Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Perils of Local Cohesion

In my recent post on literature reviews and reverse outlines, I mentioned how doing a reverse outline can snap writers out of a certain complacency vis-à-vis their own writing. As I said there, this complacency rarely entails contentment, but it does impede our own editing efforts. One source of this editorial inertia is the presence of ‘local cohesion’. Even a piece of writing with serious structural issues may work at the local level. And if we lack strategies for macro-level editing, we may continue to refine a piece of writing by improving its local coherence without addressing larger issues.

I recently encountered a problem of this sort in a piece of my own writing. I realized—actually, it wasn’t so much realizing as it was being informed by an astute coauthor—that a paragraph wasn’t saying what I needed it to. I had missed this problem over time since the paragraph itself was internally coherent. Even once I saw the problem, however, I found it hard to devise a solution. The local cohesion had been deepened through many rounds of edits, which meant that the basics were very much in place: the paragraph had a discernible topic; each of its sentences appeared to address this topic; and the sentences had perfectly good flow between them. It was very hard for me to see how to go about making the necessary changes.

This may sound like I am just preparing to say (yet again!) that you’ll never regret doing a reverse outline. And I am saying that: getting at the skeletal form of your writing will definitely help you diagnose problems even when local cohesion is obscuring your editorial insight. However, I’m also acknowledging the difficulty of acting on that diagnosis. Once we have figured out what is wrong, we need to be tough on ourselves. It takes a good deal of intestinal fortitude to break up a piece of writing that is even partially working. It is so often the case that changing our writing has a significant ripple effect. Even if you can identify the particular point at which things go astray, you can’t just fix that point; you’ll also have to do the unsettling work of changing the supporting cast. Ultimately, editing our own writing is an act of faith. You have to be believe that if you sacrifice local cohesion to global coherence, you are starting down a path towards a better piece of writing.

The Supervisory Relationship

This blog aims to present both my own ideas about graduate student writing and my commentary on other people’s ideas. I’ve struggled a bit with the best way to do the latter. I find that I often draft comments about interesting things I’ve read, but then don’t post them (because writing is easy, sharing your writing is hard!). Those sort of reflections can quickly become stale, so they end up sitting unused in a draft folder. Increasingly, I just share the things that I find interesting on Twitter; the commentary aspect is lost, but at least the sharing is timely. Since not everyone follows me on Twitter (@explorstyle), I am going to start including a list of the things I’ve shared on Twitter at the end of these posts. The post itself will consist of a comment on one recent item of interest. Today’s link isn’t particularly recent (unless, like me, you feel like July was just a minute ago!), but I know that it is one that graduate students will find relevant.

This post from the Thesis Whisperer blog on what doctoral students need from their supervisors highlights the potential for difficulties in the supervisory relationship. The post discusses what doctoral students can and should expect from their supervisors—and whether that relationship needs to be as fraught as it so often is. The post was inspired the actions of a new doctoral student who was looking to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. I thought the post did a great job of summing up two equally undesirable poles: one, avoiding all rookie mistakes or, two, suffering through every indignity that every doctoral student has ever endured. Surely neither of those extremes is ideal. Although a PhD is never going to come without some struggle, the process shouldn’t be a source of actual trauma. We all hear far too many stories about the misery caused by inadequate supervisory relationships; the Thesis Whisperer’s characterization of her role as that of a ‘global agony aunt’ is telling.

In general, I believe that the uneven quality of supervision, while unfortunate, must not be allowed to derail the writing process. Instead, the thesis writer needs to see themselves as capable of gaining the necessary expertise from a range of resources. Ideally, the supervisor will figure heavily in the writer’s development, but an unwilling or inexpert supervisor needn’t signal doom for the writer. And while I don’t think that the goal of supervision should be to make sure that each generation suffers as much as the last, I do know that trial and error can be an invaluable route to meaningful expertise. A good supervisor is many things, but not necessarily a protection against travelling down unproductive pathways. Those pathways are crucial—not to replicate a needless tradition of suffering but rather to give thesis writers the depth of experience necessary to complete this demanding and defining writing task.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

I love this cartoon from @xkcdhttp://xkcd.com/1108

More good advice from @GradHacker on successfully navigating conferences: http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/09/17/successfully-navigating-conferences-part-2/

From @GradHacker, a post on getting our ideas down on paper, so they don’t keep us up at night! http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/09/14/write-it-down-go-to-sleep/

From @ProfHacker, a post on the things that we should make easier and those that we should make harder: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/make-it-hard-on-yourself/42568

From @chronicle, something to make you laugh and feel better about your own presentation mishaps! http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/when-your-presentation-goes-awry/33710

@scholarlykitchn says the exact right thing about PowerPoint and Prezi: http://wp.me/pcvbl-77T

From the NYT, a clear discussion of the subjunctive in the always-delightful After Deadline blog: Save the Subjunctive! http://nyti.ms/QgRZQE 

From Barbara Fister, a very nuanced take on the way we talk about plagiarism: The Plagiarism Perplex http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/plagiarism-perplex

From @chronicle, a call for reverse mentoring: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/09/06/why-we-need-reverse-mentoring/

The recent @GradHacker podcast on productivity systems is full of interesting and helpful insights: http://podcast.gradhacker.org/?p=122

From @ProfHacker, a helpful overview of Twitter for academics: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-and-why-to-participate-in-a-tweetchat/42380

From @GradHacker, a useful discussion of the pros and cons of Prezi: http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/08/29/prezi-a-dynamic-presentation-or-nauseating-experience/

I love this post from @stancarey on the choice between following bad rules or standing up to their eternal enforcers: http://wp.me/pglsT-3o7

Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines

After a recent discussion of reverse outlines on Twitter, I had a flurry of visits to my reverse outlines post. The Twitter conversation concerned reverse outlining as a way to help with literature reviews, so I thought it might be useful to spell out that connection more explicitly. A reverse outline is a great way to address the most common flaws of lit reviews: poor organization and poor articulation of research goals. These two issues are closely connected, but I am going to discuss them in turn.

I’m sure I don’t need to describe how poor organization bedevils lit reviews; the sheer volume of the material makes organizational difficulties near inevitable. The organizational scheme that you must devise is also a genuinely conceptually complex task. It is not like organizing your sock drawer; organizing your lit review requires a deep understanding of your project and its connection to the existing literature in your field. While a reverse outline won’t magic away difficulties, it will help you to confront the limitations of your early drafts. The beauty of a reverse outline is that it prunes away the distracting details, allowing you to see the underlying structure.

Let’s look at a sample reverse outline in order to get a sense of how this might work. As you likely know, the unit of analysis in a reverse outline is the paragraph. We number each paragraph and then ask ourselves some basic questions: What is the topic? Is there a topic sentence? Does the whole paragraph have thematic unity? For a more detailed explanation of this process, you can go back to the original reverse outlines post.)

Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The research into X
• However, there are also a few sentences on Y.
• No topic sentence found (although this might be okay if the whole paragraph functions as an introduction to a particular topic).

2. The historical background to X
• No topic sentence found.
• The paragraph is purely chronological with no thematic starting point.

3. The work of Singh and Johnson, who also study X
• No topic sentence found.

4. The main study that Singh and Johnson were responding to
• No topic sentence found.

5. The work of Gordonberg, who works on Z
• There is a clear topic sentence on Gordonberg, but no mention of Z or any link to what came before.

When we look at this reverse outline, the absence of detail helps us to see some basic problems. The truth is that many of us could have found those problems in the original if we’d read it. But chances are that we would have missed those problems in our own writing, the familiarity of which tends to lull us into a kind of editorial somnambulance. In my experience, that sleepy acceptance is often accompanied by an underlying uneasiness, but discomfort alone doesn’t break the spell. A reverse outline can be like a bucket of cold water. Often my first reaction to my own reverse outlines is ‘huh?’. Why did I put those things there? Those points are in the wrong order! That is the completely wrong organizational approach to that material! It may not be as bad as all that, but the evident weaknesses of the outline give me a sense that whatever I was trying to accomplish may not yet be working on the page. I can then start to rework at the outline level without being distracted by familiar chains of words or complex details.

Revised Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The importance of X, Y, and Z to my research project
• This paragraph will serve as an introduction to the subsequent discussion of X, Y, and Z, so may not have an obvious topic sentence.
• This paragraph may be short or long—or may even need to be broken into multiple paragraphs—depending on how difficult it is to establish the relevance of this topic to your research.

2. The research into X
• This could be more than one paragraph, of course, depending on the amount of material.
• The first version had a historical background paragraph; if that topic does warrant its own paragraph, think about whether you will be giving similar historical background to Y and Z. Another possibility would be that you need a combined historical background to X, Y, and Z; it is very common to speak about the historical background in a more unified way before dividing the field into its important sub-fields. As a simple example, consider the following sequence of sentences: ‘Serious scholarly attention to [topic] began in …’/‘For the next twenty years, scholars tended to …’/‘By the mid-1980s, however, a serious rupture began to emerge about …’/‘In subsequent years, the scholarly approach was often divided into X, Y, and Z’.
• What about Singh and Johnson? Were they included as an example of the work done on X? Are other thinkers being included? Why are they so important? Is the study that they are responding to important for you or is it just important for them?

3. The research into Y
• Try to follow whatever pattern you have established with your discussion of X; the length can vary, but the reader will expect X, Y, and Z to be treated in a roughly parallel fashion. If that parallel structure proves hard to sustain as you are writing, you may need to revisit your initial structural scheme.

4. The research into Z
• The discussion of Z should follow the broad pattern established in the discussion of X and Y.

As you’ve probably noticed, the modifications in the reworked outline also address the second common flaw in lit reviews, the tendency of authors to obscure their own research goals. Singh and Johnson may be significant researchers in their own right, but the reader can always go directly to them for their research. What the reader needs from you is a clear explanation of the way that the existing research serves as a backdrop or source or inspiration for your own. The reworked outline is stronger because it is better organized but also because it links each paragraph into the broader agenda of the author.

In their valuable book Helping Doctoral Students Write, Kamler and Thomson give a great collection of student metaphors for lit review writing (pp. 32–34). In my thesis writing course, I usually read those metaphors aloud to students and ask which one most closely represents each of their experiences. My favourite is the image of someone trying to put an octopus into a bottle. A reverse outline can be a way to convince your octopus to coordinate all its limbs in service of your research plan.

Welcome to September!

My prospects for writing a new post this week get dimmer by the second, so I thought I’d just write a quick hello! I hope you all had a great summer, full of productive time spent writing. And if you, like the rest of us, found that you didn’t get quite all you’d hoped for done, I hope that better writing days are in your immediate future. Once the initial excitement dies down, September is a great time to revisit your writing goals and see what you can do to make sure you meet them in the upcoming year. I found this post from The Thesis Whisperer very helpful; in this guest post, Narelle Lemon reflects on her experience participating in AcBoWriMo 2011 (an attempt to write as much as 50,000 words in a single month). The terms in which she discusses her experience can act as a handy prompt for reflection about our own writing preferences and potential stumbling blocks. Would public accountability help you? What sort of writing targets work well for you? Does social media play any role in your writing life? How do you structure the breaks that everyone needs from academic writing? How does the idea of binge writing sound to you? Would more sharing of your writing as you go be helpful to you? How do you manage your writing time, minute by minute and hour by hour? Do you reward yourself for writing? How do you react when life genuinely makes it impossible for you to meet your own goals? Do you wish you had a more robust writing community?

Reflecting on these sorts of questions can help you see a path towards your best writing strategies. There is so much advice out there; while it is generally  thoughtful and well-meaning, much of it will inevitably be wrong for you. I suggest taking some time now—amidst these busy days of September—to think about the writing approach that would be right for you, so you can craft a strong plan to help you meet this year’s writing goals.

Here again—in case anyone missed it over the summer—is the link to the podcast interview that I did with GradHacker at the beginning of the summer. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about writing in a different manner than I do when teaching writing or when writing about writing. I hope some of you may find it helpful as you reflect on the writing you need to do this year. I also wanted to mention the recent series of crossover posts between GradHacker and ProfHacker on productivity, which are full of helpful approaches to managing our academic lives.

Finally, if you haven’t seen the Academic Coach Taylor tumblr, you really should. The fact that someone thought to bring together academic writing advice and Friday Night Lights makes me so very happy. Clear Thesis, Strong Analysis, Can’t Lose.

The blog address is now www.explorationsofstyle.com. If you go to the old URL (explorationsofstyle.wordpress.com), you should be redirected automatically. If you have any problems, please let me know. Thanks.