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05/20/2012

The Basics of Academic Writing, Part One

On one hand, academic writing can seem fairly straightforward, because much of it involves communicating your opinions and interpretations of an issue or text. You are used to offering opinions on a daily basis, after all. What you may not be used to, however, is framing those opinions within a critical context and supporting them with reasons and evidence. In academic writing, it is not enough to simply state your views; you must explain your reasons for believing them. This kind of critical thinking is the cornerstone of academic writing.

In their book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing*, authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein ask you to imagine arriving at a party that has been going on for quite some time. When you get there, you see several people steeped in conversation and debate. What do you do? Do you barge right in and offer your views, then head for the bar? You might, but you wouldn’t be regarded with much seriousness. It makes more sense to sit quietly and listen for a while, think about what you already know about the topic, then politely advance your opinion and the evidence that supports it.

Any topic in academic writing should be thought of this way—as an ongoing conversation to which much has been contributed before you, and to which much will be contributed after you. So it’s important to show that you are knowledgeable about what previous scholars have written on the various arguments supporting each position. Otherwise, you come across as the drunken ignorant boor of the party, and no one wants that.

This analogy should help you understand how to approach academic writing. Now all that’s left is a knowledge of how to actually do it! We will address the four parts of academic writing—summary, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis—in upcoming posts. You are no doubt on the edge of your seat.

*We know book titles should be italicized. We're blaming Drupal for the lack of italics here.

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