Some Thoughts on Academic Writing

GREECE Mission Launching Into Aurora

What if academic prose could aspire to be an art form in its own right, equal to any other mode of creative expression?  What would be lost and what would be gained in thinking this way?

Lead with the point you most want to make.  Don’t hold anything back.  Strive to get to the point right away.  Don’t let the reader get impatient.

Don’t pander.  Challenge the reader, make him or her stretch to get what you mean, to get what doesn’t come easily or right away.  Challenge yourself as a writer to stretch what you mean, but don’t lose all control of your meaning.  Don’t get carried away by what sounds nice or impressive.

The best measure I’ve found for determining good academic writing is whether or not it makes me want to write.  If reading something makes me want to stop immediately and go to the computer with fresh ideas in mind, then that piece was really good.

I’ve read a lot of academic prose that fills me with dread.  It’s hard work to read.  Trudging.  Uninspiring.  Slow-going, even if the topic and the argument is super interesting.  But I also appreciate that not everyone can write with self-knowing grace and sometimes even the most workmanlike prose can be good enough to explore important ideas.  Some prose I’ve encountered has been exquisite but had little to say.  What a waste of time and talent.  But there’s always some prose that rises up luminous in the mind, a mystery that, while not always crystal clear or sometimes painfully lucid, grabs hold of the reader’s attention.  This!

Almost always, the latter kind of academic prose is written by someone who has thought deeply and continuously about what he or she is doing.  Such writing takes itself seriously, even when it seems effortless—especially when it seems effortless.  I often come across such writing; it’s more common than you might think.  Taking your writing seriously won’t automatically lead to the kind of academic prose that, upon encountering, makes the reader glad to have had the privilege to read it.  Not taking your writing seriously means you are missing out on a significant part of what it means to be an academic.

Write in short sentences.  Write in long sentences.  Mix them up.  Don’t mix them up.  More likely than not, though, it’s easier for the reader if you err on the short side.  Long sentences can be a lot of fun to write, but this fun can be inversely related to the enjoyment a reader will get reading it.

Write in the first person.  Write in the third person.  Write in the second person.  Write “I” and “we” and “one” a lot.  Dare to write with “you.”  Write in whatever person you feel comfortable writing, whatever person is most suited for the point or effect you’re trying to make, whatever person is most respectful to the concerns your readers are likely to have.  But be mindful not to mix them up too much, because the indiscriminate mixing of persons can be dizzying for the reader.

Subject-verb agreement needs to be attended to, especially if your sentences get convoluted, which they must at times.  I have trouble with subject-verb agreement, and have to weed them out of my prose as if editing was a form of gardening.

Listen to what you write as you write.  Really, make sure you listen.  You should hear something musical about the prose.

Don’t be boring, except when you mean to be boring because it’s a crucial part of the point you’re trying to make.  Yes, there is an important place for the boring in academic writing, in part because some topics that deserve extended exploration are by their very nature dull and can’t really be enlivened.  Sometimes, a thought to be fully thought through needs extended elaboration, and no amount of eloquence can avoid the tedium that invariably accompanies such thinking.

Academic prose is also often, by its very nature, difficult.  The difficulty is a part of its appeal, and its charm.  This also means academic prose should have something worthwhile to say, or readers will feel cheated that all their effort had such little payoff.

Organization is the basic unit of meaning in academic writing.  One fully developed main idea should flow to the next fully developed main idea.  Transitions between them should definitely exist but ideally also disappear from view, the ideas related one to the next so smoothly the stitching between them becomes hard to discern.  All together, the mind of the reader should be able to retain the different parts of a piece of writing and be able to understand intuitively what function each part serves.

Paragraphs are the basic unit of meaning.  They should have clear boundaries, develop one main idea fully, contain a clear thesis statement, provide ample examples, make sure to explain fully.  Explain, explain, explain.

Sentences are the basic unit of meaning.  They should have clear boundaries, employ strong main verbs, contain a complete thought, serve some purpose larger than themselves.  Be sure to write in complete sentences.

Words are what’s really important.  Finding the right word is an art; it requires a feel for language, and patience for hunting down the exact articulation of a thought in your mind that may itself not be fully articulable.  The word hunting requires a lot of discipline, so you don’t (always?) go for the nicest sounding word or the most impressive sounding word.  Sometimes what’s required is being strict, practicing a careful economy of usage.  Sometimes, let yourself go.  Why not?

Grammatical marks are what’s really important.  They hold prose together in ways that, if ignored or poorly applied, can make meaning come apart or fall into itself in messy ways.  One way to think of the most common marks is to imagine them as placeholders for time.  The following signal a pause of progressively longer lengths of silence: comma, em-dash, semi-colon, period.  Remember to come to a complete stop at the end of the period.  Allow yourself to take a deep breath.  Remember the semi-colon should be used rarely.  Remember that the em-dash, like the parentheses, should be used sparingly.  Remember to use the comma often, though it’s interesting to leave it out sometimes to let a sentence flow even when its use is called for.

You can tell when people aren’t attending enough to what grammar tells them; they are very bad at reading prose out loud.

Pretty sentences are pretty, but that’s all they are.  And, if too many, they can get really annoying (as can a lot of self-referencing).

I stole this from someone; I forget who: think of every quoted word as being worth a few cents.  How much money do you want to spend on quotations in a piece you’re writing?  Probably a better way to say this is, make sure your voice is the most heard voice in what you’re writing—unless you think you can do better than Benjamin and recreate the Arcades Project in a fresh, urgent way . . . in which case, by all means, be a big spender.

Remember everything you learned in grade school.  Your teachers have taught you very valuable lessons.  Please ignore those who tell you otherwise.  They don’t know what they are talking about, or worse are simply playing populist.  (See my previous comment about not pandering to the reader.)

But some of what your teachers taught you about writing have to be unlearned if you ever want to do something more than write competently.  Practice creative rule-breaking.  You can only do so if you already know the rules.  Be thankful someone bothered to teach you these rules, or be angry that no one felt it was worth the trouble to teach you—angry enough that you go off and learn them yourself.  Always remember, no matter how often someone tells you otherwise, the split infinitive is a serious grammatical error.

One of the most important lessons about writing I learned in grade school was the construction of parallel sentences.  This lesson literally blew my mind.  Who knew that sentences should seek to contain their own rigorous symmetry?

I am going to the market and I am coming right back.  My friend and I are going to the market. She is coming back before me.  My friend and I are going to the market, and we will be coming right back, she before me.  My friend went to the market and came right back; I will be going to the market and will come right back.  My friend and I went to the market.  The former bought a lemon; the latter bought a fish.

The permutations are endless, but by thinking about how different elements in a sentence can balance each other I can make the relation between them clearer.  Parallelism makes everything better.

The biggest crutch in academic prose is the use of connecting phrases.  Thus.  Hence.  However.  In other words.  Indeed.  I use these all the time.  I lack confidence that my ideas flow sufficiently enough that without them they would make logical sense.  I am seeking to aid the reader to follow along.  I vow to use them less, but I doubt I’ll ever get rid of them completely.

The following words are not crutches: perhaps, maybe, can, seems, suggests.  They are essential modulations of thought that acknowledge the innately speculative nature of what is being explored.  They express nuance, and respect for both the complexity and frequent undecideability of thinking through a profoundly challenging question.  They can be overused, and are no doubt often overused.  They cannot, however, be dispensed with completely.  Without them, academic prose ceases to be academic prose.  On the other hand, it’s important to take a risk and make a big claim once in a while.  You want to be bold without being foolish or obnoxious.

That and which are also important words for academic prose.  They help modify a noun or a noun phrase in a way that shows you have thought through your argument carefully, and have taken as much precaution as possible to be thorough about what your claim might necessarily be leaving out.  Just remember the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, and use that and which accordingly.

Should and ought and necessary are trickier words in the academic lexicon.  They suggest something moralizing, and can—rightly—turn a reader off.  They can make the writer sound like a scold, or as someone too invested in being overly prescriptive.  But they are also unavoidable at times, just as prescription is unavoidable.  I wonder if I need to interrogate my own aversion to prescription.

Writing is hard work.  I wish this was not true, but it is.

If someone is kind enough to read drafts of your work, thank that person.   Don’t take offense—well, at least not too much offense.  If you keep hearing something doesn’t work, especially by someone with more experience and skills you respect, pay attention to the feedback.  Don’t keep doing something when others tell you to knock it off.  Be especially grateful when someone points out a tick or habit in your writing, something you may not be aware of but nevertheless has an effect on how others perceive what you’re writing.

Writing is a process.  Revision is a crucial part of this process, maybe the most crucial part.  If you ignore revision, you are not really writing academic prose.  If you ignore revision, this means you don’t think what you are saying is important.  What you have to say is important, and academic writing is a way of methodically and carefully working out what makes it important.

Academic writing is a form of thinking.  Academic writing is important.  Other modes of creative expression could do worse than aspire to be more like academic writing.

Always strive to write something you would want to read.


© 2014 Min Hyoung Song


4 responses to “Some Thoughts on Academic Writing

  1. Reblogged this on With Arm Akimbo and commented:
    I’m thinking this applies to writing by academics and writing taught in the first-year writing classroom. In other words, this seems incredibly relevant for the writing I do and the writing I ask my students to do.

  2. Reblogged this on Datapulted and commented:
    What a wonderful post! It sums the countless hours I’ve spent editing and commenting on the work of my grad students (as well as a few articles I’ve reviewed for colleagues). It is well worth saving and savoring.

  3. Nicely put! Maybe, in addition, institutions should consider adaptions to the text types they require students to write. “Academic” writing too often means writing extended pieces without a real communicative function, because at the end of the day, they will be handed in to one professor and that’s it. Students rarely get constructive feedback on their writing. So what if academia considered blogs or eportfolios as instances of academic writing, thereby making student writing really communicative by design – wouldn’t that help to bring about the attitudes to writing that you advocate in your posting? Just wondering.

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