Using scholarly models for academic writing
I’m not, of course, talking about simple imitation, or worse, plagiarism: the models are not there to replace our voice, but to help us find it. Models can help provide structure and ideas that we can adapt to suit our own ends and intentions.
We have to start writing with our own vision of what we want to accomplish, and our own sense of what is important and interesting. But that’s just a jumping off point. We need to focus these general interests and ideas into a specific project.
Models can help with this. We can look at other work that has dealt with the same subject; in fact, as academics, we are obliged to do so, that’s just basic research. But to find our own voice, we start to look at these other works, and we pick which ones resonate most strongly with us: which work best? Which provide us with the most insight? Which are the best planned and executed and written? Choosing among the possibilities helps us understand what kind of research and writing we want to do.
We can also use models to help us see what is accepted. When writing a dissertation, looking at work that has been accepted at our school and by our dissertation readers can provide insight into the quality of work that is expected of us. This can both help us raise the quality of our work and avoid delays caused by perfectionist tendencies. This second is worth noting because many dissertation writers get bogged down trying to research everything, and therefore it’s probably useful to keep an eye on the imperfections of our peers.
Possibly the best kind of model that we can find is one that is almost a match for what we want to do. Recently a client said to me “I found a study that’s almost exactly what I want to do, with one major exception. I’m worried that I can’t do what I wanted now.” My thought was that this is a perfect model. If you both see value in a work, and see how you would like to do it differently, you have a great opportunity to both do innovative academic work, and save yourself a lot of hassle. A close model could provide almost an entire framework, and yet, by changing one major aspect of that work to suit your interest, you would have a project that is clearly distinct from the work you’re modeling. The model defines a niche in which your research fits, and the fact that your approach differs means that you’re just copying. The one major difference makes your work your own. Of course you want to make sure that it really is a difference, but if you can clearly see and clearly state what that distinction is, you’re in business.
When we use models in academia, it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and to fully acknowledge our sources. And, as noted above, it’s important to be able to clearly explain what distinguishes your work from your model. But beyond that care to cite our sources, this is largely the nature of the academic process: we are all standing on the shoulders of our predecessors; we all rely on the ideas of the academic culture of which we are part. There is no shame in using a model, providing we are consciously using and adapting that model into a form that expresses our own voice.
Dave Harris, Ph.D., academic writing coach and editor, helps writers rework their writing process, fine-tune their final drafts, and everything in between (www.thoughtclearing.com; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Copyright © 2007, Dave Harris. All rights reserved