Three Tools for Good Academic Writers

1. Reference Material

There are two uses for reference materials while writing. First, you’ll need whatever texts you’re working with. In philosophy classes like mine, that means course readings and any secondary material about the same author or topic. To find secondary sources, philosophers usually (a) skim the footnotes and references of the work they’re analyzing and (b) search a library’s catalogue for books and articles, which come from databases like Philosopher’s Index, PhilPapers, and Google Scholar. In other disciplines, references come from field work or empirical data. This first type of reference ensures that you get your facts straight and have peer-reviewed, expert support for your points. Using these sources proves you’re a competent commenter on the subject. As an additional benefit, if you read enough of your discipline’s source material, you’ll find great examples of work. Emulate them in tone, organization, and general approach to the issue. This is why it’s universally accepted that good writers read much more than they ever write. Reading informs your opinions with nuance and rigor, and it demonstrates the linguistic conventions of your field.

After writing your piece, polishing your draft requires a second set of references. You might use these tools in a first draft, but they’ll become increasingly important as you reach a final version. In any event, serious writers need a proper dictionary and thesaurus, as well as a usage dictionary. These confirm the meaning of your words and help you shop the extravagant variety of English vocabulary for the right fit. You may find these things online, but the quality of the source will vary. I use Oxford’s Dictionary of American Usage, Merriam-Webster online, and Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers. Vanderbilt’s library offers the full Oxford English Dictionary online too. In academic writing, your thesis and argument take priority, but you can’t get around looking words up and choosing precise vocabulary. As much as philosophers act like rational islands in a tempestuous sea of irrationality, they can be moved with effective rhetoric and a striking presentation of ideas. Philosophers dine on the cake of logic, and if you ice it with rhetoric, they’ll giggle with giddy glee at your work. However, if you place that same icing on a dunghill of ideas, they’ll detest you. Prioritize the argument; however, never underestimate the effect of good rhetoric.

I should also mention that style guides and handbooks for argumentation are helpful. For example, writers might reference something like William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style or Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Or, beginning philosophy students might benefit from reading works like Lewis Vaughn’s Writing Philosophy or Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments. Except Pinker’s 300-page survey of style, the guides I mentioned cover the basics of writing in about 100 pages. David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner’s Quack This Way is another example of concise work that offers great advice to writers. Each work offers shorthand guidance on how to write more effective sentences, and they provide copious examples. If you don’t feel like reading an entire guide, you can also find online articles, like The Chronicle for Higher Education’s series “Scholars Talk Writing” or Brain Pickings’ “Famous Advice on Writing”. Many university writing labs also have websites full of handouts and advice, like Vanderbilt's Writing Studio.

2. Distance and Time

Whereas reference materials allow you to sculpt the rough form of your piece, distance and time will provide the perspective necessary to judge whether your sculpture is any good. Up close and under the gaze of a sympathetic creator, the piece may appear beautiful. When stepping back, however, the piece may look more like a Picasso, even though you wanted a Michelangelo.

The easiest way for you to get distance from your writing is to read your draft aloud, or if you’re in a library, whisper it under your breath. Hearing your prose will pinpoint awkwardness. When you get lost in long sentences, or when something sounds strange, you can be certain that your audience will feel similarly. Be your own worst critic. Cut, rewrite, and revise to fix the awkwardness and simplify your syntax. (If you’re paranoid like me, save and e-mail yourself multiple versions of your work so that you can always work backward through drafts to find material you’ve cut.) You should read aloud every work you write. You want to give your audience the best chance at understanding your work the first time. Unlike oral communication, your writing is fixed on the page and cannot adjust itself to the puzzled looks from your audience or their clarifying questions.

The most difficult way to gain distance, especially for an impatient person like me or for someone against a deadline, is to stop writing your piece and leave it alone for a few days, weeks, or months. More likely, you’ll just leave the draft untouched while you sleep and grab breakfast, ready to go at it again the next day. However, time affords you perspective. If you keep tweaking the same document without any rest, you’ll careen into an obsessive spiral of exchanging synonyms. But with extended time away, your short term memory of the piece will vanish, and you’ll be able to read it like a first-time reader. This allows you to confront the most troubling enigmas. To use this trick, though, you have to be disciplined enough to finish a submittable draft early so that you can give yourself a few days of rest before polishing it.

3. Feedback and Revisions

For all that references, research, and revision can do for your piece, feedback from your target audience does better. Grammar and style are only good if they allow you to effectively communicate your message to your audience. Guides offer advice to help you do that, but they were derived from experience on pieces that aren’t yours. That is, your particular style, subject, and purpose for writing might not fit the exact advice they give.

So, an audience who would read your piece is invaluable. They can tell you which ideas resonate with them, whether they find your thesis plausible, or whether the support for your thesis connects strongly. They can tell you when a sentence is too long or the word choice is strange. And if you’re worried about gut reactions, you can ask them directly what they feel. They can also let you know whether your tone is appropriate, as professors do when advising students about academic formality or as managers do when advising employees on language that leads to more sales. The more specific your questions for your audience, the better feedback you can solicit.

Let Go. Stay Humble.

This isn’t a tool as much as advice. Projects have deadlines and objectives, and you will be held responsible for whatever you write. Yet, to a large extent, you have to decide how much work you can dedicate to a particular piece. I often feel like I’m not done with most things that I write. Instead, I hope to feel I’ve done enough to communicate my message. After you have put enough work into a piece and received feedback from your peers, it’s possible your project is finished, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Then you turn it in, submit it to journals, or try to sell it to a market.

Don’t be surprised if your piece receives criticism. Any writer of note has been rejected dozens of times when selling a piece, and in philosophy, the highest form of praise is critical attention from your peers. Learn what you can to improve your writing and arguments. Tweak the draft, and send it out again. The next thing you write will almost certainly be better than the last. And the continual process of writing—putting your best work out there, having its weaknesses exposed, and learning to make a better product—yields the best results. Don’t give up. If you can work through the brutality of peer criticism and find ways to improve, you’ll learn a lifelong skill.