Category Archives: Housekeeping

Posts that discuss the practicalities of this blog

2015 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I’d like to take a quick look back at the past year. My first post of 2015 was my attempt to articulate what I found so troubling about the tone of Steven Pinker’s 2014 book on academic writing. In this post, I argue that the value of Pinker’s insights on writing are obscured by his overly broad characterization of what ails academic writing.

I followed this defence of academic writing with a somewhat related topic: how we use metadiscourse. In this post, I talked about the evolution of signposting, suggesting that even boilerplate metadiscourse can be transformed into something that informs the reader while being well-integrated into the text. I think this notion is important because the prevalence of clunky metadiscourse shouldn’t be treated as an argument against the value of effective metadiscourse in academic writing.

My next topic was a very different one: whether I should use the singular ‘they’. At the simplest level, I decided to do so (spoiler!) because this blog is a place where I can pick and choose among style conventions as I wish. But, more generally, I made this particular decision to embrace the singular ‘they’ because I believe that it is necessary, correct, and beneficial.

During our summer term, I taught a thesis writing course. At the end of that course, a student sent me an interesting email questioning some of the assumptions animating my discussion of productivity. This note gave me a welcome opportunity to think more about the ethos underlying the notion of productivity, especially as it pertains to graduate student writers.

In lieu of writing a reasonable number of new posts this year, I spent an unreasonable amount of time classifying my old posts. What I came up with was an annotated list, published in September as How to Use this Blog. This list is now a permanent page on the blog, allowing me to update it as needed. It can be found by using the For New Visitors tab. This list is a good way to see the type of topics that I have discussed here and to find groupings of posts on particular topics. If you are interested in finding out if I’ve covered a specific issue, you might prefer to use the search function (located near the top of the left-hand column).

After a short post previewing AcWriMo 2015, I ended the year with a post on the way we write our presentation slides. In this post, I discussed the possibility that our presentations may suffer if we compose slides in the same way we compose our other written work.

As you can tell from the brevity of this list, the past year was a relatively quiet one here on Explorations of Style. The blog is now five years old, a milestone which has given me the opportunity to reflect on what comes next. While I will continue to publish new posts, my main project for the upcoming year will be to rework some of the older posts. I’ve learned so much over these five years—from readers, from students, from colleagues, from other bloggers—and some of my original posts need updating to reflect that development.

As always, I’m happy to hear about topics that you’d like to see discussed or questions that you’d like answered. In the meantime, thanks for reading and good luck with your writing!

How to Use this Blog

Welcome to fall, everyone! One of my summer projects was to establish a thematic organization for the 139 posts I’ve written since this blog debuted in January 2011. This task—a surprisingly difficult one—was a great illustration of both the value and the limitations of blogging. I found lots of things that I was glad I’d written; I’m grateful for a forum that allows me to crystallize what I’m thinking about at any given time. Coming up with a thousand or so words about whatever is on my mind is a manageable challenge, but understanding how those ideas fit into a broader context could easily have derailed me. The format of the blog means that these ideas reach an audience even when I don’t yet see how they might fit together. But the capricious and episodic nature of blogging can mean that thematic coherence is hard to discern.

This inherent limitation of blogging can make it hard to do anything with a new blog except read the current post and wait for subsequent ones; that is certainly what I do when I discover a new blog. However, it seems a shame for the archives as a whole to go unread. People do, of course, read individual posts from the archives, but much of that traffic is the result of particular searches leading to particular posts. Since new people do arrive everyday, I thought it would be worthwhile to create a landing page that could facilitate the process of finding relevant posts. The posts themselves will, of course, retain the somewhat idiosyncratic framing that reflects their original composition, but at least this list will suggest some overall coherence.

In what follows, I will list the posts according to ten themes: Drafting; Revision; Audience; Identity; Writing Challenges; Mechanics; Productivity; Graduate Writing; Blogging and Social Media; and Resources.

Note: This information can also be found under the ‘For New Visitors’ tab. If you wish to link to this material, please use that page rather than this post; the permanent page URL is https://explorationsofstyle.com/for-new-visitors/. I will update that page with new posts as they are published.

I. Drafting: In Using Writing to Clarify Thinking, the first of my key principles, I suggest that writing is a way to develop our thoughts rather than a way to record those thoughts. This central commitment to writing as thinking has informed many subsequent posts on the complicated nature of composition.

  • In Can You Write Too Early?, I argue that early writing is the best way to work through the difficult process of figuring out what we need to say.
  • In A Cut-and-Paste Job, I consider the pros and cons of reusing our own texts in new ways.
  • In The Discomforts of Uncertainty, I address some of the challenges of exploratory writing.
  • In Between Drafting and Editing, I outline a strategy for making sure that our early drafts don’t become unmanageable.
  • In Is It All Writing?, I wonder whether the nomenclature that we use to define the various stages of writing matters.
  • In The Faintest Ink, I discuss the importance of getting things down on paper before we forget them.
  • In Writing as Thinking, I reiterate my commitment to exploratory writing in response to an articulation of an opposing view.

II. Revision: In Committing to Extensive Revision, the second key principle, I acknowledge that transforming early drafts into suitable final drafts will require extensive revision. In subsequent posts, I go on to discuss why revising our own work is so hard and how we might do it better.

  • In The Craft of Revision, I discuss my approach to the task of revision, from start to finish.
  • In Remembering to Edit, I present some strategies for ensuring that we keep our eyes on the task of revision.
  • In Bad News, Good News, I describe a common pattern: a lack of overall coherence despite local cohesion. In The Perils of Local Cohesion, I talk about the way that local cohesion can blind us to larger problems in our texts.
  • In Best Laid Plans, I encourage writers to think about the ideal relationship between prior planning and actual writing.
  • In Letting Go, I acknowledge how hard it can be to let go of hard-won text, even when it may not be serving any purpose.
  • In Scaffolding Phrases, I introduce the distinction between writing that may be helpful to us as writers and writing that serves the ultimate goal of satisfying the reader.
  • In Problem Sentences, I consider a radical revising solution: starting over.
  • Finally, in Reverse Outlines, I discuss the best way to tackle structural problems in our writing. The process of reverse outlining get elaborated in my discussion of Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines. In Truth in Outlining, I stress the importance of being honest when crafting reverse outlines. In Topic Sentence Paragraphs, I look at a strategy that helps us to see if we have created coherence in a late-stage draft.

III. Audience: In Understanding the Needs of the Reader, the last of my three key principles, I advocate using the needs of the reader as a guide for revision. The various ways in which audience awareness can help and hinder our writing has been a frequent topic in subsequent posts.

  • In Audience and Anxiety, I acknowledge that while remembering the needs of the audience can help us with revision decisions, the spectre of being read can be a source of anxiety.
  • In Self-Expression or Adherence to Form, I discuss a particular tension for graduate students: how to balance their desire for self-expression through writing with the expectations or predilections of their audience.
  • In Understanding Incoherence, I talk about the legitimate conflict between the messiness of our developing ideas and the needs of the reader.
  • In One-Way Trip, I consider what the reader is entitled to as they make their way through our texts.
  • In Signposting and Metadiscourse, I look at what the reader will need in order to follow our writing.  In The Evolution of Signposting, I address a common complaint about metadiscourse. And, in You Know It and I Know It, I own up to overusing one of my favourite bits  of metadiscourse.

IV. Identity: These first three sections explored ways to think about drafting, revision, and audience. Our ability to undertake those tasks is, in my view, connected to our willingness to identify ourselves as academic writers.

V. Writing Challenges: Throughout this blog, I have attempted to address the emotional and psychological challenges associated with academic writing.

VI. Mechanics: My treatment of writing mechanics is divided into four categories: punctuation; sentences; structure; usage.

 VII. Productivity: No matter how much we know about all these writing issues, most of us still struggle with productivity. As this blog has developed, I’ve devoted more and more time to reflecting on the tensions surrounding the need to be productive.

VIII. Graduate Writing: While many of my posts are potentially of interest to a wide range of academic writers, some are explicitly geared towards graduate student writers. In this section, I list posts on topics associated specifically with graduate writing, including thesis writing.

IX. Blogging and Social Media: Inevitably, the focus of the blog occasionally shifts from academic writing to blogging in particular and social media more generally.

X. Resources: Finally, in Key Sources, I give a list of published resources to support academic writing at the graduate level. An expanded treatment of this topic can be found in “Can you recommend a good book on writing?”.

2014 in Review

Happy New Year!

As I begin a new year of teaching and writing, I thought I’d take a quick look back at the year past on Explorations of Style. If you are new to reading this blog, this post will give you a quick recap of what I talked about last year. As always, my favourite topic was revision. I had three posts on different aspects of the revision process: managing paragraphs breaks effectively; using topic sentence paragraphs to assess cohesion; and dividing the revision process into manageable stages.

On a broader note, I began the year by reflecting on what constitutes writing. The first comment on this post—from Patrick Dunleavy, whose work on writing I highly recommend—suggested that I was “coming over a bit metaphysical.” Which is fair enough, I’m sure—this post may have been one of those that was more helpful for me to write than it was for anyone to read. What I hope came through, however, was the value of broadening our notion of writing enough to include the important conceptual work that can happen during the revision process. On a similar theme, I also indulged myself with a post on another favourite topic: the way writing is best understood as a form of thinking.

On a much narrower note, I talked about the Oxford comma and my conviction that as much as I’d like to be prescriptive about its use, I’m not sure that it’s possible to do so. While I still recommend using the serial comma, I’m unable to do so on any grounds that transcend the simple benefit of shared stylistic conventions.

On the topic of productivity, I had a post on the way that a desire for productivity can sometimes lead us away from making progress on the things that are most important to us; being productive is a worthy goal, but we still need to prioritize. Productivity was also on my mind over the summer, as I had the opportunity to offer my first dissertation boot camp. This fabulous experience led me to reflect on the way that public accountability can help us to manage the tensions between writing as a solitary act and our need for community. And no blog on academic writing would be complete without some mention of AcWriMo, a month-long experiment in accountability and productivity.

Finally, I spent some time this year reflecting on the relationship between academic writing and social media. Thinking about my writing here and on Twitter led me to a post on the way we write for social media. I was also thinking about social media when I wrote about the way graduate students need to learn how to navigate a world of advice. Given the growing prevalence of insight that originates somewhere other than our local precincts, it is important to think about the provenance, relevance, and value of the advice we encounter.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing in 2014! If you have any questions or ideas for future posts, I’d love to hear them.

Summer Hiatus

I usually take a break from blogging in July; this year, I’m starting my break a little earlier to allow time for some other writing projects. I can always tell that I need a break from blogging when my queue of draft posts keeps growing without anything ever being finalized. Thinking of things to write about is easy, but giving them the necessary shape and heft is harder. It’s time for a break.

Here’s a few other things I’ve been doing recently. My latest post was republished by the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as part of a broader conversation on the relationship between writing and thinking in academic writing. In April, I had a guest post on the Text and Academic Authors blog on identifying ourselves as academic writers during the early stags of doctoral study. Finally, here’s a brief interview that I did for the Conference Mentor blog on the challenges faced by novice academic writers.

I’ll be back in August, refreshed and ready to tackle all those half-written draft posts. In the meantime, I’ll be reposting something from the archives each week, starting with my early posts on key principles and strategies. As always, suggestions for improvements and ideas for new posts are welcome. To see what I’m reading over the summer, follow me on Twitter or keep an eye on my Links page. I wish you all a happy and productive summer of writing!

2013 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I thought I’d take a quick look back at 2013. In response to my own students’ interest in introductions, I began the year with a general post on the benefits of a standard ‘three move’ introduction. I returned to this topic a month later to address the more specific challenge of structuring a thesis introduction; given the length and complexity of a thesis introduction, it is crucial to have a strategy to help position the various elements in a manner that will make sense to the reader. Introductions made a third appearance in a post on managing the move from a research problem to a particular response.

Early in the year, I had a note from a graduate student with a question that summed up a great deal of the struggle of doctoral writing: Shouldn’t I already know how to write? The short answer to that question is an emphatic no: academic writing is a particular skill and most of us need time and effort to learn how to do it well. The post then delved into the way that this pernicious question can undermine confidence and dissuade graduate students from the necessary and challenging project of learning how to be proficient academic writers. The question of our status as academic writers was also addressed in my 100th post, which looked at the notion of academic writer as an identity.

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is the opportunity to engage with interesting material from other people’s blogs. Like many writers, I often don’t know what I want to say until I see what someone else has said on the topic. Over the course of the year, I was inspired by many people: William Germano on reader awareness; Peter Elbow on understanding incoherence; Melissa Dalgleish on finding community in graduate school; Pat Thomson on autonomy and doctoral study; Lee Skallerup Bessette on writing without inspiration; Susan Carter on writing aversion; Thomas Basbøll on the paramount importance of the paragraph; and, lastly, my yoga teacher on observing without judging.

While I felt that I didn’t spend enough time this year on writing at the sentence level, I did manage a few posts on nuts-and-bolts issues. Having already covered all the more controversial punctuation marks, I was left to consider the use of the period; in fact, I think the decision about when and how to end a sentence is a fascinating one. Punctuation also came up in a discussion of parallel constructions. My own over-reliance on the phrase ‘of course’ led me to write a post on the rhetorical significance of presenting something as obvious. And in response to a perennial question about finding good books on writing, I provided a brief annotated bibliography of books on academic writing.

What blog would be complete without a little bit of navel gazing? In my first post back after summer vacation, I reflected on the nature of the expertise presented in a blog such as this one. Part of the value, for me, of the advice found on social media is the way it requires us to be a reviewer as well as a reader. The advice on this blog might be good or it might be terrible. And even if it is good for lots of people, it might be terrible for you. In deciding what writing advice to take, we are honing our understanding of the writing process and of ourselves as writers.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the various ways academic writing challenges us. In a post on reverse outlines, I discussed how easy it is to write an aspirational outline instead of an honest one. I also discussed the disorienting effect of returning to our own exploratory texts. Since we all struggle with the time-consuming nature of writing, I devoted a post to the pace of academic writing. Taking a broader perspective on writing challenges, I looked at what imposter syndrome means in the context of academic writing.

My favourite post of the year was on the concept of contribution and voice in academic writing. In that post, I argued that voice can be a nebulous concept and that it may be better to focus on articulating our own contribution. Over time, we all strive to develop a clear and consistent voice, but, in the short run, explaining our particular contribution is perhaps a more pressing goal.

It was a pleasure to participate in Academic Writing Month again this year. Over the course of the month, I used the interesting questions and comments from the Twitter feed as the basis for posts on a range of topics: the many forms that not-writing can take; our sources for academic writing inspiration;  and managing the demands of multiple projects.

I ended the year with a post on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. In this post, I drew on material that I had used for a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share the webinar here on my own site; I’d also like to thank the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog for sharing the post on their site. The post itself links to many posts from this blog’s three-year history to explain my approach to confronting, accepting, and surviving the anxiety of academic writing.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing. As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics for future posts.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

Welcome to September!

My prospects for writing a new post this week get dimmer by the second, so I thought I’d just write a quick hello! I hope you all had a great summer, full of productive time spent writing. And if you, like the rest of us, found that you didn’t get quite all you’d hoped for done, I hope that better writing days are in your immediate future. Once the initial excitement dies down, September is a great time to revisit your writing goals and see what you can do to make sure you meet them in the upcoming year. I found this post from The Thesis Whisperer very helpful; in this guest post, Narelle Lemon reflects on her experience participating in AcBoWriMo 2011 (an attempt to write as much as 50,000 words in a single month). The terms in which she discusses her experience can act as a handy prompt for reflection about our own writing preferences and potential stumbling blocks. Would public accountability help you? What sort of writing targets work well for you? Does social media play any role in your writing life? How do you structure the breaks that everyone needs from academic writing? How does the idea of binge writing sound to you? Would more sharing of your writing as you go be helpful to you? How do you manage your writing time, minute by minute and hour by hour? Do you reward yourself for writing? How do you react when life genuinely makes it impossible for you to meet your own goals? Do you wish you had a more robust writing community?

Reflecting on these sorts of questions can help you see a path towards your best writing strategies. There is so much advice out there; while it is generally  thoughtful and well-meaning, much of it will inevitably be wrong for you. I suggest taking some time now—amidst these busy days of September—to think about the writing approach that would be right for you, so you can craft a strong plan to help you meet this year’s writing goals.

Here again—in case anyone missed it over the summer—is the link to the podcast interview that I did with GradHacker at the beginning of the summer. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about writing in a different manner than I do when teaching writing or when writing about writing. I hope some of you may find it helpful as you reflect on the writing you need to do this year. I also wanted to mention the recent series of crossover posts between GradHacker and ProfHacker on productivity, which are full of helpful approaches to managing our academic lives.

Finally, if you haven’t seen the Academic Coach Taylor tumblr, you really should. The fact that someone thought to bring together academic writing advice and Friday Night Lights makes me so very happy. Clear Thesis, Strong Analysis, Can’t Lose.

The blog address is now www.explorationsofstyle.com. If you go to the old URL (explorationsofstyle.wordpress.com), you should be redirected automatically. If you have any problems, please let me know. Thanks.