University: Writing a summary or extended background

Academic writing – articles, dissertations, theses – have various scholarly conventions. Sometimes our professors, advisors, and journal editors are very good at communicating these conventions. Sometimes not so much. It’s important to me to see scholars be successful in communicating their thoughts and research, so in whatever way I can, I want to help. The help in this blog goes through creating an “account” or “extended background.”

What is an account or extended background for an introduction?
Well, it takes a couple of different forms.
First, in the introductory section of your essay, article, dissertation or thesis, you’ll want to provide an account or extended background that lays out the theoretical terrain.
What does that mean?
It means that you need to summarise, in your own words, the main schools of thought in the scholarly literature in your field. You may also provide some quotations as and when necessary. Always, remember, whether you are quoting or summarising, you must cite your sources. As a scholar, you are joining into a conversation with other scholars, so make sure to give them their due!

For example, let’s say I’m writing an essay about aesthetic theory, or the theory of artistic interpretation in contrast to critical theory. In my introduction, I will have to set out these main ideas (artistic interpretation and critical theory). What do I mean by these terms? Who are the main theorists that I will cite?
Here’s an example:

T.S. Eliot chastised the Arnoldian notion that literature was, by definition, primary to criticism that was, therefore, always and unendingly secondary, claiming that “Matthew Arnold distinguishes far too bluntly” between literature and criticism, overlooking “the capital importance of criticism in the work of creation itself.” He goes on to assert that “the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, [and] testing” that the critic engages in is “as much critical as creative.” [1] That Arnoldian view that creativity somehow exists outside critical or scholarly realms still persists in some educational quarters, but the contemporary critical landscape finds authors drawing less hard lines between critical/creative writing. For example, in questioning notions of a creative/critical binary, Fred Wah says: “to write critically I’ve always written poetry,” [3] suggesting that the critical/creative binary is a false one. 

[1]  Eliot, T.S. (1932) ‘The Function of Criticism’ In Selected Essays. London: Faber. pp. 23.
[2] Fred Wah, “Contexts and Acknowledgements” in Faking It; Poetics & Hybridity, Critical Writing 1984-1999 Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2000), pp. 1.
You see how in the example, the two positions – Matthew Arnold’s idea that critical work is always subordinate to creative work and T. S. Eliot and Fred Wah’s view that creative and critical work are equal in stature – are outlined briefly, and the main theorists referenced. This sets the stage for this critical = creative argument.
What is a summary, account, or extended background for a body point?
Second, once you really get going on your essay, article, thesis, or dissertation, you may find that you need to provide an account, a summary, or some extended background to a specific point you are making. This differs from the extended background you may provide in your introductory section by being more specifically about one point, rather than the field as a whole.
What does that mean?
Let’s say that you are making a theoretical point that contributes to an ongoing theoretical position in your field. In order to make your point, you will first want to offer a summary of the other participants in the field. This doesn’t necessarily mean every single person who has ever written on your topic, but a broad overview of the key players and positions. Similarly, if you are making a historical insight or a data-based conclusion you want to provide a specific summary of the historical events or the data at hand.

For example, let’s say I’m continuing on in my essay that suggests that creative and critical texts are not so different as we might at first believe. Perhaps in the body section of my essay, I begin to look at literature that is both creative and critical. In order to briefly explain what that literature is to a reader who may or may not be familiar with it, I would have to provide an account, some extended background.
Here’s an example:

In keeping with the notion that the creative and critical are intertwined, we see in the creative and critical writing of Canadian author, Robert Kroetsch a living example of Wah’s assertion that “to write critically” is to “write poetry.” Kroetsch, as a critic, called for a literature that was oral, dialogic, experimental, and rooted in aspects of place.  The manipulation and appropriation of the flood narrative in his novel The Words of My Roaring invites this reading as the flood becomes a symbol of a new way of writing and understanding prairie literature. The novel follows the garrulous Johnnie Backstrom as he struggles to be elected to parliament in drought-stricken Alberta, prior to the historical Social Credit landslide election of August 22, 1935.  In addition to interweaving fact and fiction, the novel also displays a playful intersection between varied mythic traditions.

Works Cited
Kroetsch, Robert. The Words of My Roaring.  Edmonton:  The University of Alberta Press, 1966 reprint 2000.
Picking up on the critical = creative argument that we saw in the first example, the second example brings in a real novel to begin illustrating the point. However, before we start digging into the details of how the novel achieves this aim of demonstrating the links between the critical and the creative, we first get a brief outline of the main character (Johnnie Backstrom) and the setting (1935 Alberta).
The EssayJack platform was born out of our experience as professors, and if you want extra help, use the “Academic Essay” template where you can add both an extended background in the introduction and body sections, with tips, prompts, sentence starters, and guidance. Sign up and give it a try!
Happy writing! And remember YOU GOT THIS!


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