Raphaël Fischler

Professor, School of Urban Planning

Q: What can you tell students about how you developed your expertise as an academic writer?

A: Three factors were important in the development of my writing skills.  First, I had a wonderful mentor: my life partner is a Shakespearean scholar who writes extremely well and teaches writing very well.  She helped me a lot.  Second, I made it a point to read good prose and continue to do so.  I read history, literature, essays and select my readings in large part for the quality of the writing, in order to be inspired by good prose.  Finally, I honed my writing skills as one hones any skill: by practicing and practicing and practicing.  In all writing I do, from administrative memoranda to research manuscripts, I try to write well, i.e., to say things effectively and accurately, and I edit my work in a conscientious manner.

Q: What process do you go through when writing an academic paper?

A: My conception of writing has shifted over time: I try less to lay out a series of facts and attempt more to tell a story.  Perhaps for that reason, I rarely start my papers now with a detailed outline and all necessary information ready at hand.  I have the main argument, a partial outline and a good deal of information, but I develop and complement those elements as I write the paper.  In other words, I treat the writing process not only as a process of exposition but also as a process of discovery.  The danger of this approach is that a paper may not come out well or will take a long time to do so, and that time will have been wasted.  But it is important to know that writing is also a creative process, during which one makes sense of one’s research question and one’s findings in new ways. 

Q: What advice do you have for students about developing their academic writing skills?

A: Give yourself good models to follow: read good books and good essays.  Read the works of intelligent fiction writers (e.g., Virginia Wolfe, Marguerite Yourcenar), of eloquent historians (e.g., Winston Churchill, Michel Foucault), of lucid philosophers (e.g., Friedrich Nietzche, who rightly said that to write is “to dance with the pen”) and of award-winning science writers.  Historians may be your best guides: they are scholars who tell stories, and telling stories—the story of your research process, at the very least—is your job.  Also, give yourself time to revise your work, and edit, edit, edit.  Once a draft is finished, leave it aside, then come back to it to see whether it works well as a whole (does it tell your story well?) and whether each sentence is the best it can be (is it clear and correct? does it sound good when read aloud?).  If you are unsure about what works and what doesn’t, take courses, read manuals or consult people in order to learn good grammar and good style.  Finally, treat writing as a sport: to perform well, you need to be well rested and in good physical shape, and to achieve excellence, you must work hard over a long number of years.

Q: What story or anecdote can you share with students that might motivate them or inspire them to further develop their skills as academic writers?

A: After reading the draft of one of my dissertation chapters, my supervisor told me: “I’m not sure I agree with you, but I know you sound convincing!”  I don’t know if she meant this as a compliment; perhaps she was expressing the suspicion that I was hiding substantive problems under good prose.  But her remark made me aware of the fact that rhetoric has a place in academic writing, too.  Writing can go beyond the instrumental representation of research and inject a measure of vividness or dynamism in a scholarly paper.  It does not have to do so—presenting facts and findings in a clear manner is the most important task—but good writing can give a paper an added measure of quality.  This is perhaps more true in the humanities and in social studies than in the sciences and in engineering.  But in all fields, the author must be persuasive. 

Q: What do you do when you are struggling with a particular point in your writing?

A: The reason I may experience a difficult moment in my writing is either lack of clarity in my mind about the point I am trying to make or lack of sleep and alertness.  If the first problem is at stake, I try to think harder about the argument, talk about it with someone, or let the little grey cells work out the problem while I do something else.  If the second problem is at stake, I leave writing for the next day, after a good night’s sleep.

Q: How do you perceive the relationship between academic writing and critical thinking?

A: One of the criteria for assessing an academic manuscript is whether it makes a contribution to the field, and that means that the author must have analysed the current state of knowledge and asked an interesting question.  But beyond that, there is no direct link between academic writing and critical thinking.  It is entirely possible to write down uncritical thoughts in a scholarly paper.  (In fact, much of what passes for critical thinking in fashionable theory is poorly written material that adds little to our understanding of the world.)  The most important criticism that must occur in academic writing is the author’s self-criticism, his or her continuous critical assessment of the text in the hard work of composing and editing.

Photo credit: Owen Egan