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!

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