Monthly Archives: March 2013

Writing without Inspiration

In a recent post at Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette discusses the way writing sometimes comes easy and sometimes comes hard. She is noting how a general love of writing doesn’t necessarily mean that academic writing will get done. To combat this unfortunate fact, Bessette has adopted a more consistent approach to writing productivity. To learn more about this process, I also recommend her series, An Academic, Writing, on her work with a writing coach from Academic Coaching & Writing.

I am particularly interested in the idea that we might be setting ourselves up for an unrealistic goal if we strive to love writing. Graduate students will sometimes say to me that they used to love writing before they came to graduate school. Before, in other words, all the unspecified expectations and ambiguous requirements and confusing genre conventions. During graduate school, writing often becomes deeply unlovable. Unfortunately, some of us stall as writers while we wait for the loving feeling to come back: if we can’t love it, we may conclude that we hate it. Or, to put it another way, we may give up on writing when it isn’t going well, rather than just persevering in the knowledge that writing is often nothing more—for long stretches of time—than hard work.

Following the #acwri Twitter feed, you sometimes see people saying that writing just isn’t working out for them that day. Now, of course, there are times that abandoning writing for the day is absolutely the right thing to do—and only you will know when the best response is a run or a drink or a bit of quality time with Netflix. But I know from my own experience with thesis writing that waiting for inspiration in order to write would lower my productivity to undetectable levels. For most people—including me once I eventually figured this out—theses get written through many bouts of uninspired productivity and rare moments of inspiration. Those moments of inspiration are amazing, but if we wait for them, we usually hamper our ability to reach our own writing goals.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @nomynjb, a helpful #Storify about learning to use Twitter for academic purposes.

From @evalantsoght, a great approach to writing captions for your figures.

From @GradHacker, an honest account of surviving a serious change to the topic of a dissertation.

From @ProfHacker, concrete advice on how to regain control of your inbox.

From Geoffrey Pullum in the Lingua Franca blog, on the apostrophe: Do we need it and is it even ‘punctuation’?

From FT Magazine, a claim that social media is actually improving the quality of writing.

Have you tried an #acwri chat? Here’s a #Storify of the latest one on literature reviews.

From @cplong, an op-ed on the value–both holistic and professional–of a liberal arts education.

From @Nadine_Muller, exploring the line between blogging the personal and professional.

From @ScholarlyKitchn, a good overview of a recent survey on attitudes towards Open Access publishing.

From @ThomsonPat, great strategies to keep your thesis reader on track from start to finish.

From @WritingCommons, info on the Duke composition MOOC.

From @RohanMaitzen, an insightful discussion of the issues facing a graduate student deciding whether to blog.

From @NSRiazat in @PhD2Published, a discussion of the evolution of #phdchat as an academic research community.

From @thesiswhisperer, a reminder how the supervisory relationship can be derailed by mismatched expectations.

From @MacDictionary, differences in education terms between UK and US.

From @UA_magazine, an interesting exploration of the gender divide in university-community engagement.

From @DocwritingSIG, is it possible to create a ‘thesis assessment matrix‘?

From @GradHacker, advice on managing your digital identity.

From @Ben_Sawyer in @GradHacker, some tips for turning your dissertation into a book.

From @NewYorker, an interesting comparison of Google Reader and Twitter.

From @guardian, the past and future of #hashtags.

From @financialpost, outgoing #UofT president David Naylor discusses the future of the Canadian university.

From Lingua Franca, a great discussion of the Oxford comma and the broader issue of consistency in punctuation.

From @yorkuniversity, interesting research on how people multitasking on laptops in class may distract others.

From @ProfessorIsIn, an excellent guest post on managing mental illness during graduate study.

From the NYT, what reverse outlining looks like for a fiction writer.

From @thesiswhisperer, what we can all learn from the impressive time management skills of part-time doctoral students.

From @readywriting in @academiccoaches, an important reminder that we must recognize academic writing accomplishments.

From @MacDictionary, helpful corpus-based account of when we actually use ‘who’ and ‘whom’.

From @m_m_campbell, an inspiring account of how to raise a future researcher.

From @rglweiner in IHE, an essay on the role of virtual community for graduate students.

From @ThomsonPat, wise words on needing to be alert to the language we use for talking about our research.

From @DocwritingSIG, some great questions about MOOCs and doctoral education.

From IHE, a discussion of the proposal at Duke to require a short and accessible video to accompany a thesis.

From @NewYorkerplagiarized theses in Russia.

From @raulpacheco, an explanation of how he uses #ScholarSunday to recommend academics to follow on Twitter.

From the Crooked Timber blog, a great #IWD post on equality for women in academia.

From @ProfessorIsIn, the value of presenting what you can do, not just what you are interested in, in an application.

From @fishhookopeneye, an excellent analysis of the distorting effects of familiarity on thesis writers.

From @qui_oui, thoughts on the benefits and real costs of public engagement for academics.

From the NYT After Deadline blog, a great reminder of what dangling modifiers are and why they are worth avoiding.

From @ThomsonPat, a post about verb tense in theses, demonstrating how it’s a matter of authorial stance not grammar.

Academic Writer as an Identity

Since this is the 100th post on Explorations of Style, I thought I would allow myself to return to one of my favourite topics: the notion that someone who engages in academic writing is, in fact, a writer. The most common search terms that lead people to this blog involve the words ‘identity’ and ‘writer’. As a result, the post in which I first looked at this question is one of the most popular on the site.

In the original post, I discussed how graduate students often embrace the category of ‘bad writer’ with an ontological fervour while still disavowing the simpler category of ‘writer’. But can you be a bad writer in any meaningful sense without being a writer? In other words, surely ‘writer’ is an inductive category: if writing is an essential aspect of your life, then you are a writer. Needless to say, this move from activity to category doesn’t work in all cases; doing something regularly doesn’t automatically turn that activity into a category. But while you may not want to adopt the personae associated with all your daily tasks—think how unwieldy that would make CVs and obituaries!—the transition from writing to writer is special. Being a writer may flow inductively from the act of writing, but it also doubles back and changes the act itself.

Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.

At the practical level, identifying yourself as a writer makes the act of writing more intentional and thus more than just a necessary evil. As a writer, you will have a reason to seek out explicit writing support or devote time to improving your abilities as a writer. My students often say to me that they would love to work more on their writing, but that they are too busy with their work. To some extent, I take that invocation of an artificial dichotomy between writing and work as a sign of my own failures in the classroom. My job isn’t just to provide helpful insights into the writing process; it is also to convey the urgency of the writing task. But I try to focus more on the helpful insights since those who do buy into the urgency are poorly served by a continual harping on that theme. I continue to work on finding the best classroom balance between exhortation and instruction, but the fact remains that people who don’t accept writing as central to their identity often continue to devote insufficient time to the task and to feel a commensurate frustration at their lack of improvement.

At a deeper level, accepting the role of writer means accepting that you are constructing meaning through your arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the role of writer is slighted, nothing is left but text and reader. And readers are rarely going to be satisfied with those sorts of ‘writer-less’ texts. Those sorts of texts are notoriously light on the sort of signposting and metadiscourse that the reader needs to appreciate what is being presented. If you are in the habit of thinking of your text as self-explanatory or if you tend to frame writing as a purely responsive act of ‘writing up’, you may be neglecting the role that you ought to be playing as writer. As the writer, you must perform the essential act of framing what is being read according to the overarching demands of your project. I read so many selections of graduate student writing that are brimming with insight and fortified by an impressive amount of research but that lack an authorial voice to help the reader manage the text. Deepening the connection to the persona of writer is one way of reminding ourselves that our job as writer is to go beyond the provision of helpful content to the more complex task of structuring that content in a way that anticipates how the reader will experience the text.

While I do believe that there is a manifest benefit to identifying ourselves as writers, I’d like to close by considering a possible downside to accepting this identity. Could identifying as a writer actually make things worse by hindering some students from getting the writing support that they need? Unfortunately, I think that possibility exists. Some students have bound their sense of self-worth so tightly to the activity of writing that they may resist accessing writing support; these resistant students have often accepted the widespread notion that graduate students should ‘already know how to write’. Similarly, these students often have trouble resisting the urge to compare insides and outsides; they may end up with a wildly inaccurate sense of how their writing actually stacks up because they are constantly making invalid comparisons between their own initial drafts and other people’s final products. On the other hand, I see some students who are very receptive to what I have to say precisely because they don’t see their writing as expressive of their truest professional selves. I think the answer to this dilemma comes from how we think about what it means to identify ourselves as writers. Ideally, adopting this persona will actually help to undermine the sense that we ought to be good writers already. Saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. Rather, adopting the persona of writer means making a commitment to learning how to be a strong and confident and competent writer, a writer who is able to meet key professional responsibilities with clear and assured prose. This goal is hard to reach and remains, for most of us, aspirational. But the goal cannot be met either by undervaluing the writing process and thus neglecting its development or by overvaluing it to the extent that the weakness becomes a crisis of confidence. Taking hold of ‘academic writer’ as an identity means devoting ourselves to writing and doing so because that devotion is the only sure-fire way to become the writers that we all want to be.

Moving from Problem to Response

Earlier this year, I had a post on the basic structure of an introduction, using a concept derived from Swales and terminology derived from Booth, Colomb, and Williams. In a subsequent post, I went on to talk about how to use this model to craft an effective thesis introduction. In both posts, I stressed the great importance of explaining the significance of addressing the problem before turning to the response. But I realized later that I’d neglected to talk about a related issue that often arises in an introduction: How do we move from problem to response? 

In some cases, the progression from problem to response can be quite simple: a general context naturally narrows to a specific problem, creating space for a particular response. In these cases, the general topic tends to be well understood, leaving a narrow area still to be grappled with. Usually, when a writer gets to this point, the transition to the response is made quite easily. However, there are other cases in which the problem is broad, making the transition to a narrow response more difficult. Since most research projects benefit from a narrow focus, it is essential that we understand how to move between a broad problem and a narrow response.

In these cases, the general context doesn’t naturally narrow to a specific problem. Instead, the context leads to a broad problem: “However, we don’t know enough about X”, where X is a broad area that hasn’t yet been satisfactorily investigated. It is crucial for a writer in this situation to recognize that the thesis itself won’t be able to address that broad area. What the thesis will be able to do, however, is to use an example of X to begin to develop our understanding of X as a whole. To be clear, there is always a specific problem, but in some cases that specific problem is simply being used as a way of getting at the broader problem. Perhaps we don’t, for instance, understand how any compound works under some particular circumstance; the thesis won’t look, of course, at all compounds: it will look at an exemplary compound. Similarly, maybe we have identified a broad phenomenon that has been under-examined, so we look at a particular text or use a case study to ground the inquiry. However, in these cases, when the specific response doesn’t just flow from the problem, writers sometimes falter.

What is needed is an explanation of how the narrow response is a useful way of getting at the broad problem. This task isn’t particularly difficult but is often neglected. There’s no one particular route that must be taken: the essential thing is that the reader is given a bridge. Otherwise, the reader will encounter a broad statement that not enough is known about X, followed by a very precise statement of what the current research will undertake to do. Just as the reader needs to know why addressing a particular problem is significant, they also need to know how the response serves to address the problem. In those cases in which that transition isn’t obvious, the writer must fill in that space. Needless to say, the key issue will be justifying why this particular response—why this compound, why this text, why this case study—can be used as an entry point into the broader problem.

In general, I recommend that all thesis writers pause before elaborating the specifics of their research project. Writers often feel more comfortable in the realm of the response; the task of providing a specific description of what the research will actually do can feel like a bit of terra firma. Unfortunately, out of a desire to reach that shore, writers often rush though necessary and important transitions between problem and response. Pausing at that point can help remind the writer of their obligations to help the reader to understand not just the research procedure but also the way this research will address the underlying problem.

Thesis Writing Groups

Last week, the Hook and Eye blog had a great post on finding community in graduate school. In particular, Melissa Dalgleish talked about the value of her writing group. In her words, here’s what they talk about:

Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis.

I’ve mentioned thesis writing groups in the broader context of finding autonomous sources of support for thesis writing, but I haven’t talked about them in any detail. While I was working on this post, @AnkeBrock sent me this link to Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s very helpful round-up of possible writing group configurations. I see no need to create a duplicate taxonomy, so I will instead provide a few potential questions that can be used to identify your own optimal type of writing group:

  • Accountability or support? Do you just need some form of structure to make sure you write or do you actually need the support of writing in a disciplinary context?
  • Friends or colleagues? Would your ideal support group be a warm and friendly place or do you like a more formal environment?
  • Connected or independent? Do you want this support in the context of your own department or do you need to go further afield for your support (within your broader university community or in an online space)?
  • Easily distracted? Could a writing group be a distraction for you? For some—especially if they find themselves in a group that involves extensive peer review—a writing group can become an obstacle to their own writing, rather than a source of support.
  • Role of the supervisor? While most groups that I see are completely independent of the supervisor, some groups do have some supervisor involvement. Some function with the supervisor present; others are composed of writers who share a supervisor without the supervisor being there. If the supervisory relationship is challenging, the latter can be particularly useful; the group can help to decipher unclear advice and can try to compensate for insufficient support.

I think the benefits of a good writing group are obvious: community, accountability, provisional feedback, broadening expertise, developing a range of useful collegial skills. But any thesis writer should also be alert to the potential disadvantages: a drain on time, a locus for competition, another source of anxiety. Overall, I think the benefits will outweigh the costs for most writers, but it is useful to be armed with a little insight before entering into any situation that may affect your life as a writer.

Explorations of Style has been busy lately due to the reblogging of my post on understanding incoherence in academic writing on LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog. Welcome to all the new readers! If you would like to follow the blog, you can do so by email, RSS feed, Twitter, and Facebook—all the options can be found in the left-hand column.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From Mark Carrigan in the @LSEImpactBlogblogging as ‘a distinctive space between academic research and journalism’.

From @korystamper, a must-read for National Grammar Day. Don’t be the ‘Batman of apostrophes’–nobody likes that guy!

From @KJDellAntonia, some questions regarding the lack of policy about parental leave during graduate study.

From @thesiswhisperer, her always-helpful monthly newsletter for February.

From @docwritingSIG, practical advice to think about formatting issues throughout the thesis writing process.

From @RohanMaitzen, a discussion of sharing our own blog archivesThe old stuff can be just as good as the new!

From David Perlmutter in @Chronicle, a great essay on dealing with advice: the good, the conflicting, the malicious.

From @seburnt, a helpful blogroll on language teaching.

From @dratarrant in @PhD2Published, a great reflective post on online academic knowledge production.

From @readywriting in the @academiccoaches blog, creating better work-life balance through greater awareness of time.

From @RohanMaitzen, an interesting, honest account of intellectual engagement and traditions of academic discourse.

From @Chronicle, an essay by Laurie Essig on manners and multitasking.

From @ProfHacker, some questions about sharing your teaching materials with students online.

From @PhD2Published, a step-by-step description of turning a conference panel into a special issue of a journal.

From Inside Higher Ed, some thoughts on being strategic in deciding what literature to cite in your academic writing.

In case you missed this lovely little video from a Toronto book store the first time it made the rounds.

Once you understand the genre of the research article, you can use it for anything, even romance.

From Inside Higher Ed, a follow-up to @thesiswhisperer‘s post on niceness in academia.

From @CShearson, a helpful explanation of the difference between ‘intensively’ and ‘extensively’ in academic writing.

From @fishhookopeneye, the life-cycle of writing an article. I’m relieved to learn that others also ‘procrasti-bake’!

From @thesiswhisperer in @PhD2Published blog, valuable reflections on blogging, identity, and sharing expertise.

From @qui_oui, balancing thesis writing, professional development, and paid work, while still finding time to think.

From @MacDictionary, a post on International Mother Language Day and the rise of English as a lingua franca.

Have you ever felt that our existing punctuation marks just weren’t enough? Have you ever needed the ‘andorpersand’? 

From @readywriting in the @academiccoaches blog, a post on the link between enthusiasm and voice in academic writing.

From The Monkey Cage blog, an interesting reply to David Brooks’s ‘data’ column.

From Ruth Starkman in Inside Higher Ed, a great collection of questions on the role of digital scholarship in professional advancement.

From @ProfHacker, using Facebook as a way to bring primary historical sources to life.

From Geoffrey Pullum in the Lingua Franca blog, a defence of adverbs and a call for careful, nuanced writing advice.

From @Chronicle, an example of thoughtful word-by-word editing of academic writing.

From @drdjwalker, introducing the Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, a collaborative, open access e-journal.

From @kyliebudge in @thesiswhisperer blog, an argument for an exciting thesis writing retreat. Would it work for you?

From the New APPS blog, a discussion of tacit knowledge in academia: how do graduate students learn what they need to know?

From @cplong, interesting thoughts about the value of adding an internship to doctoral education in the humanities.

From @DocwritingSIG, interesting account of the types of writing support available to doctoral students.

From @GradHacker, thoughts on increasing productivity within the time that you already have.

From @ThomsonPat, distinguishing your method from your methodology.

From @scholarlykitchn, a taxonomy of confusionCan’t decide if this sort of detailed diagnosis would help or confuse!

This Phillip Lopate piece in the New York Times made me wonder about the similarities between academic blogging and essay writing.

From Stephen M. Walt, a call for better academic writing. I don’t fully agree, but I like the way he frames ‘discovery versus presentation’.

From Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed, why suing librarians isn’t the answer.

From @LSEReviewBooks, some advice to help you decide if you should be podcasting. But I still can’t decide!

From @scholarlykitchn, a short survey on privatizing peer review. And here are the results.

From @LSEReviewBooks, @PJDunleavy gives a helpful account of the decline in the status of books in social sciences.

From @charlottefrost, interesting reflections on @PhD2Published: how it works, what it takes to run, where it is going.