Tag Archives: Writing

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, both ways is fine, but here is a summary of my non-answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It All Writing?

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

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

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

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

2013 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I thought I’d take a quick look back at 2013. In response to my own students’ interest in introductions, I began the year with a general post on the benefits of a standard ‘three move’ introduction. I returned to this topic a month later to address the more specific challenge of structuring a thesis introduction; given the length and complexity of a thesis introduction, it is crucial to have a strategy to help position the various elements in a manner that will make sense to the reader. Introductions made a third appearance in a post on managing the move from a research problem to a particular response.

Early in the year, I had a note from a graduate student with a question that summed up a great deal of the struggle of doctoral writing: Shouldn’t I already know how to write? The short answer to that question is an emphatic no: academic writing is a particular skill and most of us need time and effort to learn how to do it well. The post then delved into the way that this pernicious question can undermine confidence and dissuade graduate students from the necessary and challenging project of learning how to be proficient academic writers. The question of our status as academic writers was also addressed in my 100th post, which looked at the notion of academic writer as an identity.

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is the opportunity to engage with interesting material from other people’s blogs. Like many writers, I often don’t know what I want to say until I see what someone else has said on the topic. Over the course of the year, I was inspired by many people: William Germano on reader awareness; Peter Elbow on understanding incoherence; Melissa Dalgleish on finding community in graduate school; Pat Thomson on autonomy and doctoral study; Lee Skallerup Bessette on writing without inspiration; Susan Carter on writing aversion; Thomas Basbøll on the paramount importance of the paragraph; and, lastly, my yoga teacher on observing without judging.

While I felt that I didn’t spend enough time this year on writing at the sentence level, I did manage a few posts on nuts-and-bolts issues. Having already covered all the more controversial punctuation marks, I was left to consider the use of the period; in fact, I think the decision about when and how to end a sentence is a fascinating one. Punctuation also came up in a discussion of parallel constructions. My own over-reliance on the phrase ‘of course’ led me to write a post on the rhetorical significance of presenting something as obvious. And in response to a perennial question about finding good books on writing, I provided a brief annotated bibliography of books on academic writing.

What blog would be complete without a little bit of navel gazing? In my first post back after summer vacation, I reflected on the nature of the expertise presented in a blog such as this one. Part of the value, for me, of the advice found on social media is the way it requires us to be a reviewer as well as a reader. The advice on this blog might be good or it might be terrible. And even if it is good for lots of people, it might be terrible for you. In deciding what writing advice to take, we are honing our understanding of the writing process and of ourselves as writers.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the various ways academic writing challenges us. In a post on reverse outlines, I discussed how easy it is to write an aspirational outline instead of an honest one. I also discussed the disorienting effect of returning to our own exploratory texts. Since we all struggle with the time-consuming nature of writing, I devoted a post to the pace of academic writing. Taking a broader perspective on writing challenges, I looked at what imposter syndrome means in the context of academic writing.

My favourite post of the year was on the concept of contribution and voice in academic writing. In that post, I argued that voice can be a nebulous concept and that it may be better to focus on articulating our own contribution. Over time, we all strive to develop a clear and consistent voice, but, in the short run, explaining our particular contribution is perhaps a more pressing goal.

It was a pleasure to participate in Academic Writing Month again this year. Over the course of the month, I used the interesting questions and comments from the Twitter feed as the basis for posts on a range of topics: the many forms that not-writing can take; our sources for academic writing inspiration;  and managing the demands of multiple projects.

I ended the year with a post on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. In this post, I drew on material that I had used for a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share the webinar here on my own site; I’d also like to thank the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog for sharing the post on their site. The post itself links to many posts from this blog’s three-year history to explain my approach to confronting, accepting, and surviving the anxiety of academic writing.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing. As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics for future posts.

Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing

Last week I gave a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. Since the presentation, which I’ll embed below, was relatively short, I thought I would use this post to point to the places on the blog where I elaborate on its key points.

I began the presentation by discussing the key dilemma of academic writing: although writing can be the decisive factor in professional academic success, we often lack both training in the act of writing and time to complete the necessary writing tasks. As a result, we often dislike our own writing or find the process of creating acceptable writing unduly onerous. To make matters worse, these problems are often compounded by the sense that our difficulties are illegitimate, that we should already know how to write. Since we often aren’t expert writers, especially early in our academic careers, we tend to think of ourselves as bad writers. People are generally quick to call themselves bad writers, but they may not be so willing to embrace the broader category of academic writer, with all that entails. To identify yourself as a bad writer without making the commitment to being a writer seems a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The overarching theme of this presentation was that the challenges are real; we all struggle with our writing technique and with managing our writing time. Unfortunately, even though everyone has these struggles, many people think of themselves as alone in their writing challenges. One of the reasons that we remain convinced that these challenges are ours alone is that we engage in a lot of unfair comparisons. Instead of assuming that others must be struggling in much the same way that we are, we compare our insides with their outsides and thus conclude that we are uniquely inept.

How then to confront the anxiety that this negativity and isolation creates in academic writers? It can be helpful to begin by distinguishing between intellectual difficulties with writing—figuring out how to do it—and practical difficulties with writing—simply finding time to do it. Most of us struggle with both, but it is still helpful to tackle them separately. It’s also crucial to tackle them with novel strategies. New strategies are key because otherwise we are left with no avenue for improvement except renewed effort. And renewed effort only works if a lack of effort was the original problem. We all have days, of course, when a lack of effort is definitely the problem. But overall a lack of effort is generally a symptom of some other underlying difficulty. Simply put, trying harder won’t solve most writing problems and when it fails we end up feeling even worse about the whole thing.

One way to tackle our intellectual difficulties with writing is to try to think differently about the whole enterprise. Sticking with an approach, whatever it may be, that has caused us difficulty in the past isn’t likely to give us dramatically new results. As regular readers know, my approach relies on three principles that I’ve borrowed from Joseph Williams: using writing to clarify thinking; committing to extensive revision; and understanding the needs of the reader. These sentiments are all easily found in Williams’s excellent formulation: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” This quote has the potential to change the way we conceive of the activity of writing; in my view, that reconceptualization can be a necessary first step in shaking free of writing anxiety.

Such a  reconceptualization is potentially very valuable but also needs to be connected to concrete strategies. If we are going to write to clarify thinking, we will need to be aware of the challenges of exploratory writing. And we will need strategies to keep our texts manageable. If we are going to commit to extensive revision, we are going to need to improve our basic understanding of the editing process. How can we make revision part of our regular writing routine? How can we make sure that we are engaging in structural edits and not just tinkering around the edges? How can we prepare ourselves to let go of the material in our writing that is no longer serving us well? Finally, if we are going to be more aware of our readers’ needs, we will have to grasp the differences between the reader and the writer. How do we understand the breakdown of responsibilities between reader and writer? What guidance do we give our readers as they make their way through our texts? Are we constructing our paragraphs in a way that acknowledges their importance to our readers?

After this discussion of avenues for improving the act of writing, I turned to a discussion of productivity. Most anxious writers find that the time available for academic writing is never sufficient. Since finding more time is like trying to get blood from a stone, most of us need to find strategies to use our existing time better. There’s a world of productivity advice to be found, and it’s crucial that we expose ourselves to that world. We just need to do so with an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Be wary of advice, even as you seek it out. Even if you do find a helpful source of advice, remain attuned to your own style of working and respect your own intuitions about what will make you more effective.

I ended the presentation with a polemical question: What don’t you know about writing? If writing is, for you, laden with anxiety, it will be helpful to confront the gaps in your knowledge. You are generally expected to have picked up enough about writing along the way to get the job done, but few people thrive as writers without systematically addressing themselves to improving their technique and to finding effective productivity strategies. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to comment on a familiar dilemma: writing may be really important, but so is everything else and there just isn’t enough time to focus on writing. I’m not at all unsympathetic to this sentiment, but I’m also pretty sure that time spent on writing is time well spent. I think that is true for all of us, but it is particularly true for those who are anxious about writing. Anxiety is itself very time-consuming and inefficient. Tackling the source of that anxiety—by becoming a more proficient and productive writer—is likely to be a valuable investment of time, even when that time is in short supply.

Putting this post together reminded me of an important part of any good productivity strategy: taking the time to look back at and appreciate past accomplishments. Being able to assemble this collection of posts—with all their flaws—was a useful reminder of what I have accomplished thus far with the blog. For many of us, the next few weeks will be a time of reflection. As we look towards the new year and perhaps think about all the writing that has inevitably gone undone this year and about our plans to remedy this state of affairs, we should also spend some time thinking about all we have done. Those accomplishments are what we have to build upon, and they should not be neglected. I wish you all a very happy and productive winter break!

Thank you to the Text and Academic Authors Association for allowing me to share this presentation here:

A Change is as Good as a Rest

Thinking back over a month’s worth of AcWriMo conversations, I was struck by how frequently people mentioned the need to negotiate the demands of multiple projects. In particular, I was interested in the notion that we often wish to work on tasks other than the ones we are currently doing. Is this true for you, that the grass is always greener? That nothing sounds better than writing when you actually can’t write? That working on an article makes the simple task of preparing a class handout seem relatively easy? That other projects become more appealing as soon as you need to work on this project? That you fritter writing time away only to find yourself dying to write while stuck folding laundry or running endless errands on the weekend?

In part, this response is surely just human nature. Working on the other project can seem like a way to avoid the inherent difficulties involved in working on this project. We could, of course, strive to cure ourselves of this wrongheadedness. Or—and this is the simpler path—we can harness the allure of the other project by allowing ourselves to move between multiple projects. Anything that allows us to capitalize on this perverse tendency has to be good. If you are labouring away at one task, a different task can start to look a bit like a shiny object that you want to play with. Better that than the gazillion shiny objects that make up the Internet.

So clearly I’m a fan of switching from one thing to another when the situation demands it. And there’s always something else that we can do: editing earlier writing; working on the literature; thinking about teaching; marking student papers; keeping up with administrative work; and so forth. I think it’s better to have that other task for when we are stalled because, ultimately, it’s better to get something done than nothing. But that doesn’t answer the perennial question about whether it is actually better to work on just one writing project at a time or to have multiple writing projects on the go. There is absolutely no correct answer to the mono- vs. multi-task question. But there are some other questions to help each of us figure out what will work best for us.

1. Do you have to do multiple projects? Sometimes the question is not about work flow, but about priorities. How many additional projects should a doctoral student take on? How many conferences a year? How should publication plans be integrated with ongoing dissertation writing? What about blogging or contributing to edited collections? Those priorities need to be addressed with a supervisor rather than approached as a question of work flow.

2. What does your standard work week look like?  Do you like to work in long stretches or in short bursts? What role do your family responsibilities play? Do you have a job outside of graduate school? What are your non-writing graduate student activities? Your writing schedule should be planned with your actual schedule in mind; that may sound obvious, but in my experience many writers create writing schedules that are destined to fail because they don’t take reality fully into account.

3. Are other people involved in your deadlines? Do you have to get something to your supervisor, co-author, or writing group? If you know that your work will spend significant time out of your hands, it can make sense to have multiple projects to fill those gaps.

4. Finally, and most importantly, what do you prefer? For the sake of argument, imagine that you have a conference abstract and an article submission that you want out the door by the end of the year. Can you imagine setting up a leapfrog system in which one lies dormant while the other is active and then vice versa? Or would you just like to get one done completely before moving on? Again, I don’t think there is a right answer, but I do think that each of us needs to answer this question for ourselves in order to optimize our work flow.

If a student asks me about multi-tasking (and has absolutely no preference or decisive external factors), I suggest trying the leapfrog, for two reasons. First, most of us produce better writing when we can let it rest before turning our attention to revision. Second, to return to my original theme, having multiple projects means that we have worthwhile activities to turn to when our current task becomes intolerable. If you find that the other project never gleams so brightly as when you can’t attend to it, you might as well make that state of mind work to your advantage. After all, if you can’t have a rest, why not enjoy a change of scenery?

Lastly, a quick thanks to Charlotte Frost of PhD2Published, to all the other AcWriMo ‘ambassadors’, and especially to all the AcWriMo participants. It was another inspiring and thought-provoking month. If you haven’t had a chance, I urge you to look through the #AcWriMo Twitter feed for successes, challenges, calls for carrying the momentum into December and beyond, and reflections on the whole experience. I’m already looking forward to next November!

Inspiring Prose

In a recent workshop, a student objected to my approach to academic writing on the grounds that I was neglecting the role of great writers as a source of inspiration. I admit that I was initially unsure how to respond to this critique. While I absolutely find good writing to be inspirational, I’m not sure how widespread that sentiment is among academic writers. In other words, it’s one of those ideas about the writing process that I generally leave out for fear of seeming flaky. I’ve talked on the blog before about my enthusiasm for writing and the way I try to temper my own inclinations with a more sober approach in order to reach a wider range of writers, many of whom don’t feel overwhelmed by a love of writing. But this question made me wonder if I was doing some students a disservice by underselling this source of inspiration.

After all, in academic writing, we can all stand to find more sources of inspiration. Most of the time, we are either just plain uninspired or, on a good day, inspired by new ideas about our content. Often this inspiration comes from a great lecture, a meeting with a committee member, a conversation with a peer, or an unexpected article. It can also come from those amazing moments (usually in the shower or on the subway or at a yoga class when our mind is otherwise engaged) when we suddenly see things differently:

‘A is actually more like Z than like B.’

‘What if I put B before C and then divided D into a series of examples?’

‘I’ve been using X as the way into this issue, but I may wish to use Y as the way in, leaving more time for Z’.

These moments of inspiration—if we don’t forget them before managing to write them down—are invaluable.

But what about the inspiration that simply comes from experiencing great prose? Such writing can inspire us, just by being an example of how good writing can be. If you are attuned to good writing, you will see it in all sorts of places: unexpected little gems that make you stop and think about the expert or felicitous construction rather than the ideas. Pausing to be aware of those moments is a good idea. Why not catch academic writing being good? All the negativity about academic writing starts to make it seem as though it’s a thoroughly flawed enterprise, rather than an intrinsically challenging activity. I’m not saying that academic writing doesn’t often end up as flat and lifeless as its critics suggest. But that absence of vitality is neither inevitable nor universal. Observing the good bits shows us that we can’t let ourselves off the hook; stultifying prose is never a necessity. It can, however, be a natural outcome of inexperienced writers tackling topics that resist coherence. Observing good writing reminds us that we need to keep striving towards the reachable goal of lively and engaging prose.

Observing good writing can also inspire us more directly to start to write. In this case, we are not necessarily writing because we need say something in particular, but rather because of the pure creative pleasure of putting words together. My favourite source for such inspiration is the philosopher David Hume. Although my philosophy days are long behind me—maybe this blog needs its own version of an ‘I quit’ post—I have never lost my love of the subject of my dissertation. Take this famous sentence, for instance:

Disputes are multiplied, as if every thing was uncertain; and these disputes are managed with the greatest warmth, as if every thing was certain. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction)

In addition to its evident—and apparently timeless—wisdom, the sentence itself is lovely: the repetition of disputes and of as if every thing; the use of uncertain and certain as a contrasting pair; the similar sound of multiplied and managed; and the semicolon to act as a hinge between the two halves of the comparison.

But the specifics of this beautiful sentence aren’t really the point. (And your source of inspiring prose may well be something other than an 18th century Scot.) The point is that beautiful writing can give us itchy fingers, make us want to create that sort of elegant, proportional text for ourselves, even when we’re not exactly sure what we want to say. Since writing is often the one thing that can help us figure out what we want to say, writing for its own sake can be very beneficial. Anything that inspires us to write has to be a good thing, this month or any month.