The question I want to take up in this section of E110 is: Can we write without arguing?
I’m willing to bet that you have heard academic writing discussed in terms like these: defending a thesis, proving a point, staking a claim, building a case, arguing a position. What these phrasings hold in common is a view of writing as a contest, a competition, a kind of debate in which the writer tries to win the reader over to their view.
But I’m an academic writer myself, and I’m a little puzzled and troubled by such descriptions of my work. Because it simply doesn’t seem to me that I spend much of my time arguing. This isn’t to say that I don’t have views or ideas that I want to put forward. But I tend to think of what I’m trying to do as a writer as something more like exploring, inquiring, questioning, playing with ideas and words.
Another way to get at the distinction might be: What if we approach writing not as a debate but as a conversation, in which the goal is not to win but to reach agreement, to share an idea?
To get at these questions, I’ve decided to center our work in the first half of the semester on A Room of One’s Own, a long essay by the British writer Virginia Woolf, first published in 1929. But while I think the topic of this book—women and writing—is important, that’s not why I’ve chosen it for us to work with. What I’m more interested in, as a writing teacher, is how Woolf approaches her subject—which is less to take a stand than to show how came to think and feel in a certain way.
After we finish reading A Room, then, I’ll ask you to compose an essay in which you adapt Woolf’s approach in thinking and writing about an issue that matters to you. And after that, in the second half of the semester, I’ll ask you to develop another essay about a text that interests you in a voice that feels your own. To support that work, we’ll also read some essays about how to craft clear, compelling, and stylish prose.
A Room of One’s Own is a complex and sophisticated book. If you can learn how to make use of its ideas and phrasings in your own work as a writer, you’ll be ready to take on almost any other text you’re asked to write about in college. My hope is that, by the end of this course, you’ll not only feel more confident in writing about texts and ideas, but more interested in doing so. I think this kind of work is fun. Give me a chance to convince you. Good luck!