Local vs. Global: A World of Advice

In June of this year, I went to the International Writing Across the Curriculum conference in Minneapolis. One of the many interesting sessions that I saw looked at the role of  local writing resources in a globalized world. The session, given by Roger Graves from the University of Alberta and Stephanie White from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discussed the relative merits of creating materials specifically for our own institutions as opposed to designing initiatives to connect our institutions with the broader world. The discussion was thought-provoking for me because it helped to frame the work of this blog in a new way.

Even though I have been blogging for over three years, this was the first time that I had thought so explicitly about the way that writing support on social media must negotiate the gap between global and local. Since local resources will not necessarily be sufficient for all graduate student writers, it makes sense to seek out non-local resources. Those ‘global’ resources certainly exist, at least in part because of the affordances of social media. I am able, by generalizing from the needs of my own students, to create content that I hope will be helpful to readers outside my own institution. In turn, the existence of readers from around the world helps me to be mindful of aspects of my advice that might involve particularity masquerading as universality.

But while it is easy and appealing to speak to a broad audience, are these perspectives necessarily good for graduate students? In a recent post, Pat Thomson asked whether we are heading towards a ‘DIY PhD’, one in which doctoral students pull together the support they need from a range of sources. This description certainly rings true, but, as Pat argues, we don’t know enough about what this growth of non-local support means for doctoral students:

We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere (Thomson, Are we heading for a DIY PhD?).

While we don’t yet know what this change in available forms of doctoral support means, we do know that doctoral students are supplementing local support−both supervisory and institutional−with social media support. Are there ways that graduate students can orient themselves in order to maximize the benefits of that advice? I would suggest that graduate students need to develop three sorts of filters to help them navigate social media support. At the simplest level, they need to translate advice that reflects a foreign locale. It is easy, for instance, to find advice on when to start writing; needless to say, that decision requires a sensitive cognizance of local dissertation writing conventions (be those institutional or disciplinary). But while it is important to contextualize some advice, the inherent value of the advice can make that worthwhile. I often link−both here and on Twitter−to the Thesis Whisperer, Patter, and Writing for Research, none of which originates in Canada. A Canadian graduate student may have to do a bit of translating, of course (What’s the difference between a viva and a defence? And what even is a REF?), but the insights are so valuable that those barriers don’t ultimately matter.

Second, graduate students need to learn to disregard advice that just doesn’t make sense for them. For me, this meant learning that I actually write pretty well when I’m a bit distracted; trying to create someone else’s ideal writing situation hampered my writing for years. I write well in short bursts when there is a lot going on around me, and big chunks of time intimidate me and lead to a paradoxical lack of productivity. I spent ages trying to cure myself of that flaw; it may genuinely be a flaw−I certainly wouldn’t wish my magpie brain on anyone−but I can work around it. In some ways, I think it is easier to resist inapt advice when it comes from social media than when it comes with the weight of a supervisory edict. Lastly, graduate students need to avoid advice that is genuinely bad or at least tone-deaf in its insistence that there is a magic bullet or a simple act of will that can improve the doctoral experience. Here I think it may be a bit harder to discern bad advice online because we are less able to draw on our intuitive faculties when we don’t have an in-person interaction to go on.

Once those filters are in place, there are so many wonderful sources for insight. And given the complexities of getting all the necessary support in situ, it is wonderful to be able to look for new approaches to problems in an anonymous and stigma-free manner. Yes, it requires discernment but that ability to identify good advice and bad advice and good-for-someone-but-not-for-us advice is a crucial aspect of our professional lives; there is tremendous benefit to being able to source and assess the help that we need without relying on a single locus of authority. As long as we are explicitly aware of the need to make any advice consistent with our growing understanding of our own locale and of our own temperament as writers, we stand to benefit from a world of advice.

Silent Sociability

One of my first tasks upon returning from my sabbatical was to run a dissertation boot camp. Although dissertation boot camps are a well-established way of supporting doctoral writers, this is the first time we have offered one at the University of Toronto (we did offer a very successful research article boot camp earlier in the summer). We had sixteen participants (doctoral students from a wide range of disciplines), and we met for three days, from 9-5 each day. Our days were made up mostly of writing, with breaks to discuss strategies for pre-writing, productivity, and revision and to consider the particular challenges of thesis writing. The overarching theme for the three days was silent sociability. A writing retreat of this sort involves both silence and sociability and thus presents an opportunity to reflect on the ways that academic writing relies on both.

First, the silence. When planning the boot camp, it was obvious that our writing time would be silent in order to make it hospitable for everyone. While not everyone likes silent writing time, as demonstrated by the number of people writing in every Starbucks one visits, quiet would obviously be essential for a group like this. People who preferred some background noise were able to use headphones to create the sound scape appropriate for them. But that’s just the outer writing environment; I was more concerned about the way that the boot camp might support the creation of an inner quiet.

By inner quiet, I mean nothing more than the ability to withstand distraction. The boot camp model offers a kind of externalized discipline: we turned off our Internet access and created a norm of sustained writing. But that only worked for the three days that we were together; we all need that sort of distraction-proof writing time without the benefit of artificial constraints. To get that, we must understand the nature of the things that distract us from writing. We all have what I’d call ‘legitimate’ distractions—preparing for teaching, administering a research project, engaging with the scholarly literature, etc.—and we need to vigorously protect our writing time from those sorts of encroachments. We also have what I’d call ‘pure’ distractions. Those pure distractions are generally things that aren’t inherently interesting or important but that become suddenly compelling when writing isn’t going well. We all need to find a way to live with those writing challenges without taking refuge in distraction. In order to resist distraction, we need to be committed to carrying on with a piece of writing even when it feels too hard. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I think the best way to learn to co-exist with our writing challenges long enough to solve or manage them is to accept those challenges as normal. When we normalize our obstacles, we increase our sense that we all need routine strategies to help us handle the inevitable difficulties of academic writing.

Second, the sociability. Acknowledging the need for sociability in academic writing is important for two reasons. Most writers need some sort of accountability, some way to externalize the ongoing pressure to write. When a goal is very long term (i.e., ‘I have to finish my dissertation by next spring.’), it doesn’t necessarily provide the immediate motivation that we need. Instead, many dissertation writers need to create accountability by finding some peer group that will support writing. Most writers also need some sort of community to combat the inherent loneliness of academic writing. Accountability and community can be found in the same place, but that won’t necessarily be the case. The important thing is that doctoral writers find company—virtual or actual—to help them remain productive and to allow them to experience the pleasures of a scholarly community. Once this boot camp was complete, the participants emphasized how much they had benefited from writing quietly while in the company of a sympathetic peer group.

Overall, the three days of the boot camp were a very fun experience, at least for me. I got more writing done than usual; our daily schedule (I’ll include that below in case anyone is interested) had four hours of quiet writing time, which is considerably more writing time than I normally find myself with. I also learned a great deal from the conversations we had about writing. I may have been leading those conversations, but many of the most valuable insights came from the participants, who were able to frame their own experiences in ways that were helpful for a group of students from widely divergent backgrounds. It was inspiring to be writing with so many talented and generous graduate students—I’m already looking forward to doing this again.

Daily Schedule

9:00 – 10:00           Thinking about Writing (Instructor Presentation/Discussion)

10:00 – 12:00         Writing

12:00 – 12:30          Lunch Break

12:30 – 1:00             Lunch Break/Discussion (Writing Process)

1:00 – 2:00               Writing

2:00 – 2:45               Discussion (Thesis Writing)

2:45 – 3:00               Break

3:00 – 4:00              Writing

4:00 – 5:00              Open Time (Writing/Discussion)

Key Sources (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the key sources that I find helpful for academic writing. This topic gets further elaborated in “Can you recommend a good book on writing?”.

KEY SOURCES

This week’s post will discuss the sources that I find most helpful for academic writing. This list could be longer, of course, but it was abridged intentionally: these are the five books that I would not want to write without.

Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Fourth Edition (New York: Quill, 2001). This is an interesting and highly readable book about style; it is divided into chapters on diction, linking, tone, meaning, composition, and revision. Barzun includes sample sentences and some hints towards improving those sentences. His aim throughout is to breed an analytical self-awareness about the choices we make when we write.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First published in 1995, this book provides invaluable advice about conceiving a research plan, conducting the research, and then conveying the results of the research in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the reader. The book includes sections on the centrality of research; understanding your reader; finding topics; using sources; making and supporting claims; outlining, drafting, and revising; writing introductions and conclusions; communicating evidence visually; and the ethics of research.

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues.

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 2010). This book argues that grounding our own claims in the previous scholarly work is “the internal DNA … of all effective argument”. In other words, all effective academic writers must learn how to situate their contribution within the ongoing scholarly conversation. This book offers concrete strategies for doing just that. By distilling the essence of the most common rhetorical moves in academic writing, this book is able to provide a useful collection of templates for academic writing. Even if using templates does not fit your writing style, reading this book will help to clarify the extent to which effective arguments follow discernible patterns. Recognizing those patterns can help you to strengthen your writing or even to clarify what you need to say.

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. Note: This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981. The edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost.

When asked to recommend one book about writing for graduate students, I usually choose The Craft of Research. I think this book is the most valuable because graduate students rarely have writing tasks that are not also research tasks. Placing writing in the context of a research agenda is usually fruitful for graduate students. And if more engagement with issues of style is required, The Craft of Research does have a great chapter on style, one which fully reflects Williams’s approach to sound writing.

Originally published February 2, 2011

Subjects (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of using the characters in your sentences as clear subjects.

SUBJECTS

Our topic this week is the importance of using clear subjects to express the characters in our sentences. ‘Characters’ is Williams’s useful term for the people/places/things/ideas that are doing something in our sentences. Since this discussion of subjects is closely connected to last week’s discussion of verbs, we can now take another look at the same sentences  (one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing):

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Last week, we discussed the possibility that our dislike of this sentence stems from its use of nouns to express actions. Williams suggests that our dislike may also stem from a lack of clarity about who is doing those actions. So, who is doing something in this sentence? We did not know something and thus could not determine something else; the committee allocated something; areas needed something. However, in the original sentence, those characters were not acting as grammatical subjects. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for characters and ask whether those characters are the grammatical subjects of the sentence. If we find no such overlap between characters and subjects, we can rewrite with characters in the role of subjects. The easiest way to start this process is by asking who or what the sentence is about; in this case, the opening clause is about the meaning of literacy and the main clause is about what scholars think about that definition. When we rewrite the sentence, we can make those terms into subjects:

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

Choosing clear subjects can sometimes be more involved than choosing strong verbs. It is, however, so valuable to ask ourselves—especially in the context of paragraph development—who (or what) is doing something in our sentences. The benefit of thinking about sentences as having characters is that it can reframe writing, even academic writing, as story telling. This reframing is important because someone who is telling a story must be aware of their audience, must be aware of what that audience expects a particular passage to be about. Pushing yourself to define your characters and then to use them as the subjects of strong verbs will allow you to write sentences that are clear and that are much more likely to fit cohesively into a broader piece of writing.

Originally published March 9, 2011

Verbs (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of expressing the action in your sentences with strong verbs

VERBS

One of the challenges of writing this blog is going to be the somewhat arbitrary division of topics. My hope is that this initial weakness will ultimately become a strength. At this point, the blog consists of a collection of distinct topics, an arrangement that does not reflect the way writing topics interconnect. But in the long run, I hope that the non-linear form of the blog will actually offer something valuable. By establishing multiple links between posts, I hope to create a cohesive whole, one that allows readers to combine related topics according to their own needs. Stay tuned to see if that actually happens! For now, I am going to try to talk about verbs without stealing any thunder from next week’s discussion of subjects.

Joseph Williams suggests that we are troubled by writing in which the action is not expressed by verbs. I am going to explore this idea using two examples, one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing:

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

 According to Williams, most of us will dislike this sentence. While it is a hard sentence to like, Williams’s point is that this adverse reaction alone is not a particularly helpful editorial judgment. We need to know what it is about this sentence that does not work. His answer is that the action in the sentence is not expressed through strong verbs. What is the action in this sentence? Someone did not know something; something did not get determined; someone allocated something; some place needed something. In each case, however, those actions were expressed through nouns: knowledgedeterminationallocationneed. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for the action in the sentence to see whether that action is being expressed through verbs. When we find nouns instead, we can try changing them to verbs: contestation becomes has been contested and agreement becomes agree.

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

 (Note that I have also changed is complementary and is contradictory to complements and contradicts. This is a related topic that we will look at in a future post.)

We will return to these sentences next week when we discuss the need for clear subjects.

Originally published March 2, 2011

Transitions (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about making effective transitions. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Semicolons; Colons; Lists; Signposting and Metadiscourse; and Full Stop.

TRANSITIONS

This week’s topic is another key strategy: making effective transitions. A lack of comfort with making transitions is one of the causes of the short paragraphs I mentioned last week; when we do not know how to make smooth transitions, we are more likely to add in unnecessary paragraph breaks, imagining that starting a new paragraph will solve the problem. But creating short, choppy paragraphs only exacerbates the problem. Instead, we must focus on creating effective transitions between sentences, which we generally do in one of two ways: we use transition words or we use textual linkages. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their only way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words  is actually detrimental to our writing and blinds us to the possibility of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Indeed, texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.

I promise to return to this rich topic in detail in future posts, but for now I will just give a few key principles:

1. Avoid unclear reference. The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples:

‘A is connected to B. This is …’

‘A is connected to B. This connection is …’.

Without the summary word (‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call the pattern shown in the second example ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have reference made explicit. So a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone.

2. Avoid unnecessary transition words. The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers–where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one–but they are so often used to indicate simple addition that I am including them here.) My first approach to a word like ‘also’ is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing ‘also’ and adding a more substantive indication of that link will be far more helpful to the reader.

3. Avoid the mere appearance of causality. When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connection we could be making. When we say ‘A exists. Therefore, I am going to study A.’, we are missing a chance to give an actual rationale for our research. Look closely at your use of causal words (‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘hence’) and make sure that they accurately reflect the relationship you are trying to convey.

4. Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text. Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this to the reader. Consider these simple examples:

‘There is plentiful evidence for A. I think not-A.’

‘There is plentiful evidence for A. However, I think not-A.’

The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.

I will also make two quick points about other types of transitions.

Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes  ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such a tight relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph and that is not the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.

Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, in a literature review, a writer may say that she is going to consider the literature on a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there. Not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.

Originally published February 23, 2011

Paragraphs (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of paragraphs. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You? and Breaking Points.

PARAGRAPHS

This week’s topic is the importance of the paragraph as a ‘unit of discourse’. Novice writers tend to think of both full texts and sentences as areas for improvement, but they give less thought to the role of the paragraph. They recognize, of course, that a full text must possess a certain communicative goal, and they understand that sentences are the building blocks of the whole. But paragraphs? In my experience, these intermediate units are consistently neglected. This neglect greatly underestimates the important role that paragraphs play for the reader. A paragraph break means something to a reader; when we move from one paragraph to another, we imagine that we are leaving one thought (or issue or topic or argument or point or perspective or piece of evidence) and moving on to another. We attempt, in other words, to find some unity within a paragraph and to discern some diversity between paragraphs. When the writer has not managed paragraphs well, those attempts will lead us—consciously or not—to be disappointed. Most of us benefit from adding paragraphs to our list of things that must be effective if our writing is to succeed. To that end, here is my list of four things I wish every academic writer knew about paragraphs:

1. That they are very important. Simply stated, effort should be devoted to working on paragraphs, as well as on sentences and full papers.

2. That they usually need a topic sentence. The ‘usually’ is there to avoid the appearance of dogmatism, but I do in fact advise writers to start with the assumption that every paragraph will require a topic sentence. The main exceptions are introductory paragraphs (which often, in effect, act as a kind of topic sentence for the whole text), transitional paragraphs (which exist to signal a significant shift in topic), and serial paragraphs (all of which refer back to a single topic).

3. That they should be thematically linked. The rest of the sentences should be recognizably about the theme announced in the topic sentence. These thematic linkages should also involve noticeable linguistic linkages, accomplished through strategic repetition and the use of key terms.

4. That their length is meaningful. The length of a paragraph should be determined by the demands of content, not by the number of sentences or space taken up on the page. When I ask students for the rationale behind a paragraph break, they frequently say something to the effect of ‘I thought it had gone long enough’. (The phrase ‘my high school English teacher always said …’ also comes up a lot in this regard, but the ongoing trauma of a high school English education will have to be a topic for a future post!)

Paying more attention to paragraphs will improve their internal cohesion. But this attention to paragraphs is also a key way to improve the overall coherence of a text. As I have said repeatedly, our willingness to revise can be undermined by the difficulty of finding our way into a text. But once that text is reduced to a series of paragraphs—each of which has an explicit role to play—we are better able to think about the overall demands of structure.

Originally published February 16, 2011