How to Use this Blog

Welcome to fall, everyone! One of my summer projects was to establish a thematic organization for the 139 posts I’ve written since this blog debuted in January 2011. This task—a surprisingly difficult one—was a great illustration of both the value and the limitations of blogging. I found lots of things that I was glad I’d written; I’m grateful for a forum that allows me to crystallize what I’m thinking about at any given time. Coming up with a thousand or so words about whatever is on my mind is a manageable challenge, but understanding how those ideas fit into a broader context could easily have derailed me. The format of the blog means that these ideas reach an audience even when I don’t yet see how they might fit together. But the capricious and episodic nature of blogging can mean that thematic coherence is hard to discern.

This inherent limitation of blogging can make it hard to do anything with a new blog except read the current post and wait for subsequent ones; that is certainly what I do when I discover a new blog. However, it seems a shame for the archives as a whole to go unread. People do, of course, read individual posts from the archives, but much of that traffic is the result of particular searches leading to particular posts. Since new people do arrive everyday, I thought it would be worthwhile to create a landing page that could facilitate the process of finding relevant posts. The posts themselves will, of course, retain the somewhat idiosyncratic framing that reflects their original composition, but at least this list will suggest some overall coherence.

In what follows, I will list the posts according to ten themes: Drafting; Revision; Audience; Identity; Writing Challenges; Mechanics; Productivity; Graduate Writing; Blogging and Social Media; and Resources.

Note: This information can also be found under the ‘For New Visitors’ tab. If you wish to link to this material, please use that page rather than this post; the permanent page URL is http://explorationsofstyle.com/for-new-visitors/. I will update that page with new posts as they are published.

I. Drafting: In Using Writing to Clarify Thinking, the first of my key principles, I suggest that writing is a way to develop our thoughts rather than a way to record those thoughts. This central commitment to writing as thinking has informed many subsequent posts on the complicated nature of composition.

  • In Can You Write Too Early?, I argue that early writing is the best way to work through the difficult process of figuring out what we need to say.
  • In A Cut-and-Paste Job, I consider the pros and cons of reusing our own texts in new ways.
  • In The Discomforts of Uncertainty, I address some of the challenges of exploratory writing.
  • In Between Drafting and Editing, I outline a strategy for making sure that our early drafts don’t become unmanageable.
  • In Is It All Writing?, I wonder whether the nomenclature that we use to define the various stages of writing matters.
  • In The Faintest Ink, I discuss the importance of getting things down on paper before we forget them.
  • In Writing as Thinking, I reiterate my commitment to exploratory writing in response to an articulation of an opposing view.

II. Revision: In Committing to Extensive Revision, the second key principle, I acknowledge that transforming early drafts into suitable final drafts will require extensive revision. In subsequent posts, I go on to discuss why revising our own work is so hard and how we might do it better.

  • In The Craft of Revision, I discuss my approach to the task of revision, from start to finish.
  • In Remembering to Edit, I present some strategies for ensuring that we keep our eyes on the task of revision.
  • In Bad News, Good News, I describe a common pattern: a lack of overall coherence despite local cohesion. In The Perils of Local Cohesion, I talk about the way that local cohesion can blind us to larger problems in our texts.
  • In Best Laid Plans, I encourage writers to think about the ideal relationship between prior planning and actual writing.
  • In Letting Go, I acknowledge how hard it can be to let go of hard-won text, even when it may not be serving any purpose.
  • In Scaffolding Phrases, I introduce the distinction between writing that may be helpful to us as writers and writing that serves the ultimate goal of satisfying the reader.
  • In Problem Sentences, I consider a radical revising solution: starting over.
  • Finally, in Reverse Outlines, I discuss the best way to tackle structural problems in our writing. The process of reverse outlining get elaborated in my discussion of Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines. In Truth in Outlining, I stress the importance of being honest when crafting reverse outlines. In Topic Sentence Paragraphs, I look at a strategy that helps us to see if we have created coherence in a late-stage draft.

III. Audience: In Understanding the Needs of the Reader, the last of my three key principles, I advocate using the needs of the reader as a guide for revision. The various ways in which audience awareness can help and hinder our writing has been a frequent topic in subsequent posts.

  • In Audience and Anxiety, I acknowledge that while remembering the needs of the audience can help us with revision decisions, the spectre of being read can be a source of anxiety.
  • In Self-Expression or Adherence to Form, I discuss a particular tension for graduate students: how to balance their desire for self-expression through writing with the expectations or predilections of their audience.
  • In Understanding Incoherence, I talk about the legitimate conflict between the messiness of our developing ideas and the needs of the reader.
  • In One-Way Trip, I consider what the reader is entitled to as they make their way through our texts.
  • In Signposting and Metadiscourse, I look at what the reader will need in order to follow our writing.  In The Evolution of Signposting, I address a common complaint about metadiscourse. And, in You Know It and I Know It, I own up to overusing one of my favourite bits  of metadiscourse.

IV. Identity: These first three sections explored ways to think about drafting, revision, and audience. Our ability to undertake those tasks is, in my view, connected to our willingness to identify ourselves as academic writers.

V. Writing Challenges: Throughout this blog, I have attempted to address the emotional and psychological challenges associated with academic writing.

VI. Mechanics: My treatment of writing mechanics is divided into four categories: punctuation; sentences; structure; usage.

 VII. Productivity: No matter how much we know about all these writing issues, most of us still struggle with productivity. As this blog has developed, I’ve devoted more and more time to reflecting on the tensions surrounding the need to be productive.

VIII. Graduate Writing: While many of my posts are potentially of interest to a wide range of academic writers, some are explicitly geared towards graduate student writers. In this section, I list posts on topics associated specifically with graduate writing, including thesis writing.

IX. Blogging and Social Media: Inevitably, the focus of the blog occasionally shifts from academic writing to blogging in particular and social media more generally.

X. Resources: Finally, in Key Sources, I give a list of published resources to support academic writing at the graduate level. An expanded treatment of this topic can be found in “Can you recommend a good book on writing?”.

Productivity: An Ethical Response

At the end of a recent course on thesis writing, I received an interesting note from a student, Ann Sirek. We had spent our final class talking about productivity: what impedes thesis writing and how we can overcome those impediments. Ann wrote later to say that our conversation had inspired her to think about the challenges of thesis writing from an ethical perspective:

The writing of the dissertation could be viewed not so much as a patchwork of duty, obligation, punishment, and even self-effacement, but as a fulfillment and culmination of a certain kind of personal maturation, that comes, as all maturation does, with some travail and adversity. Sometimes in the name of virtuous discipline, violence gets perpetrated in subtle ways, and that kind of discipline paralyzes creativity. But, if I reward even the slightest flicker of creativity and growth, I start developing habits of creativity, rather than habits of fear. From this point of view, times of chaos and non-productivity require balancing out with intentional times of quiet and stillness in an attitude of self-compassion (eg. yoga, meditation, prayer, music, painting, etc).  I think you were getting at all this, but obliquely. The ethical paradigm that rewards growth and creativity is quite different to the one that adjudicates and punishes. This insight from the world of ethics might bring to awareness a question worthy of consideration. Is writing a dissertation more about obligation and getting stuck in one’s own limitations, or is it more about creativity and exploring my own personal, undiscovered potentials? For me it has been about increasingly fostering my own creativity and turning away from voices that would adjudicate and make me anxious about failing. I may not be the exemplar of PhD perfection, but I am getting towards the finish line, and that’s the goal for most of us! My comments are not meant as a critique of you, but rather as a sharing of my own process and my own work with the intention of perhaps reassuring someone else in the same boat! Thanks again for this very excellent course and for your warm teaching presence!

I was so pleased to get this thoughtful response from Ann because it gives me an opportunity to address something that is obviously missing from my discussion of writing productivity. When we treat writing as something to be managed or as a chore or as a necessary evil, we are foreclosing the possibility that writing might be joyful or that we might use the occasion of writing to be kind to ourselves. Ann is absolutely right to see a notion of discipline inherent in many versions of productivity; while we often think of self-discipline as positive, it’s important to be mindful of what we are doing when we view writing as something that has to coerced out of us. Coercing or disciplining ourselves into being productive writers can preclude us from seeing writing as valuable way to express our developing selves. Reflecting on Ann’s observations allowed me to think more about my usual approach to writing productivity. That approach—both here and in the classroom—tends to focus on two things: the value of admitting that writing is inherently hard and the importance of acknowledging the systemic obstacles faced by graduate writers.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I talk often about the inherent challenge of academic writing. And I definitely see a great deal of benefit in acknowledging that difficulty. Doing so allows us to ask this crucial question: ‘how can we write through the difficulty?’. Like many people, I’ve been thinking of late about the influence of William Zinsser on the way we approach writing. I often return to this passage: “Writing is hard work…. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (On Writing Well, 2005, p. 12). As a teacher of writing, I feel obliged to offer a bit of pragmatism: you don’t need to enjoy writing, you just need to get down to it and work through the difficulty. It seems so important that each struggling writer be reminded that the problems aren’t theirs alone—everyone struggles with writing.

Second, I also think it is valuable to recognize that the inherently difficult task of writing may be hard for reasons that are beyond our control. We need to be sure that we don’t use discourses of productivity to overestimate the power of the individual to minimize systemic hurdles. Encouraging people to write in an atmosphere that neglects their barriers to writing seems genuinely wrong.

While I believe that these two approaches are valuable for most writers, I’m intrigued to engage with the ethical challenge that Ann has raised here. Any approach that is premised on the notion that writing is hard has to confront the hazards of negativity. While I don’t think that the writing-is-hard narrative is necessarily negative, it can easily crowd out a more positive attitude. On the other hand, I often worry that encouraging people to find joy in writing seems a bit risky; the last thing I want is to annoy students or to make them feel that they ought to be enjoying the writing process more. My yoga teacher is able to deploy, at the absolutely perfect moment, the phrase ‘with joy’; the class always laughs because her suggestion comes just when practice feels the least joyful. Being reminded to do something that’s important to us with joy—when it’s done right—is a gift. But done wrong, it can just make everything worse.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a dichotomy between effective pragmatism and unattainable idealism. That dichotomy is false because Ann is illuminating a third possibility: productivity through meaningful self-awareness. In her vision—which is a lovely one—productivity comes from self-realization which in turn comes from self-awareness and deliberate self-care. We don’t discipline ourselves into productivity; instead, we nurture ourselves into productivity. This view doesn’t diminish the trials of writing but rather reframes our response to those trials.

I would love to know what others think. How do we define our work in order that the completion of that work becomes an authentic and satisfying expression of ourselves? If we confront the undeniable challenge of graduate writing by turning it into an unpleasant task that must be handled with discipline, are we in danger of damaging a valuable dimension of that work? For me, this comes down to a set of questions about what sort of writing advice is likely to do the most good. Do you want tools for disciplining yourself through the daily slog of writing? Would you rather be encouraged to view writing as form of self-expression that can be drawn out if we are sufficiently attentive and kind to ourselves? Or perhaps something that tries to encapsulate both approaches? Again, many thanks to Ann for raising such provocative questions.

Choosing the Singular They 

In this post, I want to talk about an issue that has been troubling me for as long as I have been writing this blog. Should I be using the singular they? That is, should I be using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for a grammatically singular antecedent? In general, I have not done so, but trying to fix this sentence from a recent post forced me to revisit that policy:

An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article.

My usual way to circumvent this issue has been to use the plural. But that solution—‘doctoral students attempting their first articles’—worked dismally here. Making the whole sentence plural sounded daft, and making only the second half plural upset the comparison. So I left it as it was and made a note to make a more systematic decision later (and to make it the topic of a post).

People with much more expertise can give you actual reasons for using the singular they without compunction; I’ll include some helpful links at the end of this post. I’m only going to give my reflections:

1. It’s necessary. We need a gender-neutral pronoun in order to refer to a singular antecedent without specifying gender. The phrase that I often need to use in my blog writing is some variant of ‘When a student shows me their writing …’. Up till now, I have edited such sentences to read ‘When students show me their writing …’. While this is a solution of sorts, I’ve never particularly liked it; I want to be talking about a single generic student, not a bunch of students.

2. It’s correct. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not incorrect to use the singular they. The decision is ultimately a judgment call: Should we use the singular they or might it be disturbing to our readers? Will those readers recognize what we are doing? Might they find it incorrect or excessively informal? My main concern about adopting the singular they in this blog has been one about reception; if enough people believe it to be wrong, I’ve worried that it might be an unnecessary distraction. I’m ready now to let that worry go.

3. It’s beneficial. Using the singular they solves a real problem and gives us important flexibility in the way we reference gender. We should do more than just say that he can’t be a generic pronoun. Even saying he or she—which is obviously stylistically insupportable—makes it seem unduly important that we identify people by gender. Given our understanding of the complex ways that we perform and present gender, it seems entirely desirable to enrich our capacity to leave gender binaries out of places where they are irrelevant. Of course, there are those who argue for an entirely new gender-neutral pronoun, one which could refer to a specific person without identifying gender. Using the singular they doesn’t obviate this perceived need for a gender-neutral pronoun, but it does help. It may be that we will eventually say ‘Sam came to my office and showed me their writing …’ as a way of making Sam’s relationship to traditional gender categories irrelevant. Or it could be that a newly coined gender-neutral pronoun will emerge and take root. In the meantime, it is still beneficial to be able to use the singular they to refer to singular generic nouns and indefinite pronouns.

4. Finally, I can if I want to. If I see this practice as necessary and correct and beneficial, why not do it? In particular, why not do it in this space where I’m answerable only to myself? In the unlikely event that anyone cares enough to judge this decision, it won’t matter. I can continue to make decisions about this issue in other contexts as I wish. And I will certainly continue to teach this issue in such a way that students are aware of a range of opinions and practices. But if I think this usage is desirable and the main impediment is that it may ‘seem wrong’ to some, I think it behooves me to follow my inclinations.

So I’m making it official—this blog will use the singular they, as needed. I totally get that this is immaterial to all of you, but making the decision is a weight off my mind. If you are still troubled by this issue, I suggest having a look at the resources below. And, if you only have time for one, I recommend the first: Tom Freeman does an excellent job explaining the full range of associated issues on his terrific editing blog, Stroppy Editor.

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”, Stroppy Editor

Singular ‘They,’ Again, Lingua Franca (Anne Curzan)

Epicene ‘they’ is gaining greater acceptance, Copyediting (Mark Allen)

There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There, Lingua Franca (Ben Yagoda)

Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’, Sentence First

Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They, Lingua Franca (Geoffrey Pullum)

The Evolution of Signposting

When teaching graduate students about metadiscourse, I often hear the same thing: “My supervisor doesn’t like metadiscourse.” If we think of metadiscourse in its more technical sense—as the various devices that help a writer structure a text to facilitate the reception of that text—it makes little sense to be against it. That would be like being against effective writing. But what this objection generally seems to mean is that the supervisor just doesn’t like it when too many of the seams are showing. Rather than being against metadiscourse in the broad sense, it’s possible that some supervisors are simply against signposting. Or at least against overly explicit signposting. Even if this explanation is correct, I still find this mistrust of signposting hard to understand: I think signposting offers a great deal of benefit to both the writer and the reader.

First, the writer. In my view, producing explicit signposting is unambiguously valuable for the writer. The act of describing—as bluntly as you wish—the order of what is going to happen in your writing is so useful. If you push yourself to write a road map for your text, you will gain insight into what you did (or didn’t do). Maybe you meant to do something and then didn’t end up doing it. Or maybe you did something and need to explain why. Of course there are limits. I certainly hit mine when the introduction to a standard IMRD paper ends with this sort of passage: “The next section will present the method. The results section will discuss the results. Then the discussion section will discuss those results. Finally the article will conclude with a conclusion.” This (real) example is obviously an outlier, but it may help to explain why some are so suspicious of the practice. What the suspicion overlooks, however, is how much we can learn, as writers, from the task of trying to articulate where we’ve been or where we are going in a text. When the signposting feels circular, as in that last example, it probably isn’t necessary. But much of the time, the structure isn’t that transparent and articulating it will be instructive for you as a writer. But will it be good for the reader?

Often the answer to that question, in my mind, is also yes. As readers, we appreciate being told what’s up. Academic writing is full of thickets; having access to the writer’s explanation of the structure can ease our way through. However, to return to our starting point, just because signposting is potentially helpful doesn’t mean that some readers won’t find it irredeemably artless. Given its utility, there must be a way to avoid throwing the baby out with bathwater. Can we find a way to let useful-to-write signposting evolve into instructive-to-read signposting?

Here’s a place to start:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to my topic. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on this topic. The next step will be a re-interpretation of my problem in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implication of my topic for the broader field.

This is the sort of passage that gives metadiscourse a bad name. Obviously, it’s weak because it lacks all specificity; if other writers could easily lift your signposting and drop it into their writing (with little-to-no alteration necessary), it’s not doing much for you. Here’s what happens when we make this passage a little less generic:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to [my topic]. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on [my topic]. The next step will be a re-interpretation of [my topic] in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implications of [my topic] for [my field].

A little better, right? It still feels way too much like an academic Mad Lib, but it would definitely be more informative than the first passage. The next step is to take this passage and transform it into one that reflects the demands of the project rather than just detailing the parts of the text.

The first step in discussing [something] must be a consideration of [some sort of background issue]. To get a better feel for [this issue], we will need to look at [a particular aspect of the literature]. The dynamic that we see between [these two strains of thought we’ve identified in the literature] will provide a new way to understand the [current topic]. It is only when we see [this topic] in this new way that we can grasp its implications for the broader project of understanding [some issue facing the field as a whole].

This third passage is potentially better because it tries to indicate the way that the topic needs to be discussed. By describing what is to come as inherently necessary for this topic rather than as just a series of textual steps, we can arm the reader with useful fore-knowledge without relying on road-map boilerplate. This approach to signposting stands the best chance of informing the reader without deadening the writing. However, this more sophisticated signposting won’t appear in our writing out of thin air. Most writers need to learn to describe their texts in this way; crafting more explicit bits of signposting can be an essential first step along that road. Most of us will be able to produce subtle and instructive signposting only once we grasp the internal structure of our text. Drafting a provisional signposting passage can be an invaluable way of gaining that initial understanding and thus enabling us to craft a more evolved explanation of our own texts. If we give writers the idea that signposting is inherently clunky and part of a broader problem of academic writing, we may lead them to miss out on its beneficial effects on their own thinking and writing.

While it isn’t directly relevant to our discussion here, I can’t resist ending with one of my favourite examples of understated signposting. At very end of the introduction to Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams tells us what is to come (emphasis mine):

“No one can teach clear writing by rule or principle, simple or not, to those who have nothing to say and no reason to say it, to those who cannot think or feel or see. But I also know that many who see well and think carefully and feel deeply still cannot write clearly. I also know that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see, and that in fact there are a few straightforward principles—not rules—that help. Here they are” (p. 14).

In Support of Academic Writing

Last fall, Steven Pinker promoted his new book, The Sense of Style, with an article in The Chronicle Review entitled “Why Academics Stink at Writing”. I didn’t write about this article at the time because I hadn’t yet read the book; while I had a lot of concerns about the article, I was reluctant to share them in the absence of an understanding of his overall intentions in the book. Over the winter break, I read the book in order to write a review; what I found was a thoughtful diagnosis of the habits that impede strong academic writing and a great deal of incisive writing advice. I recommend Pinker’s account of how what he calls the “curse of knowledge” (p. 59) prevents us from grasping what the reader needs to know. And I recommend his approach to managing complex writing, especially at the sentence level. I feel certain that most serious writers could benefit from both aspects of this book, but I remain uneasy about the overarching tone with which Pinker addresses academic writing.

My uneasiness is straightforward: I worry that Pinker’s decision to treat academic writers as a monolithic group worthy of some measure of scorn is potentially discouraging to novice academic writers. That is, it seems awful to be labouring to join a club that everyone agrees is full of people who are terrible at the thing that they do. Obviously the pressure to be productive means that all aspiring academics do want to join this club, but it’s dispiriting to work so hard for an accomplishment that is so easily and casually derided. Furthermore, since we often learn to write from exemplars, it can be perplexing to see those examples so widely condemned.

The issue is more than just a broad one of how we feel about the enterprise of academic writing. The way we talk about academic writing also has implications for actual decisions that we make as writers. Pinker mentions many things that bog down academic writing: inexpert use of metadiscourse; reflexive indications that our topics are too complex to be readily explained; nominalizations and passive constructions; imprecise or clichéd language; and excessive hedging. All these things are clearly capable of weakening academic prose, and he has good advice for managing these and other potential pitfalls. However, he fails to consider how fraught many of our academic writing decisions are. Take hedging, for example. Pinker describes “compulsive hedging” (p. 43) as a lack of commitment to our own ideas; by characterizing this familiar type of prudence as a problematic lack of confidence, he evinces a lack of interest in the complex process of developing an academic identity. An academic identity of sufficient strength to allow us to take a firm stand behind our own interpretations is not easily formed. Excessive hedging can be irksome to the reader, but it is unrealistic to imagine that novice writers ought to simply abandon their natural and often pragmatic embrace of caution. Pinker has offered ways for academic writing to get better, but he hasn’t paid much attention to why the characteristic tics of scholarly writing persist.

It’s not that I want to defend all academic writing, and it’s certainly not the case that I want to preclude intelligent analyses of why writing goes astray. As I said above, Pinker’s discussion of the curse of knowledge is very helpful and far better than the frequently heard suggestions that academic writers can’t be bothered to write well or that they can’t afford to write well lest they expose their own emptiness. But I do think it is important that novice academic writers begin writing in a supportive atmosphere with a clear grasp of the complex array of pressures attached to their writing choices. Academic writing isn’t laughably bad—it shouldn’t be the butt of a joke. And it isn’t monolithic. An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article. Pinker’s critique often makes it sound as though academic writers simply appear whole cloth without any process of learning the craft.

In the end, Pinker’s analysis of academic writing seems to run the risk of being disregarded by the established writers who might benefit while being taken seriously by all the wrong people. These established writers may not listen to his valuable suggestions since they likely have a certain a confidence in their existing style. My concern is that while these writers carry on undeterred, two other groups may take Pinker’s critique too much to heart. First, there are those who wish to believe that academics are engaged in an inherently meaningless and solipsistic enterprise; this group will certainly find solace in Pinker’s critique. And, second, there are those who are already daunted by the prospect of joining the academy; this group will likely feel discouraged by the view that even if you succeed as an academic writer, the accomplishment will always be clouded by a lack of respect. His “professional narcissism” (p. 41) critique may be apt when levied against the sort of senior academics that he is targeting, but it feels downright uncharitable when extended to graduate student writers. He clearly feels that there are writers who should be held accountable for continuing to provide turgid and limp prose to the world—and maybe he is right that they should know better. But there are also many developing academic writers who aren’t in a position to avoid all these potential stylistic problems, at least not yet.

Before engaging too deeply with the academic-writing-is-terrible narrative, I urge novice writers to be reflective about their own writing situation. Some of the habits of novice academic writers will reflect the challenge of trying to marshal their thoughts about complex topics for a difficult-to-define audience with a tremendous amount at stake. This challenging situation doesn’t necessarily give rise to great writing. In my view, Pinker offers us excellent advice on improving writing but fails to see how our own positions within the academy may affect our ability to take his advice. By overlooking the developmental side of academic writing, he is overlooking the crucial work associated with becoming an academic writer. This blind spot is unfortunate because the advice itself is outstanding and beautifully presented. However, improving our academic writing—a goal we can all share—takes more than good advice; it also requires a good understanding of why we struggle. And while it is obviously possible to improve our writing in the face of widespread contempt for academic writing, I wonder if it might not be easier in an environment that offers a little more support for the whole enterprise of academic writing.

2014 in Review

Happy New Year!

As I begin a new year of teaching and writing, I thought I’d take a quick look back at the year past on Explorations of Style. If you are new to reading this blog, this post will give you a quick recap of what I talked about last year. As always, my favourite topic was revision. I had three posts on different aspects of the revision process: managing paragraphs breaks effectively; using topic sentence paragraphs to assess cohesion; and dividing the revision process into manageable stages.

On a broader note, I began the year by reflecting on what constitutes writing. The first comment on this post—from Patrick Dunleavy, whose work on writing I highly recommend—suggested that I was “coming over a bit metaphysical.” Which is fair enough, I’m sure—this post may have been one of those that was more helpful for me to write than it was for anyone to read. What I hope came through, however, was the value of broadening our notion of writing enough to include the important conceptual work that can happen during the revision process. On a similar theme, I also indulged myself with a post on another favourite topic: the way writing is best understood as a form of thinking.

On a much narrower note, I talked about the Oxford comma and my conviction that as much as I’d like to be prescriptive about its use, I’m not sure that it’s possible to do so. While I still recommend using the serial comma, I’m unable to do so on any grounds that transcend the simple benefit of shared stylistic conventions.

On the topic of productivity, I had a post on the way that a desire for productivity can sometimes lead us away from making progress on the things that are most important to us; being productive is a worthy goal, but we still need to prioritize. Productivity was also on my mind over the summer, as I had the opportunity to offer my first dissertation boot camp. This fabulous experience led me to reflect on the way that public accountability can help us to manage the tensions between writing as a solitary act and our need for community. And no blog on academic writing would be complete without some mention of AcWriMo, a month-long experiment in accountability and productivity.

Finally, I spent some time this year reflecting on the relationship between academic writing and social media. Thinking about my writing here and on Twitter led me to a post on the way we write for social media. I was also thinking about social media when I wrote about the way graduate students need to learn how to navigate a world of advice. Given the growing prevalence of insight that originates somewhere other than our local precincts, it is important to think about the provenance, relevance, and value of the advice we encounter.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing in 2014! If you have any questions or ideas for future posts, I’d love to hear them.

The Craft of Revision

All academic writers have some sort of revision process, but that process is often either insufficient (just nibbling around the edges) or scattershot (catching some things but missing others). To improve our revision practices, we generally have to both deepen them and make them more systematic.

My starting point here is the near impossibility of crafting reader-ready first drafts. If the material is conceptually complex, if you are still struggling to understand the implications of what you’ve learned, if the internal connections aren’t yet apparent to you, then the first draft is going to be clumsy. At that stage, the text will be something that you are still learning from rather than something that others can learn from. For most of us, making the transition from a text that helps you to a text that helps the reader takes multiple iterations. When I talk about needing to make a commitment to extensive revision, that choice of words might make it sound as if the main issue is one of will power. The truth is that developing good revision practices takes more than just commitment because revision itself is very challenging. Even with the best of intentions, we still run into problems:

I always run out of time.

In other words, “I’m not actually getting a first draft done early enough to make revision a rational part of my writing process; at the last minute, I’m trying to make it better, but I don’t actually have the time or space to tackle the hard stuff.”

I try to edit, but then I get distracted by content.

In other words, “Even if I have the time and space for editing, I quickly shift my focus away from the writing to issues of content.”

I see some problems but not others.

In other words, “Even with the best of intention, with sufficient time, with sufficient attention to matters of expression (rather than content), I still can’t see all the problems in my own text.”

As these comments demonstrate, the ability to revise our own writing doesn’t generally come naturally. In fact, the challenges of assessing our own writing are such that revision must be thought of as a craft that will need to be consciously cultivated. If we think of writing as an art, it makes sense to think of revision as a craft. No matter how you came to pull the first draft together, there are some recognized ways to get it into a more manageable form.

The first thing to say about the craft of revision is that it is different than proofreading. It’s crucial that we distinguish the process of revision from the final process of making sure there are no errors. Lumping proofreading in with revision may result from the fact that we often use the term ‘editing’ to refer to anything we might do to a draft. But separating revision and proofreading means that we are able to distinguish two activities that are inherently quite different: revision is the active reading and rearranging of our text and proofreading is the process of making corrections and checking for consistency (while not making the sort of revisions that so easily introduce new errors).

Even once we exclude proofreading activities, revision isn’t one monolithic thing; there are a broad range of activities that can be called revision.

  • Word choice: Have you used apt vocabulary?
  • Sentence structure: Are your sentences easy for the reader to follow?
  • Flow between sentences, paragraphs, sections: Have you found the optimal order and then signalled that order to your reader?
  • Tone: Have you engaged your reader while still conforming to academic writing conventions?
  • Economy: Have you avoided distracting digressions or general wordiness?
  • Overall coherence: Is there a clear and discernible argument or structure to your writing?

With all these potential questions, it is unsurprising that we often feel jumbled and ineffectual while trying to revise our own prose. One way to tackle these feelings is by creating an effective sequence for our revision process. Here is one such possibility, drawn from the always-helpful work of Joseph Williams.

Broad structural issues: The first thing to tackle are the big issues. This advice may sound obvious, but many writers do begin with the small stuff. The best way that I know to undertake a structural edit is to do a reverse outline. It is practical to do this sort of revision first, before we end up too attached to everything we’ve written and thus unwilling to make deep cuts. This stage should be somewhat ruthless, and ruthlessness comes easier early in the process. During this stage, we should also be on the lookout for those things that may have needed to be written but not necessarily read. Since writing so often functions as a way of clarifying thought, we need to be alert to the possibility that we’ve said more than is ultimately necessary for the reader.

Clarity: Revising for clarity means looking for extra words and for undue complexity. In our quest for clearer sentences, it can helpful to remember how consistently we are tempted to distance ourselves from our ideas with awkward expressions, weak verbs, and unclear subjects. More generally, we are often flummoxed by the conventions of academic writing, which at least appear to require a degree of complexity that works against clarity. There is always room for clarity, but these issues of tone can still give a lot of grief to novice academic writers who are grappling with complex topics while navigating the demands of a new discourse community.

Sentence-level errors: In this round of revision, we will be looking for errors that may not have been caught while we were thinking about clarity. We will ideally be guided here by an understanding of our own particular writing patterns as well as by an understanding of common issues such as subject-verb agreement, ambiguous reference, or punctuation.

Cohesion problems: By this point, we’ve made a lot of changes, so we have to make sure it all coheres. With all this revision, it’s inevitable that new inconsistencies and infelicities will have been introduced. A final round of revision is often required to make sure our newly arranged and polished text flows naturally.

These four stages reflect the revision order that I prefer, but the process could easily be altered to reflect your own preferences. The crucial notion is that revision should be sequenced—to allow different issues to come to the fore in turn—and that the sequence should run from broad to fine.

In conclusion, I want to stress the way that revision benefits both the writing itself and the writing process: as better revisers, we are better writers. Good revisers are better writers because they have the confidence to know that they can fix the problems that are inevitably created during the composition process. Since writing is usually accompanied by some discomfort about the manifest flaws of our first draft, it is so helpful to develop faith that we will be able to fix problems later. There are many valid approaches to academic writing, but they all must end with a solid approach to the craft of revision.

This post is adapted from a presentation on the ‘art of revising’ for a virtual boot camp run by the Text and Academic Authors Association. The presentation is available as a podcast on the TAA site.