Writing With Substance: You Can Haz it! SRSLY!


I've taught with a number of good textbooks on college-level writing over the past seventeen years. But I've noticed that students like you tend not to read them, or tend not to want to read them. I'm not entirely sure why, exactly, but I'm more certain than ever that you don't.

I have some hunches as to why you don't want to read textbooks that teach you how to write. When these books seem too informal in tone and too much like common sense, you feel like it's all too obvious to have to spend time reviewing. When they seem dry and formal in tone, you feel like they are sucking the life out of you (not to mention making you never, ever want to work on your prose again). Am I projecting my own feelings onto you, my students? Probably. But I suspect you don't mind in this case.

Writing about writing can be pretty boring, I think. Many of the composition textbooks I have reviewed (or adopted for my courses) are written from the perspective of people who are very earnestly trying to empower you. I don't doubt that they want you to feel empowered; they really do want to encourage you to feel like you have the "authority" to write about anything that interests you. And yet (here again I am going to project feelings onto you), I have a feeling that you are not feeling particularly disempowered by anything except having to read about writing and having to write something and then talk to your professor and peers about your writing. 

I've started to think that one of the primary problems (aside from the fact that you don't always want to read anything) is that these writing textbooks are so much about the process that writing starts to be the point of writing, when in fact, writing is often only the means to an end, or rather, several ends. The word "only" in that last sentence is misleading, of course. Writing is VERY IMPORTANT. You will find this nugget of wisdom in heavy rotation during your college years. It's not a lie. Writing about something is really integral to learning about something. But let's also do some #RealTalk. You don't learn just by writing down what you think, and as much as you may love or hate writing, the acts and processes associated with it do not, in and of themselves, constitute knowledge.

As a scholar of British Literature, I find that writing serves many purposes in my life. But I never write just to "be" a writer. I find that I can't write well if I don't have an intellectual stake in what I'm writing about. I'll get to what I mean by "intellectual" stake at a later point in this book (and in class meetings for this course as well). For now, I'll simply offer the following personal reflection: I write to communicate, of course, on a daily basis. But aside from that perfunctory kind of writing, I write primarily to teach myself things that I want to learn, and I write to teach other people about the things I have learned (what I'm doing in this book, not coincidentally). Sometimes I won't know if I fully understand something until I have written about it--and even then I have to return to what I have written again and again––and then push myself to write something else. Or something more. Or something better. 
You may feel like you're already a writer. Perhaps you love the way that words flow out of your brain, or you love to push the limits of language with literary devices or puns or visual memes. You may be encouraged to become a writer as you move on from this course and into Writing Studies & Composition 2, or maybe you'll be inspired by this class or other courses to choose an academic major that will allow you to work on your writing for a career that involves writing. 

Or, you may, like me, find that writing is mostly fine (but sometimes awful), and that writing entails necessary and useful skills (but also isn't the stuff that really interests you most). The stuff that really interests you--and inspires intellectual curiosity in you––is the place from which your substance will come, whether you love experimenting with style and language or not.

In this class, we will all write to learn about the things we want to know more about. Whatever that something is for you, writing about it will require academic research and the development of what librarians and scholars of Information Science and Education call "information literacy." It will also require learning more about different contexts for writing and the ways you can vary your tone, style, and diction to address different audiences. Your primary goal in this class will be to get a better handle on one audience in particular: the academic readers you will find in your professors and fellow students. 

Your professors may tell you explicitly that they value the clarity with which you express your ideas; most audiences will value clarity, in fact, and they will expect you to spell things correctly and to provide sound mechanical constructions in your prose. What we really value in academic communities, however, is substance. In fact, more than wanting you to be able to write clearly, your professors will want you to think deeply. It's actually easier to write a clear and grammatical sentence than it is to think deeply about something and to have a complex, sophisticated comment about it. And so you'll often find that professors will ask you (and settle for) the former without overtly telling you how to achieve the latter. 

We will all aim for substance in our writing in this class. We will talk more about what that sentence means over the course of the semester, and you'll find that we'll do a lot less reading in this book--which, frankly, lacks substance in a number of ways––as the semester progresses. 

A few more things before we move forward...

You'll notice here that I've probably done many things your high school teachers told you not to do.  I didn't start my discussion with a broad generalization such as "In higher education today, there are many composition textbooks available to professors." I used the first person pronoun. I've used contractions throughout as well as sentence fragments for dramatic effect. I've also used the second person pronoun in addressing you, my student and reader. I'm doing some things here that I wouldn't do in my formal academic writing, just as you do many things in your communications online or with friends that you wouldn't do necessarily in emails to your professors or in the work you submit for credit. I'm addressing you here in this online book in the way I'd address you in class. Again, it's not the way I'd address my readers in an academic paper, and so you should not take from your reading here that you will be permitted to write in the same manner (or rewarded for it) in other courses. For models of appropriate style and diction, we'll be turning to academic scholarship and good examples of public writing that would be appropriate for both public and academic audiences. 

In many of the contexts in which you submit academic work, for instance, I'd advise you not to use the second person pronoun. And I'd also advise against the use of the word "thing," which is vague, and against using contractions, which can make for a tone that is far too informal for academic writing. I would, however, object to the idea that writers should start general and move into more narrow claims. Generalizations can be the worst way to begin because your readers in academic contexts know that generalizations are often wrong, and if they are right, then they don't need to be repeated.  Using "I" is fine--even desirable  in many academic disciplines, including my own, English Literature. We like to use "I" because in using it, we are taking ownership of the ideas therein. We also like you to avoid expletive constructions (those that begin with "there are" and the like) and other passive structures that avoid ascribing agency to a noun that does the action you describe. And of course, along those lines, we do not like for you to use sentence fragments or constructions that contain mechanical errors. Unless you know what you're doing. Because: professional. (See what I did there? And there?)

What we have somewhere in and beyond that list are some basic conventions for good writing. You'll find as you take your college courses that different professors (and different academic areas of study) have and value different conventions. As a student new to college, you are responsible for either intuiting what these conventions are in your courses or asking about them when you can not discern them on your own. You'll also learn quite a bit about them simply by reading what your professors assign. When you read enough of this work, you will start to see that academics and published writers often break these so-called rules or respond to them in idiosyncratic ways; doing so is fine as long as their readers still see them as credible voices and sources of information. 

In my experience, the only way to be seen as a credible voice and source of information is to write with substance. You can make jokes (I try to). You can digress. You can express real emotion. You can do all sorts of things in and with your writing as long as you write with substance. Doing so will be your goal in this course and in every course you take that requires written work.

Next up: Starting with Reading.

This page has paths:

Contents of this path:

This page references: