Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses

My essay on the essay has been published at Text: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. It’s called “Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing“:

Students and teachers alike bemoan the sorry state of academic writing, as both readers and writers. Nonetheless, they are loath to venture beyond what they take to be the well-known territory of the academic (read: expository) essay for fear of going astray, or unsettling their readers. Here I aim to map the academic essay as it is practised for the most part . . . but also as it might be practised. I offer a cartography — and something of a history — of the ‘point-first’ and ‘point-last’ essay. The former dominates the academy, but the latter is truer to the origin of the essay. Point-first essays allow writers to show what they know, to negotiate known territory (terra cognita), hence their dominance in the academy; point-last essays enable writers (and thereby readers) to find out what they think, to navigate unknown territory (terra incognita), where lie dragons . . . or riches.


6 thoughts on “Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses

  1. Thanks for this, Sean – I’ve revisited this distinction a few times over the past few years, particularly when supervising research students… I like the idea of Point-Last essays, but find them risky as their success depends on the writer’s ability to retain the reader’s interest until the end – whereas I write (and encourage my students to write) under the assumption that my (their) readers won’t read past the first paragraph! Yet, point-last essays seek to engage the reader into the discursive process, rather than simply communicate the writer’s opinion/ideas, so perhaps my worry about readers not reading till the end misses the point? The purpose of the introduction alters if the reader is not expected to trawl for facts/ideas, but to think and dialogue with the writer for however long they want to…

    • Hi Caroline,
      How we structure our writing always depends on the purpose for which we’re writing. At times, a point-first structure is appropriate, for example, when our aim is communicate the findings of a research project. But to use such a structure for all writing limits our options as writers and reduces the work the reader has to do – sometimes we need to wrestle with an idea or see it from a range of perspectives to get it. There’s also an intermediate structure: one that doesn’t announce its thesis, or point, at the outset, but phrases it as a question, problem or hypothesis that it then goes on to solve … which is to agree with you that the introduction always functions to set the expectations that the writer has for the reader.

      • At the end of your article, you make a distinction between two ways of performing subjectivity in Point Last essays: Autobiographical/autopoetic, and autotelic/self-sufficient. What’s the difference between autopoetic and autotelic? Is the first more about figuring out and fashioning self through the essay, and the second more about using self to create new life/art? What is the role of style and irony in the latter?

  2. Hi Caroline,
    You’ve got the distinction between autopoetic (creating an authentic self) and autotelic (creating works/selves for their own sake) right. It could be clearer in the essay. The latter is ironic because it doesn’t involve a commitment to an authentic self, just a desire to try out selves (they’re not personae/masks because that implies there is a self under the mask; they’re like Nietzsche’s voices or – on some readings – Kierkegaard’s characters).

    • Thanks Sean, that helps. So the article speaks of three kinds of essays: The PF essay, in which self is effaced (the writer’s personality must not get in the way of conveying the ‘real’ content), the autopoetic/autobiographical essay, in which self is generative (the writer’s life and thoughts are the essay’s fodder), and the autotelic essay, in which selves are tried out – essayed. I’m trying to imagine what the last would look like in an academic essay – do you have an example you can point to – even better if it’s one of yours?

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