I think that when students (at any level) are given a writing assignment, they sometimes think of the assignment as if it were a bucket. So a ten page paper is a bucket of a certain size and a twenty page paper is a bucket that’s exactly twice as big. In this way of thinking, academic writing consists of pouring words into a bucket until the bucket fills up, and writers get in trouble if they run out of words before the bucket is full — say, at page fifteen of a twenty-page paper.

I think that’s a painful way to think about writing, though. When we think this way about writing, we’re writing in order to meet a page requirement, not writing because we have something to say. I think it’s better to think of academic writing — or any kind of writing, really, even creative — as if it were a piece of architecture. We should think of our writing as if it were structured like a building. Bigger buildings have more rooms in them and are differently organized. And, bigger buildings with more rooms have more room for different functions, and these different rooms relate to one another sometimes in very specific ways.

So when we first get married, we might live in a one-room apartment. There’s a kitchen with a linoleum floor, a little metal border, and then carpet, and you’re in the living room. The bathroom connects in there somewhere. The couch folds out into a bed. But if you move into a bigger apartment, you might have a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom. A bit bigger, maybe a house, and you’ll have a living and a dining room, maybe a breakfast nook, maybe a study, and maybe a bathroom that opens up to the backyard if you have a pool.

Similarly, a two page paper might have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But a ten page paper might have an introduction, a literature review, a section of the body that reflects on the literature review, a section of the body that argues a new thesis out of the literature review, and a conclusion that develops the thesis in a more complex form and considers its significance. It might have subsections within each section that alternate evidence with reflection. It might have a section that addresses counterarguments and, as it does so, modifies its thesis. This paper would have many more rooms than a two page paper, and the paper is the length that it is because of the number of rooms that it has, not because it’s being written to meet a length requirement.

When we think this way about academic writing, we lose concern with page count and start being concerned instead with the size of our idea. How many different parts does our paper need in order to present, explain, support, and develop our main idea? My dissertation was 300 pages in a Word file when it was done. At the time, it felt like one continuous essay with section breaks. But really, when you consider the section breaks, it wasn’t 300 pages. It was six forty-five page(ish) chapters (with a 25ish page bibliography at the end plus front matter). Each of those chapters were usually broken down into three fifteen-page sections. And if you look closely, each of those sections were broken down into three to five page increments. So did I write a 300 page dissertation, or did I write 54 five-page papers — which could be further broken down into paragraphs serving different functions?

Since I had no specific page length in mind, I wrote to the size of my idea. Now of course we don’t want to write 300 pages when only twenty pages are due, but maybe we can think that part of planning and research is developing a ten, or twenty, or twenty-five page idea.

So the key to writing is not writing to fill up a bucket, but writing to develop an idea. In practice, writing to develop an idea might look like this:

  • first you have an idea,
  • then you think about its parts,
  • and you think about how its parts relate to one another,
  • and you think about what each part contains — what kind of evidence, reflection, or explanation is needed in each part.
  • Once you start writing, you rethink each part of the process as you go, as needed.
  • Once you’ve finished writing, you rethink each part of the written product in the light of its conclusion.

I think we can turn this idea around and let it guide how we think about reading too. Do authors put meaning into books the way we might put something into a bucket? In that case, authors put meaning into a book and readers take, hopefully, the same meaning out. Or did they create a structure of some kind, a patterned object, and our acts of reading involve different kinds of pattern recognition? I think the latter is a better approach. It helps us comprehend not only the parts and a central idea, but how the parts relate to one another. It also allows us to ask different questions about the same text, so that we can carry out different pattern recognition activities to draw different meanings from the text.

So I think the best thing we can do is kick the bucket in our academic reading and writing practices. The mind is more complex than an empty container.

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