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Academic Coaching & Writing

II. Start with Good Ideas

Jan 31, 2011 by Caroline Eisner

Before you begin writing, think about your ideas. Your ideas are the most important part of your paper, especially as your ideas begin to form themselves into an interesting, analyzable argument. Think about how you will translate your ideas into organized, well-researched, and readable prose for your intended audience. Don’t worry about grammar, mechanics, and other surface features until the end, when you will show your final drafts to other readers, both at a writer center, say, and to the professors in your field and discipline. And don’t forget that nothing will make a reader stop reading more quickly than poor style and grammar, even if the ideas are profound. But you don’t need to worry about creating what’s called “Reader-based Prose,” until after you, as a writer, have conceived of your ideas and argument and decided how to order your ideas and argument so that they make the most sense to your reader.

Remember, academic writing is writing by you, a novice scholar, for more expert scholars, even if in the end you know more than they do. Of course, being a scholar requires that you read, think, argue, and write in the ways other scholars require. Your advisors and mentors will help you to understand the expectations, conventions, and requirements of scholarship in your field or discipline.

Create a focused and informed argument out of your good ideas and intended topic. Your argument needs to be true and arguable. In the early stages, however, you should think of your argument or hypothesis as changeable; as you test your argument, your ideas will become more focused. Academic writing requires analyzing (not summarizing) your focused argument by first considering your topic from all sides and then examining how these parts relate to each other or to the whole. When you analyze, you break the whole into parts so that you might see the whole in all the different ways your readers might. Some readers may agree with you, some may not. Some may need more handholding, others may know all about your topic. Think about how you want to own your ideas; and how you will leave your mark on your ideas, either by analyzing them in a new way, organizing materials in ways that make your ideas stand out, or by offering a counter argument that no one has thought of.

As you write, keep in mind that your readers need to be able to locate and understand the complexities of your argument. This means that you must be able to demonstrate your understanding of the complexities of your topic and the structure of your argument. Develop your argument by using supporting evidence that is both formative and contemporary. Move beyond what has been said in class, by your faculty, or supervisor, to research what experts have said, and work to analyze and synthesize agreement and discrepancies between these experts.

To construct an informed argument, you must distinguish what you know about your topic from what you think about the topic. Or, to put it another way, you will want to consider what is known about your topic and then determine what you think about it. If your paper fails to inform your readers of background material they need to understand your topic and ideas, or if it fails to argue (not summarize) a legitimate point, then it will fail to meet the expectations of the academic reader. Remember, academic writing requires an argument or problem-statement, not simply a summary of what other people have said.

Strategies for Creating an Argument

Consider what you know about your topic. In general, you need to be able to “place” your argument within the larger ongoing conversation by learning or already knowing the answers to these questions:

What do I know about my topic?
Can I answer the questions who, what, when, where, why, how?
What do I know about the context of my topic?
What historical or cultural influences do I know about that might be important to my topic?
Does my topic belong to any particular genre or category of topics?
What do I know about this genre?

What seems important to me about this topic?
If I were to summarize what I know about this topic, what points would I focus on?
What points seem less important?
Why do I think so?

How does this topic relate to other things that I know?
What do I know about the topic that might help my reader to understand it in new ways?
What do I need to know more about to be able to answer questions by experts?
Why am I so interested in this topic? It must relate to other things that I know, or want to know.

What DON’T I know about my topic?
What do I need to know?
How can I find out more?

What You Think

In the process of answering these questions about your topic, you should begin to develop new observations, questions, and connections that experts on the topic have not yet raised. It’s not enough to summarize in a paper what is already known and talked about. You must also add ideas of your own (what is often called the value-add). Understand, however, that “adding something of your own” is not an invitation to include your own personal associations, reactions, or experiences. To create an informed argument, you must first recognize that your writing should be analytical rather than personal. In other words, your writing must show that your associations, reactions, and experiences of a text have been framed through a critical reading of what others think, rather than through your own personal experience.

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