Writing Academically at a College Level

Hello, everyone! Today, I’m excited to share some takeaways from my Foundations of Academic Writing class I took this semester. As you know, I have loved writing for as long as I can remember. This class has changed my perspective on writing in a few ways. Whether you’re just looking to get better as a writer, or reading this because you are an incoming freshman to Babson and want to prepare for the class, here are my top 5 concepts to know before going into an academic writing situation.

Make sure to read till the end for a downloadable worksheet to apply these concepts to your next paper!

1. Writing is a conversation.

One of the first days of class, my professor framed academic writing as a conversation. Any topic you are about to write about already has other authors who have written about that topic, and the piece you are writing is simply adding to that conversation. Before I was introduced to this approach, I saw my writing as very separate from the other authors, but seeing it as an addition to a conversation has allowed me to create works that are more integrated with the topic at hand.

This idea is framed extremely well by philosopher and novelist Kenneth Burke in the following visualization:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone on before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action

Every author has a unique perspective to add on an issue, just as everyone has something of value to add in conversation. When you think of your writing as adding to a conversation, it can help you engage with the topic and other writers in a more meaningful way.

2. Good writing comes from a place of inquiry.

In my writing career in high school, every essay I wrote came with one primary purpose: demonstrate my understanding of what I’ve learned to get the grade I want. There was very little room for exploration or interest. One major thing my academic writing class taught me is that all good writing comes from a place of inquiry. When we were writing our essays for this class, we always started with a question. From this question, we defined the situation we were discussing, as well as the issue. These three things combined helped us determine our thesis. This was backwards from what I learned in high school, where we would define our thesis and frame our paper around that.

Here are the questions that informed my essays in this class:
1. How can students combat the suppression of creativity in the mono-logical classroom?
2. How can someone reconcile their identity when they feel they are being pulled between two realities?
3. In a time of crisis, how does a lack of clear authority affect society?
4. How does the self-help industry utilize the hero persona?

Notice that all four of these questions are very open-ended and, at least in my opinion, interesting. Creating a question that my paper attempts to answer rather than using the prompt as the question has contributed to me writing more interesting, substantive papers.

3. Authors have projects

When I say that authors have projects, I mean that they have a goal or intention with their text. Perhaps you have explored author’s projects in AP English Language as you analyzed the audience or goal of a text. The idea of projects takes that into a more comprehensive light.

A project is usually something far more complex than a main idea, since it refers not to a single concept but to a plan of work, to a set of ideas and questions that a writer “throws forward”

Joseph Harris, Rewriting

Now, while I had some experience exploring another author’s project, one thing I haven’t done much before this class was define my own. My objective/intention with my papers in the past have been as little as “I want an A” and only went as deep as “I want to research this a little more.” But, defining your own project as an author will allow you to write with purpose. Simulating a purpose for your paper outside of your professor evaluating you on it will create a much more interesting, engaging paper.

For instance, for that third question I mentioned above “In a time of crisis, how does a lack of clear authority affect society?” my goal was to get the reader to take a critical look at who they are deciding to give authority amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, with the hopes that we would start to turn to those who have actual authority versus authority by default. Interesting, right? Without that purpose, I probably would have just been ranting. And while I love ranting about things (see: 90% of my blog posts) that is not the goal of an academic paper.

4. When you get into conversation with another author, you’re not saying “yes” or “no.” You are saying “Yes…and” or “Yes…but.”

We all remember in high school where we were told to “use x number of sources.” That was the bane of my existence. I always either wanted to use too many, or I had no idea which sources to use, or I had to use a source I didn’t care to so I crammed it in awkwardly.

One amazing thing I learned in this class was how to come into conversation with other authors’ texts. We used the terms “forwarding” and “countering” to discuss whether we are essentially agreeing or disagreeing with the author we are referencing. Within both interactions, there are several ways to go about it.

For instance, when forwarding an author’s text, you can borrow their terms or definitions, extend their ideas to the situation you are discussing, use them to authorize or bring more credibility to your argument, or illustrate a point you’re making. Now, these are pretty complex topics in terms of how to go about each of these, and if you’re interested Joseph Harris goes into great detail about this stuff. He defines forwarding as

…taking words, images, or ideas from it and putting them to use in new contexts. In forwarding a text, you test the strength of its insights and the range and flexibility of
its phrasings. You rewrite it through reusing some of its key concepts and phrasings.

Joseph Harris, Rewriting

Throughout my time in the class, I borrowed, extended, authorized, and illustrated using the texts we examined in class. While we have likely all done these at some point to some extent, putting a name to each of these makes them more defined tools we can use.

Even more interesting than forwarding in my opinion is countering. Maybe it’s my experience in mock trial, but I love to challenge the authors I’m working with. Harris also defined a few ways of countering texts: arguing the other side (sounds like what it is, you take an opposing stance to the author’s), uncovering values (analyzing something that hasn’t been explored yet in the text), and dissenting (identifying a common thread among various authors and challenging that thread). As Harris puts it,

To counter is not to nullify but to suggest a different way of thinking. Countering looks at other views and texts not as wrong but as partial—in the sense of being both interested and incomplete.

Joseph Harris, Rewriting

Like I said, we have both forwarded and countered authors before, but putting it into this framework and really understanding what we are doing with our sources and doing it intentionally makes for a better piece of writing. You must first come to terms with an author’s project, asses its uses and limits, and then decide how you want to use it in conjunction with your own project.

5. Writing is a process, not a product. An essay or idea is never “complete”

Last but not least, I learned that writing is never truly complete. Going back to the conversation analogy, a conversation never comes to a definitive end. There will always be new information and perspectives that could alter your writing. There will always be more you can do with your paper. In high school, I always wanted to wash my hands clean of the whole paper once I turned in that “final” draft. But once you start writing about things you care about, you will realize that this is only a snapshot of what you thought at a given period of time, and you will never truly convert a draft to a product.

I think E.M. Foster put it well when he said,

“A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”

E.M. Foster

So, as I finish this piece of writing, know that it is only a snapshot of what I have gained as a writer in one given semester, and my thoughts and ideas on writing are ever-changing.


Here is a downloadable PDF worksheet for you to apply these concepts to your own writing:

And that concludes my top 5 life-changing writing concepts I learned in my Foundations of Academic Writing class. Shout out to my amazing professor Katherine Faigen who has taught me more about writing in one semester than I have learned in years. I hope that these concepts help prepare you as you embark on your college writing journey!

❤ Alicia

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