Monday, March 14, 2011

5 Elements of Authoritative Content in Academic Writing

I don't know many people who like the word authority. It makes us think of "The Man," of oppression and tyrants and "authority figures" who think they can tell us what to do. Butauthority doesn't always have to be a dirty word. In fact, it's something most of us appreciate, indeed find essential, when we seek information. When it comes to writing, authority equates to someone who has done their homework, someone who may even be an expert on a topic, and who you feel you can trust.

Today Problogger posted an article called "The 5 Elements of Authoritative Content," which emphasized the importance of writing with an authoritative voice in order to keep readers interested and always coming back. The blogger, Tito Philips, explained what he saw as the five basic elements to authoritative writing, elements which make your content compelling, useful and trustworthy to the audience you are trying to reach.

As I was reading through the post I realized how important these same five elements are within academic papers, and how when I spent six long years as a grader and Humanities instructor, these elements were always found in the best essays. You know, those essays that received the highest grades.

So I thought it would be interesting to look at Philips' article in light of the academic essay and try to show how these elements are so essential not only to the content on blogs and websites, but also in the academic world.


Philips says that insight is "the personal understanding gained as a result of coming in contact with particular information." In other words, insight is the result of your personal experience with a text. This is an invaluable element of an academic paper. In fact, it's the only reason to write or read an academic paper. Insight is what imbues your essay with life and meaning. Your professors have likely read the same texts you have , and so have countless other academics, but it's a fact that you have something to bring to the conversation that hasn't yet been said, simply because your personal experience with the text will be unlike any other person's experience.

As Philips simply states, insight is "basically telling us what you think of the information or knowledge you've gathered on any particular subject." It is certainly essential to do this in a blog, when information is constantly moved from one source to the next, but it is equally important in your essay. I guarantee you that professors and graders don't want to see someone else's argument regurgitated. We want to hear your unique opinion, your singular experience with a text.


The purpose of academic writing is to share information and to bring others to see the value of your insights, your way of thinking. Your insight is valuable, yes, but if your language and structure are convoluted and confusing, then no one will be able to understand that valuable insight. As Philips explains, "Simplicity is about making the information easily memorable by breaking it down from a complex whole to tiny understandable bits. Simplicity is the evidence of insight." Again, this is just as important in academic writing as it is in blogs. Even if your readers are experts on the topic, it is essential to demonstrate your command of the information by breaking it down and showing how it works.


How can an essay be both simple and deep? Depth, according to Philips, "is about how well you’re driving home your point. Depth is the extent to which you break down the concept you’re writing about. It’s a matter of not leaving any stone unturned." When I write academic papers I like to think that I must be as thorough as Sherlock Holmes. I investigate every angle I can in order to develop my own understanding of the situation. It is important then to explain how you got there. Give your reader the pertinent and specific information that they need in order to take the same journey you did. Philips asks, "What good is a solution that only half-solves the problem?" When you write academic essays you are posing a solution to a problem, and you must be as specific as possible. Avoid sweeping statements and generalizations, because they won't solve any problems.


"If depth is about details, then breadth is about association". As a Humanities scholar, I especially enjoy the element of breadth. Whenever we encounter art or literature we automatically make associations. For example, I recently wrote a paper about ice palaces, and I was able to reference a Russian Empress, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Cowper (an 18th century British poet) and Stanly Kubrick's The Shining. I received high marks and praise from my professor for being able to draw all of these texts into a coherent discussion. Making connections is essential to academic essays, and can add great interest and meaning to your work.

Philips offers a couple of suggestions that will work just as well for your papers as it does for blogs. First, "storytelling helps your reader to associate the information you provide with a similar concept that's familiar to them." In the Bible this is called a parable, and it's a tried and true way of conveying information. Second, reference others. This of course is essential in academic writing, but it's still good to know why. As Philips explains, referencing other authorities "suggests to the reader that you do your homework well. You don't just come up with solo ideas, but build up on the ideas of others that your readers consider experts". That's exactly what your professors want from you, to consult the experts and show that you are a competent reader.


While most blogs need to be up to the minute with specific information within particular niches, academic papers may seem less relevant, especially if they cover information that may be slightly obscure or historical. This is an erroneous assumption, however. Your paper is relevant if you make it so, if you show exactly why it matters. Relevance answers the "so what?" question that is so essential to the essay, and must be more than "this is an assignment that I have to do." Maybe the topic is assigned, but it is still important to find the point of it all, to look at why it is interesting, why it is worth even talking about.

It really is interesting to see the strong connection between blogs and academic writing, two seemingly incongruent genres. All of these elements combined make strong arguments and interesting content, and proves that it is definitely worth thinking about how you handle the information that you present to any audience.

No comments:

Post a Comment