Most first-year college writing classes are designed to help students become better academic writers. Good academic writing, like good writing of any kind, is clear, organized, and correct, but unlike other kinds of writing–creative writing, for example, or business writing–academic writing is almost always based on research. The works that scholars produce, such as journal articles, case studies, and conference presentations, reflect a degree of knowledge that those scholars have gained by studying what others in their fields have discovered. In other words, they read a lot to develop their own ideas to write about.

Consider this passage that writing professors often quote, from Kenneth Burke’s book, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Burke is metaphorically describing what we do when we write in an academic setting: we join a conversation. Before you join a conversation, you need to listen. This part of the text, therefore, teaches you how to “listen” by reading. You’ll discover how to read critically, how to summarize, and how to analyze–all crucial skills you need in order to develop your own ideas to write about.


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Reading, Thinking, and Writing for College Classes Copyright © 2023 by Mary V. Cantrell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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