Monthly Archives: April 2013

Links: Germano’s Snow Globes

Sometimes I choose articles for my links posts because I have something particular that I want to add to the topic. This week, however, I just want to be sure that as many people as possible see this great piece by William Germano. Even the title is interesting: Do We Dare Write for Readers? Germano, as most of you will know, is a wonderful writer and an insightful analyst of developments in academic writing and publishing. In this piece, he discusses the role of the reader and the way that academic writing, as it is often practiced, fails to serve that reader well. His analysis is informed by recent technological shifts in the way we read, but I think his argument would work just as well without the historical specificity: academic writing that strives for complete self-sufficiency can end up excluding the reader to the detriment of its overall vitality.

To convey this point, Germano characterizes academic writing as a snow globe: a smooth impermeable shell over a carefully staged scene with limited action. What I love about the snow globe image is the way it conveys the sealed-off quality of so much academic prose. Have you ever gotten inside a snow globe? Me either, but you can imagine that the experience would be messy and toxic, rather than interactive or instructive. Germano wants to supplant this notion of academic writing as artifact with a more dynamic notion of academic writing as a tool. A tool, of course, is something the reader can use, something that, as he says, “has consequence”. Germano uses the image of a machine to convey the more dynamic sense of writing as a tool. In keeping with his souvenir motif, I immediately found myself thinking of it instead as a map, one of those ones with a route traced out with little stylized footprints. A map of this sort tells its audience the truth as the creator understands it and yet leaves room for the audience to use that truth as it sees fit.

Germano concludes his piece by describing his conception of academic writing as less polished and more engaging:

I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

It’s a challenging model, especially for novice academic writers who may be looking to replicate rather than challenge existing norms. But it’s also a compelling vision of writing as essentially open to what it does not itself contain. And however we choose to orient ourselves to this issue, we will be better writers for having reflected on Germano’s artful elaboration of the tensions within academic writing.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @scilogscom, an interesting account of the many ways in which jargon is a relative term.

Congratulations to the U of T participants in the Ontario Three Minute Thesis competition. Well done! 

From @nprnews, using ‘yo’ as a gender neutral pronoun: ‘Yo’ Said What?

From @evalantsoght, the different types of writing we can do ‘from day one’.  My take on writing early.

I’ll believe anything that advises me to get more sleep! From @GradHacker: Sleep in Graduate School.

From Lingua Franca, a very fun post on ‘slash’ as a written out form of punctuation.

From @NewYorker, a lyrical account of the existential mystery at the heart of the decision to do a doctorate.

From @literarychica, a great post on the dearth of options for writing support for doctoral writers.

From @ProfHacker, a profile of the Digital Public Library of America.

From William Germano, a must-read on academic writingCalling for writing that is engaging, open, and consequential.

From @ThomsonPat, part two of her discussion of PhD by publication.

From @ThomsonPat, an important post on the shift towards ‘PhD by publication‘ and the role of the integrated thesis.

From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, insightful advice on words that may betray a weakness in presentation slides.

From @DocwritingSIG, thoughts on writing the acknowledgement section of your thesis.

From @fishhookopeneye, helpful advice on how to explain academic work experience in a non-academic world.

From Lingua Franca, William Germano addresses the question of academic titles and rank.

From @sciam, encouraging graduate students to blog for the good of their writing. 

From @evalantsoght, a list of common mistakes. Every thesis writer should be keeping a list like this!

From @chronicle, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities”.

From @GradHacker, advice on thinking strategically during graduate study: going beyond ‘creativity and hard work’.

From @UVenus, interesting reflections on different models for publishing doctoral dissertations.

A question about originality posed to Leiter Reports generates an interesting conversation in the comments.

From @tressiemcphd, a great analysis of why “don’t go to graduate school” is problematic as a blanket prescription.

From @qui_oui, an excellent post on what it means to say that we are producing ‘too many PhDs‘.

Love this @ProfHacker post on Inbox Zero. It’s not about the Zero, it’s about limiting the power of the Inbox.

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The Pace of Academic Writing

Chances are, if I praise a graduate student’s writing, I will hear something like this:

“Thanks, but it takes me so long.”

“It should be good, I worked on those two pages for three weeks.”

“Sure, but I’ll never be able to write a full thesis at this pace.”

It is rare, as I discussed last week, for anyone to express contentment with their academic writing. And it is common for those who have produced something they are happy with to feel that they spent too much time on it. Since the amount of time spent on writing is such a common concern, I thought I would suggest a few ways to think about the pace of academic writing:

1. Try to speed up by working towards a first draft without allowing yourself any early editing. There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. Even if you aren’t going to use a true freewriting approach, you can still force yourself to keep moving forward without giving your inner critic a chance to mess you up. Since writing more freely can leave us with a more chaotic document, I recommend using the ‘rough edit’ approach to make sure that you’ll be able to work with your text later.

2. Try to appreciate that writing simply is often a slow process. To figure out what we need to say, most of us have to produce a lot of words that may not end up in our final document. If you view that creative process as simply inefficient, you may end up feeling that your writing process is too slow; if, instead, you try to think about that process as both positive and inevitable, you may be able to change your own attitude towards efficiency and efficacy in your writing process. Since it can be hard to pull the plug on ‘perfectly good writing’, I suggest creating a repository for material that doesn’t appear to have a long-term future in your text.

3. Try to see how speed differs depending on what you are writing. Some aspects of your writing will take a long time, while others will yield to your attempts to speed up. Unfortunately, starting—for many people—can be the slowest part. These initial molasses moments can be frustrating in and of themselves and can also lead writers to extrapolate a dismal future: if it took me this long to write this much, my entire thesis will take a million years. Understanding and accepting the slow start without projecting the same pace throughout can help you persevere.

4. Try to identify the appropriate amount of time in the context of a given project. In other words, maybe there isn’t such a thing as too fast or too slow. Instead, it may be helpful to do a serious accounting of how much time you can give to a particular project. Some parts of our writing will simply take longer to write. But the pace of writing can also be affected by the amount of time we have; we may write the first three-quarters of something at a leisurely—or even torturous pace—only to find ourselves with no option except to pick up the pace to meet a deadline. This pattern can be instructive since it lets us know just how fast we can write. It also highlights the value of apportioning our time more rationally. The end stages of writing are the most significant, and we don’t want to shortchange them just because we are out of time.

If you do want to write more quickly—and again I’m not sure that is always the best aim—I suggest starting with your own writing temperament rather than with someone else’s notion of productivity. Last year, as Academic Writing Month wound down, I wrote a post in which I tried to provide an example of how to reflect on one’s own writing challenges. Once you have a better understanding of your own writing predilections and pitfalls, you can then take advantage of other people’s insights into productivity. Much of that advice will fall flat if it is taken as abstract truth; instead, we all need to figure out what productivity means to us and what strategies will get us where we need to go. The best pace for you may be faster or slower or some combination of the two depending on your writing temperament and the demands of the particular project.

Writing and Enjoyment

A recent post on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog addresses the idea of writing aversion. In this post, Susan Carter discusses her work with an academic who has an actual phobia of writing. Most of us don’t have such a dramatic disinclination towards writing, but it’s still rare to find much in the way of real enthusiasm. And this general lack of enthusiasm poses an interesting teaching challenge. What is the best tone to take when discussing an activity that has such high stakes and that poses so many emotional and intellectual challenges? Obviously, an important and difficult task like writing isn’t best met with mindless positivity. But reflexive negativity can have costs, too.

If I focus on that half-full glass, I know that I run the risk of annoying graduate student writers by potentially minimizing a genuine struggle. The last thing most graduate student writers need to hear is how super fun writing can be. Indeed, telling the truth about the difficulties inherent in academic writing is essential. Students will often tell me at the end of a course that they hadn’t previously realized that others were struggling as much as they were; they clearly value the opportunity to get away from their usual disciplinary spaces to a place where the real challenges of academic communication can be discussed honestly. Even if I accomplish nothing else as a writing teacher, letting novice writers know that everyone struggles with writing is worthwhile.

While I’m in favour of this sort of honesty about the writing process, I have no wish to contribute to a dismissive attitude. If you can’t talk about a love of writing in a writing classroom, where can you? In part, I’m looking to disrupt any narrative that equates unhappiness with profundity. Loving to write does not preclude taking it seriously or doing it well; writing needn’t necessarily involve opening a vein. The writing classroom should be a place where enjoyment of the writing process gets discussed. It should also be a place where the centrality of writing to the academic endeavour is acknowledged. Not everyone needs to love writing, but everyone who is heading down a career path based on writing needs to make their peace with it.

There is a natural middle path here: the pleasures of the writing process and its challenges are two sides to the same coin. To talk about the pleasure is not to deny the pain. But for those who are sure that writing is just a necessary evil, any discussion of enjoyment can seem naive. I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. The hard work of writing needs to go on  with or without inspiration, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approach it as a crucial professional commitment that must be something more than just an unfortunate obstacle. I’d love to hear how others talk about the writing process in a way that respects the inevitable frustrations without giving in to a narrative of negativity.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ThomsonPat, using your allotted word count well in order to meet the needs of your reader.

From @DocwritingSIG, developing good habits of academic writing early in graduate study.

From Inside Higher Ed, thoughts on automated grading of student writing.

From Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum explains his distrust of Orwell on the topic of clear writing.

From @StanCarey writing in @MacDictionary blog, a great post on ‘whom’: where it will fade and where it will persist.

From Inside Higher Ed, advice on making writing instruction part of all undergraduate instruction: Teaching Writing Is Your Job.

From @ProfHacker, a set of questions to help us be more mindful in our pursuit of productivity.

From @ThomsonPat, a discussion of the politics of characterizing the practical impact of your scholarly work.

From Lingua Franca, a great look at an editorial prejudice:  can you have an ‘on the other hand’ without an ‘on the one hand’?

From @scholarlykitchn, a consideration of the new relationship between Elsevier and Mendeley.

From @cplong, an interesting post on using Twitter for collaborative note taking during presentations.

While I don’t entirely agree with this take on academic writing, the reminder about the author’s role in constructing meaning is apt.

From @OnlinePhDProgs, a great list of thesis and dissertation resources.

I think this is an interesting idea: Taking a Class I Usually Teach

From @UVenus, the relationship between inspiration and distraction.

From @evalantsoght in @GradHacker, good advice on working with an unmanageable amount of scholarly literature.

From Henry Hitchings in the New York Times, a nuanced take on nominalizations: what they are and why we use them.

From @AltAcademix, advice on what to do if you are “alt-ac curious” during graduate school.

“Can you recommend a good book on writing?”

I am often asked to recommend a ‘good book on writing’. A simple enough question, but one that is surprisingly hard to answer. In my attempts to do so, I feel a bit like a sommelier, responding to the question with a few of my own: Are you having the fish or the lamb? Do you tend to like full-bodied reds? That is, it’s hard to recommend a book without knowing what sort of writing project you are doing and what sort of support you are likely to perceive as valuable. This list includes some of the books that I find helpful, allowing you to see what might be beneficial to you. (This list expands on the list of five key sources that I use for writing.) I have tried to include a range of books that are relatively general—that is, ones that I think might meet the criterion of a ‘good book on writing’ for many different writers. In the future, I hope to devote some individual posts to more specialized texts on academic writing.

Needless to say, some of you will gravitate more naturally to online resources for writing. The blogroll (found in the left-hand column) gives some great places to start. I also want to mention the top thesis and dissertation resource list put together by the Online Ph.D. Program site, a helpful source of information on doing a doctorate online.

Note: I’ve included U of T library links for those of you who are local.

Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Fourth Edition (New York: Quill, 2001). This is an interesting and highly readable book about style; it is divided into chapters on diction, linking, tone, meaning, composition, and revision. Barzun includes sample sentences and some hints towards improving those sentences. His aim throughout is to breed an analytical self-awareness about the choices we make when we write. U of T Library Link

Howard S. Becker and Pamela Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Written by a sociologist, this book explores the issues graduate students face when they begin to write scholarly prose. The first chapter (‘Freshman English for Graduate Students’) discusses the way the task of writing changes for graduate students as it becomes a socially organized professional activity. U of T Library Link

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First published in 1995, this book provides invaluable advice about conceiving a research plan, conducting the research, and then conveying the results of the research in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the reader. The book includes sections on the centrality of research; understanding your reader; finding topics; using sources; making and supporting claims; outlining, drafting, and revising; writing introductions and conclusions; communicating evidence visually; and the ethics of research. U of T Library Link

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues. U of T Library Link

Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). In this book, Elbow provides a deeply reflective discussion of writing aimed at a broad audience. The core theme is the reconciliation of the contrary impulses involved in writing: the open and imaginative impulse necessary to get words down on paper and the critical and rational impulse necessary to make those words coherent for the reader. This book will be particularly useful for students who need to draw on their creative side in order to be productive; Elbow’s emphasis on free writing and the ‘magical’ process of writing can be empowering for a writer who is finding the act of writing itself difficult. U of T Library Link

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 2010). This book argues that grounding our own claims in the previous scholarly work is “the internal DNA … of all effective argument”. In other words, all effective academic writers must learn how to situate their contribution within the ongoing scholarly conversation. This book offers concrete strategies for doing just that. By distilling the essence of the most common rhetorical moves in academic writing, this book is able to provide a useful collection of templates for academic writing. Even if using templates doesn’t fit your writing style, reading this book will help to clarify the extent to which effective arguments follow discernible patterns. Recognizing those patterns can help you to strengthen your writing or even to clarify what you need to say. U of T Library Link

Patricia T. O’Conner, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing (New York: Harcourt, 1999). This book, which is not directed at academic writers, offers sound writing advice with a great deal of levity thrown in. The information is accurate, but it is presented with a light hand. The examples are not taken from academic prose and the text does not address the unique challenges of academic writing; however, for some writers, the humorous tone and simple examples might prove valuable. U of T Library Link

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (New York: MacMillan, 1979). This is a classic book on style, one which elicits a wide range of opinions. Strunk’s basic principles are strong and rarely disputed outright; for instance, he urges us to ‘omit needless words’, ‘use active voice’, and ‘avoid fancy words’. However, the brevity of the book can lead to two problems: one, a lack of room for explanations and strategies and, two, a tendency towards the oversimplification of complex writing decision. While these criticisms have a great deal of merit, the book does offer a compelling vision of clear writing. That said, most writers will benefit from a more elaborated approach; the Barzun book (listed above) and the Williams book (listed below) both treat similar issues in a more expansive fashion. U of T Library Link

John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, Third Edition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012). This text is aimed at international graduate students who are new to academic writing in English at the graduate level. It is divided according to types of writing: general-specific texts, problem-solutions texts, data commentaries, summaries, critiques, and, finally, full research papers. While some of that terminology may not be immediately clear to students, the information contained within each chapter is useful and well-designed. The book starts with a particularly helpful chapter that outlines a general approach to academic writing, including excellent advice about formality. Grammatical issues are interspersed throughout the text as they arise in relation to the different writing tasks. The text also has several appendices that address key issues such as article usage and writing definitions. Overall, this is a valuable introductory text that clearly demonstrates its authors’ familiarity with the central challenges facing international student writers. U of T Library Link

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981; the edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost. U of T Library Link

Writer’s Handbooks: Another type of text that writers may be looking for is a writer’s handbook. Handbooks are comprehensive writing resources, with information on grammar, style, usage, documentation, and different types of writing. Four handbooks are listed below, but there are many, many more. These four were chosen because they are widely used, because they are Canadian, and because they are all available from the University of Toronto libraries. One handbook is generally very much like another; you have to try out a number of them to see what suits you and your budget. They differ mainly in length, amount of colour, type of binding, and use of tabs, all of which contribute to the cost of the text. The basic content will be similar. The reason for using a handbook—as opposed to, say, looking for answers online—is the reinforcing effect of finding a consistent explanation every time you look something up. The rules of grammar and usage are hard to remember; it is a definite advantage to use a sound resource consistently in order to help refresh your memory. Handbooks also provide useful information on the different citations styles (APA, MLA, CSE, etc.). During graduate study, students will generally start using a single citation style consistently; at that point, it makes sense to use the style guide published by the relevant organization. The role of a handbook can, of course, be played by an online resource as long as that resource is reputable; I usually recommend using the OWL at Purdue site.

Doug Babington, Don LePan, and Maureen Okun, The Broadview Guide to Writing, Fourth Edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2009). U of T Library Link

Joanne Buckley, Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians, Second Edition (Toronto: Thomson, 2008). U of T Library Link

Diana Hacker, A Canadian Writer’s Reference, Fifth Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011). U of T Library Link

William E. Messenger, Jan de Bruyn, Judy Brown, and Ramona Montagnes, The Canadian Writer’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008). U of T Library Link