Everything I Write Could Be Wrong and I’m Okay With That

As a poet teaching English composition, I often feel torn between two worlds: the creative, metaphorical, emotional world of poetry, and the more structured, objective, world of academic writing.  My experience is a little like trying to reconcile religion with science.  Poetry — at least the poetry I try to write — makes the same confounding imaginative leaps as a person may find in many religions.  In some ways, poetry is even more confounding than religion.  Unlike religion, poetry doesn’t explain.  As a poet I was taught to show rather than tell and let the images, the metaphors and similes and music carry the poem’s meaning — which is often heavy on the emotional side of things.  Academic writing, on the other hand, seems to require more of the scientific method: make your claim and demonstrate its validity with sources.  Or, demonstrate with credible sources and sound objective logic how a particular idea, theory, belief, is false.

I imagine many people are content to treat the two disciplines simply as different methods for approaching different kinds of knowledge.  Poetry would be the examination of the self and its place in the world, whereas academic research tries to answer questions about the world itself.  I’m simplifying things of course.  Psychology deals directly with the “self” and psychological research is a far cry from poetry.  And poetry isn’t always obsessed with the “self,” but often explores elements of human existence often found in scientific inquiry (who’s to say a poet can’t write about the atom?).

It is, however, very obvious that a poet would write about the atom for a very different reason than a physicist.  In this sense, poetry and academics cannot be reconciled.  The two disciplines approach knowledge in very different ways.  At the same time, the formality of academic writing could benefit from the informality of creative writing.  To be clear, when I refer to academic writing, I am not referring to scientific study.  Scientific studies, although part of academic discourse, has its own unique purpose that is very different from other forms of academic writing.  So, for the time being, when I say “academic” I am excluding scientific study.  To be even more specific, I am not excluding scientific inquiry, but only scientific study.  In other words, I’m excluding the kind of writing that that begins with an abstract, moves into an introduction of the thing to be studied, outlines the methodology (longitudinal, double blind, case study, etc.), and ends with “results” and a brief “discussion”.  Scientific inquiry, is something different.  The inquiry is what comes before the study.  It’s the hypothesis.  It’s the guy with his chin resting in his fist mulling over a particular idea or problem and coming up with a possible solution, a likely answer that needs more rigorous exploration.

With these definitions in mind, I think it is easier to reconcile academic writing with a more informal creative style of writing.  They are easier to reconcile because they have the same purpose: to make sense of the world.  Fiction is not a collection of untrue events.  The assonance and slant rhymes and oddball metaphors in contemporary poetry are not written to entertain.  The creative arts aren’t an anything-goes-take-off-your-clothes-speak-in-tongues kind of writing.  The creative arts are just as serious about the world as the best academic writing, and they try to come to an understanding of reality with the same depth of thought, the same rigorous inquiry as the graduate student writing his or her doctoral thesis on the current state of American racism.

The difference, I suppose, is simply in the “art” of the writing.  The choice of words and phrases.  The grammar.  In other words, academic writing — as I currently understand it — has a different tone than informal, creative writing.  Not just tone, but the structure of a personal essay is very different from an academic essay.  And, of course, no one would argue that a poem structurally resembles anything academic either.

But, I am getting off track.  My purpose is not to reconcile creative writing with academic writing.  The two are obviously different.  My purpose — my argument — is that the informality normally reserved for the creative arts, can also play an important role in academic writing.

It’s getting late and I need to wrap up this post, so rather than offering any evidence to support my claim (I’ll come back and attempt that later), I’ll simply end by illustrating my reasoning in the form of questions that are probably going to sound rhetorical.  First, it is clear that informal writing alone is not academic writing.  But what about the use of informal language, personal narrative, the “I”, in conjunction with sound reasoning and well supported claims?  In what way, if any, would such a style of writing detract from its academic nature?  In what way would informal language diminish the validity of a strongly supported thesis?

These rhetorical questions, though in no way evidence in defense of informal academic writing, do suggest that making a sound claim has little to do with tone or style, but depend more on presenting sound evidence.  They suggest that an informal presentation of well supported evidence has no effect on the reliability of the evidence — only on the way it is presented.


5 thoughts on “Everything I Write Could Be Wrong and I’m Okay With That

  1. Ryan:

    When I finished my last college course, I had a crazy transcript, with around two hundred fifty course hours. But among those courses, one stands out for its importance to my life. It may surprise you that it was a sophomore-level course. It was called “The Philosophy of Social and Religious Morality.” The odd thing is that, although those topics (social, religious morality) came up in discussion, they were not the essential material of the course.

    In lectures and discussion groups, we were taught to identify the principal ideas in our reading. We were shown how to extrapolate the arguments, weigh one writer’s work against another – particularly when they used different mental processes or reached different conclusions. It was a revelation. It was mind-boggling to discover that brilliant men could disagree so completely, and that their points-of-view could be based on basic assumptions that were themselves debatable: about how we think, how we obtain information, how we defend our assumptions, and more.

    At the end of the course, I reached a conclusion that has been a mainstay in my world ever since. The most important question we can ever raise is the Question of Epistemology: “how do we know?” That’s how do we know anything: what’s just, what’s real, what’s blue, what’s love, what’s a poem, what hurts, what direction is the wind blowing? Mind you, it’s NOT the same as a Question of Ontology, which is “what’s the nature of reality?” In Ontological study, you’re defining “what’s just, or real, or blue, or love, or pain” – you’re describing its essence. Epistemology is more basic because without understanding how we acquire knowledge, you can’t know how to get at the answers of Ontology.

    The teaching of these principles has changed. Those ideas, and the means to understand them, are now taught as “Critical Thinking.” A course in Critical Thinking is the most essential courses in any university. If there were one course required for every student at every level of study, in my opinion it should be Critical Thinking. Courses by that name were not available to me; they didn’t really enter mainstream education until a decade later. Now every college worth its salt offers such a course.

    Principles of critical thinking can be taught in any course a student ever takes. Outside of a course by that name, there’s a perfect course to deal with its lessons: writing.

    The factors of critical thought apply more in some kind of writing than others, of course. In creative writing, they’re less in the forefront. But in a general course on writing, they’re essential. How do you write an essay? a term paper? a comparison-contrast? how can you write to hospital administrators about anything? and how can you discuss IV use in the field without grounding your essay in critical thinking?

    Most writers in college should not write creatively. By no means do I wish to diminish the value, the magnificence, the wonders, of fine creative writing. But outside of courses specifically intended for creative writers (poetry, fiction, science fiction, screenplays, etc), I have trouble naming a course where students should write with free-wheeling imagination. Anyone can have a creative spark, of course. Original thinking applies everywhere. But not creative writing. In history, literary criticism, journalism, social sciences, psychology, all sciences and others, the most original idea must be tempered by careful analysis.

    The writing in many such courses can be interesting, vivid, and artful. But the writer must be critical and precise, and the writing must express defensible thoughts. Such courses may inspire original thought, but that doesn’t qualify as “creative writing.” Instead, such courses require writing that is supported by critical thinking.

    Here are some definitions of critical thinking:

    “Critical thinking is a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion.”
    American Association of Colleges and Universities:

    “The ability to cross-examine evidence and logical argument. To sift through all the noise.”
    -Richard Arum, New York University sociology professor

    “Thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, in order to improve your thinking.”
    -Linda Elder, educational psychologist; president, Foundation for Critical Thinking

    Developed (last revised 11/26/10) by Robert H. Ennis, rhennis@illinois.edu.

    A critical thinker:
    1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives
    2. Desires to be, and is, well-informed
    3. Judges well the credibility of sources
    4. Identifies reasons, assumptions, and conclusions
    5. Asks appropriate clarifying questions
    6. Judges well the quality of an argument, including its reasons, assumptions, evidence, and their degree of support for the conclusion
    7. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position regarding a belief or an action, doing justice to challenges
    8. Formulates plausible hypotheses
    9. Plans and conducts experiments well
    10. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context
    11. Draws conclusions when warranted – but with caution
    12. Integrates all of the above aspects of critical thinking

    Although the word ‘critical’ is sometimes used in a negative sense, this conception of critical thinking is not negative. Also, it does not treat critical thought as persuasion, but critical thought will, we hope, often be persuasive. The future of democracy depends on it.

    That last paragraph, in case you’re wondering, was on the webpage I lifted from http://www.criticalthinking.net. I completely concur with it.

    Nothing anyone ever teaches is more significant for our students, for society, for the world than skills in critical thinking.

    And you can be the one who brings this skill to your students. Later, I’ll have some comments on your posting.


  2. Ryan:

    In a 1997 essay for Natural History magazine, the late great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould describes functionally discrete categories. He characterizes religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria.” By this he means that each has a distinct domain, particularly with regard to domains of “teaching authority.”

    You’re trying to make a similar claim. It’s an ambitious adventure, but a great one to undertake. Gird you’re loins, my friend. It could be a bumpy ride. At the end, I will explain why I’m writing these remarks.

    You say that you’re “torn between two worlds,” poetry and academic writing – the metaphorical-emotional vs the structured-objective. For the purpose of discussion, let’s call them “non-overlapping magisteria.” You make a similar point, in tune with Gould, at “it’s a little like trying to reconcile religion with science.” But with all respect, my friend, you don’t seem to be truly “torn.” Every one of your essays on this topic lines up as a defense of “informal writing.” I’ve read your comments on “academic” writing, but I’ve never seen you attempt it. I don’t believe you’re torn.

    In poetry, you say, metaphors and similes “carry the poem’s meaning.” But that’s not entirely true, of course. Frost writes that “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” and 95% of the rest of that piece could be a simple statement of fact, a description of a personal observation in the woods. But that description, which is not intrinsically poetry, contributes very strongly to the metaphor at the end, when the “road” is applied to life decisions. That final metaphor elevates the work – definitionally – into poetry. Without the 95% of non-poetry, the words “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference” would just be words. Language is inherently symbolic, but not all linguistic symbols are poetic. Verse is not necessarily poetry. Metaphor is, however, the essential, defining element of poetry. Yet, essential as metaphor may be to a definition of poetry, a poem is not exclusively metaphor. Nor is the meaning of a poem conveyed in metaphor alone, as you imply.

    The brevity of your explanation is very attractive and readable. But brevity inevitably means omission, and the generalized writing introduces oversights.

    For that matter, as you’re throwing out such statements (“carry the poem’s meaning”), how do you account for theories of poetry that reject concepts of “meaning”? Archibald MacLeish, building a poem around literary theory, wrote that “a poem must not mean, but be.”

    You mention that poetry and academic research are possibly “different methods for approaching different kinds of knowledge.” This has some delicious possibilities for discussion. But it appears that you reject the idea, writing that “many people are content to treat them” in such a way. This leaves me hanging. Who are those people, and why should we not review their ideas?

    You write that “poetry would be the examination of the self and its place in the world.” With non-overlapping magisteria, it’s critical to describe the center of each magisterium and – more importantly – its sharp boundaries. Since you’re distinguishing poetry from academic writing, one would expect this first characterization to be dead on: poetry is X, in contrast to academic writing, which is non-X. My first response is to the verb tense. What is the value of the modal “would” rather than the definitive “is”? If you’re naming an essential attribute of poetry, what is conditional (“would be”) about it?

    Then the structure of your claim implies that you’re describing poetry generally, stating a universal about poetry. But I’m struck by the fact that you are aware of difficulty in this claim. You immediately admit to simplification. You also quickly admit that “poetry isn’t always obsessed with the self,” which virtually contradicts the first statement, that poetry “is the examination of the self.”

    You write that “Scientific studies . . . has (sic) its own unique purpose,” which “is very different from other forms of academic writing.” First, in what sense is that claim true? What is the purpose of a scientific study or a historical study or a psychological study? Don’t they all apply systematic research methods to understand some important aspect of the real world? You may be right, but lack of clarification means the point is too murky to support the claim.

    Then you exclude “study” from “inquiry.” I don’t know what that means. Your terms are not clearly defined, even though you toss out an attempt, so the idea is muddled. In critical literature, study is frequently equated with inquiry, since study involves posing questions (i.e, inquiry) about some special area, followed by attempts to answer them. By “study,” one would think you mean research, examination, analysis, investigation – each of which is inquiry. But in the next sentence you don’t exclude any of those things, but rather a “kind of writing.” So by “inquiry” you apparently mean a form of argument. Specifically, you seem to mean the scientific method – which is widely used in throughout academia, including the hard sciences and the humanities. I’m lost.

    And then we learn that your recommendation for informal style has limited use. It does not apply to the most basic format for scientific research, as published in peer reviewed journals. Instead, it applies to the hypothesis – but since it’s “what comes before the study,” it’s evidently not the published hypothesis. Normally, the time before the study is a period relatively uninformed reflection. And if your “inquiry” is this poetic image of a “guy,” chin in fist, then where’s the writing? Where’s the informal writing if the “guy” is just thinking?

    Of course informal writing can be helpful in those moments. If that’s what you’re advocating, you’ve already won. At that point in the academic process, the “writing” is usually a set of notes, or scrawled ideas, or math, or a veritable grocery list of ideas. In reality, at this point, it is not formal writing at all. Nor is it published.

    Now, you say, you’re ready to proceed with your argument, because you’ve put “these definitions in mind.” As a reader, I’m very confused about the terms. None is clearly defined, so definitions are not “in mind.” A distinction between “study” and “inquiry” is muddy. The nature of “inquiry” is also muddy: is the inquiry published? Is it even writing?

    You propose to “reconcile academic writing with a more informal creative style of writing.” I have some questions. First, why? What is the need? What purpose is served by a relaxed academic writing style? I’ll come back to that in a moment.

    Very soon, you add that it’s not your purpose to reconcile the two. Immediately I wonder, “Why did you just spend two paragraphs trying to do just that?”

    But then I get whiplash again, when you claim that the “informality” of creative arts deserves a role in academic writing. That appears above all to be an attempt to reconcile the two!!! So this paragraph hinges on a direct contradiction in the span of three sentences. Since you declare that this paragraph states your “purpose” for the blog, it leaves the reader befuddled at a critical moment.


    Ryan, I’m sorry to be so aggressive. You said very clearly that your blog is only “musings and questioning,” and I fully understand that.

    But you are making claims (an “argument,” you call it), saying clearly that you prefer an alternative, “informal” style, and that it has a value in academia. My purpose here is to demonstrate the problems that crop up with informal style. All I have to work with is your blog.

    Let me reiterate a point: you never make a case for the need to relax academic style. The question shouldn’t be “is it easier for the writer?” nor “is it easier for the lay reader?” nor “is it friendlier, cooler, more engaging?” The questions should be: 1) what is the purpose of academic style and 2) what could be lost by relaxing the academic style?

    My answer to that is that the Ivory Tower would lose integrity. It would lose its fundamental value: objective, verifiable description of the world.

    In the academic world, writers attempt to explain the world and create new knowledge. That’s true across all disciplines. The purposes of academic research are simply not well served by informal writing. It simply doesn’t have the chops to stand up to scrutiny.

    I have to ask a question about your purpose. As an example of “informal style,” you disqualified the essay I wrote about, because it was only “musings and questioning.” The essay itself, a blog entry, was not the same as a complete argument. But you continue to claim that you’re making an argument, and the style has not changed. So my question is this: is the blog an example of the informal style you advocate? Or is there a sub-informal style that finds use in a blog? I have more about that in a minute.

    Professional academic writers regularly use rigorous forms to make an argument. The forms exist for the same reason Aristotle advocated syllogisms: they reduce the chance of error. They are standardized, allowing for scrutiny by peers. Language is used carefully and precisely, reducing the chance of misunderstanding, improving the defensibility of the essay. Arguments are complete, and evidence is thorough, giving transparency to the research and coherence to the conclusion. The general public may think it’s obfuscation, but to the expert, it’s clarity.

    I should admit that academia is a complex place. For example, there are teaching institutions and research institutions, and most research institutions also pursue an educational mission. In two-year colleges and vocational education, informality has a more accepted place. In four-year schools, where students have different professional aspirations and may move into graduate programs, there is a significant shift in priorities. Except for programs in creative writing, formal obligations fall on the writer. Publication for peer review requires it.

    There are trade books – as you mention – that present intellectual material for the general public. You mention Carl Sagan and Oliver Sacks, both fine examples. Even those writings maintain a disciplined style. They maintain integrity of the argument. On the other hand, in writing for the academic world, the information from those trade publications would be presented much more carefully. In presentation of the evidence to a critical audience, the argumentative form is itself a ground of credibility.

    Here’s my proposal to you: make a formal argument, with carefully delineated propositions and thorough support, that informal writing style has a place in published academic writing. Write judiciously, with lucid, interesting, burnished prose. Pay attention to precision in language. Use examples of informal writing, quotes and other kinds of evidence as needed, but make sure your own style is formal – in structure and language. Writing in one magisterium, feel free to quote from the other.

    The gauntlet is at your feet, my friend.


    • My my. Jesus. You respond with such depth of thought – the kind of thought I’m not accustomed to really. I mean, I consider myself a good critical thinker, but I don’t write that way.

      As for Archibald MacLeish’s claim that poetry must not mean but be, he certainly has a point, but I have a hard time understanding the point of writing something that simply exists. Certainly, poems are often over analyzed. Billy Collins wrote a witty poem about his students’ incessant desire to tie down the poem and beat the meaning out of it with a hose. But I reject the notion that poetry should simply be. Perhaps I misunderstand what MacLeish really means. Poetry needs purpose. Good poetry, as far as I’m concerned, has purpose. Like critical thinking, the vision of poetry is vital to a healthy society, a successful and just government. Poetry cannot – or should not – simply be. It doesn’t have to make a claim. It doesn’t have to persuade or lead to some kind of social action. Maybe what MacLeish is talking about is poetry’s ability to change a person, a society, simply by presenting a moment, an image, a thought, that’s presence is itself enough to increase humanity’s sense of what is important – a kind of sifting out of the fluff, a stripping down to the meat of matter.

      I’m sure my writing has prompted more need for definition, but I don’t have time to write more. Gotta teach. I don’t know what to expect from class, and I’m actually quite nervous. At the same time, part of me just wants to say the hell with it. This is the emotionally exhausted, depressed, pissed off poet talking. Part of me wants to enter class and just sit there until someone says something.

  3. Two quick things:
    1) My skills in Critical Thinking, such as they are, were really honed in textual criticism. In graduate studies, we used to rip the writer’s arguments apart, outline them, examine the logic, and then write our own observations. These writers were Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, and many more. Heady stuff.
    2) In undergraduate work, my roommate said, “You’ve gotta come to my Sociology class.” I went. This was in the mid-1960’s, when new ideas about teaching were thrilling to everyone. In class, I saw the professor (a junior faculty member) walk up to a desk near the front. He was surrounded by a sea of students on three sides. He sat down on the desk, roughly in the Lotus position. Nobody said anything. Time passed — maybe three minutes. Finally, he said, “What’s up?” More time passed — maybe 4 more minutes. Finally a student said, “In that essay you assigned, do you think the writer . . . ? (I don’t remember the question.) And the professor said, “What do YOU think?” The student gave a brief answer. And another student proposed an alternative answer. And all of a sudden the class was abuzz in a shared give-and-take, and the instructor only occasionally raised questions about a comment. Amazing.


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