Qualities of Academic Writing
Write to Learn
At Empire State College — because you study independently, sometimes at a distance from your mentor or tutor — writing is a way to show your mentor you have learned. But there's a more important reason to write. Writing helps you think, and thinking is what college is all about. College writing is not simply about recording ideas or proving learning, it's about creating ideas, creating learning. Writing isn't a product. Writing is a process.
Writing provides food for thought — it enables you to knead small, half-baked words and sentences to grow great big loaves of satisfying thought that lead to more thought. Developing your ideas involves getting some kind of ideas — in whatever form — onto paper or screen so you can see them, return to them, explore them, question, share, clarify, change, grow them. It really is almost like growing plants or kneading bread and waiting for the results: plant the seed, start the process and then let your mind, including your unconscious, take over. Go to sleep and let your dreaming continue to develop your ideas. Humans were born to think; it's almost impossible to stop us. Writing helps us to bring all that activity into consciousness, helps to clarify and direct our thinking, and generate more thinking. Writing, thinking, and learning are part of the same process. Ordinarily, that's what your tutor or mentor or advisor is expecting in your writing... that through writing, you think and learn.
For further discussion, see Donald Murray's Write to Learn, or William Zinsser's Writing to Learn.
Go Deep and Be Willing to Change Direction
Bringing your thinking fully into consciousness and directing it as you educate yourself and build your knowledge isn't, however, simply a natural process. The best student writers are willing to experience the discomforts, dangers, and hard work of swimming into open, deep waters and changing directions a number of times as they develop their thinking through the writing process. College writing isn't "writing to the point" and getting it right the first time. "College Writing" is "College Rewriting." As you write to learn, you are expected to tolerate — in fact, actively seek — uncertainty, mistakes to learn from, ideas irritatingly contrary to your own. You are expected to leave the shore, the protected waters of secure and easy initial thinking and first drafts, to enter "deep water," where you will encounter the unexpected. There you seek new information, new directions, new perspectives from readers and from other writers and sources. Then, through a combination of your rethinking and your responses to new discoveries — through "re-vision" — you develop a paper very different from the one you would have been able to write in the earliest stages of the writing process. You have constructed new knowledge.
Use a Method Valued in the Discipline You Are Writing In
You can't explore the deep water if you can't swim. To survive and to succeed in your goal, you must be able to employ swimming and diving methods developed, ordinarily, through instruction, experience, and practice. To write a successful college paper, you will ordinarily need to follow some accepted — often time-honored — procedure in the discipline you are studying. Ordinarily, the process you follow is more important than the conclusions you reach. To write a successful paper, you must have some understanding — and probably clear examples, or models — of what forms and procedures of thinking are valued in that area of study and expected in the specific assignment.
Writing in the natural sciences, for example, characteristically minimizes subjective observations in favor of more objective observations and repeatable experiments as sources of truth because the personal or individual voice may introduce "human error," or bias, and lead to false answers. In areas such as Cultural Studies and the Arts, however, human difference, individual style and voice are embraced. Formal methodology is de-emphasized; individual interpretations, emphasized. And so each area of study, each discipline, each assignment and instructor, values a particular approach to "truth"; you are expected to be trying that method out as you write your paper. You may eventually reject the methods employed, but in order to be taking the class, studying the subject, you must try the method out. That's what the study is about. Gradually, as you practice the methods of a discipline, you will come to understand the vocabulary, learn the characteristic ways of thinking and kinds of writing, and identify what counts as evidence and documentation in that discipline. To explore specific disciplinary approaches, go to ESC's Research Guides by Areas of Study.
Ask Questions That Matter
....and keep your mind open to unexpected answers.
As you seek to answer the questions posed by an assignment or by you, you are expected to reject quick, easy answers, to entertain uncertainty, ambiguity, views other than your own. You are expected to keep an open mind, receptive to the unexpected, the absolutely unplanned, for as long as possible. All methods, whatever the discipline, involve rejecting unexamined beliefs about our world; all seek to carefully question all claims to the truth and to identify and explore multiple and conflicting views so as to arrive at the best possible individual or collective answer. Writers who actively consider a number of perspectives or opinions as they develop their own usually write the best papers.
Some questions are asked over and over, across disciplines, and in many kinds of writing: What does this word or event mean? How do I know that assertion is true? Why is this important? What follows from that? Other questions evolve from particular disciplines, areas of study, or specific studies. Teachers and students in the area of Human Development, for example, ask questions about human behavior, about why we behave the way we do. People in Social Science, ask questions about cultures, states, institutions. In Cultural Studies, important questions revolve around how language works. In Business, Management, and Economics, questions arise about how organizations and other economic systems work. And so on. When writing a paper it is helpful, maybe even essential, to read the Area of Study guidelines for your study, to get the large picture, a sense of the major questions, or issues, addressed in the discipline within which you are writing.
Argument is all around us, in governmental, business, and family arenas, and in the essays, research papers, and articles written by students and professors all over the planet. The goal of argument is to persuade others of your position in the give-and-take of honest disagreement. In our college community, it is understood that when addressing an important question, issue, or conflict — public or private — you test your answers, your positions, your resolutions by trying to convince others that you are probably right. In attempting to win acceptance of your ideas, you invite disagreement and must be ready to consider the claims of those who disagree. That is the value of argument. It prompts us to carefully examine the evidence, the procedures of investigation, and the clarity of language in our own position and in others'.
An argument that you are probably right, held in opposition to counter-arguments that you are not right, underlies almost all effective college writing. In most assigned papers, like thesis-support essays, the argument is explicit: "Given this question or issue, my answer or hypothesis or thesis is correct for these reasons and because of this evidence and according to these sources." But even in narratives, reflective essays, and other writing not explicitly argumentative, an implicit argument often emerges in the writing: "Given these circumstances or problems or events, these explanations seem probable, or these connections seem important, based on the experiences and thoughts I am exploring and presenting." Thus college writers seek to persuade their readers along a writing continuum ranging from the formulating of strict hypotheses, tight analyses, sound logic, empirical proofs to constructing believable historical accounts and relating compelling stories that persuasively describe and interpret human intentions and actions and the circumstances surrounding them.
Writers construct their arguments based largely on the evidence they gather. You must generally support all assertions that something is true by providing your reader with evidence for your claim. In academic discourse, evidence derived from books and journal articles authored by experts in their fields is almost always central to the inquiry. Include the kinds of evidence that are valued by the discipline you're writing in, however, including observation, experimentation, interviews, surveys, statistics, and personal experience.
In writing to the academic community, it is essential to provide sufficient information about the sources of your evidence and ideas so your readers can evaluate their reliability. Whether your beliefs are based on your own personal experience, on interviews of all the workers at your office, or on results published in a major scientific journal, you must provide a complete account of your source — who, what, where, when. If you are not citing opinions or evidence supplied by recognized "experts" in the field, you need to carefully establish others bases of credibility: personal character, validity of the survey instrument, and so on.