How To Write (academically) Sean Cubitt, 2012 1. Essay planning: Here is your standard chapter list. Every essay and thesis has its own idiosyncrasies, but this will do to learn how to plan Intro (always write this last) Lit Review Methodology Data Analysis Interpretation Conclusions Under each heading, break up into shorter sections: eg for a thesis with the title "Wikipedia, knowledge, open source and democracy" the lit review must have sections on each key word, so the Lit Review now has subsections Lit review Wikipedia Knowledge Open source Democracy Some of these sections also need to be split between different key concepts. By the time you get to sub-‐sections, it is worth adding numbers to help navigate (also so you can refer back without being certain what page the final text will be on – see Section 1.2.3) For example 2. Lit review 2.1 Wikipedia 2.2 Knowledge 2.2.1 History of Encyclopedias 2.2.2 The concept of unbiased knowledge 2.2.3 Michel Foucailt and Power/Knowledge You can extend the numbering down to at most four numbers. If you need further subsections, try to use a letter instead 2.2.2 The concept of unbiased knowledge 2.2.2.a Diderot on bias 2.2.2.b Popper and falsifiability 2.2.2.c Kuhn and normal science 2. The context of writing * You do not need a day or an afternoon to write and study. You can do both anywhere at any time. Always carry a notebook, pen and a book to read. Then you can study waiting for the bus. And that wonderful idea you have walking to work isnt lost because you cant find a pen.
* Write a 100 word abstract of the piece you are working on and stick it on the wall where you most often do your writing (or have it on the desktop of your computer). Refer to it whenever you are writing to make sure you are sticking to the main project. If you find you need to write a specific section that doesnt fit, then consider how to adapt the abstract to accommodate the new idea. * Changing your mind is what writing is for: that is why we call it research: as you go over your materials, you should find new things neither you nor anyone else knew before. * If your housemates are noisy and the library is distracting, there are many public places where you can work quietly: public libraries for example. Many people write and read in pubs or friendly cafes (preferably away form the city centre!) * Aim to write a minimum of 100 words every day. Some days you will strike gold. Some days you will write off the subject, but its all good practice. Some days you will have nothing to say, so go back to earlier useful notes and rewrite them – you will probably be writing a kind of intellectual shorthand you can understand but a reader unfamiliar with your ideas may not. So rewrite explaining key words (names, theories, artifacts) in a way that makes clear the connections between them. Writing is an art which can only be acquired by long practice – rather like playing the piano. At first you may make slow and unharmonious progress, but in the end you may well play like a virtuoso, or at least be able to hold a tune. 3. The paragraph One step below the scale of the sub-‐sub-‐section is the paragraph, a fundamental unit of writing. One definition of a paragraph is that it is a group of sentences sharing a single topic. Here is a paragraph from John Bergers Ways of Seeing: It is important here not to confuse publicity with the pleasure or benefits to be enjoyed from the things it advertises. Publicity is effective precisely because it feeds upon the real. Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things to be enjoyed in themselves. Publicity begins by working on a natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasures own terms. The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-‐buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles away from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him. This is why publicity can never really afford to be about the product or opportunity it is proposing to the buyer who is not yet enjoying it. Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-‐in-‐itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-‐which-‐he-‐might-‐be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects.
Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour. The topic of the paragraph is announced in the first sentence. It is explained by analysing how publicity works in the following twelve, mostly short sentences, each of which adds a slight new turn to the fundamental statement. These small explanations and expansions add up to an argument. The argument is then summed up as an axiom: Publicity is about social relations, not objects. The last two sentences clarify the subtle, elegant argument that publicity creates glamour by making us envy the possible selves we might become if we bought the product. They make the additional argument that this happiness is not our own happiness (which would be pleasure) but happiness as seen from the outside, by others. In effect, the last sentence says, this is the definition of the word glamour used a few lines earlier. Berger is now in a position to go on to say that when we judge our own happiness from the outside we are split, alienated from ourselves. Thus this paragraph also acts as a building block in a larger argument. Each paragraph should have a topic sentence, one sentence that tells the reader the main issue being described or argued. Here there are two: the first and the sentence near the end just quoted: Publicity is about social relations, not objects. The topic sentence can come at the beginning (I want to talk about publicity) or the end (This process is what we call publicity) but should always appear. Berger uses two (a) because he has arrived at a more advanced statement of the topic, one that he can then use to move to the next paragraph; and (b) for dramatic effect. Note too that though they say almost the same things, the style of language is different. The first sentence is a meticulously reasonable statement that we should distinguish advertisements from products. The second is written in the form of an aphorism, a short sentence, often playing on an apparent paradox: here, that advertising is not about products but about relations between people. Look through your own writing to identify the topic sentences in your paragraphs. You may find there is more than one topic addressed. This is a sure sign that your paragraph is too long and should be split in two. If one of the parts now seems too short, make sure it is really necessary, is absolutely clear as it stands, and is in the right place in the argument, that is, leads from the previous paragraph to the following one. A paragraph can be a single sentence. 4. Words English is blessed with a history of hybridity. We have words from Latin, French, various Germanic languages, and rather fewer but still important words deriving from the ancient Celtic languages, and from the languages encountered and cultures assimilated through centuries of empire and trade. As a result there is a wealth of words with very nearly the same meanings, distinguished by nuances or by connotations – castle and chateau, fort and fortress, keep and stronghold all refer to very nearly the same things, but have subtly different flavours.
Many of our common terms in essays and theses have a similar range of possibilities. For example, when introducing a quote, dont feel that you have to say "Berger says" or "Berger states" (the first is neutral, the second suggests that the quote is definitive, even unarguable). Think of the other possibilities: Argues Suggests Thinks Supposes Surmises Presupposes Presumes Adumbrates Considers Muses And so forth – each with a different sense both of how you hear the author of the quote, and in many cases the judgement you make about them. Adding adverbs (mostly ending in ly) such as angrily, dreamily, elegantly, famously, unambiguously etcetera give even stronger impressions. Using a short phrase in place of the adverb helps too: Berger argues, with the passion of the convert, that Publicity is about social relations. English spelling is a notoriously poor guide to pronunciation. It is however an excellent guide to the history and sometimes the hidden meanings of words. This can be tricky. Etymology is the study of the history of words: false etymology is mistaking the parts of a word – as in the question "Who put the rant in Grantham" (Margaret Thatchers home town). Take a term like fabrication. This word can be used in two senses: as the process of making something, and as telling lies. The root of the word is fabric, textiles. To fabricate is to weave. But we also say that we weave stories, and even use another textile-‐related word when we speak of a tissue of lies or a web of deciet. It is important to avoid ambiguity by making sure your reader knows which sense of the word you are using. But it is also important to understand the potential of just that ambiguity. Silicon chips are rarely described as manufactured: instead we say they are fabricated. For poetic purposes, suggestions that the World Wide Web is a fabric fabricated like a tissue of lies may be a good way of working through your concepts. Or consider the ancient Greek word aesthetic. Now remember that Greek produces negatives by adding the prefix a-‐ or an-‐, as in apolitical. So the opposite of aesthetic is anaesthetic. This is interesting because we normally think of aesthetics as beauty, and that the opposite is ugliness. But now we have the idea that the opposite of beauty is no sensation at all. This use of language is poetic, where poetry can be understood as a highly compressed form of language. There is absolutely no reason why academic prose should be ugly. Words and language are our tools: we should use them to the best of our abilities.
5. The Sentence The sentence is the smallest unit of composition in written form. It is comprised of words. There are two practices involved in putting words together, once you have selected them: grammar and sound. Every sentence has to have a verb (a doing word like eats or demonstrates) and a subject (usually a noun, the person or thing that does the action of the verb, such as John Berger, Wikipedia or cats). Everything else is additional. The simplest sentence has two words: for example He eats In order to add things to the sentence, we have three options: to the left (before He), to the right (after eats), and in the middle (between He and eats). For example On Fridays he eats Or He eats fish Or He , feeling hungry, eats Notice here that the part of the sentence embedded in the middle is marked off with commas: this is a good way of recalling when you need to use commas. Adding things in all three spaces gives us examples like On Fridays he, being catholic, eats fish You can obviously add more elements at the left, right and middle: here the elements are marked off by slash marks On Fridays, /especially when the rain came in from the North/, he, /being the kind of Catholic who only remembered his faith when he was unhappy,/ eat/ fish, /usually herring rolled in oatmeal and fried. Sentences beginning with the subject and verb followed by additional material are called right-‐branching. They have a certain sense of urgency, but also place extra emphasis on the subject, as in this sentence from James Joyces Ulysses introducing a new character at the start of a new chapter: Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. This style is very useful for definitions and statements of fact: Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia written by its users. Left-‐branching sentences push the subject and verb to the end of the sentence, as in Bob Dylans song
Whenever I get up and cant find what I need, I go on down to Rosemaries and get something quick to eat. (Technically there is also a right-‐branch here, but we could say the whole verb is "go . . .eat") These are useful when you need to qualify a statement It is only after thoroughly analysis and interpretation that we will be able to stop The most important aspect of these different sentence structures is their variety. Sometimes it is valuable to repeat the same sentence structure. Sometimes repetition makes a point for you. Sometimes it makes the point too obvious, and you have to start varying the structure to make up for that failing. Variety is the spice of life. In that respect, writing prose is rather like life. Here is one of my favourite sentences. Not originally in English, it is the opening sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquezs novel One Hundred Years of Solitude Years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember the day his father took him to discover ice Here the balance of left and right branches makes the imbalance of past and future, and the coincidence of different times in a single moment, an integral part of the grammar. Again, there is no reason why you should not aspire to write this well. A handful of great scholars – among them John Berger, George Steiner, Roland Barthes, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Claude Lévi-‐Strauss – are among the greatest prose stylists of the last fifty years. The musical aspects of English prose are far more difficult to access, especially if you are not a native speaker. The golden rule is to read your work aloud, or ask a friend to read aloud for you. Even silent reading creates rhythms and patterns in the readers mind: you can hear these if you listen to your writing aloud. There is one easy rule to remember, however, an ancient rhetorical trick called the Rule of Three. Probably the most famous example is Veni, vidi, vici, I came, I saw, I conquered, written by Julius Caesar. The US constitution promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The BBC Charter requires it to inform, educate and entertain. Shakespeares Macbeth asks What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug/ Would scour these English hence?. Using the rule of three, your essays will please the ear, delight the mind, and persuade the soul. 6. How to have an idea A useful way of getting at ideas is the semiotic square devised by the linguist AJ Greimas. He starts with the idea of opposites: lets say beauty and ugliness. But we have already seen that beauty can also be seen as the opposite of anaesthesia. A little reading will tell us that the 18th century German philosopher Kant argued that the opposite of beauty (which he believed was a matter of shared and agreed taste) is the sublime: awe-‐inspiring scenes, such as mountain storms, about which it is impossible to say anything at all.
Greimas draws a diagram to look at the connections: Beautiful Ugly Anaesthetic Sublime The beauty of this tool is that it now leaves us to make the connections between the ugly and the anaesthetic, anaesthetic and sublime, sublime and ugly. Moreover, the diagram can be used to generate new ideas. For example, is the opposite of sublime also the disgusting – something so vile it takes your breath (and your words) away? Or we can add new elements: what about minimalist art that sits between the beautiful and the anaesthetic? Or between beautiful and ugly? What connects the terms? Here is a suggestion: LIFE Beautiful Ugly CLASSICISM ROMANTICISM Anaesthetic Sublime DEATH Here the diagram suggests that feeling awe and feeling nothing are connected by the idea of non-‐existence (death) while beauty and ugliness are connected with sensation and emotion (life). The two great currents of cultural life, the rational and the sensational, Classicism and Romanticism, could then be derived from the diagram as above: classicism is beautiful but without sensation and emotion; Romanticism balances ugliness and the sublime. Both in their different ways negotiate the challenge we all face as mortals: to seize life or to contemplate death. Of course there is the much simpler method: given any particular thing or action, ask yourself Who? What? Why? Where? When? How? In addition, there is always the unholy trinity of cultural studies: race, class and gender, to which we could add, in the right circumstances, environmental issues.
7. General notes The soul of a good essay or thesis is clarity. Try to avoid long sentences, even though they are sometimes necessary when a thought is genuinely complex and cannot be expressed in any other way. Clarity however is a matter of vocabulary and grammar. The right word, at the right time, in the right order. The art of the essay (and to a degree of the thesis) is also, however, to persuade. To do that, you need to vary your lexicon and your syntax. The best way to learn how to do that is to read the best authors. Some have been mentioned already. There are many great modern prose stylists: Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell, and many novelists. Personally, I read a lot of poetry, partly to remind myself, after a day reading turgid technical translations, that it is possible to write with beauty and profundity. When you are reading, always have a good dictionary to hand: look up words, and when you learn a new word, practice using it in sentences of your own. Most of all, writing is an art advanced by practicing it every day, while thinking constantly of how your reader will read, and hear in their minds ear, the words you set down.