Writing Academically: What’s the Point? (Part I)

Whats_The_Point__by_Nose_MeatIn many of my blog posts I have made reference to the “academic essay” or to “academic writing.” I’ve discussed the differences between such writing and “creative writing,” listed tips to improve an academic essay, and introduced some of the basic components of such an essay, particularly the thesis statement and motive. Yet I have deliberately neglected answering perhaps the most important (controversial) question regarding the academic essay: What is the point of academic writing?

The five-paragraph essay is practically universal in middle, junior, and high schools. Your English teachers, and most likely your history, science, and philosophy teachers as well, will have encouraged you to form arguments about the subject matter they teach and put these into writing form. College applications demand essays, as do more formal applications for fellowships, jobs, and internships. Papers are the trope of every college course, particularly within the humanities student’s academic career. So what is the point?

[Continue reading about academic writing]

Here are some thoughts to consider.

  1. Think of academic writing as a genre. Do not think of it as a simple assignment. Certainly, you might look at the prompt for an English essay and consider it utterly pointless (who cares anyways about the use of light and dark imagery in Crime and Punishment? You might ask). Trust me, all of us have been there. Take that same prompt and view it as part of a genre like nonfiction, or biography. Writing academically is a form of narrative itself, a mode that comprises its own section on the bookshelf. It is much like a sustained dialogue between highly specialized intellectuals. Think of yourself as joining this never-ending, intelligent conversation and the “pointlessness” of your prompt will instantly fade. Your voice does matter, even if you may feel like it doesn’t. We are all scholars in this together!
  2. The academic essay teaches you how to craft a complex, intelligent argument. This is perhaps the most important “point” of academic writing. The academic essay is crafted around the thesis statement, which is essentially the main point or “argument” of your essay. The academic essay trains you to locate an argument based off of a particular situation, furbish it with evidence, and describe it concisely and logically right from the start. Thinking of your essay as a well-planned argument, or response to a debate partner in a debate, is an excellent way of improving your writing skills.
  3. Writing academically improves your rhetorical skills. Training your academic writing muscle will immediately refine your speaking ability. And guess what? Nearly every college education entails verbal discussion of some sort. The ability to formulate arguments on paper and in person is a skill not to be missed. I just mentioned how essays are like responses to a debate partner in a debate. The same goes for discussion responses: they themselves are academic essay points!
  4. Training your ability to have an open mind. Many essays, particularly those assigned within your English class, will train you to critically read a passage or idea and form an argument based off of such a reading. (See an earlier blog post on Reading Critically). This type of critical reading encourages you to view something from several perspectives. The ability to approach others’ arguments with an open mind is helpful not only in classroom settings but in the any field you enter.
  5. Writing is a highly sought-after skill set. Regardless of the field you enter, if you possess the ability to write academically, you automatically possess a higher edge. Employers will seek you out: all because you took that five-paragraph essay seriously in AP Lit class, seventh period.

In the next few weeks I will be continuing my thoughts on writing academically. Stay tuned for more theories and tricks of the trade!

Additional Reading:

Check out the next posts in this 8 part series on writing academically:

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.

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