All right friends, we’re on the wrong side of Labor Day, and schools just about everywhere are back in session, so I’m devoting this episode of The Habit Weekly to academic writing.
“Love your reader.” If you’ve heard me talk about writing very much at all, you’ve probably heard that one. You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?
Most of us learn to write in academic settings. And in academic settings, the carrots and sticks are set up in such a way that you are almost always writing to get something. If you write well enough, you get gold stars, you get good grades, you get to move on to the next grade, you get into a good college. If you are a professional academic, you write to get published, to get a job, to get promoted, to get tenure. When there’s so much to get from writing, what does giving have to do with it? How do you love your reader when your reader is a teacher or professor?
Text and Subtext
The text of an academic paper can be about almost anything—mitosis and meiosis, the Weimar Republic, existentialism, federalism, Paradise Lost, What I Did Last Summer. But whatever the text is about, all academic papers share more or less the same subtext: GIVE ME AN A. THINK I’M SMART. APPROVE OF ME. Really, I don’t see how that could NOT be the subtext of any essay you’re submitting for a grade.
But too often, I suspect, students think of GIVE ME AN A as the real text of an academic essay, papered over with just enough information about the purported subject (Romeo and Juliet, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc) to make the A possible.
That kind of thinking is behind students’ diligent efforts to figure out “what the teacher wants.” Having been on the receiving end of hundreds, maybe thousands of student essays, I can tell you what the teacher wants. The teacher, like any other reader, wants to be surprised and delighted. And you can’t surprise and delight a reader with an essay about, say, French Impressionism unless you have thought about French Impressionism enough to form actual opinions and insights—which is to say, unless you learn to care enough about your subject to be able to say, “Here’s something I want to show you.”
What I am recommending is that you actually write about what you claim to be writing about rather than merely thinking of an assignment as a way to make the case that you deserve a good grade.
Be More Brilliant
I don’t have any secrets that will guarantee brilliance every time you sit down to write. But I do have some principles that will help make your academic writing more brilliant.
Principle 1: Your best ideas won’t come until after you’ve started writing. The act of writing clarifies your thinking; it triggers creativity and new connections. That’s why it’s so important just to get started. Get the pen moving. Do the best you can. And somewhere along the way you’ll figure out what you actually have to say.
When you embrace this principle, you will hold less tightly to your original idea/thesis/outline. Obviously you have to have some idea to start with, or you won’t start at all. I usually need at least a rough outline before I start putting words on the page. But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the outline is probably wrong. Sometimes teachers require students to submit a thesis statement before they write their papers. Even so, hold it loosely. Hopefully your teacher will rejoice alongside you when discover a more compelling thesis statement later in the process. Here’s my point in a nutshell: Don’t limit yourself to the amount of brilliance and insight you have at the beginning of the writing process.
It would be great if your best ideas came first, and then you could start with full confidence that the end product was going to be brilliant. Sometimes that happens. Usually not. Usually you have to take a step of faith, believing that if you just tend to your business, good things are going to happen.
Principle 2: Reorganize around your best ideas. If you’re writing a five-page essay, somewhere around the four-and-a-half page mark of the first draft you are going o have a brilliant idea. You will think to yourself, “Aha! I have discovered my conclusion!” Not true. What you have discovered is your introduction. I don’t care that it is on page five. You had to get those first four pages out of your system so you could get to that great idea. Take that idea—your new thesis—build an introduction around it, and start again.
You’ll probably be able to rescue a lot of your original draft. Some of those ideas that were feeling a little flat will now take on new significance in light of your new, better thesis. Some of your ideas, to be sure, will have to go. Your new thesis will clarify what belongs and what doesn’t. By the time you get to page five again, you probably will have come up with another brilliant way to articulate, summarize, and synthesize your ideas. There’s your conclusion.
Principle 3: Start early enough to put Principles 1 and 2 into practice. None of this is helpful if you start at 10:00 the night before your essay is due. It takes time to get to your best ideas, and it takes time to reorganize around them. So often I have received five-page essays that are dull, dull, dull until page five, then brilliant for half a page. Most of those writers knew where the real action was in their papers. They just didn’t have time to do anything about it.
I know if can be hard to start. I have procrastinatory tendencies myself. But I refer you to Principle 1 above: it’s a lot easier to get started when you give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. You don’t have to wait until the brilliance comes. Just get started and trust the process.
One more thing: try to remember that the person who has to read your academic writing is an actual human being with dreams and hopes—a person who values his or her time and probably isn’t getting paid much and has to read a whole lot of dull essays. Love that reader. Surprise and delight that reader. Your grades will take care of themselves.
This Week in The Habit Membership
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This Week on The Habit Podcast
Mark Meynell has done a lot of thinking about civility and cynicism and the writer's responsibility not just to win arguments, but tell the truth. In this episode, Jonathan and Mark discuss the practice of generosity involved in both writing and reading, the virtues and vices of rhetoric, and how fiction and nonfiction persuade us in different ways.