Writing is a complicated and time-consuming activity. In order to write, you need to prepare extensively at the beginning and revise drafts many times at the end. You need to dwell on the content of your writing and select the appropriate structure, style, and vocabulary, partly on your own account and partly for the sake of your readers. Moreover, you may also need to adjust the ways you express the same content to follow conventions for different types of media, such as letters, posters, social media, assigned essays, and research papers. You already implicitly know how writing varies from case to case in these respects. You consider and select the best way of writing when you write using a familiar type of media for a familiar group of readers.
Academic writing is a particular style of expression that scientists and scholars use to write academic texts. Academic writing, however, allows for a wide range of variance. First, the content of academic writing changes across disciplines and even within a single discipline. Just think about how much the content of courses at university differs from one another. Second, potential readers of academic writing vary. For example, you may write an essay for peer-review in class or a graduation thesis for an oral examination with a group of professors. Third, writing media differs. You may use presentation software, such as PowerPoint and Beamer, to present your study in class. When you prepare handouts, you may use different software for different purposes, such as writing text and drawing figures, tables, and graphs.
Most importantly, academic writing differs in terms of writing tasks. Different writing tasks are assigned in class. Of course, the content of writing varies from class to class. Therefore, it is essential to make sure that you understand what each class requires you to write about and how you are expected to do so. Sometimes you need to answer a predetermined essay question about a specific topic in a certain way, and other times you need to pose a question about a topic and write an essay in response to the question, all by yourself. There are mainly three types of goals for long essays: (a) solving a social, political, or technical problem, (b) empirically testing a hypothesis with experiential or survey methods, and (c) interpreting and evaluating texts (including data in various forms). On rare occasions, you may be assigned a writing task that combines two or three of these essay types. The three essay types above require you to perform different sub-tasks to achieve different goals. The list below illustrates characteristic sub-tasks that each essay type might involve:
- Essay with the goal of solving a social, political, or technical problem
- Clearly establish a problem (the problem to be solved may be already given in the assignment)
- State the possible cause or background of the problem and summarize the existing responses to it
- Set up the evaluation standard for problem-solving
- Propose a specific solution to the problem and evaluate it by the evaluation standard
- If possible, evaluate other possible solutions by the same evaluation standard
- Essay with the goal of hypothesis-testing with experiential or survey methods
- Present a hypothesis for a particular phenomenon and design an experiment or survey to test it
- Conduct the experiment or survey
- Report and analyze the result of the experiment or survey (perhaps using figures, tables, or graphs)
- Discuss whether the result supports the hypothesis or not. If it does not, describe other possible hypotheses for the phenomenon.
- Essay with the goal of interpreting and evaluating texts
- Decide what type of information you want to draw out of texts
- Choose the relevant texts and offer an interpretation of the pertinent information in them
- Evaluate the information in terms of accuracy, reliability, rationality, etc.
- Summarize the interpretation and evaluation of the information
When you address a writing task, you need to consider what sub-tasks it involves and what is required to complete them. Different courses assign different writing tasks. Carefully read the instructions for the writing task at hand and consider what its requirements are. If you are not sure, talk to the instructor of the course.
When writing an essay, one tends to assume, too simplistically, that the reader is just the instructor. However, by writing your essay, you should not only confirm that you understand the course materials but also demonstrate that you have thought about them carefully and can express your thought clearly. Imagine that your readers include both people who are unfamiliar with the course materials, such as your friends, and people who already know them well but want to hear your perspective on them, such as your instructor.
Originality in Essay Writing
Academic disciplines are in constant progress, adding to the extant body of knowledge as someone makes a new finding. It, however, is impossible to produce a new piece of knowledge in one’s own right without relying on other’s research. Academic knowledge is always produced collectively and collaboratively, and the university is a place for producing, collecting, and maintaining academic knowledge. Thus, the university offers many courses that deal with topics about which no firm agreement exists in academia. Moreover, past studies are constantly reviewed and reinterpreted in the light of new findings. For this reason, it is crucial in essay writing to make avail of the extant body of academic knowledge, and at the same time, to highlight your own findings.
Knowledge differs from mere conjecture because it is supported by reasons or evidence. There are various ways to express one’s own originality in producing knowledge in collaboration with previously published research.
- Give new reasons or evidence to support others’ views
- Propose a new view on the basis of others’ research
- Give reasons or evidence to question the correctness of others’ views
- Give reasons or evidence to question the rational support of others’ views
- Argue about how others’ views are related or unrelated to one another
Since academic knowledge production is a collaborative activity, it is extremely important to signify what parts of your writing rely on others’ ideas and research and what parts express your own ideas and research. Citing or quoting someone else’s study without explicitly acknowledging it is a form of serious academic misconduct, plagiarism. Anyone in the academic community, whether they are professionals or students, must not commit plagiarism.
Essay Writing Process
The process of essay writing involves multiple steps and requires a long time to complete. The above figure demonstrates the steps of a standard essay writing process. However, in actuality, as you proceed in the process, you may need to go back and forth between the steps. For example, you may feel that you need to re-check an information source in the midst of writing the essay, and then decide to go back to the step of reading information sources; or you may find a flaw in your argument at the step of proofreading and then go back to the step of constructing an argument.
In what follows, each step is described in more detail.
① Check basic information
Check basic information about the writing assignment at hand, such as word length, paper size, font size, the need for a cover page, deadline for submission, and the way of submission. It is particularly important to check the essay question carefully (as stated above, consider what goal the essay has and what tasks it requires you to complete).
② Make a writing project plan
Set a schedule for each step in the writing process by estimating how long each step will take to complete. Keeping to the schedule will optimize the writing process. You may revise the writing project plan as you proceed and estimate the time required for each step more accurately.
③ Select a topic and set tasks
If you are asked to address a general writing task, such as “pick any topic from the course materials and discuss it,” you need to select the relevant topic and set sub-tasks by yourself. The term “discuss” covers a broad range of activities. If you are not sure about what precisely it means, consult the instructor.
It is acceptable to select a topic based on what you want to know, discuss, or study. However, if a topic is too vague or too specific, it becomes difficult to study. Therefore, when you select a topic, it may be wise to start by thinking thoroughly about what question you want to answer. Such a question is called a “research question,” and it expresses what specifically you want to learn about a particular topic. In many cases, the main goal of an essay assignment is to answer a particular research question. Different essay types tend to require answering different types of research questions, such as “Is a particular method of problem-solving appropriate?”, “is a particular hypothesis for a phenomenon correct?”, and “what does a certain text imply?” Research questions are not limited to these types. Suppose that you select Canadian immigration policies as your essay topic. You can pursue various research questions about the topic, only three of which are listed here:
(Examples of research questions)
- How do Canadian immigration policies increase ethnic and cultural diversity in Canada?
- How do Canadian immigration policies differ from those of other countries?
- How did the changes in Canadian immigration policy influence the social class of immigrants?
Once you select the relevant research question you want to address, the main task of your essay is set as answering the research question. Selecting a topic and a research question, at least in part, determines other tasks you need to perform in the process of essay writing, and more specifically, what information sources you need to collect and read, what type of argument you need to construct, and so on. You may sharpen the research question as you proceed in the process of essay writing and learn more about the topic you are studying.
④ Collect and read relevant information sources
The best place for collecting information sources for essay writing is the university libraries. Make use of the services and databases offered by the libraries. When you read an information source, read it with the goal of summarizing the information it contains in mind. Summary writing will be explained in “2. Understanding Academic Reading and Summary Writing.”
⑤ Construct an argument
In producing knowledge, you need to provide reasons or evidence for your answer to the research question. Evidence is a kind of reason that is gained by empirical methods. There are different ways to acquire reasons or evidence. For example, you may acquire them by conducting an experiment on your own or by reading others’ studies. Reasons and evidence support an answer to varying degrees. If one reason or evidence makes it more probable that an answer is correct than another reason or evidence does, the former is stronger than the latter.
⑥ Writing an essay structure outline
An essay structure outline is a blueprint of an essay that describes what types of information is written in what order in the essay. Writing an essay structure outline first will make drafting your essay smoother and easier. (How to write an essay structure outline will be explained in more detail in “3. Understanding Essay Structure and Paragraph Writing.”)
⑦ Write a draft
You finally start writing the body of your essay at this step. Ideally, once you complete all the preparations before this step, you have done everything you need for essay writing, and writing a draft is not very difficult. In practice, however, you may have to go back to some of the previous steps after you start writing a draft. For example, you may find it necessary to re-read the relevant information sources or modify the essay structure outline.
⑧ Proofread and revise the draft
After finishing the first draft, you need to read it several times and make corrections. Correct any grammar and punctuation errors you find in the first draft, and make sure that all the information sources you refer to are cited or quoted directly and correctly. Asking a friend to read the first draft will help you to discover errors and problems in your essay that you may not find easily on your own.
Once you have completed all the steps above, you are ready to submit your essay. Before submitting it, make sure, once again, that the essay satisfies all the requirements you checked in step ①.
- Carter, M. (2007) “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines.” College Composition and Communication 58 (3): 385-418.
- Recommended Readings
- Guptill, A., Button, A., Farrell, P., Leonard, K. and Pizarro, T. (2016) Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. The College at Brockport, SUNY: Open SUNY Textbooks.
- Unnamed Author. (2015) Writing for Success. University of Minnesota
- Issue |
- Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences & Center for the Studies of Higher Education
- First edition |
- Author |
- Kasaki, Masashi