Why do we write at universities?

Students studying in the Ridington Room

Paul Joseph | UBC Communications and Marketing

Why do your instructors ask you to write? Not because they want to torture you. Your instructors make you write because, in the world of academia, writing is the primary form of communication used to share knowledge. Whether you are working on an essay or a literature review, a lab report or a statistical analysis, the purpose of academic writing is always essentially the same: to share your understanding of your subject and to show off your own original discoveries.

Next time you sit down to tackle a writing assignment, imagine yourself as a member of a scholarly community. Every piece of writing has to have a writer, of course, but it also needs a reader, which students sometimes forget. Because we write to exchange ideas with someone else, you need to think about who you are writing to, why you are trying to communicate with them, and how you are going to get your ideas across. If you wanted to have a conversation with a monolingual French speaker, you’d have to learn to speak French. The same goes for academic specialists, whether their areas of expertise are sociology, physics, or business. To communicate with them effectively, you need to learn how to speak their language: that’s what it means to study in a discipline.

Besides attending lectures and labs, doing your readings, and meeting with your instructors, one of the best ways to accomplish this is by studying examples of the kind of writing you are trying to undertake. Let’s consider another analogy. If you’d never baked a chocolate cake before, would it make sense for you to try to bake one without first learning how somebody else did it? Of course not. You’d look for recipes, research the best ingredients, and maybe even ask for assistance. You should take the same approach to academic writing. If you’ve never read a literary essay before, you won’t be able to write a very good one. Without reading examples first, you wouldn’t know that most literary essays include integrated quotations from something called a “primary source,” or that, in the field of literary criticism specifically, it’s generally inadvisable to write in the passive voice—although in mathematics, it’s often desirable to write in the passive voice. As you can see, the expectations for how a research article should be written can vary across disciplines. It’s not surprising, then, that the expectations for completely different types of assignments—such as surveys and executive summaries—will also vary from subject to subject.

Before you start writing, it’s important to ask yourself, what kind of writing task is this? Next, you can ask, do I know how to do this type of writing? If the answer is “no,” then it’s time to do some research. Before you start, familiarize yourself with the distinguishing characteristics of the type of assignment you’ve been asked to do—what writing experts might call the “conventions of the genre.” That way, you’ll be able to impress your reader not only with all of the information you know, but also with your seemingly effortless ability to communicate that knowledge in the appropriate ways.

When academics publish a research article, they make strategic choices to structure and stylize their writing so that it can be understood and appreciated by other experts in their field. Now, it’s your turn to learn to do the same. Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly impossible task of learning “how to write perfectly.” Take it one assignment—and one type of writing task—at a time. Remember that your goal is to communicate your knowledge in a subject-specific way to a community of people who share your interests and speak your language. Before long, you won’t just be imagining yourself as a member of a scholarly community. You’ll really be one.  

The Writing Pavilion is now open for the summer term from May 21-August 16, 2019. Book an appointment with one of our Writing Consultants, who will work with you to improve your writing, shape your writing process, and meet your goals.

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