Monthly Archives: August 2013

Truth in Outlining

Recently I was working on a reverse outline of a text that I’d been struggling with. As I tried to write the outline, I could feel the basic incoherence of my text; it can be hard to write an outline when the paragraphs aren’t related to one another or even properly unified internally. But rather than let that incoherence become visible by honestly recording what I’d done, I began to nudge the outline into coherence. So I was left with a text that I knew was terrible, but an outline that allowed me to pretend that things were actually okay.

Despite the allure of the illusion that all was well, I did realize that I was cheating. Reluctantly, I returned to the document and did a proper reverse outline that showed what was wrong: necessary transitions were missing and the emphasis was misplaced. I was then able to rework the outline into a more coherent form, and, with that new-and-improved outline, I was able to revise the text. Problem solved. But the experience reminded me how easy it is to collapse the reverse outlining process by skipping the necessary step of creating a truthful and possibly terrible outline. Our immediate goal in reverse outlining isn’t the creation of a coherent outline. First, we must create an honest outline with all the warts showing; then we can craft a better outline that will act as a guide to revision. By collapsing those two steps into one, all I had done was paper over the ugly flaws in my early draft.

Reflecting on this experience reminded me of a recent reaction to reverse outlines from a student. After I described the process of creating a reverse outline, she argued that it was fine for all those people who write coherent first drafts but that it wouldn’t work for her. Clearly I wasn’t doing a very effective job in the classroom that day! First, I’d failed to make it clear that there aren’t any ‘people who write coherent first drafts’. Or maybe there are some, but they aren’t the norm, and aspiring to become one of those people can be a frustrating approach. Better to aspire to write coherent subsequent drafts and to allow those first draft to help you to figure out what you need to say about the topic. Second, I must have done a bad job describing the reverse outline itself because it is, in fact, the perfect strategy for handling chaotic first drafts. But it only works if we tell the absolute truth in the outline and don’t allow wishful thinking to creep in. The point is to find out what you’ve got. If you cheat—as I did above—you won’t be able to see that. Let the reverse outline do the work it was meant to do, even if that means confronting how far you still have to go.

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Social Media and Expertise

This summer break from blogging was entirely necessary, but I have missed writing here. I’d like to ease my way back in with some reflections on the nature of the ‘expertise’ presented in a blog like this one.

In June, I was at a conference and, as usually happens, I found a theme emerging over the weekend. Not the explicit conference theme, but rather a notion that came up again and again regardless of the stated topic. Of course, to some extent, we all inevitably hear what we are primed to hear. And for me, this conference was about notions of expertise. How do we establish expertise about writing? In particular, given the topic of my own presentation, I was interested in questions of social media and expertise.

My presentation concerned the way social media participation might act as academic production for writing instructors in Canada. While allowing that a marginal status within the university might lead some writing instructors to adopt a more traditional attitude towards the established norms of scholarly publishing, I ultimately argued that writing instructors have much to gain from an expanded notion of academic production. In particular, I focused on three ways in which social media participation based around blogging might prove useful to writing instructors. First, a non-traditional appointment of the sort that is common for writing instructors gives latitude for exploring emerging styles of academic communication. Second, most writing instructors have limited time for research while still needing research engagement to thrive in our roles; social media participation offers a more flexible model of engagement. Third, our work as writing instructors requires that the needs of students be primary. As a species of academic publishing, blogging allows us to speak in a way that can reach students as well as peers.

At its root, blogging is about sharing expertise in a way that relies upon a crowd-sourced, DIY form of peer review. I give writing advice here on the blog in the same spirit that I give writing advice in the classroom. That is, I openly acknowledge that there can be no one-size-fits-all approach, and then I make very particular suggestions. In doing so, I am claiming a certain expertise about writing based on my previous work with writers. Readers and students alike have to decide if the approach is valuable to them. Advice about writing is always idiosyncratic, but tends on occasion to present itself as universal. In my view, far too much of what is said about academic writing underestimates its own specificity. In fact, writing advice gains value precisely by being framed as a matter of particular experience. Rather than rejecting the particular or framing the particular as universal, we should be offering support and concrete suggestions to improve the writing process.

Taking some time away from blogging has helped me to reflect on the status of the advice that I give here. I also had a chance to spend two amazing weeks at a research methods seminar; this experience gave me the time to think more about the way epistemological questions affect how we teach and talk about writing, both in the classroom and through social media. I’m so grateful to the seminar organizers and participants for giving me so much to think about as I embark on my year’s sabbatical.

I hope you’ve all had enjoyable and productive summers. I’d love to hear what topics you’d like me to cover in the coming weeks and months; if you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments or via Twitter.