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Links: Punctuating, Footnoting, Trying

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Here is something from the Wall Street Journal on the future of punctuation. In this article, Henry Hitchings argues that punctuation usage has never been stable; to my way of thinking, such historical perspective is always more useful than lamentations for a prelapsarian state of linguistic consistency. But what I was particularly interested in was his suggestion that the current trend in punctuation is toward the representation of spoken English. He uses the dash as the ultimate grammatical expression of the way spoken sentences flow into one another. The semicolon, by contrast, isn’t something that we can render in speech: it is entirely an aspect of writing. If you do not regularly use the semicolon, consider whether this has anything to do with the way that you punctuate your sentences according to the patterns of spoken language. (On a related note, here is something fun from The New Yorker’s book blog on the interrobang and other non-standard punctuation marks.)

Here is something from Alexandra Horowitz in the New York Times on the future of the footnote. Horowitz concludes with the following spirited defense of digression: “Surely the purpose of a book is not to present a methodically linear narrative, never wavering from its course, with no superfluous commentary set off by commas. In my mind, footnotes are simply another punctuative style: a subspecies of parenthesis that tells the reader: ‘I’ve got something else here you might like! (Read it later.)’ What better thing? You get to follow the slipstreams in the author’s thinking at your own leisure.” What is fascinating to me is her matter-of-fact tone. She doesn’t appear to think that what she is saying could be considered controversial; instead she throws out the whole idea of linearity with an apparent lack of compunction. A footnote becomes another species of punctuation, another way of indicating that we have things to say that cannot be expected to fit into a linear narrative. Despite my background in academic philosophy—where the footnote is treated with the greatest respect—I was still surprised to hear such a wholehearted abandonment of linearity. (This is an important issue for me since ‘methodically linear’ may very well be what gets written on my tombstone.) Not that I am arguing against the footnote, of course, but I am suggesting that writers have to be responsible for the effect that their interruptions may have on the reader. We all need to develop an awareness of how others may read us in order to make useful decisions about how to interrupt ourselves, be it with parentheses, commas, dashes, or even footnotes.

Lastly, here is something from The Writing Resource blog on the use of ‘try and’; in this post, Erin Brenner gives a good historical and stylistic explanation, concluding that this usage is fine. I found this helpful since I’ve always wondered if the formulation was unacceptably colloquial. The Professor is In blog recently spoke about a related topic, characterizing the use of ‘try’ as an excess of academic caution. That caution, as we all know, is something that can be particularly strong in graduate students. I think there is also a simpler explanation for the use of ‘try’: we use the language of anticipation early in the writing process. When we are drafting a paper, it is easy to write, ‘In this paper, I try to show …’. For most of us, it is harder to write in a first draft, ‘In this paper, I show …’. By the end, however, we have inevitably shown something, even if not exactly the thing we had ‘tried’ to show. We ultimately need to remove the language that indicates an aspirational state of mind. There are places in which the language of ‘trying’ is perfectly accurate, of course, but it is still a good idea to watch for unnecessary uses of this formulation. Since this turn of phrase so often reflects our state of mind as we begin a piece of writing, it can often be removed once we have actually done what we set out to do. By making that change, we offer the reader the most developed version of our prose rather than an earlier, more provisional version.

Links: Editing Yourself, Blogging Your Reflections, Dancing Your PhD

Here is some advice from a professional editor about the types of editing we should be doing for ourselves. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s new writing blog, Lingua Franca, Carol Saller offers some tips for self-editing (my approach to this topic can be found here). I particularly liked her reminder that we do a lot of damage through editing itself. Not that we shouldn’t edit—obviously!—but we should be aware that we create a different class of errors through editing than we do through writing. We need to know what our typical writing errors are, but we also need to be aware of the sort of problems we may be inadvertently creating when ostensibly improving our writing through editing. Saller mentions the various ‘cut and paste’ errors that result from moving text around (for instance, repetition and non sequiturs). I would add two more. At the sentence level, be very careful with forms of agreement—for instance, subject and verb or noun and pronoun—when making changes. At a broader level, make sure that all changes are reflected in the language that we use to refer to our own text; for instance, if we decide to reorder a set of points, we must be sure to go back and change the sentence where those points were first introduced. In general, we need to think—especially in late-stage editing—about all the connections that exist in our text. Some sentences stand alone and can be changed solely according to their own demands. But many more sentences stand in relation to others; in those cases, we must be cognizant of how local changes can have a broader impact.

Writing in The University of Venus blog, Lee Skallerup Bessette recently offered her thoughts on the formal demands of a blog post. She offers an interesting breakdown of the general types of academic blog posts and then defends the value of posts that are reflective rather than definitive.

The fourth annual Dance Your PhD contest is coming to a close. I believe the winner will be announced today! If you have never watched these wonderful (and wonderfully odd) videos, you are in for a treat. I’m amazed every year at how they manage to illustrate complex scientific concepts in manner both effervescent and earnest.

Finally, we have reached another day of note. A few weeks ago, you may recall, I looked into the phenomenon of national days of any-old-thing. But today is different: it is the official National Day on Writing. It’s official because the United States Senate passed Resolution S.298 saying so. I hope you won’t let this special day go by without some quiet time alone with your thoughts and a writing instrument of some kind!

Links: Feedback for Thesis Writers, Post-Academic Careers, Limitations of Spellcheck

Here is an interesting discussion from Rachel Toor in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the writing feedback that is given to thesis writers. Surprisingly, she is discussing what to think when someone says that you ‘write too well’! Toor addresses two possible meanings of this odd utterance. First, she discusses the idea that good writing is somehow inappropriate and suspect in a dissertation. Second, she considers whether ‘you write too well’ is a sort of code for ‘your ideas aren’t that good’. Needless to say, using the term ‘good writing’ as that sort of backhanded compliment would be an outrageous misuse of the term. Toor sums up what one should do if confronted by this unexpected comment: “… if someone ever tells you that you write too well, ask him for an explanation and be prepared to hear something that will cause you to do more work. If, however, he proceeds to make the case that the language shouldn’t matter in scholarly writing, that clarity isn’t important, that good sentences are a waste of academic time, sue that idiot for scholarly malpractice.”

This recent column, also from The Chronicle of Higher Education, covers familiar ground: the graduate student experience. Between the article itself and the vigorous comment stream, the pertinent issues—micro and macro—are well covered. I kept the link but thought it unlikely that I would include it here—what else is there to add? But then I saw this related but very different post from the ProfHacker blog on post-academic careers; the post highlights the value of a good understanding of our professional options and our own vocational inclinations. My question, after reading these two articles, is how the narrative of graduate student misery affects the development of such awareness. It seems possible that the general and accepted level of unhappiness about graduate school may serve to obscure specific unhappiness. If all graduate students are miserable and expected to be so, how does any individual graduate student learn that he or she might just not like this type of work? Similarly, it can be hard to interpret the pleasure derived from non-academic work when such work is often framed as nothing more than an illegitimate way of avoiding the legitimate tasks of academic work.

Lastly, here is something fun on the limitations of spellcheck programs. You’ve probably read or seen something like this before, but Taylor Mali’s enthusiastic wordplay (and occasional profanity) is sure to focus your attention on what your spellchecker might be missing.

Links: Academic Blogging

First, before I forget: National Punctuation Day is coming up on Saturday. I confess, I was initially confused by this announcement because I was sure I had already mentioned this on the blog (and this blog didn’t exist last September). But I soon realized that I was confusing National Punctuation Day with National Grammar Day. Two totally different days. This blog probably isn’t the place to discuss how funny the ‘National [fill in the blank] Day’ phenomenon is, but I can’t resist. August 15th, for instance, is both National Relaxation Day and National Failure Day, a combination that sounds weird but actually makes sense in a mean, puritanical sort of way. It is also National Lemon Meringue Pie Day. Again, there is a certain logic: if you’ve ever made such a pie, you probably needed to relax afterwards and you may very well have failed. Here is a list of more of these special days (I was tired after reading just the month of January) and some discussion of the procedure for getting such a day recognized (just kidding, there is absolutely no procedure). But even though there are national days of many inconsequential things, this does not lessen the importance—the 365-days-a-year importance—of punctuation. I urge you to click here to learn more about its special day.

Now, on to today’s post. Since I have encountered a range of thought-provoking blogposts on academic blogging recently, I thought I would devote this post to that topic.

Here is a blogpost on the darker side of blogging by Jeffrey Cohen from the In the Middle blog. Cohen reflects on the challenges of maintaining an online presence; in particular, he does a good job articulating some of the hazards that arise when exposure exceeds accountability. Ultimately, he intends to continue to engage social media as part of his academic life, but he is clearly concerned that online negativity could eventually overwhelm the tremendous promise of online communities.

Here is a discussion in The Scholarly Kitchen on the state of blogging and how it is perceived. In this post, Kent Anderson discusses the lack of respect accorded to blogging. He provides a vigorous defense, concluding that the purported weaknesses of blogging may actually be strengths: “Like many disruptive technologies, a blog’s ‘weaknesses’—the quick-hit writing with links substituting for wordiness, the ability to generate content quickly, the ability to interact with an audience, the ability to write long or short, the embedded ability to link to and host multimedia, the participation of unexpected experts—are really its strengths.”

Finally, here is something on blogging from The Thesis Whisperer in which a guest author, Andy Coverdale, talks directly about the role of blogging in the life of a PhD student. In particular, Coverdale considers how blogging affects both his writing process and the potential professional reception of his work. This post is essential reading for any graduate students trying to evaluate the benefits and complications of adding blogging into their professional lives.

P.S. I just learned that today is National Pecan Cookie Day. Do with that information what you will—I know what I’m going to do!

Links: Drafts and Formatting, Teaching and Productivity, Writing and Relativism

Here is something from the new Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education on excessive formatting in manuscripts. The author, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, is making an important point about manuscripts: editors don’t want complex formatting. All that formatting just has to be stripped out, a process which is time-consuming and which can, potentially, lead to inadvertent changes to the material. As a writing instructor, my interest—as I have mentioned before—is keeping drafts free of fancy formatting and thus keeping them easy to revise. As I write this, I realize that enthusiastic formatting may be more than just a random phenomenon, at least in my writing process. I’m pretty sure I turn to formatting for comfort when writing is going badly; the less confidence I have in what I am writing, the more likely I am to start messing around with fonts and footers and subheads. That way, even if my work sounds terrible, at least it will look like a real paper. Needless to say, this is a counterproductive strategy. Not only does the premature formatting add nothing, it may well act as an impediment to digging into a draft and making substantive changes.

Here is a report from Newswise on some new research on STEM students who supplement research with teaching. The research suggests that time spent teaching may actually improve students’ abilities “to generate testable hypotheses and design experiments around those hypotheses”. The researchers suggest that this improvement may simply come from the process of explaining complex issues to students and from having to look at research problems from multiple perspectives. The findings make intuitive sense, so it is interesting that teaching and other activities are so often seen as distractions for graduate students rather than as valuable professional development.

Finally, here are some remarks from William Zinsser on the cultural dimensions of learning to write in English. His audience is journalism students, but the ideas may also be of interest to academic writers more generally. Most multilingual graduate students will benefit from having a good working understanding of how academic writing in English may differ from academic writing in their other language(s). Of course, no writing teacher will want to reify the cultural differences in academic writing. But students themselves—through alert reading and sensitive comparisons—can come to a valuable understanding of different practices of academic writing. I think that some relativism about ‘good academic writing’ is of value to students who may otherwise feel that there are universal standards of academic writing that are simply oblique to them.

Links: Writing More Quickly, Reading Styles, Relating to Your University

Explorations on Style is now on Twitter. If you are so inclined, you can follow me @explorstyle. I will tweet new posts and related links. In the event of breaking news in the area of academic writing, I am now ready!

Here are a few articles that I found interesting as I attempted to catch up after my vacation (it wasn’t easy to narrow it down—Google Reader left unattended for a month is an alarming thing!).

Here is something from Slate on writing more quickly. The author comes to two key conclusions: one, writing is intensely cognitively difficult for almost everyone (so, it’s not just you); and, two, surmounting those difficulties requires sustained hard work and the application of familiar principles (so, there are no quick fixes). An efficient writing process generally requires adequate preparation, realistic goals, and a regular commitment to writing. Even though this article isn’t saying anything new about the challenges of writing, it does a good job conveying the psychological toll that writing can take. That psychological toll seems to be exacerbated by the persistent sense that writing is somehow harder than it should be. I think many writers would benefit from the awareness that writing simply is that hard: writing is a complex process of thinking and not a simple matter of reporting what we already know.

Here is something from The Chronicle of Higher Education on deep attention and hyper attention. The author’s own interest is the role of deeply attentive reading in an undergraduate education; his interesting contention is that education generally requires something other than deeply attentive reading. My interest, however, is in the perennial question of how we should read the crazy amount of material available to us. I’ve posted articles on this before; I think I am drawn to this topic because managing our reading time is crucial to our eventual ability to write about what we know. For many people, reading is easier than writing; for a smaller group of people—of whom I am one—writing is easier than reading, an inclination that comes with its own set of challenges. For the perpetual readers, good strategies for reading are essential if they are to be able to get to the writing stage. For those of us who rush the reading to get to the writing, good strategies for reading are also essential if we are to have the mastery of the topic that underlies good writing.

Finally, here is something from The Thesis Whisperer about the university as a bad boyfriend. What I particularly liked about this post is the tone: realism without bitterness. Finding this stance vis-à-vis the university seems crucial if we are to hold our institutions accountable without succumbing to hyperbole or despair. There are, of course, many reasons to be critical of our institutions. And it can be intellectually satisfying to hone those critiques. But if you are staying within the university, it is also necessary to know how to engage with the university in a way that will be personally fulfilling.

Links: Oxford Comma Kerfuffle

Photo Credit: Mitch Davis

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on various aspects of academic blogging. Insightful commenters suggested great ways to improve my characterization of blogging. In the intervening weeks, I have learned something else new about academic blogging: it is not particularly compatible with parenting. My kids’ last day of school was June 22nd, and, not coincidentally, my last post was June 21st. I had planned to take a break over the month of July, but I certainly hadn’t intended to abandon the blog without any explanation. So today I am back with a weekly links post; I will also post something on Thursday before taking an official break until August.

The photo gives a sense of what I have been doing instead of keeping up with this blog. I hope you have all been enjoying early summer as much as we have!

Here is a very funny post on the serial comma (and the erroneous reports of its eclipse) from the NPR pop culture blog, Monkey See. This post made me far happier than I should be willing to admit publicly. I love that blog, and I love the serial comma. I have actually been saving the topic of the serial comma (or the Oxford comma, as it is also known) for some future and perfect blogging moment. I’m not sure if I am waiting for a time when I will be free to devote my full attention to crafting the perfect post or if I am keeping it in reserve for a time when I need something good on short notice. Either way, someday the stars will align and I’ll produce a worthy discussion of the serial comma. In the meantime, you can, if you are so inclined, enjoy some Vampire Weekend. And, if I haven’t fully exhausted any interest you may have ever had in this topic, here is a funny discussion of the Shatner comma.

Links: Strategies for Productivity, the Editorial Fallacy, Innovations in Scholarly Publishing

Happy Solstice! As we enter into summer, everyone is thinking about how to write productively over the coming months. Here is a post from The Thesis Whisperer blog on productivity through peer pressure. In this post, the Thesis Whisperer herself (otherwise known as Dr. Inger Mewburn) tries out a strategy called “Shut Up and Write”. This approach has people meet up in public spaces to write, taking advantage of the pressure of working in groups and the value of getting out of our normal writing places. And here is a post from the Hook and Eye blog on a paid service that offers writers support and enhanced accountability. Both approaches speak to the difficulty of mastering writing challenges all by ourselves. Different writers will, of course, need different types of support, but it is worth spending some time now thinking about how you will work productively before you end up with that familiar end-of-summer regret that you didn’t get more written.

This piece from The Scholarly Kitchen discusses the idea of ‘the editorial fallacy’; in Joseph Esposito’s words, the editorial fallacy is the idea that “all of a publisher’s strategic problems can be solved by pursuing and publishing the finest books and articles.” While this may not seem directly relevant to the task of academic writers (i.e., to the task of actually writing the finest books and articles), I still think it is important. We can all benefit from Esposito’s awareness that editorial quality isn’t necessarily the most pressing issue facing scholarly publishers in a world with dramatically new technological and financial challenges.

Finally, here is an interesting account of a new direction in scholarly publishing: an article from Inside Higher Ed by Alexandra Juhasz about her creation of a ‘video-book’. Since this publishing endeavour was so innovative, Juhasz was operating with a certain amount of freedom. She used that freedom to engage in a very thoughtful consideration of the demands and obligations of scholarly publishing. Any writer could benefit from thinking about Juhasz’s list of publishing considerations: the ideal medium for a given project; the nature of the audience; the reading preferences of the target audience; the desired style of writing; the degree of commitment necessary from readers; the collaborative nature of publishing; the legal considerations; the question of authority; and the ongoing challenges of funding scholarly production.

Links: Rules for Writing, Strategies for Scientific Writing, Excuses for Plagiarism

Here is something from the Huffington Post on the difficulty of finding workable ‘rules’ for good writing. Robert Lane Greene provides a useful breakdown of types of rules for writing: rules that everyone knows; standard but tricky rules; obsolescent rules; disputed rules; non-rules; formality differences; regional differences; dialect differences; house style; and personal taste.  His use of these ten different categories shows how difficult it is to rely on simple notions of right and wrong in our writing.

Here is something from Inside Higher Ed on writing for science graduate students. In this piece, Stephen C. Stearns, a senior scientist at Yale, offers his own take on proposal writing, thesis writing, and publishing.

Finally, here is something amusing from The Monkey Cage blog: a top ten list of excuses for inexcusable plagiarism. If you missed the reference to Clippy, count your blessings.

Links: Why We Write, Peer Editing, Names and Titles

In this Academic Minute podcast, Dana Washington of Lock Haven University discusses why we write. She is speaking about writing broadly as self-expression, but I think her remarks also have relevance for academic writers. Admittedly, academic writers do write to fulfill various requirements and obligations, and we often do so under complicated pressures of both time and expectations. Despite these hindrances, however, we can still try to view the writing task as a valuable opportunity to share the research and reflections that inform our intellectual lives.

This article from the National Post has very little to do with academic writing, but I loved this quote  from Iain Reid about sharing our draft writing: “I rarely ask friends to read a work in progress. It’s a frustrating affair. My friends are busy. They have other things to read, interesting and funny things, things online or things that already have a title, spine and are bound; not disorganized sentences that are only partially formed. On the rare occasion it does happen, the results are frustrating, too. I don’t actually want to discuss it. I’m not actually hoping for constructive criticism. Just ignore the spelling mistakes, discount the preachy and rambly parts and just tell me how it’s borderline genius.” That basic asymmetry–I give you my writing asking for criticism but hoping for praise–presumably derails a lot of potentially valuable peer editing.

Finally, here is some practical advice from Inside Higher Ed on the use of titles when addressing faculty. And here is a related blog post from Hook and Eye by an instructor who will answer to anything. I too will answer to anything, but my preference is definitely for students to call me by my first name. The formality of titles may have value in some settings, but I feel it adds nothing to my teaching situation. In fact, the relative informality of using first names emphasizes, I hope, the way academic writing is an ongoing challenge that my students and I need to tackle together.