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.”

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3 responses to “Observing without Judging

  1. Thank you for this post!
    I just started my work as a mentor and writing coach for PhDs and I am eager to learn more about what you describe. What you call observing without judging seems to the same or part of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness myself, I started to be mindful during writing in order to find out what actually happens. I am at the very start of my exploration but I think (academic) writers can gain much from being mindful: observing and accepting doubts, anxiety, expectations, bodily feelings, tendencies to be distracted and other (bad) habits. When writers see what happens, they can gradually change bad habits into beneficial ones. I think that this is an issue worth pursuing. So, thank you again.

  2. If I’m completely honest I probably haven’t paid any attention to my own writing and I have no idea what my bad habits are.

    Really interesting post, thank you!

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