Academic Writing as Storytelling

For literary historian Hayden White, the writing of history is very much akin to storytelling. Debunking conventional, and especially empiricist, views of the practice of historical writing as a “scientific” enterprise in discovering and unearthing facts of the past, White argues that: “one cannot historicize without narrativizing, because it is only by narrativizing that a series of events can be transformed into a sequence, divided into periods, and represented as a process…”1 Hence, through narrativizing, the historian takes on another role: a storyteller. And historical writing becomes a form of art with a certain amount of aestheticism.

White’s ideas bring to mind academic writing in college. It is often easy to view the exercise of academic essay-writing—with a focus on the word “academic”—as mundane, mechanical, evidence-digging, and quote-fishing. As such, when the time comes for mid-term or final papers, the drill is clear: reread the material, compose a central argument, look for evidence, find key quotes, and compare or evaluate them and see how they support or don’t support your thesis. Voilà, you have your standard academic “A” paper! One can hardly see any joy or fun in writing these rigidly constructed papers, especially taking into account the stress of receiving a grade.

However, this becomes a different story altogether once we see essay-writing through the lens of White’s notion of historical-writing, since both deal with a certain degree of factual evidence. While the historian goes to the archives to source for evidence and manuscripts, students go to their scholarly books and articles in order to come up with a coherent essay. This is the point when the two converge. For White, “the ‘facts’ do not ‘dictate’ at all but are subject to the specific choices, inclinations, and prejudices of the historian, which are inevitably moral and aesthetic rather than simply epistemic.”2 Similarly, essay-writing should not be viewed as always dictated by facts, evidence, and arguments laid down by various scholars. Using White’s framework, the student writer can also become a narrator, as he or she actively chooses facts and evidence to include in a certain essay. Therefore, student writers should not view themselves as slaves to their material! While White’s historian chooses facts and evidence based on his or her inclinations, students display similar tendencies when doing routine quote-fishing and evidence-archeology as well.

After choosing facts and events, the historian then proceeds to organize and arrange the information to form a certain kind of “history” or, more radically-speaking, “story.” Hayden White calls this process emplotment. According to him, emplotting means “to organize and arrange [events] according to a recognizable story-type, which entails a reduction to the number of possible story-types available in a given culture.”3 Looking at this, the student essay writer comes across as not much different from White’s idea of a historian, as he or she organizes collected materials and evidence to form a coherent essay.

Considering the above, one can conceive of essay-writing as a kind of performative art. When we write, we narrativize to a certain degree as well. We choose the material and evidence we want to support our arguments, and emplot them into a coherent essay. Therefore, instead of just being subjected to the scholarly material in front of us when we write essays, White’s arguments demonstrate that we are the ones that dictate how our facts fit together. Quotes and evidence may be fixed and unchanged as they do not belong to us, but how we organize them and insert them into our essay structure is subject to our ability as a writer. Hence, as previously mentioned, we are not entirely slaves to the evidence and facts. There still lies a huge degree of autonomy belonging to an essay writer outside the inverted commas enveloping the quotes we choose to include in our essays. The moment we write, we become, after all, storytellers.

-By Han Hsien Liew ’12

[1] Hayden White, Fiction of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory 1957-2007 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2010), p. xxiii.
White, Fiction of Narrative, pp. xxiii-xxiv.
White, Fiction of Narrative, p. xxiv.

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