Help with … Academic Writing

Writing: the task everyone loves to hate. If you are an undergraduate facing your first major research paper, an MA student with a grad paper due, or a PhD student looking glumly at research notes for a thesis, this post is for you! Many academics love research and hate writing, or like writing but don’t necessarily feel confident about it. The great thing about academic writing is that everyone (yes, everyone) can become a competent academic writer.

This week’s post was written by an excellent academic writer: Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, who’s an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in the intersection of historiography and literature, particularly Livy. Her book Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic is just out from Cambridge University Press. The tips below were partially inspired by this advice for first-time novelists, and were originally distributed at a graduate seminar at UT-Austin.

How to Start Things

Some General Writing Observations

  • Good writing begins with clear thinking. Know what it is that you want to say, and then say it. Out loud, if necessary.
  • Crutches are good: use templates, whether your own or borrowed from someone else. Use them repeatedly.
  • Cater to your strengths. If you need a passage, do that. If you’re good at exposition, do that.
  • Writing is writing: academic prose doesn’t have a special status. It wants to accomplish exactly the same ends as all other writing, which is to keep you reading.
  • Revision is the soul of good writing. Plan to do seven drafts of anything. V. 1 and V. 2 will be very different. V.6 and V.7 will be nearly identical. They don’t each have to be better than before.
  • Show your writing to somebody else. Someone who will give you lots of comments. Someone whose work you’re willing to read in return. Someone you trust, and – crucially – someone from whom you’re willing to take harsh criticism.
  • Develop good self-revising habits. Be open to said harsh criticism. This does not mean you have to agree fully with what your reader says. It does mean you should be able to see what their problem was and why – and then fix it. Likewise, it is perfectly fine to be annoyed or offended or sulky because your reader(s) walked all over your carefully arranged prose. But then fix whatever problems they pointed towards, because there’s no other way to get better.
  • You don’t have to start at the beginning. In fact, it’s often easier not to. Write the beginning last, because it’s then that you’ll know what you need to say.
  • Horror Vacui is real. Therefore, put stuff on paper. Any stuff at all, in any format. Even if it’s bad, even if its bullet points. Even if you plan to delete all of it tomorrow. Revision is easier than invention.
  • The Delete Key is your friend. Don’t delete things for no reason, but oftentimes what’s standing between you and effective writing is a lot of dross you can edit out. If the text reads seamlessly at either end of a deletion, you don’t need it. By the same token, do not be afraid to delete whole pages.
  • Read! And not just academic prose. Read novels and non-fiction and reviews and poetry. Talk about books. Talk about words. Talk about language.

So practically…

What does a good opening do?

  • It gets and keeps the reader interested. The more you can get someone to read, the more they’ll read. If you can get them to start paragraph 2, they’re likely to read to paragraph 3. If you can get them to page 10, they’ll read to page 20. And so on.
  • It establishes that there is an interesting problem, and introduces the method or approach you’re going to take.
  • It indicates the end goal, but it does not necessarily spell it out!
  • It explains what is at stake in the argument, and therefore why it is worth reading.

So how to get it done?

  • Start in medias res. Not with the inception of the idea or with a survey of all scholarship. It starts just a few steps before the main actions; enough to keep the reader intrigued, but not so long they lose interest. If its good enough for Homer, it’s good enough for you.
  • Show, don’t tell. Put the point of interest right out there in the open. Analyze a passage; report on a controversy; point out a problem. Get me interested now, don’t tell me that it’ll get interesting later.
  • Likewise, remember, Reading is a journey. If you spoil the ending, I won’t watch the show. By the same token, don’t be coy about what you’re doing, but also don’t summarize your argument. Instead…
  • State and situate. As ever, context is king. By the time you state your thesis, you want the reader on board. Therefore, aim to give the reader enough information that your thesis seems an organic growth from premises. This is important – do not spring things on the reader.
  • Finally, it is very likely that you have already written the Platonic opening for your chapter, but you can’t find it in all the signposting. Very, very frequently, the third paragraph, or even likelier, your conclusion, should actually be the introduction. There is no more satisfying editorial move than simply to switch around the order. This is easier done by someone else, which is why you show things to people.

© Ayelet Haimson Lushkov

Creative Commons License
Help with … Academic Writing by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

4 thoughts on “Help with … Academic Writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s