3 Key principles for strong academic writing

Rachael CayleyIn her academic writing blog, “Explorations of Style”, Rachael Cayley offers three key principles for strong academic writing: 1) using writing to clarify your own thinking, 2) committing to extensive revision, and 3) understanding the needs of your reader­­. As a senior lecturer at the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto, Cayley teaches academic writing and speaking to graduate students. Prior to that, she was an editor at Oxford University Press in Toronto. Her years of writing experience have convinced her of the connection between writing and thinking, the essentially iterative nature of academic writing, and the valuable role that audience awareness can play in the choices we make in our academic writing.

Here, in an excerpt from her blog, are Cayley’s key principles:

Principle 1: Using writing to clarify your own thinking. This principle holds that it is often difficult to establish what we think before we have put it down in words. In many cases, we simply do not know what we want to say until we have tried to say it. But if we cannot decide what we want to say without writing and if we cannot write without a solid idea about what we want to say, we are in an obvious bind. For most of us, the best way out of this dilemma is to write. To take a generic example, we may have spent a good deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having specified the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, however, the demands of syntax will naturally encourage us to characterize the relationship more precisely. The text we create may be provisional, but it will still help to refine our thinking. Even if we are puzzled or surprised or disappointed by what we have written, we are still ahead of where we were before writing.

As a practical matter, this principle translates into a simple call to write more. Rather than postponing writing until you know what you want to say, use your writing to figure out what you want to say. While this is generally sound advice, this call for more exploratory writing must come with a warning. Writing more freely means that we will need strategies for working with those provisional texts we create. Writing earlier and in a more exploratory mode often leaves us with texts that are less coherent than we might like. More freedom in the writing process demands more responsiveness in the revision process.

Principle 2: Committing to extensive revision. Most people will readily agree that more revision would improve their writing. But despite this widespread recognition of the importance of revision, many writers simply do not make revision an essential part of their writing process. One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing.

I suggest a shift in perspective: rather than worrying that your writing requires an exceptional amount of revision, try thinking that all writing requires a great deal of revision. A first draft must be evaluated as stringently as we can, but there is no need to apply those harsh standards to ourselves as writers. This caution is important since very few people excel at writing first drafts; the tendency towards self-criticism means that the initial draft becomes a source of frustration rather than a valuable starting point. Accepting that the writing process must be iterative makes it easier to understand that writing will rarely be suitable for a reader without extensive revision.

Another obstacle that stands in the way of revision is the fact that many writers are stymied by their own drafts. When I ask students to bring me a piece of their writing with their own changes marked on the pages, those suggested changes are generally tentative and minor. Our own written texts can seem daunting; they may be flawed, but they do possess a certain unity and coherence. Changing them can be more challenging than letting them stand, even with their manifest weaknesses. However, we must be willing to treat our own texts as essentially mutable, as raw material that must eventually be formed into something suitable for the reader.

Principle 3: Understanding the needs of your reader. This principle relies on the simple but surprisingly elusive idea that the reader’s needs are different from our own. What we need to say—especially as we struggle with the early stages of writing—and what our readers will need to hear can be strikingly different. Extensive revision is the solution for this dilemma, but early drafts often confound us. Revisiting those texts with the needs of the reader in mind can be extremely helpful. The reader always has expectations, some that are conscious and others that are unconscious. Conscious expectations come from genre or disciplinary conventions (these are the expectations readers have before they ever read your text) and also from promises made by the writer (these are expectation readers have after reading the early passages of your text). Unconscious expectations are more complex and involve anticipation about the placement of information, particularly within paragraphs and sentences.

These three principles are all derived directly from the important work of Joseph Williams. In my view, nobody has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving writing than Williams. Indeed, he expresses all three of these writing principles in a single sentence: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader” (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x). In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader. Taken together, these three principles can help us to manage the ongoing challenges of academic writing.

This article was excerpted from Rachael Cayley’s blog “Explorations of Style: A Blog about Academic Writing” (http://explorationsofstyle.com/). You can follow Rachael on Twitter at @explorstyle (https://twitter.com/explorstyle).