Tag Archives: Reader awareness

Social Media and Writing Style

In the early days of this blog, an old friend and fellow blogger asked me whether I thought social media had implications for the way we write. My first thought was that it must; my second was that I had no idea what those implications might be. At a broad level, it seems clear to me that social media is beneficial for us as writers. When we write on social media, our natural ability to express ourselves may remind us that writing per se isn’t always the problem. Formal academic writing for an audience that seems both inscrutable and implacable can easily undermine our confidence. An opportunity to write more freely—with less anxiety about audience—can be a great reminder of our own writing ability. This reminder alone won’t solve our academic writing problems, but it can help us pinpoint what they are. Similarly, blogging allows us to find smaller topics and articulate what we want to say about them in a compact format. This blog, for instance, has accumulated somewhere in the range of 100,000 words thus far; if I’d had to figure out in advance how all those words fit together, you’d never have read any of them. (Pat Thomson had a great post recently about the value of the exploratory character of social media.)

But is there also a relationship between social media and the act of composition at the sentence level? Using social media often means learning to use language in a somewhat different way: our register is different; our vocabulary is different; our grammar may even be different. We embrace certain forms of informality (because Twitter). We develop a store of short words—‘apt’ is particularly handy when space is tight—and a greater appreciation of strong verbs. We treat grammar in ways that we daren’t in our academic writing; that is, we assume a sympathetic audience who will know what we mean even when we bend the rules. Even though we don’t turn around and write these terse but friendly sentences in our academic writing, the process of writing on social media can give us great insight into the boundaries of a strong sentence.

Even in the more spacious confines of a blog, our style may be affected by the fact that a blog post is written in a compressed time frame. Blogging works best for me when I put some pressure on myself to compose reader-ready sentences. I still experiment and tinker way too much, but I try not to make a big compositional mess that I then have to clean up. As I’ve said countless times, allowing ourselves the space to think through writing is an essential aspect of constructing complex academic prose; for me, the mess is an essential part of the academic writing process. Writing for immediate consumption, however, requires a more disciplined approach to writing.

As I thought over the implications of writing for social media, I came up with three ways that social media writing can inform our development as writers.

CONCISION: The first thing that will come to anyone’s mind when we think of writing on social media is brevity. Trying to say something in less than 140 characters, for instance, requires that we bring a whole new level of attention to concision. Even if we don’t always use those strategies in our everyday writing, we are forced to notice the potency of concision. If you regularly write extremely short sentences, you are inevitably honing your brevity skills. In doing so, you are bound to experience some of the benefits of limitation. Sometimes we will encounter the limits of limitation—i.e., the point at which something can’t be any shorter—but we will also learn the value of expressing ourselves in fewer words than we thought possible.

TONE: One of the best ways to understand the role of tone in writing is by having to shift that tone. Academic prose isn’t necessarily good or bad writing, but it is very particular in its tone. Social media writing, on the other hand, can give us a sense of a different style of writing and thereby help us see the distinct contours of a piece of academic writing. The benefits of this sort of relativism vis-à-vis writing seem evident to me. While people worry that the unique demands of Twitter or the text message will undermine writing ability, it seems entirely possible that the experience of writing in multiple registers will actually strengthen writing overall. Greater awareness of the conventionality of writing will increase the chance that we will be able to find ways to work productively within those conventions.

NUANCE: Short-form writing is also a great reminder of the importance of doing justice to ambiguity. For instance, I find that Twitter is great for sharing things that I like, but not so good for those things about which I have significant reservations. Without room for caveats, we are left without an easy way to disagree respectfully. Think about your average statement of scholarly reservation: “While I found the decision to highlight X extremely helpful, I was ultimately troubled by the reliance upon traditional categories of Y.” That’s 145 characters, even without actual content. So I don’t share that link; Twitter becomes for me a place to talk about the things I actively like or that I like enough to forego qualification. The limits of social media writing thus confirm one of the great strengths of academic writing: the creation of a space expansive enough to contain both agreement and disagreement. (This helpful Twitter chat on the relationship between academic writing and social media also touches on this theme).

Overall, composing text for social media is instructive for our non-social media writing. By writing things that are more direct or casual or polemical, we are better able to understand how those qualities may or may not operate within our formal academic prose. And, ultimately, being able to shift registers and understand how tone, evidence, vocabulary, and syntax all affect that shift can only improve our academic writing.

So those are my current thoughts about writing for social media. What did I miss? What has your experience been? Has social media changed the way you write or altered your awareness of writing style?

The Oxford Comma, or the Limits of Expectation

Why talk about the Oxford comma? Surely everything has already been saidsung, or drawn. But why even have a blog if you can’t use it to share your great love of the Oxford comma? More importantly, its use comes up in all my classes; if I say ‘comma’ to a room of graduate students, someone will immediately ask whether it’s right or wrong to put a comma after the penultimate item in a list. I can explain both sides of the issue, but I cannot, in the end, answer the ‘right or wrong’ part of the question. Which leads me to another reason to talk about it: the very fact that there’s no simple answer to the question is instructive for the way we think about issues of style in our academic writing. Before delving into this topic, let’s look at what the Oxford comma actually is.

The first thing to note is that it is properly called a ‘serial comma’, the comma that appears before the conjunction in a list.

Peace, love, and happiness

Do you put a comma after ‘love’ or don’t you? That’s what my students want to know. Actually, that question is pretty easy—I do, always. The harder question—and the one they care about—is whether you should put a comma there. That’s the question that can’t be answered on the grounds of correctness. Both are correct, unless you are writing for a particular journal or press with a stated preference. Since most of my students are primarily concerned with writing their theses, they often have to make this decision themselves. And so they want a definitive answer. After I give a full accounting of the subtle pleasures and perils of the serial comma, someone is sure to say, while stifling a yawn, ‘so should we use it or not?’. Again, both ways is fine, but here is a summary of my non-answer.

1. Despite the name and the song, the Oxford comma isn’t more formal. Students often tell me that they think it’s inessential but probably a good idea for a formal piece of writing. In truth, however, the serial comma is neither formal nor particularly stuffy. It’s not even more British: its presence in the Oxford style guide notwithstanding, it’s much more common in the US than in the UK. The only way in which it’s more formal is that it isn’t generally used in newspapers where narrow columns mean that space is at a premium.

2. All the evidence about ambiguity can cut both ways, but in ordinary academic writing—in which internally complex list items are routine—the serial comma will help more often than it hinders.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture and finance.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture, and finance.

In this case, I think that using the serial comma is the easiest way to show what goes with what. I also recommend using semicolons when list items get unruly, and those are always used serially. Overall, avoiding ambiguity is our responsibility as writers. If commas can’t help us, then we need to reword; that is, there are many instances in which the problem is not the presence or absence of the serial comma, but rather the awkwardness of the list itself.

During diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

During diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

Measurements of medication levels are often essential during diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies.

While the second version avoids the obvious potential for misreading found in the first, the third may be better overall. I’ve written it with the serial comma, but it would, of course, be fine without.

3. Even if neither option is wrong, it’s still a good idea to make a decision. That is, just because both options are correct doesn’t make flipping back and forth desirable. Consistency is a useful principle when making style decisions. Doing the same things the same way every time is a kindness to your readers—since they will be saved the bother of wondering about stylistic inconsistencies–and a kindness to yourself—since you’ll be saved the bother of wondering what’s right each time. Some people will use the serial comma only when ambiguity might result from not using it, but I think that practice can potentially confuse the reader.

It took me a long time to get over my belief that the serial comma was inherently better. I believed this for years, and that was before I went to work for Oxford University Press, where it is house style. My editorial eyes are deeply attuned to it, and its absence trips me up every single time. But that just shows the limits of our own expectations. The serial comma is only better in a world where it is expected to appear. The only surefire solution is a world in which everyone does everything the same way, which is implausible and slightly creepy. The best we can do is choose our way and stick to it consistently, so our readers—consciously or unconsciously—become accustomed to our punctuation habits. Again, this is why I don’t like the practice of using a serial comma only when it’s obviously beneficial; inconsistency undermines our reader’s ability to becoming habituated to our writing style.

While the Oxford comma may seem more like a punchline than a punctuation mark at this point, I think that there is something important in this conversation. Writing requires us to make choices far more often than it demands simple rule following. And those choices should be made based on our best understanding of style conventions and reader expectations. The serial comma shows us the limits of expectation, but it also confirms the importance of making informed and consistent decisions about academic writing style.

Breaking Points

When I teach paragraphs, I always talk about how paragraph breaks should be dictated by textual demands rather than length. Sometimes that approach works out perfectly for a writer: each particular topic fits comfortably within a paragraph, with obvious breaking points. Other times, however, creating a paragraph break can feel awkward. In other words, it’s all well and good to say that each paragraph needs a recognizable topic, but the reality is often more complicated. As I was writing the first draft of my last post, I realized that I was dealing with one of those awkward paragraphs: too long to be a single paragraph, but with enough unity that it wasn’t immediately apparent how to make it more than one paragraph. Since this problem is frequently raised by my students, I decided to use this post to show a few strategies for managing a balky paragraph.

Before we look at the example, a quick note about paragraph length: I generally write shorter paragraphs on the blog than I would in normal academic writing. I do so for two reasons. First, I think the quality of attention that we give to a blog post is often less than to an article, so I try to make the component parts more manageable. Second, I’m aware that people will read a post on all sort of devices, some of which will offer such a compressed reading space that paragraphs will feel longer than they are. I want to be clear that these considerations apply to blogging and need not concern an academic writer. Academic writing ought to presuppose a certain type of attention (whether it gets it or not is another matter) and ought to presuppose that, regardless of where it might be read, its main objective is to provide the kind of sustained argumentation that generally requires longer paragraphs. All of which is to say that the example that I’m about to show is long only by the standards that I use on the blog. The shorter example works well for this space, and the editing strategies that I will suggest apply equally to the longer paragraphs that we need for academic writing.

Here is the example paragraph (still in very rough form):

We will think about the writing process differently depending on whether we think of the task broadly or narrowly [BROAD TOPIC]. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally creating a separate space for planning and for revising. And for some people, this is surely exactly what they need to do. For some writers, however, allowing writing to be the appropriate name for a broader range of activities is invaluable [SPECIFIC TOPIC]. If we think of planning as a species of writing [FIRST ASPECT OF THE SPECIFIC TOPIC], we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common; I sometimes see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ready to write. I’m not saying writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it may also generate the text that you need or lead you to the questions that you need examine. Similarly [MY ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT WE ARE MOVING TO THE SECOND ASPECT], we can use writing as way of manifesting our commitment to extensive revision [SECOND ASPECT]. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we are much less likely to enact the degree of alteration necessary to move from first to final draft. When writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to lapse into a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using (re)writing as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall [AN ATTEMPT TO SIGNAL THAT I'M PULLING THE TWO ASPECTS TOGETHER], if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we give ourselves access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

As I was writing this, I was aware that it might need to be broken up, but I wanted to let it play out as a single paragraph until I knew what I wanted to say. Even in its rough form, you can see that this paragraph splits into two different supporting points. Once I understand the nature of my awkward paragraph, what are my editorial options?

1. Obviously, I could leave this paragraph as is: one topic, two aspects, one paragraph. In that case, I would be making the estimation that I don’t want it to run into a second paragraph, either because I don’t want to devote that much space to the topic or because I don’t want to draw that much attention to it. If I choose this option, it would stay roughly as it is, except for any necessary editing. Making the commitment to a single paragraph may mean lessening the detail so that it feels to the reader like a single idea.

2. I could try turning it into two paragraphs. This option—which frequently makes the most sense—is the one that often puzzles writers. If the first paragraph sets up the topic, can we break up the exploration of that topic into two or more paragraphs? We can, as long as we manage the opening of the subsequent paragraphs properly. In this case, the beginning of the second paragraph would need to be sharpened in order to announce the second element. Rather that simply signalling the shift—as I tried to do above with the word ‘similarly’—I would need some repetition or parallelism to orient the reader; for instance, we could say, as I did in the final version, ‘Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can …’. By echoing the language used in the first point, I alert the reader to the fact that we are turning to the second point. If we were to divide this paragraph into two, it would be fine for any concluding material to appear at the end of the second paragraph; again, just make sure that there is sufficient indication of the scope of the conclusion. This approach also works when using ordinals, as we so often do. We can say that a topic will have two aspects and then announce the first one with a ‘first’. When it comes time to address the second aspect, if we need to do so in a separate paragraph, we will do so with more than just a ‘second’; for instance, we could say, ‘The second aspect of [this topic] concerns …’.

3. Lastly, I could, if I had enough to say, turn this into three paragraphs, with the first one acting like a topic paragraph and the next two each having their own topic sentence. Needless to say, we wouldn’t choose this option unless we want to expand the content and unless we want the reader to pay a lot of attention to these ideas.

Overall, the key is to let the drafting stage be a time when ideas are allowed to develop as they wish, without worrying about the optimal placement of paragraph breaks for our eventual reader. We often won’t know how much space a topic warrants until we try it out. And even when the topic won’t be given much room in a final draft, our ability to create that more compressed version can be enhanced by having previously created a less compressed version. Once we’ve decided on the appropriate amount of detail and development, we can decide about paragraphing. Knowing that we’ve got the proportion right can then make us confident in our ability to divide up the text into workable paragraphs. We have the freedom to divide our text as we wish, as long as we are constantly mindful of the needs of the reader. Think about what you are asking your reader to carry from one paragraph to the next, and give them the necessary cues to make that transition seamlessly.

Is It All Writing?

Today I’d like to write about a topic that I find perplexing: What is the best way to define the term ‘writing’? Should we use writing as an omnibus term for every aspect of creating a text? Or should we use it more narrowly to refer to the initial act of getting words down on paper? Undoubtedly, we all do both, depending on context. Sometimes we think of writing as a soup-to-nuts term for everything from conception to publication, and other times we think of it simply as the moment of composition, distinct from both planning and revising. While I’m far from consistent in my usage, I know that my tendency is to use the term broadly. Is this just a lack of precision on my part or is there a benefit to being inclusive in the way we define writing?

When I hear myself offering a broad definition of writing, I’m often reminded of a mama-and-baby yoga class that I attended when my first child was born. This class was full of babies nursing, babies getting changed, babies learning to crawl, babies being irresistible, but it wasn’t full of anyone doing yoga. And the teacher used to say, as each class would finish without any actual yoga having been practiced, “It’s all yoga!”. Which of course it wasn’t. It was good and yoga is good, but that didn’t make it yoga. In using a broad category of writing, we may be engaging in a similar sort of self-serving inclusivity. Sorting my sock drawer? Well, I can’t write with cold feet and I can’t find my favourite socks and … it’s all writing! In a post last year on not-writing, I talked about ways that not-writing can overwhelm our attempts to write. Needless to say, allowing ourselves to define writing too broadly can hamper our productivity. But is there any benefit to including planning and revising—both obviously essential steps in the creation of a text—in our concept of writing?

To my mind, the benefit of thinking of writing broadly is that doing so may allow us to deepen our commitment to planning and revising. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally treating it as separate from planning and revising. And if that separation works well for you, that’s exactly what you should do. For some writers, however, treating writing as a category that includes a broader range of activities can be a helpful strategy for dealing with persistent writing difficulties. If we think of planning as a species of writing, we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common in the students that I see; I often see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ‘ready to write’. I’m not saying that writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it also may generate the text that you need or may lead you to a better understanding of your own topic.

Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can then use writing as a tool for extensive revision. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we may be less likely to engage in the sort of vigorous revision necessary to move from first to final draft. That is, when writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to become a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using rewriting as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall, if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. The act of writing always anticipates the public. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we may give ourselves greater access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

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:

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.

Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing (from the archives)

Over the summer, I am reposting some of my favourite posts from the archives. In this post, I talk about the importance of clearly articulating our contribution to the scholarly conversation.

Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

In my line of work, I hear a lot of sentences that start, ‘My supervisor says …’. And the supervisory comment that seems to elicit the most confusion involves the concept of voice: ‘I can’t hear your voice in this’ or ‘your voice is missing from the text’. In my experience, these concerns are met with a great deal of bafflement from graduate student writers. The reason for this largely baffled response is, I suspect, the way that we tend to think of voice as a feature of literary or expressive writing. Voice is usually associated with the distinctive style of a particular author: the sum total of the way that person writes. Thus, when we hear about a lack of voice, we take that to mean a certain bland quality to the prose or a lack of overall consistency in the diction, the phrasing, the pacing, etc. Given those associations, it’s no wonder that novice academic writers may be puzzled by the suggestion that they lack a voice. Since we cannot fix a problem that we don’t understand, that puzzlement unfortunately often leads to inaction or ineffectual editing.

If, however, we shift from discussing voice to discussing contribution, writers often start to see what might be missing. ‘I’m having trouble seeing the contribution that your work will make to this area of research.’ Articulating our contribution is a significant challenge, but it is a goal that generally makes sense. Moving away from the nebulous concept of voice allows us to direct our attention towards the genuinely difficult task of clarifying our own contribution. There are lots of reasons that this task is so difficult; here are the three that I find most prevalent.

1. Modesty: One fundamental reason for downplaying the novelty of our own work is a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence often manifests itself in an unhealthy reliance upon the existing literature. If you are one of those writers who feels better when thoroughly encased in other people’s insights, you may be under-emphasizing your own contribution. You need to use the scholarly literature to set the stage for your contribution, rather than allowing it to take centre stage itself.

2. Inexperience: Our own contribution can also be neglected when we are unfamiliar with the new genre in which we are working; in other words, we may simply not know how to draw attention to our own contribution. In a recent post on introductions, I emphasize how we can craft an introduction that clarifies the centrality of our own contribution. In general, developing any sort of genre expertise requires a great deal of attentive reading of the sorts of texts that we need to produce.

3. Familiarity: In my view, the most persistent obstacle to a sufficient explanation of our research contribution is our preoccupation with our own material. While we get more and more familiar with our subject matter, our future reader maintains the same degree of unfamiliarity. The longer we spend with a text, the more implausible it becomes that we need to keep reiterating our key contribution. But we cannot ascribe an unrealistic degree of familiarity to the reader just because we are so fully immersed in the document. Finally, keep in mind that your readers will often be experts in the field, meaning that they may be very familiar with everything but the new ideas you are developing. Make sure you are emphasizing the novelty.

Overall, the absence of a well-articulated explanation of the research contribution is a significant weakness for many novice academic writers. But the problem becomes much easier to fix when we confront it head on. If we are sidetracked by the notion of an absent voice, we may fail to solve this crucial problem. To be clear, I am not saying that our academic writing can’t have a distinctive and personal voice; in the long run, most of us are striving to find just that. In the meantime, however, we can all be helped by the reminder that a clear articulation of scholarly contribution is essential in academic writing.

Originally published May 16, 2013

Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines (from the archives)

Over the summer, I am reposting some of my favourite posts from the archives. In this post, I talk about using reverse outlines to improve the organization and overall coherence of literature reviews.

Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines

After a recent discussion of reverse outlines on Twitter, I had a flurry of visits to my reverse outlines post. The Twitter conversation concerned reverse outlining as a way to help with literature reviews, so I thought it might be useful to spell out that connection more explicitly. A reverse outline is a great way to address the most common flaws of lit reviews: poor organization and poor articulation of research goals. These two issues are closely connected, but I am going to discuss them in turn.

I’m sure I don’t need to describe how poor organization bedevils lit reviews; the sheer volume of the material makes organizational difficulties near inevitable. The organizational scheme that you must devise is also a genuinely conceptually complex task. It is not like organizing your sock drawer; organizing your lit review requires a deep understanding of your project and its connection to the existing literature in your field. While a reverse outline won’t magic away difficulties, it will help you to confront the limitations of your early drafts. The beauty of a reverse outline is that it prunes away the distracting details, allowing you to see the underlying structure.

Let’s look at a sample reverse outline in order to get a sense of how this might work. As you likely know, the unit of analysis in a reverse outline is the paragraph. We number each paragraph and then ask ourselves some basic questions: What is the topic? Is there a topic sentence? Does the whole paragraph have thematic unity? For a more detailed explanation of this process, you can go back to the original reverse outlines post.)

SAMPLE REVERSE OUTLINE:

1. The research into X
• However, there are also a few sentences on Y.
• No topic sentence found (although this might be okay if the whole paragraph functions as an introduction to a particular topic).

2. The historical background to X
• No topic sentence found.
• The paragraph is purely chronological with no thematic starting point.

3. The work of Singh and Johnson, who also study X
• No topic sentence found.

4. The main study that Singh and Johnson were responding to
• No topic sentence found.

5. The work of Gordonberg who works on Z
• There is a clear topic sentence on Gordonberg, but no mention of Z or any link to what came before.

When we look at this reverse outline, the absence of detail helps us to see some basic problems. The truth is that many of us could have found those problems in the original if we’d read it. But chances are that we would have missed those problems in our own writing, the familiarity of which tends to lull us into a kind of editorial somnambulance. In my experience, that sleepy acceptance is often accompanied by an underlying uneasiness, but discomfort alone doesn’t break the spell. A reverse outline can be like a bucket of cold water. Often my first reaction to my own reverse outlines is ‘huh?’. Why did I put those things there? Those points are in the wrong order! That is the completely wrong organizational approach to that material! It may not be as bad as all that, but the evident weaknesses of the outline give me a sense that whatever I was trying to accomplish may not yet be working on the page. I can then start to rework at the outline level without being distracted by familiar chains of words or complex details.

REVISED SAMPLE REVERSE OUTLINE:

1. The importance of X, Y, and Z to my research project
• This paragraph will serve as an introduction to the subsequent discussion of X, Y, and Z, so may not have an obvious topic sentence.
• This paragraph may be short or long—or may even need to be broken into multiple paragraphs—depending on how difficult it is to establish the relevance of this topic to your research.

2. The research into X
• This could be more than one paragraph, of course, depending on the amount of material.
• The first version had a historical background paragraph; if that topic does warrant its own paragraph, think about whether you will be giving similar historical background to Y and Z. Another possibility would be that you need a combined historical background to X, Y, and Z; it is very common to speak about the historical background in a more unified way before dividing the field into its important sub-fields. As a simple example, consider the following sequence of sentences: ‘Serious scholarly attention to [topic] began in …’/‘For the next twenty years, scholars tended to …’/‘By the mid-1980s, however, a serious rupture began to emerge about …’/‘In subsequent years, the scholarly approach was often divided into X, Y, and Z’.
• What about Singh and Johnson? Were they included as an example of the work done on X? Are other thinkers being included? Why are they so important? Is the study that they are responding to important for you or is it just important for them?

3. The research into Y
• Try to follow whatever pattern you have established with your discussion of X; the length can vary, but the reader will expect X, Y, and Z to be treated in a roughly parallel fashion. If that parallel structure proves hard to sustain as you are writing, you may need to revisit your initial structural scheme.

4. The research into Z
• The discussion of Z should follow the broad pattern established in the discussion of X and Y.

As you’ve probably noticed, the modifications in the reworked outline also address the second common flaw in lit reviews, the tendency of authors to obscure their own research goals. Singh and Johnson may be significant researchers in their own right, but the reader can always go directly to them for their research. What the reader needs from you is a clear explanation of the way that the existing research serves as a backdrop or source or inspiration for your own. The reworked outline is stronger because it is better organized but also because it links each paragraph into the broader agenda of the author.

In their valuable book Helping Doctoral Students Write, Kamler and Thomson give a great collection of student metaphors for lit review writing (pp. 32–34). In my thesis writing course, I usually read those metaphors aloud to students and ask which one most closely represents each of their experiences. My favourite is the image of someone trying to put an octopus into a bottle. A reverse outline can be a way to convince your octopus to coordinate all its limbs in service of your research plan.

Originally published September 13, 2012

Letting Go (from the archives)

Over the summer, I am reposting some of my favourite posts from the archives. In this post, I talk about the difficulty of removing parts of our own writing.

Letting Go

In two different contexts recently, I had reason to discuss the challenge of deleting material from our own writing. In both cases, I noticed that students appeared to identify strongly with what I was saying: there was a great deal of nodding and grimacing. For lots of writers, writing is so hard that throwing away ‘perfectly good writing’—i.e., writing that is both finished and marginally coherent—is difficult to do. This attachment to our own writing often means that there are elements in a draft that are left in just because we can’t bear to part with them or can’t bear to see a document shrink instead of grow. But it can be very hard to take a draft to the next level when we haven’t expunged the parts that aren’t working. Editing, especially at the early stages, requires a great willingness to jettison material. However, if you found it hard to put the words on paper in the first place, deleting them can be genuinely painful.

One response to this pain—one that, admittedly, gets me some sceptical, easy-for-you-to-say looks from my students—is to think more broadly about the purposes of writing. We don’t write just to satisfy a certain word count or page limit: at a deeper level, we write to sort out what we need to say. That beautiful paragraph you agonized over may have been written for you, not for your reader: you needed to formulate those ideas in proper sentences to understand them properly but the reader may be satisfied with nothing more than a brief mention of what you sorted out. Accepting this broader purpose of writing can lessen our attachment to particular sentences and paragraphs.

If we do come to the realization that a certain passage is no longer serving a purpose in our text, we still need to decide what to do with it. The delete key is too extreme a response for most of us. It’s like a game of Love It or Hate It: faced with a stark binary choice, many of us choose to ‘love’ our first drafts. My solution is to create a place to put all the things that I am not sure of, a place where I can save bits of text that have outlived their usefulness. Saving them means that I might have the chance to use them in some other context. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever gone back to these old writing fragments, but knowing that they are there gives me to the courage to be a more ruthless editor. Having a good system for managing subsequent drafts is also a good way of increasing your editorial resolve (the ProfHacker blog has a great post on version control that may help you with this). In the end, your writing will thank you for developing the habit of letting go.

This ability to let go can also help with writing efficiency. If we are somewhat steely during our early structural edits—if you don’t know how to start that process, try a reverse outline—we can avoid unnecessary fine editing of material that we might have to remove later. Indeed, the sunk cost of premature fine editing is one of the things that causes us to hang on to text that we no longer need. Having devoted time to improving a particular passage, rather than to thinking about how it serves the broader text, we can find ourselves unwilling to remove that passage.

In sum, remaining alert to the potential benefits of removing passages from our texts can help us to avoid wasted editorial efforts and can leave us with a document that is ultimately stronger and more cohesive. Finally, this brief post from the GradHacker blog talks in a similar vein about the need to delete the stuff that isn’t working for us.

Originally published March 28, 2012