The Craft of Writing from 20,000 Feet
If you want to improve your academic writing, you need to understand that the qualities that make an academic essay good have a kind of hierarchical structure.
There are principles of effective communication that will apply generally — that’s the top of the hierarchy.
Then there are principles of good written communication, which is one level down, and below that are principles for fiction and non-fiction writing, which may or may not take the form of an essay, and then there are principles of good essay writing, and finally we have principles for good academic essay writing.
Each level has principles that are specific to that level, but they also inherit the principles from each of the levels above them in the hierarchy. So, a good academic essay also has to satisfy some general principles that any essay should satisfy, and any good essay will satisfy certain general principles of effective written communication, and so on.
This is why it’s important to start with a high level overview of what we’re actually doing when write something for an audience, and gradually move downward through the clouds, encountering more specific forms of writing with more specific goals. This “view from 20,000 feet” is important for understanding the mindset of the writer and what you’re trying to accomplish.
For me, I find it helpful when I’m really struggling with my writing, to mentally pause and think about the problem I’m trying to solve from a perspective one or two levels above where I’m at. That perspective helps me see a path to a solution, or construct a path, that I might otherwise not see.
Let’s start near the top, where we’re just looking at intentional, symbolic communication between you and a hypothetical audience.
The picture shows a creator, who creates a structured, symbolic product. The hypothetical audience interacts with the symbolic product, and through this interaction, experiences a change in mental state.
The structured symbolic product could be a piece of written text, or a spoken story, or a film, or some other medium of symbolic communication, it’s pretty general. By “symbolic” I mean that when the audience interacts with the product, they experience it as conveying or expressing meaning of some kind — the product is experienced in a way that causes the audience to entertain certain feelings, beliefs, values, concepts, desires or whatever.
Now, the kind of symbolic communication we’re interested in is one where the creator, the author of the symbolic product, is intending to take the audience on a journey, a transformation that changes the way the audience thinks, through their interaction with the symbolic product.
So we’re not talking about creating a snapshot impression. We’re talking about an interaction that unfolds over time, where the audience interacts with the product over time, sampling different parts of the symbolic structure encoded in the product in a temporal sequence.
The creative task of the author is to construct a symbolic product that has the capacity to lead the audience through a set of experiences, in such a way that at the end of the journey, the audience has gone through a sequence of internal mental changes that express the intentions and goals of the author.
Not all symbolic communication has this goal, but the kind that we’re interested in does — we’re communicating with the intention of being understood. There are elements of the experience that the author can’t control, of course, since the transformation we’re talking about requires a suitable audience that brings their own backgrounds and responses into the mix. But there are criteria for success and failure, and the author is aiming at successful communication.
Even at this very high level of description, there are some take-away points. The first, and the most important, is that this act of communication is fundamentally “dialogical”.
This term means different things in linguistics and communications theory, but all I mean by it is that
1. the symbolic product is assembled for the purpose of communicating with an audience, and
2. the means by which the audience picks up the meaning is through an extended interaction with the product, which you can think of as a kind of dialogue — a dialogue between the audience and the symbolic product. The audience isn’t a passive recipient of information; they have to actively, cognitively engage with the product over time to experience what the author intended.
Now, we’re interested specifically in writing, so let’s drop the general language of “symbolic product” and just talk about “texts”. The symbolic product is a text. The author creates a text with an audience in mind, and the text is structured in such a way that it leads the audience through a series of cognitive transformations that is mediated by the text.
The second take-away point is that it gives us a perspective on what the art and craft and skill of writing amounts to.
The skill of writing involves creating the text in such a way that it successfully guides the audience through the mental states that the author intends. There are lots of things that can interfere with this, some arising from the author, some from the nature of the symbolic medium, some from the audience, and some from the surrounding social, cultural and linguistic context that the author is working within.
The skill of the writer is learning how to structure the text in ways that minimize, neutralize or otherwise navigate the factors that can interfere with successful communication. So, the writer has to think about their own ideas and goals, but they also have to think about word choice and organization of ideas within the text, and they have to think about the audience and what the audience will bring to the table, and they have to think about context.
But in the end, the final product is the text, and all these considerations need to be represented and encoded in the text, as a stand-alone entity, because the author isn’t going to be around to look over the shoulder of the reader and explain what they’re trying to say or correct any misinterpretations.
That’s the art and craft and skill of writing. These criteria for successful writing originate at the top of the hierarchy, but the apply at all stages below — they apply to fiction and non-fiction writing, they apply to essay writing, and they apply to academic essay writing.
In the next video we’re going to talk about how conventional essay structure falls out of these considerations about the goals of writing, but to end I just want to pause and note just how remarkable and miraculous this human ability that I’ve just described is.
No one really understands how it’s possible. We know a lot, but we don’t really know how beliefs and symbols acquire meaning, we don’t really know how conscious experiences arise in our brains and bodies, we don’t really know how meaningful symbolic communication of the kind I’m describing works. When you push the questions you hit philosophical debates about the nature of meaning and language and consciousness that are very tough to answer.
But we do it. Every competent adult human being can do it, if they’re suitably educated. The base capacities have deep roots in human nature, but there’s also a huge component of this that is only possible because of the historical development of technologies that extend our cognitive capacities, like symbolic reading and writing, that are very recent in the history of our species.
We treat our ability to read and write as mundane, we take it for granted. But we shouldn’t. It’s precious, it’s the backbone of our modern civilization — nothing of the modern world would exist without the invention of reading and writing.
We use the word “awesome” to describe almost anything these days, but the human capacities that I’m describing here are truly worthy of awe.
Anyone who teaches writing should remember this.