When I was an undergraduate, “writing” and “academic writing” were like black and white to me. Keep in mind at that point I was majoring in creative writing, and all the aches and pains of high school and my dull but rushed ENG102 class came to mind when I thought of academic writing.
At this point, the writing that was valuable to me was writing that I could share with others that would care about it and respond to it. Good writing was writing that had some sense of movement—being moved to action, to emotion, to write more, etc. In my limited experience as a reader, this was never the case with academic writing.
Now when I reflect on the differences between writing and academic writing, or what sets academic writing apart, I’ve come to the conclusion it is essentially no different from any other kind of writing. Just like with all writing, the audience and conventions of the genre are what make us create a specific title for it.
When I think about the difference between genres of writing, I’m reminded of a quote by Michael Palmer in his essay “On Sustaining of Culture in Dark Times.” Palmer writes of poetry:
“Perhaps our ‘notes’ and ‘keys’ seem a little too aberrant, too ‘off,’ too “blue” for most occasions. It’s equally possible that our modes of thought would appear too given to errancy and vagabondage, too committed to non-reason, to be entirely trustworthy in most contexts, and there may well be some justification for that assumption. I trust, at the very least, that I’m not entirely trustworthy.”
What stands out to me with Palmer’s quote, and perhaps helped me see why and how other writing differs does differ from academic writing, is the idea that in other writing, one does not expect the author to be ethical or to make a credible relationship with a reader you may not personally know. This type of relationship doesn’t seem as likely to occur in a journal (I’m imagining Sylvia Plath’s angry rants of journal entries), in an autobiography (I’m imagining creative nonfiction writers’ strong feelings about how writing is always an attempt to capture the moment without ever being successful), or, in the case of Palmer’s quote, a books of poems (I’m imagining “Dream Songs” by John Berryman).
When I mention academic writing to students, I am sure to explain it as a specific genre: “Not all ‘good’ writing is academic writing, but that’s the type of writing we are doing in this class in order to help you become successful college writers.” From what I’ve learned of academic writing—especially as a graduate student—often times providing information and ideas is valued over creativity or challenging the genre through redesign. The purpose and argument (argument here in a broad sense) of this writing is under conventional pressure to be stated clearly or at least as clearly as possible. Based on my own experience reading and writing, I’ve discovered academic writing values reason, coherency, ethical communication, and expanding a conversation. But there is also more to it; from our workshop class last semester, I grew more conscious of the stylistic choices we make as academic writers such as using compound complex sentences or word choice issues related to the language of the discipline. Through acknowledging style within an academic genre, I’ve found myself much more at “home” while writing in it than I have in the past–that along with being inspired by other writers who have mixed genres of academic writing with creative writing: Richard Miller’s “The Nervous System,” or Catherine Taylor’s Apart are examples that come to mind.