Secrets of Good Academic Writing: Techniques from “When Writers Write,” by Kathleen MacDonald

Academic writing differs from literary writing in that it does not need to be dramatic.  Like all writing, however, it still needs to sustain the reader’s interest.  Academic writing is not inherently “dry”; it can, and should, move with energy, shine with clarity, and intrigue with precision.

The litmus test for every academic sentence is:  does this sentence advance my main point?

The sentences and paragraphs in question may be providing background information,  historical context,  methodology, or literature review.  It does not matter.  Every sentence must, in its own way, advance the core central point of the paper.

In the blog, over the next few weeks, I will be sharing points about good academic writing drawn from Kathleen MacDonald’s excellent textbook, When Writers Write (1987).

She does a fine job of breaking the subject down into a manageable number of core points that graduate school-minded students can absorb and master as they make their way through their term papers, honors papers, theses, personal essays for graduate school, and other writing.

Today we are sharing parts of MacDonald’s “Academic Writing Checklist” about knowing your reader, ie, YOUR PROFESSOR.

"Convince me"

She is particularly good at explaining  the psychology of the American university professor sitting down to read a student’s paper:

The secret of good academic writing – the type you often have to do for history, psychology, and
other courses – is the assumptions you make about the person reading your paper. In academic
writing, it’s best to assume that the person reading and grading your paper is not your real teacher
but is someone we’ll call your teacher’s twin. Not only does your teacher’s twin not know who
you are, he or she also:

1. Is impressed by new, original ideas and is turned off by mere summary of what’s been said in
class or what the book itself says. (The exception to this is if your teacher has specifically asked
for a summary.)
2. Initially disagrees with your ideas/interpretations/reactions.
3. Can be persuaded to agree with you if you give enough evidence and explain logically enough.
4. Resents being told to take your word for anything – and so expects precise, detailed proof,
often including page references and enough documentation (title of book, author, etc.) so
he/she can look things up for him/herself.
5. Is insulted if you do not anticipate and answer his/her intelligent questions and objections.

Professors can be skeptical and crabby.  But they are readily impressed by original ideas concisely stated and well defended.   Imagine their objections in your mind as you write (granted, you may not be able to anticipate them all and that’s ok), and produce writing that anticipates and answers them!


About karenkelsky

I am the McNair Advisor in the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program. I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and have had tenured positions in four departments. I have helped scores of students get into and succeed in graduate programs around the country. I'll be sharing 20 years of information and skills here. When I'm not doing this, I make and sell jewelry and explore Eugene with my partner and two kids. View all posts by karenkelsky

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