Students come to graduate school from a variety of backgrounds, each involving different kinds and degrees of writing experience. Yet all of us — regardless of how experienced we might be — can benefit from reassessing how we approach our writing. For some of you, this might be the first time you’re developing your own writing frameworks, rather than writing in response to a prompt from a professor. Others of you might come from more technical or artistic backgrounds, and this might be the first time you’ve been asked to do extensive research-based, theoretically-framed writing. Some of you might have been away from school for a while, and you might be more accustomed to writing memos and TPS reports than academic essays. And still others of you — particularly those of you who come from writing-intensive liberal arts backgrounds — might need to resist the all-too-common temptation to “show your smarts” and cultivate what feels like a grad-student-appropriate “academic style,” which often amounts to overwriting.
Cultivating Voice + Style
“Cultivating” needn’t imply calculated affectation, yet for graduate students it often does. As Gerald Graff notes, “When students write ponderously and evasively, it is often not because they could not do otherwise, but because they are convinced that such writing is what their professors want” (1041). Lee Konstantinou agrees that graduate students “write in the style of what [they] are asked to read” — which is often “material larded with jargon”; “We learn that to be a serious scholar or critic is to speak in a certain idiom.” He identifies other reasons why grad students sometimes fall prey to “bad writing”:
- Despite the wane of theory, we are still told that [critical] study must be made “rigorous” through the “application” of various kinds of theory. Unfortunately, each theory or theoretical tradition is taught to us only in partial or fragmentary form, either in “Introduction to Theory” courses or as secondary reading in traditionally (historically, formally) denominated courses. E.g., Let’s read a helping of queer theory with our early modern drama! This gives birth to a theoretical “mash-up” culture, in which radically incompatible theories populate our arguments.
- If we want the grant or the fellowship that will get us through the next year, we need to concoct elaborate answers to the “so-what” question. We therefore have an incentive to aggrandize the importance of our work.
If graduate students often learn bad writing from what they read, we can of course assume that plenty of established academics do it — they overwrite, practice obfuscation, etc. — too. C. Wright Mills argues that “lack of ready intelligibility [in scholarly writing]… usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his [or her] own status…. Desire for status is one reason why academic[s] slip so easily into unintelligibility.” The late British historian Tony Judt offers a similar sentiment: “Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity.”
It’s easy to make jokes about writerly pretensions. James Lambert (facetiously) advises graduate students to stuff their prose with theoretical buzzwords and neologisms, and to add “the rhetoric(s) of” before any noun, and “ism” after any proper name — e.g., “the rhetoric(s) of Kardashianism.” (He’s joking, of course. At least I hope that’s obvious — but I fear it might not be. Maybe this “pretentious academic quote generator” will drive home just how funny our formulaic rhetoric can be.) Psychologist Steven Pinker, while a problematic figure, does helpfully identify a number of other academic writing conventions to avoid: using excessive “scare quotes” to distance yourself from concepts; using excessive “hedging” terms, like “apparently,” “predominantly,” “presumably,” “seemingly” or “so to speak”; and using vacuous meta-concepts, like “approach,” “assumption,” “condition,” “context,” “framework,” “process,” or “levels of analysis.” We’ve all gotten mired in sentences like this: “Building on the assumption that [A], I shall employ an [B] framework, across various levels of analysis, to situate my approach within an historical and cultural context.” Twenty-seven words to say, uh, what, exactly?
So, how not to be a vacuous hetero-ethno-phallo-normative hegemon beholden to the “rhetorics of privilege”? What’s a writer to do? Different writers and writing coaches have different advice. Rachel Toor, who writes fantastic columns on writing and professional practice for The Chronicle of Higher Education, references George Orwell’s classic text “Politics of the English Language” in proposing a series of questions that every “scrupulous writer” should ask him or herself:
What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? …Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
She continues: “Never use a long word where a short one will do… If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out…. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.” I often encourage students to read their writing aloud to me and to paraphrase particularly clunky, over-stuffed, or pretentious sentences. “Say it aloud, then write it that way,” I often tell them.
- “Be bilingual. It is not necessary to avoid academese – you sometimes need the stuff… [But] try to say it in the vernacular as well.”
- “If you could not explain it to your [friends], the chances are you don’t understand it yourself.”
- “Say explicitly – or at least imply – why your ideas are important, what difference it makes to the world if you are right or wrong, and so forth” – “So what?”
- “[Y]ou are probably so eager to prove that you’ve left no thought unconsidered that you find it hard to resist the temptation to say everything at once, and consequence you say nothing that is understood while producing horribly overloaded paragraphs and sentences.” (1050-51)
In short, you can’t cover everything. And if it pains you to omit particular details or references that you so diligently collected during your research, consider using your foot- or endnotes to house all the material you simply can’t bear to lose, but which doesn’t belong in your main text.
Graff has some things to say about structure, too — about how you can create a map and guideposts to help your reader:
- “Make a claim, the sooner the better, and flag it for the reader.”
- “Remind readers of your claim periodically, especially the more you complicate it.” I often find myself encouraging students to find moments throughout their papers to link back to themes and concepts they introduced at the beginning — to remind their readers of how we’re still on track, we’re still pursuing our original objective.
- “Summarize the objections that you anticipate can be made (or have been made) against your claim.”
- “Generate a metatext that stands apart from your main text and puts it in perspective” – e.g., “I do not mean to suggest that…” “Here you will probably object that…”
See also Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Choosing Paper Types + Formats
Lots of college papers tend to follow a standard format: Ambitious Claim About All of Human Nature, Throughout All Time > Quotation Pulled Out of Context > Non Sequitur Thesis Statement…. Jon Wu offers a spot-on parody over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The poet Charles Bernstein also pokes fun at the all-to-common “Topic sentence. However; but; as a result. Blah, blah, blah. It follows from this. Concluding sentence.” structure.
In graduate school, where you can typically choose your own paper topics and formats, you’re free to break the mold. Yet all that freedom and all those choices sometimes prove intimidating, or even temporarily paralyzing. Gregory Colon Semenza suggests that thinking about what kind of paper you’re writing might help you get started. He identifies six types:
- The Controversy Paper, which is centered on a “claim that purports to end a controversy or debate” (93)
- The Textual Crux Paper, which posits that “for years readers have pondered the meaning of an ambiguous, unclear, or even a missing part of a given text…. Your research leads you to a strong conclusion about the meaning of the problematic text or term..” (93)
- The Gap in Scholarship Paper, which comes into being because, “in reading the scholarship about a particular subject, you are struck that no one has said anything about a related and seemingly important matter. You decide to widen the scope of the conversation” (93)
- The Historical Contextualization, which aims to “clarify the meaning of a particular work or explain its provenance, immediate reception, of influence on other contemporary texts” (94)
- The Pragmatic Proposal, which is “more interested in praxis than theory for its own sake” (94)
- The Theoretical Application, in which you, say, examine a text through the lens of a particular theoretical framework.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but it does convey the variety of forms and purposes that a paper can have.
He also advocates that, regardless of what type of paper you write, you should always aim to answer the “so what?” question: why does your topic matter — to you, and to your field? And you must situate your argument in relation to the existing work in the field (the literature review, even if presented only in informal and super-brief form, serves this “orientation” purpose). You could dedicate an entire section of your paper to “precedent studies” — or you could sprinkle those references throughout your paper, noting their influence whenever they’re relevant to the discussion. Relating your work to what came before isn’t only about showing that you’re familiar with the existing discourse; it’s also, simply, a matter of courtesy. Shouldn’t we all want to give props to those who’ve labored before us, those who’ve inspired us, those who’ve challenged and critiqued us and made us better thinkers? Wouldn’t we want others to do the same for us? (I’ll say more about “Giving Credit” later on…)
You have all kinds of structural choices to make. And those choices are both rhetorical and aesthetic, mechanical and creative; they shape your argument and cultivate your style. Banish the standard five-paragraph structure you likely learned in high school, and consider the variety of formats in which you could write an academic paper or scholarly essay. Look for examples of smart, stylish, scholarly or para-academic prose. Draw inspiration from scholars writing for experimental, creative platforms, like Cabinet, The New Inquiry, Jacobin, n+1, Aeon, Places, and other venues covering your favorite topics.
While there is room for experimentation, the two predominant paper formats are as follows:
- Introduction / Methods and Materials / Results / Discussion / Conclusion (more commonly used within the social sciences)
- Introduction / Variety of Subheaded Sections, with clear transitions leading from one to the next / Conclusion (more commonly used in the humanities)
And there’s a great deal of flexibility within the latter format. I commonly advise students to use their introduction to introduce a material case-study or contemporary anecdote, then step back and provide theoretical and historical framing, then allow their analysis to unfold, then return to something concrete and personally resonant at the end. But that’s just one way to go about it.
You might be accustomed to writing a paper the night before it’s due and submitting it warm, fresh from the printer — or clicking “send” immediately after you’ve punched in your last period. Yet good writing typically evolves through many drafts. You should build this revision process into your writing time. How to begin?
Joseph M. Moxley suggests that any writer should begin the task with the following analytical steps: (1) audience analysis; (2) purpose analysis (are you reporting, critiquing, objecting, investigating, persuading?); (3) voice analysis (what “persona” do you want to cultivate? Be wary of passive voice, and don’t fear the first person!); and (4) “ritual” analysis (e.g., what is the best time of day for you to write? Where do you do your best writing?) (39).
He offers several practical starters:
- Make a formal outline.
- Then again, there’s no law that says you need an outline. “…some academics believe that they are violating the rules when they write without an outline. Or, more sadly, when they cannot come up with an outline, some academicians fear that their idea is weak and insignificant, that they lack the critical thinking skills necessary to write well. In fact, recommending that one always outline before writing is based on the foolish assumption that thinking and writing are not related, that first one thinks and then one writes” (27)
- Freewrite drafts. Write without hesitation; “try to ignore critical thoughts and focus on generating ideas” (29)
- This approach helps you “(1) develop ideas that you otherwise would not develop, (2) overcome the tightness and frustration associated with beginning new writing projects, and (3) create a flow that helps establish a voice in your prose” (29)
- “[W]hen you let your thoughts about the research flow, they often gain a forcefulness, a sense of directness and insight, that they otherwise might lack” (29)
- “When reviewing your freewrites, identify the details that seem most significant. Put brackets around the sections that you believe are worth keeping.” (29)
- Dictate drafts. Sometimes “dictated drafts have a strong, natural voice” — in part because you can speak faster and more confidently than you can write. (31) Some of my best writing ideas come while walking: I’ll take a long walk around the river, ruminate over whatever writing project I’m focused on, and, when illumination strikes, record passages on my iphone.
- Draw a cluster diagram. “Rather than trying to force your ideas into a formal outline, you can pictorially represent them on the page and then draw lines between ideas that seem somewhat related” (31)
- Draw a pie diagram, which “allows you to estimate visually how much tie you should spend addressing each aspect of your subject” (31, 33).
This work should begin well in advance of your deadline. Seasoned, successful writers know to build in time for “ideation” and the inevitable dead-ends. You also need time to give yourself a little critical distance from editors’ and critical readers’ feedback — which of course presumes that you’re seeking feedback on your drafts. Which you should.
Write a draft. Take a break from it. Revisit it. Read it aloud. Prune and clarify. Be prepared to “kill your darlings.” Give it to friends and colleagues to read. Consider their advice, and accept or reject as appropriate.
“When you receive comments on a draft,” Theresa MacPhail advises, “read them and put them away for at least a day. I recommend a full week. In that time, remind yourself that criticism of your arguments, your structure, or your evidence is not criticism of you as a person. Your work is completely separate from your self-worth.”
Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned writer or new to academic writing, I strongly encourage you to meet with a tutor at the University Learning Center. He or she can help you at various stages of the process — from developing a basic structure to polishing at the sentence-level.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due. Practicing Intellectual Generosity and Academic Integrity.
We talked earlier about the importance of “giving props.” Laur M. Jackson, a doctoral student and writer on black popular culture, writes about a tendency in contemporary cultural criticism, and particularly among “thinkpiece” authors, to claim prescience and originality — and to avoid acknowledging, or even seeking out, others writing on similar topics. “At worst, the intellectual property of [journalism’s or the young academy’s] most valuable players is mined without compensation or credit,” Jackson writes; “at best, writers waste words reinventing the wheel and projecting an unfinishedness to questions others have already answered.”
She also laments a tendency among writers to seek out the most impressive, highfalutin references, while overlooking excellent, relevant work from emerging scholars and practitioners who are often flying just under the radar.
Nobody’s mad that you won’t cite Foucault on every gesture to social constructs or Althusser on ideology (in fact, please don’t). Thankfully there’s way cooler stuff out there, writers and thinkers and tweeters and artists sharing what they know and making revelations [on a variety of platforms]. Read them and be smarter for it. Cite them so we all are.
Citation is often framed as a boring mechanical process, but Jackson encourages us to see it instead as “a community-building practice, as a discussion-enriching practice, and as a practice that can undo or prevent the force of erasure in terms of marginalized voices.”
We in the academy are obligated to acknowledge the work that precedes ours, and we’ve developed conventions to provide for acknowledgment. We need to make certain to cite our references appropriately in foot- or endnotes and/or your “works cited” section or bibliography. Even if we don’t quote directly from a resource, if it proved useful in our research, it’s good practice to acknowledge its utility.
— Marika Rose (@MarikaRose) November 24, 2017
Your choice of citation format — MLA, Chicago, APA, etc. — might depend in part on which “community” you identify with most strongly. Which formats are used more regularly in the publications you find most useful? And while there’s plenty of reference-management software (e.g., Zotero, RefWorks) that will format your citations for you, it’s worth thinking about how those citation styles shape your thinking: how they embody the values of your work, how they shape your subjectivity as a researcher and writer. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword dedicates an entire beautiful chapter to “Points of Reference,” where she analyzes the politics of referential style — from bibliographies to artful endnotes. She references literary-scholar-turned-educational-researcher Frances Kelly, who had to transition from MLA to APA; Kelly found that APA’s clinical style, which doesn’t acknowledge authors’ first names or genders, transforms a “complex human story” into a “sanitized rational account of research” and regards language as a “somewhat unimportant container for information about phenomena, data, and theories” (136-7). Your choice of format should reflect your priorities and preferences.
You might also want to consider including an “Acknowledgements” section where you can give credit to those who inspired or reviewed or provided informal feedback on your work.
[Please familiarize yourself with the New School’s Academic Honesty Policy and the Center for Education Technology, Middlebury, Colby, Bates & Bowdoin Colleges, Plagiarism Resource Site. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of lectures on plagiarism, yet it continues to be a problem even among graduate students. I recommend that you make sure you’re perfectly clear on what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, because any infractions can result in failure of a course – or even expulsion from an academic program.]
Having Confidence in Your Own Voice
While honoring your intellectual and creative mentors and forebears is good practice, you don’t want to hide behind their work. The Big Theorists wield tremendous power, and we often allow them to overpower our own potential contributions. I’ve read plenty of student papers that consist entirely of quotations and paraphrases from Big Thinkers — entire essays that are simply imagined dialogues between Theory God A and Auteur B.
Your challenge is to find, and amplify, your own voice. As MacPhail argues,
There’s a fine line between using Judith Butler’s arguments to bolster your own and simply restating what she has said while adroitly avoiding making your own claim. I’ve seen a lot of essays with so many citations and paraphrases that the reader has a hard time figuring out where the author’s own voice begins and the famous theorist’s ends…. Revise your chapters and articles so that your own argument takes center stage; everyone else is in a supporting role.
Even Kanye recognizes the complexities of intellectual originality:
I find myself getting stuck in the idea of originality and letting my ego push me to say things like “this person stole this from me” and the funny thing is it’ll be a reference I took from somewhere 😂
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 18, 2018
Finding Outlets for Graduate Writing
Your writing needn’t live only in a private exchange between you and your professor. There are plenty of opportunities for you to present your work at graduate-student conferences, and publish it in graduate-student journals (e.g., gnovis, InVisible Culture). You could also submit short-form works-in-progress to In Media Res or Flow.
* * * * *
Howard S. Becker, Excerpts from “Freshman English for Graduate Students” and “Persona and Authority” In Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, 2nd Ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007): 1-20, 26-40.
Gerald Graff, “Scholars and Sound Bites: The Myth of Academic Difficulty” PMLA 115:5 (October 2000): 1041-1052.
Gail A. Hornstein, “Prune That Prose” The Chronicle Review (September 7, 2009).
Laur M. Jackson, “Out of Cite,” The Awl (August 11, 2015).
Tony Judt, “Words” New York Review of Books Blog (June 17, 2010).
Lee Konstantinou, “The Origins of Bad Writing” ARCADE (May 16, 2010).
James S. Lambert, “Heteronormativity is Hot Right Now” The Chronicle of Higher Education (September 28, 2009).
Theresa MacPhail, “The Confidence Gap in Academic Writing,” Chronicle Vitae (October 16, 2014).
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959): 218-19.
Joseph M. Moxley, Publish, Don’t Perish: The Scholar’s Guide to Academic Writing and Publishing (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992).
Steven Pinker, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” The Chronicle Review (September 26, 2014).
Gregory Colon Semenza, Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Rachel Toor, “Bad Writing and Bad Thinking” The Chronicle of Higher Education (15 April 2010).
Jon Wu, “A Generic College Paper,” McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (September 19, 2014).
- Another useful resource – especially if English is not your native language – is John Swales & Christine Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, 2nd Ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).
- For more on the politics of academic language, see Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb, Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2003); Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Lee Konstantinou, “On the Origins of Bad Writing” Arcade [Blog Post] (May 16, 2010); James Miller, “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” Lingua Franca 9:9 (December/January 2000); Deborah Tannen, “Agonism in Academic Discourse” Journal of Pragmatics 34 (2002): 1651-1669.
- For more on scholarly writing and the writing process, see these links.