‘Say what you mean’ sounds like a deceptively simple comment, but for me it is a stubbornly elusive ideal on my horizon. A few years ago one of the tutors in the marking scheme made that comment about a paper I submitted. It was a very startling and enlightening comment. Actually, it made me kind of angry; I’ll explain why in a bit. The tutor’s comment made me realize I usually do not know what I want to say when starting to write. It also brought attention to the process of writing, and to my understanding of academic register.
Academic writing is not the same as other writing I have enjoyed and worked at. That might seem obvious, and easy to understand intellectually, but the reality of it came as quite a shock to me. Writing has been a particular hobby of mine for many, may years. It is something I enjoy very much. Over the years I have enjoyed participating in screenwriting classes, wrote with collaborative theatre groups, did freelance projects from copy writing to business journals, and wrote education materials for museum education. I mention this because even with my great love of the craft of writing, academic writing presents a challenge to me. It is different and requires an adjustment to my approach, outcome and process.
The outcome I want, based on tutor feedback, is to clearly state my argument in a way that demonstrates my own thinking and grasp of the material. How does this outcome differ from my other writing experience? In other work my goal has been to lead a reader or listener to a desired conclusion using techniques like Socratic method. What made me a bit angry about the ‘say what you mean’ comment was what else the tutor said. The feedback went on to state that she came to a certain conclusion, but since it was her own idea she could not give me credit for it. For someone who invested years successfully developing and presenting material using the Socratic method that was a rather hard message to receive. I was very proud that she came to the conclusion I quite intentionally ‘led’ her to, and frustrated that my method of explaining a point was not recognized and rewarded in this arena like it has been in my other areas of interest. Clearly some of my habits and assumptions need to change as I develop academic writing skills. I came to appreciate that these two different outcomes require two very different approaches.
One approach, to create a framework for someone to use to arrive at their own conclusion, is not the best approach to academic writing. It is not an argument. It might be engaging and informative, but that is not quite enough to get the top marks. It does not even feel like the best approach to enjoy the literature I am reading. Thankfully the process involved in both exercises is quite similar. They both involve copious, meticulous research. Luckily for me I enjoy research as much as I enjoy writing.
While writing an answer to an essay question I find that, about half way through the attempt, I am actually not writing about the topic I started to address. Half way through I ask myself, what am I actually saying? Am I really supporting my position or arguing my way around to a conclusion that is different from my thesis? That is a very interesting part of the academic writing process and part of the discovery process of learning. I have learned to ‘write my piece,’ then allow myself the pleasure of discovering if what I have actually said is what I intended to say, and if I have written around a point or stated it outright. Then, better informed, I write the essay again. It is quite an odd and surprising sensation to find this elusive layer in my own work. ‘Say what you mean’ turned out to be very good advice. I am not angry about it anymore, just very, very grateful.