Refining Technique in Academic Writing

Typewriters

 

I wrote briefly last week about the importance of technique in academic writing.   Academic writing is, above all else, a specialised form of communication, which remains true whether we are teaching essay writing to first year students or working on a journal article addressing our research. Articles, essays, theses, and dissertations are all modes of communication that serve to share with readers how we have approached our topic and the conclusions to which we have come. And the success of this communication is dependent each writer’s display of technical mastery. This does not, of course, mean mindlessly following the model, although many writing teachers would agree that is preferable to write with good technique and be a bit monotonous than to write with no technique and lose the reader from the outset.

The aim of good technique is to create a fluid and organic microcosmic structure. What this means is, simply: 1) each paragraph is a self-contained unit, 2) which contributes to the argument of its individual section, 3) which contributes to the argument of its chapter, 4) which contributes to the argument of the work as a whole. No matter the length of the writing, these key building blocks will always stay the same, and should always help your reader to enter into your analysis with the tools to engage meaningfully with what you have to say.

The Introduction

The overall goal of an introduction is to show your argument your reader and to make them want to invest in what you have to say.  A good part of getting the reader to invest their time and mental facilities in what you are about to say comes from giving them the tools to most fully enter into your work. This is why a strong technician will often begin with the ‘Common Ground’. By drawing on a shared common ground of research, then, you are not only demonstrating the position of your own argument within a wider critical commentary, but also offering to this imagined reader a welcoming entrance into the world of your analysis. But a shared sense of prior knowledge is not necessarily enough to make the imaginary reader care about what you have to say. Instead, you need to quickly show your reader what you are going to be doing with this shared understanding by destabilizing the common ground.  Strong technicians destabilize the common ground very early in their writing; the very strongest technicians articulate both to their reader in clear, precise, and unambiguous ways, thus forging an early cooperative relationship between them and their reader. The value of this destabilization might might ultimately the reader to look at major social, political, or ecological issues in newly meaningful ways, but that is rarely the case. But technically strong writing will always use the destabilization to help show a clear, precise argument. Identifying the argument in the introduction is one of the crucial steps in forming a line of communication between reader and writer, and one of the places where this line of communication can be most easily broken.

 

The Body

Must writers always mechanically draw a connection back to their central argument at the end of each body paragraph? No, not necessarily. This type of habitual and conscious return to the overarching argument is—like ballet positions or yoga asanas—simply part of the technical structure that leads toward a more fully realised sense of mastery and success. The goal that this technical function aims to create is a sense of clear, linear progression through an argument, which allows the reader to see how each individual part of that argument fits neatly together. If you are not going to spell out for your reader precisely how and why your moments of individual analysis are helping to support your central argument, then you need to be absolutely certain that these connections will be absolutely clear to your imagined readers.  Academic writers often overestimate the abilities of their imaginary reader to draw the connections between each point. This does not mean that your imaginary reader is dim or dull-witted—indeed, remember, we have suggested that you should always envision your imaginary reader as someone who already has a strong knowledge of your particular topic—but simply that part of the communicative contract between reader and writer stipulates that the writer must help the reader through the argument. If you leave your imaginary reader behind in a storm of dazzling, if somewhat scattered, analysis, you shouldn’t imagine that they will be able to follow.

 

The Conclusion

Conclusions are the last part of your contract with the reader, and, in several ways, give you the time and place to make sure that the terms of your contract have been fulfilled. Conclusions should not only remind your reader of the central argument that you have developed, but also explain to them precisely how and why this argument must be seen as valid. Remember to never overestimate the ability of your imaginary reader to draw the links for themselves—rather, show your reader the point that you have made, and how you have supported this point with evidence and analysis.  Many of the problems that emerge in advanced academic writing stem from the writer’s incomplete ability to envision this imaginary reader, and envision the kinds of questions and concerns that they might bring as a response.  The strongest academic writers are able to expect these kinds of concerns, and make sure that they are addressed within the writing itself. They make sure that no (or as few as possible) loose ends or analytical gaps are left.

 

These basic building blocks of good technique serve to record the key aims of academic writing, and give ways in which writers can work toward developing and refining their skills. Academics writers at all levels must consistently check their technique, and make sure that they are not becoming slack or becoming inattentive to their argument.

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