Scholarly writing is a craft

I am working on a lot of revisions at the moment – of my own and also with students on a writing course I am teaching online. I have been thinking a lot about the nature of scholarly writing, especially in relation to why a piece of writing is not working, and what the writer needs to change or add or remove to make it work. This has led me to reflect a bit more on how scholarly writing is a craft an exercise in deliberate, thoughtful, planned thinking, more than anything, and how this manifests in writing that is clear, focused, sensible and accessible to the reader you are writing for.

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Perhaps a good place to start this reflection is on the idea of writing that is not working, and what this usually means. I am focused on the social sciences as this is my field, broadly speaking, but I work with writers across the social and natural sciences and also in the Humanities, and these points apply to the writing they do as well. The first point is the sense that the argument or the main claim is rushed. This is a feeling when I am reading, more than a specific list of qualities in a paper that one can see and tick off as being present or absent. It’s a sense that I am being hurried through the writer’s reasoning process. Common here is claims that are made or stated, but without any or enough explanation in relation to the overall focus or argument of the paper. What I read is a series of statements, perhaps with supporting evidence, but without the writer stepping in clearly enough to comment on, position, or critique these statements from their own position (the argument that paper is advancing). This is, for me as a reader, a paper that is not working to ground and clarify the position the writer is coming from, and what informs that position.

Related to this point is that papers feel rushed when the writer is trying to do too much with one paper – too much theory for one problem, or too many data for one argument, or too many lines of research in the selected literature. If you are working to a word limit, like the usual 6000-7000 words for a journal article or book chapter, this means you tend to gloss over explanations, and rely too much on stating what the theory or data or lines of argument are, rather than thinking carefully about what they mean in relation to the argument you are trying to make. So, as a reader, I feel like I am reading a lot of potentially interesting or useful information, but I am not completely sure why, or what it means, or what you want me to make of it. This is an ultimately frustrating or confusing experience for a reader, because they have to work too hard to try and figure out what they are supposed to be learning from the paper. The guideline, regardless of field, is one main argument/contribution to research per paper, and to carefully select literature, data, methods, and so on in relation to establishing and defending or supporting the development of that contribution.

Another common issue as regards a paper not working is a paper that lacks signposting, or markers for the reader that connect the different parts of the paper’s argument together into a coherent whole. There is no one ‘formula’ for writing a publishable paper in any field. There are commonalities, such as the IMRaD structure for many of the natural sciences, but even with that, a writer cannot simply rely on sub-headings to create coherence for them or communicate the logic of the argument in their head to the reader clearly. So, one way of crafting a paper that works for readers is paying attention to the connections you are making between parts of the argument, and how you are making these apparent. There are various ways of doing this, through the use of descriptive sub-headings (so a heading that indicates what the literature is about, rather than just Literature Review, if you are ‘allowed’ to do this); through careful repetition of key ideas and phrases (introducing the idea in the last sentence of section one, and then repeating the term or phrase in the opening of the next section); and through using connecting word and phrases to signal transitions and relationships between ideas and sections.

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These words are key in writing as a craft: in relation to. Everything you choose to bring in to your paper to situate your contribution within the field, and make a case for why your argument is useful or relevant to readers and fellow researchers in this field need to be carefully chosen. This notion of choice means that you need to be thinking all the time of what that reading, or piece of data, or aspect of methodology or theory, means to your argument, and how it will help you to explain your meanings to your reader. It also means that some things will have to be left out – you cannot use your whole thesis literature review in one paper, or all the data you have generated, or your whole theoretical framework. You will need to select, rewrite, rework and relate chosen parts together into a new whole that connects to the larger research project you are working on, but does not try to cram this into one paper in miniature form. You also need to think very carefully, all throughout the writing process, of how the pieces you have selected in connect or link to one another within the logic of this argument you are making right now.

Writing as a craft is, at its core, an act of meaning making, and these meanings have to be carefully established, explained and connected together into a whole paper that makes sense to readers. A great deal of the initial acts of writing anything – a thesis chapter, a paper, a book – is planning: working out what to select in and what to leave out, and what the line of argument is that you are trying to establish and support. Later, after feedback, revisions are focused on honing your craftsmanship: editing your ideas, focusing on the connections between parts of the whole – within and between paragraphs, and within and between sections of the paper or chapter. When the first basic draft of pre-writing is down – the writing you have done to tell yourself the story of your paper or chapter – it is important to pay attention to every sentence you write. What are you trying to say here? What is the value of this information – claim, evidence, explanation, connection – to your paper? What are you communicating here, and does it connect with or move away from the core meaning your paper or chapter has to convey? Answering these kinds of questions as you write, think, read your work over, get feedback, and revise and rewrite will all move you towards more deliberate writing, more thoughtful writing, more readerly writing that shows your craftsmanship as a writer.

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