A difficulty for academic writers is managing the dual role of both knowing and not knowing, of both showing the way and not finding it. There is an expectation that such writers should already have the knowledge they are writing about, that they should know the way they show others right from the start. As readers, we are naturally delighted and grateful to share the authors’ knowledge and insight.

But academic writers usually write because something strikes them as puzzling. They write for the same reason that readers read: because they lack the knowledge and clarity required to find the way through the questions. This lack stimulates them to research and write. The way that did not exist, takes shape when they tackle their questions.

This dual role as a writer often worries students who are writing an essay or dissertation for the first time. They can easily perceive themselves as insufficiently knowledgeable to have the right to tackle the work. Since they lack the expertise that they believe is required of academic writers from the outset, does it not follow that they are not yet mature enough to begin the work? Students are easily paralyzed by the knowledge demands they place on themselves. Therefore, they hide their questions instead of tackling them.

It always comes as a surprise, that the way actually takes shape as soon as we ask for it. Who dares to believe that? Research is a dynamic interplay with our questions: with ignorance and lack of clarity. An academic writer is not primarily someone who knows a lot and who therefore can show others the way, but someone who dares and is even stimulated by this duality of both knowing and not knowing, of both finding and not finding the way.

If we have something important to learn from the exploratory writers, it is perhaps that living knowledge cannot be separated as pure knowledge and nothing but knowledge. Knowledge always interacts with its opposite. Therefore, essay writing students already have the most important asset to be able to write in an exploratory way, namely the questions they are wondering about. Do not hide the questions, but let them take center stage. Let the text revolve around what you do not know. Knowledge without contact with ignorance is dead.  It solves no one’s problem, it answers no one’s question, it removes no one’s confusion. So let the questions sprout in the soil of the text, and the way will soon take shape.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

This post in Swedish

Thinking about authorship