Tag Archives: Writing process

Writing and Not Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AcWriMo is At Hand!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Discomforts of Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

Imposter Syndrome and Academic Writing

I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the frequent invocation of imposter syndrome. I recently heard someone say that all academics have imposter syndrome, and that claim confirmed why I am hesitant about the designation. If everyone suffers from a particular syndrome, it starts to seem less like a syndrome and more like the human condition. Or, in this case, the academic condition. But before I explore my objections, let’s consider what imposter syndrome is.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that we aren’t qualified or entitled or competent but that we have somehow managed to fool people into thinking that we are. It is often described as a failure to internalize success. (If you want more information, here is a webpage with an extensive bibliography.) It’s easy to see how these feelings take root in academics. At many points—especially early on—we are judged on our potential while being given very little concrete feedback on our finished work. The emphasis on the potential over the actual easily leads to anxiety. We are admitted to graduate school on the basis of past performance and a statement of what we hope to do in the future. The grant application, the conference abstract, and the dissertation proposal all follow the same pattern: we write a compact and aspirational text and then start to worry that we won’t be able to produce the actual work. Not living up to our promising promises will lead to us finally being revealed as the frauds we secretly believe ourselves to be.

Needless to say, this description rings true for lots of us and shows an awful cycle in which successes can make some people more uneasy. Instead of enjoying being ABD, a doctoral student might believe that, with all the ‘easier’ steps completed, she will now be unable to write the dissertation. The imposter mindset is pernicious because it often feels cumulative; each new success means that the fraud has still not be detected, making the eventual unmasking of the imposter even worse. Imposter syndrome thrives when we fail to take into account the meaning of all the success we experience. The antidote is to trust the people who grant us approval along the way. Think of how easily we often denigrate that approval: ‘I was just lucky.’ ‘It was a weak field of applicants.’ ‘Nobody else was available.’ Any of those statements could be true—and there are real benefits to humility—but we almost never know them to be true. We all need to trust the experience and expertise of the people who express approbation. Of course, any given evaluator may in fact be throwing a stack of papers down the stairs and using the results to make decisions, but such randomness is rare. Over time, positive results mean something, and dismissing those positive responses as error or luck denies us the opportunity to deepen our confidence in our own abilities. (Here is a helpful post from Inside Higher Ed on the role of mentoring in managing feelings of inadequacy in graduate school. And another from The Singular Scientist blog that deals with the full spectrum of under- and over-confidence.)

Given all this, surely it seems useful to talk about imposter syndrome. I certainly encourage graduate students to be reflective about the way that approbation functions in academia. We can all benefit from being able to take a compliment. And there are people whose sense of their own imposterhood is so deep as to be a significant impediment to their work. (This video from University Affairs offers some suggestions for dealing with imposter syndrome.) So I am not objecting to the use of the term, but rather to the notion that it applies to all of us. In other words, my objection is to the way that a universal application of the term appears to pathologize inevitable aspects of academic life.

This overuse of the term concerns me for two reasons. In the first place, if the term is used to describe everyone, then it doesn’t have much power left to help those who are genuinely suffering. Those who need  resources to help them find a way to internalize their successes might be helped by having the term reserved for a more specific condition.

In the second place, I worry that treating dis-comfort as exceptional contributes to the notion that we ought to feel comfortable. In particular, I am troubled by the notion that we ought to feel comfortable about academic writing. Writers must learn to live with a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability. Exposing our ideas to public scrutiny is uncomfortable, and recognizing that discomfort as inevitable can actually help make us more comfortable. The recognition of discomfort acknowledges the inherent and ongoing challenges of academic expression. It helps keep us humble, which matters if we are going to produce interesting and honest work. It makes us work harder than we might otherwise do. Academic writing is a struggle and not a realm in which confidence and complacency are ever likely to predominate. It’s not my intention to valorize any notion of suffering for art, but rather to accept the likelihood that producing good academic prose that we are willing to present to the public will be a struggle. Students often seek out writing instruction so that the writing process will become easier. However, in many cases, it’s more realistic to focus on writing better than to focus on lessening the emotional costs of writing. This acceptance of writing as an intrinsically challenging act seems particularly important for novice writers who often assume that the challenges come from their inexperience rather than from the very nature of academic writing.

Overall, while I see great benefit in understanding the dynamics of imposter syndrome, I want to be cautious about the idea that there is something wrong with us if we find academic writing deeply challenging. For most academic writers, the best course of action may be to acknowledge the psychic toll that writing takes and to focus on acquiring strategies to make both the writing and the writing process better.

Truth in Outlining

Recently I was working on a reverse outline of a text that I’d been struggling with. As I tried to write the outline, I could feel the basic incoherence of my text; it can be hard to write an outline when the paragraphs aren’t related to one another or even properly unified internally. But rather than let that incoherence become visible by honestly recording what I’d done, I began to nudge the outline into coherence. So I was left with a text that I knew was terrible, but an outline that allowed me to pretend that things were actually okay.

Despite the allure of the illusion that all was well, I did realize that I was cheating. Reluctantly, I returned to the document and did a proper reverse outline that showed what was wrong: necessary transitions were missing and the emphasis was misplaced. I was then able to rework the outline into a more coherent form, and, with that new-and-improved outline, I was able to revise the text. Problem solved. But the experience reminded me how easy it is to collapse the reverse outlining process by skipping the necessary step of creating a truthful and possibly terrible outline. Our immediate goal in reverse outlining isn’t the creation of a coherent outline. First, we must create an honest outline with all the warts showing; then we can craft a better outline that will act as a guide to revision. By collapsing those two steps into one, all I had done was paper over the ugly flaws in my early draft.

Reflecting on this experience reminded me of a recent reaction to reverse outlines from a student. After I described the process of creating a reverse outline, she argued that it was fine for all those people who write coherent first drafts but that it wouldn’t work for her. Clearly I wasn’t doing a very effective job in the classroom that day! First, I’d failed to make it clear that there aren’t any ‘people who write coherent first drafts’. Or maybe there are some, but they aren’t the norm, and aspiring to become one of those people can be a frustrating approach. Better to aspire to write coherent subsequent drafts and to allow those first draft to help you to figure out what you need to say about the topic. Second, I must have done a bad job describing the reverse outline itself because it is, in fact, the perfect strategy for handling chaotic first drafts. But it only works if we tell the absolute truth in the outline and don’t allow wishful thinking to creep in. The point is to find out what you’ve got. If you cheat—as I did above—you won’t be able to see that. Let the reverse outline do the work it was meant to do, even if that means confronting how far you still have to go.

Social Media and Expertise

This summer break from blogging was entirely necessary, but I have missed writing here. I’d like to ease my way back in with some reflections on the nature of the ‘expertise’ presented in a blog like this one.

In June, I was at a conference and, as usually happens, I found a theme emerging over the weekend. Not the explicit conference theme, but rather a notion that came up again and again regardless of the stated topic. Of course, to some extent, we all inevitably hear what we are primed to hear. And for me, this conference was about notions of expertise. How do we establish expertise about writing? In particular, given the topic of my own presentation, I was interested in questions of social media and expertise.

My presentation concerned the way social media participation might act as academic production for writing instructors in Canada. While allowing that a marginal status within the university might lead some writing instructors to adopt a more traditional attitude towards the established norms of scholarly publishing, I ultimately argued that writing instructors have much to gain from an expanded notion of academic production. In particular, I focused on three ways in which social media participation based around blogging might prove useful to writing instructors. First, a non-traditional appointment of the sort that is common for writing instructors gives latitude for exploring emerging styles of academic communication. Second, most writing instructors have limited time for research while still needing research engagement to thrive in our roles; social media participation offers a more flexible model of engagement. Third, our work as writing instructors requires that the needs of students be primary. As a species of academic publishing, blogging allows us to speak in a way that can reach students as well as peers.

At its root, blogging is about sharing expertise in a way that relies upon a crowd-sourced, DIY form of peer review. I give writing advice here on the blog in the same spirit that I give writing advice in the classroom. That is, I openly acknowledge that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach, and then I make very particular suggestions. In doing so, I am claiming a certain expertise about writing based on my previous work with writers. Readers and students alike have to decide if the approach is valuable to them. Advice about writing is always idiosyncratic, but tends on occasion to present itself as universal. In my view, far too much of what is said about academic writing underestimates its own specificity. In fact, writing advice gains value precisely by being framed as a matter of particular experience. Rather than rejecting the particular or framing the particular as universal, we should be offering support and concrete suggestions to improve the writing process.

Taking some time away from blogging has helped me to reflect on the status of the advice that I give here. I also had a chance to spend two amazing weeks at a research methods seminar; this experience gave me the time to think more about the way epistemological questions affect how we teach and talk about writing, both in the classroom and through social media. I’m so grateful to the seminar organizers and participants for giving me so much to think about as I embark on my year’s sabbatical.

I hope you’ve all had enjoyable and productive summers. I’d love to hear what topics you’d like me to cover in the coming weeks and months; if you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments or via Twitter.

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