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The Art of Academic Writing

Gifted Education and Support

This Tips for Parents article authored by Michael Clay Thompson is from a seminar he hosted for Young Scholar Families, during which significant elements in the instruction of the art of academic writing were examined.

This one-week course examined significant elements in the instruction of the art of academic writing. Here is a collection of the comments that I used to establish the topics and discussions of the day. As is typical, these first posts led to several hundred others by participants and by me as we discussed the ramifications and details.


Imagine that explorers suddenly discovered an unknown island, and I asked you to write an article about the island.

“When do I leave?” you ask.


“When do I leave for the island?”

“Oh, no, just write it up and turn it in by the 3 p.m. deadline.”

The situation is ABSURD. The only way you can write about the island is if you go there. Go there and walk around, and climb the peaks, and study the flora and fauna, examine the rock formations. You have to find out about it before you can write about it.

That is the part that American education is leaving out.

Kids are trying to write, or are being told to write, academic essays, but to do it without going there.

Academic writing is the report you create after extensive exploratory reading. From that reading you acquire the background knowledge, the specialized words, the major figures, the dates, the organizing concepts, the disputes, the complete language of the content.

It builds up, and you read more, and it builds up, and you read more, and you become comfortable with the words, and you start to notice the cool things, and you begin to like some of the figures or to be impressed with some of the ideas, you become aware of disputes that you did not notice at first because the opposing advocates used slight different words.

And before you know it, this subject you knew nothing about is one of your new faves.

Many of the problems in American education, and even in our discussions these four days, are actually results of putting the write before the read. Anxieties dissipate when there is plenty of time to research. When the reading part is in perspective, we do not feel in such a hurry. The academic sense of time takes over.

What happens at the end is like an explosion filmed backward. Instead of flying apart, all of the things that are apart move in unison toward a center until the final paper is a unity. All is one. The sentences are right for the idea, the paragraph structure is right for the idea, the thesis, the words, the facts, the style, the tone–all of it is a coherent and unified articulation of something the writer has seen, has gone there and seen, and is now telling.

During the process of exploration that is book research, an incredible thing begins to happen, at first slowly, and then with more force and pace; the student begins to care about the subject.

This is one of the reasons it is so important for us to assign topics that are at first outside the students knowledge perimeter. Make the kid go out there and find something, figure it out, and discover that it is wonderful.

The better the student gets at the language demands of grammar and punctuation and the MLA format and the essay structure, the easier it is to pursue the care, the less attention those other details command, and the more obvious, right, and easy they seem. More of the mind moves to the subject, and then the heart kicks in, and the real educational transformation takes place.

We are trying to get good SCORES without the inconvenience of becoming academic. If we only accepted the joy of becoming academic, the scores would happen automatically.


One of the great core engines of excellent writing, it seems to me, is almost unnoticed in the clash of models and methods that war over education in the country.

It is the almost unmentioned fact that form in language, at all levels, should resemble form in phenomena. There is a sandstorm of chatter about how to punctuate adjectives or compound sentences, and there is a gaggle of dogma about how many sentences must be in a paragraph or how many paragraphs must be in an essay…

But all of this is issued as though the world does not exist.

As though what you are writing about were irrelevant.

If what we write is to be valid and to reflect the truth, it must REFLECT THE TRUTH. It is not a shallow question of whether we put a comma in a compound, it is the question of using a compound direct object when a subject in the world acts on more than one object, and our sentence must capture the truth of the event’s structure.

The very shape of the sentence resembles the shape of the event, and we can draw lines from the nouns in the sentence to the objects in the world.

We see proud summaries of the types of paragraphs and lists of the ways they can be arranged, but there are as many potential types of paragraphs as there are types of things in the universe, and the way a paragraph can be arranged depends upon what the paragraph depicts. If the paragraph is about the view of the landscape, then the paragraph may contain sentences in order from what is closest, to next closest, and so on until the last sentence that might mention what is visible on the horizon. Or a paragraph might be arranged as to a sequence in time. Or from light to dark. Or from certain to uncertain. Or from quiet to loud. Or from happy to angry.

Any time you see a dictum saying, “There are five types of…”, dive for the rocks.

Likewise an essay; it too extracts its form from the form of the subject. If there are five influences on Van Gogh, then there are seven paragraphs at least in the essay: an introduction, five body paragraphs, and a conclusion. At least.

Imagine a young painter, putting a bowl of fruit and such before a window, and beginning to paint. In comes the master, who says, “There are three pieces of fruit in a still-life.” The painter looks at the bowl and sees a banana, two oranges, an apple, and a pear.

If there are seven pieces of fruit in the bowl, then there are seven pieces of fruit in the still-life.

What we have done is to sink into a glazy coma of formulas, and have lost our awareness that the form of a sentence is based on a form in the world, and the form of a paragraph resembles a form in the world, and the form of an essay duplicates a form in the world, and..

and writing derives its forms from the forms of the world.

In truth, there are as many of whatever as you need in order to explain. An essay of sentences and paragraphs is an attempt to capture the world, in structures of words that take their orders from the world.

It is all about form, and not about formulas, at all. It is in the very nature of a formula that you can follow it without doublechecking to see if it is a valid representation of anything outside itself. A formula relieves you of the creative part, of the observing part, of the integrity part, of the art part…

All these little formulas mislead.

The truth about language is bigger, and more beautiful, and more artistic.


All right, let us think about another dimension of academic writing: keeping the focus on the focus.

What I recommend is that when we assign an academic paper, one of the requirements is that the paper contain no self-reference, including no first person.

This flies in the face of many currently popular writing drills in which students are ASKED to discuss their opinions. But we are not looking for ways to expand snap opinions, or even opinions based only on reason. We are looking for ways to develop competence in writing about academic topics. We are looking for ways to get students ready for college and academic careers, or at least to make those things a possibility for the students.

Students will ask to be able to use first person. Of course they will; it is comfy; they already know how to write about themselves. They know the way those sentences work. They know how to construct sentences in which the subject of the verb is I. I think, in my opinion, I believe, it seems to me. Using first person bypasses the unpleasant discomfort of having to learn academic expression.

No. Write about your subject.

If your paper is about Alexander’s strategy against Darius, then write sentences in which the subject is Alexander. KEEP the focus on Alexander. Alexander this, Alexander that, and then Alexander began…Alexander’s genius was such that, Alexander Alexander.

The other layer of this is, not only do not use the first person pronoun, but do not make any reference to your paper: In this paper I will, or, this paper will present… The reader does not want to hear about the properties of the paper. The reader wants to hear about ALEXANDER.

Talk, ALL THE TIME, about Alexander.

No first person.

No to me in my opinion.

No this paper will present…

And take this to the limit: NO….

In this conclusion we will see…

As in the following quotation…

Do not mention yourself. Or your paper. Or your conclusion. Or your quotations as quotations.

Just keep talking about Alexander. Focus on the thesis as though you are obsessed.

The instant you begin using first person or self-reference or reference to the paper, you NO LONGER HAVE ONE TOPIC.

Now you are talking about Alexander, then about yourself, then about your paper. What Alexander thought, what you think, and what your paper contains.

Now you have destroyed your own clear focus.

Furthermore, you have stopped talking about something incredibly interesting, and you have shifted the focus to something incredibly boring.

In terms of training, students already know how to talk about themselves. What they do not know how to do is talk about academic content. They are uncomfortable talking about academic content. So that is exactly the practice they need, and we should not let the air out of the balloon by being nice and letting them use first person.

So many times a student has looked at me with that deer in the headlights perplexity, utterly confused, and asked, “But Mr. T, how can I say that I think Alexander was a genius?” “Robert, just say Alexander was a genius.” I already know that it is YOU saying it, because it is your name at the top of the paper.” Long pause. “Oh.”

This is just one of those details that is obvious after you understand it but sometimes not obvious at all when you are beginning. The paper is about, only about, always about, its thesis. Summon forth the spirit of Alexander, and DO NOT BREAK THE SPELL by making the reader stop thinking about Alexander and start thinking about you, or about the structure of the paper.

Let them write like scholars. That is how they become scholars.


Among the elements of writing instruction that are troubling are two trends, the use of elaborate writing rubrics and the use of prompts. First, rubrics: after decades of work with kids I came to the conclusion that those elaborate rubrics do more harm than good. They do not teach kids to think like writers. No writer of any genre sits down and thinks, “I need to follow this rubric.” No one sits down with a vast spreadsheet in mind. Writers are not guided by arrays of checkpoints. This is a schooly phenomenon that has no presence or reality whatsoever outside of trendy educational situations. What I want is for kids to think like writers. I want kids to think about the inspiring central principles of writing, and I want them to differentiate between the great core principles and the minutiae. This is one of the problems with the rubric approach. I looked at one of those rubrics on the internet the other day, and it had eighty-six traits!!! It is a certain recipe for making all participants hate the whole process, and the most evil thing about it is that it will make them think they hate writing, when in fact they only hate rubrics, but do not know it.

So in my Advanced Academic Writing series I present the system that I finally centered on, where writing is assessed in four dimensions, each of which is truly a writer’s way of thinking. I call it Four-Level Assessment, and the four levels are the English, the MLA structure, the essay structure, and the idea. Each one is worth a letter grade. To explain it takes time, far more than I can devote in this one post. I have a final text out in the AAW series called Opus 40 that explains it in great detail and provides a CD with an archive of research paper comments that teacher/parents can use to copy and paste in their comments to students–speeding up the process immensely and providing an enormous amount of feedback that is otherwise impossible.

Now, the prompt: What? The use of prompts is now pervasive in American education, and the very nature of the prompt process should be a screaming siren of alarm. I know, state boards will require their use, and so we have to prepare students to deal with them, but we must contain all of that in our minds and see the reality. Prompts are what students will NOT get in advanced academic classes in high school and college. The world itself does not come with prompts.

Let us drill down into this bizarre custom and find out why prompts have become so pervasive… Prompts are crafted so that there can be a PURE WRITING EXERCISE. It is writing about nothing. Prompts are crafted so that any student, whatsoever, can answer the question without any reference to an actual knowledge base. With these prompts, the total nonreader is on the same plane as the vast reader. So unlike some countries, where students are writing about the history of England, or the effects of electricity, we can write about why we like the beach.

The prompt-based method, in other words, is unacademic writing at its most extreme. The nexus between writing and knowing is broken, and the factless writing is hurling off into vacuous irrelevance, like a tumbling part that broke from the space shuttle.

When we are teaching our students to write academically, we have to reconnect the cables. Academic writing is the explication of academic content. Academic writing is almost always, in some form, a report on academic reading. That is what college is all about: five hours of writing based on thirty hours of reading.

When we find ways to avoid the academic reading, and to bypass the dream of academic knowledge, and to write about our own feelings and preferences and opinions instead of facts and truth and substance, then we are gutting the very core of education.

One of the most horrifying results of this edu-practice is that kids do not believe in the validity of knowledge. They really think that they have a right to their opinion, and that it is as valid as any other opinion. They do not realize that they can speak or write nonsense. They have no idea of the great scope and power of knowledge. Well, they do have a right to their opinions, but ridiculous opinions are legal. You can say that the theme, TO YOU, of Frankenstein is that everything works out for the best. But that is not the theme, even if you assert that it is TO YOU.

This is one of the great benefits to the academic research paper as a way of teaching academic writing: the research paper sends the student to the library, where on the shelves, the student sees that for her topic, say Charlotte Bronte, there are seven biographies, each one more than 400 pages long. This itself is an epiphany; the student begins to realize that knowledge is real. With each new paper, she gains a more realistic and respectful appreciation for what it means to be educated and for how powerful it is to be able to research something wonderful and then write about it extensively in a method that is refined in its organization, clarity, and integrity.

The academic research paper is a key instrument in helping a student to become truly educated.


Now, let us think about conclusions of essays. In the word ESSAY I include the research paper which is structured as an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion, all devoted to the articulation and confirmation of a thesis.

What I notice is that the prevailing notion of the conclusion is from the Thought-Lite brand. People seem to think that the conclusion is a brief concluding statement where you can put a snappy quote, or they just think of it geometrically, a box of words after the paper is really over.

What is missing is the rigorous idea that a conclusion must conclude. CON together, and CLUD close. The conclusion must close together the still disparate strands of the knowledge.

Notice this important fact: The conclusion is your FIRST opportunity to discuss the information and ideas of the body. Not until the first sentence of the conclusion does the reader finally have all of the pieces of the factual puzzle, so now it is time to BEGIN making something of it.

The conclusion has to pull all of that together into a single articulation that accounts for every section of the body.

What I find is that the FUNCTION of the conclusion, concluding, is often unrecognized or is ignored.

So a big part of the lesson in academic writing is a valid and accurate understanding of the critical purpose of the conclusion. This, again, in contrast to the stereotype where (this is not what they say, but it is how they write) the paper effectively ends in the last paragraph of the body, and the conclusion is just a cute-quote hurrah.

The conclusion is big stuff.


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