Monthly Archives: April 2011

Weekly Links: Appreciating Feedback, PhD Reflections, Negative Results

Here is a great post from the Hook and Eye blog about the role of reviewers and editors in the writing process. I liked this post for two reasons. First, I appreciate the emphasis on the learning that can happen during the submission/rejection/revision/acceptance process. Throughout this process, there will be feedback on your writing; not all of it will be constructive and helpful, of course, but much of it will. Being open to learning from that feedback is crucial. Second, the post offers a valuable reminder that the writing we read—and desire to emulate—has been through so much polishing. Given how hard we all are on our own writing, we can’t have too many reminders about how much revision published work has been through.

Here is something from Inside Higher Ed on the singular moment of finishing a PhD: what is lost, what is gained, and what we should understand about ourselves as we prepare for the next step.

Finally, an old joke with a thought-provoking punch line from the Crooked Timber blog.

Problem Sentences

Sentences come in many varieties: there are elegant sentences, workhorse sentences, clever sentences, short sentences, and long sentences. There are also problem sentences. You know the ones: you keep coming back to them and making changes without every being satisfied. In fact, after a while, you start to suspect that your newest changes are simply reinstating earlier versions of the sentence. This back-and-forth alone is significant; if you are alternating between two versions of a sentence without ever being happy with either, you need to do something dramatic. This need is intensified by the fact that these problem sentences are generally important sentences. I am generalizing, of course, but I am doing so with lots of evidence. The sentences that we use to convey key points are more likely to give us trouble, both because our investment in the topic can cloud our thinking and because our key points generally involve a complex array of information.

When you are confronted with such a sentence, my suggestion is to try what I call ‘blank-side-of-the-page writing’. Since sentences have this way of wearing a groove in our brains, we need strategies to help us get a fresh start. In one-on-one writing consultations, I often ask students to tell me what a challenging sentence is about. What they say is generally much stronger that what they have written. And stronger in two ways: more direct and less brief. You can see why direct is better, but you may be wondering why I am praising a lack of brevity. Indeed, most of us are less concise in writing than we ought to be, until we try to convey our key point; then, many of us become positively telegraphic. Forcing ourselves to devote more ink to our own ideas is a sure way to improve academic writing.

If you write down—on the blank side of the page—exactly what you come up with when you try to convey the key point to an imaginary interlocutor, you will have something new with which to work. Even if all you do is disrupt the pattern of futile revision, you will be ahead of where you were. But you may find that you do considerably more than that by forcing yourself to rearticulate a key point. Certainly, by inserting a potential reader into the process, you are immediately improving your chances of structuring your ideas in a way that will suit that reader.

It is hard to show an example of this technique since it requires an actual conversation (either between writer and writing instructor or between writer and herself/himself). But try it yourself and see whether it helps you. Here is how the process might work:

  1. Identify a sentence that has been giving you trouble. 
  2. Read it over, identifying its key ideas and thinking about the relationship between its parts.
  3. Turn over the page, so you can no longer see the original sentence.
  4. Imagine someone asking you what you were trying to say in the original sentence.
  5. Answer that question aloud and try to write down verbatim what you come up with. At this stage, be fulsome: take advantage of the fact that we tend to articulate things more fully in spoken language.
  6. Assess what you have come up with, remaining open to all possibilities (Should it be more than one sentence? Is it undermined by missing information? Does it appear at the correct point in the text?).
  7. Finally, edit it to be sure that it hasn’t retained any of the informal tone you many have introduced by transcribing a spoken version.

This strategy can help you get past an impasse with a particular sentence and can help you to push yourself to articulate your key ideas with more clarity and precision.

Interrupting Yourself

One of the challenging things about this blog is the process of dividing the broad topic of academic writing into manageable bits. My goal is to have posts that are short, self-sufficient, suitably comprehensive, and recognizably part of a broader whole. Since that broader whole, by definition, doesn’t exist yet, I am struggling to find the optimal way to divide things up. I recently wrote a post on dashes, which I thought would be a neat and tidy little topic. As it turned out, I actually had quite a bit to say about dashes. In the end, I ran out of space before I had dealt with the implications of interrupted sentences in academic writing (thanks to my husband for diplomatically pointing this out). So here is another attempt to discuss this issue, focussing particularly on how to decide what punctuation to use when interrupting yourself. Let’s start with that basic idea: interruption. When and how should you interrupt yourself? As I said in the earlier post, interruption is a stylistic aberration and thus not something to be overused. But there are times when we need to add extra information into our sentences. Consider the following three examples:

Civil society (a concept that is notoriously difficult to define) is crucial to any attempt to increase voter turnout in a proportional representation electoral system.

Civil society, a concept that is notoriously difficult to define, is crucial to any attempt to increase voter turnout in a proportional representation electoral system.

Civil society—a concept that is notoriously difficult to define—is crucial to any attempt to increase voter turnout in a proportional representation electoral system.

Which of these do you prefer? Chances are you prefer the second one; barring some special circumstance of which we are unaware, this particular interruption is best managed with commas. To review, commas are the least obtrusive way of interrupting yourself; parentheses announce that something is unimportant and not worthy of integration into the sentence; and dashes draw the reader’s attention to the material. In this case, the interruption should likely be handled with commas because the point needs to be made but not emphasized.

Here are some examples of sentences with unimportant interruptions (e.g., technical information, dates, terminological clarifications):

The sensor (LK-G82, KEYENCE company) is put inside a casing and then used to measure impact velocities.

Isaac Newton (1643–1727) wrote extensively on Biblical hermeneutics.

Funding was provided to elementary schools (kindergarten through grade eight) and secondary schools (grades nine through twelve).

In each of these cases, parentheses seem like the best choice; in fact, using commas in their place would require us to use extra words and would draw unnecessary attention to useful but uninteresting information.

Here, however, are some borderline instances of parentheses usage:

Individuals with unusable surveys (due to either illegibility or incompleteness) will not be included in the second level of analysis.

Earthenware vessels (among other artefacts) were present in the region.

Of these barriers to cycling, the most likely candidates include weather elements (such as rain or snow) and safety elements (such as bike lanes and bike-friendly intersections).

I would likely recommend not using parentheses in these sorts of cases. My guiding principle is that the author should have a sound reason to exclude the bracketed information from the sentence proper. In each of these three cases, I think the parentheses could be avoided by using commas.

Now let’s turn briefly back to dashes. As we saw in the earlier post, dashes indicate that something is worthy of extra attention:

The issues that confront students entering late-stream French immersion programs—most importantly, their lack of familiarity with instructional vocabularies—are a pressing concern for school administrators.

We also learned that dashes can help us when using commas would make the sentence needlessly complex. In such a case, we may decide to use dashes to interrupt ourselves even though the intervening material isn’t especially noteworthy. Consider these two examples:

Since architects are dependent on domain knowledge, generally elicited from specialists, users, and stakeholders, the development of guidelines should not be dependent on general algorithms.

Since architects are dependent on domain knowledge—generally elicited from specialists, users, and stakeholders—the development of guidelines should not be dependent on general algorithms.

The second sentence is, in my view, easier to read. However, the dashes are there for clarity rather than for emphasis, and one could quibble that I have overemphasized the interruption. It is important to find a balance; in some cases, I would definitely reword rather than use dashes to solve this type of problem.

I think I am now finished with dashes and the related question of sentence interruptions. But if you have further questions associated with this issue, please raise them in the comments below. Next week, we will look at an editing strategy designed to help us deal with our problem sentences.

Weekly Links: Writing Anxiety, Explaining Your Project, Spot the Fake

From the University of Venus blog, here is a post on the relationship between writing anxiety and graduate school. This post made me reconsider the proper balance between the demands of a coherent discourse community, on the one hand, and the writer’s own need for creative expression, on the other. I generally argue that the former is a source of productive limits, of limits that push us to be explicitly aware of our audience while writing. I believe that some of the anxiety of writing can stem from a lack of limits: being able to say whatever we want can sometimes stop us from saying anything at all. My response to the writing anxiety of graduate students is often to encourage them to use those disciplinary limitations to their advantage. Assuming a place within an ongoing conversation can feel more manageable than having to create something entirely new. But perhaps I should be more aware of those students for whom this insistence on form suggests a closing of possibilities in their writing. Teaching an activity such as writing requires one to establish what is true for most writers and what may be true only for some. Do you find the notion of joining a discourse community comforting or claustrophobic?

Here is some advice from The Chronicle of Higher Education on academic writing. This list of ten ways to write ‘less badly’ is full of interesting ideas; I particularly liked the author’s suggestion that when we are deeply engaged with our writing we may actually be quite inarticulate about what we are doing. One of my standard pieces of advice is to have an easy capsule version of a thesis project (because I think life is better when you can easily answer the ‘what are you working on’ question). But I love the idea that our frequent inarticulacy can come as a result of being immersed in the moving waters of an ongoing and engaging project.

Finally, here is a post from Stuff Academics Like: Can you spot the fake article title? I actually appreciate outlandish article titles, so I didn’t view this as an exercise in mockery. I should probably add that I appreciate these titles personally; officially, I always sound an appropriate note of caution about fancy titles. Be particularly wary of puns: an experienced journal editor in your field has heard them all before.

Identifying Yourself as a Writer

Do you think of yourself as a writer? Graduate students write a great deal but rarely think of themselves as writers. Maybe this is analogous to how we think of other activities; I love to bake, for instance, but would never describe myself as a baker. A baker is someone who has training as such or who, at the very least, is paid to do so. Since neither of those is true for me, I am just someone who spends way too much time baking. Similarly, since we aren’t generally trained as writers or paid to write, we don’t call ourselves writers. But there are implications of being a writer–that is, someone who has to write frequently in order to meet key professional goals–who nonetheless shies away from that label. What would you say if asked to finish the following sentences?

‘As a writer, I am…’  

‘As a writer, I wish to be…’

Many of us will come up with sentences like these:

‘As a writer, I am not very good (or skilled or competent or efficient or happy or effective or confident).’

‘As a writer, I wish to be finished, so I don’t have to write any more!’

In my experience, people rarely think of themselves as writers, but they frequently think of themselves as bad writers. Adopting that sort of critical stance towards our own writing could be beneficial if it was part of a broader project of developing our writing skills. But novice writers often treat bad writer as an ontological category, as a condition that will afflict them forever and always. Needless to say, it can be hard to improve your writing if you are more or less resigned to never improving. If you are inclined to think of yourself as a bad writer, try lopping off the ‘bad’. Doing so may leave you with a more hopeful construction: ‘I am a writer who needs to improve in such-and-such ways. These improvements will come from such-and-such strategies.’

I recently came across an interesting article that discusses a range of strategies designed to improve the writing process:

[W]e have identified strategies that can help novices understand more about academic writing and their relationship with writing. One strategy is to confront and talk about rather than ignore the difficult emotions that writing stirs up. This can result in two potentially enabling insights for beginning academic writers. They learn that their feelings are not extraordinary but commonplace, and therefore not something to be anxious about. And by finding that their feelings are shared by more experienced writers, novices learn that difficult emotions need not get in the way of writing, can be managed rather than erased and might even be productive in the writing process. The second strategy is to explicitly address procedural know-how and expose what goes on in the writing process. This provides novices with information about strategies for productive writing, and assures them that what they currently perceive as failings (such as having to write and rewrite multiple times) are the very means for producing good writing. Novices learn that they are not deficient or lacking in skills but doing exactly what experienced writers do. Related to this, the third strategy is to…hail novices as academic writers—to use social settings, such as writing workshops, where novices, in the presence of others, take on tasks as if they were already experienced writers (for example, to read the work of an admired author not as a student seeking wisdom, but as a one writer inquiring into how another writer writes) (Cameron, Nairn, and Higgins, 2009; emphasis mine).

These strategies are expressed as ways that instructors can help students, and they are indeed all strategies that I find useful in my teaching. But they are also approaches that you can use yourself: you can talk honestly with your peers about your writing difficulties; you can accept that writing doesn’t come automatically and seek out the support that you need; and you can consciously adopt the role of academic writer as you approach the texts that you read. Even if writing support is hard to find, I urge you to continue to look for resources to help you implement these strategies in your own writing life. The blogroll is full of excellent resources, and I will return to these issues in future blog posts. For today, I will close with a post from the Hook & Eye blog that offers one writer’s reflections on the role of identification and acceptance in the writing process.

Source: Cameron, J., Nairn, K., & Higgins, J. (2009). Demystifying academic writing: Reflections on emotions, know-how and academic identity. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 33 (2), 269-284.

Weekly Links: Language Sticklers

Last week, I posted a link to a brief discussion in The New Yorker about the inclusion of abbreviations (OMG), symbols (♥), and slang (muffin top) in the OED. I included it originally because I was amused at the predictable outrage.* But as I thought about it more, I began to feel that there was an important point to be made about usage and writing. Not only is the outrage based on a misunderstanding of the proper role of a dictionary, it also overlooks the importance of context for writing decisions. The dictionary doesn’t tell us what words are suitable in our writing; the inclusion of annoying usage in a dictionary has no real role to play in our usage decisions for formal writing. We have to decide what language is appropriate for our purposes and our audience, and our ability to make those decisions comes from having a sound grasp of the specific context in which we write.

This brief consideration of language outrage brings me to an post from the New York Times’ Schott’s Vocab blog by Robert Lane Greene. Drawing on his book You Are What You Speak, Greene discusses what language sticklers get wrong. I particularly liked his consideration of what he calls ‘declinism’: the view that language was better yesterday and will be worse tomorrow. His most interesting point concerns the role of mass literacy: “So a bigger proportion of Americans than ever before write sometimes, or even frequently, maybe daily…. A century ago, a nation of 310 million engaged with the written word on a daily basis was unthinkable. Now its uneven results are taken as proof by some that language skills are in decline. That is far from obvious.” Here is a review of Greene’s book, also from the New York Times. In this review, Geoffrey Nunberg provides an amusing summary of Greene’s critique of modern ‘declinism’: “We’ve passed from the thoughtful homilies of Fowler to the pithy dictums of Strunk and White to the operatic curmudgeonry of modern sticklers like Lynne Truss, whose gasps of horror at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe are a campy cover for self-congratulation.” I agree, and I love the irony of the sentiment: The written word may not be in decline, but the quality of the jeremiads is definitely slipping.

* I was also reminded about an article by Ben Yagoda that I discussed in an earlier post; Yagoda observes that student writers don’t generally use slang in their writing, preferring instead to use the vaguely elevated language that he calls ‘clunk’. The inclusion of slang in a reputable dictionary isn’t likely to cause an outcropping of informal academic writing. Novice writers may need help managing formality in their writing, but not because they are confused between their academic writing and their social media writing.

Dashes

Today’s topic is dashes: when to use them and when not to use them. At the risk of boring you—although you are reading a post about dashes so you really have only yourself to blame—I am going to start with the distinction between hyphens and dashes. A hyphen joins two words into a unit (e.g., ‘on-site manager’ or ‘lotus-eater’) or indicates a word break at the end of a line of text. A short dash (often called an en-dash because it is the width of the letter ‘n’) separates items such as dates or page numbers (e.g., 1711–1776 or pp. 106–7). A long dash (often called an em-dash because it is the width of a letter ‘m’) is what we will be talking about below. A hyphen is produced by a simple keystroke on your keyboard; dashes are symbols that can be inserted into a document in a variety of ways. For more on hyphens and dashes, you can consult the online Chicago Manual of Style.  

Just in case anyone is still reading, I am now going to talk about using dashes in your writing. First, we will look at single dashes, which I will argue are insufficiently formal for academic writing, although some would disagree. Here is an example:

Recombinant DNA technology has left an indelible mark on the basic ingredient of human survival—food production.

This dash could be replaced by either a comma or a colon. I would suggest a colon because a colon signals unambiguously that what follows will complement or complete what precedes it. A comma would work, but since commas play so many roles in our writing, I generally choose a colon over a comma when they go head-to-head. Here is another example:

The range of Hume’s writings help us to understand his reservations about a revolutionary approach—such an approach would be unlikely for a thinker so immersed in historical considerations. 

In this case, you could replace the dash with either a semicolon or a period. Generally, a semicolon will work best since it will provide the closeness that the author was trying to convey with the dash.

I am only arguing against the single dash in academic writing—it is absolutely fine in a more casual context like, say, a blog post. My reason for this advice is that the dash can play the role of a comma, colon, or period without doing anything unique. Nothing special is added and something may be lost. You may lose clarity, and you will certainly lose formality. I am being, of course, overly opinionated; if you wish to defend the use of single dashes in formal writing, I hope you’ll do so in the comments below. One possible line of defence is certainly the drama of the single dash; since it breaks up a sentence in an unconventional manner, it does draw real attention to what follows it. Now let’s turn to the use of double dashes.

Double dashes are used instead of commas (or parentheses) to interrupt a sentence. The phrase separated by dashes must be grammatically inessential, by which I simply mean that the sentence will still work without that phrase. Here is an example:

The issues that confront students entering late-stream French immersion programs—most importantly, their lack of familiarity with instructional vocabularies—are a pressing concern for school administrators.

It is often said that we use dashes to signal that something crucial is being added to a sentence and use parentheses to signal that the interruption is relatively unimportant (e.g., to give dates or citations or examples). In this schema, commas fall somewhere in the middle. There is some truth to this division, but I find the next three principles more helpful in deciding whether to use double dashes:

1. Most importantly, double dashes can be used to add an element to a sentence that already has its share of commas. 

2. Double dashes are very common in some fields (most humanities fields, for instance) and rare in others (in many scientific fields, for instance). If they are rare in your field, it is unlikely that you would want to use them.

3. Regardless of field, double dashes are a stylistic variant and should be used sparingly; they draw attention to themselves, and the audience will grow tired of them if they are overused.

Overall, I suggest using double dashes—if they are appropriate to your field of study—in moderation and replacing single dashes with colons, commas, or even periods, if only in your formal writing.