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Writing in Humanities: 7 Steps Towards Becoming a Master Writer


Well, I hate to break it to you, but if your major is in the humanities, this is going to be the main task by far throughout your Bachelor and especially your Master’s studies. So, you better learn how to do it right. Let’s start!

A new school year rolls around, and here you go again. Another assignment! You might feel like the whole world came crashing down on you. It is especially hard to get back to the grind after taking a long summer break. However, do not give up just yet. Let me first share some helpful writing tips with you that helped me greatly through college, and that I wish I knew before.

Staring blank at the screen trying to collect your thoughts, not being able to think about anything valuable to say or hating your writing before you even start – I’ve had it all! You are not alone in your predicament, or, shall I say, challenge? However, fortune favors the brave, my friend. So, be brave on your journey towards a writing mastery.

Humanities encompass a broad range of disciplines, all interconnected and interdependent. You may feel like drowning in a pool of ideas that so many grand thinkers took pains to contribute. However, if you want to become a good writer, you will need to learn to swim in deep waters.

So, I believe it’s time to start the training!

1.Keep Writing and Editing Processes Separate

Perfectionism is a devil. When trying to write, let go of that inner devil that wants everything to look prim and proper at the first go. Let your writing unfold naturally. It may help to somehow cover your writing, so that you curtail the urge to look at it again.

You do not want to be overly focused on your writing in general. It sounds like a bad advice, - you would say. Well, depends on what your goal is. However, if you want to sound creative and original in your writing, you may want to consider letting go of your conscious mind. It is the subconscious mind that can generate links between things that your rational brain would never connect. If you allow yourself to edit during the writing process, you let that rational brain dominate over your creativity. You will still, probably, produce a decent paper, but do you really want to be just decent?

Writing creatively in humanities is especially crucial. It is often said that humanities is the world of ideas. If you want to really impress your teacher or even become a well-known scholar, a key to success is your ability to rethink the old ideas and produce new ones.

Editing should be done only after you finish the last sentence of your paper. And even then, let it stew at first. The best editing is done within a couple days after writing. Give yourself time to forget about your paper. This way, in a couple days you will be able to look at it with fresh eyes.

2. Use Various Sources

This is such a simple tip, but very often students forget about it. They spend hours trying to come up with something of their own. It seems so childish of them – believing in the almighty brain of one, instead of consulting with the others.

This is a mistake humanities students often make when they assume that creativity has to come from within. If they fail to produce something remarkable at once, they think that, maybe, they are not that gifted after all. However, I can’t think of any scholar who has not used the work of their colleagues. It is not plagiarism. It is synthesizing the old ideas to give life to new ones.

You may broaden those ideas by offering new perspectives; you may alter or completely refute them. It is up to you. The only rule is to give credit to your colleague by referencing them. Other than that you are free to review the sources and make up your own thoughts about them.

However, remember tip #1. Do not be too focused on those sources. Try to examine them from all sides before providing your verdict. The correlation is negative here – the more you disagree with somebody’s views, the more time you should spend trying to understand them.

3. Do not Bow down to the Authority

The world does not stay the same. It is being transformed constantly by people like you and I. The things that were taken for granted just a couple decades ago have now been refuted. It is the job of the people who think outside the box and are not afraid to challenge the preconceived notions to push forward the world.

You may feel fearful of attacking the celebrated scholars in your field or even arguing with your teacher. However, just take some examples from history for inspiration. In linguistics Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was adamantly endorsed by different scholars and laymen for many years.

It is a two-fold theory. Firstly, it is linguistic determinism which is the idea that people’s thoughts are determined by the languages they speak. Secondly, it is linguistic relativity which is the belief that the way people think is influenced by the languages they speak.

However, other great minds like Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker have long debunked this theory. They have proven the existence of a different language – the language of mind, or mentalese. Thus, human’s thoughts stem from it, and not from some existing world language. Mentalese is although common, but also different for everyone.

Could you imagine how different the field of linguistics would be, if they did not have courage to challenge the Sapir-Whorf theory? I advise you to always try and challenge the accepted norms and ideas. This is a way to write a truly captivating paper.

4. Accept the Ambiguity

I remember how in school we were taught to write agree-disagree essays. It was forbidden to write a partly agree with both views essay, which is a shame. When kids go to college, it is hard for them to accept the ambiguity and fluidity of a real world.

For instance, you may remember learning about Marquis de Lafayette, the major general of the American Revolutionary War. However, hold your horses before you write an exalted review about him. If you look at the way the French perceive him, you will be surprised. For them, he is no war hero, but just a minor historical figure who tried to stop the Revolution and failed. If you do not want to come off as America-centered, you might want to take it into account when writing.

Nobody is either god or devil. Everybody and everything in this world is ambiguous. You need to accept it, and give credit to all sides of the issue. Do not cherry pick your data. This is a sign of unprofessional or even dishonest writing.

5. Clarity Is the Key

Remember tip # 4? Well, it does need a little disclaimer. It is true that there are many conflicting and intersecting views in humanities that add to ambiguity. It is true that there is no single answer for anything. However, you need to be careful not to write about everything and about nothing at the same time. Make sure you have clearly stated the central idea of your paper.

If there is no central idea, you paper will read like a hodgepodge of various theories that, however, do not shed light on the overall picture. Do not forget about your reader. You may feel that you are writing something meaningful, but that may be a result of your thinking covering your writing gaps for you. Beware of that trap!

Writing clearly is also writing simply. You may want to use a lot of GRE words to make your paper sound more top-notch professional. However, this is a false direction. You need to focus on making your writing as accessible and understandable for the reader as possible. Using fancy vocabulary is no more a sign of intelligence.

Try reading what you wrote in some time. Ask your friends to read it and see if they understand it. Even while writing, try to imagine how your paper reads. Be mindful.

6. Copy Your Idols

You may find some writer particularly enjoyable. Sometimes you get that feeling that you will never be able to write like them. However, you can always at least try to copy, right?

Here I do not mean copy pasting and plagiarizing your paper. I mean a detailed analysis of your favorite writer’s language patterns, syntax and vocabulary. If you really like some sentence, you may want to write it down yourself. If you are fascinated by the vocabulary they use, try to implant it in your own writing. There is no cheating in it.

Great artists learn by copying others. So do people of other vocations. Humanities put a great emphasis on your ability to write, so why not to learn this valuable skill by imitating the great work others have done before you. In the end, creativity is the ability to derive and synthesize new ideas from the already existing heritage.

Do not get too attached to your idol though. Even while copying, try to adjust their writing to your own vision.

And Finally… Climb the Mountains!

Man Climbing Mountain

Literally! It has long been proven that physical exercise not only relaxes the body, but also stimulates mental activity and creativity. If you are just going to sit in your chair all day, the only imaginable result is lack of motivation and even depression. It is very rare when good writing comes from complete recluses.

Seeing new places will help you develop your imagination, which is especially important for humanities majors. It will help you get into the diffuse mode of thinking which is believed to prompt the best creative ideas. Do not be afraid to lose time! Going out, exercising and, of course, climbing the mountains is the best way to broad your mental horizons, which will make you an infinitely better writer. 

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