Thinking about your own writing processes and experiences, write a short reflective of 600 to 700 words in which you share your experiences as a writer.
What kinds of writing have you done in the past? How does it compare to academic writing?
How does your writing process compare with what you have learned about the writing process over this week?
What are your goals for improving your academic writing?
What skills do you hope to gain from this course to help you in your future classes and/or writing in your profession?
you may use a short quote or paraphrase from one of our readings. This is a great opportunity to practice using an APA cover page and following APA formatting guidelines for any quote or paraphrase. Be sure to submit your paper in APA format
***see below and attached***
ENG 101—Reflection Essay Rubric Criteria 0 (F) (F) (D) (C) (B) (A)
Possible Points 40 0 20 26 30 34 40
Reflection No submission. The essay does not
explore or analyze
the writer’s past
future goals; the
relationship to the
course material is
and/or analyzes the
future goals; the
relationship to the
course material is
The essay explores and
analyzes the writer’s
past experiences and
future goals in a general
way. Detail may be
relationship to the
course material may be
The essay explores and
analyzes the writer’s
past experiences and
future goals at an
adequate level of
detail. Experiences and
goals are related to the
The essay thoughtfully and
insightfully explores and
analyzes the writer’s past
experiences and future goals
at an adequate level of detail.
Experiences and goals are
related to the course material.
Possible Points 40 0 20 26 30 34 40
No submission. The writing lacks
Consistent ideas and
themes are not
apparent. There is no
The writing has
minimal structure or
difficult to discern.
The writing has
this may be inconsistent
in places. Some parts
may be out of place or
lack relevance. Some
transitions may be
The writing is
organized and clear. It
maintains an overall
focus on key
flows smoothly most
of the time.
The writing is very well
organized and clear. It is
consistently focused on key
ideas/themes and flows
smoothly from one idea to the
Possible Points 20 0 10 12 15 17 20
Mechanics, Style, and
No submission. The essay exhibits
incorrect spelling and
grammar limit the
reader’s ability to
follow ideas or
thoughts. Sources are
not cited properly.
grammar. Writing is
awkward or difficult
Sources are often
not cited properly.
The essay contains
some spelling and
grammatical errors but
these do not
are usually cited
The essay contains few
The writing is
Sources are cited
properly with only rare
The essay contains no errors
in spelling or grammar. The
writing clearly and effectively
conveys the author’s ideas.
All sources are cited properly.
Column Total 0 50 64 75 85 100
What Is “Academic” Writing? by L. Lennie Irvin
This essay is a chapter in Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Volume 1, a peer-reviewed open textbook series for the writing classroom, and is published through Parlor Press.
The full volume and individual chapter downloads are available for free from the following sites:
• Writing Spaces: http://writingspaces.org/essays • Parlor Press: http://parlorpress.com/writingspaces • WAC Clearinghouse: http://wac.colostate.edu/books/
Print versions of the volume are available for purchase directly from Parlor Press and through other booksellers.
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© 2010 by the respective author(s). For reprint rights and other permissions, contact the original author(s).
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Writing spaces : readings on writing. Volume 1 / edited by Charles Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-60235-184-4 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-60235-185-1 (adobe ebook) 1. College readers. 2. English language–Rhetoric. I. Lowe, Charles, 1965- II. Zemliansky, Pavel. PE1417.W735 2010 808’.0427–dc22 2010019487
What Is “Academic” Writing?
L. Lennie Irvin
Introduction: The Academic Writing Task
As a new college student, you may have a lot of anxiety and questions about the writing you’ll do in college.* That word “academic,” espe- cially, may turn your stomach or turn your nose. However, with this first year composition class, you begin one of the only classes in your entire college career where you will focus on learning to write. Given the importance of writing as a communication skill, I urge you to con- sider this class as a gift and make the most of it. But writing is hard, and writing in college may resemble playing a familiar game by com- pletely new rules (that often are unstated). This chapter is designed to introduce you to what academic writing is like, and hopefully ease your transition as you face these daunting writing challenges.
So here’s the secret. Your success with academic writing depends upon how well you understand what you are doing as you write and then how you approach the writing task. Early research done on college writers discovered that whether students produced a successful piece of writing depended largely upon their representation of the writing task. The writers’ mental model for picturing their task made a huge differ-
L. Lennie Irvin4
ence. Most people as they start college have wildly strange ideas about what they are doing when they write an essay, or worse—they have no clear idea at all. I freely admit my own past as a clueless freshman writer, and it’s out of this sympathy as well as twenty years of teaching college writing that I hope to provide you with something useful. So grab a cup of coffee or a diet coke, find a comfortable chair with good light, and let’s explore together this activity of academic writing you’ll be asked to do in college. We will start by clearing up some of those wild misconceptions people often arrive at college possessing. Then we will dig more deeply into the components of the academic writing situation and nature of the writing task.
Myths about Writing
Though I don’t imagine an episode of MythBusters will be based on the misconceptions about writing we are about to look at, you’d still be surprised at some of the things people will believe about writing. You may find lurking within you viral elements of these myths—all of these lead to problems in writing.
Myth #1: The “Paint by Numbers” myth
Some writers believe they must perform certain steps in a particular order to write “correctly.” Rather than being a lock-step linear process, writing is “recursive.” That means we cycle through and repeat the various activities of the writing process many times as we write.
Myth #2: Writers only start writing when they have everything figured out
Writing is not like sending a fax! Writers figure out much of what they want to write as they write it. Rather than waiting, get some writing on the page—even with gaps or problems. You can come back to patch up rough spots.
Myth #3: Perfect first drafts
We put unrealistic expectations on early drafts, either by focusing too much on the impossible task of making them perfect (which can put a cap on the development of our ideas), or by making too little effort be-
What Is “Academic” Writing? 5
cause we don’t care or know about their inevitable problems. Nobody writes perfect first drafts; polished writing takes lots of revision.
Myth #4: Some got it; I don’t—the genius fallacy
When you see your writing ability as something fixed or out of your control (as if it were in your genetic code), then you won’t believe you can improve as a writer and are likely not to make any efforts in that direction. With effort and study, though, you can improve as a writer. I promise.
Myth #5: Good grammar is good writing
When people say “I can’t write,” what they often mean is they have problems with grammatical correctness. Writing, however, is about more than just grammatical correctness. Good writing is a matter of achieving your desired effect upon an intended audience. Plus, as we saw in myth #3, no one writes perfect first drafts.
Myth #6: The Five Paragraph Essay
Some people say to avoid it at all costs, while others believe no other way to write exists. With an introduction, three supporting para- graphs, and a conclusion, the five paragraph essay is a format you should know, but one which you will outgrow. You’ll have to gauge the particular writing assignment to see whether and how this format is useful for you.
Myth #7: Never use “I”
Adopting this formal stance of objectivity implies a distrust (almost fear) of informality and often leads to artificial, puffed-up prose. Although some writing situations will call on you to avoid using “I” (for example, a lab report), much college writing can be done in a middle, semi-formal style where it is ok to use “I.”
The Academic Writing Situation
Now that we’ve dispelled some of the common myths that many writ- ers have as they enter a college classroom, let’s take a moment to think about the academic writing situation. The biggest problem I see in freshman writers is a poor sense of the writing situation in general. To
L. Lennie Irvin6
illustrate this problem, let’s look at the difference between speaking and writing.
When we speak, we inhabit the communication situation bodily in three dimensions, but in writing we are confined within the two- dimensional setting of the flat page (though writing for the web—or multimodal writing—is changing all that). Writing resembles having a blindfold over our eyes and our hands tied behind our backs: we can’t see exactly whom we’re talking to or where we are. Separated from our audience in place and time, we imaginatively have to create this context. Our words on the page are silent, so we must use punc- tuation and word choice to communicate our tone. We also can’t see our audience to gauge how our communication is being received or if there will be some kind of response. It’s the same space we share right now as you read this essay. Novice writers often write as if they were mumbling to themselves in the corner with no sense that their writing will be read by a reader or any sense of the context within which their communication will be received.
What’s the moral here? Developing your “writer’s sense” about communicating within the writing situation is the most important thing you should learn in freshman composition.
Figure 1, depicting the writing situation, presents the best image I know of describing all the complexities involved in the writing situa- tion.
Figure 1. Source: “A Social Model of Writing.” [email protected] 2010. Web. 10 March 2010. Used by permission from Mike Palmquist.
What Is “Academic” Writing? 7
Looking More Closely at the “Academic Writing” Situation
Writing in college is a fairly specialized writing situation, and it has developed its own codes and conventions that you need to have a keen awareness of if you are going to write successfully in college. Let’s break down the writing situation in college:
Who’s your audience? Primarily the professor and possibly your class- mates (though you may be asked to include a secondary outside audience).
What’s the occasion or context?
An assignment given by the teacher within a learning context and designed to have you learn and demonstrate your learning.
What’s your message? It will be your learning or the interpretation gained from your study of the subject matter.
What’s your purpose? To show your learning and get a good grade (or to accomplish the goals of the writing assign- ment).
What documents/ genres are used?
The essay is the most frequent type of docu- ment used.
So far, this list looks like nothing new. You’ve been writing in school toward teachers for years. What’s different in college? Lee Ann Carroll, a professor at Pepperdine University, performed a study of stu- dent writing in college and had this description of the kind of writing you will be doing in college:
What are usually called ‘writing assignments’ in col- lege might more accurately be called ‘literacy tasks’ because they require much more than the ability to construct correct sentences or compose neatly orga- nized paragraphs with topic sentences. . . . Projects calling for high levels of critical literacy in college typically require knowledge of research skills, abil- ity to read complex texts, understanding of key dis- ciplinary concepts, and strategies for synthesizing, analyzing, and responding critically to new informa- tion, usually within a limited time frame. (3–4)
L. Lennie Irvin8
Academic writing is always a form of evaluation that asks you to dem- onstrate knowledge and show proficiency with certain disciplinary skills of thinking, interpreting, and presenting. Writing the paper is never “just” the writing part. To be successful in this kind of writing, you must be completely aware of what the professor expects you to do and accomplish with that particular writing task. For a moment, let’s explore more deeply the elements of this college writing “literacy task.”
Knowledge of Research Skills
Perhaps up to now research has meant going straight to Google and Wikipedia, but college will require you to search for and find more in-depth information. You’ll need to know how to find information in the library, especially what is available from online databases which contain scholarly articles. Researching is also a process, so you’ll need to learn how to focus and direct a research project and how to keep track of all your source information. Realize that researching repre- sents a crucial component of most all college writing assignments, and you will need to devote lots of work to this researching.
The Ability to Read Complex Texts
Whereas your previous writing in school might have come generally from your experience, college writing typically asks you to write on unfamiliar topics. Whether you’re reading your textbook, a short story, or scholarly articles from research, your ability to write well will be based upon the quality of your reading. In addition to the labor of close reading, you’ll need to think critically as you read. That means separating fact from opinion, recognizing biases and assumptions, and making inferences. Inferences are how we as readers connect the dots: an inference is a belief (or statement) about something unknown made on the basis of something known. You smell smoke; you infer fire. They are conclusions or interpretations that we arrive at based upon the known factors we discover from our reading. When we, then, write to argue for these interpretations, our job becomes to get our readers to make the same inferences we have made.
The Understanding of Key Disciplinary Concepts
Each discipline whether it is English, Psychology, or History has its own key concepts and language for describing these important ways
What Is “Academic” Writing? 9
of understanding the world. Don’t fool yourself that your professors’ writing assignments are asking for your opinion on the topic from just your experience. They want to see you apply and use these concepts in your writing. Though different from a multiple-choice exam, writing similarly requires you to demonstrate your learning. So whatever writ- ing assignment you receive, inspect it closely for what concepts it asks you to bring into your writing.
Strategies for Synthesizing, Analyzing, and Responding Critically to New Information
You need to develop the skill of a seasoned traveler who can be dropped in any city around the world and get by. Each writing assignment asks you to navigate through a new terrain of information, so you must develop ways for grasping new subject matter in order, then, to use it in your writing. We have already seen the importance of reading and research for these literacy tasks, but beyond laying the information out before you, you will need to learn ways of sorting and finding mean- ingful patterns in this information.
In College, Everything’s an Argument: A Guide for Decoding College Writing Assignments
Let’s restate this complex “literacy task” you’ll be asked repeatedly to do in your writing assignments. Typically, you’ll be required to write an “essay” based upon your analysis of some reading(s). In this essay you’ll need to present an argument where you make a claim (i.e. pres- ent a “thesis”) and support that claim with good reasons that have adequate and appropriate evidence to back them up. The dynamic of this argumentative task often confuses first year writers, so let’s exam- ine it more closely.
Academic Writing Is an Argument
To start, let’s focus on argument. What does it mean to present an “argument” in college writing? Rather than a shouting match between two disagreeing sides, argument instead means a carefully arranged and supported presentation of a viewpoint. Its purpose is not so much to win the argument as to earn your audience’s consideration (and even approval) of your perspective. It resembles a conversation between two
L. Lennie Irvin10
people who may not hold the same opinions, but they both desire a better understanding of the subject matter under discussion. My fa- vorite analogy, however, to describe the nature of this argumentative stance in college writing is the courtroom. In this scenario, you are like a lawyer making a case at trial that the defendant is not guilty, and your readers are like the jury who will decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. This jury (your readers) won’t just take your word that he’s innocent; instead, you must convince them by presenting evidence that proves he is not guilty. Stating your opinion is not enough—you have to back it up too. I like this courtroom analogy for capturing two importance things about academic argument: 1) the value of an organized presentation of your “case,” and 2) the crucial element of strong evidence.
Academic Writing Is an Analysis
We now turn our attention to the actual writing assignment and that confusing word “analyze.” Your first job when you get a writing as- signment is to figure out what the professor expects. This assignment may be explicit in its expectations, but often built into the wording of the most defined writing assignments are implicit expectations that you might not recognize. First, we can say that unless your professor specifically asks you to summarize, you won’t write a summary. Let me say that again: don’t write a summary unless directly asked to. But what, then, does the professor want? We have already picked out a few of these expectations: You can count on the instructor expecting you to read closely, research adequately, and write an argument where you will demonstrate your ability to apply and use important concepts you have been studying. But the writing task also implies that your essay will be the result of an analysis. At times, the writing assignment may even explicitly say to write an analysis, but often this element of the task remains unstated.
So what does it mean to analyze? One way to think of an analysis is that it asks you to seek How and Why questions much more than What questions. An analysis involves doing three things:
1. Engage in an open inquiry where the answer is not known at first (and where you leave yourself open to multiple suggestions)
2. Identify meaningful parts of the subject
What Is “Academic” Writing? 11
3. Examine these separate parts and determine how they relate to each other
An analysis breaks a subject apart to study it closely, and from this inspection, ideas for writing emerge. When writing assignments call on you to analyze, they require you to identify the parts of the subject (parts of an ad, parts of a short story, parts of Hamlet’s character), and then show how these parts fit or don’t fit together to create some larger effect or meaning. Your interpretation of how these parts fit together constitutes your claim or thesis, and the task of your essay is then to present an argument defending your interpretation as a valid or plau- sible one to make. My biggest bit of advice about analysis is not to do it all in your head. Analysis works best when you put all the cards on the table, so to speak. Identify and isolate the parts of your analysis, and record important features and characteristics of each one. As patterns emerge, you sort and connect these parts in meaningful ways. For me, I have always had to do this recording and thinking on scratch pieces of paper. Just as critical reading forms a crucial element of the literacy task of a college writing assignment, so too does this analysis process. It’s built in.
Three Common Types of College Writing Assignments
We have been decoding the expectations of the academic writing task so far, and I want to turn now to examine the types of assignments you might receive. From my experience, you are likely to get three kinds of writing assignments based upon the instructor’s degree of direction for the assignment. We’ll take a brief look at each kind of academic writing task.
The Closed Writing Assignment
• Is Creon a character to admire or condemn? • Does your advertisement employ techniques of propaganda,
and if so what kind? • Was the South justified in seceding from the Union? • In your opinion, do you believe Hamlet was truly mad?
These kinds of writing assignments present you with two counter claims and ask you to determine from your own analysis the more valid claim. They resemble yes-no questions. These topics define the
L. Lennie Irvin12
claim for you, so the major task of the writing assignment then is working out the support for the claim. They resemble a math problem in which the teacher has given you the answer and now wants you to “show your work” in arriving at that answer.
Be careful with these writing assignments, however, because often these topics don’t have a simple yes/no, either/or answer (despite the nature of the essay question). A close analysis of the subject matter often reveals nuances and ambiguities within the question that your eventual claim should reflect. Perhaps a claim such as, “In my opinion, Hamlet was mad” might work, but I urge you to avoid such a simplis- tic thesis. This thesis would be better: “I believe Hamlet’s unhinged mind borders on insanity but doesn’t quite reach it.”
The Semi-Open Writing Assignment
• Discuss the role of law in Antigone. • Explain the relationship between character and fate in Hamlet. • Compare and contrast the use of setting in two short stories. • Show how the Fugitive Slave Act influenced the Abolitionist
Although these topics chart out a subject matter for you to write upon, they don’t offer up claims you can easily use in your paper. It would be a misstep to offer up claims such as, “Law plays a role in An- tigone” or “In Hamlet we can see a relationship between character and fate.” Such statements express the obvious and what the topic takes for granted. The question, for example, is not whether law plays a role in Antigone, but rather what sort of role law plays. What is the nature of this role? What influences does it have on the characters or actions or theme? This kind of writing assignment resembles a kind of archeo- logical dig. The teacher cordons off an area, hands you a shovel, and says dig here and see what you find.
Be sure to avoid summary and mere explanation in this kind of assignment. Despite using key words in the assignment such as “ex- plain,” “illustrate,” analyze,” “discuss,” or “show how,” these topics still ask you to make an argument. Implicit in the topic is the expectation that you will analyze the reading and arrive at some insights into pat- terns and relationships about the subject. Your eventual paper, then, needs to present what you found from this analysis—the treasure you
What Is “Academic” Writing? 13
found from your digging. Determining your own claim represents the biggest challenge for this type of writing assignment.
The Open Writing Assignment
• Analyze the role of a character in Dante’s The Inferno. • What does it mean to be an “American” in the 21st Century? • Analyze the influence of slavery upon one cause of the Civil
War. • Compare and contrast two themes within Pride and Prejudice.
These kinds of writing assignments require you to decide both your writing topic and you claim (or thesis). Which character in the Inferno will I pick to analyze? What two themes in Pride and Prejudice will I choose to write about? Many students struggle with these types of as- signments because they have to understand their subject matter well before they can intelligently choose a topic. For instance, you need a good familiarity with the characters in The Inferno before you can pick one. You have to have a solid understanding defining elements of American identity as well as 21st century culture before you can begin to connect them. This kind of writing assignment resembles riding a bike without the training wheels on. It says, “You decide what to write about.” The biggest decision, then, becomes selecting your topic and limiting it to a manageable size.
Picking and Limiting a Writing Topic
Let’s talk about both of these challenges: picking a topic and limit- ing it. Remember how I said these kinds of essay topics expect you to choose what to write about from a solid understanding of your subject? As you read and review your subject matter, look for things that in- terest you. Look for gaps, puzzling items, things that confuse you, or connections you see. Something in this pile of rocks should stand out as a jewel: as being “do-able” and interesting. (You’ll write best when you write from both your head and your heart.) Whatever topic you choose, state it as a clear and interesting question. You may or may not state this essay question explicitly in the introduction of your paper (I actually recommend that you do), but it will provide direction for your paper and a focus for your claim since that claim will be your answer to this essay question. For example, if with the Dante topic you decid-
L. Lennie Irvin14
ed to write on Virgil, your essay question might be: “What is the role of Virgil toward the character of Dante in The Inferno?” The thesis statement, then, might be this: “Virgil’s predominant role as Dante’s guide through hell is as the voice of reason.” Crafting a solid essay question is well worth your time because it charts the territory of your essay and helps you declare a focused thesis statement.
Many students struggle with defining the right size for their writ- ing project. They chart out an essay question that it would take a book to deal with adequately. You’ll know you have that kind of topic if you have already written over the required page length but only touched one quarter of the topics you planned to discuss. In this case, carve out one of those topics and make your whole paper about it. For instance, with our Dante example, perhaps you planned to discuss four places where Virgil’s role as the voice of reason is evident. Instead of discuss- ing all four, focus your essay on just one place. So your revised thesis statement might be: “Close inspection of Cantos I and II reveal that Virgil serves predominantly as the voice of reason for Dante on his journey through hell.” A writing teacher I had in college said it this way: A well tended garden is better than a large one full of weeds. That means to limit your topic to a size you can handle and support well.
Three Characteristics of Academic Writing
I want to wrap up this section by sharing in broad terms what the expectations are beh
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