Breaking down the process of writing an essay can streamline the process. Here I write out my own algorithm for writing a humanities essay, including my editing list of what-to-correct. This may be facile to you, but everything at one time has to be learned. Pointing out the obvious can make it obvious again, and help those who haven’t learned. It ought to be a given that this advice is not universal. But it is general enough for novices or those hungry for tidbits.
To address what makes good writing we ought to address the mechanics of what makes bad writing bad? Well, here is a list.
A self-indulgent or narcissistic tone
Signposts saying you will show rather than actually showing
Showing off or fancy prose
Vague pronoun use
Relative clause pile-ups
Misused subordinating conjunctions
Clunkily long paragraphs
There you are. That’s a pretty good list to go through to tidy your work. What else makes bad writing? A disregard for the reader; what the reader wants, and what the reader values. We are liable to overestimate and overgeneralise what we know as known by readers, who may just have no clue what we are talking about. This manifests as a disregard for what your writing itself wants to convey from the page, rather than from your telepathic mind. Hence the wisdom of reading with fresh eyes. Remember: everyone is ignorant in their unique way. The list above, for instance, may be foreign to some readers. I should explain.
A self-indulgent tone is bad as your ego obscures your arguments. A reader wants to learn and be entertained, not updated on me, myself and I. Metadiscourse is bad because it results in an infinite regression of unproductively questioning what is being argued instead of making clear what-is and is-not being argued. Heavy signposting is bad when it puts style above information. Saying ‘I will show this is the case’ rather than showing. Signposting advice too is liable to morph into the predictable point, example, and explanation pattern which turns off an attentive reader. Hedging is off-putting because readers want to know they can trust you, so saying ‘I think it is X’ can be silly – if you doubt yourself why should your reader not too? Showing off and fancy talk actually backfire: people think you are dumber the smarter you try to sound. Using mixed metaphors hinders coherence. For example using both gestation and digestion as an analogy for creating ideas devalues both comparisons more than using just one. And it’s crystal clear; cliches are rubbish and forgetable.
Meta-concepts are bad because humans cannot comprehend abstract nouns well, especially when nouns are about nouns. Better to write subject, verb, object in the familiar pattern of the doer and the done than, for example, ‘what is the-meaning-of-meaning?’ or ‘interpelated culture formation’. Zombie nouns or nominalisations sound ugly and ridiculous. Consider an example: ‘the proliferation of nominalizations may indicate a predilection for abstraction formation within university education’. Vague pronoun use is using they (gender neutral) he, or she without referring back to the original noun. Vague pronoun use causes readers to ask – ‘who, again?’ Ambiguous phrases can confuse. Take a literary instance: ‘the sun shone on the television’. This has two interpretations meaning the sun shines on screen or onto the whole screen device; whereas ‘the television flickered sunshine’ makes it clear it is on (within) screen. Manner adverbs are lame for they are often irrelevant or tacky. Saying something is “stupidly argued” does not show it is stupid. Excessive commas cause a reader to pause too often and interrupt the flow of a sentence. Monotone poetics describes syllables used without elegant variation, lacking a change of pace. Relative clause pile-ups clamber a sentence with ‘that’ or ‘which’ or ‘whose’ or ‘who’, which is confusing because it forms that sense in a jarring way, which annoys a reader. Misused subordination is the use of ‘for’, ‘and’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘yet, or ‘so’ (fanboys) which is not followed by a subordinate point and clause that actually requires any of those subordinating conjunctions.
We are at the last three of the list, phew. Paragraphs are arranged and broken as much for reading comfort as for sense. This paragraph, for example, should be one with the last one for the sake of sense, but for reading ease is separate. Academese words is some jargon for jargon; words that only specialists know which require explanation in plainer words. And passives when used in colloquial English are a no-no. Consider “the mat was sat on by the cat”. But in context passives are useful as in “chlorine was added to the dilution”, where naming the subject scientist upfront as the doer would be irrelevant and strange.
These prior sentences tend to be too long, and too similar. Sentences are bad not merely when too foreign to a reader, but when too long to remember what was at the start by at the end. Human working memory only stores 3-5 items of content at a time. Sentences that go beyond 1-20 words are, overall, worse. Sentences are worst when long and loaded with multiple points.
True, long sentences have their place and elegant variation necessitates varied sentence length, but shorter sentences should be the walking pattern, with longer sentences like the flourishes of well-timed dance. In stylish fiction long sentences and even ungrammatical fragments represent thought well; in factual writing, concision is honoured. Factual writing and journalism are pretty pedestrian. Factual writing is as simple as ordering probable ideas into a coherent pattern for each chapter or essay. The way to coherently order has been argued for centuries, and it is best to simply follow suit if you want to serve your reader. (And to get paid, that is usual.) The order is ordinarily called ‘the parts of rhetoric’ which refers to points as being like rearrangeable speechgiver cards coming together to form a finished piece.
There is your introduction card, where you grab their attention and say ‘this matters!’. This essay is about X, Y, Z for the purpose of A-B. Though I prefer to use a topic sentence or quotation to display the topic rather than restate the obvious genre to be an essay, article or dissertation, a simple ‘this essay discusses X’ can help you make it clear. Next is your narration card where you elaborate the facts, what the issues are, and what the orthodoxy claims, with your contribution in one or two thesis statements. Then comes the large division card where you make clear the areas of disagreement on either side, and where the gaps in knowledge are, so you can show you are reasonable rather than dogmatic. Then comes the larger refutation card where you argue for whichever theorist or school you believe and (to achieve good marks) elaborate your own synthetic theory. To conclude you conclude, reiterating only the sense of your prior cards (add nothing new) rather than their whole points and offer a recommendation to soundly resolve the so-what question.
The ultimate test of your factual writing is correctness and this ordering, and whether its style jars ears when spoken. As Hemingway said “all writing is rewriting”, and all composing is rearranging. Writing is both.
What is that you say? You have what has just been said down in theory, but not practice. Often the underlying issue with writing well is not even a lack of good mechanics (sound grammar, order, rhetorical tropes) as much as a lack of material and planning. We tend to underestimate how much of poor performance is down to our baseline routine. A good idea is to write 500 words each day, read aloud and re-edit that, and gain feedback from others that it makes sense. (If you haven’t trusty humans to help you, Grammarly is an okay grammar checker. A change of scene or template can help you edit too.)
Researching and Referencing
First, if someone says they are ‘writing their essay’ or ‘writing their plan’ before they read up on their subject they are choosing to reverse into a tricky parking space, rather than speed through the academic drive-through. And if they say they ‘managed it in a night’ they are being stupid as they could have done better over many days (unless you disagree with cognitive science). You want a gestation period, yes, but you need something good to gestate.
I am talking about using the crtl-f key to filter through Google books, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Wikipedia, and your lecture notes. You want to get to know the arguments before you can add to, reject, or critique them. You do not enter a conversation without listening. Note down usable, valid yay or dubious nay, quotations and their authorship and edition page-number using referencing software (Zotero, OneNote, Paperpile, Evernote) to save weeks of your life. Mapping out your ideas in an embryonic studybook or Google document can help here.
What you ought to do is read the module reading list and extrapolate what gaps to fill with your own reading. (If it is independent research ask trusted people for primer reading.) And to choose that extra reading, remember you are on an easter-egg hunt for the sweetest footnotes. You walk the line between who your readers already recognise and respect and adding novel names; names that could make a marker’s day, and give you an edge.
Read article abstracts and skim to see if they are worth reading. Do not read entire books (not enough time), but search through them or read specific chapters, intro and conclusions, for quotes; you are collecting many voices to blend into your own. You need around fifteen sources, more for longform.
Instead of referencing the first tier of academics, reference their references. Ideally when talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s word games, for example, you want to quote Wittgenstein; not a plebian talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein. Otherwise, academia becomes an elaborate game of Chinese whispers or telephone game mishearing, with each re-interpretation becoming more mere invention. (Hmh, that gist resembles what Wittgenstein encapsulated in his theory of word-games. . . Or does it?) Do credit to sources, and any time you may have an original idea realise that you do not. Do not try to be original, you are part of a data processing system called academic discourse; it cares about ideas, not individuals. You need to read critically whatever you read for your sources. By doing that you take out what you like out of X’s argument, and discard the rest for your critique; and the same algorithm for Y and Z and so forth.
You must read critically. Reading critically, in academic work, means evaluating the claims an author makes. There are a few that actually matter. These are the macro-arguments which overarch their micro-arguments which fill entire books about, say, aesthetics or German history. Just as you must lead with a few theses in an essay, so does every author. Write down what those theses are, and your points for and against them. Consider where other scientists, critics, or theorists agree and disagree, and where you can—perhaps—contribute. Consider the limitations of your own thinking, and of those critics. Each thinker is hemmed in by thinking-fashion and their era and simply the limits of knowledge. Strangely, pointing out the limitations of your claims gains you mark-scheme points. Allowing nuance and doubt demonstrates maturity. But don’t overdo it. You may find yourself doing the typical pattern of “X is inadequate in this way but good in this way, and Y is inadequate in this way but good in this way, hence I propose to combine both with Z”.
Answer The Question
You can only answer a question in a limited number of ways. To avoid wasting time shooting at wrong targets, you have to operationalise your definitions early and take the question in your own terms. So when answering ‘does scientism aid progressive politics?’ you have to define what scientism, progressive, and politics mean for what you have to say. You can shape the definitions to curb your argument how you want. I for one think, yes, scientism does aid progressive politics, but to argue that I have to define scientism positively as making decisions with the knowledge science offers rather than the absurd version of scientism where science can explain everything. By ‘progressive,’ improving human flourishing (no witch burning, for instance, or gender binaries) and by ‘politics’ the way humans interact and institutionalise.
After saying what your terms are you then answer in the limited ways available. You can say in rude summary, “I believe scientism does aid progressive politics and that’s fabulous”; “I do not believe scientism aids progressive politics and that’s a shame”; “I do not believe scientism aids progressive politics but it should”; “scientism doesn’t aid progressive politics, but that doesn’t matter so much”.
I favour the first, but would of course give the alternatives some weighting, to temper claims and ensure they are the most probable. For example, by giving tangible examples of scientism improving human flourishing you can populate your narration and division cards into three examples for three parts. My main instance is how gender is recognised in academia as a mosaic-like social construct rather than (often confused by nonscientific societies) as biological nature.
A Writing Schema
You apply that to the parts of rhetoric I have already covered and put again below, and voila!
There is your introduction card, where you grab their attention and say ‘this matters!’. This essay is about X, Y, Z for the purpose of A-B. Though I prefer to use a topic sentence or quotation to display the topic rather than restate the obvious genre to be an essay, article or dissertation, a simple ‘this essay discusses X’ can help you make it clear. Next is your narration card where you elaborate the facts, what the issues are, and what the critics’ orthodoxy claims. Then comes the large division card where you make clear the areas of disagreement on either side, and where the gaps in knowledge are, so you can show you are reasonable rather than dogmatic. Then comes the larger refutation card where you argue for whichever theorist or school you believe and (to achieve good marks) elaborate your own synthetic theory. To conclude you conclude, reiterating only the sense of your prior cards rather than their points (add nothing new) and offer a recommendation to soundly resolve the so-what question.
Here is a shoddy example schema:
Scientism has long been a term of derision, critic X calls it ___. When well-used and understood, though, scientism improves human welfare. Critic X says ____ it doesn’t while critic Y says ____ it does. Neither is adequate so I’m going to explore three examples of scientism to persuade you it is indeed a good movement.
To do so I must reject David Hume’s is-ought problem which separates science as facts from nonscience as values. Contrary to the philosophical orthodoxy, the is-ought problem is disputable.
I favour what A says about values and facts. A says __ yet this overlooks ___. When considered with ___, scientisim seems more reasonable. Critic X reduces scientisim to absurdity, without using good examples; instead of focusing on what science has improved she cherry picks what it hasn’t. And even then it is what it hasn’t improved yet. Ultimately, I encourage the creation of a new school, neither as pessimistic as X is or as overambitious as Y is.
Of course, people have rejected scientisim because of its down-sides and misuse, such as when misapplied in intelligence quotient tests and in providing no meaningful why for human existence. For one thing, the omnipresence of science-prestige makes it hard to question and view fairly. But these are, for the most part, red herrings away from the benefits most humans in the western world owe to science and its so-called “narrow and facile” progressive ideology named (pejoratively) scientisim.
Given the examples we have covered and the use of Jurgen Habermas’s “justifying rationality”, a renovated scientism ought to be embraced by academics in general. As demonstrated, they already embrace scientism in practice. The applications of scientifically minded ideologies have contributed most to the reduction of human suffering.
I struggled with academic writing for years, so having a literally laid-out algorithm like this could help you too. Maybe try writing your own algorithm to discover how it works for you. If you want better advice, I recommend the brief ebook, Writing Essays, by the academic lecturer and marker Richard Marggraf Turley.