Academic Reading and Writing

The essence of academic literacy can perhaps best be illustrated by considering the ordinary act of reading a novel. Every summer millions of people read novels on the beaches of the world’s resorts. Many of these are of high literary value, some of them even classics. This summer, perhaps, you have decided to read Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. These are in one sense perfectly ordinary novels. That is, you can open them and begin on page one and read every word in the sequence it appears until you get to the end. They will tell you a story.

But they are also recognized as “works of literature”, so these same books, which you may read on a beach as a diversion, will also be given careful and studied attention by students in college classrooms the world over. What is the difference between the way students read such books and “ordinary people” do? Indeed, what is the difference between how a student reads a book and how the intended reader reads it?

I want to suggest a simple way of thinking about this difference. The ordinary reader reads alone; students read a book together. A novel is, ideally, intended to be read alone. In it, the novelist shares with the reader what Virginia Woolf called “the loneliness that is the truth about things”.  But an academic reader is not lonely; an academic reader knows that the book is being read by many others, that the reader has “peers”. Academics read along with their peers.

I think it would help students understand what academic writing is if we asked them to imagine their fellow students in this particular class to be their readers. They should not imagine their teachers or some still more abstract “authority”. They should try to explain what they mean to other people who are, at the moment, engaged with the same works for the same reasons. This, after all, is also the implied reader of any academic paper: it is an attempt to discuss issues with people who are knowledgeable about the subject.

That’s the big difference between writing for a popular audience (as novelists do) and writing for an academic audience. There is a shared body of knowledge to draw on. And, in any case, one is always writing something that one expects to be read by a group. One is writing as part of an ongoing conversation.

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