Academic Writing 101 – Part 2 – “What should I write about?”

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

Academic Writing 101 Part 2


One question I can guarantee every writing teacher has been asked is,

“What should I write about?”

This question often means students are having a hard time with focus and clarity not just subject material. Students ask the question, but what they often mean is, “How do I start?” Indeed, this has been the key question for the most well-known writers. Lewis Carroll offers us the obvious answer in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. 
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

How many English teachers have been tempted to quote these lines?

Academic writing is all about focus and clarity, so the question demands an answer, and the answer is a major component of well-written papers. The answer is, “May I see your outline, please?” This one question often brings students to the realization that academic writing is like making a nice dinner not a quick (text) snack.

If we’ve gotten to the writing section of the course, then we have already taught students various outline techniques, whether clustering, free-writing, or some other method. We teach them the process of creating an outline and then assume they will just naturally use the process, but do they? Academic writing can be a frightful procedure for many students. They view the procedure as if they were walking through a minefield filled with corrections (Bang), edits (Boom), and rewrites (Ouch).

Here is where so many instructors shine and inspire. Instead of land mines, they turn the landscape into a garden. Corrections become pleasant additions, rewrites become new ways to express and retell. Each edit brings rewards and satisfaction in learning to master a new language. And there is mutual joy in sharing this growth.

Most students are naturally anxious to do well, but they are unaware how this arduous process will affect their lives in the long term for employment applications, résumés, employment interviews, and much more. Asking students for an outline helps them to slow down and begin to focus. Now they must go back to their notes and choose a method to create an outline, knowing you will ask again. Does it matter if they use a formal or informal outline? For me it depends on the subject and depth of the subject. Some essays may require a formal outline simply because of the complexity of the subject, but most essays need only an informal one. But they must have an outline.

Here is where the academic process starts for students. “What should I write about?” becomes a mantra of focus and clarity. They will produce an outline using one of the methods they’ve been taught. As the outline forms, their focus sets and their clarity becomes sharp. Focus and clarity lets them answer their own question, “What should I write about?” They now have a topic, and with a topic they can develop a topic sentence, and that will lead them to a coherent paragraph. I’ve got goose bumps!

About the Author

John Caine is the author of several books, (Waldo and the Wackos, The Story of Pig and Giraffe, La Historia de Cerdo y Jirafa, My Name Sir?, In the Time of Big Trains, 4:56) short stories and poetry. He teaches English where he currently lives on Long Island, NY with his family