Tag Archives: Graduate students

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.

Local vs. Global: A World of Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Sociability

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

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

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

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

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

Daily Schedule

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

10:00 – 12:00         Writing

12:00 – 12:30          Lunch Break

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

1:00 – 2:00               Writing

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

2:45 – 3:00               Break

3:00 – 4:00              Writing

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

Key Sources (from the archives)

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

KEY SOURCES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published February 2, 2011

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