Academic Writing: Process, Practice, and Humility

Recently, I accepted a scholarly writing assignment, a policy brief for a university-based think tank. As I approach submitting the initial draft for peer-review and then revision before publishing, the experience has helped me continue to think about ways in which teaching students to write present challenges for both teachers and students.

My writing assignment matches well the scholarly cited essay assignment in my upper-level writing/research course—a course where students tend to struggle with breaking free of reductive research paper approaches to writing.

In my first-year writing (FYW) seminar, I have very broad goals for students. I see FYW as transitional and foundational. The writing assignments are designed to help students confront and move beyond the assumptions and approaches they have acquired in K-12 coursework (transitional) and then begin to establish an awareness of writing that will serve them well in academic settings and beyond (foundational).

The FYW seminar allows me to practice my beliefs about writing and teaching writing—such as providing students with a great deal of choice in writing topics and form (we directly reject the five-paragraph essay and challenge template approaches to writing and the writing process).

But in the upper-level writing/research course, both the students and I must navigate the realities of scholarly writing, including the narrow parameters of academic citation and structured/prescriptive writing templates. I explain to my students that often academic writing follows templates that are rigid and even clunky, but scholarly journals and other publications allow very little deviation from those requirements.

The upper-level course also asks students to better understand that citation style sheets are guidelines for more than citation, such as tone, sentence and paragraph formation, and integrating sources (we specifically examine the stylistic difference between MLA, what they are often familiar with, and APA).

These are undergraduate students, and much of what I ask them to consider and produce is another type of transitional and foundational—transitioning from writing like a student to writing like an academic/scholar and foundational for scholarly writing in graduate school or the so-called real world.

I accepted the policy brief assignment near the end of my spring upper-level writing/research course so I was able to share with the students the assignment as a sort of justification for their cited essay assignment. The policy brief project includes the following elements that I include in the course:

  • The policy brief has a detailed content outline, six defined sections.
  • The executive summary and policy brief have strict word count requirements (including a direct warning that exceeding the word count would result in the manuscript being returned).
  • Guidelines address tone, word choice, and structure/organization.
  • The think tank uses a modified citation stylesheet (based on APA but using endnotes).

As an experienced writer and academic, the narrowness of the assignment and genre (policy brief) was stressful—likely in similar ways that are stressful for my students in the upper-level course—because it is writing unlike what I tend to do. Also, the requirement for using endnotes is a citation approach I have rarely used.

This last point, about using endnotes, is the primary lesson I now have for my students.

I completed a full draft well ahead of deadline, but that drafting had been plagued by my concern for the word count. I was well over both the executive summary and full policy brief requirements. So when I sent in my initial full draft, I had worked for days cutting and tightening—nearly to exhaustion because I was trying to fit a great deal into what appeared to be a nearly impossible word count.

When that draft was returned to me, I was immediately confused since the feedback noted I was way under word count—and thus, much of the feedback stressed a need for adding and explaining more fully. I also received very valuable feedback about organization (editorial feedback is incredibly useful for academic writing since that feedback typically has the context of the writing assignment more clearly than the author of the piece).

What happened?

Well, despite my constant warnings to my students about knowing the features of Word, I fell pray to ignorance since I wasn’t aware my Word default word count included the endnotes. Once I adjusted that, my draft was, yep, well under word count.

Although I don’t recommend making such mistakes as part of the writing process, this was part of the process for me, and while it was embarrassing and frustrating, my next round of drafting was much improved because I had feedback and a greater awareness of my writing purpose and the assignment template.

But another experience with the writing process also struck me as something important to bring to the classroom. Over a few days, I began revising my first full draft, greatly expanding my literature review. As a result, I reviewed that research again, finding more and better ways to integrate that evidence.

Part way through revising and expanding the literature review, I took a break to do a gravel ride. While cycling, I continued to work on the policy brief in my head, and had so many writing epiphanies that I paused during the ride, typed out those ideas in Notes, and emailed myself the brainstorming:

  • Teacher/teacher ed in lit review
  • Move MS to analysis
  • Cover UK research in BL section of lit review
  • Frame analysis with bullet list of SoR claims in intro

While cycling, I realized at least one important gap in the lit review and made some key decisions about organization.

While I had left the draft a bit drained, once I returned from the gravel ride, and showered, I was energized to quickly note the changes in my draft (I moved sections and added brief placeholders, all in red text, to guide my further revision).

Regardless of how often I explain this to students, I cannot emphasize enough that the writing process is quite messy, rambling and recursive. Students, I think, are very uncomfortable with that messiness and struggle to see all drafting as tentative (likely because writing in school is often graded).

While I have a new and “completed” full draft, I still do not see the project as finished. I will have editorial and peer-review feedback, and the final text will be copyedited and formatted.

I have done a tremendous amount of work, and the writing project is still in an early phase.

My writing process included making a mistake with word count, significantly rethinking the next draft while doing a gravel bicycle ride, using red text in my draft to guide revision, and emailing notes and drafts to myself.

Like my students, I struggled with writing within a template, navigating an unfamiliar stylesheet and endnote format, and fully understanding a type of writing I have little experience with. A significant amount of my time has been spent reviewing my sources, seeking out more sources, and copyediting the endnotes several times.

Academic writing is almost equally invigorating and mind-numbingly tedious.

A final point about how my real-world experience with academic writing can inform teaching students academic writing is the recognition that students are often trying to navigate both an unfamiliar writing assignment and coming to understand a complex topic and the research related to that topic.

I am working on a topic I have examined for years, and most of my evidence was already compiled and organized (and examined) in my blog and two editions of a book.

For students to be successful in an upper-level course requiring them to confront both new ways to write and cite as well as new content and evidence, we must provide the most supportive contexts possible.

I require and allow a great deal of drafting, provide class time for drafting and conferences, do not grade writing assignments, and repeatedly stress that the essay is a process (that all writing is tentative).

None the less, students have been trained to be finishers and to focus on a grade; both are not conducive to academic writing, or writing of any kind.

Once this project is completed, I have some excellent artifacts to bring to the classroom, but most of all, I have a heavy dose of humility that always serves teachers of writing well.