Every field of study has its own particular purposes, methods, and goals. In fact, the disciplines of, say, English and Chemistry are so very different that a Chem major attempting to write a Lit paper may very well find herself at a loss. "What does the professor mean when he says that we need to create an argument about a text? I need facts to form my hypothesis. Where does one find facts in a work of fiction? Am I supposed to discuss my research methods, as I would in a lab report? What's the point of researching this problem if there can be no definitive answers to the questions anyway?"
Before you can begin a writing assignment in the humanities, it's important that you understand why people in the humanities write. If you are a science major, you know that the purpose of your work is to describe and measure phenomena. You write in order to inform others about your findings. The larger purpose of your work is to create consensus among your colleagues. You want to come to agreement in the scientific community as to what can and cannot be considered reliably true.
In the humanities, however, the purpose of writing is different. Humanities as a field of study deals with questions for which there are no definitive answers. Consider the questions that have haunted the humanities for centuries: What is justice? The nature of friendship? The essence of God? The properties of truth? While scholars in this field certainly hope to address these questions in ways that are compelling and authoritative, they don't write first and foremost to establish consensus among their peers. In other words, they do not expect to create in their work a reliable, scientific truth.
Students of the sciences may well find this frustrating. Writing in the humanities is not about finding the answer, it's about finding an answer. The humanities concern themselves with the construction and deconstruction of meaning. They have as their center not the interpretation of hard evidence, but the interpretation of texts.
Evidence in the humanities is textual. In other words, scholars in this field work most often with written documents, though films, paintings, etc. are also understood as "texts." Humanities scholars read texts closely, looking for patterns, examining language, considering what is not present in the text, as well as what is.
The pattern of discourse in the humanities usually goes like this: a writer makes a claim, supports that claim with textual evidence, and then discusses the significance of the passage he has just quoted. This pattern of claim / textual support / discussion is repeated again and again until the writer feels that her argument has been made. What distinguishes the humanities from the sciences and the social sciences is that each claim is supported and discussed before the next claim is considered. In the sciences and social sciences, discussion is held off until methods and results have been supported in full.
One of the things that most frustrates students of the sciences and social sciences when they encounter a humanities writing assignment is that there is no formula for structuring their papers. In both the sciences and the social sciences, papers must follow a rather rigid format. In the humanities, however, form is dictated by content. In other words, what you intend to say will determine how you are going to say it. Figuring out the best of all possible structures for your argument is among the most difficult challenges a student writing in the humanities will face.
Every reader, no matter what his profession or academic discipline, prefers prose that is clear, concise, and coherent. For advice on how to write better sentences, see our section on Attending to Style.
Understand, however, that writing for a particular discipline means more than simply writing good sentences. Every discipline has a preferred writing style. In the sciences, for example, sentences and paragraphs are usually short. Adjectives - except those that are absolutely necessary - are avoided. The passive voice is regularly employed. First-person pronouns are suspect. And rhetoric - or the kind of language that one uses to convince others that your argument is correct - is outlawed.
What works in the sciences, however, generally doesn't work in the humanities. Paragraphs are longer in the humanities paper. Sentences are longer, too - and more eloquent. They will juggle long and complex thoughts by using parallel structures. They will resonate with images and metaphors. They will be active, not passive, in their voices. In short, they will be anything BUT scientific in their style.
This doesn't mean that a humanities paper can present the reader with a jumble of thoughts and images. On the contrary, when writing a humanities paper, language and the way it is used in a paper is nearly as important as that paper's content. You will manipulate language to emphasize importance, to show the subtle relationships between ideas, and so on. For more information on how to manipulate language in order to best express your ideas, see this our pages on Grammar and Style.
Last Updated: 7/9/08