Monthly Archives: February 2011

Links: English as a Lingua Franca, Commercial Manuscript Editing, Literature Reviews and Social Media

Here is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education on the use of English as a lingua franca outside of English-speaking countries. It discusses many interesting issues–such as the cultural dimensions of communication–before concluding with a highly provocative point about the future of English. Although it is often assumed that being a lingua franca is a sign of linguistic vigour, some scholars suggest the opposite: that the English that is spoken as a global lingua franca may actually be a much reduced language and thus a vulnerable one.

This article from  Nature discusses the role of commercial manuscript editing. The author does an excellent job highlighting the various practical and ethical issues associated with commercial manuscript editing services. In doing so, she also tells us something about the priorities of scientific journal editors. These editors want manuscripts that they can send to reviewers without worrying that flaws in the writing will get in the way of assessment. But, interestingly, the flaws that worry them are not just grammatical; they are just as concerned about a poor mastery of the conventions of research articles. Novice academic writers need to understand what a manuscript must accomplish if it is to be considered for publication. The assessment ‘weak writing’ can be used to describe anything from punctuation difficulties to a poorly articulated methodology to improperly presented data; understanding the importance of all these elements will allow writers to see that the work of improving their writing will have to proceed on many fronts.  

Lastly, here is a blog post from The Thesis Whisperer about the similarity of literature reviews and social media. The specifics are Australian, but the general ideas about literature reviews are broadly applicable. And the social media analogy is clever. You really don’t have to be friends with everybody or every article!

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Transitions

Learning how to make effective transitions is essential to strong academic writing. A lack of comfort with making transitions is one of the causes of the short paragraphs that so often afflict novice academic writing. When we do not know how to make smooth transitions, we are more likely to add in unnecessary paragraph breaks, imagining that starting a new paragraph will solve the problem. But creating short, choppy paragraphs only exacerbates the problem. Instead, we must focus on creating effective transitions between sentences, which we generally do in one of two ways: we use transition words or we use textual linkages. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their only way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words  is actually detrimental to our writing and blinds us to the possibility of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Indeed, texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.

Here are a few key principles to help create clear transitions in your writing:

1. Avoid unclear reference. The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples: ‘A is connected to B. This is…’ and ‘A is connected to B. This connection is…’. Without the summary word (‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call this pattern ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have reference made explicit. So a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone.

2. Avoid unnecessary transition words. The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers—where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one—but they are so often used to indicate simple addition that I am including them here.) My first approach to a word like ‘also’ is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing ‘also’ and adding a more substantive indication of that link will be far more helpful to the reader.

3. Avoid the mere appearance of causality. When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connection we could be making. When we say ‘A exists. Therefore, I am going to study A.’, we are missing a chance to give an actual rationale for our research. Look closely at your use of causal words (‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘hence’) and make sure that they accurately reflect the relationship you are trying to convey.

4. Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text. Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this to the reader. Consider these simple examples: ‘There is plentiful evidence for A. I think not-A.’ and ‘There is plentiful evidence for A. However, I think not-A.’ The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.

I will also make two quick points about other types of transitions.

Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This need for more fulsome transitions can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes  ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such a tight relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph and that is not the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.

Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, in a literature review, a writer may say that she is going to consider the literature on a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there. Not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.

This post describes the third of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines; paragraphs; verbs; and subjects.

For more on transitions, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Full Stop, I talk about the way we create flow across sentences.
  • Breaking Points looks at how we can signal the relationship we are trying to create between paragraphs.

Links: Job Interviews, Being Literal, Scholarly Reportage

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, this blogger suggests replacing face-to-face job interviews with video conferencing. I am not sure whether this is, in fact, a coming trend, but I did wonder what such a shift in practice might mean for how both sides of the equation assess the interaction. Communicative cues are so complex; what would we need to learn to present ourselves successfully via this new medium? Also writing in Inside Higher Ed, Dean Dad makes one particularly important suggestion: all interviews in a given round would have to be conducted via the same technology. It would not be fair for some to have face-to-face meetings while others had to engage in the more complex task of presenting themselves remotely.

This post from Motivated Grammar addresses the difference between prescriptivism and preference. In this case, the author dislikes ‘literally’ when it is used as a general intensifier (and thus not in the literal sense of literally) not because such usage deviates from some rule but because it is hyperbolic. Although most of us rarely need to take a position on the prescriptivism debate, we do need to think about how we make writing decisions. When we argue against a particular usage on the grounds of its actual strengths or weaknesses, we do more for the overall health of our writing than when we protest against its deviance from some imagined norm.

This article from Inside Higher Ed considers whether scholarly reportage–a method of inquiry that combines social theory with accessible narrative–is a passing trend or a credible option for scholarly work. I am curious what a method that blends ‘scholarship, memoir, and journalism’ might mean for writing. Working in multiple genres for a multifaceted audience would demand impressive writing skills. For more on this type of writing, here is an article from Dissent about Andrew Ross and the last twenty-odd years of cultural studies.

Paragraphs

A crucial strategy for improving academic writing is to pay attention to the importance of the paragraph as a unit of discourse. Novice writers tend to think of both full texts and sentences as areas for improvement, but they give less thought to the role of the paragraph. They recognize, of course, that a full text must possess a certain communicative goal, and they understand that sentences are the building blocks of the whole. But paragraphs? In my experience, these intermediate units are consistently neglected. This neglect greatly underestimates the important role that paragraphs play for the reader. A paragraph break means something to a reader; when we move from one paragraph to another, we imagine that we are leaving one thought (or issue or topic or argument or point or perspective or piece of evidence) and moving on to another. We attempt, in other words, to find some unity within a paragraph and to discern some diversity between paragraphs. When the writer has not managed paragraphs well, those attempts will lead us—consciously or not—to be disappointed. Most of us benefit from adding paragraphs to our list of things that must be effective if our writing is to succeed. To that end, here is my list of four things I wish every academic writer knew about paragraphs:

1. That they are very important. Simply stated, effort should be devoted to working on paragraphs, as well as on sentences and full papers.

2. That they usually need a topic sentence. The ‘usually’ is there to avoid the appearance of dogmatism, but I do in fact advise writers to start with the assumption that every paragraph will require a topic sentence. The main exceptions are introductory paragraphs (which often, in effect, act as a kind of topic paragraph for the whole text), transitional paragraphs (which exist to signal a significant shift in topic), and serial paragraphs (all of which refer back to a single topic).

3. That they should be thematically linked. The rest of the sentences should be recognizably about the theme announced in the topic sentence. These thematic linkages should also involve noticeable linguistic linkages, accomplished through strategic repetition and the use of key terms.

4. That their length is meaningful. The length of a paragraph should be determined by the demands of content, not by the number of sentences or space taken up on the page. When I ask students for the rationale behind a paragraph break, they frequently say something to the effect of ‘I thought it had gone long enough’. (The phrase ‘my high school English teacher always said …’ also comes up a lot in this regard, but the ongoing trauma of a high school English education lies well outside the scope of this post!)

Paying more attention to paragraphs can, needless to say, improve their internal cohesion. But this attention to paragraphs is also a key way to improve the overall coherence of a complete text. Our ability to engage in thorough structural revision can often be undermined by the difficulty of finding our way into our own text. Once that text is thought of as a series of paragraphs—each of which has an explicit role to play—we are better able to grasp the overall demands of structure.

This post describes the second of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines; transitions; verbs; and subjects.

For more on paragraphs, you can consult these other posts:

Links: Same As It Ever Was, Revision and Sprezzatura, Writing as Habit

Here is a review in Times Higher Education of a book about the management of scholarly information in the medieval and early modern world. The reviewer calls it a prehistory of our current predicament and argues that there is nothing new about our feeling that there is ‘too much to know’. I am interested in the idea that we have always needed strategies for managing information, that reading ‘the whole thing’ has never been a simple norm in scholarly work.

In this article from the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Greenblatt discusses the invisible labour of writing: writers revise endlessly, but readers only see final versions. Greenblatt’s interest is Shakespeare and the notion of sprezzatura, but these ideas are also relevant for academic writing. We might make more time for revision if we understood how much revision goes into published work. Imagining that everything comes easier to other people may be tempting, but it will not help us commit to extensive revision.

Finally, a blog post from The Thesis Whisperer that I could not resist. It starts with an anecdote about infant sleep patterns and moves on to some astute observations about the role of habit in writing. Every parent of a newborn knows (or has been told) that ‘sleep breeds sleep’; could it be equally true that ‘writing breeds writing’? And is it possible that we resist writing as vigorously as babies resist sleeping? The post goes on to suggest that one obstacle to good writing habits may be the absence of an obvious audience; to counteract this anti-social aspect of writing, the post lists some interesting questions designed to bring our potential audience into focus while we write.

Reverse Outlines

My favourite revision strategy is the reverse outline. Simply stated, a reverse outline is an outline that we create from an existing text; rather than turning an outline into a text, we are turning a text into an outline. Regardless of whether or not you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text.

The steps to creating a reverse outline are simple:

1 Number the paragraphs
2 Identify the topic of each paragraph
3 Arrange these topics into an outline
4 Analyze this outline
5 Create a revised outline
6 Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
7 Check for topic sentences and cohesion

Step 1: Number the paragraphs
The basic unit of a reverse outline is the paragraph, so the first step is to number the paragraphs. The simple act of directing our attention towards paragraphs—and thus away from sentences—can be helpful: while writers naturally focus on sentences, we must always remember that our readers are naturally inclined to focus on paragraphs.

Step 2: Identify the topic of each paragraph 
Once the paragraphs have been numbered, try to identify a topic in each one. Since you are looking at an early draft, this process will be challenging: not all paragraphs will have topics and not all topics will be expressed neatly in a single paragraph. When doing a reverse outline, it is crucial to remember that you are trying to make evident what is there rather than what ought to be there. In other words, this step is diagnostic. You are simply noting what each paragraph was trying to do, for better or worse. Once you’ve done that, you can observe whether topic sentences can be found and make a note of paragraph length. Again, at this stage, you are observing rather than judging or remedying. Does the paragraph have a topic sentence? Yes or no? And how long is the paragraph? The latter can be recorded in word count or in more qualitative terms as short, average, or long.

Step 3: Arrange these topics into an outline
To create this preliminary outline, you are doing nothing more than listing the topics that you’ve identified, paragraph by paragraph. The crucial thing at this stage is to leave your original text alone and work just on the outline; you are trying to keep yourself away from the muddling effect of the detailed content in your own writing. As an advocate for your future reader, you are trying to see past the detail and look just at essential structure.

Step 4: Analyze this outline
The next step is to analyze this outline, paying particular attention to the logic  and proportionality of your internal organization. Understanding the logic involves observing the way elements have been placed in relation to one another. Understanding the proportionality involves observing how much space is being devoted to each element. This step is the bridge between noting what you have and preparing to create something new.

Step 5: Create a revised outline
During steps 3 and 4, you’ve been working with a list of topics; in step 5, you will have to transform that list into a genuine outline. Now that you can see all the topics and can start to see possible weaknesses in either your ordering of points or your allocation of space, you are ready to create a better outline for the text. You have the best of both worlds at this point: you know a great deal that you didn’t know before you started writing, but you are still working at a level of abstraction that will keep you from getting bogged down in the details.

Step 6: Reorganize the text according to the revised outline
Here comes the hard part. In steps 3, 4, and 5, you’ve been working with the outline. Now it’s time to use this new outline to transform the text. And unless you are an incredibly confident writer, you will find this scary. That initial draft—even with all the flaws that you’ve just uncovered—will generally have a real hold on you. That hold comes from the legitimate fear that you might take away existing coherence and flow without being able to replace it with something better. At this point, you need faith, faith in the new outline and faith in your ability to transform your text into something better. Practically, what you do here is move the text around to reflect the organization of the new outline. The result, at this point, can be pretty rough. If you take a few paragraphs from the second half of a paper, for instance, and move them up to an earlier section, they can’t possibly sit right. The time for massaging everything into a cohesive whole will come, but for now you must trust that the new outline has allowed you to devise a new and improved configuration of your text.

Step 7: Check for topic sentences and cohesion
The final step is to pay attention to the way your new paragraphs work. The new and improved configuration will be, needless to say, both better and worse. It will be better because it will reflect your careful and clearheaded analysis of what it needs to do; it will be worse because it will still bear too many traces of its earlier self. To get a head start on the next stages of revision, you can identify whether you have topic sentences early in your paragraphs and whether those paragraphs use their length effectively to develop clear topics. While there will still be lots of work to do, you can turn to that work secure in the knowledge that you have created an effective structure for this text. Polishing a text is time-consuming work, but it is easier and more efficient when you are working on a text that you know to be well-organized and well-proportioned.

In sum, the reverse outline is an effective strategy because it can create an objective distance between you and your text. Reverse outlining gives us a way into a text that might otherwise resist our editorial efforts. We often find our early drafts disconcerting: we know they are flawed but changing them can still seem risky. A reverse outline can give us purpose and direction as we undertake the valuable project of restructuring our written work.

This post describes the first of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss paragraphs; transitions; verbs; and subjects.

For more on using reverse outlines, you can consult these other posts:

Links: Meritocracy, Artful Sentences, Comprehensive Exams

From Inside Higher Ed, here is an argument against restricting the levels of graduate school admissions. Tucker argues that admitting fewer PhD candidates is a poor response to the lack of academic jobs; he doesn’t want to see the pool of talent diminished before graduate students have a chance to begin their training. While he admits that graduate school is not a perfect meritocracy, he still prefers the idea of training more students than the academic job market can handle. Here is a strongly worded response to Tucker, one that suggests that this argument for meritocracy predictably ignores structural factors.

Here is a widely shared article from Slate about the art of the sentence. The article and the book it is reviewing (Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One) are both ultimately concerned with literary writing, but I was interested in the assessment of the enduring popularity of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “It is spoken in the voice of unquestioned authority in a world where that no longer exists. . . . And when it comes to an activity as variable, difficult, and ultimately ungovernable as writing sentences, the allure of rules that dictate brevity and concreteness is enduring.”

Finally, here is a blog post from Hook and Eye on preparing for comprehensive exams; the author is collecting tips on studying for these types of exams, so check the comments for further insights from other graduate students.