The Basics of Academic Writing

"The sorts of activities that constitute a research paper - identifying, locating, assessing, and assimilating others' research and then developing and expressing your own ideas clearly and persuasively - are at the center of the educational experience."

-MLA Handbook, 4th ed.

This quotation from the Modern Language Association neatly summarizes the fundamental concept behind academic writing. If you focus on the statement, you will quickly see that the real "basic" of academic writing is academic thinking. Without your careful, considered, laborious thinking, writing is merely a transcription of empty words. Thinking, of course, is hard work!! -- and that is why so often writing seems like hard work.
But, you say, that last statement can logically apply to any form of writing, even a letter to a friend. What do we refer to when we use the specific term academic writing? We include three elements:

  1. Research, as a means of discovering and developing ideas;
  2. Logical argumentation, as a means of persuading our readers to take our thinking seriously, and
  3. Formal, precise writing style, as a vehicle for presenting our ideas clearly and avoiding the reader's misinterpretation or distrust.

In short, academic thinking and writing is carefully considered, well documented thinking and writing - very unlike creative writing or casual letter-writing. It cannot be hurried or haphazard if it is to be successful, and it requires deliberate, directed thought.

As graduate students, you are confronted by two basic types of writing situations:

  • (a) the class or seminar, where writing is shorter (anywhere from 10 to 30 pages, approximately), more tightly focused, and directed primarily to the instructor:
  • (b) the original research project, otherwise known as Master's thesis or doctoral dissertation, where writing is longer, more complex, and directed primarily to a committee.

Both writing situations will seem more manageable to you if you ask yourself four questions at the beginning of your task:

  1. What is my role in the issue under study, and how can I convey both my knowledge of the topic and my good intentions toward the reader?
  2. Who exactly is my audience? i.e., what does my audience already know and believe, and can I use this knowledge and set of beliefs to achieve my purpose?
  3. What information do I need about my topic and how should I represent the problem I am discussing?
  4. How should I present my own point of view so that my audience will seriously consider the message?

You are breaking down your task into four component parts, often represented by what is called the rhetorical triangle:

Your success as an academic writer - marked by others' acceptance of your position - is determined by how carefully you assess each element in the triangle. Taking the time to consider the four above questions is, therefore, a worthwhile investment.
(thanks to J. Ferganchick - Neufang)

Having thought through your writing situation, you are now ready to break it down into clearly defined stages:

  1. Discovering and developing your ideas, i.e. research;
  2. Drafting and organizing your text, i.e. revision.

The boundaries between these stages do not, however, remain clear for very long. You will most likely start with research, write for a while, think and do more research, write some more - and revise periodically. Still, it's helpful to be aware of your task in terms of stages on the road to the final product. The work will not be less, but at least you'll know where you are!

A few comments about each of the three stages:

Research includes library and/or laboratory work. There's simply no substitute for exploring and examining what other people have written about your issue. You need to know what has already been done so that you do not merely repeat it. You also need to know what gaps remain in the available information. What needs to be discovered or examined more fully? Using the literature in your field as a role model for approach and writing style is also valuable. Study how your models write. Examine their sentence structure, tone, and documentation style. Make lists of their specialized vocabulary, and use those words yourself. The fundamental rules of English grammar apply to all fields but each discipline has its own peculiarities and tendencies. Especially at the beginning of your graduate work, you will be wise to study the writing of others in your field.

Don't forget, however, to include field research in your investigative work. You should always be aware - as much as possible - of what is going on in the "real world" within your field. Talk to people, read brand new articles that haven't even been catalogued yet, pay attention to intellectual trends. This way you won't be isolated in your research, but instead will have a clearer vision of where additional work is needed.
Writing involves using your up?to?date, interesting and specific information to persuade your reader of the value of your research. This includes documenting your information accurately and thoroughly to establish your credibility as an academic writer. As you write, be sure you are proceeding in your argument one step at a time, and documenting each step according to the format acceptable to your discipline. You cannot merely assert something as true unless you can prove that it is, or your audience will discount your entire argument.
Revision includes just about everything. Try to see your entire project from the point of view of a reader who may not see the issue your way. Make sure you've considered opposing views in the formulation of your own position. Have you tried to keep an open mind throughout your research, and does your final position reflect your consideration of these alternate views? Then ask yourself,
- Have I presented my thesis clearly and explained what I'm trying to prove?

- Have I proceeded through the stages of my argument one logical step at a time, firmly establishing the validity of each step as I proceed?

- Are my paragraphs coherent? i.e. one point per paragraph, with a clearly stated topic sentence and supporting evidence?

- Does each individual sentence include a subject and a verb, and does each one say clearly what I mean?

- Does my vocabulary reflect my discipline? Do I "sound like" an anthropologist/historian/plant pathologist? etc.

- Is my documentation form correct, and have I documented all of my supporting material?

This is all well and good, you may be thinking, but it all sounds somewhat like a mechanical exercise where I have to remember an awful lot of rules. In part, this is true - but only in part. The MLA Handbook addresses this issue most eloquently:

"The mechanics of the paper, important though they are, should never override the intellectual challenge of pursuing a question that interests you. This quest should guide your research and writing. Even if you are just learning how to prepare a research paper, you may still experience the excitement of pursuing and developing ideas that is one of the great satisfactions of research and scholarship."

The following page is taken from a 1995 article in NEWSWEEK that discusses findings from a study done by a group of researchers in the University of Arizona's Department of Anthropology. Remember that the general reader of this article is intelligent and interested, but not necessarily an expert in anthropological issues. As you read, ask yourself:

- How long are the sentences?

- How formal is the language?

- What types of words are being used?

- What kind of evidence illustrates the points the author is making?

- What is your own reaction to the article?

- Do you enjoy reading it? Why or why not?

The Body of the Beholder
Mind: White girls dislike their bodies, but black girls are proud of theirs, a new study shows. Why is fat to some fit to others?
By Michele Ingrassia

WHEN YOU'RE A TEENAGE GIRL, there's no place to hide. Certainly not in gym class, where the shorts are short, the T-shirts revealing and the adolescent critics eager to dissect every flaw. Yet out on the hardwood gym floors at Morgan Park High, a largely African-American school on Chicago's Southwest Side, the girls aren't talking about how bad their bodies are, but how good. Sure, all of them compete to see how many sit-ups they can do - Janet Jackson's washboard stomach is their model. But ask Diane Howard about weight, and the African-American senior, who carries 133 pounds on her 5 foot, ½ inch frame, says she'd happily add 15 pounds - if she could ensure they'd land on her hips. Or LaTaria Stokes, a stoutly built junior who takes it as high praise when boys remark, "Your hips are scream ing for twins!" "I know I'm fat," La'Taria says. "I don't care."

In a Society that worships at the altar of super-models like Claudia, Christy and Kate, white teenagers are obsessed with staying thin. But there's growing evidence that black and white girls view their bodies in dramatically different ways. The latest findings come in a study to be published in the journal Human Organization this spring by a team of black and white researchers at the University of Arizona. While 90 percent of the white junior-high and high-school girls studied voiced dissatisfaction with their weight. 70 percent of African-American teens were satisfied with their bodies.

In fact, even significantly overweight black teens described themselves as happy. That confidence may not carry over to other areas of black teens' lives, but the study suggests that, at least here, it's a lifelong source of pride. Asked to describe women as they age, two thirds of the black teens said they get more beautiful, and many cited their mothers as examples. White girls responded that their mothers may have been beautiful - back in their youth. Says anthropologist Mimi Nicher, one of the study's coauthors, "In white culture, the window of beauty is so small."

Moss: What is beauty? White teens defined perfection as 5 feet 7 and 100 to 110 pounds - superwaif Kate Moss's vital stats. African-American girls described the perfect size in more attainable terms - full hips, thick thighs, the sort of proportions about which Hammer ("Pumps and a Bump") and Sir Mix-Alot ("Baby Got Back") rap poetic. But they said that true beauty - "looking good" - is about more than size. Almost two thirds of the black teens defined beauty as "the right attitude."

The disparity in body images isn't just in kids' heads. It's reflected in fashion magazines, in ads, and it's out there, on TV, every Thursday night. On NBC, the sitcom "Friends" stars Courteney Cox, Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow, all of them white and twentysomething, classically beautiful and reed thin. Meanwhile, Fox Television's "Living Single," aimed at an African-American audience, projects a less Hollywood ideal - its stars are four twentysomething black women whose bodies are, well, real. Especially the big-boned, bronze-haired rapper Queen Latifah, whose size only adds to her magnetism. During a break at the Life Nites program at the Harlem YMCA, over the squeal of sneakers on the basketball court, Brandy Wood, 14, describes Queen Latifah's appeal: "What I like about her is the way she wears her hair and the color in it and the clothes she wears."
Underlying the beauty gap are 200 years of cultural differences. "In white, middleclass America, part of the great American Dream of making it is to be able to make yourself over." says Nichter. "In the black community, there is the reality that you might not move up the ladder as easily. As one girl put it, you have to be realistic - if you think negatively about yourself, you won't get anywhere." It's no accident that Barbie has lung embodied a white adolescent ideal - in the early days, she came with her own scale (set at 110) and her own diet guide ( "How to Lose Weight: Don't Eat"). Even in this postfeminist era, Barbie's tight-is-right message is stronger than ever. Before kindergarten, researchers say, white girls know that Daddy eats and Mommy diets. By high school,. many have split the world into physical haves and have-nots, rivals across the beauty line. " It's not that you hate them [perfect girls]," says Sarah Immel, a junior at Evanston Township High School north of Chicago. "It's that you're kind of jealous that they have it so easy. that they're so perfect-looking,".

66 NEWSWEEK APRIL 24, 1995

This page comes from the original academic article on which the NEWSWEEK report was based. Ask yourself the same questions again. You might want to draw up a page with two columns, noting your answers to the questions about each article in a separate column. When you have completed your analysis, you will have an excellent sense of what qualities are essential to academic

Body Image and Weight Concerns among African American and White Adolescent Females: Differences that Make a Difference

The paper examines body image ideals and dieting behaviors among African American and White adolescent females. Data are drawn from focus groups, individual interviews, and surveys. African American females were found to be more flexible than their White counterparts in their concepts of beauty and spoke about "making what you've got work for you." In contrast, many White adolescent females expressed dissatisfaction with their body shape and were found to be rigid in their concepts of beauty. Cultural factors which impact on weight perception. body image, and style are explored. Limitations of survey methodology for understanding cultural differences are discussed.
Keywords: ethnic beauty ideals, adolescent, body image, African Americans, Whites

Dissatisfaction with weight and inappropriate dieting behaviors are reported to be pervasive among adolescent Caucasian females. Survey research has suggested that there is an "epidemic" of dieting among White adolescent females (Rosen and Gross 1987) with estimates that as many as 60-80% of girls are dieting at any given time (Berg 1992). By contrast, research on African American adolescents suggests that these girls are less dissatisfied with their body weight and are far less likely to engage in weight reducing efforts than their White peers (Casper and Offer 1990: MMWR 1991). Explanations of such ethnic differences typically revolve around the statement that "cultural factors" are somehow implicated (Rosen and Gross 1987).

Utilizing data collected from a multi-ethnic study of adolescent females, this paper explores cultural factors which have an impact on weight perception, body image, beauty, and style. African American perceptions of beauty, characterized by informants as flexible and fluid, will be contrasted with White images which tend to be more rigid and fixed. Ramifications of this difference will be broadly considered.

Ethnic Differences in Perceptions of Weight and Dieting

Weight has been identified as an important health concern, source of psychological stress, and measure of self-esteem among White females (Attic and Brooks-Gunn 1987; Moses et al. 1989). Numerous surveys have documented the pervasiveness of dieting and body dissatisfaction among White adolescent females (Desmond et al. 1986; Greenfield et al. 1987; Koff and Rierdan 1991). In one study among White high school students, 80% of girls surveyed felt they were above the weight at which they would be happiest and 43% said they would like to weigh at least 10 pounds less (Fisher et al. 1991). Storz and Greene (1983) found that 83% of White adolescent girls they surveyed wanted to lose weight, though 62% were in the normal weight range for their height and gender.

Results of recent nationwide surveys have revealed that White and Hispanic girls perceived themselves to be overweight even when their weight for height fell within "normal" parameters as established by the National Center for Health Statistics. By comparison, African American adolescent females were found to be less likely to perceive themselves as overweight (MMWR 1991). Desmond, Price, Hallinan, and Smith (1989) contend that both African American and White adolescents maintain distorted perceptions of their body weight, but in opposite directions. Their study suggests that African American adolescents of normal and heavy weight tend to perceive themselves as thinner than they actually are, while White adolescents of thin and normal weight perceive themselves as heavier than they actually are. Such studies call attention to differences in standards of acceptable weight and their variability across cultures.