Scholarly composition is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. I hit on this definition this morning after mulling over some variations on my standard definition last night. “Academic writing,” I normally say, “is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people.” I’ve never liked the way I use the word “writing” in my definition of a kind of writing. It’s a minor point because its circularity isn’t very vicious. Most people will grant that I’m defining mainly the adjective “academic”, not writing itself, but I still find the repetition inelegant. This new version solves that problem nicely.
Along the way, I came up with another one that I also like: Academic writing is the art of composing and arranging paragraphs about what you know for other knowledgeable people. This one has the advantage of encapsulating in a single sentence my entire approach to writing instruction. It focuses our attention on the paragraph. There are also a couple of other nice details. By saying “about what you know” instead “writing down what you know” I’m making it clear that I think academic writing is largely representational. It is about something, namely, your knowledge of the facts, which I can then go on to discuss. I also like the way it analyses “writing” into the problems of “composition” and “arrangement”. I’ve written about this before as well.
With these two definitions in mind, I think I’m ready to return to the book I started this summer and complete my revisions. I think it’s going to be quite good.