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What academic writing teaches me
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What academic writing teaches me

With another paper-heavy quarter, I’ve faced some ups and downs when it comes to my writing assignments this year. The waves of this chronic learning process have lent me more than a few trying days and late nights. I often teeter between significant doubt and some version of acceptance regarding my efforts at the time of submission. I might tell myself that no matter what, I could not have done any better. And so, when I finish Stanford, what will I leave with aside from the memories of writing these papers? In one word: a lot.

First, not all days are created equal; not all assignments are created equal. But the beginning does not determine the end. Sometimes, the assignment may not be the “x” that marks the spot. My thoughts on the readings might not slide into the parameters I am given by my professor. In these cases, I begin with some degree of disenchantment. I feel scrunched, unnatural and confused. I might think, I hoped to use these two poems, not one, or I am not sure how to evaluate these critical readings in light of this text, and so on.

But the due date is set and I’ve got to dissolve the mental grudge as soon as possible or be left in the gutter of procrastination. I always go with the former. Sooner rather than later, I adjust my thinking sails and go forward. As I reexamine the text, think of important passages and begin to elevate some coherent idea, I get closer to an argument — something I can believe in. If I am left unsure, my writing will follow that way. Arguments — of all kind — must be founded on some kind of concerted conviction. Even in academic writing, it’s good to be honest.

The argument is the crux of any essay, the heart that gets the words pumping. Without one that I can claim and defend, my paper might as well be in shreds. I don’t even try to start without one. Many years ago, I made the mistake of writing without an argument, trying do to the move backward to go forward thing; I remember feeling my roughly completed essays were jumbled sentences and wandering paragraphs. (Though wandering is sometimes excusable in some writing contexts, in academic writing, it is unforgivable.) But the argument does not have to be a world-changing line, it can be a minor observation. Once I digest my claim, if I cannot regurgitate it without checking my notes, something is probably off.

I think this goes for any ideas that might sprout here and there. If we cannot explain an idea legibly and even simply, is it any good? This is where writing ideas out comes in handy, and for writing essays as an English major, I call this part of writing “the first draft.” I am happy to get the page count up, but I will have to revise. Even so, the drafts are steps up. Sometimes my second draft is barely reminiscent of my first. I used to think I’ve just wasted time on a version of my assignment I cannot use. However, drafting is a chance to write the not so good ideas out.

When it comes to literature, thinking hard and closely about a text produces a layered relationship with it. The literary works I’ve written about feel forever inscribed into me. Further, putting something (perhaps anything) down on paper gives an idea different life; drafting sets our thoughts still enough for us to see if they are any good. Hopefully one is. From here and to the final reading before the last (very hesitant) click to send, doubt shadows me. Though I’ve come to reconcile this.

As a student, I am not perfect. The point of being a student is to learn and improve. The quarters unfold at a high speed, and we are confined by time. I have thought if I just had another day, a given paper would be better, but time is always going to be pushing us, and figuring out how to maneuver our efforts through this constraint is part of the assignment. I think it’s important to stay mindful of what we can do, and in doing so, we might realize that we do our best a lot more than we think. With the academic year coming to a close, how can we not be proud of that?


Contact Courtney Clayton at cclayton ‘at’ stanford.edu.