Tag Archives: Writing process

2014 in Review

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Craft of Revision

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

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

I always run out of time.

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

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

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

I see some problems but not others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AcWriMo is Here Again!

Academic Writing Month begins tomorrow! I’m excited about the opportunity to interact with so many academic writers all over the world and maybe even do a little extra writing myself. If you are new to this idea, you can get a full description from the event’s hosts at PhD2Published. If you are interested in participating, you can enter yourself on the AcWriMo Spreadsheet and−my new favourite part−on the Google map of AcWriMo participants. Then come find us all on Twitter to share your progress and find out how others are faring.

But what if you are sceptical about the idea? Maybe you find it gimmicky or poorly timed or yet another opportunity to feel bad about not writing enough. I am, obviously, a fan: here are my reflections on AcWriMo 2012 and my thoughts at the beginning of AcWriMo 2013. That said, as much as I like the idea and enjoy the experience, a certain amount of scepticism doesn’t surprise me. It is, in a sense, a gimmick; in a perfect world, we would write the necessary amount every month without requiring extraordinary measures. If that is what September and October were like for you−full of productive writing time−AcWriMo may not be what you need. But if those months were instead a blur of teaching and marking and meetings, if your to-do lists had the same writing tasks on them week after week, if the thought of the rest of the term slipping away makes you feel a bit queasy, maybe some sort of productivity intervention is called for.

As for the timing, of course November is a terrible month for academic writing, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than October or December. Or any other time that school is in session. For some, but certainly not all, the summer months may be better. But if you are lucky enough to have better access to writing time in the summer, you may not need heroic measures to keep you focused. The beauty of declaring November to be a month for academic writing is precisely that there is so much else going on. A sustainable writing practice is one that can coexist with the rest of your life. If you can find time to write in November, you will be able to find time to write any time.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is AcWriMo just another opportunity to feel bad about writing? More specifically, is it another way in which individuals are made to feel deficient without enough thought being given to the structural impediments to writing? If so, that’s no good. But productivity discourses around writing are always double-edged. As much as we may object to the way they turn a complex array of problems into an individual problem of will power, we also know that being productive writers is hugely satisfying and hugely difficult. That is, even if the systemic barriers to writing don’t up and vanish, employing creative strategies to improve our writing lives may still make sense. And when those strategies involve international community and a tremendous sense of good will, I think it is an opportunity worth considering. Not only is it an opportunity to be more productive, it’s also an opportunity to talk and hear about how others write. The way that AcWriMo allows us to write ‘out loud’ is one of its central virtues. So much of the struggle of academic writing is obscured by its essentially solitary nature; the communal aspect of AcWriMo makes it harder to imagine that our struggles are ours alone.

For what it’s worth, I have a terrible track record of meeting my AcWriMo goals, but I’m eager to try again. Maybe this year will be different! If you do decide to give it a try, I look forward to following your progress over the month.

Topic Sentence Paragraphs

In a recent writing class, I talked about reverse outlines and topic sentence paragraphs as techniques for identifying structural issues in a piece of writing. While I’ve talked about reverse outlines in this space a great deal (both potential applications and potential pitfalls), I realize that I’ve never mentioned the topic sentence paragraph. It’s actually helpful to think of the two techniques as complementary: just as the reverse outline tells us what is wrong with an early draft, a topic sentence paragraph can help us see what is right with a late draft. Or, if it’s not quite right yet, can help us to see what needs tweaking. Our deep familiarity with our own intentions and our own writing patterns means that we often fail to see glaring cohesion problems, even late in the game. A topic sentence paragraph can help us to ensure that all is well.

The technique itself is quite simple: copy and paste the topic sentence from each paragraph into a new pseudo-paragraph. This new creation won’t be a true paragraph because it’ll be weirdly choppy and overly long, but it should be a functional microcosm of the text. As such, it should be able to carry a coherent narrative. A topic sentence paragraph isn’t as dramatically informative as a reverse outline; it’s more likely to offer confirmation than revelation. Once you’ve got a draft that you think is structurally coherent, you can use the topic sentence paragraph as a way to confirm that intuition.

The moment to use this technique must, of course, be chosen carefully. You can’t do it too early−because all it will show you is that the text isn’t ready yet−but you also can’t do it too late. To me, the topic sentence paragraph marks the end of my willingness to do large-scale edits. A crucial corollary to a commitment to extensive revision is an acceptance that extensive revision mustn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely. Otherwise, a certain mania will set in: any draft can always be other than it is. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves about diminishing returns and about the very real possibility of messing up what is already working. A hard deadline can sometimes stop us from obsessive editing; whether or not we’ve crafted the best possible document at the point of submission, at least we’re saved from endless tinkering. But when there isn’t a firm deadline−as with, for instance, an early dissertation chapter−editing can become a thing that we do long past the point at which we ought to have moved on. If we are to manage our workflow effectively, every text needs to move through our hands and out into the world. The fact that we could always make it different doesn’t mean that we would be making it better or even that making it better is always the best use of our time.

Another reason to establish a point after which structural edits are verboten is that we can’t edit for all types of issues at once. A text must have a point after which big questions are off the table in order to allow smaller points to engage our attention. Not only is it difficult to proofread a document that is still in flux, such a document is vulnerable to a range of new errors that are the direct result of our own editorial intervention. Being strict about the type of editing that is suitable for each stage of the process can help us to create a document that is well-edited at both a macro and micro level.

Drawing the structural editing phase to a close with a final check is a way of making sure that we haven’t missed any ongoing gaps in cohesion and a way of setting the stage for the final edits. This final editing phase can then lead us to a cleaner text and, perhaps even more importantly, lead us that much closer to a finished text.

Academic Writing Month  2014 (#AcWriMo on Twitter) is coming up in November. Read an explanation on PhD2Published and start thinking if this might work for you! Here are some of my thoughts on AcWriMo 2012 and AcWriMo 2013.

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)

Writing as Thinking

Pretty much the first thing I ever wrote on this blog was that we should use writing to clarify our thinking. Since this precept is central to how I think about—and thus teach—writing, I try to remain open to opposing viewpoints. To best serve the graduate student audience that I’m aiming at, I believe that I have to create a space that is both opinionated (since nobody needs more anodyne advice about writing) and relativist (since nobody needs more advice that assumes everyone to be the same sort of writer). Creating that space requires taking stands while resisting dogmatism. So while I’m deeply committed to the benefits of exploratory writing, I’m also deeply interested in the claim that this approach is wrong and thus hazardous to good writing.

In a recent post, Thomas Basbøll articulated his view that thinking ought to precede writing; in fact, he argues that we are doing writing a disservice when we collapse it into thinking rather than viewing it as the act of “writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs.” He is committed to a strong version of this thesis and clearly sees it as essential to the development of effective writing skills: “My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose.” This focus on writing as representation of thought suggests three stages of composition: thinking; writing down those thoughts; and lastly evaluating the writing on the basis of its fidelity to the earlier thinking. (Here is a follow-up post from Thomas on this topic, allowing that neither position in this debate can be absolute but reiterating his belief that much of writing ought to be kept distinct from thinking.) 

My disagreement with this position is practical, philosophical, and pragmatic. At a practical level, I worry that novice academic writers will be hamstrung by the need to engage in sophisticated conceptual thought without the aid of concrete expression. It is certainly my experience that postponing writing until the underlying ideas become clear is a disastrous strategy for a lot of novice writers. At a philosophical level, I just don’t accept thought as capable of acting as the sort of referent for writing that Thomas suggests. Finally, at a pragmatic level, I’m not sure that anything is lost if we don’t evaluate our writing for its sound representation of earlier thought. For the reader, the beauty of a piece of academic writing comes from its internal coherence, not its ability to instantiate the writer’s intentions.

My stark disagreement with this approach to academic writing raises the obvious possibility that I’m doing it all wrong. Writing this, I was reminded of the very first line of Winnie-the-Pooh, where we’re introduced to him as he’s being dragged down the stairs on his head: “It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” Maybe that’s me. Certainly my commitment to the coextensive nature of writing and thinking doesn’t mean that I sail through the writing process feeling as if I’m doing it all right. Instead, as I sort through the mess that I make with my exploratory writing, I often wish that writing was more like recording and less like thinking.

Given my own writing struggles, it seems wise to consider a view that is so contrary to my own that it would otherwise get little airtime in this space. Ultimately, I am convinced that I can’t engage in the sort of linear sophisticated thinking that I need to do except on paper. Indeed, I began writing this post precisely because I wanted to figure out what I thought about Thomas’s post. In this particular case, I delayed writing longer than usual as an experiment in trying to think without putting pen to paper. But I couldn’t manage it, so I resorted to writing a quick draft of this post. I generally find that initial writing exhilarating; my doubts come because there is so much revising to be done to corral these insights and make them reader friendly. But the frustrating nature of the revision process isn’t enough to convince me that I would be able to do things any other way. And I’m anecdotally convinced that many of the students I work with wouldn’t either. 

Our goal as academic writers must be to write as easily as possible; there is no inherent virtue in suffering more than is necessary to create the best possible text. I focus so much on the difficulties because I genuinely believe them to be inevitable and because I believe that those difficulties may be eased if we acknowledge them. Acknowledgement helps, not because misery loves company but because struggles are easier when we know that they have an objective basis. There’s nothing worse than struggling and believing that we are doing so only because of our own deficiencies. But that doesn’t mean we should fetishize those struggles or turn our back on effective ways out. I’d love to hear what others think. Am I doing a disservice to thought by focusing so much on writing? Does writing actually suffer for not having a coherent referent? Or can we actually only find coherence within the text itself through our revision process?