Category Archives: Closing statments

The Secret of Academic Writing

All academic writing is an argument.Depiction of scribe writing in a multi-quire codex

If someone had told me this explicitly at the beginning of my grad school career, I would have been spared a lot of grief and rejected articles I later submitted to journals. I say explicitly because I think probably a couple of professors intended their assignments to identify the arguments in various articles to drive home this point. But even though I’m pretty smart and was judged to be a good writer, I didn’t get it.

I finally learned to be ruthless in paring down my paragraphs to include only those that served the argument I was trying to make. Sometimes the argument is not clear to me until I’ve written a draft. Writing is, for me, and I think for most good writers, a thinking tool. As I’m writing things fall into place, and I make connections and nail down insights as I write. I don’t know what I think until I write.

But since the next most important function of writing is communication—and notice I put it in second place, because writing has to be about ideas, and it will be a mediocre piece if I’m not putting myself into the work—once I’ve gotten that first thinking tool draft done, much more needs to happen.

If I wasn’t clear about my argument before, or if the argument turns out to be different from what I thought I was starting with, then I have to rewrite the opening. The argument needs to show up in the first, or at the latest, in the second paragraph.

My personal technique is to then write an outline of the draft. I know it is recommended you start with an outline, but that usually doesn’t help me. I make an outline of what is already there, and it quickly becomes evident where the evidence does not back up the claim I made in the opening paragraph. Usually I find a lot of extraneous material— nice paragraphs, nice thinking—but they don’t support the argument. They have to go. If there are two arguments, which often happens, again, for a journal article, one of them has to go.

Something with the unwieldy name of Science Writing Heuristic has helped me immensely with writing conclusions for scholarly essays. You can find it on my education blog here. (If you’re not a science educator it might not make much sense. I used to use the framework with both middle school students and teacher candidates.) What I took from this approach is that my conclusion needs to explicitly state how the evidence supports the argument, in some detail, perhaps a paragraph or two.

Happy writing!

Structure: Opening and Closing Paragraphs

Dorothy Parker writingOne of the most common problems in writing nonfiction, faced by students and professionals alike, is making sure your opening and closing paragraphs relate to each other. This is true whether the work is a 1,500-word term paper or a 120,000-word book. It is an issue I’m facing right now in expanding my PhD dissertation into a book. Not only am I enlarging the scope of my earlier work, I am using a different theoretical framework, which has made me look at what I wrote years ago in a different light. Fortunately, I have a year to fix problems and I have two crackerjack editors—my wife and the one assigned by the publisher—to help me.

College students who don’t seek professional assistance in writing their papers tend to rely on friends, family and their school’s writing assistance program. Term papers are also often done last minute and the writer is delighted at finishing it on time. Very few professional writers, except possibly journalists, consider their work completed after a first draft. An example I saw all the time: A paper starts off with one topic ends up being about something else. There may nothing wrong with either topic, but when your opening paragraph says you’re going to write about “A” but your conclusion is about “B,” you have a problem—and it will hurt your grade.

The question then is how to avoid this situation? Problems like this are fixed by doing a second draft! You can edit your second draft to stick to your original topic. Or, you can rewrite the opening to conform to your conclusions, making sure your evidence supports the new argument. In other words, your opening paragraph should be the last thing you write.

In writing future papers, you might want to consider an approach championed by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams in their valuable book, The Craft of Research, when writing a paper, constantly refer back to your opening statements to make sure you’re keeping on track.

— Harvey Deneroff