Tag Archives: Writing process

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about understanding the needs of your reader. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Scaffolding Phrases; Problem Sentences; Audience and Anxiety; and One-Way Trip.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

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

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

Originally published January 26, 2011


Committing to Extensive Revision (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about committing to extensive revision. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Remembering to Edit; Bad News, Good News; Best Laid Plans; A Cut-and-Paste Job; and Between Drafting and Editing

Committing to Extensive Revision

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

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

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

Originally published January 19, 2011

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about using writing to clarify your own thinking. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Letting GoThe Discomforts of UncertaintyIs It All Writing?; and Writing as Thinking.

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

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

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

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

Originally published January 12, 2011

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?

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?

Priority and Productivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, either way 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.