Category Archives: Housekeeping

Posts that discuss the practicalities of this blog

Go Small or Go Home

While working on a recent post on anxiety and audience, I couldn’t shake a feeling of vague dissatisfaction; this dissatisfaction led me to some fairly unproductive tinkering with the post until I realized the source of my discontent. I wasn’t actually unhappy with what I had said; I was just unhappy that I was saying it. That is, I was unhappy to be discussing—yet again—something general rather than something specific. This blog has, of late, seemed to lack a concrete connection to writing. In my mind, the blog needs to balance two elements: broad exhortations about how to manage academic writing in general and concrete approaches to specific writing decisions. The first one is easy–being bossy isn’t much of a stretch for me! The latter, however, takes a different kind of focus. I make the same distinction in the classroom: there is teaching that requires sentences and teaching that can get by on pronouncement alone. There is a place for both, but I know that I am strongest in the classroom when real examples are being deployed; I also know that when I am overwhelmed, underprepared, or uncertain, I tend to go big. And while this tendency may matter less in a blog—since anyone can ignore the content that doesn’t speak to them—I would like to establish a better balance.

So I am going to start with the most concrete thing I can think of: commas. I have said lots about the more glamorous punctuation marks, but I have ignored the punctuation mark that we most need and most misuse. We could technically do without colons, semicolons, dashes, parentheses, but we need commas. We obviously can’t do without periods, but they are difficult to misuse. Commas have the distinction of being essential and yet subject to lots of confusion. There’s so much to say about commas that I’m hoping it’ll last me for the rest of the fall! Now that I’ve put it down in black and white, I have no choice. I almost feel relieved.

Happy August!

Hello again! I hope you are all having enjoyable and productive summers. I am happy to be back at work after a relaxing vacation, and I am particularly happy to be back to thinking about this blog; being away from it for a whole month has given me a chance to reflect on how I want to proceed for the upcoming year. My plan is to keep the same basic format but to decrease the frequency of posts. As much as I love writing this blog, I am aware that doing so has diminished the time I have for other writing projects. Those writing projects need to get done  for all the obvious reasons but also, I now realize, for the ongoing health of this blog. If I devote all my writing energy towards this blog, I am necessarily doing less conventional academic writing. Since conventional academic writing is what both my students and readers of this blog are likely to be doing, I need to be sure that my approach is informed by my personal engagement with that sort of writing.

So I will now post regularly on Wednesdays, alternating between posts on key topics in academic writing and posts with curated links about academic writing in its broader context. I will be back next week with some reflections on addressing broad structural issues in academic writing. In the meantime, since everyone seems to agree that blogs benefit from ‘visually striking images’, here are some photos from a recent trip to Alaska. I know this is cheating—these images have absolutely nothing to do with academic writing—but I hope you enjoy them anyway!

Photos: Mitch Davis

How I Always Exaggerate Everything!

This blog has now been in existence for a few months, and I would like to pause for a moment to reflect. I have been pleasantly surprised by the degree of interest and would like to thank you all for reading and commenting. I particularly want to thank those of you who have blogged about my blog, added me to your own blogrolls, and tweeted my new posts. (Special thanks are due to The Thesis Whisperer and College Ready Writing.)

Although the actual experience of writing this blog has been very different than I expected (who knew it would be so engrossing!), the actual content has worked out more or less as planned. As was my intention, I started with key principles, sources, and strategies, all of which I hope will now act as a foundation for future posts. The completion of this initial phase means that I am now ready to tackle more specific writing issues. But I find myself unable to decide what to tackle first. I have given a ridiculous amount of thought to this–as those of you who know me will find easy to believe–without coming to a decision. What I did come to, however, was a realization about a quirk in my teaching style.

In trying to find a suitably significant topic for today’s post, I thought back to things that I present to my students as particularly significant. What I realized was that I use a lot of superlatives. In fact, you might say that I use superlatives in a way that suggests I don’t actually understand the concept of a superlative. ‘This is my favourite strategy’, I say about many different strategies. ‘This is the most important idea that you will learn in this class’, I say in reference to many different ideas. There is a pleasing simplicity about saying ‘If you learn one thing in this class, it should be this.’ But that simplicity is undermined by saying it about more than one thing. In course evaluations, students often mention my enthusiasm, although it sometimes sounds less like praise and more like pity (‘Rachael sure does care a lot about grammar.’) I am sure, overall, that my enthusiasm is a strength in the classroom. But the indiscriminate enthusiasm could stand to be replaced with something a bit more measured.

From now on, I will attend to the true meaning of ‘favourite’–and ‘best’, ‘most’, etc.–and exercise an appropriate degree of restraint. For instance, I will have only one favourite punctuation mark (although, at home, I will continue to have two favourite children because that is just sound domestic policy). Since that favourite punctuation mark is definitely the semicolon, I will make that the topic of my next post.

Welcome to Explorations of Style!

Welcome to Explorations of Style: A Blog about Academic Writing. In this blog, I will offer my perspective on how to meet the central challenges of academic writing. As an instructor in a program that supports graduate student writers, I spend a great deal of time looking at student writing and thinking about strategies for its improvement. In general, I do this in the classroom or in response to particular pieces of writing that students bring to me. This blog is an experiment in trying to shape this advice into a slightly more enduring form. The next three posts will present the general principles that inform all of my teaching. The subsequent posts will explore the five strategies that I turn to most often when working with students. I will then discuss the resources we can use to support academic writing. With that groundwork in place, I will turn to a discussion of common writing issues; drawing on my experience of academic writing, I will present my own approach to such issues.

Interspersed among these entries will be my reflections on the act of teaching writing and on media stories about various issues in academic life. My hope is that I will also be able to answer your questions about academic writing. Please feel free to submit questions by leaving a comment or by replying to a particular post.

The blog is called Explorations of Style because I am interested in exploring how we make sound choices about stylistic matters in our academic writing. Definitive answers about writing questions are rare; there are some rules, of course, but much of what we do when we write or revise is to make choices. I focus on stylistic choices rather than grammatical correctness because correct grammar is already the norm in academic writing. Effective writing, however, is not quite so common! This blog will focus on the stylistic choices we can all make to increase the effectiveness of our academic writing. I hope you’ll join me.