Monthly Archives: September 2011

Audience and Anxiety

While writing a recent post on signposting and metadiscourse, I experienced a bout of writers’ anxiety that nearly derailed the whole post. Writing this blog is, of course, a source of some anxiety; it is hard to avoid feeling self-conscious about writing while simultaneously telling others how to do it. In many ways it is easier to talk about writing in the classroom because nobody can evaluate your own writing at the exact same time that you are holding forth on good writing. Although there was this one time that someone accessed my dissertation online during a class on thesis writing. And then announced to everyone that he had done so! I carried on teaching, but I was seriously unnerved and totally convinced that I could see a ‘gotcha’ look in his eye the whole time.

So, there is a root anxiety present every time I hit the ‘Publish’ button. In fact, I think it is a bit unfortunate that WordPress gave the button such an intimidating name. What’s wrong with the friendly ‘Share’ button used by Facebook or the silly-but-not-intimidating ‘Tweet’ button? Every time I have to hit ‘Publish’, I mutter ‘publish-ish’ to myself as a comforting reminder of the limitations of this endeavour. But since this is, after all, a blog about writing, I thought I should use this space to reflect a little on working through writing anxieties.

I have talked frequently in this blog about the importance of audience, but I haven’t talked about the anxiety of audience. My emphasis on audience awareness as a way of strengthening writing may obscure the way that acknowledging an audience can complicate the writing process. Thinking about audience means imagining that someone will actually read our writing—not always a welcome thought. The anxiety caused by writing is the anxiety that putting something down in black and white will allow our  audience to find out the various ways in which we are inadequate. We fear that the reader will dislike the current piece of writing and thus, by extension, see us in a less favourable light. The reticence that this anxiety creates can be pernicious for two reasons. At a simple level, writing less undermines our ability to write well. Anything that inhibits our writing will put us in a potentially vicious cycle since more writing is a necessary, if not sufficient, strategy for improving our writing. At a deeper level, shielding our ideas from criticism only guarantees that we won’t improve those ideas; allowing our ideas to take shape on the page and then allowing others to see them is the only way we can establish if they are worthwhile.

Sometimes the best way to get through writing anxiety is to trust our eventual readers to let us know where we’ve gone wrong. We tend to imagine a dissatisfied reader as someone who scoffs and vows never to bother with us again; more often than not, if we are serious about what we are saying, dissatisfied readers will actually come back to us with ways to rethink, rework, and improve. Not every reader we encounter will be this ideal charitable reader, but it is still legitimate to use that reader as the target audience. The value of the imaginary charitable reader is that such a reader could come back to us with grounded concerns about problems in the text and not just disdain. You may disagree with what I said about metadiscourse, but I have to trust that you’ll explain those disagreements rather than just dismissing me out of hand.

In short, we may be able to lessen our anxiety by re-imagining our relationship with our reader as less adversarial and more constructive. The constructive reader may have lots of criticisms, but those criticisms will be grounded in the text and, as such, will not call into question our overall worthiness. Imagining this ideal reader is one way that we can help ourselves think about audience without succumbing to the attendant anxiety.

Links: Academic Blogging

First, before I forget: National Punctuation Day is coming up on Saturday. I confess, I was initially confused by this announcement because I was sure I had already mentioned this on the blog (and this blog didn’t exist last September). But I soon realized that I was confusing National Punctuation Day with National Grammar Day. Two totally different days. This blog probably isn’t the place to discuss how funny the ‘National [fill in the blank] Day’ phenomenon is, but I can’t resist. August 15th, for instance, is both National Relaxation Day and National Failure Day, a combination that sounds weird but actually makes sense in a mean, puritanical sort of way. It is also National Lemon Meringue Pie Day. Again, there is a certain logic: if you’ve ever made such a pie, you probably needed to relax afterwards and you may very well have failed. Here is a list of more of these special days (I was tired after reading just the month of January) and some discussion of the procedure for getting such a day recognized (just kidding, there is absolutely no procedure). But even though there are national days of many inconsequential things, this does not lessen the importance—the 365-days-a-year importance—of punctuation. I urge you to click here to learn more about its special day.

Now, on to today’s post. Since I have encountered a range of thought-provoking blogposts on academic blogging recently, I thought I would devote this post to that topic.

Here is a blogpost on the darker side of blogging by Jeffrey Cohen from the In the Middle blog. Cohen reflects on the challenges of maintaining an online presence; in particular, he does a good job articulating some of the hazards that arise when exposure exceeds accountability. Ultimately, he intends to continue to engage social media as part of his academic life, but he is clearly concerned that online negativity could eventually overwhelm the tremendous promise of online communities.

Here is a discussion in The Scholarly Kitchen on the state of blogging and how it is perceived. In this post, Kent Anderson discusses the lack of respect accorded to blogging. He provides a vigorous defense, concluding that the purported weaknesses of blogging may actually be strengths: “Like many disruptive technologies, a blog’s ‘weaknesses’—the quick-hit writing with links substituting for wordiness, the ability to generate content quickly, the ability to interact with an audience, the ability to write long or short, the embedded ability to link to and host multimedia, the participation of unexpected experts—are really its strengths.”

Finally, here is something on blogging from The Thesis Whisperer in which a guest author, Andy Coverdale, talks directly about the role of blogging in the life of a PhD student. In particular, Coverdale considers how blogging affects both his writing process and the potential professional reception of his work. This post is essential reading for any graduate students trying to evaluate the benefits and complications of adding blogging into their professional lives.

P.S. I just learned that today is National Pecan Cookie Day. Do with that information what you will—I know what I’m going to do!

Writing for a Presentation

Regular readers of this blog know that it has an unsurprising tendency to reflect my current teaching or research interests. So today, after my first week of teaching, you will have to bear with me while I reflect on writing for oral presentations. This post is about the aspect of writing that is currently most on my mind: the creation of a written text designed to be read aloud. Even if oral presentations aren’t your favourite thing to think about (and most people like presenting even less than they like writing), they are an area in which most of us can improve. In fact, oral presentations are a topic that most people choose not to think about too much. Instead, most people just try to survive them. And most of us know firsthand what it is like to sit through a presentation when the presenter has no higher ambition than to survive. The challenge of oral presentations is obvious: oral presentations are a complex blend of intellectual command, organizational skills, technological expertise, and performance ability. So there is a lot to be said, but today—since this is still a blog about academic writing—I will focus on the creation of a text written explicitly for a presentation.

I will begin with an important clarification. Writing a text that is designed to be read isn’t something that all of you will do. In many fields, the expectation will be a presentation that revolves around speaking and not reading. But those of you who do need to read a presentation have a uniquely difficult task. Faced with this task, some presenters seem to feel that reading is in fact all that is required. However, the experience of having a standard academic paper read to us is not one that most of us wish to repeat. There is, of course, a range in people’s listening abilities; some listeners can manage a degree of attention and comprehension that others—me, for instance—cannot. But as a presenter, it is probably best to target average listeners, rather than the superstars of academic listening. And the average listener has needs that reading alone can’t meet.

So once you’ve learned that a read presentation is standard in your field and acknowledged that simply reading a paper may fail to engage your audience, what to do? The key is to identify what is so valuable about the read presentation. A read paper allows for a complexity and density that might not be achieved without a written text. The benefit of reading is that you can offer deliberately structured prose of the sort that most of us can’t create on the fly. This is what you will be able to maintain in your written paper: sophisticated sentences that convey complex relationships among concepts. Beyond that, you need to think how your presentation text needs to be different. Here are three key areas for alteration: one, the degree of elaboration; two, the extent of structural explanation; and, three, the use of actual annotations of your presentation text.

In the first place, your complex sentences will need elaboration; what can be said once for a reader should be reiterated for a listener. Complex ideas will likely need to be unpacked further in the designed-to-be-read version. Ask yourself if a sentence in your writing might require a reader to read it more than once or even just pause to think about it. If so, you must work that repetition or time for reflection into your read version; strategic repetition is your friend here. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see a lot of presentations during which I wished that the speaker had spent less time clarifying the key idea.

Second, you need to think of your paper as a one-way street for the listener. When readers read you, they have the luxury of flipping back to something, of reminding themselves of where they are within your argument. Listeners, on the other hand, are completely at your mercy. Once they lose the thread, their only way to regain it is through the structural signposts you have provided.

Third, the physical text that you read from needs to be distinctly different from a normal paper. The difference will come through the annotations that you make to direct your reading process. Some sentences need to be read in their entirety; some sentences can be a way to get you started with some room for improvisation at the end; some aspects of your paper should probably be left completely unwritten. I usually suggest that some proportion of the examples or anecdotes or elaborations be left open. I also suggest noting for yourself basic things like where you will pause, where you will look up, where you will put the emphasis. If you don’t need this degree of guidance, you will naturally disregard it, but many will find it helpful. For most of us, the appearance of spontaneity is much better than actual spontaneity.

One final note: a more dynamic read presentation requires careful attention to time management. When practicing ‘reading’ in this way, you have to make sure you know how long everything will take you during the actual presentation. It can be helpful to know whether it generally takes you longer to give a presentation than you anticipate or whether you are one of a smaller number of people who actually end up being quicker during the real thing. If you are in the former group, time yourself approximating the presentation as closely as possible, and then give yourself a few minutes leeway. If you are in the latter group, try slowing down!

This topic was well handled by ProfHacker last winter. Their blogger talks about creating a dedicated reading copy, a term which does a good job conveying how it must be different from the original version of the paper. If you have other questions about oral presentations, here are a few recent links that might prove helpful or might lead you to other helpful resources. Here is something from Dave Paradi’s blog about a technical issue: preparing to make a presentation on a computer that is not your own. Here is something from the Presentation Advisors blog on simple ways a presentation can go wrong. Here is something from The Guardian on deciding strategically how many conferences to attend. Finally, here is something from The Professor is In blog on making conferences work for you as a graduate student or junior academic.

Links: Drafts and Formatting, Teaching and Productivity, Writing and Relativism

Here is something from the new Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education on excessive formatting in manuscripts. The author, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, is making an important point about manuscripts: editors don’t want complex formatting. All that formatting just has to be stripped out, a process which is time-consuming and which can, potentially, lead to inadvertent changes to the material. As a writing instructor, my interest—as I have mentioned before—is keeping drafts free of fancy formatting and thus keeping them easy to revise. As I write this, I realize that enthusiastic formatting may be more than just a random phenomenon, at least in my writing process. I’m pretty sure I turn to formatting for comfort when writing is going badly; the less confidence I have in what I am writing, the more likely I am to start messing around with fonts and footers and subheads. That way, even if my work sounds terrible, at least it will look like a real paper. Needless to say, this is a counterproductive strategy. Not only does the premature formatting add nothing, it may well act as an impediment to digging into a draft and making substantive changes.

Here is a report from Newswise on some new research on STEM students who supplement research with teaching. The research suggests that time spent teaching may actually improve students’ abilities “to generate testable hypotheses and design experiments around those hypotheses”. The researchers suggest that this improvement may simply come from the process of explaining complex issues to students and from having to look at research problems from multiple perspectives. The findings make intuitive sense, so it is interesting that teaching and other activities are so often seen as distractions for graduate students rather than as valuable professional development.

Finally, here are some remarks from William Zinsser on the cultural dimensions of learning to write in English. His audience is journalism students, but the ideas may also be of interest to academic writers more generally. Most multilingual graduate students will benefit from having a good working understanding of how academic writing in English may differ from academic writing in their other language(s). Of course, no writing teacher will want to reify the cultural differences in academic writing. But students themselves—through alert reading and sensitive comparisons—can come to a valuable understanding of different practices of academic writing. I think that some relativism about ‘good academic writing’ is of value to students who may otherwise feel that there are universal standards of academic writing that are simply oblique to them.

Signposting and Metadiscourse

When I recently asked for ideas for future posts, many people suggested one on metadiscourse. This topic certainly needs addressing, but I have been dragging my feet about doing so. And the reason for this reluctance is simple: I find metadiscourse difficult to teach. The great thing about writing this blog is that I have now had to think about why I find it a hard topic to teach. What I have realized is that I struggle because I am using both a simple and a more complex understanding of metadiscourse. Let me begin by explaining these two ways of looking at metadiscourse.

First, the simple version: metadiscourse is often presented as the writing that we do about our writing, rather than about our topic. I find this definition to be simultaneously useful and limited. It is useful because it makes intuitive sense and because it highlights the crucial—and often neglected—task of explicitly guiding the reader through a piece of writing. It is limited because it overlooks all the other things that we do as writers to help our readers understand and accept our ideas. This brings us to the more complex understanding of metadiscourse: the linguistic strategies that we use to manage the evolving relationship between writer, reader, and text. In the words of Hyland and Tse (2004), metadiscourse is “the range of devices writers use to explicitly organize their texts, engage readers, and signal their attitudes to both their material and their audience”. I love this definition because it offers a valuable description of what we can accomplish through our writing choices; I think all writers benefit from thinking of writing in this multifaceted way. But as a teacher, I also value the conceptual clarity of dividing writing about writing, on the one hand, from writing about the topic, on the other. Essentially, an unsophisticated understanding of metadiscourse ends up being, for me, a valuable teaching strategy.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to follow my classroom practice and call this writing about writing, ‘signposting’, and I am going to call the more subtle devices that we use to structure the three-way relationship between text, reader, and writing, ‘metadiscourse’. According to this breakdown, signposting is, of course, a form of metadiscourse. (Other key forms of metadiscourse: making transitions between ideas; providing evidence for claims; offering elaborations of key points; managing different degrees of certainty; signalling authorial attitudes; seeking to engage the audience; and introducing an explicit authorial presence. These forms, taken from Hyland and Tse, overlap with one another and with what I am calling signposting. I will devote a later post to discussing all of this in more detail.) The reason I like to pull signposting out and treat it separately is the tendency of novice academic writers to neglect it. In the student writing I encounter, metadiscourse is generally already there—and just needs to be better understood so as to be used more effectively—while signposting generally needs to be increased.

It is very common for me to say something like this to a student in a one-on-one session: ‘You have introduced your topic, but you have not introduced your paper.’ In other words, the reader knows what the paper is about, but not how the paper itself will proceed. The interesting thing for me is that this is an area in which I find some students are actually quite reluctant to follow my advice, either out of their own inclination or because they believe that their advisor is against that sort of writing. My approach in these cases is to acknowledge the way that signposting can make writing appear laboured and then suggest that they try it, at least provisionally. If they really hate it, they can always take it out later. There is a real benefit to using signposts, even as a kind of scaffold: the very act of writing such phrases—for example, ‘In this paper, I will’ and ‘After a discussion of x, I will turn to y’ and ‘This paper will be divided into four sections’—gives clarity to the writer as well as to the reader. If you are one of those people who really dislikes the way that sort of writing sounds—I confess that I don’t see the problem, but my own writing tends to be somewhat pedestrian—you can remove it later or, even better, turn it into something that sounds more sophisticated. As your understanding of your own writing deepens, it is often quite easy to move from ‘In the first section, I will discuss X’ to ‘Given the centrality of X to any treatment of Y, this paper will begin by demonstrating the internal complexity of X within the context of Z’. Even this highly generic example suggests how we can use signposting (‘this paper will begin’) within sentences that also serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of the topic.

One final point for today: the central idea behind signposting is that the reader needs to know how your text will be structured. In those cases in which the reader doesn’t need to know, signposting will obviously be unnecessary. I can think of two such cases: one, a really short text in which the reader will know what’s what soon enough; and, two, a text with a completely predictable structure. Sometimes a student, in a laudable attempt at clarity, will end the introduction of an IMRAD-style paper with something like this: ‘The method section will discuss the method. Then the results will be discussed. Finally, concluding remarks will be given in the discussion section.’ Since the reader already understands the form that the author is using, they don’t need that information. You can usually tell that you don’t need to be providing structural hints of this sort when you find that you are writing redundant-sounding sentences like these.

This post has just been a general introduction to the idea of signposting and metadiscourse. In a future post, I will look in detail at the various forms of metadiscourse. I also hope to write a separate post on the related question of using  the first person in academic writing. In the meantime, please raise any questions or confusions below.

Source: Hyland, K., & Tse, P. (2004). Metadiscourse in academic writing: A reappraisal. Applied Linguistics, 25 (2), 156–177.