Writing In The Academic Community

I hate to write. My writing never says what I mean. I can see the idea in my head, but I can't seem to express it in a way that others understand, so I don't get good grades. Is there some secret I don't know about?

With great clarity, David expresses his frustration as a writer. In fact, his expression is so clear that I'm tempted not to believe him: How could it be that his writing never says what he means? However, as a writer myself, I know David's problem. He is honest, and what he says is true.

Do you ever find yourself thinking that everyone else finds writing easier than you do? The truth is, everyone doesn't, and there is no secret. In fact, most writers, experienced and inexperienced alike, find writing difficult, demanding, ornery, often frustrating work. Experienced writers, however, have learned that difficulty comes with the territory, that with patience, persistence, and grit, even the most difficult writing task will work itself out. And experienced writers will also tell you that, while there is no secret, there is often excitement, great satisfaction, even joy from writing well.

There are, of course, conditions: To write well, you need a good reason to be doing it, a reason you believe in. When you've elected to write on your own, good reasons are no problem—you have something you want or need to say, and the writing is the saying. But sometimes, in both school and work settings, the reasons are given to you. They're not yours at the outset, and that's trouble. In school, instructors assign writing tasks to fulfill their teaching agendas. In the workplace, employers commission reports, clients seek answers, newspaper editors assign stories. Regardless of the initial motivation, once committed or assigned, it's your job to figure out the why, what, where, when, and how of the writing task, and to ask: What do I need to do? Where am I in relation to this assignment? What are the conditions that shape and determine my writing?

This book assumes that you are a college student, that the general conditions that determine your writing are academic, and that the better you understand these general conditions, the better you'll write. This chapter sketches some of those conditions and suggests strategies for coping with them. Knowing what academic communities expect will simplify and clarify your writing tasks, but it won't guarantee speedy and successful results. Even for the patient and persistent, there are no guarantees, just better odds. Each time you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard the whole mystifying process of composing begins anew.

As for the specific conditions that determine your writing—which college, which major, which year, which course, which instructor, which assignment, not to mention which student (you and what you bring to the writing)—well, those I won't know about, but the last part of this chapter provides some guidelines for you to examine them more carefully yourself.

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