Teaching Analytical Writing

6 November 2010 at 2:58 am 12 comments

| Peter Klein |

More on academic writing: This paper by Wayne Schiess, “Legal Writing Is Not What It  Should Be,” deals specifically with law students, but applies in many ways to academic writing more generally. Quoting from the introduction:

The writing required of students in high school and college is often what I call “self-expression writing” rather than expository writing. Self-expression writing tends to be writer-focused, not reader-focused.That is, self-expression writers focus primarily on expressing their own ideas. This is surely a necessary developmental step for improving writing skill, but it is two steps removed from the skill of analytical legal writing. Once high school and college writers move beyond self-expression, they usually produce writing that can be called “knowledge-telling” or conveying information.

But legal writing is not self-expression, and it is another step beyond knowledge telling. One author has referred to the skill of analytical legal writing as “knowledge transforming.” Thus, legal writing is a form of expository writing in which the focus should be on the reader‟s ability to understand. This is in contrast to self-expression writing, where clearly and effectively conveying information to the reader is secondary to expressing one’s self the way one desires. And it is in contrast to knowledge-telling, in which the primary purpose is conveying information, not analyzing a problem.

Of course, self-expression and knowledge-telling are necessary steps, as I’ve acknowledged. But I can report, based on anecdotal evidence, that some students get little training even in these two developmental steps. Some college curricula do not require much writing at all. For example, in my teaching of the required, first-year legal writing course, I often have students who studied science or engineering in college. Many of these students arrive at law school and tell me they have never written a paper in college.

The kind of writing required for good social science is also what Schiess calls “analytical writing,” and my sense is that few graduate students have any experience with or training in this kind of writing. How to teach it is another question. Schiess has several suggestions that are specific to law schools; how can they be applied to economics or sociology or business administration?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Education, Teaching.

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12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Troy Camplin  |  6 November 2010 at 5:58 am

    As someone who has taught composition, I can attest to this fact. If students have any writing skills to speak of, it is expository in nature. If they can even string together sentences. I also have discovered that in making arguments, students present you with either the religious argument or the political argument. When I was given much greater freedom of how to teach writing (it is getting narrower, and worse, in just the past few years), I would have students write short papers presenting the pro and con of each argument from multiple perspectives: economic, sociological, psychological, biological, philosophical, religious, ethical, political, and even phyiscal/chemical when necessary. Then I would have them write a consolidated pro argument, a consolidated con argument, and then a synthesis argument, where they had to come up with a third way that was not a compromise. It seems to me that this would be a good way to get students through the second and even touching on the third levels. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get this kind of thing from your English departments, where this sort of writing is not appreciated or considered important. And you can expect English departments to fight tooth and nail against having composition classes set up outside of them. But that’s what needs to be done.

  • 2. Warren Miller  |  6 November 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Troy’s comments about English departments fighting “tooth and nail against having composition classes taught [elsewhere]” is dead-on. The irony with those English departments is that many English professors can’t write, either. Even if they could, however, the kind of writing they do–fiction, for instance–has precious little to do with either business writing or scholarly writing.

    A good place for students to learn how to write for business is in journalism schools, esp. in courses in “News Writing.” There they should learn the “inverse pyramid” style of writing–the most important idea first, the second-most-important second, etc. This is the way good business writing is organized.

    The problem for graduate students, esp. those working on terminal degrees, is more acute, I believe. For one thing, many who read and critique their writing can’t write well, either. Few b-school professors have had six hours of writing in a J-school. Fewer still have published in a “practitioner” periodical of any kind.

    I have this old-fashioned idea that, if I’m going to ask people to read what I write, I must not put them to sleep. Like most overeducated people, I think, I tend towards sentences that are too long with words that are also too long. If I’m not careful, I create verbal turgidity. Therefore, I am a big fan of the Fog Index. It purports to measure how many years of education a reader needs to be able to understand a give piece of writing. A few benchmarks: The Bible, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain weigh in at about 6; Reader’s Digest is an 8; the Wall Street Journal is an 11.

    In our shop, we write reports on arcane and complex subjects for a lay audience. Therefore, we strive for a Fog Index < 12, and if we can get it below 10, so much the better. In a court case in Chicago a couple of years ago, I read the report of the opposing expert. Its Fog Index = 31; mine was 9.8. I recently applied the Index to a long paragraph in an academic paper in a respected journal; it was 34. Anyone who thinks that achieving a Fog Index < 10 when writing about abstract concepts and statistics hasn't tried it.

    The best professors I had made the material sound simple. So it is with the writing of scholars. Exemplars include Tammy Madsen, Anita McGahan, Ludwig von Mises, Bill Starbuck, and Gordon Walker. No doubt there are others, but those are the ones that come to mind.

  • 3. Thomas  |  6 November 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Good topic. I’ve found that graduate students need to learn how to write to (and sometimes simply imagine the existence of) readers who know neither a lot less than they do (“the public”) or a lot more (“the teacher”). They need to understand what it means to write to peers. Saying they need to write in way that can “transform” what the reader knows is pretty good (though I don’t like the quoted word).

  • 4. Richard Hammer  |  6 November 2010 at 6:32 pm

    The business school I attended offered writing assistance in a great way. This was Carnegie-Mellon’s MBA program. (This program was named Master of Science in Industrial Administration in 1974-76 when I attended.)

    It worked like this. They had writing tutors available on short notice, like 24 hours or less. These tutors would review and offer suggestions upon any paper which a business student had to write for any course in the program. So the business student already had an assignment to write a paper and already had an incentive to write it well.

    There was no requirement to write a paper just for the sake of practicing writing skills, a requirement such as you would expect in a course on writing. The business student was required only to finish a good draft at least one day before the paper was due.

    The instruction in writing was made available to writers at a time and in circumstances when the writers would naturally hope for suggestions.

  • 5. Troy Camplin  |  6 November 2010 at 11:18 pm

    There are great benefits to writing for the sake of writing, so to speak One, you can be given a large range of styles to write in, which are beneficial across genres and across disciplines. Also, you need to learn grammar, rhetoric, and logic — which should each be taught separately, and required for every college and grad student.

  • 6. Peter Klein  |  7 November 2010 at 6:43 am

    @Rich: wow, Carnegie in the 1970s! Did you have any classes with March, Simon, Cyert…?

  • 7. Kathy  |  7 November 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I think it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more “writing across the curriculum” courses, as outlined in William Zinsser’s “Writing to Learn.” If students had to write in all or most of their courses–biology, math, engineering, social sciences, etc.–maybe it wouldn’t be such a struggle once they get to the “real world.” I also think it’s unfortunate that most college writing centers focus on helping students with the papers they write for their English classes. The tutors in these centers tend to approach their tutees with, “Oh yeah, I had Professor So-and-So, he expects a paper like blah-blah…”

    Where do they go for help with a report they have to write for their science, math, or engineering class? Can’t we do a better job of preparing our students for the real world?

  • 8. Richard Hammer  |  7 November 2010 at 3:04 pm

    @Peter: No. As I recall Cyert was President of CMU at the time; perhaps I never saw him. I did see Simon once; I think I passed him when he was exiting the neighboring building for the department (Psych?) where he had an office. I had not heard of March.

    More on the subject —
    Complaints about horrible writing in industry, while justified in view of academics, should be balanced with realistic reports from workers in line organizations. I tried to write with active verbs and crisp, clear sentences, during the eight years I worked in industry.

    But generally my managers did not care about this. Politics of the workplace often demanded tactful, indirect hinting. A sentence such as “There is a situation” would get the job done.

  • 9. Keith  |  8 November 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Now this is a pertinent topic!

    So I am a fairly recent graduate (escaped about 2 years ago) and now work in industry. I am not performing much writing now, but given my current career path I will be doing much more in the future (probably 2-3 years down the line).

    Any ability that I have to write as of now I have more or less mimicked and integrated from reading good authors. This is working fine for me at the moment (which still surprises me) but I will not be able to ride on my current level of skill forever.

    Can anyone recommend any sources & strategies for the lone fellow looking to improve his own analytical writing? Specifically for writing in a scientifically oriented industrial setting?

  • 10. Rafe  |  10 November 2010 at 2:02 am

    First of all, it helps to actually have something to say, and then say it as clearly and directly as you can, as though you are talking to a slow but interested elderly relative.

    You could try Jacques Barzun “Simple and Direct” and also his book on research techniques, he is a great writer (only 103 years old) but I was underwhelmed by his book on writing. Maybe read it too late in life.


    George Orwell wrote a neat essay “Politics and the English Language” on clarity and avoiding bullshit, it is in one of his volumes of collected essays and I am tempted to put it on line as I have done with a piece on intellectual craftsmanship by Mills (pity about his politics).

    Hamming is good on research strategies and also the writing and PR strategy that is required to be sure that you results are noticed.

  • 11. Thomas  |  11 November 2010 at 10:34 am

    My advice is to treat it like any other skill. Practice makes perfect. Take 30 minutes every day to craft a prose paragraph (5-8 sentences) that supports a claim you know to be true.

    Then, when you *have to* write something, you’ll be in shape to get it done. Depending on the sort of writing you have to do and the knowledge you have, you may build an ability to write a cogent paragraph even faster.

    Easy does it.

  • 12. Rafe’s Roundup Rides Again at Catallaxy Files  |  12 November 2010 at 5:07 am

    […] Organizations and Markets. Peter Klein on teaching analytical writing, especially for […]

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