How To Write A Scholarly Essay

 

True scholarly writing (writing for an audience of scholars) is much different from generic essay-writing, especially “research paper” writing.  In the latter, you are generally writing something to fulfill an assignment.  In the former, you have discovered, through your research and thinking, new knowledge or insight and now want to convey it to an interested audience of fellow scholars.

 

Think about that: writing for publication is about discovery – investigation – new insight.

 

So in order to write a true scholarly essay, you may have to adjust your thinking a bit, about “why I am doing this.”

 

There is another difference, too, that of style:  in generic essay-writing, most students write to impress their teacher.  They feel that the essay has to “sound intellectual” and that it will be evaluated on the basis of how impressively or uniquely it is written. This perception is false.  

 

When they read a manuscript, editors of journals (and the scholars who are asked by the editor to evaluate or “referee” the manuscript) are not judging the creativeness of the writing, as one would that of a short story or a novel.  Scholarly writing is at its best when it is elegant and graceful, but the only hard and fast criterion is that the writing be clear (correct), so that editors and referees can understand what point the writer is trying to make and can judge whether that point is worthy of putting into print.

 

A clear style evolves easily if you know your subject sufficiently well when you start to write.  Usually sentences don’t convey an idea clearly because the writer doesn’t fully understand the nebulous idea in his or her mind.  Once you can precisely articulate what that idea is, simply write it out in a clear and full way. Remember:  do not get bogged down in the creativity of expression. 

 

There are other rules of thumb to guide you.  Construct your sentences as tightly as possible:  avoid any unnecessary words or phrases ("in the field of"; "It is then that"), and don’t use high-level diction if it’s not necessary ("Huck's maturation has come full circle" means nothing more than “Huck has grown up”).  Just say what you mean.  Use a natural vocabulary that you are comfortable with.  If you wouldn’t say something in conversation, then it’s probably not wise to put it writing.  And always make sure that you are using a word correctly. Remember Mark Twain’s advice:  “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”  If you are using words precisely, you’ll find that you are writing mostly with nouns and verbs, not relying on their assistants, adjectives and adverbs.  These latter parts of speech are important, of course, but a clear-thinking writer should be able to convey an idea strongly and accurately, without continual recourse to such helpmates as vivid characterization or excellent design.  The same is true of such qualifiers as very  or significantly.

 

In developing your ideas, remember that your only goal is to persuade your reader that your argument makes sense.  You aren’t trying to sound a certain way or to demonstrate the degree of your erudition beyond the boundaries of your argument.  (Perhaps think of yourself as a scientist rather than a “literary” student:  you investigate something [in your case, an idea] and write up your findings.)  In addition, don’t bloat your essay by belaboring each point.  Make your point and move on. (You won’t be more persuasive by stating it over and over.)  Similarly, don't overload your essay with quoted passages illustrating multiple examples of an idea.  Remember that your purpose is not, as with generic essay-writing, to show your teacher that you have done your homework.  That is assumed.  Your audience is only interested in how a particular point advances your argument.  So if you are discussing the theme of identity in a story, for example, just give a representative passage or two and then move on to the next stage in your argument. 

 

The structure of your paper is entirely up to you.  There is no set model or formula for how scholarship is presented except that it be clear and persuasive.  Like style, the structure of a report, investigation, or analysis presents itself to you as you are setting down your ideas.  Simply lay out everything you’ve “discovered” and what you are making of those discoveries and why fellow scholars should be interested in them.  Lay out the material in an orderly and logical fashion.  When you’ve said everything to your satisfaction, it’s a good idea either to set the paper aside for a few days and then read it again with a “fresher” perspective and/or give it to someone else to read and get them to judge your ideas.  

 

“Introductions” and “conclusions” exist only in the abstract.  When you write a scholarly essay, you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of producing a module called “introduction” or “conclusion.”  Like everything else, they should be manifest in the orderly way you present your ideas.  Introductions introduce and conclusions conclude.  An appropriate analogy may be that of lawyers “introducing” their case and its evidence to a jury and then, after laying it all out in detail, “concluding” by ensuring that the audience now knows why what’s been said is important.  Use whatever rhetorical strategies come to mind when you think about making a persuasive case and underscoring its importance.

 

A frequently asked question is, “How much research do you want in this paper?”  That question really means, “what do I do with my outside reading?”  All you are doing when you are reading scholarship is finding out the state of knowledge on your topic.  You need to do that so that you can write up your own findings from a position of authority.  When in your reading you find something that is useful to you--say, the fact that Poe reviewed a book on ornithology or that the fate of Dreiser’s characters often seems consonant with the principles of Herbert Spencer, you should work it into your text.  The first example conveys information, the second insight or analysis.  

 

Whether actually to quote the source or simply to summarize it depends on whether the scholar you’re reading has said something in a specific or particularly important way.  General information or simply a flat statement of argument need never be quoted. (“In 1835, Poe moved to Richmond to work at the Southern Literary Messenger.”) However, if it’s a “quotable” line, then quote it--perhaps it will help you make your point. (“As Hugh Ford has said of Sylvia Beach, ‘Ulysses was her trial, her torture, and finally her triumph.’”)  But always make the quoted passge mesh with your text.  Never just quote a sentence by itself, without some type of introduction.  And always quote it in context.

 

Matters of mechanics being settled, it remains to say something of the content of the essay.  I’ve already described the scholar’s goal:  to convey knowledge and/or insight that has value to fellow scholars.  This criterion determines the significance of the essay.  Ask yourself, does this point I want to make substantially affect either the state of knowledge we currently have about the topic and/or does it somehow change or extend the way people are currently understanding a text?  For the best possible essay, you should be to able to answer “yes” to one or both of these questions. 

 

Writing in this frame of mind and with these goals in view is infinitely more satisfying than simply producing a generic paper in fulfillment of a requirement.  For one thing, you will feel that what you’re doing has importance outside the classroom.  For another, you will feel in charge of what you’re doing--uncovering knowledge and putting it down on paper and making it public (at least to your professor and your classmates).  And finally, you will validate your sense of self-worth:  because you are doing the task primarily for yourself. 

 

True scholarship is driven by one thing only:  intellectual curiosity.  Be curious.  Put yourself, the course, and your professor in the background, and go discover ideas.