Tag Archives: Graduate students

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader (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 understanding the needs of your reader. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Scaffolding Phrases; Problem Sentences; Audience and Anxiety; and One-Way Trip.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

The third principle that informs my approach to academic writing is understanding the needs of your reader. This principle relies on the simple but surprisingly elusive idea that the reader’s needs are different from our own. What we need to say—especially as we struggle with the early stages of writing—and what our readers will need to hear can be strikingly different. Extensive revision is the solution for this dilemma, but, as we discussed last week, early drafts often confound us. Revisiting those texts with the needs of the reader in mind can be extremely helpful. The reader always has expectations, some that are conscious and others that are unconscious. Conscious expectations come from genre or disciplinary conventions (these are the expectations readers have before they ever read your text) and also from promises made by the writer (these are expectation readers have after reading the early passages of your text). Unconscious expectations are more complex and involve anticipation about the placement of information, particularly within paragraphs and sentences. Strategies for meeting these expectations will be a large part of our focus in this blog.

These three principles will act as the grounding for the more practical discussions of writing that are still to come in this blog. For now I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three ideas together: Joseph Williams. Nobody, in my view, has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving our own writing than Joseph Williams. His ideas will be present throughout this blog. So I will conclude with a quote from Williams that expresses all three principles as one idea: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader” (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x). In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader.

Originally published January 26, 2011

 

Committing to Extensive Revision (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 committing to extensive revision. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Remembering to Edit; Bad News, Good News; Best Laid Plans; A Cut-and-Paste Job; and Between Drafting and Editing

Committing to Extensive Revision

The second key principle that informs my approach to academic writing is committing to extensive revision. Most people will readily agree that more revision would improve their writing. But despite this widespread recognition of the importance of revision, many writers simply do not make revision an essential part of their writing process. One reason for this resistance is that many writers believe their own first drafts to be uniquely flawed; in other words, they think the weakness of the first draft comes from their lack of writing skill rather than from the intrinsic weakness of any first draft. As a result, they have little faith in their ability to fix what ails their writing. I suggest a shift in perspective: rather than worrying that your writing requires an exceptional amount of revision, try thinking that all writing requires a great deal of revision. A first draft must be evaluated as stringently as we can, but there is no need to apply those harsh standards to ourselves as writers. This caution is important since very few people excel at writing first drafts; the tendency towards self-criticism means that the initial draft becomes a source of frustration rather than a valuable starting point. Accepting that the writing process must be iterative makes it easier to understand that writing will rarely be suitable for a reader without extensive revision.

Another obstacle that stands in the way of revision is the fact that many writers are stymied by their own drafts. When I ask students to bring me a piece of their writing with their own changes marked on the pages, those suggested changes are generally tentative and minor. Our own written texts can seem daunting; they may be flawed, but they do possess a certain unity and coherence. Changing them can be more challenging than letting them stand, even with their manifest weaknesses. However, we must be willing to treat our own texts as essentially mutable, as raw material that will eventually take the requisite shape.

Suggesting that good writing requires extensive revision is obviously not particularly novel writing advice. What we all need are revision strategies, and those will come in future posts. For now, my goal is simply to discuss the principles that underlie those strategies. Next we will look at the third of these principles: understanding the needs of your reader.

Originally published January 19, 2011

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking (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 using writing to clarify your own thinking. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Letting GoThe Discomforts of UncertaintyIs It All Writing?; and Writing as Thinking.

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

Over the next three weeks, I am going to discuss the three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. Today’s post will stress the connection between writing and thinking. Next week, we will discuss the essentially iterative nature of academic writing. And, in the following week, we will consider the role that audience awareness plays in the choices we make in our academic writing.

The first principle is using writing to clarify your own thinking. This principle holds that it is often difficult to establish what we think before we have put it down in words. In many cases, we simply do not know what we want to say until we have tried to say it. But if we cannot decide what we want to say without writing and if we cannot write without a solid idea about what we want to say, we are in an obvious bind. For most of us, the best way out of this dilemma is to write. To take a generic example, we may have spent a good deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having specified the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, however, the demands of syntax will naturally encourage us to characterize the relationship more precisely. The text we create may be provisional, but it will still help to refine our thinking. Even if we are puzzled or surprised or disappointed by what we have written, we are still ahead of where we were before writing.

As a practical matter, this principle translates into a simple call to write more. Rather than postponing writing until you know what you want to say, use writing to figure out what you want to say. While this is generally sound advice, this call for more exploratory writing must come with a warning. Writing more freely means that we will need strategies for working with those provisional texts we create. Writing earlier and in a more exploratory mode often leaves us with texts that are less coherent than we might like. More freedom in the writing process demands more responsiveness in the revision process; the importance of committing to extensive revision will be our next topic.

Originally published January 12, 2011

Priority and Productivity

My current sabbatical serves to remind me, over and over again, that I don’t always practice what I preach. How can I tell other people how to improve their academic writing process when my own is so inadequate? Of course, as I’ve said often, this blog is not about telling you the one right way to do things. Rather, it’s just about trying to present a way of thinking about the problems of academic writing that I hope will be helpful. If I were preaching temperance, say, and was actually burying my empty gin bottles in the back garden at midnight, I’d be a hypocrite. If, on the other hand, I suggest making academic writing an inviolable part of your daily schedule, while allowing it to slip to the bottom of my own to-do list, I’m just trying to be helpful! Indeed, my own many productivity fails are entirely consistent with this blog’s position that academic writing is hard and endlessly resistant to the well-meaning productivity hacks that we try to enact.

But while an honest ‘do as I say, not as I do’ may be a defensible position for a blogger, I’m still left to confront the ‘what I do’ part. And some days lately what I do is a whole lot of not-writing. I don’t particularly lack discipline, I just lack writing discipline. All my other projects and commitments get attention; in fact, they often get all the attention. For me, productivity can be a trap of sorts. My desire to feel productive overwhelms my ability to be productive: I want to get a lot done when I actually need to get a little done on the projects that matter most.

Trying to evaluate my own productivity reminded me of an article from a few years ago from the Harvard Business Review called The Unimportance of Practically Everything. Simply stated, this author uses the law of the vital few to question our common allegiance to the equal significance of all the work we do. He concludes by suggesting a simple challenge: at the end of the day, write down the six things you hope to do tomorrow—and then cross off all but one. When you get to work the next day, devote a set amount of time to that one task before doing anything else. During that set time, if you feel the urge to do other things, make a note of the urge without otherwise stopping your work on the priority task.

It took me a while to come around to the soundness of this advice. My gut reaction is to be sceptical, of this and a lot of advice about productivity. It has that unmistakable sound of you’re doing it all wrong and the problem is all you. What if it feels like all six of those things are equally important? What if you’ve made commitments to other people to get some of those things done? What if you’re not putting off writing because you lack commitment and concentration but rather because the rest of your workload is using up all your time? How can we be expected to cross off tasks like a part-time job or a sick kid? Much of the thinking around productivity puts all the responsibility on the individual, leaving little room for critical reflection on the conditions under which we are expected to be productive. However, chances are you’re only reading this blog because writing is essential to your professional success. Even when we feel that we can’t ‘cross things’ off our list, we still need strategies to protect our writing time. Accomplishing requisite writing tasks is of such tremendous psychological and professional benefit that we owe it to ourselves to find a way past all the legitimate distractions.

Another reason to remain open to productivity advice is the way it can help us with what we might call illegitimate distractions. That sort of distraction takes different forms: it can be an inability to settle into the work because of a recurring need to check on email and social media or it can be a chain of distraction as we click link after link on our way down the rabbit hole. Acknowledging the potential for distraction, especially when our plates are too full—and full in part of work that requires us to think deeply—is crucial. What this all means for me is that I don’t cross five things off my list, leaving only the truly important. Instead, I look at the list and circle the one that I know will leave me most vulnerable to distraction. That one becomes my priority. In practice, this means I’m starting with the hardest thing first, which tends to be writing, although it doesn’t have to be. I like that I then have a plan for the next day, one that will allow me to dive right into without needing to engage in any planning. Once I’ve done the ‘first thing’, whatever it was, I find that I settle more easily into the many other tasks that are left. Overall, it means less wasted time since the essential non-writing tasks tend to involve a style of work that leaves me less susceptible to distraction.

Productivity still feels like a double-edged sword to me: of course we all need to take control over how we spend our time, but the illusion of control can make us feel bad when life inevitably intervenes. The shiny-happy-people version of productivity can, in my observation, do more harm than good. However, even though so much productivity advice seems tone-deaf and detached from the reality of our lives, it does reflect the basic fact that spending limited time wisely is hard for almost everyone. Reflecting on how we spend our time and whether that outlay of time is commensurate with the importance of our tasks is a crucial step to finding the approach to productivity that will work for each of us.

2013 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I thought I’d take a quick look back at 2013. In response to my own students’ interest in introductions, I began the year with a general post on the benefits of a standard ‘three move’ introduction. I returned to this topic a month later to address the more specific challenge of structuring a thesis introduction; given the length and complexity of a thesis introduction, it is crucial to have a strategy to help position the various elements in a manner that will make sense to the reader. Introductions made a third appearance in a post on managing the move from a research problem to a particular response.

Early in the year, I had a note from a graduate student with a question that summed up a great deal of the struggle of doctoral writing: Shouldn’t I already know how to write? The short answer to that question is an emphatic no: academic writing is a particular skill and most of us need time and effort to learn how to do it well. The post then delved into the way that this pernicious question can undermine confidence and dissuade graduate students from the necessary and challenging project of learning how to be proficient academic writers. The question of our status as academic writers was also addressed in my 100th post, which looked at the notion of academic writer as an identity.

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is the opportunity to engage with interesting material from other people’s blogs. Like many writers, I often don’t know what I want to say until I see what someone else has said on the topic. Over the course of the year, I was inspired by many people: William Germano on reader awareness; Peter Elbow on understanding incoherence; Melissa Dalgleish on finding community in graduate school; Pat Thomson on autonomy and doctoral study; Lee Skallerup Bessette on writing without inspiration; Susan Carter on writing aversion; Thomas Basbøll on the paramount importance of the paragraph; and, lastly, my yoga teacher on observing without judging.

While I felt that I didn’t spend enough time this year on writing at the sentence level, I did manage a few posts on nuts-and-bolts issues. Having already covered all the more controversial punctuation marks, I was left to consider the use of the period; in fact, I think the decision about when and how to end a sentence is a fascinating one. Punctuation also came up in a discussion of parallel constructions. My own over-reliance on the phrase ‘of course’ led me to write a post on the rhetorical significance of presenting something as obvious. And in response to a perennial question about finding good books on writing, I provided a brief annotated bibliography of books on academic writing.

What blog would be complete without a little bit of navel gazing? In my first post back after summer vacation, I reflected on the nature of the expertise presented in a blog such as this one. Part of the value, for me, of the advice found on social media is the way it requires us to be a reviewer as well as a reader. The advice on this blog might be good or it might be terrible. And even if it is good for lots of people, it might be terrible for you. In deciding what writing advice to take, we are honing our understanding of the writing process and of ourselves as writers.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the various ways academic writing challenges us. In a post on reverse outlines, I discussed how easy it is to write an aspirational outline instead of an honest one. I also discussed the disorienting effect of returning to our own exploratory texts. Since we all struggle with the time-consuming nature of writing, I devoted a post to the pace of academic writing. Taking a broader perspective on writing challenges, I looked at what imposter syndrome means in the context of academic writing.

My favourite post of the year was on the concept of contribution and voice in academic writing. In that post, I argued that voice can be a nebulous concept and that it may be better to focus on articulating our own contribution. Over time, we all strive to develop a clear and consistent voice, but, in the short run, explaining our particular contribution is perhaps a more pressing goal.

It was a pleasure to participate in Academic Writing Month again this year. Over the course of the month, I used the interesting questions and comments from the Twitter feed as the basis for posts on a range of topics: the many forms that not-writing can take; our sources for academic writing inspiration;  and managing the demands of multiple projects.

I ended the year with a post on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. In this post, I drew on material that I had used for a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share the webinar here on my own site; I’d also like to thank the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog for sharing the post on their site. The post itself links to many posts from this blog’s three-year history to explain my approach to confronting, accepting, and surviving the anxiety of academic writing.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing. As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics for future posts.

Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing

Last week I gave a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. Since the presentation, which I’ll embed below, was relatively short, I thought I would use this post to point to the places on the blog where I elaborate on its key points.

I began the presentation by discussing the key dilemma of academic writing: although writing can be the decisive factor in professional academic success, we often lack both training in the act of writing and time to complete the necessary writing tasks. As a result, we often dislike our own writing or find the process of creating acceptable writing unduly onerous. To make matters worse, these problems are often compounded by the sense that our difficulties are illegitimate, that we should already know how to write. Since we often aren’t expert writers, especially early in our academic careers, we tend to think of ourselves as bad writers. People are generally quick to call themselves bad writers, but they may not be so willing to embrace the broader category of academic writer, with all that entails. To identify yourself as a bad writer without making the commitment to being a writer seems a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The overarching theme of this presentation was that the challenges are real; we all struggle with our writing technique and with managing our writing time. Unfortunately, even though everyone has these struggles, many people think of themselves as alone in their writing challenges. One of the reasons that we remain convinced that these challenges are ours alone is that we engage in a lot of unfair comparisons. Instead of assuming that others must be struggling in much the same way that we are, we compare our insides with their outsides and thus conclude that we are uniquely inept.

How then to confront the anxiety that this negativity and isolation creates in academic writers? It can be helpful to begin by distinguishing between intellectual difficulties with writing—figuring out how to do it—and practical difficulties with writing—simply finding time to do it. Most of us struggle with both, but it is still helpful to tackle them separately. It’s also crucial to tackle them with novel strategies. New strategies are key because otherwise we are left with no avenue for improvement except renewed effort. And renewed effort only works if a lack of effort was the original problem. We all have days, of course, when a lack of effort is definitely the problem. But overall a lack of effort is generally a symptom of some other underlying difficulty. Simply put, trying harder won’t solve most writing problems and when it fails we end up feeling even worse about the whole thing.

One way to tackle our intellectual difficulties with writing is to try to think differently about the whole enterprise. Sticking with an approach, whatever it may be, that has caused us difficulty in the past isn’t likely to give us dramatically new results. As regular readers know, my approach relies on three principles that I’ve borrowed from Joseph Williams: using writing to clarify thinking; committing to extensive revision; and understanding the needs of the reader. These sentiments are all easily found in Williams’s excellent formulation: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” This quote has the potential to change the way we conceive of the activity of writing; in my view, that reconceptualization can be a necessary first step in shaking free of writing anxiety.

Such a  reconceptualization is potentially very valuable but also needs to be connected to concrete strategies. If we are going to write to clarify thinking, we will need to be aware of the challenges of exploratory writing. And we will need strategies to keep our texts manageable. If we are going to commit to extensive revision, we are going to need to improve our basic understanding of the editing process. How can we make revision part of our regular writing routine? How can we make sure that we are engaging in structural edits and not just tinkering around the edges? How can we prepare ourselves to let go of the material in our writing that is no longer serving us well? Finally, if we are going to be more aware of our readers’ needs, we will have to grasp the differences between the reader and the writer. How do we understand the breakdown of responsibilities between reader and writer? What guidance do we give our readers as they make their way through our texts? Are we constructing our paragraphs in a way that acknowledges their importance to our readers?

After this discussion of avenues for improving the act of writing, I turned to a discussion of productivity. Most anxious writers find that the time available for academic writing is never sufficient. Since finding more time is like trying to get blood from a stone, most of us need to find strategies to use our existing time better. There’s a world of productivity advice to be found, and it’s crucial that we expose ourselves to that world. We just need to do so with an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Be wary of advice, even as you seek it out. Even if you do find a helpful source of advice, remain attuned to your own style of working and respect your own intuitions about what will make you more effective.

I ended the presentation with a polemical question: What don’t you know about writing? If writing is, for you, laden with anxiety, it will be helpful to confront the gaps in your knowledge. You are generally expected to have picked up enough about writing along the way to get the job done, but few people thrive as writers without systematically addressing themselves to improving their technique and to finding effective productivity strategies. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to comment on a familiar dilemma: writing may be really important, but so is everything else and there just isn’t enough time to focus on writing. I’m not at all unsympathetic to this sentiment, but I’m also pretty sure that time spent on writing is time well spent. I think that is true for all of us, but it is particularly true for those who are anxious about writing. Anxiety is itself very time-consuming and inefficient. Tackling the source of that anxiety—by becoming a more proficient and productive writer—is likely to be a valuable investment of time, even when that time is in short supply.

Putting this post together reminded me of an important part of any good productivity strategy: taking the time to look back at and appreciate past accomplishments. Being able to assemble this collection of posts—with all their flaws—was a useful reminder of what I have accomplished thus far with the blog. For many of us, the next few weeks will be a time of reflection. As we look towards the new year and perhaps think about all the writing that has inevitably gone undone this year and about our plans to remedy this state of affairs, we should also spend some time thinking about all we have done. Those accomplishments are what we have to build upon, and they should not be neglected. I wish you all a very happy and productive winter break!

Thank you to the Text and Academic Authors Association for allowing me to share this presentation here:

Writing and Not Writing

As AcWriMo got underway, lots of people in the Twitter feed (#AcWriMo) were wondering what counts as writing for the purposes of this month of academic writing. This question registered for me when I started my first Pomodoro (using my PhDometer!) and quickly realized that the revise and resubmit project I’ve set for myself this month is going to require a lot of not writing. What will I be doing while not writing? Reading the reviewers’ comments closely; thinking about the editor’s summation of those comments; returning to the original article; making decisions about the relevant literature; and so forth. To turn this article into a new and improved version of itself will take relatively little writing, if writing is defined narrowly. But it all counts in my mind since my goal is to get this article back to my co-author in good shape, not to meet some abstract goal of writing a certain amount.

As I read people’s questions about what might count as writing, I began to see a range of possibilities:

Pure writing: When we put our heads down and just write. This sort of exploratory writing involves turning off your internal critic and allowing yourself to figure out what you need to say. This style of writing is well suited to the sort of productivity goals that many have set for themselves this month. As I’ve said many times in this space, I think this sort of uncensored writing is invaluable. However, it’s also potentially fraught with difficulties, so it’s important to be reflective about the process

Provisional editing: When we look back at the writing we’ve just done to ensure that it will make sense to us later.

Revision: When we return to our writing, ideally with a bit of distance, to make it better. Perhaps we’ll start  with a structural editing strategy, such as the reverse outline. At this point, most of us need to be flexible about what is needed: more time to think; a different organizing scheme; a new framing question; a fresh take on the literature. The work we do here may not look much like writing, but it’s definitely moving the text forward. This is the space where I picture myself hanging out this month.

Not writing: When we do things that aren’t writing during times designated for writing. I see three main categories of ‘not writing’. First, we have simple avoidance: in my case, for instance, an assiduous attention to office organization schemes. Is it really efficient to have my paper clips in a different drawer than my binder clips? And come to think of it, why are my paper clips themselves not sorted by size? Or better yet colour? And off I go. Those things are absolutely hazardous to my productivity, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m in full avoidance. We all know what our particular avoidance strategies look like. Second, and here is where things get more complicated, we have understandable avoidance: doing the things that have to get done, such as marking, emails, and meetings. We absolutely have to do these things, but we can try to organize our schedules so that they cannot encroach on our writing time. One of the great things about AcWriMo is the inspiration it provides to carve out writing time and to protect that time. The final way that we avoid writing may be the worst because it involves doing things that look very much like writing. Engaging in writing-adjacent activities can readily eat up our writing time. Maybe for you it’s too much reading or maybe it’s too much editing or maybe it’s too much second guessing before allowing the words to hit the page. Or writing something—a blog post, perhaps—other than what you were meant to be writing. Whatever the replacement activity is, it will use up your writing time and even undermine the concept of writing time. We all need to understand and resist our own habitual avoidance techniques in order to preclude the disappointment that comes from not writing.

Overall, I think it’s helpful to approach AcWriMo with two questions: What writing do you need to get done this month? And what do you want to change about your writing process this month? So, any activity can count as writing if it contributes to your overall goal. And it won’t count if it’s the sort of not-writing activity that has tripped you up in the past. AcWriMo is not a gimmick—it’s an opportunity to make writing work better in your life in the long term. All decisions about ‘what counts’ as writing should be made in that spirit.

AcWriMo is At Hand!

November is Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), an entire month devoted to the fostering of academic writing, brought to us by the great people at PhD2Published. If you’re bothering to read this blog, academic writing is already central to your life. You may even feel a little sceptical about a month dedicated to academic writing. Academic Writing Year (or Decade) might seem more accurate. Isn’t the creation of ‘days’ and ‘weeks’ and ‘months’ just about raising awareness or raising money? Most of us are all too aware of academic writing, since we think about it all the time. And we know it won’t make us any money. So what is the value of assigning a month to academic writing?

The value, in my opinion, comes from the way that AcWriMo leads to so much talking about writing. Talking about how badly it’s going. Talking about how great it’s going. Talking about the reasons—the totally legitimate reasons and the slightly suspect ones—that we haven’t written enough. Talking about the new strategy that has made a difference to our writing. All this talk means that academic writing isn’t hidden away. Instead, it is out in the open, and this openness makes it harder to believe that our writing struggles are a sign of our own uniquely deficient selves. When you are exposed to a lot of chatter about academic writing, you quickly learn that most people think they are ‘bad at it’. Over the course of the coming month, we will see evidence that most people are either struggling to write enough or else managing to write enough by employing some sort of strategic gambit such as software, time management approach, peer support, or unholy external pressure.

This evidence acts as a useful reminder that academic writing is consistently difficult; our weaknesses are not primarily the result of a lack of will power or ambition. In fact, most academic writers are trying extremely hard to do consistently challenging tasks. Even leaving aside the tremendous time constraints that many academic writers face, the act of academic writing is inherently hard. AcWriMo is a chance to prioritize writing and to do so in an instant community. On the road to becoming successful academic writers, I think we can all benefit from the honest company of our peers.

The people at PhD2Published explain AcWriMo in six simple rulesDecide on your goal. Declare it! Draft a strategy. Discuss your progress. Don’t slack off. Declare your results. We can all do that, right? The key to making AcWriMo work, in my estimation, is to be sure that it is different than any other month. Here’s my take on the three adjustments that can help make AcWriMo valuable:

Set manageable goals: In real life, many of us have vague and/or unrealistic writing goals, leading us to write consistently less than we want to. AcWriMo is about facilitating your ability to write the amount that you need to write this month. It is essential that your goals fit your time and objectives. I’ve already seen people on Twitter worrying that they’re not able to aim ‘high enough’. There is no high enough: the goal of this month doesn’t have to be spending more time on writing than makes sense in your life right now. Make this the month that you get reasonably close to the smart and accurate goals that you set for yourself. 

Tell everyone: This imperative is one of the best ways that AcWriMo is different than other times. We usually avoid complete honesty with total strangers about our writing goals and productivity. But the single biggest academic writing problem—in my experience, anyway—is the way that it slips noiselessly down our to-do list, elbowed out by the clamour of the everyday. The email, the marking, the student appointments, the meetings. Those things all make themselves heard, and we conscientiously attend to them while neglecting writing. Declaring our goals can help us to move writing into the must-do category. Telling everyone also means telling everyone how we are managing as the month goes on. This decision to keep in touch with a community of academic writers online is also probably the most dicey part of AcWriMo. For some of us, getting more writing done and spending more time on social media will feel like incompatible goals. Be aware of the line between finding community and squandering valuable writing time; the fruitfulness of the online writing community means that it is easy to spend too much time there without feeling like you are procrastinating.

Be strategic: Another important difference is that you can’t approach AcWriMo the same way you’ve always approached writing. If writing is going to be better for you this month, what strategies will you employ to make that happen? A writing group? Timed writing sessions (à la Pomodoro)? Rearranging some aspect of your working schedule to make writing more prominent? The strategies will be different for each person, but the key is making a change that will allow for more productivity.

Still interested? The accountability spreadsheet is the easiest way of getting started. If you are not sure how best to structure your goals, you can scroll through to see what other people—like me!—have planned. You can also declare your intentions on Twitter, using the hashtag #AcWriMo. Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below or on Twitter. Good luck everyone—I look forward to writing with you!

My AcWriMo announcement post from 2012
My AcWriMo reflections post from 2012

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.

In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”

This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.

While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.

This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences  into coherent paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of  accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.

The Discomforts of Uncertainty

One of the overarching themes of this blog is my faith in the power of writing as a way of clarifying what we are thinking. Just write. Let yourself write. Make yourself write. Nothing is set in stone. Try things out. Decide later if you want it. Writing alone will tell you whether something needed to be written. While I remain entirely committed to this notion, I think it is important to articulate the ways that this practice can be hard. After the great reaction to my last post on the inherent difficulties of academic writing, I thought it might make sense to devote some time to difficulties we are likely to encounter when trying to put common writing advice into practice. In this post, I’m going to talk about two ways that exploratory writing can be a source of discomfort.

In the first place, exploratory writing can be nerve-racking. Even if we tell ourselves that nothing is set in stone, we may still feel the weight of the chisel in our hands as we write. What if this isn’t what I need to say and what if I’m unable to change it later? ‘Write now, edit later’ may in fact be good advice, but we can still feel as though we are digging our own graves with every new word. At some point in the drafting process, most of us will lose faith in our own abilities as an editor. This feeling of dread requires delicate handling. Good writing rarely feels like good writing. So giving up on a direction in our text because we’ve decided it’s awful is a risky proposition. In general, I try to keep faith with my early drafts, forestalling my own anxiety with the recollection of all those times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a text that I thought was irredeemable. Of course, there are times when we need to cut our losses. I’ve talked about being willing to get rid of ‘perfectly good writing’ later through editing. But there may also be times when we need to pull the plug on the grounds that the incoherence feels unmanageable. A compromise option is to carry on while using a different font to signal to ourselves that we’re on thin ice. The simplest way of doing this is by using all caps, but a distinct colour or a fancy handwriting fonts (I like Segoe Script) can also work. The important thing is convince ourselves that we’re just spitballing. This lack of commitment can help us to overcome anxiety that might otherwise stop us from writing.

A second difficulty with exploratory writing can be the disorienting experience of returning to the text during editing. We may experience a kind of vertigo caused by a sudden uncertainty about what we actually want to say. Did we mean to say ‘A causes B’ or should it be ‘B causes A’? And how are such fundamental questions even possible? Shouldn’t we just know what we are trying to say? We naturally feel that the decision ought to be made on some bedrock of intention. Which is fine except that the unsaid is often still unknown, especially in the case of writing that is very abstract; the first draft is often the first opportunity to make a decision about meaning. We are rarely in the position of simply ‘writing down what we think’. Instead, we are putting words together in a way that then shapes meaning. Sometimes the editing process can show us—in a helpful way—what we’ve been trying to figure out in our heads. But other times it shows us puzzling statements that we may or may not be able to claim as our own. The demands of syntax or the limits of our ability to craft sentences can lead us to say things that we may not recognize. This experience can be alienating and can easily make ourselves doubt our own capacity as writers.

These two types of anxiety can both be traced back to a decision to use writing as a way of figuring out what needs to be said. To me, the other option—waiting to write until we know what we want to say—would be fine except that it doesn’t work for most people. Without the challenge of writing, most of us can’t articulate meaning. But if we are going to treat exploratory writing as an essential part of our process, we need to be aware of the anxiety it can produce, during both the writing and editing process. That anxiety, while unpleasant, isn’t a sign that things are going badly; on the contrary, the uncomfortable uncertainty of a first draft is often a sign that we are on our way to making the decisions necessary for a successful final draft.