Hi, y’all. Here I am again, and here we go again.
Today’s post is by way of a reminder to student writers, though I’d argue that what I’ve got to say applies to all nonfiction prose writing. However, if you’re a university or college student for whom essays are a primary testing device, you should definitely listen up. I’ve think I’ve spoken about the five attributes of sound academic writing before (or if I haven’t, then I certainly should have).
Good academic writing, whatever else it may do or be, is built on five basic attributes. These are, in no particular order:
- Informative Value
If every paper you submit has these attributes, the chances are good that it will be a winner, as long as you also meet the content and mechanical thresholds we discussed in a previous post. If a paper lacks one of these attributes, the chances are equally good that it will lack others and will not be a success. I’m going to explain each of the five in the broader context of academic writing. If you’re sure you already know all you need to know about this stuff, you can go back to surfing Youtube and drinking coffee — but as one of my old pickin’ buddies used to say, “Ya’ll bin warned.”
In academic writing, “unity” refers to the cohesion of the various conceptual elements in a paper around a single clear focus that’s apparent to your reader. In an essay, there will be a single question or point or argument around which the discussion is built. In order for your work to have unity, you need to stay on point; you need to avoid wandering into interesting but unrelated “side trips.” Everything you present in the paper must help you to answer the central question or make the key point or argument, thoroughly and in detail.
You can lose unity in your paper in a number of ways. If you’re given free choice of topic and you tackle more than you can cover thoroughly, you’ll have to leave things out or speak in more general terms than will be acceptable. In that case, even if you’ve stayed with the subject area, your paper may appear to lack unity because that sense of cohesion and focus just isn’t there. If you’ve left out details or logical links between parts of your discussion, the reader will have the sense that you’re “jumping around.” If you don’t stick with the issue you set out to cover, your paper will lack unity for obvious reasons. If your supporting discussion of each point you make is too general or lacking proper analysis and evidence, those facts alone can cause a reader to feel as if you’ve left gaps. Again, your paper will appear to lack unity. If your central focus is too broad, so that it actually covers multiple potential topic areas, then again, your paper will lack unity. It won’t matter that the broad elements are somehow connected in your head. The only stuff that matters is the stuff that actually finds its way into your writing.
The five attributes of good academic are related to each other. Completeness, in academic writing, is really measured by one standard and one standard alone: did you fully address the question or issue you presented to the reader as your central focus, and did you so thoroughly and in detail, in the very terms and language you used in that presentation? If the answer is “yes,” then your work is complete — but obviously, if you bit off more than you could chew or did anything else that might have prevented your paper from having unity, your work can’t be complete.
In practical terms, what this means is that the wording of your thesis in an essay is critically important. I want to be clear about this: when you state your thesis — the arguable assertion you’ll attempt to validate through discussion and analysis — you’re taking on an obligation to discuss EVERYTHING it covers that you haven’t expressly or impliedly ruled out. You have to meet the content threshold; you have to deliver fully to your reader on the promise(s) contained in your thesis, exactly as you’ve worded it. So, for example, if you’re tell the reader you’re examining the causes of one bank’s failed performance in a given area at a specific time during the financial crisis, that might sound specific. However, you’ve said “the causes” — and that means ALL the causes, no matter how remote or inconsequential. If, on the other hand, you limit the discussion by telling your reader you’ll be examining the three most immediate causes arising from a single regulatory deficiency and relating to one key transaction on a given date, you’ll be in much better shape. You’ll be telling your reader what you’re doing, and by implication, what you’re not doing. Then completeness is actually within reach.
When something is credible, it’s believable. Obviously, in the real world, if you make a habit of telling tales or making outrageous statements that seem hard to believe, it won’t take long for you to lose your credibility. Once you lose it, it’s hard to recover, as people make all kinds of judgments about you based on your past lack of credibility. In the academic world, as a student, you’ll find that the credibility of your written work speaks loudly for you, one way or the other. The higher you go in academia, the more you’ll discover that you have only your reputation for clear writing, strong insights, originality, honesty and proper methodology to speak for you.
Even in the preparation of undergraduate essays, there are some clear expectations and ground rules that govern content, presentation and research. As a result, you can lose your credibility in several ways, some of which should be obvious.
- When given free choice of topics, you’ll lose credibility if your thesis itself lacks a believable argument or rests on nonsensical subject matter. For example, if you choose as your thesis a point or question that’s already been resolved academically or isn’t really open to debate, you’ll have credibility problems. Your marker will conclude that you either didn’t do your research or were looking for an easy way to get through the assignment. In either case, your paper won’t be seen as a credible exercise, even if everything else about it seems good. You’ll also begin to build a reputation as a student who doesn’t do credible work, and that’s a real problem in terms of future assignments. Choosing a nonsense topic is worse, even though such topics often appear in high school writing exercises. For instance, if you frame an argumentative cause/effect thesis stating that your method of diapering large mammals is the best of the three top currently used methods, you’ll immediately lose all credibility and earn an ‘F’ on the paper. Don’t laugh — I occasionally received assignments based on even crazier notions.
- Even if your thesis is credible, your work can still lack credibility because you didn’t follow through properly. The sections of your discussion may be badly ordered or illogical themselves. You may have left gaps in logical or connective details, so that the reader can’t follow your reasoning. Your supporting material may be inappropriate or ambiguous, or you may not have explained the relationship between the support, and the point for which you’re offering it in evidence. You may reach a conclusion that’s different from the one embodied in your thesis, or your conclusion may be differ in scope from your thesis. There are other ways to lose credibility (problems with the mechanical threshold), but you get the general idea.
- Probably the easiest way to kill your credibility — permanently — is to plagiarize. If you lead the reader to think that all the material you’ve used is your own when, in fact, some or all of it originated elsewhere, you’re sunk. That means you have to be careful about your correct use of whatever bibliographic citation system your professor requires. Your professors may even assume you know your obligations, and they won’t pay much attention when you complain that nobody told you what to do. Even if your intent is not to plagiarize, you might still get nailed if you don’t cite your sources properly. So, don’t fool around with this aspect of your work. Know what’s expected of you, learn the required method, and then use it. When in doubt about a particular bit of evidence, cite the source. You’re better to err on the side of caution….
The bottom line: to maintain credibility in a university essay, you have to be spot on with logic, mechanics, content, your thesis, your supporting material, your research methodolgy (including bibliography), and the specifics and development of your analysis. These are the basics.
Consistency, as an attribute of your writing, can work for you or against you. If your work is consistently thoughtful, well considered and properly presented, meets all stated requirements, has been proofed and regularly shows signs of improvement, that consistency will serve you well when a prof has to make a difficult decision as between two grades for one of your assignments. It will also serve you well in terms of the general impression you create in your role as a serious student, quite apart from the actual work you submit. On the other hand, if your papers are consistently sloppy, poorly proofed and presented, and barely meet minimal requirements, that sort of consistency will work against you, rather than for you. This applies to the grading decisions a marker may make, and to your prof’s general sense of you in your role as a student. The better choice is obvious; however, you have to make a commitment to put in the required work in order to develop the right kind of consistency.
There are several more specific areas in which you can check your work for consistency. Again, some of them are obvious. If the controlling model for your paper is cause/effect, and you switch to comparison half way through, your paper will lack internal logical consistency. That’s the sort of inconsistency that’s fatal in terms of your grade on the paper. If you start off by speaking to your audience as if they had doctorates in English, and then you suddenly change to a mode of address that’s better suited to elementary school students, you get the same sort of result. We’re looking for consistency in logic, approach, level of language and usage, etc. You also want to be thorough and consistent in terms of the way you use and apply whatever evidence you find to support your points, both within a paper, and across all your assignments. Remember, this stuff works for you, or against you.
5. Informative Value
You know what informative value is. If you’re sitting in a waiting room somewhere and looking through magazines, it’s the informative value of a particular article that causes you to stop and read something in more detail. You’re looking for one of two things: either information that’s new to you about something you like, or older information presented to you from a new perspective. If the headline of an article doesn’t capture you right away, you move on; if it does capture you, the writer probably has only a line or two to grab and hold your interest long enough to get you reading. That’s the real-world experience.
The academic world is not the real world. You have a captive audience, one who has assigned you a writing task and now MUST read the work you’ve produced as a result. You don’t have to capture the reader’s interest, but on the other hand, your reader is probably even more jaded than the average reader in the waiting room. Obviously, you have to meet the assignment’s stated criteria — but what does informative value mean to your prof? After all, do you seriously think that an experienced professor who may have been teaching for years has never seen what you’re going to offer in a first-year essay on a familiar topic? Do you really believe you’ll be able to come up with something that’s completely new to your marker, or even have a new perspective from which to have your prof consider something familiar?
It’s not impossible, of course…but it’s also not bloody likely. Don’t you think your professor already knows that? So, in this case, informative value doesn’t involve coming up with something that’s new to your reader. In fact, part of what you’re being tested on is to address something that’s new TO YOU, and to consider it intelligently. Your professor wants to see you learning. That means you can’t deal with stuff you already know. You must find something you didn’t know before, and you must do that for each and every essay assignment you get. Your professor will watch you deal with that information as best you can, and part of your grade will based on your acquisition and treatment of material that provides you with informative value relative to each course.
So there you go — the Five Points, the five larger attributes of strong academic writing. I can’t overstate the importance of your understanding of these points, and you do need to think about ‘em every time you write an essay. As always, if you have questions about any of this, you know where to find me.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you to think about all this. I need another coffee, and then I’ve gotta write something for another project…:)