Communication Foundations

(Chapter 1) Introduction to Academic Writing


As international university students in the United States, one of the first challenges you will have to overcome is a cultural linguistic one. Not only are you required to perform academically, but your language abilities must also be on par with professors' expectations, which may seem quite different from what you are used to in your home country or in other parts of the world. For this reason, Section 1 will start off by encouraging you to consider common myths about academic writing and form a solid approach for engaging your writing projects.

1.1 Myths about Writing

Myth #1: The “Paint by Numbers” myth

Some writers believe they must perform certain steps in a particular order to write “correctly.” Rather than being a lock-step linear process, writing is “recursive.” That means we cycle through and repeat the various activities of the writing process many times as we write.

"Paint by Numbers Mural" by Paul Sableman (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Myth #2: Writers only start writing when they have everything figured out

Writers figure out much of what they want to write as they write it. Rather than waiting, get some writing on the page—even with gaps or problems. You can come back to patch up rough spots.

Myth #3: Perfect first drafts

We put unrealistic expectations on early drafts, either by focusing too much on the impossible task of making them perfect (which can put a cap on the development of our ideas), or by making too little effort because we don’t care or know about their inevitable problems. Nobody writes perfect first drafts; polished writing takes lots of revision.

Myth #4: Some got it; I don’t—the genius fallacy

When you see your writing ability as something fixed or out of your control (as if it were in your genetic code), then you won’t believe you can improve as a writer and are likely not to make any efforts in that direction. With effort and study, though, you can improve as a writer.

"iTunes - Turn off Genius" by Chris Messina (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Myth #5: Good grammar is good writing

When people say “I can’t write,” what they often mean is they have problems with grammatical correctness. Writing, however, is about more than just grammatical correctness. Good writing is a matter of achieving your desired effect upon an intended audience. Plus, as we saw in myth #3, no one writes perfect first drafts.

Myth #6: The Five-Paragraph Essay

Some people say to avoid it at all costs, while others believe no other way to write exists. With an introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion, the five paragraph essay is a format you should know, but one which you will outgrow. You’ll have to gauge the particular writing assignment to see whether and how this format is useful for you.

1.2 The Academic Writing Situation

Now that we’ve dispelled some of the common myths that many writers have as they enter a college classroom, let’s take a moment to think about the academic writing situation. The biggest problem I see in freshman writers is a poor sense of the writing situation in general. To illustrate this problem, let’s look at the difference between speaking and writing.

"Your Sign Is Confusing Sir" by Trevor (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When we speak, we inhabit the communication situation bodily in three dimensions, but in writing we are confined within the two- dimensional setting of the flat page (though writing for the web—or multimodal writing—is changing all that). Writing resembles having a blindfold over our eyes and our hands tied behind our backs: we can’t see exactly to whom we’re talking or where we are. Separated from our audience in place and time, we imaginatively have to create this context. Our words on the page are silent, so we must use punctuation and word choice to communicate our tone. We also can’t see our audience to gauge how our communication is being received or if there will be some kind of response. It’s the same space we share right now as you read this essay. Novice writers often write as if they were mumbling to themselves in the corner with no sense that their writing will be read by a reader or any sense of the context within which their communication will be received.

What’s the moral here? Developing your “writer’s sense” about communicating within the writing situation is the most important thing you should learn in freshman composition.

To delve a bit deeper into the dynamic complexities involved in the writing process, let’s take a look at A Social Model of Writing by Mike Palmquist at Colorado State University.

What is "Academic" Writing? by L. Lennie Irvin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US and adapted (pp.4-6) for current use.