Academic writing follow-up post 6

Thanks for your question regarding the heed paid by academic writers to rules such as Swords. My gut reaction to that was a round, fat zero! Enthusiasm, commitment, imagination (to take some of your examples) are products of the writer’s energy and desire to communicate their ideas rather than a retroactive appraisal of drafts they have written compared against a rule book. Writers do not follow external rules. They (we: the present or futures EdDers) have a thought; they draft that thought as precisely as possible; they craft the words on the paper to match their thought; they stop when the words and the thought are as close as need to be. These are internal forces spurred on by the aspiration of having one’s ideas firstly formalised outside of the mind and secondly into the head of another.

Academics love theorising. Educators believe that human activities can be taught and learnt by others. Put these together and we get theories of writing comprising bullet lists of objective behaviours, sequences of activities (i.e. first, freewrite or brainstorm, then mind-map, then create a topic statement, find three supporting sentences, etc.): in other words, a writing curriculum based on a theory of writing. I haven’t seen a study that assesses the validity of this approach directly, but it seems a sterile, top-down authoritative approach. The actual process of writing is much, much muddier.

An analogy. Try learning cooking without experiencing the flavours or flavour combinations. Follow a recipe and produce a dish without knowing how it’s supposed to taste. Perhaps academic writing would be improved if the ingredients weren’t at the word item level, but at the level of rhetoric. Try this activity. Explain the concept of syllabus to 10-year-olds. Now to 70-year-olds. Now to uninterested 18-year-old economics majors who have to do a minor in education. Now to eager 18-year-olds education majors. The words you choose, the way you frame your argument, the examples you select and so on, will all be different.

I’d like to end by turning Sword on her head (at least in the characterisation you present in your post). You mention ‘demonstrate care for their readers’. How about asking would-be writers to list ways that their feeling of caring for readers can be hidden or shown? How about getting writers to think about their need–if it exists at all at this stage–to show care and what that may mean for their writing? I argue that writers don’t demonstrate care as an added extra rule to the writing, but as a fundamental part of the pre-writing mindset. Some students in this forum have described their reluctance to revise their writing preferring instead to craft as they go along. They have that caring mindset already.

Jim

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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