The most valuable academic writing exercise I’ve ever done was first year of college, the professor who made all of us write out plain language deductive syllogisms for all our essays.

if you’ve never heard of a syllogism, it’s a kind of logical proof. In its most basic form looks something like this: “Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, Socrates is mortal” (or A & B ∴ C, if you’re into that.) 

But for the professor, we had to work backward from there. Because “Socrates is a man” is its own conclusion, so you need a syllogism to prove that! (A man is a human who identifies as male. Socrates is a human who identifies as male. Therefore Socrates is a man.) So is “All men are mortal.” (Morality entails being subject to death. All men are subject to death. Therefore, all men are mortal.)

We had to do this for every single essay. It was so frustrating, a friend and I pulled many many all-nighters honing our syllogisms. I hated the professor with a passion for requiring that, and I did not do well in that class at all. 

But nothing I’ve done before or since has really taught me be brutally break down an essay into component parts like that. And…..editing so much of others’ writing, it’s honestly an incredibly valuable exercise.

I feel like this would only have value if you’re going to write that academic or research paper in as dry language as possible and have the most sound, deductive reasoning possible. It’s a means to an end of getting an argumentative or positioned paper so airtight that no one could possibly refute it. The be all end all of all academic papers, no way for your professor to take points off for faulty reasoning.

Unfortunately, real world writing is almost nothing like that. Writing sounds like that ONLY in an academic setting, even scientific writing. I’ve had many graduated colleagues in scientific fields say that they basically had to write out a version of the shrug emoji in their lab reports because their studies were inexplicably inconclusive. Revered essays displayed in the likes of the New Yorker look absolutely nothing like what professors want you to write in their classes. We focus so much on being airtight and writing for that grade that we lose sight of ourselves, our voices and the importance of putting our own touch in our writing to make it ours.

Right now, in my advanced composition class, full of honors kids and people who have never received a grade below a B, the students are visibly struggling to produce a personal piece that adheres to no structure or rubric of traditional academic writing. They admit in their journals that their voices were squashed and beaten out of them in high school and are now struggling to find them again, if only to make THIS grade for this paper! I actually feel a bit bad for them, finding this voice isn’t really something that can be taught, it must be cultivated. We do students a real disservice by salting their earths of personal voice for the end goal of producing as technically a “good” paper as possible, something no standardized test could ever take points off for.

Please include both your personal assertions and any logical reasoning you feel is important to your papers, but make sure its reasoning you want in your paper, and not something your professor told you that you need.

………………………considering that I began the post with the phrase “academic writing exercise” yes, I was talking about academic writing and not compositions, or personal essays. (The class was an introductory philosophy class. No one wanted to hear my personal feelings on Descartes.) But saying that the only reason to write a technically accomplished, logically coherent article is for standardized testing or grading purposes is….well, frankly wildly narrow-sighted.

I mean, I’m law student right now—I have literally spent three years figuring out how to write persuasive and highly technical arguments. Being able to rigidly organize your thoughts and interrogate your argument back to its first principles is key, because if a judge (read: the judge’s clerk) reads your brief and finds it confusing, or riddled with assumptions, unexplained leaps of logic, your side is sunk. I’ve had an endless number of attorneys compliment me on my writing, my ability to structure a memorandum to let the argument shine through clearly.

I’m also an editor for two law journals, which means I’m responsible for editing more traditional academic articles. Let me tell you, there are tenured professors at top academic institutions in the US who could benefit from someone sitting them down and having them work through the syllogisms of their argument. And these are legal scholars, whose entire job is articulating and proposing ways of interpreting the law! Words are all they’re good for!

All this to say there is an art to getting an argumentative or position paper as logically airtight and persuasive as you can; I am in awe of those few who can do it, as much as the individuals who write extraordinary personal essays or journalistic articles. All three are distinct types of writing, and being good at one doesn’t indicate you’re good at the others. As an academic institution, schools and universities typically focus on the academic—with the underlying implication that in learning this particular style, you should also be learning the ability to think logically and deconstruct others’ arguments. Key skills.

It doesn’t mean that academia is somehow failing its students or beating their “natural voice” out of them, it just isn’t teaching those other skills. (Students don’t take home ec as much anymore either, or wood shop.) If you’re interested in developing those skills, of course you’re going to have to spend time learning and cultivating them—no one is born with the capacity to write a viral article for The Atlantic. That’s explicitly the purpose of creative writing and journalism programs! Teaching you to  do that.

But informing a teacher who’s trying to get you to write a coherent, well-organized argumentative essay that they’re stifling your natural voice is like going up to a drafting engineer and telling them they should experiment with cubism. It’s not that you’re wrong, you’ve just clearly misunderstood what’s happening here.

Being able to break down a statement to a logical syllogism and reconstruct it is useful to most kinds of writing, including journal articles and personal essays (in my experience, it helps to an extent in writing fiction as well). You certainly don’t need to break it down as far as the OP did for academic purposes, but stopping to define your terms, to decide if you’ve actually shown the connections you think you’ve made, and whether you’re providing enough detail and evidence at crucial points (or if some of the detail you’ve provided is irrelevant) will just about always strengthen your writing. 

It can also coexist with a strong personal voice–formal logicking your paper helps you get an outline for content and form, but says nothing about the way you’ll actually phrase your argument. 


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