Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Cut-and-Paste Job

I recently met with a colleague to talk about his dissertation. As we read through his theoretical framework, I questioned the way that framework was being articulated. In response, he said that he had actually written it for a different context and then later imported it into its current location. It struck me how often I have a variant of this conversation: I say to a student that something in the flow or the perspective or the tone seems a bit off, and the student tells me that the material was ‘cut and paste’ from somewhere else. In some cases, this is said apologetically while, in others, this practice is treated as routine. Either way, the practice of cutting—or, more accurately, copying—and pasting is an interesting writing dilemma. And whether or not it is a good idea, we all do it all the time.

On the one hand, putting old text into a new document means that—Presto!—the new text has grown with very little effort. However, it isn’t coincidental that ‘a cut-and-paste job’ is used colloquially to indicate something that isn’t particularly well done; we naturally expect that something designed for one context won’t be as good in another. Text will almost always carry with it traces of its provenance. More importantly, using old text denies ourselves a chance to write that same material again from our current perspective. When I augment a document in this particular fashion, I always do so over a muffled objection in the back of my mind. I can always feel the way the imported text doesn’t fit in its new home and the way that I may have missed a chance to say it anew, to say it better.

Despite all these reservations, I am not actually suggesting that importing text is always a bad idea. Why not? Because early drafts are allowed to be weak, and getting to a complete first draft can be a huge step forward. Yes, there is still lots of work to be done, but having all the pieces can be significant. Once the basics are in place—including the imported text—we can turn our attention to the difficult business of making the full text work. I will sound one obvious note of caution: importing existing text into a new document can be a mistake if you’re not already committed to extensive revision. But if you are willing to engage in full-scale revision, you may benefit from experimenting with different bits of writing from other places. Even if this type of first draft will have even less cohesion than a conventional first draft, we can still use it a springboard for getting to a better understanding of our overall communicative intentions.

When my colleague went off to alter the way he presented his theoretical framework, he was doing so on the basis of a full draft of his chapter. He could have been stuck at his computer trying to sort out the one perfect way to present his theoretical framework; instead, he had put together a full draft that allowed him to show it to an outside observer. And talking to me about the draft allowed him to see things that still weren’t quite working. So while the cut and paste didn’t exactly ‘work’, it did do its job well enough to get him to the next editing stage. Sometimes that is what we need.

After completing this post, I read a great post by Pat Thomson responding to the Why Writing from Day One is Nuts post in The Thesis Whisperer. Her title (Writing the Thesis from Day One is Risky) and her discussion are both very helpful. Thomson does a great job of explaining how a deep understanding of the intellectual-identity-formation tasks of thesis writing make it difficult to advocate a strategy of collecting bits and pieces composed along the way. Thomson’s insights helped me to understand that the tolerance for cutting and pasting evinced above and the enthusiasm for writing early evinced in last week’s post come from the same place: a belief in the stimulating effect of seeing our own drafts (however rough they may be) and a faith in the efficacy of rewriting through editing. But she also gave me reason to question the depth of my attachment to those assumptions—and I greatly appreciate that. I will take these ongoing questions with me into a new section of my thesis writing course (which begins later today!) and look forward to returning to them in the coming months.

Can You Write Too Early?

The Thesis Whisperer had a guest post this week with the headline Why writing from day one is nuts.* The suggestion that writing early isn’t a good idea runs directly counter to a great deal of thesis writing advice (including that given in this blog). The post, written by James Hayton (who blogs at The Three Month Thesis), posits that writing from the get-go is unproductive. Hayton argues that writing done early isn’t useful because the writer will struggle to know what to say, will produce weak writing, and will end up with a morass of text that will be hard to transform into something usable. He also claims that early writing can be an ill-advised attempt to impress, but I think this is more a personal experience than a general problem. Finally, he talks about the danger of too much writing—and, yes, I did find that a difficult phrase to type!—because writing without an immediate goal may get us in the habit of not finishing our projects. I will return to this point below, after looking at his main point: that early writing will be poorly informed, weak, and hard to work with. I agree that this might happen (who hasn’t found themselves with exactly that sort of writing?), but I think that the value of the act of writing outweighs those weaknesses.

Hayton’s estimation that early writing is likely to be flawed is based on a notion of writing as product: according to this view, we write simply in order to get a text for some purpose or other. Needless to say, writing to get a product is a very common experience, and I agree that the most efficient way to get the right product is to work from the clearest possible understanding of the task. For instance, if you need to write an article response, starting to write before reading the article or grasping the goals of the assignment would be a terrible idea. But waiting to write a thesis until you have a clear understanding of the task will mean that you won’t use writing as a way of figuring out that task and that you won’t be practicing crucial writing skills. This is where Hayton loses me. Most thesis writers that I see—from across all disciplines—need to write more, not less. Bad writing, of a sort, will come from early writing, but so will a growing understanding of the underlying issues. The key is accepting that early writing will take work or may even be unusable.

What about Hayton’s claim that early writing gets us into the bad habit of writing without finishing? I’m afraid I can’t see any way that makes sense. So much of academic writing is part of a process that will lack an immediate connection to finishing. (Blogging, it must be said, is awesome for the amount of finishing there is.) Writing is common; finishing is rare. And the one thing that would improve the lives of most of the academic writers I know is the habit of writing. Comfort with the writing process gives us confidence and creativity. We can experiment and push ourselves and avoid writer’s block. In my view, cultivating the habit of writing tops the list of reasons to write early.

I’m also a little uneasy with Hayton’s tone. While he began his post with a genial statement about his own willingness to be corrected, he also expressed a clear commitment to an approach to writing and research that transcends disciplinary difference. I am always concerned when advice to graduate students is both highly contentious and narrowly informed. To put it simply, I have no problem with Hayton relating an anecdote about writing too early in an attempt to impress, an anecdote that I am sure will resonate with lots of people; I do object to his suggestion that this possibility is a reason why others—who might have very different motivations—should not be writing early. Overall, I think it is important to give doctoral writing advice that is limited and that helps novice academic writers to understand their disciplinary conventions and their own temperament as writers. I think Hayton does his own argument a disservice by overextending it; taking his experience with scientific writing and suggesting that he has a cure for what ails the humanities is an over-reach that threatens to undermines the value of his insights.

All that said, I do think Hayton sounds a useful note of caution about the call to write early. If you write early, you need to be aware of two things. First, you need to understand that your fundamental task will be to make your thinking concrete in order to allow you to advance that thinking; if you make the mistake of trying to create the final product too soon, you will probably be frustrated. Some students do write ‘too early’ in the sense that they try to create a finished product too soon; early writing, in my view, must be characterized by a certain openness, a willingness to change, discard, and move into new and more productive directions. Second, when you are writing as a process, you need to be able to work with the product. Hayton is right that there is always an artifact of the act of writing, and we all need strategies for doing something with that artifact. If we lack those strategies, we may end up in the situation he describes: with a messy provisional document that is—in its current form—unusable. But rather than concluding that we should put off writing, I would argue that we should deepen our understanding of the writing task. We should be writing early and writing often because doing so can deepen our intellectual insights and strengthen our writing skills.

*James Hayton has removed his original post from The Thesis Whisperer site; he explains his reasons for doing so in a comment below. You can find a helpful list of all his posts on his own site here.


One-Way Trip

When talking with students, I often refer to certain aspects of their writing as U-turn signs: vague pronoun reference; unclear use of ordinals; failure to consistently use core terminology; withholding a verb till the very end of a sentence; listing without alerting the reader that you are doing so; relying heavily on devices such as ‘aforementioned’, ‘former/latter’, or ‘respectively’. All of these practices can send readers backwards, denying them their best chance at a one-way trip through your writing. I have talked about many of these specific issues in the blog, but today I want to talk about this issue more broadly. (If you are looking for concrete advice for creating better flow in your writing, try these posts: Transitions; Subjects and Verbs; Lists (Parts One, Two, and Three); Signposting and Metadiscourse; Best Laid Plans. You could also consult this great post from Carol Saller of the Lingua Franca blog in which she provides a helpful list of the many things we all do to distract our readers.)

Underlying this particular critique of student writing is the assumption that readers are entitled to a one-way trip through a piece of writing. And, honestly, as far as oversimplification go, I’m pretty comfortable with this one. It is generally desirable for writers to take responsibility for the fate of their readers. Most students are happy to leave it at that and to devote their attention to concrete strategies that may help to create a unidirectional flow in their writing. However, there are also some students who are genuinely suspicious of my assumption that the author is responsible for creating this one-way trip. Since our assumptions about academic writing have both disciplinary and cultural roots, I find it useful to spend a bit of time discussing these issues when they arise in the writing classroom.

I usually begin this conversation by emphasizing how some writing habits act as U-turn signs for no possible purpose. A weakly edited document is just a weakly edited document. Unclear pronoun reference is the easiest example; if readers have to back up and figure out what ‘this’ or ‘it’ refers to, you are wasting their time. Students will sometimes respond to my queries about pronoun reference by saying ‘I think it is sufficiently clear what I am referring to and I think my reader will understand’. My response is that we cannot rely on the reader to make those connections; it is our job to make those references explicit.

That sounds simple enough, right? It’s the author’s job to write clearly and coherently. But what then is the reader’s job? We all experience academic reading as challenging, and none of us imagine that the writer ought to have taken all of our burdens away. We usually imagine that the writer could have relieved some of those burdens, but we accept that some of the work lies with us. Given the work that we know is done by readers, it is hard to view writing as simply a solitary act of creating meaning. An academic text is, in at least some sense, co-created.

Novice academic writers need to be alerted to the existence of variable expectations about the responsibility for meaning. For a writer, believing that your job ends in a different place than your readers think it ends leads to a problematic mismatch. Thinking about the difference between an authoritative and collaborative model of meaning can help all of us figure out the appropriate construction of our texts. In particular, thinking about this difference can help new doctoral students to be aware of the disciplinary and cultural contexts in which they write.

Lastly, for a more philosophical take on this issue, I highly recommend an article that James Miller wrote in the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine (not to be confused with the Lingua Franca blog mentioned above). This article, with the delightful title ‘Is Bad Writing Necessary?’, is one of my favourite bits of writing about academic writing. It was written twelve years ago (making me suddenly feel very old!), but the link has so far proved very durable. In the piece, Miller discusses Orwell, Adorno, and the politics of being clear in our writing in a way that is both lucid and thought-provoking. My own thinking about the responsibility to be clear in academic writing has been deeply influenced by the way Miller frames this debate.

Links: Live-Tweeting and its Discontents

While it may be hard to say #twittergate with a straight face, this ongoing conversation about live-tweeting conference sessions is definitely the most interesting story of the week. To get a good sense of how the story developed, I suggest looking at the Storified version that Adeline Koh created. The issue was also summed up in an Inside Higher Ed piece, but this is one of those instances in which Twitter does a much better job of telling its own story. The inherent difficulty in detaching a tweet from its conversational context can make summaries of what was said on Twitter somewhat inadequate.

Wherever it is that you read about this story, you will definitely find some strongly held views. Everything from ‘it’s bad manners and shouldn’t be allowed’ to ‘if I can’t tweet, it’s not my revolution’; from ‘it’s crass self-promotion’ to ‘it’s a natural extension of taking notes’; from ‘it’s a violation of intellectual property’ to ‘it allows for a wider dissemination of new ideas—the whole point of an academic conference’. It’s fascinating to me the way that new modalities of academic discourse can cause such collective discomfort.

Despite this wide range of reactions, some degree of social media accompaniment to traditional academic activities is surely inevitable. But ineluctability can mean that people get swept up, which in turn can mean that clear norms are hard to establish. Luckily, lots of great things were written this week in response to #twittergate. Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers her guide to academic blogging and tweeting. Ernesto Priego gives some practical guidelines to respectful live-tweeting and some helpful resources. Melonie Fullick wrote a thoughtful and measured post on the tension between public and private in academic discourse and how social media might affect that tension. The people at ProfHacker created an open thread discussion of best practices for live-tweeting conferences. Finally, this post from the Easily Distracted blog offers a lighter take (and an entertaining  response to Brian Leiter). This blog is new to me, and I admit that I’m a little bit crushed to find that this blog name is taken!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @fishhookopeneye, a great post on the role—and habit—of accountability in graduate study:

Great advice from @ryancordell on crafting a professional online presence (read the Twitter conversation at the end):

From @DocwritingSIG, a discussion of the perils of thinking of writing as a simple process of ‘writing up’: 

A hilarious column from William Germano: If ‘weblog’ gives us ‘blog’, what other b-words could we imagine?

.@sinandsyntax talks about her ‘crush on verbs’:

From @GradHacker, how to deal with success in grad school without feeling ‘sucstress’:

I’m very much looking forward to reading @thesiswhisperer‘s new ebook! Read her not-shameless plug here: 

From @CopyCurmudgeon, a great perspective on editing (even if you aren’t copyediting other people’s texts): 

From @phdcomics, the official plan, the real plan, and the secret plan: THE PLANS:

From @ThomsonPat, a great suggestion about availing ourselves of writing advice—because academic writing IS writing: 

From @qui_oui, a good roundup (with lots of links) about the recent ‘stale PhD’ conversation: 

From @Professorisin, a discussion of the importance of prestige when selecting a university press:

From @DocwritingSIG, an insightful post on the difficulties in conceptualizing doctoral writing as a research task: 

From @ThomsonPat, a great post on the nature of academic reading and the task of grasping the shape of your field: 

Summary of the #acwri Twitter chat from Sept 20 on academic writing and the use of Twitter: