The Occasional Writer: Form

By Dr. Lavelle

I thought this week I’d write about form since it is one of those decisions that writers make or have made before they begin to write.  Obviously certain types of writing are all about forms.  Business writing is about memos, reports, and proposals.  Technical writing also has its forms.  In the US, academic writing is form heavy and is usually defined as either the general to specific essay or the IMRD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion).  The general to specific essay plays a greater role in the liberal arts than does the IMRD, although the IMRD has its place and is used in the more “scientific” of the liberal arts.

A simple form of the general to specific essay is usually taught in high school if not middle school where it is usually called the five paragraph essay.  I much rather call it the IBC essay for Introduction, Body, and Conclusion since before students leave high school they should have gone beyond a simple five paragraph format to something resembling either the classic argument or Toulmin argument.  A discussion of these types of argument can wait for another blog.

The IMRD form, for some reason, is usually not taught to students mainly because as C. P. Snow noticed, in academia, two cultures exist, or better said, two ideologies exist.  Paradoxically and ironically, the teaching of writing to our budding scientists and engineers falls to those strange long-haired people on the other side of the “U.”  And it should since they happen to be experts on writing and understand full well, as Marshall McLuhan said, “The media is the message.”  However, the exposure of the budding scientists and engineers, to that other side of the “U” is stilted at best and exposure to the learning of writing is short.  Considering this, those long-haired people usually attempt to teach the basics, which means grammar and the general to specific essay since the general to specific essay exists within the sections of the IMRD.

Usually the budding, whatever, is left to figure out, mostly by osmosis, that there is a certain way to write papers to receive a passing grade in their discipline.  The smart ones catch on to the IMRD and most importantly that there is a specific discourse community within the discipline.  This community not only has its own take on the IMRD, but its own separate language including diction, construction of sentences, and how a person must position him or herself within the ongoing conversation within the community.  It is, to say the least, an eye opening and somewhat painful experience for the budding whatevers when it needn’t be.

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