Q: What advice do you have for students about the process of writing an academic paper?
A: What I find myself recommending again and again, whatever genre of academic writing people are working with, is a basic strategy I draw from journalism—to “find your angle”: find a way of approaching a topic/project that interests you, that you can call your own, and that readers will likely find intriguing. And as a corollary—to the extent that you can within the parameters of what you’re given to do, find what genuinely interests you. This may not be what your readings emphasize, nor what the instructor accents, nor even what you initially expected would interest you. When the doodles in the margins of your notes suggest a line of interest other than what you’d planned on, follow that lead: it may bring you to a more stimulating approach. Then, “sleep on it”; leave time to let the back of your mind deepen the work. I’ve always found that the best ideas about how to go further with what I’m doing, as well as moments of greatest lucidity about what I am doing, often emerge when I’m not vigilantly at my desk, but rather when I’m almost asleep, buying groceries, mending a button or taking a walk.
Photo credit: Blair Folts
Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)—now available in electronic edition through McGill Libraries