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Notes on academic writing Notes on academic writing
by Joseph Gatt
2020-11-04 08:14:52
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Professors and regular people look at my writing and sometimes go like “that can't be academic writing, that's too simple!”

To many people, academic writing is one of two things:

-It's either writing in the realm of the “abstract.” What do I mean by “abstract?” I mean people tend to think you should use all sorts of complicated words, use complicated theories and theorems, and reason in ways that resemble abstract mathematical reasoning.

aca001_400So a lot of people think academic writing should be “alphas” and “betas” and “alephs” and “gimmels” and that academic writing resembles differential equations or long lines of mathematical deductions from known variables or unknown variables.

In sum, that academic writing, be it in sociology, history, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy or genetics, should be a series of lines of unintelligible code.

And when you summarize the paper, you should get the audience to have confused looks on their faces, and no matter how much you repeat your reasoning, and how much you try to simplify it, people should still be confused.

-Or, academic writing should be “precise” and “accurate” and “complete.” This is when academic writing involves writing down every line of the data, and share 600 pages of every single data point and how the patterns in the data.

For example, if I survey 1,000 people, I'm going to write 1,000 pages discussing every single response, and the patterns in the responses.

-Because my writing doesn't fit into those two models, a lot of people believe my writing is not academic material.

-Let's use the painting analogy. A lot of painters draw abstract paintings. The painting is a series of complicated lines and shapes, a complicated mix of colors, and appears to have no meaning at all.

-When you ask the abstract painter to explain his/her painting, a lot of times you're going to get complicated explanations using words not even found in the dictionary to describe the meaning of the painting, and you go like, OK, guy's probably a genius or something, but I don't understand a damn thing.

-Or you could have painters represent scenes from the 13th century or the 19th century or something. But then the critics are going to claim that the 13th century painting is not reprehensive of every single human being that lived on Earth in the 13th century, so you're going to have the painter draw as many scenes as possible that could be representative of the 13th century.

-But the idea in painting is not to say “this is reality” or “this is representative of everyone.” The idea in painting is to say “this could have been a scene that took place in 13th century France. I studied the history, went to museums to check out what 13th century French furniture looked like, studied what people ate in the 13th century, what kitchens looked like, what houses looked like, what people looked like, how they tended to dress, what the different features of indoors or outdoors life was like. And then, there, you have a scene that could have taken place in the 13th century. Of course the scene is pure fiction and a product of my imagination, but it compiles a lot of the information I had.

-I think academic writing kind of works the same. The idea is not to share every single data point, or to hand in complicated abstract reasoning that lead to complicated abstract conclusions.

-To me, the idea is just to say “here's a somewhat representative sample of what goes on in life. They are of course generalizations and every case is different. But let's not get into the details.”

-The problem with graduate students is that a lot of them are overwhelmed by having to write their dissertations, because they tend to get the feeling that every single detail of the topic they are studying should be handed in.

-Graduate students not only feel like their dissertations should include all the details to the smallest particle, they also feel like their reasoning should be so complex that it should lead to the discovery of some kind of mathematical formula that governs the rules of life.

-That's not how it works! The problem with graduate school reasoning is that professors and students tend to assume that reality is static, that things don't evolve, that everything is predictable, and that every detail of life can be studied, analyzed and reported.

-BIG PROBLEM: professors and graduate students don't read! At least not enough. Because if you do read a lot of academic books and scientific books, you're quickly going to realize that if you're looking for the truth about everything and details about everything, you're going to be disappointed.

-OTHER PROBLEM: a lot of professors want to clearly assert the hierarchy with the students. And to show that they're the boss, each time the grad student comes up with a paper or dissertation, the professor is going to ask for additional details, more details, more details. This leads to dissertations that are way too long and detailed, complicated, and, let's be blunt, have no meaning or usefulness whatsoever.

-Final note: some professors tell their grad students the following: “Joseph, you're going to write three papers. But because I'm Doctor John Doe and that I'm the king of heavens, I'm going to correct your paper and publish it under my name. Once you learn how to write papers, you can publish your own stuff.” and I'm like “Doe, if you knew how to write papers, you wouldn't need to be stealing my papers.” No wonder I'm persona non grata in academic circles.


     
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