Applications of Academic Writing in Public Policy
Vasudha Katju – Faculty, Kautilya
What can training in academic writing offer to students of public policy? We might think that public policy practitioners are far removed from the abstractions of academia, and that communicating about interventions on an issue requires something other than communicating, for example, one’s research on it. Yet the practice of academic writing teaches many important skills that can serve practitioners well.
At its core, academic writing is argumentative and persuasive. Here, writers have an argument, a point to make; they must use evidence to substantiate that argument. When seen from this perspective, the training that academic writing offers is important to anyone in a field where others must be persuaded of one’s opinions. Developing policy requires being able to convince others that one’s proposed solution to a particular problem will be appropriate and adequate. It requires the marshalling of evidence in favour of one’s proposal, thinking of the audience (and at times, multiple audiences) that one is addressing, and presenting one’s ideas with clarity and precision.
It’s tempting to think that these are skills that we all possess, or that they are picked up through the process of one’s education without any specific training. Our struggles with writing belie these ideas. Often both the process and end product of writing are murky. How do we know when we’ve written something well? How do we know where to begin, what to say next, when to stop? What can we assume our audience knows, and what will we need to explain?
The teaching of academic writing engages with all these questions. Here, writing is not treated as a talent that one either possesses or does not. Instead, it is treated as a skill that can be learned with the appropriate instruction. Students are taught to take a step back from their writing and learn to see it from their readers’ perspectives; to establish a correspondence between the arguments that they are making and the evidence they have to support those arguments; to draw on and acknowledge others’ ideas and data; to frame their ideas into a clear and readable narrative. These are important skills for anyone whose writing seeks to persuade others.
Amongst the most important contributions of the training in writing is how it gives students a greater confidence, in their ideas and in their capacity for self-expression. Working out an argument on paper is vastly different from working it out in one’s head. The act of writing and seeing one’s ideas on paper highlight all the nuances, the gaps, the strengths and shortcomings of those ideas. Being able to read, review and revise one’s ideas gives students the confidence that comes from knowing that their ideas are sound; and the practice of writing those ideas clearly and systematically shows students that they can do justice to their ideas when presenting them before an audience. Academic writing is not a mechanical exercise of preparing bibliographies and meeting word limits: it is an exercise in building the skills needed for self-expression.
As a writing teacher, I’ve had students tell me that they feel inadequate in front of their peers; that others have better ideas than them and can express them better too. Usually, I feel, they think that their peers simply possess some special quality that they lack. Training in writing helps break this myth, by showing that every idea and every expression of an idea is subject to revision and continuous refinement. Training in writing is as a nascent stage in Indian academia today; but as its benefits continue to be felt by teachers and students alike, we can hope that it will grow further.