Monthly Archives: May 2013

You Know It and I Know It

A recent post from the After Deadline blog about the use of ‘of course’ got me thinking. Mostly I started thinking about how much I rely on ‘of course’ and similar expressions such as ‘needless to say’ or ‘obviously’. These expressions are so handy since they allow us to reiterate or reinforce aspects of our text without appearing too obvious or unsophisticated. Here are some examples, found with very little effort from earlier posts:

According to this breakdown, signposting is, of course, a form of metadiscourse. The reason I like to pull signposting out and treat it separately is the tendency of novice academic writers to neglect it. (Signposting and Metadiscourse)

There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. (The Pace of Academic Writing)

The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here. (Structuring a Thesis Introduction)

 I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. (Writing and Enjoyment)

In all of these cases, you can see that the ‘of course’-statements are pretty obvious; the reader isn’t reliant upon those statements for new information. And if I presented the information as novel—without the metadiscoursal mediation—my readers might become suspicious. How could they trust me if I were to repeat myself or provide self-evident material as though it were new and noteworthy? But using ‘of course’ shows that I’m not trying to tell them something new; instead I’m trying to anticipate objections, add emphasis, acknowledge divergence, manage parallel structure, etc. Looked at that way, you can see that these statements may be obvious in and of themselves, but they still have a role to play in the broader argument.

As helpful as these statements may be, we still need to be sure we’re not overdoing it. Are you sure you can’t do without? When you are presenting your own observations as obvious—needless to say!—you need to be confident that you’re not wasting your reader’s time. During editing, all these statements ought to be looked at closely. Another consideration: might you sound condescending? Using ‘of course’ is only effective if your reader is familiar with your claim. Or at the very least doesn’t care about not being familiar. If the ‘of course’ sounds like an implicit judgement, you could alienate your reader:

Her early work is, of course, much stronger than her later work.

If your reader didn’t know that there was an early or late period, let alone that one was better, this statement might fail. To avoid inadvertently excluding our reader, we may wish to adopt a more neutral tone:

As many scholars have argued, her early work is much stronger than her later work.

Or, if you want to let your reader in on even more of the story:

As many scholars have argued, her early work—with its explicitly autobiographical tone—is much stronger than the more experimental work that she produced later in her career.

As with any bit of metadiscourse, we need to ask whether we are creating the optimal relationship between reader, text, and writer. Allowing that something is obvious can be extremely helpful, as long as doing so supports the overall dynamic that we are striving to create.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @evalantsoght, ideas about how to generate conference presentations from research that’s not yet complete.

From @MacDictionary, a great plea for descriptivism.

From Crooked Timber, a fascinating post about employing a former student to critique current teaching practices.

From @chrishumphrey, a list of websites that carry post-PhD interviews and profiles.

From @ThomsonPat, advice on what to do in the event of conflicting reviewer comments.

From the New York Times, Christy Wampole on the value of the essay form: “an imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t but could be”.

Are you a part-time graduate student or researcher? If so, this Twitter Chat on academic writing for part-time people may be of interest.

From @ProfHacker, how grad students must say ‘no’ in order to evolve from student to scholar.

From @LSEImpactBlog, a reblog of my post on articulating the contribution of your academic writing.

From Inside Higher Ed, an attempt to define the academic job market as something other than a lottery or a meritocracy.

From @UVenus, a thoughtful post on deciding not to go to graduate school.

Great comment from @Comprof1 about how lack of ownership may also hinder our ability to articulate our contribution.

From @Gradhacker, the possibility of ‘meta-dissertating’: Can you plan/prepare/organize too much?

From @fishhookopeneye, interesting reflections on negotiating conflicting graduate student identities.

From @ThomsonPat, the perils of ‘early onset satisfaction’, especially given the pressure to publish.

From @scholarlykitchn, a new podcast on projects, issues, and trends in scientific and scholarly publishing.

From @chronicle, a touching letter to Jacques Barzun from his grandson.

Great advice at any stage of your academic career: Make a date with your academic writing.

From @ThomasBasboell, a provocative claim: ‘The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition’.

From @GradHacker, a great list of questions to help grad students decide whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request.

From @ThomsonPat, helpful questions about co-writing with a supervisor.

From Crooked Timber, an unusually generous approach to questions of potential plagiarism.

From Inside Higher Ed, more on the Richwine dissertation. Fascinating story for anyone interested in the role of supervisors.

From @academiPad, extremely helpful advice on using QR codes in academia.

From @kar_took, an interesting discussion of the difference between an author and a writer.

From The Singular Scientist, why imagining your audience naked is a terrible idea.

From @ThomsonPat, helpful thoughts on academic self-promotion and how it may vary by nationality, gender, age, &c.

Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

In my line of work, I hear a lot of sentences that start, ‘My supervisor says …’. And the supervisory comment that seems to elicit the most confusion involves the concept of voice: ‘I can’t hear your voice in this’ or ‘your voice is missing from the text’. In my experience, these concerns are met with a great deal of bafflement from graduate student writers. The reason for this largely baffled response is, I suspect, the way that we tend to think of voice as a feature of literary or expressive writing. Voice is usually associated with the distinctive style of a particular author: the sum total of the way that person writes. Thus, when we hear about a lack of voice, we take that to mean a certain bland quality to the prose or a lack of overall consistency in the diction, the phrasing, the pacing, etc. Given those associations, it’s no wonder that novice academic writers may be puzzled by the suggestion that they lack a voice. Since we cannot fix a problem that we don’t understand, that puzzlement unfortunately often leads to inaction or ineffectual editing.

If, however, we shift from discussing voice to discussing contribution, writers often start to see what might be missing. ‘I’m having trouble seeing the contribution that your work will make to this area of research.’ Articulating our contribution is a significant challenge, but it is a goal that generally makes sense. Moving away from the nebulous concept of voice allows us to direct our attention towards the genuinely difficult task of clarifying our own contribution. There are lots of reasons that this task is so difficult; here are the three that I find most prevalent.

1. Modesty: One fundamental reason for downplaying the novelty of our own work is a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence often manifests itself in an unhealthy reliance upon the existing literature. If you are one of those writers who feels better when thoroughly encased in other people’s insights, you may be under-emphasizing your own contribution. You need to use the scholarly literature to set the stage for your contribution, rather than allowing it to take centre stage itself.

2. Inexperience: Our own contribution can also be neglected when we are unfamiliar with the new genre in which we are working; in other words, we may simply not know how to draw attention to our own contribution. In a recent post on introductions, I emphasize how we can craft an introduction that clarifies the centrality of our own contribution. In general, developing any sort of genre expertise requires a great deal of attentive reading of the sorts of texts that we need to produce.

3. Familiarity: In my view, the most persistent obstacle to a sufficient explanation of our research contribution is our preoccupation with our own material. While we get more and more familiar with our subject matter, our future reader maintains the same degree of unfamiliarity. The longer we spend with a text, the more implausible it becomes that we need to keep reiterating our key contribution. But we cannot ascribe an unrealistic degree of familiarity to the reader just because we are so fully immersed in the document. Finally, keep in mind that your readers will often be experts in the field, meaning that they may be very familiar with everything but the new ideas you are developing. Make sure you are emphasizing the novelty.

Overall, the absence of a well-articulated explanation of the research contribution is a significant weakness for many novice academic writers. But the problem becomes much easier to fix when we confront it head on. If we are sidetracked by the notion of an absent voice, we may fail to solve this crucial problem. To be clear, I am not saying that our academic writing can’t have a distinctive and personal voice; in the long run, most of us are striving to find just that. In the meantime, however, we can all be helped by the reminder that a clear articulation of scholarly contribution is essential in academic writing.

Observing without Judging

In a serene and sunny yoga studio on Saturday morning, my yoga teacher asked us to dedicate our practice to the notion of observing without judging. Being me, I immediately stopped thinking about my practice and started thinking about how this approach might also be helpful for academic writing. When we try to observe without judging we can create a useful middle space between two unhelpful extremes. One extreme would be an entirely negative stance characterized by either scolding or despair; the other extreme would be a neglectful stance characterized by an inattention to writing. Either end of this spectrum will be counterproductive: if we are thoroughly disgusted with our prose or if we are content because we aren’t paying enough attention, we are unlikely to be making the improvement we desire in our academic writing.

The reason I like the yoga analogy is the way it encourages an attitude of positive growth rather than mere criticism. Most people would agree that it sounds funny to say ‘I am terrible at yoga’.* Indeed, if you are trying to be ‘good’ at yoga, you may be going about the whole thing wrong. Is the same true for academic writing? Of course not. We all want to be ‘good’ at academic writing, but saying that we are ‘terrible at writing’ isn’t getting us any closer to that goal. If we could be ‘novice’ academic writers rather than ‘terrible’ ones, we would be positioning ourselves in such a way as to be able to improve through self-aware practice.

An important insight that emerges when we engage in this sort of editorial self-awareness is the difference between bad habits and significant weaknesses. We all need to become aware of own bad habits—feel free to point out how I overuse conjunctions at the beginning of my sentences or how I can’t get through a paragraph without multiple semicolons or how I write annoyingly long interruptions in the middle of my sentences—in order to limit the ill-effects caused by these crutches. These habits are hard to break, but they are not hard to understand. The more significant weaknesses in our writing—the poor structure, the missing information, the logical incoherence—are harder to grasp and require specific strategies for amelioration. Observation alone won’t help; we also need practice to address the deep problems we observe. But by making observation a conscious goal, we can develop a better awareness of where we are now and what we need to do to improve. The key here is to develop this awareness through observation, so we can avoid the discouraging negativity that comes from a single-minded reliance upon judgment.

*Although someone who spends an entire yoga class composing a blog post in her head is at least somewhat ‘terrible at yoga’!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @Jup83 in @LSEImpactBlog, an interesting exploration of whether to cite blog posts in formal academic work.

From @thesiswhisperer, great advice on approaching reading as a research task requiring techniques and strategies.

From @ThomsonPat, ideas about what to do when you find existing work that is uncomfortably close to your own project.

From @ProfHacker, how to better understand committee feedback by recognizing the potential for unrealistic expectations on both sides.

From @ghweldon, a humorous reminder—from outside the realm of academic writing—to keep the poor reader in mind.

From @scholarlykitchn, insights into the tension in academic publishing between the needs of the author and reader.

From @ThomsonPat, the final installment in her series on PhD by publication. The whole series is well worth reading.

I love @KoryStamper’s tweets on the ‘top lookups’ from Merriam-Webster, including explanations of why that particular word at that particular moment.

From @DocwritingSIG, a great post on finding a thesis structure that fits the topic and meets genre conventions.

From @ryancordell in @ProfHacker, a reevaluation of Prezi—and the things it does well—by someone who was initially sceptical.

From @GradHacker, advice on creating a suitably limited PhD project.

From @deandad, a call to think structurally about the job market without blaming the individuals on either side of the desk.

From @literarychica, the limits of using altac as a cure for all that ails the academic job market.

From Lingua Franca, how a slash might actually be a conjunction-slash-coordinator.

From @LSEImpactBlog, a very thoughtful piece on open access publishing and academic freedom.

From Sandra Beasley in the New York Times, an eloquent discussion of what plagiarism isn’t and is and what it takes away.

From @readywriting, a call to consider existing adjuncts when discussing altac career options.

From Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf wants people with writing peeves to get some new material and he’s got some ideas.

From @NewYorker, on their famous use of the double consonant: “No kidnapper ever focussed so marvellously on this well-travelled territory.”

Full Stop

As I was proofreading something recently, it occurred to me that discussions of punctuation and grammar contain relatively little about the period. If you go looking for information on using periods, you will mostly find technical advice about formatting. Such editorial advice is crucial, but not necessarily of primary interest to the writer. The obvious reason that writers don’t worry much about periods is that their use is pretty straightforward: we use a period after a complete sentence. The period has none of the apparent complexity of the semicolon, the colon, the dash (more on the dash here), or the comma (more on the comma here, here, here, and here). But that relative simplicity doesn’t mean that the decision to use a period isn’t consequential. A period makes evident key authorial decisions: whether to say a lot or a little before stopping; whether to be assertive or interrogative when raising questions; or whether to insert a full stop or just the rolling stop achieved by other types of punctuation. I certainly don’t want to problematize the one piece of punctuation that everyone feels good about, but the ways that we stop in our writing are worth some consideration.

Short vs. long sentences. Any time we use a period, we are deciding whether we want a short or long sentence. If we are generous with our periods, we will be writing clipped sentences; if we are stingy, on the other hand, we will end up with sprawling sentences. Neither is better. The previous sentence, for instance, is short because I want to emphasize it. And its brevity is enhanced by the fact that it follows a longer set of sentences with a semicolon framing their double-barrelled structure. It generally works well to use short sentences for emphasis and longer ones for depth. If we go too far in either direction, the reader will begin to suffer. Too many long sentences coming one after another—even if they are individually well structured—can be fatiguing for the reader. Too many short sentences will disorient the reader since not everything can warrant special emphasis. Those short sentences will inevitably contain unimportant things; the reader’s confidence in you can be undermined if you appear to be emphasizing the insignificant. Creating a healthy mix of short and long sentences can be the best thing for your paragraphs.

Direct vs. indirect questions. What is the impact of asking a question as compared with stating that a question exists? When raising questions in our work, we have to decide whether to use a direct question—i.e., one that ends with a question mark—or an indirect question, i.e., one that ends with a period. When we use too many direct questions, our readers may start to see us as having more questions than actual strategies for answering those questions. An indirect question gives us the ability to articulate a question, which is obviously essential to academic writing, while also indicating our plans for addressing the question.

Full stop vs. rolling stop. As a hopeless over-user of colons and semicolons in my own writing, I have a particular interest in this question. During editing, I often find long strings of sentences, all of which are connected by semicolons. An over-reliance on the rolling stop is a bit like an over-reliance on transition words: it tries to impose flow rather than establishing it. Genuine flow will involve the use of some colons and semicolons; there’s nothing wrong with nudging your reader towards the next sentence. The semicolon says that the next sentence is intimately connected to this one; the colon says that the next sentence completes what is being said in this one. Those relationships are emphasized by the punctuation choice, but the punctuation alone won’t create that relationship. The choice between a full and a rolling stop should be consciously based on an understanding of the nature of the connection between sentences.

In sum, if you understand what is requisite for a complete sentence, your use of periods will be perfectly correct. But thinking about how and why we end sentences can still be a useful avenue for improving the flow in your writing.