A Letter to James Dewey Watson

– Bharat Sigdel

Dear Watson,

I am writing to you today to tighten some bonds of our relation. Yes friend, being two humans from a seemingly vast different professional life, I find too many common grounds between you, a scientist, and me, an academic writer. I always get confused whether you are a scientist or an academic writer. Similarly, in my case as well, I inquire with myself whether I am an academic writer or a scientist. In this letter today, I will be focusing on our common grounds.

Writing is a common activity in every dimension of life. In formal as well as informal settings, we regularly write. We write in different contexts, for different purposes, for different target readers, through different mediums and with different messages. But obviously, writing of daily use is different from what students and academicians write in schools, colleges and universities. The special variety of writing which is called academic writing goes commonly in schools, colleges and universities. As academic writing, in many ways, is what science is and is not what science is not, we can take it as science. As I have already mentioned, to some extent, you are an academic writer and I am a scientist.

Academic writing is a skill-based writing in academia which ranges from assignment of students to expert works of researchers and professors. In the beginning, academic writing may be so frightening and disgusting to the learners, it “may turn your stomach or turn your nose.” Difficulties come when we cannot reach to a particular context. As L. Lennie Irvin says, “Writing resembles having our eyes blindfolded and our hands tied behind our backs: we can’t see whom we’re talking to or where we are. Separated from our audience in place and time, we imaginatively have to create this context.” Yes, we imagine and create a context. Through writing we try to establish a rhetoric that creates a common ground to writer and readers to meet and communicate.

Academic writing is such a vast skill that it can be taken as and compared to many dimensions of philosophy of life. Therefore, we say academic writing is discourse, politics, pedagogy, network, scholarship, science, and many more. It carries its dominant features from all these various fields. As we create the context of communication through our writing, all academic writings are discourses. The writer openly argues on the raised issue. The entire project of writing from selection of the topics to publication or even to the point of readers’ response/criticism is engulfed with politics. Academic writing is solely a skill and artifact of academia. It is deeply rooted in pedagogy. Similarly, academic writing is considered to be enriched by network and scholarship. It helps to form a network of scholars and their profound scholarly knowledge. And can academic writing be taken as science, too?

Yes, of course. The enterprise of writing can be said to be similar to that of science. As defined by Wilson, E. O.  (1999) “Science is the organized, systematic enterprise that gathers knowledge about the world and condenses the knowledge into testable laws and principles” (58). So is academic writing.  Academic writing has its own norms, rules, regulations or format specified by concerned university or constructs of long practices. Academic writing follows the format which has been in long practice and has universality in its pattern. For example, a five paragraph essay format is universally accepted. The University of Sydney has introduced academic writing thus: “Academic writing is generally quite formal, objective (impersonal), and technical. It is formal by avoiding casual or conversational language, such as contractions or informal vocabulary. It is impersonal and objective by avoiding direct reference to people or feelings, and instead of emphasizing objects, facts and ideas. It is technical by using vocabulary specific to the discipline.”

Dear Watson, normally, science is understood as a discipline in which they first find an issue or problem, then they go through careful and systematic observation based on any suitable method and finally they reach an answer or a solution. We can take example of your discovery of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Though the discovery was announced in 1953, you had started your study and observation from your virus research at Indiana University in 1950. I have come to know that you became convinced that the gene could be understood only after something was known about nucleic acid molecules. Study was also focused on protein molecules with the help of scientists working in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge.

After working on research at the Cavendish Laboratory continuously for two years (1951–53), yes, the discovery was made to be possible, in the spring of 1953. Certainly, academic writing also has some similar traits. Academic writing, specially research work, takes its journey to one or multiple conclusions started from and across statement of problem, finding a research question, setting hypothesis, going through data collection and data analysis. To quote Anne Whitaker (2009) here: “In an academic writing assignment, you will start by asking a good question, then find and analyze answers to it, and choose your own best answer (s) to discuss in your paper. Your paper will share your thoughts and findings and justify your answer with logic and evidence” (2).

Science has reliability, validity and credibility because conclusion it draws is tested. The discovery of DNA is universally accepted without single question. Similarly, academic writings, except some, have all these qualities. As Gina L. Vallis says, “Academic writing uses a style that tends to offer a question, in an implicit or explicit manner, and then to move, step-by-step, to a conclusion, through reasoned argumentation” (20). So, they have wide acceptability.

Science finds new avenues for further study. In academic writing, too, we can find curiosity, knowledge gap and new concepts that trigger readers to go with further research or further writing. That is what we mean by writing inspires writing. The references mentioned create a network creating connection with almost unlimited link of the readers to the world of academic writing.

Academic writing is similar to science not only with what science is but also with what science is not. First of all, science is not just accumulation of facts. Nor is academic writing. Academic writing is not pile of data or crowd of corpus only, it is entire task of mining out valuables through analysis of variables.

Science does not try to forcefully claim something to be true. Rather it establishes truth through its own way of observation and testing. similarly, in academic writing we derive answer/solution/conclusion based on analysis of the variables and related data.

Science does not deal with supernatural, magical elements or occultism. Nor does academic writing. Supernatural, magical elements or occultism can certainly be subjects of writing, but not evidences of supporting details.

Academic writing follows an established format, goes across a reliable procedure, uses observation, analysis and logical reasoning to reach to one or multiple answers. It can be compared to science. Also, it does not believe in untested matters and supernatural as well as occult power as science. So, by now we come to the point that academic writing is science.

Dear Watson, many congratulations once again to you on your discovery of DNA for which you were awarded with the Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1962. I like to conclude my letter here today but please do not forget to reply. I am looking forward to hearing your response on my analogy and any of your recent discovery.

With best regards,



[Mr. Sigdel is pursuing M.Phil. in English Education in Kathmandu University]

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