, and writing plays an important part in this. As a student, you have the opportunity to enter one or more of these social worlds, to discover what these disciplines know, to immerse yourself in the way that academic community thinks, and to practise communicating in a disciplinary way.

Depending on your context, you may already be studying within a single discipline or you may be dipping into two or more disciplines alongside each other. However, in either scenario, as a university student, you will experience learning in a discipline. Each disciplinary context that you experience will require different kinds of writing from you. However, as you may have already discovered, much of the writing advice available is largely generic. Therefore, learning how to make sense of disciplinary (or subdisciplinary) writing is an important skill to develop.

In Part 1 of this Skill, you will learn useful strategies for writing in the disciplines. In Part 2, you will learn about making claims and establishing arguments in these different contexts. In Part 3, you will learn about how patterns of writing features differ between disciplines.

Suggested Readings
Miller-Cochran, S., Stamper, R., & Cochran, S. (2019). An insider’s guide to academic writing: A rhetoric and reader (
2nd ed.
).Bedford Books.
Boyle, J., & Ramsay, S. (2017). Writing for science students. Macmillan Study Skills.
Redman, P., & Maples, W. (2017). Good essay writing: A social sciences guide (
5th ed.
).SAGE Publications Ltd.
Creme, P., & Lea, M. R. (2008). Writing for different courses. In Writing at university: A guide for students. McGraw-Hill Education.
Hyland, K. (2002). Options of identity in academic writing. ELT Journal56(4), 351358.