Monthly Archives: January 2011

Links: Public Intellectuals, Socializing Doctoral Students, Journal of Universal Rejection

Here is an article about scholarly communication from Inside Higher Ed that talks about the desirability of public intellectuals, of academics who can also communicate their results to the population at large. I happen to agree, but my interest is actually in the self-awareness of ourselves as writers that this imperative demands. We cannot write for multiple audiences without thinking about audience in a sophisticated way.

Here is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about the need for graduate students to have realistic expectations and adequate professional development. Despite my genuine interest in this topic, I hesitated to share this particular article because the tone is so dire. I am sure I will post things from the ‘disastrous state of academia’ genre from time to time, but I do think it is crucial to read them critically. Such scenarios do not always apply: the voices of despair speak of an experience that will not be shared equally across all fields and all degrees and all countries. But we cannot know what we genuinely ought to be concerned with unless we engage with the commentary. The call here for more consistent professional development for graduate students is one that I fully endorse.

Finally, the funniest thing I saw this week: The Journal of Universal Rejection. While it may not initially sound appealing, the journal editor does a great job of selling it. And Kent Anderson gives it this endorsement in The Scholarly Kitchen: “For stringent editorial standards and an untarnished reputation, the Journal of Universal Rejection stands apart.”

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.

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

These three principles lay the groundwork for the more practical discussions of writing offered elsewhere on this blog. Here I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three principles together: Joseph Williams. Nobody, in my view, has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving our own writing. I will conclude with a quote from Williams that expresses all three principles as one idea:

We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x).

In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader.

For more on the role of reader in the writing process, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Audience and Anxiety, I acknowledge that while remembering the needs of the audience can help us with revision decisions, the spectre of being read can be a source of anxiety.
  • In Self-Expression or Adherence to Form, I discuss a particular tension for graduate students: how to balance their desire for self-expression through writing with the expectations or predilections of their audience.
  • In Understanding Incoherence, I talk about the legitimate conflict between the messiness of our developing ideas and the needs of the reader.
  • In One-Way Trip, I consider what the reader is entitled to as they make their way through our texts.
  • In Signposting and Metadiscourse, I look at what the reader will need in order to follow our writing.  In The Evolution of Signposting, I address a common complaint about metadiscourse. And, in You Know It and I Know It, I own up to overusing one of my favourite bits  of metadiscourse.

Links: Editing, Clunkiness, Fonts

Each week in this blog, I plan to provide links to articles that I find relevant to academic writing and academic life more generally.

First up, here is something on revision strategies. In my last post, I promised that actual revision strategies would be forthcoming in future posts. And they will, but, in the meantime, here is a helpful article on the importance of editing from Inside Higher Ed.

Here is a recent piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the clunkiness of contemporary student writing. In this article, Ben Yagoda argues that students are not, as some fear, engaging in sprightly and efficient–albeit informal–writing of the sort prized in social media. Instead, they are going in the opposite direction and offering laboured and awkward prose that is clearly designed to be formal. Undergraduates are particularly susceptible to this problem, but it is a worthwhile reminder for everyone: the formality required by academic writing will not be achieved through verbosity.

Finally, on a lighter note, here is a Salon article about the possibility that there is a beneficial effect of hideous fonts. A provocative claim, but fonts are not actually my interest. I was struck by the following sentence: “A surprising number of older authors name Courier as the font they prefer to write in because it resembles the characters of a typewriter and therefore kindly suggests that the current draft is still available for improvement.” This observation jumped out at me because it acknowledges the importance of how we format our drafts. It is important that a draft look as though it is “available for improvement”. Students often give me drafts that are single spaced or, worse still, single spaced and set in columns. This practice may seem environmentally friendly, but it is working against good editorial practice. Make sure that a draft looks like a draft; it should be easy to comment on (room between lines; room in the margins) and it should look different (to your own eyes) than a finished text.

Committing to Extensive Revision

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.

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

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

For more on the challenges of revision, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Revising Out Loud, I articulate how important it can be to develop a process for committing to our own writing, even before we tackle revision.
  • In The Craft of Revision, I discuss my approach to the task of revision, from start to finish.
  • In Remembering to Edit, I present some strategies for ensuring that we keep our eyes on the task of revision.
  • In Bad News, Good News, I describe a common pattern: a lack of overall coherence despite local cohesion. In The Perils of Local Cohesion, I talk about the way that local cohesion can blind us to larger problems in our texts.
  • In Best Laid Plans, I encourage writers to think about the ideal relationship between prior planning and actual writing.
  • In Letting Go, I acknowledge how hard it can be to let go of hard-won text, even when it may not be serving any purpose.
  • In Scaffolding Phrases, I introduce the distinction between writing that may be helpful to us as writers and writing that serves the ultimate goal of satisfying the reader.
  • In Problem Sentences, I consider a radical revising solution: starting over.
  • Finally, in Reverse Outlines, I discuss the best way to tackle structural problems in our writing. The process of reverse outlining get elaborated in my discussion of Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines. In Truth in Outlining, I stress the importance of being honest when crafting reverse outlines. In Topic Sentence Paragraphs, I look at a strategy that helps us to see if we have created coherence in a late-stage draft.

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.

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

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

For more on the complicated nature of composition, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Can You Write Too Early?, I argue that early writing is the best way to work through the difficult process of figuring out what we need to say.
  • In A Cut-and-Paste Job, I consider the pros and cons of reusing our own texts in new ways.
  • In The Discomforts of Uncertainty, I address some of the challenges of exploratory writing.
  • In Between Drafting and Editing, I outline a strategy for making sure that our early drafts don’t become unmanageable.
  • In Is It All Writing?, I wonder whether the nomenclature that we use to define the various stages of writing matters.
  • In The Faintest Ink, I discuss the importance of getting things down on paper before we forget them.
  • In Writing as Thinking, I reiterate my commitment to exploratory writing in response to an articulation of an opposing view.

Welcome to Explorations of Style!

Welcome to Explorations of Style: A Blog about Academic Writing. In this blog, I will offer my perspective on how to meet the central challenges of academic writing. As an instructor in a program that supports graduate student writers, I spend a great deal of time looking at student writing and thinking about strategies for its improvement. In general, I do this in the classroom or in response to particular pieces of writing that students bring to me. This blog is an experiment in trying to shape this advice into a slightly more enduring form. The next three posts will present the general principles that inform all of my teaching. The subsequent posts will explore the five strategies that I turn to most often when working with students. I will then discuss the resources we can use to support academic writing. With that groundwork in place, I will turn to a discussion of common writing issues; drawing on my experience of academic writing, I will present my own approach to such issues.

Interspersed among these entries will be my reflections on the act of teaching writing and on media stories about various issues in academic life. My hope is that I will also be able to answer your questions about academic writing. Please feel free to submit questions by leaving a comment or by replying to a particular post.

The blog is called Explorations of Style because I am interested in exploring how we make sound choices about stylistic matters in our academic writing. Definitive answers about writing questions are rare; there are some rules, of course, but much of what we do when we write or revise is to make choices. I focus on stylistic choices rather than grammatical correctness because correct grammar is already the norm in academic writing. Effective writing, however, is not quite so common! This blog will focus on the stylistic choices we can all make to increase the effectiveness of our academic writing. I hope you’ll join me.