On this page, we are looking at the academic side to the writing process. We will outline a few different types of essays that students (especially First-Year Writing students) will encounter in the university setting. We are also providing an overview in understanding scholarly language and sources; we are including plenty of resources to help students navigate the academic minefield of essay writing.

Academic-Speak: Understanding Scholarly Language

While this technically falls under active reading (more information can be found on the Thinking Phase page), understanding and digesting academic journals is delving into the realm of academic language and discourse. Academics like to over complicate their sentences in order to "elevate the conversation". (◔_◔) In reality, what they mainly do is write in nominalizations. A nominalization is when a word, typically a verb or adjective, is made into a noun. Academic language is chock-full of this, and yet, most writing aids will tell you to avoid them. Why? Because nominalizations obstruct the action in the sentence. In student writing, specificity is key.

You don’t have to sound pretentious in order to get your point across, but you do want to slightly elevate your language. How? You're going to hate this. You need to read more. The best way to learn new words and understand them in context is to be exposed to new words through reading. Class is going to help with this! Don't get discouraged. This is a slow process. No one expects a First-Year student to have an extensive vocabulary yet. Give yourself some room to grow. Don't close yourself off to learning.

Now that the sappy motivation is over, a word of caution: be wary of using a thesaurus. If you are looking for a certain word, but your brain is drawing a blank, then please enter the word that you know that is close into an online thesaurus. If you have a simpler word but you want to dress it up into fancier clothes, do not use an online thesaurus. You are more likely to find a three-syllable word that doesn’t fit into your sentence. The thesaurus is full of synonyms; synonyms are similar, not the same. Trust me, you will thank me later. Simple words are better than wrong ones.

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Academic Sources: Comprehension

Understanding Scholarly Articles from Champlain College1:

What Makes a Source "Scholarly"?

Scholarly books and journals are formal sources written by researchers and scholars who know a ton about a particular topic and want to contribute to the greater knowledge and understanding of that topic.  They are written for other scholars who study and do research.  These sources are often "peer-reviewed," which means that other experts who know a lot about that same topic have looked over the article and given it the thumbs-up.

What all that means is that scholarly sources are meaty, dense, and chock-full of content.  That said, they have been structured in a particular way to make them easier for you to find and to then digest as a reader.  Understanding how they are put together can help save you time when you are looking for scholarly sources and synthesizing them for your research projects.

Spotting a Scholarly Source.

When you're on the hunt for scholarly sources, you always want to be aware and on the look-out.  You can tell you've spotted one by looking at the--

  • Author affiliation: "Scholars" are often associated with research institutions, such as universities, colleges, and government agencies.
  • Publication information: Becoming "scholarly" doesn't happen overnight--it takes time.  Although the Internet and online publications are changing things a bit, books and articles published in journals still have to go through a hefty review process and publication cycle before you can read them.  Time is money, and as a general rule, publishers wouldn't spend all of that time publishing information they don't feel confident about.
  • References: Does the source you've uncovered have a list of references?  Does it tell you where supporting ideas are coming from at the time they are referenced in the source using in-text citations?  If it does, it's a sign you're onto something scholarly!
  • Structure: Scholarly sources, especially articles, usually follow a particular formula for how they're formatted.  This makes it easier for the reader to find certain information faster that might be more useful for their research.

Scholarly Source Structure.

So, you have a scholarly source--great!  Now, to take the time to read and understand it.  Of the whole research process, this part probably takes the longest, but by knowing how a scholarly source is structured, you can quickly get to the information that will be most useful for you.

  • Abstract. The Abstract gives you a brief summary of the source.  This is a great place to start if you find an article you think might be interesting based on the title.  It can help you decide if that particular source is worth spending some quality time with.  Keep in mind that this summary is from the point of view of the author and what the author thought was most important.  If a source seems useful, you'll want to get deeper to see what you think is most important when reading it from the perspective of your research question.
  • Introduction. The Introduction offers a broad overview of the background and purpose of the source.  It gives valuable context and sets the stage for what you'll be reading next.
  • Background/Literature Review. Before doing original research, like conducting a study, authors do their own research reading articles just like you're doing right now.  That research most often results in a Literature Review, which paints a picture of the information that is currently available on a topic.  By creating this overall picture, scholars can point out the gaps--holes where there is little to no current information--that they hope to fill with their original research.
  • Methods. Formal scholarly sources often talk about an original study.  There are all different kinds of studies that are appropriate under different circumstances, from anything like an informal survey to an intense clinical trial.  The details of that study are outlined in the Methods section.  This section talks about the design of the study--what kind of study was used and why, and how the authors got their results from the study.  How the study was conducted can tell you a lot about the validity of the source; if the authors used good practices, you can feel more confident about the accuracy of the information you're reading.
  • Results. The Results section separates the results of the study from the methodology.  This allows you to get down to the nitty-gritty and look at just the outcomes of the research. 
  • Discussion. While the Results section shows you the research outcomes, the Discussion section is where the authors make observations about those outcomes that they found.  It talks about any generalizations or trends the authors saw in the findings, and in what ways those findings either agree or disagree with their original research question or the background research that they did before conducting the study.  This is a really great section to consult early on when you are trying to determine if a particular source is right for your project.
  • Conclusion. After discussing the results, the Conclusion is where the author makes a definitive decision regarding the relationship of the outcomes of the study and the original research question that the study was designed to answer.  This is where everything is wrapped up succinctly for the reader.

Academic Sources: Incorporation

We have the standard inclusion of primary evidence here: Finding the Evidence. There really isn't that much of a difference between pulling evidence from the text itself and from academic sources. You are still going to need to signal before dropping a quote into your paragraph. You are still going to need to analyze the quote after it's included.

The main thing to keep in mind with academic research is that you, on your specific topic, are supposed to become the expert. You are attempting to join a larger conversation on a text. You need to know as much about the research out there as possible. What is the prevailing theory about your chosen text? What is different about your argument/approach? What's the same? Is there any type of contention within the academic field? Your paper is meant to be a fresh look on the text; this can sometimes be hard to establish. People have been discussing Shakespeare, for example, since he was still alive and thriving. Incorporating modern theories or concepts can help, but you always need to keep the historical/original intent in mind. 

You also want a balanced amount of academic sources included in your paper. Don't be overly reliant on any one source when writing. A good way to judge how many sources to include in your paper is one source for each page; if you have a five-page paper, you should have at least five academic sources. (Your professor will typically set the source limit, but sometimes they leave it up to the student's judgment.)

Resources:

Character Motivation: Fan Interpretations vs. Academic Analysis

This is basically an argument between subjective and objective rationalization within the study of character motivations. While in fandom spaces, some people like to explore the deconstruction of a character’s motivation as if they have a free-formed agency independent of authorial manipulation; this type of study is fine within that particular space. This type of character interpretation however has no place in a student’s academic work. Despite the concept that “the author is dead”, when it comes to the intentionality inherent in parsing motivation, a character is not independent. Everything they do is immersed in authorial intent; everything a character does is for a purpose. The point of an essay would be discovering what a character represents within a larger social/political/historical context and not uncovering the internal logic of the character itself. Instead of answering what a character is doing, try illustrating why they were written doing it (whatever “it” is).

The Different Types of Academic Papers

The papers below are the typical types of papers that First-Year Writing students will encounter in their Composition classes. We are providing you with a definition of the essay and then a list of resources to help guide you through the writing process.

1. Analytical Essay

According to LiteraryDevices.net, "Analytical implies the breaking down of something into parts, or the discussion of something in a way that it becomes a dissection of the whole. An analytical type of essay differs from other types of essays in that its primary goal is to explain something bit by bit to enhance understanding. Most of the times, an analytical essay is written about the analysis of a text, or a process, or an idea. In literature, however, it is a critical analysis of some literary text which is done to enhance its understanding."

2. Rhetorical Analysis Essay

According to North Carolina State University, "A rhetorical analysis requires you to apply your critical reading skills in order to 'break down' a text. In essence, you break off the 'parts' from the 'whole' of the piece you’re analyzing. The goal of a rhetorical analysis is to articulate how the author writes, rather than what they actually wrote. To do this, you will analyze the strategies the author uses to achieve his or her goal or purpose of writing their piece. Keep in mind that writers of different disciplines often use varying writing strategies in order to achieve their goals. So, it is okay to analyze a scientific article a different way than you would a humanities writer. These authors have very different goals in mind, and thus will use different writing strategies."3 These papers will sometimes use rhetorical terminology, such as pathos (emotion), logos (logic), and ethos (ethics).

3. Argumentative Essay

According to LiteraryDevices.net, "An argumentative essay is a type of essay that presents arguments about both sides of an issue. It could be that both sides are presented equally balanced, or it could be that one side is presented more forcefully than the other. It all depends on the writer, and what side he supports the most."4 The general structure of an argumentative essay follows the setup from our Breaking Down the Essay page.

4. Comparative Essay

According to the University of Waterloo, "Writing a comparison usually requires that you assess the similarities and differences between two or more theories, procedures, or processes. You explain to your reader what insights can be gained from the comparison, or judge whether one thing is better than another according to established criteria."5

Resources:

Close Reading

The information below is from David F. Elmer's Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 14: Ancient Fictions: The Ancient Novel in Context6:

What is Close Reading?

Close reading is the technique of carefully analyzing a passage’s language, content, structure, and patterns in order to understand what it means, what it suggests, and how it connects to the whole work (that is, its context). A successful close reading will often take on all three tasks. It will delve into what a passage means in order to understand what it suggests, and will then link what the passage suggests to its context. One goal of close reading is to help readers to see facets of the text that they may not have noticed before. To this end, close reading entails “reading out of” a text rather than “reading into” it. The goal of close reading, therefore, is to notice, describe, and interpret details of the text that are already there, rather than to impose your own point of view on the text. As a general rule of thumb, every claim you make should be directly supported by evidence in the text. 

Why Close Reading?

Close reading is a fundamental skill for the analysis of any sort of text or discourse, whether it is literary, political, or commercial. It enables you to analyze how a text functions, and it helps you to understand a text’s explicit and implicit goals. The structure, vocabulary, language, imagery, and metaphors used in a text are all crucial to the way it achieves its purpose, and they are therefore all targets for close reading. The skills you learn and employ in this paper will form the building blocks for the writing you do throughout the semester, but they will also continue to be useful during your time at Harvard and beyond. Practicing close reading will train you to be an intelligent and critical reader of all kinds of writing, from political speeches to television advertisements, trashy novels, and works of high literature.

Strategies for Close Reading

There are several strategies for getting to a meaningful close reading, once you have chosen your passage. The goal of close reading is to learn what the passage says, what the passage implies, and how the passage connects to its context. This phase should occur while you are planning and outlining your paper, before you have started writing. You might re-read the passage several times, each time keeping a set of reading approaches in mind:

  • Reading for the Literal Meaning:  rewrite the passage by paraphrasing it. You might not use this paraphrase verbatim in your essay, but in the final version of your essay you will want to be sure to orient your reader to the larger context from which your passage was taken. What does the text literally mean? What is it doing in the narrative? This first step in close reading will allow you to put aside what you think you know about the passage(s), and help you to read “out of the text” rather than “into the text.”
  • Reading for Formal Elements: identify some of the formal mechanisms of the writing, such as:
    • Narrative: How would you describe the narrative voice in your passage? Is the narrator first or third person, male or female, omniscient or restricted in knowledge? What are the limitations of the narrator, and how are these reflected in the text?
    • Structure: How is the passage structured? Does it move from point A to B? Does it move from point A to B and then back to A again (ring composition)? Does it linger on a single detail?
    • Patterns: are there images, keywords, or other devices that reappear in the passage? Are these elements used the same way? Finding a pattern can help establish general characteristics of the text.
  • Reading for Implications of the Passage: the next step in close reading is to start examining the implications of a passage. One way to delve into the implications of a passage is to connect its formal elements to your literal reading. Do these formal mechanisms underscore or undermine what the passage says on a literal level?
  • Reading for Context of the Passage: Does this passage share imagery with another passage in the novel? Does it contradict it? Does the passage engage with larger themes in the novel (e.g., vision and voyeurism, the natural world, the nature of desire)? Are there important similarities and differences between this passage and others like it throughout the novel?

As you can see, the process of close reading becomes more sophisticated and complicated as you read and re-read, but it also helps you to focus on a text’s puzzling moments, patterns, or expectations. Close reading, in other words, is not just a static, mechanical process, but an analytical tool you leverage to make an argument.

Resources:

Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

The information below is provided by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy7:

When assessing the quality of an argument, we ask how well its premises support its conclusion. More specifically, we ask whether the argument is either deductively valid or inductively strong.

deductive argument is an argument that is intended by the arguer to be deductively valid, that is, to provide a guarantee of the truth of the conclusion provided that the argument’s premises are true. This point can be expressed also by saying that, in a deductive argument, the premises are intended to provide such strong support for the conclusion that, if the premises are true, then it would be impossible for the conclusion to be false. An argument in which the premises do succeed in guaranteeing the conclusion is called a (deductively) valid argument. If a valid argument has true premises, then the argument is said also to be sound. All arguments are either valid or invalid, and either sound or unsound; there is no middle ground, such as being somewhat valid.

Here is a valid deductive argument:

It’s sunny in Singapore. If it’s sunny in Singapore, then he won’t be carrying an umbrella. So, he won’t be carrying an umbrella.

The conclusion follows the word “So”. The two premises of this argument would, if true, guarantee the truth of the conclusion. However, we have been given no information that would enable us to decide whether the two premises are both true, so we cannot assess whether the argument is deductively sound. It is one or the other, but we do not know which. If it turns out that the argument has a false premise and so is unsound, this won’t change the fact that it is valid.

Here is a mildly strong inductive argument:

Every time I’ve walked by that dog, it hasn’t tried to bite me. So, the next time I walk by that dog it won’t try to bite me.

An inductive argument is an argument that is intended by the arguer to be strong enough that, if the premises were to be true, then it would be unlikely that the conclusion is false. So, an inductive argument’s success or strength is a matter of degree, unlike with deductive arguments. There is no standard term for a successful inductive argument, but this article uses the term “strong.” Inductive arguments that are not strong are said to be weak; there is no sharp line between strong and weak. The argument about the dog biting me would be stronger if we couldn’t think of any relevant conditions for why the next time will be different than previous times. The argument also will be stronger the more times there were when I did walk by the dog. The argument will be weaker the fewer times I have walked by the dog. It will be weaker if relevant conditions about the past time will be different next time, such as that in the past the dog has been behind a closed gate, but next time the gate will be open.

An inductive argument can be affected by acquiring new premises (evidence), but a deductive argument cannot be. For example, this is a reasonably strong inductive argument:

Today, John said he likes Romona.
So, John likes Romona today.

but its strength is changed radically when we add this premise:

John told Felipé today that he didn’t really like Romona.

The distinction between deductive and inductive argumentation was first noticed by Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) in ancient Greece. The difference between deductive and inductive arguments does not lie in the words used within the arguments, but rather in the intentions of the arguer. It comes from the relationship the arguer takes there to be between the premises and the conclusion. If the arguer believes that the truth of the premises definitely establishes the truth of the conclusion, then the argument is deductive. If the arguer believes that the truth of the premises provides only good reasons to believe the conclusion is probably true, then the argument is inductive. If we who are assessing  the quality of the argument have no information about the intentions of the arguer, then we check for both. That is, we assess the argument to see whether it is deductively valid and whether it is inductively strong.

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  1. "Understanding Scholarly Articles." Champlain College Library, Champlain College, https://www.champlain.edu/academics/library/get-help-old/research-how-tos/understanding-scholarly-articles. Accessed 27 May 2020.
  2. "Analytical Essay." Literary Devices, literarydevices.net, https://literarydevices.net/4243-2/. Accessed 26 May 2020. 
  3. "What in the world is a rhetorical analysis?" Writing & Speaking Tutorial Services, North Carolina State University, https://tutorial.dasa.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/29/2015/06/RhetoricalAnalysis.pdf. Accessed 26 May 2020. 
  4. "Argumentative Essay." Literary Devices, literarydevices,net, https://literarydevices.net/argumentative-essay/. Accessed 26 May 2020.
  5. "Comparative essays." Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo, https://uwaterloo.ca/writing-and-communication-centre/resources-comparative-essays. Accessed 26 May 2020.
  6. Elmer, David F. Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 14: Ancient Fictions: The Ancient Novel in Context. Harvard University, https://hwpi.harvard.edu/files/hwp/files/ai_33_guide_final.pdf?m=1370456692. Accessed 27 May 2020.
  7. Fieser, James and Dowden, Bradley, editors. "Deductive and Inductive Arguments." The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, University of Tennessee, https://www.iep.utm.edu/ded-ind/. Accessed 28 May 2020.