How to read academic writing


[“How to Read Academic Writing” has ended up being one of the most linked-to and widely read things I have done on Dial M. A lot of professors seem to be assigning it to their students. In view of that, I have edited this post to omit a couple of paragraphs that seem a bit irrelevant to me now, and which in any event might have been a bit distracting for those who came here to read my handout. Anyway, here it is.]

My “how to read academic writing” handout is intended to give students a simple template for thinking about any piece of academic writing they might encounter in my class, or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s supposed to help them get past blank-page paralysis and start formalizing their thoughts about what they’re reading. I intended it to be a tool, and some former students of mine have found it helpful as such, but on reflection I find that it sneakily articulates a lot of my own personal theory of why academic writing, and our engagement with it, matters. As always, YMMV. Anyway, here it is.



Two prefatory notes:

1. For the purposes of simplicity and good subject-verb relations, I am arbitrarily using the masculine pronoun everywhere for “the author,” mostly because every time I think of “the author” I think of myself.

2. While your reading might take on the form of the rubric presented here, your writing cannot. Please do not write papers or presentations that use this document as an outline. The questions I have suggested here are intended to generate raw material that can be processed into some more refined form. How that happens is up to you. This document is intended only to give you a starting-point to your investigations, a can’t-miss, bog-simple system for generating a lot of questions about complicated pieces of writing.

With any text you encounter, ask yourself five questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Why is it here?
  3. What is it doing?
  4. How was it made?
  5. What’s in it for me?

What is it? What genre of writing is represented? What academic discipline or subdiscipline is represented? How does the structure and style of writing bear out its disciplinary identity? This brings us to one of the most important of all questions you can ask: what do you need to know to understand this writing at a professional level, what do you have to do to get up to speed? What skills does this writing assume? What terms, texts, repertories, debates, and disciplines are assumed? Does the author use a specialized vocabulary? When considering a piece of writing on music published in an interdisciplinary or non-music-specialist journal, ask what level of musical sophistication it demands from the reader, and whether the author’s own musical knowledge and skill is enough to do justice to the topic. What is the author’s disciplinary background? Does the piece seem as if it were written by someone with music chops— at the very least, an ability to read music, perhaps an ability to handle music-theoretical concepts and terms, even an explicit connection to some standard music-analytical model? To what extent is this piece understandable to academics without these musical skills?

In a lot of cases the question what is it? comes down to what is its audience? For whom is this written? What does the author assume the audience knows? What does the author assume it needs to be told? What kind of audience attitude does the author assume? Do you get the feeling that the author is anticipating a chilly reception? That the piece will be controversial? That the piece will be taken as a call to arms? Etc.?

The question of audience leads naturally to the question . . .

Why is it here? One way of thinking about what a piece of writing is saying is to ask what it’s not saying. In other words, what are the stated or implied positions against which the author is defining himself?

Gerald Graff likes to say that all (or nearly all) academic communication is some version of the following form of thought:

Whereas So-and-so says X, I say Y.

The relationship to X and Y may be one of emendation, minor correction, slavish emulation, brusque dismissal, cruel mockery, and so on. Whatever the relationship of X to Y, knowing what that relationship is will tell you a lot about why the author wrote this thing in the first place.

You might have noticed that whenever you’re having an respectful argument with someone you usually end up saying “don’t get me wrong . . .” at some point. That’s because while we might not agree with X, neither does N, and you don’t agree with N either. So you don’t want people to mix up your particular argument against X with any others; you don’t want people to get you wrong. We also say this sort of thing in our own writing all the time. “Of course I don’t mean to suggest that . . .” “At this point you might think I am arguing that . . .” and so on. Graff calls such things “meta-discourse” and insists that being able to find and decode it means being able to understand why a text is there in the first place—it allows you to map the author against a field of invisible interlocutors, each of whom occupies a slightly different position in the noösphere.

Ah, the noösphere. Every piece of writing is an action taken in a virtual conversation. If you venture to write something about Beethoven, you will be joining a conversation that’s been going on for more than two centuries and you will end up talking with dead people. (Just because someone’s dead doesn’t mean they can’t hurt you!) The total sum of virtual conversations going on in the world constitutes what I like to call (after Teilhard de Chardin) a noösphere. Figuring out a text means in part mapping its location in the noösphere—figuring out what conversations it is participating in and how it defines a particular place in relation to them.

R. G. Collinwood wrote that interpreting any text means understanding the question it was meant to answer. What is the question the text was meant to answer? Please note: it is not always the question that is explicitly raised in the text itself.

Now that we’ve established what conversation a piece of writing has joined—i.e., why it is here—we might ask another question, even more important. How does the writing intervene in that conversation? What kind of action does it take? This is the illocutionary aspect of a piece of writing: we want to ask not only what the writing is, but what the author was doing in writing it. In other words . . .

What is it doing? If every piece of writing is an intervention in a conversation, it’s not only a thing, it’s an action. What is the mode of action this text represents? Does the text seek to persuade, exhort, debunk, insult, satirize, praise, argue, reconsider, describe (etc.)? If the author has an agenda (and he will), what is it? And what actions might you be expected to take in view of this writing?

In considering the illocutionary aspect of an piece of writing, consider the author’s persona, tone, and overall strategy.

An author’s persona is an image of what kind of person he is and what kinds of scholarly values he brings to bear in his writing. These personas are elements of strategy; they allow the author to present his point of view with greater force. Militant personas, wacky fun personas, Paterian aesthete personas, jaded seen-it-all personas . . . you see them everywhere in academic prose, and certain personas go naturally with certain genres of scholarship. (It’s kind of interesting to see the smarter ones mix it up: Žižek, for instance, has made a career of being the wacky fun Marxist.) Even authors of very “objective,” detached, scientific-sounding scholarship will assume a persona, even if it is only that of the detached, objective observer. This persona too has persuasive force.

An author’s persona establishes an image of what kind of person he is, which implies a general (ethical, attitudinal) relationship to the world. This relationship is made manifest in the author’s tone. When we ask what tone the author is taking in a piece of writing, we ask what attitude he is expressing towards his subject. That tone might be skeptical, mocking, devoted, condescending, ironic, respectful, good-humored, etc. Tone and persona support one another.

And both tone and persona can be aspects of strategy: they are both used to make points more effectively. What does the author do to bring the reader into agreement with him? Is he aiming at getting the reader to sympathize with him, or is he trying to establish authority over the reader? What does the author do to establish sympathy or authority? Does he use humor? Pathos? Righteous indignation? Does he try to intimidate or shame the reader? Does the author flaunt his experience or learning? Does the author make you feel as if all other positions on the matter under discussion are simply not worth considering? If so . . . how did he do that?

But the simple nuts-and-bolts of a text’s structure can also be a powerful aspect of strategy, so at this point we might ask . . .

How was it made? How is this text put together? Where and how is the topic introduced? What’s the author’s thesis? What is the crux? (Note: the thesis and the crux are often not the same thing.)* Are there subsidiary points? How are subsidiary points introduced? How does the author link them together? How are they linked to the main point? How are evidence and supporting statements related to the arguments of the text? How are arguments substantiated? Does he compare/contrast his subject to anything else? Does he offer an account from personal experience? Does he rely on statistical tables, scores, charts, or any other specialized graphical tool? How does he use quotations? What kinds of footnotes/endnotes did he write? What kinds of sources did he use? What kinds of things did he choose to footnote?

In brief: can you reverse-engineer this piece of writing? Can you figure out what the author’s outline might have been?

*A note on “the crux”: If you had to choose just a single paragraph, or even just one or two sentences, to represent an entire article or chapter, what would it be? I define the crux as the point where overt structure (the thesis and its supporting apparatus) converges with the less obvious illocutionary point. The crux is seldom a straightforward statement of thesis. It is generally the point where the thesis has been developed enough for what’s at stake in the argument to be revealed.

OK then, what does it mean to say that anything is “at stake” in an argument? This brings us to our final category . . .

What’s in it for me?

If you’re reading a text, you are in on the conversation. If you write something about it, you’ve joined the conversation. If you publish it, congratulations! Welcome to the noösphere. The question here is, what does it all matter? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re right? Sometimes there are obvious real-world consequences to academic arguments (you publish a bad review of someone’s book and they retaliate in print, for example). But usually the question of “what’s at stake” is a bit more subtle. What is gained from adopting a particular methodology, approach, genre, topic, or whatever? What is lost? If a piece of writing is always an action as well as a thing, then are there moral or practical consequences to these actions—scholarly karma, so to speak? To whom or what does this karma apply? Institutions? Fields of scholarship? Individual scholars? You?

Finally, when you read a text, you are always on the lookout for relevance to your own work. When you’re reading interdisciplinary stuff, you’re often looking more generally for relevance to your field. (Which gets us into deep water indeed: what is my field, anyway, and how can I reliably distinguish it from other fields?) Either way, your question here is, can I use this? How? And, of course, would I want to? Which gets us back to the question of what’s at stake.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to How to read academic writing

  1. jtb1899 says:

    Perfect timing; thank you!

    I’m teaching a writing-intensive, upper-level Form and Analysis class that uses only articles and books from the literature. We start in on the first article tomorrow.

    • Gabriel says:

      I’m glad you tweeted this to Savanna and I! Because I got a head start on this assignment 😉

  2. Jason R-W says:

    This is the perfect ‘back to school day’ post, thanks.

  3. Sarah says:

    Writing my doctoral document and doing A LOT of reading, which involves a lot of staring blankly into space for me. Very useful indeed!

  4. Sam Quinones says:

    Interesting blog post. One question your forgot to ask, but that often occurs to me: Is this worth reading? And this usually comes down to: Is it readable at all? Did the author love his topic enough to make it vivid, alive enough so that people would enjoy and understand it. Or is it instead a tenure/dissertation implement of medieval torture larded with 110-word sentences, one after after another trudging to their deaths, half of them in the passive voice, each beginning with like five clauses before we ever see a subject like smoke signals off in the distance, only to have it, too, when we finally get there, be divorced from its predicate, as if across a river valley, by another couple clauses before each sentence then is forced to end with a quote large enough to require indenting?

  5. Pingback: Hum me a few bars | Dial M for Musicology

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