Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Academic Writing

It may not seem so, but I've actually been trying to avoid the topic of academic writing these past few months. I'm afraid I've been cultivating a kind of mysticism about it, suggesting that as long as you sit down every day and try to write down something you know, style and structure will follow naturally. This is the "wax on, wax off" school of academic writing.

But a client of mine has recently persuaded me to return to explicit instruction in basic principles, including the elements of style. I'm going to be developing some workshops that are centered on the product (a journal article) rather than the process. To get started I thought I'd blog a little about what I take academic writing, or scholarly composition, to be.

Scholarly writing is, ideally, assertive and discursive. A journal article should make a series of well-defined, easily identifiable claims and provide support for them. And it should be written as part of a conversation in which those claims are discussed and evaluated. As the reader I should be able to quickly discover what the writer is trying to get me to believe—much more quickly than I should come to believe those things. I should just as easily be able to discern the reasons the writer is giving me to believe those things. Then I can make up my own mind.

All that is of course obvious in some sense. But it often seems to me that people forget these simple values when writing. They tend to forget especially that they should be writing down things they know, they should be stating claims they believe are true, and have some justification to believe are true. Their writing should mainly consist in statements of their beliefs and their justifications for them.

Scholarship is the process of forming beliefs in a critical and careful manner. And while writing certainly plays a role in that process, it is by no means a magical one. Perhaps the best way to see this is to think about what you assume will happen in the mind of the reader when they read your text. Hopefully, you assume the reader will come to believe what you believe about the topic you've studied. Hopefully you think the value of your research generalizes beyond satisfying our own curiosity or occupying your time. Rather, you are engaged in research in order to discover things that can be clearly and simply communicated to your peers, so that the true beliefs you've come to hold can also be held by others.

The fact that they are your peers should make it easier, not harder, to communicate with them. You know their language and have a good sense of the state of their knowledge when they begin reading your paper. The conventions of the journal article are a support too.

Once you realize that the background, theory, methods, analysis and implications sections constitute discrete rhetorical tasks, the task of planning and writing a whole paper becomes more manageable. The background offers an argument for the practical relevance of your study. The theory sets up expectations of your object that are shared by you and your reader. The methods section builds trust about the quality of your materials. The analysis adduces a series of facts to artfully disappoint the expectations you set up in the theory section. The implications deduces either a set of practical consequences (from the background and your analysis) or a set of theoretical consequences (from the theory and analysis) or both. The introduction and conclusion don't add anything substantial; these sections merely introduce and conclude.

The basic unit of composition is the paragraph. An article is composed of paragraphs. Each paragraph says one thing and supports it. That's my topic for Thursday.

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