A Student’s Writing Guide Are you struggling to meet your coursework deadlines? Finding it hard to get to grips with your essay topics? Does your writing sometimes lack structure and style? Would you like to improve your grades? This text covers everything a student needs to know about writing essays and papers in the humanities and social sciences. Starting from the common dif? culties students face, it gives practical examples of all the stages necessary to produce a good piece of academic work: r r r r interpreting assignment topics drawing on your own experience and background reading analytically and taking ef? ient notes developing your argument through introductions, middles and conclusions evaluating and using online resources understanding the conventions of academic culture honing your ideas into clear, vigorous English. r r r This book will provide you with all the tools and insights you need to write con? dent, convincing essays and coursework papers. g o r d o n t a y l o r is Honorary Research Associate at Monash University; before his retirement he was Associate Professor and Director of the Language and Learning Unit in the Faculty of Arts there.
He was a pioneer in the development of content- and discipline-speci? c writing programmes for students in higher education. His many publications include The Student’s Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences (1989). A Student’s Writing Guide How to Plan and Write Successful Essays GORDON TAYLOR CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York www. ambridge. org Information on this title: www. cambridge. org/9780521729796 © Cambridge University Press 2009 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published in print format 2009 ISBN-13 ISBN-13 978-0-511-54002-8 978-0-521-72979-6 eBook (EBL) paperback
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Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of urls for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate. For Kasonde, Susan and Jeremy Contents Preface xi Sources of extracts used in the text 1 1 2 3 4 5 xv Introduction 1 The main elements in academic writing 2 You and your writing task 4 You and your subject matter 7 You and your reader 12 Your language: form and structure 15 Part I Re? ction and Research 19 2 1 2 3 4 5 3 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Re? ection: asking questions and proposing answers 21 Speculative thinking and writing 22 Choosing a topic 24 Kinds of question 27 Coming to terms with an essay topic 35 Summary 51 Interpretation: reading and taking notes 53 The ‘problem’ of reading 54 Evidence, interpretation and fact 57 What an author does 65 An author’s major motives 69 Modes of analysis 77 An author’s structural intentions 79 Interpreting a dif? cult text 82 iii – Contents Part II The Dynamics of an Essay 89 4 1 2 3 4 5 5 1 2 3 4 6 1 2 3 Introductions 91 The constituents of an essay 92 The constituents of an introduction 94 The use and misuse of introductory material 95 Setting out your case 98 Writing an introduction to a research paper 107 Middles 111 Some common problems 112 The uses of outlines 116 Expanding a case 117 Summary 133 Endings 134 Recapitulation 134 Mood: suggestion and implication Variations on a theme 140 Part III Language 145 7 1 2 3 4 8 1 2 3 9 1 2 3 You, your language and your material 147 Subjective and objective: the uses of ‘I’ and ‘we’ Confusing yourself with your material 151 Quoting – and not quoting 161 Some verbs of enquiry: how to use them 163 Analytical language 1: sentences 167 Discrimination and confusion 168 Elements of sentence structure 169 Participants, processes and circumstances Analytical language 2: rhetorical strategies Analysing versus describing 194 De? ning 199 Comparing and contrasting 207 136 148 177 194
Contents – ix 10 Cohesion and texture 215 1 Determinants of cohesion and texture 215 2 Revising and improving text 221 11 Conventions of academic writing 230 1 Academic culture 230 2 A skeleton key to stylistic conventions Appendices 1 Writing book reviews 240 2 Sample analyses of essay topics 3 A revised manuscript 252 Index 257 232 243 Preface When the ? rst edition of this book was published I believed that it could and should have a fairly limited life. This belief was founded on the idea that, such is the closeness of language, thought and subject matter, the future of such books would be based on the disciplines of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences and that, consequently, the best people to write such a text were those who knew the rhetoric of their own disciplines more intimately than a generalist ever could.
The teaching of a discipline, I have long held, should include as an inalienable component the teaching of how to write in that discipline, just as the Roman scholar–statesman Cicero had inveighed in his De Oratore against ‘that absurd, needless and deplorable conception, that one set of persons should teach us to think, and another teach us to speak’. To some extent this has come to pass – but only to some extent. There are now student manuals on how to write in some disciplines, particularly history, English literature, psychology, philosophy and sociology. What I did not foresee is the extent to which many of the old disciplinary boundaries have begun to blur, and the extent to which new inter-disciplinary ‘studies’ subjects have come to characterise the offerings of arts and social science faculties.
Much in the climate of thought (and rhetoric) has changed. As a result, there still seems to be a good case for a general book such as this one, in which I have taken the opportunity to engage with these new developments. Moreover, many other things have moved on. The kinds of essay topic now being set are often rather different from those that used to be the staple in many courses; the kinds of tasks have changed – particularly the opportunity now being given to undergraduate and course-work graduate students to devise and write research papers; and, of course, there are many new problems as well xii – Preface as advantages posed by the ubiquitous use of the computer/wordprocessor and the internet.
Even so, there would probably have been no second edition had it not been for a few terriers at my heels. Andrew Winnard of Cambridge University Press was a terrier with longer staying power than is usually found, ably abetted by colleagues at Monash University, Tim Moore and David Garrioch, whose encouragement and continuing assistance have been crucial. In getting up to speed with the more recent kinds of essay topics and many other things, I would have languished without the immense assistance of Steve Price, Matthew Piscioneri, Andrew Johnson and Jim Hlavac. To those many academics whose essay topics I have used for illustrative purposes I wish here to record my indebtedness.
There are many books on the history of Jews, Muslims and Christians in mediaeval Spain (see chapter 3), but it was Constant Mews who pointed me to and lent me a more suitable text for my purpose, Maurice Glick on Convivencia. To Keith Allan, Marko Pavlyshyn and the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University I owe a great debt for smoothing my path. Finally, Kate Brett, commissioning editor at Cambridge University Press, has been my constant guide for the life of this project. Much of the emphasis in this book (as it was in the ? rst edition) is on what writers (both you the student and the writers of the sources you use) do with their language. Your attention is drawn to this throughout the text by the use of small capitals.
Preface to the original 1989 edition of The Student’s Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences This book has grown out of a writing course I have taught for some years to students of the arts and social sciences. In both I have tried to emphasise the close connections between writing in these disciplines and grappling with the problems of knowledge and understanding they present. Writing is not merely a skill we employ to record our knowledge, but the very moment at which we confront what learning and understanding are all about. So, while the reader will surely ? nd plenty of guidance on the practical issues that arise in writing an Preface – xiii academic essay, a search in these pages for simpli? ed techniques that side-step the very taxing work of coming to terms with knowledge and method in these disciplines will be fruitless.
My project has been to clear paths, not to indicate short cuts. It has been my experience that many students’ writing problems arise from uncertainty about what it is they are trying to say and what it is they have to do. So far as is possible in a general work of this kind, I have attempted to establish, in a variety of representative disciplines, some of the connections between issues of content and the forms of language in which the content can be realised. I am conscious that there are arts and social science disciplines which have not received extended treatment in the examples. But I trust that in concentrating attention on some of the most important things that we do with anguage in academic studies I have been able to direct readers to the kind of thing to look for in the particular disciplines they are studying. The book is divided into three parts. I suggest the chapters of Parts I and II be read through at least once in the order presented. In this way the student will get a general idea of how to approach the writing of an academic essay. Not everybody approaches writing and learning in quite the same fashion, so it is important that the suggestions in Parts I and II be interpreted in a way that works best for the individual reader. The chapters of Part III contain in many instances extensions of themes introduced earlier, but they can also be read as more or less self-contained introductions to particular problems in the use of language.
For the most part, grammatical and other details of language use are dealt with not in the manner of the conventional guides to usage but as they arise in those contexts of meaning we concentrate on as we write. It will therefore be necessary to make good use of the index. Part III is not a comprehensive guide to the language of academic discourse. I have chosen to treat only those features of language which students often question me about, those which in my estimation cause most trouble, and those which (spelling apart) tutors most regularly draw attention to in their marking of essays. The book has been some time in the gestation. To John Clanchy, Brigid Ballard and Elaine Barry I owe many thanks for their xiv – Preface encouragement and for commenting on drafts which they have now probably forgotten. I. W.
Mabbett helped me greatly to clarify my thinking on some of the material in chapter 3, and the readers of the Cambridge University Press have made this a better book than it would otherwise have been. My students have contributed much: not only have they let me use their work, they have pushed me to understand certain things about writing I would never have gleaned elsewhere. But it is on the person who, as the psalmist says, can ‘alway keep judgement’ and who has believed in this book when I didn’t myself that I have depended most – my wife Angela. Sources of extracts used in the text Dwight Bolinger, Language – the Loaded Weapon. London and New York: Longman, 1980. R. N. Campbell and R. J. Wales, ‘Comparative structures in English’. Journal of Linguistics, 5:2 (1969), pp. 215–51. E. H. Carr, What is History?
Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964. Manning Clark, A Discovery of Australia. The Boyer Lectures. Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1976. A. C. Ewing, A Short Commentary on Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938. Thomas F. Glick, ‘Convivencia: an introductory note’. In Vivian B. Mann, Thomas F. Glick and Jerrilynn D. Dodds (eds. ) Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain. New York: George Braziller Inc. , 1992, 2007. Sharon E. Hutchinson, Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, Wars and the State. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans.
Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1965. F. R. Karl and L. Davies (eds. ) The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Norman Kemp Smith, A Commentary to Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, 2nd edn. New York: Humanities Press, 1962. F. R. Leavis, ‘Two cultures? The signi? cance of Lord Snow’. In Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope. London: Chatto and Windus, 1972. xvi – Sources of extracts used in the text James Luchte, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: a Reader’s Guide. London and New York: Continuum, 2007. Walter Nash, Designs in Prose. London: Longman, 1980.
A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and D. Forde (eds. ) African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. London: Oxford University Press, 1950. W. G. Runciman, ‘What is structuralism? ’ In Alan Ryan (ed. ) The Philosophy of Social Explanation. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, 3rd edn. London: George G. Harrap, 1963. John B. Whittow, The Penguin Dictionary of Physical Geography. London: A. Lane, 1984. John M. Wilding, Perception, From Sense to Object. London: Hutchinson, 1982. 1 Introduction How do I know what I think till I see what I say. E. M. Forster How do I know what I’ll say till I see what I think. Anon.
This chapter is designed to help you think about how you ? t in to the broad culture of academe and the kind of writing it asks for. It is about r how to avoid procrastinating and how to discover a real desire or ‘itch’ to write how to gain a sense of con? dence that you are making tangible progress with each piece of work you begin how to value your beliefs, prejudices, experiences and past learning as a springboard for producing considered, well-argued and adequately researched judgements how to relate in writing and in person with your audience – the tutors who examine your work, their expectations, academic traditions and foibles how, despite the dif? ulties, you can come to really enjoy using language to articulate your thoughts and ideas. r r r r 2 – Introduction 1 The main elements in academic writing If we are to write well we need to know (as well as we can) what we are talking about. In order to ? nd out what, precisely, we are talking about we need to write. Pushing ourselves to write will often reveal that we know more about a subject than we at ? rst supposed; it should just as often reveal large gaps in our understanding of matters we thought ourselves fairly sure of. In writing we bring knowledge into being, we record and preserve it. Writing is the seed, the fruit and the pickle of our understanding.
Most people in the English-speaking world used to think that the student’s and scholar’s mind is an empty bucket to be ? lled by books, lectures and tutorials. Nowadays neuroscientists and psychologists tell us that the brain doesn’t work in this passive, accepting manner. On the contrary, to learn and to write is, ? rst, to make sense for ourselves of our new experience in terms of our old. So you need to be aware at the outset that, even to subjects you have never studied before, you can bring certain preconceptions, even prejudices, a certain amount of disjointed knowledge, and a certain facility with language – all of which can get you started. The most baf? ng of essay topics can soon yield some meaning if you take the initiative and begin to a s k quest io ns – of yourself, of the essay topic, of your books and lectures, of the school or department for whom you are writing the essay. To think of yourself as an active enquirer, rather than as a mere receptacle of ideas and knowledge or as a passive medium by which they are transmitted from your books to your essays, is essential to good essay-writing. Good academic writing actually creates new knowledge and new meaning. Now there is no single technique by which this can be achieved. Rather, there seem to be four elements whose relationships with one another need to be balanced: the writer, the object of the analysis or discussion (the content), the reader, and the formal properties of the language itself.
Not everybody will balance these elements in quite the same way; and this is as it should be, since there is no such thing as a uniform, ideal academic English. Getting the balance right will depend partly on how you, the writer, respond in The main elements in academic writing – 3 particular circumstances and partly on those traditions of expression and scholarship which grow up within certain disciplines, schools of thought within disciplines, and within particular college and university departments. These four elements of the writing situation – writer, subject matter, reader and the forms of language – are re? ected in four main characteristics of a piece of written language itself. They must all be handled together in the act of writing.
Their competing claims to attention are resolved in the choice of one word in preference to another, in the structuring of a sentence, in the placing of an emphasis in the paragraph, in the con? dence with which you argue your case, and so on. The four characteristics are these: r Your own point of view must emerge, not as a mere opinion but as a justi? ed judgement. You need to treat your subject matter as comprehensively and as precisely as the essay topic demands. From the range of information and ideas found in your reading you need to create a uni? ed view. You must read carefully and do your best to make your language clarify the information and ideas you ? nd in your books. You must present your work in the appropriate fashion for academic readers.
This means that you will have to learn certain conventions of academic writing which are, at times, quite different from those you may be used to, or those you will ? nd in non-academic contexts. Finally, the text of your essay needs to forge a coherent unity from the many diverse elements of language and thought that go to make it. It is in many of the details of your text that your purpose is realised. An essay is not merely a vehicle for ideas, but is itself (whatever the discipline) a piece of literature. r r r It is best to conceive of essay-writing as entering into a debate. You need to work out what your own answer to the essay question might be.
You need to debate it with the books and other sources of 4 – Introduction information and ideas you use. And then you need to convey the results of this engagement clearly to your reader, bearing in mind that the reader – because of what he or she already knows – needs to be convinced that your own answer is a reasonable one. Fundamental to this whole process is your use of language. This is the main evidence your tutors have to go on in making their assessment of your essay – just as you have mainly the evidence of language in your books to judge the usefulness and value of their authors’ work to you. The aim of this book is to show you how to ? together the elements introduced above, and to help you participate successfully in written academic debate. But ? rst we shall examine each of our elements separately in a little more detail, beginning with that bane of all writers’ lives – ‘writer’s block’. 2 You and your writing task For most people writing is an extremely dif? cult task if they are trying to grapple in their language with new ideas and new ways of looking at them. Sitting down to write can be an agonising experience, which doesn’t necessarily get easier with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience. For this reason you need to re? ect upon and analyse your own reactions to the task of writing.
That is to say, the task will become more manageable if you learn how to cope with your own particular ways of avoiding or putting off the moment when you start writing. First of all, it is as well to be aware that this fear of writing is very widespread, and not only amongst students. The novelist Joseph Conrad describes his fear and lack of con? dence in quite harrowing terms: I am not more vile than my neighbours but this disbelief in oneself is like a taint that spreads on everything one comes in contact with; on men, on things – on the very air one breathes. That’s why one sometimes wishes to be a stone-breaker. There’s no doubt about breaking a stone.
But there’s doubt, fear – a black horror, in every page one writes. You and your writing task – 5 Just as the fear of writing is widely shared, even amongst successful writers, so are the frustrations of confronting the writing pad or computer screen. Bertrand Russell, one of the most accomplished and proli? c of scholars and writers, has described in his autobiography how he would sit for days on end staring at his paper when he was working on the Principia Mathematica: ‘it seemed quite likely that the whole of the rest of my life might be consumed in looking at that blank sheet of paper’. Russell had no ‘method’ to which he could turn to get him started. If we could hazard a generalisation, it is this.
Some degree of routine, of regular writing times alone by oneself, seems to be one ingredient that many writers ? nd necessary. Even if nothing happens, it might be a good idea to sit out an allotted period before the pad or screen rather than go rushing off to the internet, the library or your friends in search of inspiration. Most books on study skills recommend drawing up some kind of timetable for your work, and even the most arbitrary of rules (like 500 words a day, even if all 500 have later to be scrapped or re-written) can serve a useful purpose. Many writers work like this. Others have more speci? c routines. The economist John Maynard Keynes worked in bed until lunchtime.
By contrast, the novelist Graham Greene would get up each morning and start to write straightaway, before shaving, dressing or breakfasting. The solutions are as endless as the personalities, the family circumstances, the opportunities and the ‘lifestyles’ of the writers themselves. Only you can work these things out, with the help (as the acknowledgements pages of great numbers of books testify) of the people you live with. Having said this, I hope I shall not be thought too inconsistent if I direct your attention to the historian E. H. Carr’s excellent description of the way he works: Laymen – that is to say, non-academic friends or friends from other academic disciplines – sometimes ask me how the historian goes to work when he writes history.
The commonest assumption appears to be that the historian divides his work into two sharply distinguishable phases or periods. First, he spends a long preliminary period reading his sources and ? lling his notebooks with facts: then, when this is over, he puts away 6 – Introduction his sources, takes out his notebooks and writes his books from beginning to end. This is to me an unconvincing and unplausible picture. For myself, as soon as I have got going on a few of what I take to be the capital sources, the itch becomes too strong and I begin to write – not necessarily the beginning, but somewhere, anywhere. Thereafter, reading and writing go on simultaneously.
The writing is added to, subtracted from, reshaped, cancelled, as I go on reading. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I am looking for, the better I understand the signi? cance and relevance of what I ? nd. Some historians probably do all this preliminary writing in their heads without using pen, paper or typewriter, just as some people play chess in their heads without recourse to board and chessmen: this is a talent which I envy, but cannot emulate. But I am convinced that, for any historian worth the name, the two processes of what economists call ‘input’ and ‘output’ go on simultaneously and are, in practice, parts of a single process.
It seems to me that the procedure Carr describes – reading a bit, writing when the itch comes, reading further and then re-writing – is worth taking seriously because it changes the nature of the problem from one concerned vaguely and generally with the act of writing to the more manageable one of writing something. The critical phase of the Carr cycle is getting the ‘itch’ to write, and for this there is indeed no generally applicable nettle. It is, I suppose, dependent in the ? rst instance on becoming interested in what you are reading. And becoming interested in that, as we shall see in chapter 2, is partly dependent on how well you ask your questions and on that part of you that you bring to choosing the essay topic in the ? rst place. Think, then, of the times when something in a book has caught your attention suf? ciently to make you insert an asterisk or underline the words.
You may have been stimulated to make a marginal note or a note on a sheet of paper. This is the important moment. Here is the ? rst faint itch. Instead of covering it over with salve and a book mark, begin to sharpen your ideas on it immediately. Even half a page which manages to deal in some way with the point and take in a few snatches of your other reading will suf? ce for a nucleus to be worked on later. You and your subject matter – 7 (This, to my mind, is the single greatest bene? t of word-processing programs. ) Writing begets writing. As Goethe writes in the Prelude to Faust: Only engage, and then the mind grows heated – Begin it, and the work will be completed!
If you do this from time to time, your mind will be working constructively on the essay (even in periods off duty) and your attention will be shifted from the act to the matter when you come to write the essay as a whole. You will also have spread the load of facing that empty computer screen over many smaller, and more easily handled, instances. There is, too, the role of discussion. Discussion is an essential part of academic work both as an informal preparation for writing and as writing’s ? nal justi? cation. The coffee shop and the seminar room, while quite distinct, are essential to the architecture of academe. But although the autocrats of the coffee table do not necessarily deserve a good hearing in the seminar room, they are at least preparing themselves for one asset of the business of writing – trying out and building up con? ence in the phrases and arguments that will later be written down. If you feel you lack con? dence you might be tempted to shirk these discussions in favour of solitary thinking. It is better not to. Informal discussion with friends, fellow students and others on the internet is an important preparation and a foil for the necessarily individual and solitary business of writing. 3 You and your subject matter Whilst nearly everybody suffers to some degree from ‘writer’s block’, we tend to vary in our ability to handle the four major elements of the writing process itself. We have seen that a good piece of academic writing needs to achieve a certain balance between these elements.
So what you need to do in order to help you achieve this balance is to decide which of the elements you need to work at most. You might need to give most attention to establishing your own point of view 8 – Introduction on the topic – or ? nding your ‘voice’ – and feeling able to hold to it with some degree of con? dence. Or you might ? nd manipulating your language to get it to say something sensible without too many hits on the delete key is the big problem. It could be that you ? nd the main dif? culty to be in structuring the essay in a coherent fashion out of the wads of notes you have taken, in being able to develop your ideas to ‘? ll up’ the 2,000 or 3,000 words required or, conversely, to cut down your 4,000 words to the required length.
And then you might be so worried about ‘what they [the tutors] want’ that you devote enormous amounts of energy to pleasing the reader and being unnecessarily meticulous in the conventional presentation of your work. This list of common dif? culties does not exhaust the possibilities. Furthermore, overcoming one of them might also require attention to one or two of the others. So, while the list does oversimplify somewhat, it is a good idea at this early stage to decide which of the writing problems apply most particularly to you. By identifying as well as you can your own strengths and weaknesses, you will be in a position to make the best use of this book.
We turn now to the problems of coming to terms with the subject matter in such a way that you will be able to develop con? dence in establishing your own answer to the essay question. The ? rst, and perhaps most important, thing to bear in mind is that your tutor is not expecting in your essay the ‘right’ or the ‘correct’ answer to the question. It might be the case that there is a ‘right’ answer, but it is not likely that all of your tutors are going to be in complete agreement among themselves on what it is. Hence your job is not to ? nd the right answer in the books, nor to ? nd out what your tutor thinks is the right answer, but rather to use books and tutors to help you establish your best answer.
This demands that you learn to exercise your faculty of judgement and to be as clear and explicit as you can about how you form your own judgements. It is the manner in which we exercise this faculty of judgement that distinguishes academic enquiry at its best from much of the everyday writing we see around us. Much of your learning so far will have required you to produce accurate and coherent descriptions of things you have observed, things you have read and things You and your subject matter – 9 you have been taught about. The questions, for the most part, have been raised by your teachers and your books. Now, these aspects of learning remain important in colleges and universities.
But what may be new to you is the increasing responsibility thrust upon you to ask your own questions and to analyse or discuss (rather than just to describe) the objects of your enquiries and the statements that may be made about them. We begin to discover, for example, that what we had taken to be well-accepted facts about the world have an aura of uncertainty about them; they may turn out to be theories, interpretations or widely held beliefs rather than rock-solid ‘facts’. We may discover, too, that facts about which there may be no serious debate can nevertheless have their importance valued or weighted differently by different authors or as a result of asking different questions. Such situations call for analysis and discussion, in which your own evaluations will become increasingly explicit, and in which descriptions, though present, play only a part.
Two of the more common comments written by tutors on students’ essays are ‘Too descriptive’ and ‘Needs more analysis’. Now, it is important to be quite clear about the nature of this process of judgement. It is not uncommon to see a student write ‘In my opinion . . . ’, and a tutor write beside it ‘We don’t want your opinion. ’ Although this might seem to contradict what was said above about the importance of your own judgement, it does not. What the tutor is objecting to is ‘opinion’ unsupported by reason and evidence. In chapter 2 we shall examine closely how, when you are ? rst coming to grips with an essay topic, it is quite necessary to decide what your provisional opinion might be.
Your opinion at this early stage of your work does not need to be justi? ed at all. It can, as the philosopher Sir Karl Popper says, be no more than a ‘prejudice’ or a ‘conjecture’. You must bring your prejudices and opinions to bear on your provisional answer to the question. But, by the time your reading and your writing are ? nished, prejudice and opinion must have been converted into a reasoned judgement, which might be signi? cantly different from your initial reaction to the essay topic. We can see how initial prejudice and opinion are transformed into judgement on a broad scale in this memoir by the Australian historian Manning Clark: 10 – Introduction
I happened to have the good fortune to experience in childhood all the con? icts which were central to the human situation in Australia. My mother came from the old patrician, landed magni? coes in Australia; my father from the working class ? rst of London, then of Sydney. So, years later when I read those words by Karl Marx, ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’, childhood memories made me say ‘and that’s true, too’ just as years of reading and observation later were to ? ll in the details for that proposition about human society and raise doubts about what it leaves out. Clark announces his prejudice in favour of Marx’s dictum, a point of view overned by his own childhood experience and not by any academic method. That prejudice is absolutely necessary to Clark’s history, but by itself it is not enough. It must be complemented by ‘reading and observation’ expressed in a critical academic discourse which analyses the ‘details’ and comes to terms with the ‘doubts’. In beginning with our prejudices and opinions and then gradually converting them through reading and writing into considered judgements, we are committing a great deal of our own selves to the answer we give. We must be prepared to mean what we say. But we must also be able to feel a certain con? dence in our judgements. This con? ence does not come so much from ‘within’ us as from the success with which our language formulates the judgement and backs it up. If you ? nd it extremely dif? cult to get words onto the page, then what is probably at fault is your understanding of what you are trying to say or an insuf? ciently worked-out argument to support it. This can only be overcome by going back to your books or by forcing yourself to clarify your point of view by writing a short summary of it. We have noticed above the need to take care that we mean what we say. But we must similarly take care, as the March Hare and the ‘Mad’ Hatter crossly pointed out to Alice, to say what we mean. There can be a yawning gulf between the two into which most of us can easily fall.
When we have put our thoughts and judgements into You and your subject matter – 11 words, we need to look at what is on the paper to ? nd out whether what is there does indeed say what we meant to say. Some academic writers rarely feel that they have got their language to say just what they intended, and a kind of secondary ‘writer’s block’ sets in: the words are amended, deleted, amended again and ? nally sent to the bin – the whole process to be gone through again. If you spend inordinate amounts of time agonising over choices of word and sentence structure, it may well be that you are aiming for a kind of perfection and precision which is more than you can handle at the time.
Perfection and precision for their own sakes are false goals in academic enquiry and writing (despite what some books say). You should cut and change only where you have decided that the meaning and structure of your argument is going to be signi? cantly improved. A tendency to perfectionism, especially in relatively super? cial aspects of writing, is often a sign of a lack of con? dence. Con? dence cannot be built up by presenting a perfectly grammatical exterior to your reader, but rather by trying out your ideas in the language that you can best muster on the occasion. If you feel that there is something wrong with that language, scrutinise ? rst the idea you are trying to express.
If, on the other hand, you are the kind of writer who rarely changes anything and who, once the draft essay is completed, gladly forgets about it, you need to begin thinking very seriously about what writing an academic essay entails. As we have noted, the wordprocessor takes more of the pain out of revising drafts than used to be the case with pen or typewriter, so you must make use of this facility. It is only when you read over your own work, well after it has been composed, that you will be able to see its shortcomings. This means that it is absolutely necessary to construct a timetable which provides that you ? nish the ? rst draft of any essay well before it is due to be handed in. Some authorities recommend that you leave forty-eight hours between completing your ? rst draft and going through it to prepare your second. This seems to me useful advice.
Chapter 2 of this book is explicitly devoted to showing you how to approach your work so that you do not fall into the common pattern of ? nishing a ? rst draft the night before the essay is due. Some people can produce 12 – Introduction excellence in a ? rst draft; but they are probably the kinds of people referred to by E. H. Carr who can also play chess in their heads. If you do have dif? culty in managing to say what you mean, you should pay particular attention to Part III of this book. If you decide that clarifying the relationship between you, your subject matter and your language is a signi? cant problem, then it would be a good idea to study closely what E. H. Carr says about how he approaches the writing of history (pp. 5–6 above).
The implication is that your knowledge and understanding are formulated in your language, not merely ‘communicated’ by means of language. In choosing our language we are choosing and establishing our point of view on the subject matter and our answer to the question raised by the essay topic. Each time you go round the cycle of reading, writing and thinking, you are gradually improving your understanding of the subject matter and your expression of that understanding in English. You are getting away from that Mephistophelian voice in you which says ‘I understand this, but I just can’t express it. ’ If you can’t express it, the presumption must be that you don’t suf? ciently understand it. 4 You and your reader
While grappling with the problems of understanding and knowing the material, you have another matter to attend to. This is the interpersonal or communicative function of your writing. Writing is not wholly a problem in communication, as we have just seen; but now we must look at those aspects of writing which are governed by the need to present your ideas and your argument in a way that will help to ‘get them across’. In some senses communicating successfully involves little more than learning and exploiting certain conventions of writing and presentation. In this respect the aim to be achieved is to present your work in such a way that the medium (paper, fonts, setting-out, etc. does not draw the reader’s attention away from the argument you are making: you are not writing advertising copy, putting together a newsletter or making a Powerpoint ‘presentation’. There is, however, one problem of communicating which will not go away quite so easily. You and your reader – 13 This problem is that of deciding whom you are writing for and whom you are writing to. The academic essay is in some respects an arti? cial task. Though you are ostensibly writing to a relatively depersonalised ‘academic establishment’, you are in effect writing for yourself. This is what assessment is about. The con? ict thus engendered about the nature of your audience – department, tutor and self – makes the common injunction to writers, ‘Know your audience’, only a partly helpful truism.
To make matters worse you are sometimes told to write as if a fellow student were going to read the essay, sometimes to write for the ‘educated layman’, and sometimes to write for academics in a different but related discipline. In desperation, or as a short cut, you may try to write to your tutor. There are, however, very real dangers if you allow your tutor to dominate too much of your writing. (And be suspicious of writing handbooks which promise you techniques for impressing your tutors with a few tricks and little effort. ) Most of the dangers stem quite simply from the conventions of the teacher–student situation: writing in order to ‘pass’. You may be tempted into plagiarising others’ work if you believe the tutor will not recognise the source. But bear in mind there are computer programs the tutor can use to check these sources if he or she becomes suspicious. ) This is no way to learn to write. More importantly, it constitutes a violation of your own selfhood as much as it does of the rights of the original author. It is a violation of yourself because your attempts to understand the substance of what you read are also attempts to understand yourself a little bit better each time you try to interpret in your own words what another person is saying. In a very real sense, your essays actually write you – they become part of your own developing conception of yourself, your own life story – if you will allow them to. You are a changed person.
It does take time, so try to be patient. Similarly, you might begin to ape the super? cialities of the jargon of a discipline before you have really grasped the meaning of the language. By thus displaying a certain familiarity with this ‘inlanguage’, many believe the tutor will be taken in (which, of course, he or she can be). Many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences make use of a language not commonly found elsewhere: for example ‘the Other’, ‘intertextuality’, ‘posthuman’, ‘totalising discourse’. To 14 – Introduction string together such words and phrases in order to create the illusion of control and understanding is relatively easy with a bit of practice.
To understand them, to make judgements on them, to make (or not to make) them part of your own story or ‘discourse’ of yourself requires time and work. Dazzling the tutor is incidental to this more important task. The third temptation in keeping tutors too much in mind is to toady to their theoretical predilections and opinions in the belief that this will earn you a higher grade. It must ? rst of all be acknowledged that, as any number of studies have shown, tutors can be quite unreliable in their assessments of written work. (Many departments recognise this and use various techniques for improving reliability. ) Different tutors can vary signi? antly in the grade they allow to a given essay. This fact might encourage you to believe that the best way to get high grades is to ? atter your tutor’s opinions. It appears, however, that even an individual tutor may vary quite considerably in the value he or she attaches to the same piece of work from one time to another. It is also the case that some tutors are ? attered by having you attack their own work, since in order to attack it you will need to have read it with care and attention. In my own experience the genuine con? icts about the substance of an opinion occur mostly over the work of graduate students. With undergraduates many such dif? ulties turn out to arise from misunderstandings not so much about the substance of a particular opinion as about its relevance to the essay question or about the quality of the student’s analysis of supporting evidence. So before you assume a tutor is biased against you, do as much as you can to put into practice the concerns of this book, which seek to initiate you into the rites and conventions of academic debate. But where there is considerable disparity between your own assessment of the value of your essay and the assessment the tutor makes, the best recourse is to argue it out with the tutor in question. Any good tutor should be prepared to give particular comments, to defend his or her judgement and to revise it if warranted. It is this matter of detailed comment that you should ask for, whether the examiner seems biased in favour or against.
Marginal comment, a defence of the overall assessment, and some help with what you need Your language: form and structure – 15 to do to improve, is what you should seek ? rst. Only then should you begin to worry about the tutor who does not like your opinions. If, however, you do arrive at this point, most university departments and schools have procedures in place which enable you to appeal against the decision of your tutor. One matter on which you should always submit to the wishes of your tutor concerns the conventions of presentation: the preferred forms of footnoting and referencing, and of headings, margins and type of paper, fonts or typefaces, line spacing, the quality of your proofreading and so on.
Good communication is obtained in part by reducing to a minimum what engineers call ‘noise’ in the channel – anything that will distract the reader from the object of concentration. It is customary for writing handbooks like this one to justify these matters in terms of courtesy to the reader. But there is also a simple psychological factor. If your reader’s attention is constantly distracted by attention-seeking or indifferent presentation, there will be less processing capacity in his or her brain to devote to the substance of your essay. Like so many of the things we discuss in connection with writing, successful communication is a matter of achieving an optimal balance in a given situation. It is even possible to make your presentation too perfect.
If your cultural background has placed great emphasis on courtesy and convention, it is quite possible that you will expend a disproportionate amount of effort on parading immaculately labelled headings, brightly polished setting-out and crisply pressed footnotes. The excellence of the presentation may make it rather too clear that you have neglected more important aspects of your writing. 5 Your language: form and structure So far, we have seen how aspects of language enter into such problems as how you establish your point of view on a topic, how you come to understand and express your subject matter, and how you establish a ‘line of communication’ with your reader. Now we look at some problems of writing which arise out of the nature of language itself.
To make language work for you, it is a good idea to learn something of its forms and structures, just as cabinet-makers need to understand 16 – Introduction the properties of their timbers. The forms we are concerned with operate on two levels – that of the sentence and that of larger units of discourse like the paragraph and the essay as a whole. There are ways in which we use words, grammar and discourse to organise our diverse ideas into a coherent unity. Every piece of academic writing should strive for this unity. A well-organised piece of writing reveals that the writer has established a pattern of relationships between the individual parts and between the parts and the whole composition.
When we read, we are often dimly aware that the author of our book has achieved this formal balance without our being able to say exactly how. When we write, we are often uncomfortably aware that we haven’t achieved it. Sometimes we begin to realise that our thinking and writing are just ‘going round in circles’. We start to repeat ourselves unnecessarily, contradict ourselves or fail to show the connections between ideas. We become aware that, whenever we arrive at the end of a section of the essay, or of a paragraph or even of a sentence, we do not know where to turn next or how to establish a connection between what is written and what is to be written. We become more and more unable to decide between what should be included in the essay and what should be left out.
Paragraphs become very, very long or very, very short. Sentences become long and convoluted, such that the end has quite forgotten the beginning. More or less random mistakes in some aspects of grammar begin to creep in. Overall, we get that feeling that our writing does not ‘? ow’, that some aspect of its structure has collapsed. The ? rst dif? culty we face is in learning to recognise when these symptoms are present. Sometimes they are not particularly apparent to us while we are writing, only revealing themselves when we read the piece over later. Sometimes our own sense of form is not suf? ciently developed to enable us to see aspects of our problem at all.
We learn these things by having our writing criticised by others, and by absorbing gradually from our reading a sense of what good writing ‘feels’ like. It is therefore often only a vague sense of discomfort, in the ? rst instance, that alerts us to the situation in our own writing. When this discomfort is felt, we may be able to go back over our work and describe in some detail what is going wrong – perhaps Your language: form and structure – 17 by identifying such particular symptoms as are listed above. For example, an almost invariable sign that something is wrong is a series of either very long or very short paragraphs – and this condition is easy to spot.
But being able to locate and identify the symptom is often not enough, since local tinkering with, say, paragraph boundaries (running short ones together or chopping long ones into parts) does not always get at the heart of the problem. This is the point at which we often have to decide to cross out the whole passage and start again. Far from seeking to improve the form for its own sake, our re-writing gives us a chance to improve our understanding of the subject we are writing about. There are aesthetes who ? ddle with the form of their work to gain purely formal satisfactions, and there should indeed be something of the aesthete in all writers.
But the chance to re-write is the chance to conceive afresh what it is we are trying to say. And that means searching for an idea which becomes the new focus of attention, a new unifying vision of the subject, around which the parts which once seemed so intractable will now cluster more or less easily. In short, to heed the formal signals of distress gives us the opportunity to think of a better answer to the question. The satisfactions of this are great. Nobody, however, will deny the desire to get things more or less right the ? rst time. If good structure depends, as we have seen, so critically on ? nding that elusive unifying idea, good structure therefore has its origins in your very ? rst confrontation with the essay topic.
There are, of course, many questions which can only be faced and resolved as the occasion arises. But that central issue of the overall organisation of your essay and its major parts is not something that can be added in as you ‘write up’ a draft. If you do recognise in yourself the ‘scissors-and-paste’ syndrome and the other symptoms of poor structure in your essay-writing, you may well need to pay especial attention to the way in which you come to terms with the essay topic. Form and structure enter into most aspects of writing. Even so, this book, it should be clear, is about much more than getting the right words and grammatical forms into the right places.
To write well you will also need progressively to learn about yourself and the way your own mind works, about the ways in which you attain to knowledge, 18 – Introduction and about the academic culture in which you and your readers live. Dealing adequately with all these claims to the attention demands that you gradually work out for yourself a set of procedures and conditions that will not only improve your ef? ciency but also open up new, more interesting and more subtle ways of approaching your work. You will ? nd in this book various hints and recommendations about what you might take account of in trying to reach that happy state where you can even enjoy the taxing process of writing. The particular synthesis you make of the issues treated here is, however, your own responsibility.
The success with which all these matters are resolved will be apparent in the artefact that emerges: every piece of your writing you preserve will always remain an articulate testimony to your state of mind when you wrote it. This is what makes writing – even if ‘only’ another academic essay – an attempt to deal not only with a ‘topic’ but with knowledge itself, with other people and with yourself. Part I Re? ection and Research 2 Re? ection: asking questions and proposing answers I have always preferred to re? ect upon a problem before reading on it. Jean Piaget This chapter r encourages you to develop the con? dence and ability to spec ulate early about possible answers to your topic, and avoid getting bogged down in unproductive, time-consuming reading and notes. It does this by r mphasising the importance of your interest in and enthusiasm for the topics you choose to write on (as opposed to more utilitarian reasons) showing you the meanings of the question words and instructions used in essay topics, how to interpret them and how to ask your own questions providing a logical approach to speculating about the shape of possible answers, drawing mostly on your existing knowledge illustrating how you can come up with a draft paragraph which will help guide your later thinking and more detailed reading. r r r 22 – Re? ection: asking questions and proposing answers 1 Speculative thinking and writing This is a chapter about thinking and re? ection. It comes ? rst in our consideration of writing because it is the ? st of the many activities in writing an essay that you should engage in. Many, if not most, students leave the really hard thinking until after they have done the reading or research. They do this in the belief that one can’t think constructively until all the information is gathered and the writing of the ? nal draft is due to begin. This is not so, as the quotation above from the philosopher and psychologist Jean Piaget suggests. One of the most important abilities needed to master essaywriting in the humanities and social sciences is the ability to ask q ues tio ns of the essay topic itself as well as of the books you will read. If you can develop a facility in asking questions and in re? cting on likely answers to those questions, it is possible for a general shape for your essay (though not its precise content) to become evident to you even before you have begun on any detailed reading. The procedure is something like this: 1 Choose an essay topic because it interests you. Such a topic is more likely to be one about which you might already have a few questions or ideas. 2 Ask questions of the topic: try to work out what it is driving at, what is meant by various words or phrases in it, and what kinds of connection there may be between the various issues it raises. Do no more reading (or better, ‘consulting’ of a few very basic source books) than is necessary to suggest possible answers to your questions. Propose to yourself a few likely answers to the question raised by the topic and write them down in no more than a sentence or two. Then choose which seems to be the best. Discussing the topic with friends is very useful at this stage. 4 Develop this answer into a paragraph which, so far as you can, lists the reasons for choosing the answer you did or some of the facts and ideas that you think might support it. Speculative thinking and writing – 23 5 Regard this paragraph as no more than a hypothesis about, a proposal for, or a forecast of, your eventual answer. It might well lay the foundations of the opening paragraph of your essay, but it will need to be tested out (and probably changed) by your detailed reading – which should not begin until now.
The aim of this chapter is to show you how to do these things. You need to be aware at the outset that you may not ? nd it easy to master and apply these techniques of re? ective questioning and exploratory writing. You may well be strongly tempted to scurry back to the apparent security of your books and the deceptive sense of being ‘busy’ in the library, leaving the hard thinking until a night or two before the essay is due. There are two main reasons why you should resist this temptation. The ? rst is that hard preliminary thinking and writing leads eventually to better essays. The second is that it makes you more ef? cient in your work, and consequently saves you important time.
It might seem that a procedure which asks you to produce a draft paragraph which almost certainly will have to be changed, and perhaps wholly scrapped, is academically worthless, not to say inef? cient. This is not so. You will remember we saw in chapter 1 that writing and thinking beget more writing and thinking. Now if your thinking is not constrained by the need to write down what comes of it, it will usually be fairly undisciplined, not to say idle and disjointed. Writing is your best way of discovering whether you have actually captured a thought and whether it is any good. Improvement does not emerge from nothing, but by changing what exists.
The single chief value of a speculative answer in a short paragraph is not just that it might become the foundation of the eventual answer but that it gives you something to change, something to improve on by further reading, thinking and writing. This is what leads to better essays. Having a speculative answer leads to a more ef? cient use of time in a number of ways. Your reading becomes quicker and you don’t lose concentration on a book so easily. Since you have a better idea of what is likely to be relevant, you spend less time taking mountains of notes that eventually turn out to be quite useless. 24 – Re? ection: asking questions and proposing answers Thirdly, you do not spend valuable hours towards the end of the research period hunting desperately through the library in the vain Micawber-like hope that ‘something will turn up’ to show you how to write your answer.
Finally, there is long-standing psychological evidence that once you have consciously articulated certain issues to be worked on, your subconscious mind will beaver away at them whilst you are doing other things, with the result that every now and again an answer or an improvement will pop to the surface. (The philosopher Bertrand Russell prepared himself for these happy occasions by carrying round a little notebook in which to write these ideas down. ) In this way you save time because your subconscious can be working on one essay while your conscious attention is engaged on another. The steps summarised above we shall now treat in more detail. 2 Choosing a topic Your choice of a topic on which to write should be governed most importantly by your own personal interest and ‘prejudice’.
Your only guide in this matter is yourself. Some people think that if you are too committed to a subject you will write an essay which is too strongly in? uenced by your desire to entrench a particular point of view, irrespective of evidence. This should not worry you, provided that you draw an important distinction. This is a distinction between your interest in the subject as being worthy of study and a commitment to be as detached as you can when you eventually come to analyse the evidence which supports one or another answer to the question. The early stages of preparing an essay dealt with in this chapter are purely private. So choosing a topic, like your ? rst re? ctions on it, can be governed by as much self-interest and prejudice as you care to allow. It would be much more a problem if you ? nd that none of the topics on a list interests you. If that happens, you should try to work one out for yourself on some aspect of the course that does interest you and then gain your tutor’s approval of it. There are some subsidiary issues which might enter into your choice of topic, and which might in? uence you in favouring one over Choosing a topic – 25 others of equal interest. The ? rst of these issues are somewhat negative ones. One consideration that might weigh heavily with you is the relevance of a topic to the syllabus as a whole and to end-of-course examinations in particular.
The ‘pragmatic’ student might decide that to write on such a topic effectively kills two birds with one stone, a decision which justi? es the argument ‘What am I studying for if not to get my degree or diploma in the most ef? cient way possible? ’ There is nothing wrong with this argument provided that it is not allowed to override the importance of being interested in the subject itself. Some research into student performance in universities suggests that to be too ‘syllabus-bound’ eventually works against academic success. If you pursue your interests within the broad scope of the courses you are taking, you will ultimately perform better than if you keep your gaze too ? rmly ? xed on the quali? cation at the end of it all.
Bear it in mind that enthusiasm for a subject will be manifest in your writing, and will convey itself to a grateful reader. For similar reasons you should not reject an interesting topic because it has not yet been covered in class. Nor, having chosen such a topic, should you postpone the beginning of your work until it is. Lecturers and tutors rarely address their comments to the precise question or questions raised by an essay topic. This is not necessarily neglect – and may be quite deliberate, since they do not wish to read many essays which uniformly echo the lectures. Hence nothing that they say is likely to be of any more initial bene? t to you than what is contained in an introductory book on the subject.
Even if the classes do address issues of direct relevance to a topic, you must realise that the lecturer is not giving you the answer to the question but his or her answer, which must be analysed in exactly the same way as you will analyse other answers in your written sources. Indeed, if you have done your preliminary work before the classes take the matter up, you will be in a much better position to assess the value, the relevance and the signi? cance of what is said. There are, in addition, certain other practical considerations to be taken into account. Other things being equal, in courses with many students unpopular topics may be worth a closer look. This is 26 – Re? ection: asking questions and proposing answers because competition for the available references in the library will be less ? erce and because the essays written on them will bear a relative freshness to the reader.
Another rule of thumb is that, for some students, topics worded in a very general way are often harder to write on well than topics in which the issues are set out more precisely. General or broad topics leave to you so much more of the questioning process itself and the evaluation of the best questions to ask. The more clearly the questions are focused, the easier it is to control the relevance of the answers. Against this, it must be said, topics which are very precise in their demands may not allow quite so much scope for you to develop your own point of view. The price of safety may be a certain constriction of freedom. Devising your own topic for a research paper
If you are asked not to choose a topic from a prepared list but to devise one for yourself, you face, at bottom, much the same problems as those we have already discussed. They may, however, be considerably magni? ed; it is really much harder to ask good questions than it is to answer them. Your interest in the subject is still paramount. Even so, it has to be weighed against such practical and intellectual matters as the availability of suf? cient evidence or data relative to the broadness of the topic, the extent to which it allows theoretical or methodological questions of interest to the discipline to be asked of it, the amount of time available and the projected length of the paper. Factors such as these need to be nicely balanced, so you must discuss them in some detail with your tutor before you ? ally settle on the wording of your topic. Nor should you be afraid to seek a change in the wording of the topic if your early investigations lead you into major problems.