Monthly Archives: October 2013

AcWriMo is At Hand!

November is Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), an entire month devoted to the fostering of academic writing, brought to us by the great people at PhD2Published. If you’re bothering to read this blog, academic writing is already central to your life. You may even feel a little sceptical about a month dedicated to academic writing. Academic Writing Year (or Decade) might seem more accurate. Isn’t the creation of ‘days’ and ‘weeks’ and ‘months’ just about raising awareness or raising money? Most of us are all too aware of academic writing, since we think about it all the time. And we know it won’t make us any money. So what is the value of assigning a month to academic writing?

The value, in my opinion, comes from the way that AcWriMo leads to so much talking about writing. Talking about how badly it’s going. Talking about how great it’s going. Talking about the reasons—the totally legitimate reasons and the slightly suspect ones—that we haven’t written enough. Talking about the new strategy that has made a difference to our writing. All this talk means that academic writing isn’t hidden away. Instead, it is out in the open, and this openness makes it harder to believe that our writing struggles are a sign of our own uniquely deficient selves. When you are exposed to a lot of chatter about academic writing, you quickly learn that most people think they are ‘bad at it’. Over the course of the coming month, we will see evidence that most people are either struggling to write enough or else managing to write enough by employing some sort of strategic gambit such as software, time management approach, peer support, or unholy external pressure.

This evidence acts as a useful reminder that academic writing is consistently difficult; our weaknesses are not primarily the result of a lack of will power or ambition. In fact, most academic writers are trying extremely hard to do consistently challenging tasks. Even leaving aside the tremendous time constraints that many academic writers face, the act of academic writing is inherently hard. AcWriMo is a chance to prioritize writing and to do so in an instant community. On the road to becoming successful academic writers, I think we can all benefit from the honest company of our peers.

The people at PhD2Published explain AcWriMo in six simple rulesDecide on your goal. Declare it! Draft a strategy. Discuss your progress. Don’t slack off. Declare your results. We can all do that, right? The key to making AcWriMo work, in my estimation, is to be sure that it is different than any other month. Here’s my take on the three adjustments that can help make AcWriMo valuable:

Set manageable goals: In real life, many of us have vague and/or unrealistic writing goals, leading us to write consistently less than we want to. AcWriMo is about facilitating your ability to write the amount that you need to write this month. It is essential that your goals fit your time and objectives. I’ve already seen people on Twitter worrying that they’re not able to aim ‘high enough’. There is no high enough: the goal of this month doesn’t have to be spending more time on writing than makes sense in your life right now. Make this the month that you get reasonably close to the smart and accurate goals that you set for yourself. 

Tell everyone: This imperative is one of the best ways that AcWriMo is different than other times. We usually avoid complete honesty with total strangers about our writing goals and productivity. But the single biggest academic writing problem—in my experience, anyway—is the way that it slips noiselessly down our to-do list, elbowed out by the clamour of the everyday. The email, the marking, the student appointments, the meetings. Those things all make themselves heard, and we conscientiously attend to them while neglecting writing. Declaring our goals can help us to move writing into the must-do category. Telling everyone also means telling everyone how we are managing as the month goes on. This decision to keep in touch with a community of academic writers online is also probably the most dicey part of AcWriMo. For some of us, getting more writing done and spending more time on social media will feel like incompatible goals. Be aware of the line between finding community and squandering valuable writing time; the fruitfulness of the online writing community means that it is easy to spend too much time there without feeling like you are procrastinating.

Be strategic: Another important difference is that you can’t approach AcWriMo the same way you’ve always approached writing. If writing is going to be better for you this month, what strategies will you employ to make that happen? A writing group? Timed writing sessions (à la Pomodoro)? Rearranging some aspect of your working schedule to make writing more prominent? The strategies will be different for each person, but the key is making a change that will allow for more productivity.

Still interested? The accountability spreadsheet is the easiest way of getting started. If you are not sure how best to structure your goals, you can scroll through to see what other people—like me!—have planned. You can also declare your intentions on Twitter, using the hashtag #AcWriMo. Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below or on Twitter. Good luck everyone—I look forward to writing with you!

My AcWriMo announcement post from 2012
My AcWriMo reflections post from 2012

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.

In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”

This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.

While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.

This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences  into coherent paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of  accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.