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Research Writer Interview With Malcolm

Four Questions About Good Student Writing

What do good academic and creative writing have in common?

Any good writing is, first of all, a mental exercise. That is, good writing must start with an idea - which is to say, a viewpoint. This is true as much in creative writing as in academic essay writing. Good writing begins with a plan. It is based on a reasonable understanding of the subject matter and/or the characters involved. In this sense, good writing is based on good research and investigation. In fiction, for example, a writer will often have to gather information on the professions, careers or backgrounds that they have assigned to their characters. Also, in novels and stories the writer must remain sensitive to the contrasting personalities and perspectives of the different characters. Indeed, novelists and story writers often comment that their characters almost begin to develop and take on personality traits and idiosyncrasies of their own accord.

How important is research in academic writing?

Naturally, research is equally (or even more) important in academic or expository writing. Research will often seek to answer a question or questions regarding the subject matter. The writer immerses herself in the process of research, reading and self-education, in libraries and online, and then proceeds to a mental cataloguing of the salient features of the topic. The academic writer must mentally order these features and ought to be able to demonstrate for the reader, a fair knowledge of the diversity of opinions and the controversies (if any exist) among the experts within the subject area. Invariably the writer will form opinions about the subject matter during this process. These opinions may be presented explicitly or not as is appropriate, or the writer may simply present a landscape of the subject’s issues as he or she has discovered them. Even in the latter scenario, however, one almost always has an opinion or viewpoint and the writer ought to express it clearly.

What about the role of structure in writing?

Once the issues have been identified and ordered, they may be presented. Clarity and precision are essential at this point. It may be helpful in academic or essay writing for the writer to employ a structure that makes an argument or case – as in a court room, for example. That is, an overall assertion or set of points is made, with each one supported by a piece or pieces of evidence. Near the end of the essay, a summing up and reassertion of the points of the case will then lead the reader to the writer’s conclusions. Although this may seem a simple structure, it has the great merit of providing precision and coherence. The renowned essayist and novelist George Orwell once wrote (in “Politics and the English Language”) that every good writer will ask herself at least four questions: “1.What am I trying to say? 2. What words will [best] express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” To paraphrase: even academic writing ought to avoid pretentiousness and the tendency to be pedantic. Good writers should instead aspire to crispness and simplicity. The use of metaphor, simile or other literary panache in academic writing is great, so long as it is appropriate and is employed skilfully.

Is there anything else?

Yes. The writer must pay scrupulous attention to detailed, correct referencing and citation – at least in academic writing. Vivid and imaginative use of metaphor and imagery in creative writing is often central and can have a powerful and evocative effect. But, again, it should be weighed carefully and ought to be well thought out so as to avoid clumsiness. Above all else, good writing ought to be an expression of the writer herself; that is, of her experience in the world – of her viewpoint. Good writing will speak the writer’s truth.

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