Rhetorical Moves in Academic Writing

Rhetorical moves refers to a stretch of text that does a particular job. Learn the rhetorical moves of expert writers to advance the clarity and persuasiveness of your work.

Here rhetorical moves are illustrated as feature of genre

Moves Definition

Rhetorical Moves in academic writing are

Related Concepts: Genre; Organizational Schema; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Reasoning

Why Do Rhetorical Moves in Academic Writing Matter?

Without rhetorical moves, your readers, listeners, or users may not understand why you are telling them what you are telling them. Rhetorical moves provide footholds that people can use to track a writer’s textwhat they’re saying and why they’re saying it.

Moves of Academic Writing

Writers, speakers, and knowledge workers . . . talk about rhetorical moves in a variety of ways because there are so many different moves.

Rhetorical Moves Research & Theory

Rhetorical Moves have been studied intensely by scholars of academic writing (among them Graff & Birkenstein (6th ed. 2018) and Swales & Feak (1990, 1994)).

Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say Model

Graff and Birkenstein (2018, 6th ed.) in their popular book They say/I say – The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing lay out two major moves that run through every well-functioning piece of academic writing, from undergraduate research papers, through doctoral theses:

  1. drawing on the works of others (“they say”)
  2. building your own enquiry and argument, and thus finding y our voice in what is called “the ongoing conversation of the field.”

Swales & Feak’s CARS Model: Create a Research Space

At the Ph.D. theses and article writing-level, Swales & Feak (1990) have researched and theorized on the moves that researchers make in their research articles. Swales and Feak described an existing pattern of moves that you will very often find in research paper introductions, namely that the author(s) will make these moves, often already on page one of their article:

  1. Move 1 Establishing a territory
  2. Move 2 Establishing a niche
  3. Move 3 Occupying the niche.

Together, these moves are known as the CARS Model: Create A Research Space. Here you might recognize the chess analogy in the word “move”: In making your knowledge claim, you move into a field to occupy it, as in a game of chess, and in doing so, you acknowledge those who stood on that same field before (“they said”). Swales & Feak further subdivide these moves into a number of minor “steps”, which are even more micro steps in the organization.

Moves Found in Academic Writing

In a literature review of research on rhetorical moves in academic articles, we (Rienecker, Stray Jörgensen & Jakobsen 2020) found

  • several books and articles on moves in article introductions (Swales & Feak (1990) among others
  • articles on moves in the discussion section of articles (by some considered the most difficult element to write (Le, 2013, Flowerdew, 2015).

List of Moves in Research Papers and Articles

Moves in the introduction:

  • Starting point, observation
  • Context, background
  • Research question and aim(s)
  • Methods, concepts and theories
  • Procedure/structure.

Moves in the literature review:

  • State the purpose and focus of the literature review
  • Justify the search and selection of literature
  • Delimitations
  • Point out a gap
  • Build on the literature – appraisal or critique/gaps
  • Qualifying the outcome of the literature review

Moves in the theory section:

  • Motivation for choice of theory and introduction
  • Concept definition(s)
  • Explanation of the use of theory/concepts
  • Qualification of theory/concepts

Moves in the method/data section:

  • Motivation for choice of methods for selection and collection of data
  • Delimitation of data
  • Choice and motivation of method(s) for analysis
  • Choice and motivation of method(s) for evaluation, design, action, implementation
  • Account of methodology

Moves in analysis and results/interpretations section:

  • Introduction of the analysis: basis/purpose/focus
  • Analysis, parts, procedure + tools (theory, concepts, methods)
  • Results
  • Explanations, interpretations, understanding, evaluation of results.

Moves in discussion section:

Discussion of methods:

  • Recap of most prominent results and interpretations
  • Limitations of methods
  • Comparison with the results of other studies
  • Explanation of results and interpretations, and of differences to other studies
  • Rebuttal of anticipated criticism
  • Consolidation of results and interpretations.

Discussion of positions:

  • Differences among or between own and others’ positions
  • Explanations to differences
  • Concluding discussions.

Moves in the conclusion section:

  • Restatement of research problem and aim(s)
  • Basis for the conclusion (data, central concepts and theory, methods used)
  • Conclusion and contribution
  • Validity, scope and strength of the conclusion.

Moves in the implications/recommendations section:

  • Recap of the study, analysis, results, conclusion
  • Implications
  • Preconditions
  • Implications for research
  • Implications for praxis and profession.

Again, this is a brutto list, and that means that not every move can be traced in every article (they may not be there, or they may be there implicitly), but published articles will show a number of the most obligatory moves in research writing, such as pointing to a gap, a research question, and a number of moves that together depict what “they say” and what  “I/we say”. (We, because many research articles are written by teams). Some moves are used very frequently, some are less frequent, some are even rare. But nonetheless: this brutto list is the pool from which moves are drawn. The regularity of the moves shows that the academic genre is very formatted, because the purpose of research papers and articles always is the same: to document an enquiry, based on state-of-art knowledge, and thereby make an argument [link]. This leads to a regularity in how texts are organized, moves are made, and phrases are posed.

Rhetorical Moves vs Genre

The concepts of rhetorical moves and genre are interrelated. Genres are the enactment of particular moves.

How Can I learn to Make the Right Rhetorical Moves?

Study the rhetorical moves of other writers, speakers, knowledge workers. Practice 10,000 hours. Lsten to the critiques of your readers.

Writers, speakers, and knowledge workers . . . reflect on their rhetorical moves when they engage in rhetorical reasoning, rhetorical analysis of a situation, revision and editing.

Sometimes people make moves tacitly (i.e., without metacognition). However, when the call to write is a sticky situation or an important situation, writers, speakers, and knowledge workers . . . are wise to double-check the appropriateness of their moves given the exigency at hand.


Feak, C. & J. Swales (2011): Creating contexts: writing introductions across genres University of Michigan Press, Michigan.

Godfrey, J. (2013). The Student Phrase Book. Vocabulary for Writing at University. Palgrave Study Skills.

Graff, G. and C. Birkenstein (2018, 6th ed.) They say/I say – The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing Norton & co. New York & London

Morley, J (2019). Academic Phrasebank – A compendium of commonly used phrasal elements in academic English in PDF format. www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk

Flowerdew, L. (2015). Using corpus-based research and online academic corpora to inform writing of the discussion section of a thesis. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 20: 58-68.

Le, Thi Ngoc Phuong (2013). Phraseologies in the Discussion Section of Applied Linguistics Research Articles. MA dissertation, University of Queensland.

Peacock, M. (2011). The structure of the methods section in research articles across eight disciplines. The Asian ESP Journal, 7(2): 99-124.

Sabet, M.S & Kazempouri, M. (2015). Generic structure of discussion sections in ESP research articles across international and Iranian journals. Advances in Language and Literary Studies 5(2), journals.aiac.org.au/index.php./alls/article/view/1368/1341

Rienecker, L., P. Stray Jorgensen, A.S. Jakobsen (2020): Akademiske fraser – i opgaver, artikler og projekter. Frederiksberg, Samfundslitteratur

Swales, J. (1990). Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swales, J. & C. Feak (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. 2. udgave. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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