Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Academic Writing: Writing with a Purpose

Writing with a Purpose

1. A purpose invariably implies a goal or an end of an action deliberately undertaken. Human beings attempt to give meaning to their actions based on some ideal which we may be called purpose. It is built upon self-esteem and pursued with some degree of rationality. It may be stated as “will to meaning” (Viktor Frankl), “will to pleasure” (Freud) or “will to power” (Adler). A purpose signifies the self at the same time goes beyond it to give meaning to the world. Therefore purpose, self-esteem and reason are seen by some objectivist philosophers like Ayn Rand as the three dominant western values of life. The western discourse of academic writing is perhaps based on a worthy purpose, pursed rationally and based on self-esteem (my ideas are worth listening to). It is always good to ask: What is your purpose in writing this essay? Who is your audience? What are you expected to write about? Are you expected to summarize, be original or state your own views? Are you going to instruct, inform or document? Are you going to express a feeling, explore an idea, entertain the reader or mediate in an argument? It is possible to combine more than one purpose in an essay.

You may inform the reader of certain facts that you think are important and then persuade him to take a suggested course of action. But in doing so, you need a strategy to realize your purpose. Usually good writers employ various strategies to realize their goals. They define, classify, analyze, process analyze, cause/effect analyze, illustrate, compare and contrast, describe or narrate. A formal dictionary definition places the terminology you employ within an intellectual space that is easy for others to understand. When you define a term you give its meaning, place it in a genre and separate it from others. Classifying your subject into types will help you to sort out your material and argument. Deconstructing your subject by dividing it into parts will help you to both understand and explain better.

All readers have expectations and it is always better to understand the expectation of your readers before you write. Cause analysis might lead you from one cause to one effect or one cause to multiple effects. Illustrations would involve the evidence or primary sources that you collect. Compare and contrast method involves two sets of ideas, events or processes. You have an introduction, a thesis, then describe A and then B (show how A and B are similar or dissimilar?) and then draw your conclusions. Description may involve visual, auditory or tactile images to make you subject come alive. Narration helps to grip the attention of the reader and follows a logical sequence without digression. Observation is an essential component of good writing. It allows for original thinking, drawing of credible conclusions and analyzing a complex situation. Today you will look for specific, accurate and interesting information to construct short and readable pieces of academic writing.

What I Have Lived For
Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, was a British mathematician, philosopher, and social reformer. In this passage from his autobiography (The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1872-1914, George Allen & Unwin Limited), he summarizes his personal philosophy.

1. Three passions, simple but overwhelming strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

2. I have sought love first, because it brings ecstacy—ecstacy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of my life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

3. With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine… A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

4. Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

5. This has been my life, I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

1. No word is out of place. No sentence is redundant. There is no repetition, no ambiguity. There are five clear paragraphs.
2. What I believe, what I stand for. What are my values?
3. Uses one metaphor carefully and does not mix it with others—example, winds
4. Idiomatic expressions make writing interesting
5. State your ideas clearly and present them point wise in that order as stated in the introductory paragraph. The first paragraph states all the points that Russell will later develop. The sub-theme of love develops three reasons about its significance—
a) it brings ecstasy,
b) it relieves loneliness and
c) it gives a vision of heaven.
6. In paragraph three he develops the idea of seeking knowledge:
a) to understand the hearts of men and
b_ to know why starts shine ) human passion and nature and its surrounding mysteries.
7. In paragraph 4: “Love and knowledge ….back to earth.” A connection between first and second point made here
8. In the last paragraph he expresses pity for mankind:
a) cries of pain
b) children in famine
c) victims tortured by oppressors
d) helpless old people
e) loneliness
f) poverty and
g) pain
9. The last sentence completes both the point he wishes to make and the emotional drama that he has created through the metaphor of the “great winds”—“I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot and I too suffer.”
10. The last paragraph though short shows his determination to carry on with no regrets. Since it is extracted from his autobiography the fifth paragraph has a meaning too, otherwise it would have been redundant.
11. One thing you realize after reading this essay is how short it is. “Brevity is the soul of wit” says Shakespeare in Hamlet. Try not to be a chatterbox like Polonius.

1. How does Russell achieve coherence in paragraph 1 and 2?
2. Considering the writer’s purpose in paragraph 2, explain whether the paragraph is complete.
3. Comment on the unity of the essay. Where, it at all, does the writer digress.
4. How are the central ideas of paragraph 2, 3, and 4 related to the main idea of the essay?
5. What are the topic sentences of paragraphs 3 and 4?
6. What passions have governed your life? Write about one of them in a single paragraph (120 words) that is unified, orderly, coherent, and complete.

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