Tag Archives: Academic writing

Authorial First Person

There’s one issue that invariably comes up in a graduate writing class: the permissibility of using the first person. No matter what aspect of academic writing I am covering, someone will pose this question. My basic answer is simple: ‘Yes, you can definitely use the first person in academic writing’. To clarify this point, I like to reframe the first person as the ‘authorial first person’: the use of the first person to position yourself as the author of this piece of research writing. Research is done by researchers; scholarly writing is produced by writers. Excluding that agency is no longer required in most spheres of academic writing. This advance has interconnected philosophical and stylistic roots. Academic writing is not a disembodied practice representing a view from nowhere; instead, it is better seen as an evidence-based situated practice. The evidence-based element is crucial, but so is the recognition of positionality. All writing is done by a person, and that person necessarily writes from a particular perspective. Since you are the author, you ought to be visible in the text; the authorial first person is crucial to that visibility.

The style of your writing is also likely to be improved by judicious use of the authorial first person. Framing what will happen in your text as actions that you are undertaking will generally lead to stronger writing. The simplest version of this framing is straightforward signposting: ‘In this chapter, I will discuss …’. In some cases, the first person can act as a crucial transition. Imagine that you have been talking at length about other people’s views on a particular issue; to signal a return to your own perspective, the first person might be beneficial: ‘Despite the prevalence of [some] viewpoint, I argue that …’. Another variant of this pattern is using the first person for emphasis. When you switch to the first person from a passive construction, for instance, the reader will pay particular attention to your point: ‘[Something] has long been done in our field; in this paper, however, we decided to do [something different]’.

Despite the acceptability and value of the authorial first person, its use must still be managed carefully. In the first place, the use of the first person is disciplinary. Learning to deploy it appropriately is one of many things that will make you a convincing member of your discourse community. Learning those patterns requires engagement with solid publications in your field; in my experience, many graduate student writers express greater conservatism about the use of the first person than do gatekeepers in their field. Attentive reading can ensure that you are not making your decisions about the first person based on outdated precepts garnered at earlier points in your education. 

A second note of caution: consider how using the first person might lead to unsupported pronouncements. Such statements sometimes happen because the writer genuinely lacks evidence (‘I just believe that …’); obviously, such statements have little role in academic writing. I find it helpful to think of these as ‘editorial first person’ rather than the authorial first person we are discussing in this post. Although this type of editorializing is rare in the writing that I see, I mention it because concerns about editorial first person can lead to the avoidance of much-needed authorial first person. In my experience, most things that look like editorial first person are actually functioning like training wheels: ‘I think stem cell therapy is the most promising …’ can easily become ‘Stem cell therapy is the most promising … (plus evidence and/or citation)’. The use of I think as a scaffolding phrase shouldn’t necessarily be avoided. Since the point of writing is to convey your thoughts, it may make sense to use that phrase to help yourself discover what you think. Once you’ve got that clarity, you can remove it to avoid wordiness.

A third potential concern with the first person is that its use can become monotonous. Using the first person at the beginning of multiple sentences may distract the reader from what you are saying. ‘In this chapter, I will discuss …’ can be a strong opening for a roadmap. However, you will probably want to avoid following this opening with a long series of I-statements. You might choose instead to explain the stages of your paper with a sequence of impersonal formulations–starting with ‘the first step will be …’–before returning to the first person for a more emphatic closing: ‘Overall, I will develop …’. 

Any discussion of the authorial first person also needs to consider the use of I and we. When we is simply the plural form of I–referring to multiple authors–then everything said here holds true. To be clear, if there is only one of you, don’t refer to yourself as we. Some writers wonder if we is somehow more formal than I, but that is a misapprehension. We can also be used as an engagement strategy: ‘As we will see below, …’. This usage is based on the conceit that the author and the reader are on a journey together; this strategy is only common in some fields. In any discipline, the use of we can become problematic when it is used to refer to an unspecified group of stakeholders: ‘Over recent years, we have learned more about …’. Who is the we here? That degree of presumption or imprecision can be unhelpful. If the context doesn’t make the referent clear, you may wish to replace the we with the actual group in question, possibly with relevant evidence or citations.

Despite being the source of some anxiety, the authorial first person is an integral feature of most academic writing. It can take time to figure out the nuances of its role in your writing; as a crucial first step, make sure that you are not relying on unverified prohibitions against its use. To build your confidence in your use of the authorial first person, you may wish to run a search on I/we in your text during your revision process. Doing so will show you what your patterns are: whether your use has been monotonous at any point; whether you have underused the first person at crucial junctures in your introduction and conclusion; whether you have relied too heavily on I think as a scaffolding phrase; whether you have been imprecise in your use of I and we. When reviewing your usage, keep in mind what you have learned about current disciplinary practices. Embracing the careful use of the first person is a crucial developmental stage in academic writing; the end result of this embrace is writing that embodies current disciplinary norms and evinces a strong authorial presence.

Available for Revision

Revision is a frequent topic on this blog: how it is foundational to the academic writing process; how it so easily gets neglected; how it can be organized into a systematic process. But I haven’t talked much about how revision is connected to decisions about technological platforms and formatting. Revision is, of course, a conceptual activity, but it is also a physical activity. When we revise, we aren’t just thinking about the ideas contained in our text, we are engaging with the physical manifestation of those ideas: words and sentences and paragraphs laid out on pages. That layout–how our text looks–makes a difference to our revision process. Needless to say, every type of technology leads to its own revision workflow. There’s no need for nostalgia for any particular technologies, for handwriting, typewriting, actual carbon copies, carets, or whiteout. It is crucial, however, to look at the cycle of revision that is afforded by your current technology and make sure that it supports an optimal revision process.

To start, I want to reinforce the importance of physical engagement with your text. How are you manifesting your concerns and clarifications as you revise? On screen, you can annotate with the tools available in your writing platform. In hard copy, you can underline or highlight to emphasize what you want to focus on. If necessary, you can even simulate annotation with your voice. When reading aloud, you can direct your attention to a particular aspect or pattern; basically, you are using your voice to mimic annotation when you aren’t able to mark up your writing. Revision ultimately requires all of us to change the manner of our interaction with our texts, from passive reading to active engagement. The kinesthetic act of highlighting the patterns in your own writing–using cursor, pen, or voice–can help to shake up your familiarity with text that you are seeking to improve. 

In order to allow that engagement to happen, however, we need to have formatted our text in such a way that we are able to see it as ‘available’ for revision. Writers can easily short-circuit revision by moving too quickly to something that looks finished. A text must look recognizably like a draft, so your brain can see it as ready for revision. I often switch to a ‘light’ version of my writing font when revising because that looks noticeably unfinished to me. Obviously, ‘looking like a draft’ is a relative concept; it has to look like a draft to you. In general, I recommend being wary of features that allow you to turn an early draft into something that looks like a final draft; I often see student writing that is still very rough but is dressed up to look more finished than it actually is. Some writers feel empowered by creating something that looks more polished–it makes them feel like a finished text is within reach–but I think the downsides are significant. Revision is hard enough without sending our brains mixed signals. 

Once you have committed to tactile engagement with your text and have created visual cues to reinforce the need to revise, a question still remains: Will you be revising on a screen or on a hard copy? I’m frequently asked about the relative merits of the two, but it’s a question without a definitive answer. Some people need to revise on paper; others can manage the full writing-revision process electronically. Again, the important issue is whether your choice supports the act of revision. Working in hard copy is inherently disruptive; we are no longer able to interact with our text in the way we were during the composition process. Instead, our textual interventions become limited to those we can manage with a pen. The advantage of working in hard copy is the way that it prevents an unwanted blurring of writing and revision. By looking at your words on the page, you are forced to think about how you wish to alter them, rather than just doing it. While ‘just doing it’ might sound more efficient, that approach makes it hard to bring your attention to issues beyond the local. In order to think about the text more broadly–possibly by doing a reverse outline–you need the ability to evaluate the full text without immediately altering it. 

While revising on paper may facilitate the ability to see the text anew, many of you prefer to work on screen. The reasons for this may be practical; hard copies may feel wasteful, or printing may be inaccessible. Or the reason could be more substantive; working on screen may feel so natural that it has become essential to your ability to engage with your text. But if staying online is hampering your ability to do substantial revision, the changes in formatting that we’ve been discussing here might help. Before revising, you can change the font to one that signals your commitment to revision. Or you can change the layout on the screen. You can even turn your text temporarily into a PDF and make your annotations on screen that way. Revision requires extra discipline when being done online. We can so easily be distracted by our ability to tinker; reading in an evaluative manner can absolutely be done online, but doing so requires interventions to boost our good intentions. Since willpower is often insufficient to keep us on task, using formatting to create tangible reminders to revise can be invaluable.

In sum, maintaining a physical engagement with text during revision is challenging because we so easily lapse into a simplerand speedierform of reading. In order to resist that tendency, whether you are working online or on paper, you need to use formatting to remind yourself that your writing is, in fact, available for revision.

Writing as Yourself

After a recent one-on-one writing consultation, a student sent me a thoughtful reflection on what she had learned: ‘to acknowledge my writing style and learn how and where I can use my strength while I keep improving what I have’. I’m always glad when a writer leaves with a clear sense of their own strengths as well as areas for further development. As I thought about this further, I began to wonder about this tension: We all want to become better writers, but we can only be the writers that we are. The relationship between these two ideas is at the heart of the writing challenge. We all need to figure out how we can work within our own constraints while still finding pathways to improvement.

The student who sent me the above note, for instance, was a very detailed writer. Within the first paragraph, she had drilled down to a level of detail that was clearly premature. After agreeing that this tendency might be overwhelming for her reader, we talked about the benefits of having written this fine-grained material. I suggested that she create a series of topical headings that would allow her to ‘tag’ each of these sentences. Doing so would allow her to easily move this material out of her introduction, where it was obscuring the big picture. Moving these passages could give her a head start on constructing later sections, where the detail would be helpful. She had written things that weren’t serving the needs of the reader where they were, but that didn’t make it pointless to have written them. In the future, she will be able to recognize this tendency in her own writing and to use this strategy to build on her own strengths.

We all have particular tendencies when we sit down to write a first draft. For many writers, it’s more helpful to find ways to make those tendencies beneficial than to try to alter them. In my experience, how people write seems to be somewhat fixed; how they revise seems to be where much of the growth occurs.

If you look at early drafts of your own writing, what patterns do you typically find? Needless to say, self-diagnosis is far from a simple process; if you have institutional writing support, that feedback can be super helpful for building your understanding of your own writing tendencies. Identifying those tendencies makes finding a corresponding revision strategy easier. I’ve already talked about the student with the habit of providing too much detail too early. (You can find more on how this tendency manifest itself in thesis writing in this post on structuring thesis introductions.) Here are some other common tendencies that I see:

  • Branching out sideways: Instead of moving in a strictly linear manner, some early drafts branch out in multiple directions. If this happens in your writing, can you highlight the branching point? Once you’ve identified that point, you can decide if you want to follow that branch (adjusting earlier text as needed) or tag-and-move that material somewhere else. Those digressive moments can help you to clarify the optimal direction for your text, but the ability to do so starts with pinpointing the exact moment that you change direction.
  • Over-relying on the literature: Instead of focusing on the author’s own contribution, some early drafts move too quickly to detailed discussions of the scholarly literature. Doing so can inhibit the reader’s ability to see your work unfold. Try highlighting your use of sources in an early draft, possibly using different colours for different species of reference (e.g., a textual reference, a single-text citation, a multiple-text citation). Once your sources standout in this manner, you can choose the ones that are helpful (adapting their form as needed) and tag-and-move the others.
  • Building schemes: Instead of allowing an organic structure to emerge, some early drafts get caught up in building organizational schemes. If that scheme is inapt, it can then get in the way of finding a better one. Have a look in your drafts for places that you signal structure (this question has three dimensions; this insight leads to a dichotomy between … ; this issue should be examined in such-and-such a way). Once those structure markers are visible to you, you can decide if the framing seems helpful or if it’s getting in your way.

Do any of those tendencies seem familiar to you? Whatever you found, chances are you weren’t thrilled with your own early drafts. Dealing with the persistence of terrible first drafts can be made easier by remembering that the goal of the first draft is not meeting the needs of the reader; the goal of the first draft is laying the groundwork for eventually writing a final draft that will meet the needs of the reader. Your first drafts aren’t uniquely terrible–everyone writes terrible first drafts–but they may be terrible in ways that are unique to you. Becoming aware of those tendencies means that you may be able to find ways to improve your writing within your own writing practice. This drive for self-awareness can lead you to deepen your understanding of how you write first drafts and to develop strategies that work specifically with your own writerly inclinations. Thriving as a writer ultimately comes from learning to write as yourself, as the writer you are rather than the writer you wish you were.

Deadline Mindset

To state the obvious, writing deadlines often feel different than other deadlines. I almost wrote, ‘writing deadlines often feel different than real deadlines’. Which probably tells you everything you need to know about how well I manage my writing deadlines. Thinking about my schedule for this book and my repeated failures to stick to that schedule, I’ve been struck again by the amount of latitude we tend to give ourselves while negotiating deadlines within a large-scale writing project.

I currently plan to be finished my manuscript by March 2022 (a full year past my original deadline). While I’m now in a good position, this is largely due to undeserved good fortune: a generous extension to my manuscript deadline and a fortuitously timed sabbatical. I do know how fortunate I am. In my many fruitless attempts to get this project back on track over the course of the pandemic, I’ve had the opportunity to think deeply about deadlines. I have argued that nobody should push themselves to work normally during this time, but it hasn’t been easy to grant myself that leeway. I tried everything to create a workflow in which I kept up with writing while simultaneously finding the energy required for online teaching, handling an unusual amount of administrative work, and managing the rest of my life.

During my many attempts to right this ship, I tried to envision a range of possible options:

Scenario One: In this scenario, the writer meets their deadline, no matter what, and does so with a fabulous piece of writing. This best-case scenario is obviously the one that anyone would choose, except that it may be genuinely unattainable. I’m including it–at the very real risk of annoying you–because it is instructive to imagine what it would actually mean to meet a particular deadline. This is the would-if-I-could option.

Scenario Two: Here we recognize that a deadline may be truly impossible, leading to a decision to postpone completion. This decision allows work to continue with a desirable intensity but without the unrealistic pressure of the first scenario. This is the what-I-can-actually-manage option.

Scenario Three: This scenario is, to me, the novel one. Imagine that we could treat writing deadlines as firm, meaning that we would meet them and do so by compromising on what it meant to be finished. This approach is somewhat akin to the way many of us treat non-writing deadlines. When such a deadline is firm, we generally meet it and–since we can’t manufacture time–we tend to make the necessary adjustments to the quality of our work. We accept the notion that we might have done a better job with more time; however, when time ran out, we made the best of what we had. This is the stick-to-the-plan option.

The first scenario was, for me in 2021, never going to happen. I kept building schedules to support the impossible deadline, but always with the suspicion that they wouldn’t work. Why even build a schedule that I couldn’t meet? We’ve all been enjoined over and over again to set realistic goals. That realism would make sense if we had reliable knowledge of what is and is-not realistic. In practice, we often don’t know how long a writing task will take. More importantly, our orientation to writing is such that we will often take advantage of a lenient schedule. In my experience, creating a generous schedule doesn’t lead to finishing writing projects early. Given all this, I generally recommend continuing to set ourselves challenging writing deadlines.

The potential hazard of these sorts of stretch goals is, of course, that they will make us feel bad all the time. Nobody needs that. One way to avoid that regret is to recognize the true nature of overly ambitious goals: they are designed to create space for writing that might otherwise go undone. However, in order to get the benefit of setting ambitious goals without the psychic costs, we need a sound default plan.

In my experience–both as a writer and as a close observer of other writers–most people default to scenario two. When the ambitious schedule fails, we choose to slow down and do what we can actually manage. It’s appealing to take a breath and ensure that at least some of the job is done right. This scenario simultaneously promises us more time and more quality, two things all writers want. But it can easily lead to endlessly deferred deadlines.

If scenario one is unlikely to succeed and scenario two is a recipe for repeated deferrals, what else can we do? This is where scenario three comes in, as a different type of fallback position when the ambitious schedule crashes into reality. By ‘sticking to’ your plan by compromising on quality (for now), you may find yourself farther ahead. If you can’t have five outstanding chapters, how would you feel about five so-so chapters? Might that be a better basis for revision than one-and-a-half outstanding chapters? This strategy is the one that I tried this past year, with some success. I wanted a full draft by the end of 2021; as long as you squint just so when you look at it, that’s what I have. No, you can’t see it–it’s terrible! But I tried to proportion my efforts so that I kept moving, resulting in a full set of flawed chapters. In each case, the chapter was roughly all done rather than only partially done.

I made this decision because I wanted to experiment with this deadline mindset. I see two reasons to try to import the notion of firmer deadlines into our writing lives. First, we are notoriously bad at knowing when something is good enough to move to the next stage. Given the rampant perfectionism among academic writers, it might make sense to replace that evaluative metric with a time commitment. Second, we all stand to gain from treating self-imposed deadlines as a little stricter. Writing deadlines are often flexible in the sense that the actual moment when we miss one is private; however, they matter because a writing schedule represents a larger commitment to ourselves and our professional plans. Experimenting with firmer deadlines in our writing lives might lessen our common tendency to defer writing in ways that are deleterious to our own well-being.

I’ve been speaking in this post about the type of interim deadlines that have the power to keep a writing project on track. Using this deadline mindset for the ultimate deadline of a writing project would obviously be much more challenging: letting go is hard! But so many of our writing deadlines necessarily represent the interim stages of a writing project. Indeed, creating and meeting interim deadlines is crucial to getting to the final stages of a writing project. By creating more efficacy in our writing schedules along the way, we put ourselves in the best possible position to handle the undeniable stress of submitting a final draft. I look forward to having the chance to reflect more on that challenge in the coming months!

This post is the eighth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts is to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: As I said above, I’m in the home stretch. My work over the coming weeks will be a combination of tightening, supplementing, harmonizing, and jettisoning. Except for that last one, these activities are very satisfying. At times, it’s a bit confounding trying to use my own revision principles to revise what I’m saying about revision, but I hope my own struggles will ultimately make the book more humble and more helpful.

Writing and the Fear of the Future

A few years ago, I wrote a post about writer’s block. More accurately, I wrote a post about the limitations of that particular framing in the sphere of academic writing. For most academic writers, writing is the solution rather than the problem; more writing is often the best way to work through our writing troubles. I’m not disputing, of course, that people feel ‘blocked’ when they try to write; I am simply arguing that those inhibitions are often connected to tangled thinking rather than an inability to write. To respond to these snarls in our thinking, most of us need to use writing. An early version of that post had another section on the psychological issues associated with committing to our own ideas and then sharing them with the world; however, since the post was getting too long, I abandoned the second part. Since I’m currently unsettled by the prospect of completing and sharing my book project, it seems like a good opportunity to revisit that topic and reflect on this aspect of writing anxiety.

As I move from a first to a second draft of my manuscript, my experience of writing is sharply divided. On the one hand, I’m really excited about this project, and that excitement has manifested itself as a pretty enjoyable drafting process. On the other, I’m increasingly paralyzed by the thought of a future in which others actually read the book. As long as I’m writing, things feel good. Once I contemplate being finished with writing, I start to lose my nerve. Being done means that I won’t ever be able to make the book as good on the page as it is in my head. And I can vividly imagine all the ways in which people will be critical of my imperfect efforts. As a result, I’m resisting the move from the open-ended drafting process to the decision-making revision process, to the moment when I say, ‘this is good (enough)’.

To move myself forward, I’ve been trying to think about the sorts of things I say to other writers in these moments:

Recognize the paradox at the heart of writing. Getting writing done is good because it moves you closer to being done; however, getting writing done can feel bad because it moves you closer to being read by others. When this paradox goes unrecognized, you may imagine your anxiety is caused simply by deficiencies in your text. Some of those deficiencies may be real, but addressing them alone may not resolve your anxiety. To work through the anxiety, it’s crucial to understand the underlying psychological dynamic.

Picture your audience as full of people who need to learn from you. In other words, don’t write for people who have nothing better to do than to criticize you. Instead, try the more natural act of writing for people who don’t already know your subject. Writing is easier when you imagine being read by an eager beginner rather than by a jaded expert. Of course, graduate students often do write for an audience of people with extraordinary expertise in their field; as a pragmatic matter, those readers may have to be catered to in one way or another. Despite this unavoidable circumstance, it’s still an excellent idea to picture an ideal reader who will be edified by your expertise.

Embrace your expertise but acknowledge your inexperience. Despite your undeniable subject matter expertise, you are more than likely undertaking a task that is novel for you as a writer. Maybe it’s a master’s thesis when the longest thing you’ve ever written is an undergraduate capstone project or maybe it’s a doctoral thesis when the most demanding thing you’ve ever written is a master’s thesis. Or maybe it’s your first national grant competition, research article, or book manuscript. Academic writing projects have a frustrating tendency to increase in degree of difficulty as you go along. Acknowledging the growing pains as you learn to write in new ways will help you to remember the importance of self-compassion.

Focus on what you need to feel finished. Given that perfection is unattainable, your project will inevitably have to be wrapped up before you are entirely satisfied with it. The key here is to distinguish between the things that you know have to happen in order for the project to be successful and the things about the project that just make you nervous; focusing on the former can help you resist the general anxiety associated with the latter. To help yourself focus on what you need to ‘feel finished’, try creating a list with two columns: in one column, put all the things that need to get done; in the other column, put all the things that make you generally uneasy about your project. Items may move between columns as you evaluate and re-evaluate what absolutely has to happen before you allow your writing out into the world. The important thing is to have the two categories, so you won’t come undone at the thought of trying to fix everything all at once.

Perhaps all this well-meaning advice can give me a list of helpful reminders: remember that making progress can paradoxically make me more anxious; remember that I truly believe the book will be helpful to lots of graduate student writers, even if my own peers may disagree with things that I say; remember that I’ve never written a book before and thus naturally lack confidence in my own ability to do so; and remember to focus my energy on the long list of concrete things that actually need to get done for this book to be all that I want it to be.

What about you? What do you do when the fear of the future gets in the way of your writing?

This post is the seventh in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts is to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: At this point, I have a first draft that I’m pretty happy with, but my revision process has stalled. In addition to my fear of the future, I have also struggled with the cumulative weight and pressure of the lockdown and inevitable fatigue with online teaching. I’ve been taking stock of my progress over my vacation, and I’m excited to dive back in. I also got a formal extension to my due date, which is soothing to my soul. As I engage with the revisions in the coming months, I’m sure I’ll have reflections to share here. Many thanks to those of you who have reached out to express enthusiasm about the book.

There’s Always December

November was Academic Writing Month, a month dedicated to collegial online support for writing productivity. Some of you may have participated; some of you may have laughed at the very idea; some of you may have resented the public show of productivity at a time like this; some of you may have tried and found it unhelpful; some of you may have never even heard of it. For the first time in many years, I tried to keep up with #AcWriMo myself in order to finish a first draft of my book manuscript. Switching up the way we work is always revealing, and I thought I’d use this post to reflect on the experience.

Overall, I found it pretty helpful. I now have a complete rough draft, although it’s definitely more of a ‘zero draft’ in places. Getting to that milestone was obviously important to me, but here I’m more interested in the fact that I was able to write fairly consistently throughout the month. I’m not short of ideas about how to sustain a consistent writing practice; this blog is full of my thoughts on writing productivity. But having thoughts has never ever been a guarantee of putting those thoughts into practice. Despite my awful track record when it comes to taking my own advice, I actually managed to write somewhat consistently throughout November by working with the following principles:

Write ‘every’ day: When I say write every day, I don’t mean write every day. I simply mean that it’s a good practice to pre-commit to writing on all the days that you have available for writing. That way, you won’t have to decide on any particular day whether or not you’re going to write. Taking the decision out of it will cut down on the decision fatigue that will eventually work against you. For this month, I committed to writing some amount on 20 days: all the weekdays in November, except the last one (which I’d allotted to starting this post). I didn’t manage to write on all those days, but I wrote on more of them than I would have without the pre-arranged plan.

Set concrete interim goals: Tackling a writing project with lofty and poorly defined goals can be unnerving. When your daily goal is simply to make progress on a larger goal, it can be hard to keep yourself honest. Instead, I recommend giving yourself concrete interim goals that will guide you through each writing block and then coalesce into a strategy for meeting the ultimate goal. It can be so much easier to settle into writing when you have a specific task that can be completed in the available time. I wanted to finish rough drafts of my final two chapters, Chapters Eight and Nine. To make that happen, I broke the larger goal down into both weekly and daily goals. I’m truly terrible at articulating these micro goals, so I had to rework them frequently. But the fact the goals weren’t perfectly aligned with my actual writing progress didn’t prevent them from being of great value as I got down to writing each day.

Work towards a full draft: Planning your writing schedule to prioritize creating a full draft is a great idea; getting to the end will mean that the full arc of your text can then inform any further decisions. In order to make this idea work, you have to be willing to sacrifice local polish for overall shape. When we polish our writing before establishing an optimal shape for the text, we run the risk of investing in material that isn’t serving our needs. In my case, I was actually trying to finish a full draft, but this advice is scalable. You can prioritize getting to the end of a section or a chapter and still reap these benefits. The point is not to write more or faster. The point is to revise more effectively by giving yourself the greatest possible amount of insight into the goals of your own text; that insight is inevitably deepened by the creation of a full text, one with a beginning, middle, and end.

Use writing to solve writing problems: When pushing yourself to create a full draft, it’s crucial to use writing to figure out what you think. I found Chapter Eight relatively easy and fun to write; I found Chapter Nine (my conclusion) to be a special kind of torture. To deal with my paralyzing dread of conclusions, I tried to write my way out. The rough draft of this concluding chapter is still full of ALL-CAP rants to myself about the absence of a coherent end point. But those backchannel conversations with myself allowed me to figure out what was wrong and to find a way to bring things full circle, at least tentatively.

Don’t write alone any more than you have to: Writing completely alone isn’t natural for us; even when we are literally alone, we still value the involvement of others. Maybe we crave that involvement even more right now. Building a writing community—actual or virtual—means that you don’t have to be completely alone in your writing. Over the past month, reporting my daily writing achievements, such as they were, was helpful to me. #AcWriMo may be an attenuated form of writing community, but it was still motivating. The recipients of my reports (people following the #AcWriMo hashtag on Twitter) didn’t really care. Nobody was going to berate me for not writing or question my commitment or progress. But having announced that I was going report my writing progress each day, I felt a tug of obligation to do so. And I was grateful to have expanded the web of obligation beyond just myself.

I did ignore one of my key principles: Write at your best time of day. In general, writing is such an important and challenging activity that I recommend doing it at the time of day when you have the most energy. However, my priority this month couldn’t truly be writing; instead, like many of you, I was most concerned with managing the unfamiliar routines of online teaching. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to settle into writing when my mind was engaged with preparing for this novel form of teaching. I wasn’t exactly violating this principle: I was following its spirit, which says that you must devote your best energy to your most important activity. It was just that writing couldn’t have my best energy when this new frontier of teaching needed it more. Instead of writing at my best time of day—earlier for me is always better—I was writing at the end of day, once all my teaching and teaching prep were done. It wasn’t ideal, but I appreciated the #AcWriMo motivation that helped me to squeeze in some writing at the end of these busy days.

When #AcWriMo was new, someone added a tagline: “Write like there’s no December”. I’m afraid I can’t find who said it first. It’s an appealing slogan, one which helps to convey the essential absurdity of having an ‘academic writing month’. If you are going to engage in an artificial push to write more in a month than you usually do, you are likely going to need to play some mind games with yourself. Like pretending that there’s no tomorrow. But, of course, there is a December—unlike any December that we can remember but December nevertheless—and we all need to figure out what this means for our writing.

There’s always December in the sense that you might say, if you didn’t get much writing done in November, ‘there’s always December’. There are so many reasons why you may not have written a lot in November: the ongoing pressures you are facing during this pandemic; the ordeal of the interminable American election; a disinclination towards arbitrary productivity measures; the rhythm of your teaching schedule. And, even if you did get lots of writing done in November, there’s still always December. It’s unlikely that you’ve exhausted all your writing tasks, no matter how much #AcWriMo may have helped.

So, there’s always December (or January or some point in the future when other things in your life start to get back to normal). If you’ve got writing to do and that’s not been possible during these most peculiar times, I hope you are holding out hope. Things will get back on track, and past writing struggles don’t have to predict future performance. Whenever your life allows you time for writing, there are things you can do to improve your chances that writing will happen in those times. Significant among these strategies is the willingness to write in public: to make commitments aloud; to feel the accountability engendered by those commitments; and to take the encouragement that comes from an online community that wishes you well. Whatever the month, you don’t have write alone.

This post is the sixth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: I’ve now finished an extremely rough first draft, which puts me more or less on schedule. I say ‘more or less’ because I’m unable to predict the time it will take to fix what’s wrong. There’s so much wrong! I don’t say that out of modesty but out of fidelity to the truth. I look at people’s writing for a living, so I know of what I speak: this manuscript needs a lot of work. As I said above, my desire for a complete draft to work from has inspired me to treat as provisionally finished things that are manifestly unfinished. I don’t regret this, but I know that much of the hard work is still ahead of me.

Personalizing Your Revision Practice

One of my favourite bits of revision advice is that writers should learn about their own writing habits. To revise your writing effectively, you should know what words or phrases you overuse or what rules you tend to misunderstand. Bringing to bear your accumulated understanding of your own writing habits will definitely improve your revision process. While working on my book manuscript this summer, I encountered a situation that deepened my appreciation for the efficacy of this type of self-knowledge.

As I was struggling through the middle section of the book, I realized that the structure really wasn’t working. I had tried out many different things and had ended up equally unhappy with all my attempts. With the help of many reverse outlines (and the incisive advice of a good friend), I realized that I was indecisively flip-flopping between two different structural arrangements:

  1. Having three separate chapters of writing principles, followed by a single chapter of revision strategies
  2. Dividing up the revision strategies and interspersing them throughout the three chapters of writing principles

This type of structural choice probably seems pretty familiar; most of us have had the experience of confronting such a choice in our academic writing. To take a simple example, let’s say you’ve got eighteen participants, each of whom was asked six interview questions. Should you give each participant’s answers to all six questions before going on to the next participant? Or should you give all eighteen participants’ answers to question one before going on to give all the answers to question two, and so on. The best answer to such structural questions will always be determined by context. Do you want to reflect on the implications of the totality of each participant’s responses? Or do you want to draw connections between the varied responses of different participants to each question? Given whatever it is that you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, one of these options is surely preferable for your eventual reader. The problem can be, however, that you might genuinely not know what your reader needs in this instance. I was definitely trying to meet the needs of my future reader, but that commitment alone didn’t solve my problem: I was still able to make a sound case for either approach.

I eventually came to a resolution by reflecting more deeply on my own tendencies as an academic writer. I often—without even knowing that I’m doing so—shy away from being concrete. My readers have long told me that my academic writing would benefit from more detail, more elaborations, more examples. Recognizing that I generally err on the side of offering concepts without concrete application, I decided that the right solution was probably the one where I pushed myself to be more concrete. Rather than asking my reader to work through three chapters of writing principles before giving them a strategies chapter, I would make each chapter a blend of principles and strategies. Carving up a chapter and integrating its parts into three other existing chapters wasn’t easy, but I’m provisionally happy with the results. 

What makes my experience potentially relevant for others is the general notion that self-knowledge can help with decision making in academic writing. When you are confronting a structural dilemma, try thinking about the needs of the reader. If that intervention doesn’t magically clear everything up, try reflecting on the ways in which you may typically struggle to meet the needs of the reader. This strategy is helpful because it forces you to think about how your inclinations may not reliably serve the needs of your reader. Different writers will obviously have different writerly inclinations. I revel in creating systematic principles without sufficient attention to concrete applications; others may excel at detailed explication but may be stingy when to it comes to the higher order unification of their ideas. General revision principles—like understanding the needs of your reader—are great, but your revision practices also need to be grounded in a deepening grasp of your persistent habits. Overcoming the gap between how we tend to express ourselves and how the reader wants the material to be expressed is the goal of all revision. We can each give that process a boost by personalizing our revision practices with a growing awareness of what we do well when we write and where we consistently fall short. 

This post is the fifth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’m pausing to talk about my progress and my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude each of these book reflections posts with a status update. Needless to say, the complexity of life over the past five months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Parts One and Two, which puts me on schedule, at least according to the revised schedule I created in June. That means that I’ll try to write Chapter Seven in August (somewhat realistic) and Chapter Eight in September–October (less realistic) and Chapter Nine in November (who knows what will be going on by then!). But by the end of year, I should have a full draft ready for extensive revision.

The Lure of Planning

As I’ve been working on my book manuscript, I’ve been struggling with a persistent tension: I know that I should let problems emerge through writing, but I want to solve those problems in advance through better conceptualization. At the first hint of trouble, my inclination is to stop and rethink. As with most writing challenges, there can be value in both approaches. If there’s a significant problem with the plan, surely it’s wasteful to simply carry on implementing that plan. On the other hand, as I’ve frequently argued in this blog, our best chance of understanding the problem often comes from using writing to clarify our thinking while working towards a full first draft. In most cases, moving ahead—even when we sense that something is off—is often our best chance of grasping the problem. In fact, here’s a (not-yet-revised) passage from the chapter I just finished:

I often meet with writers who are working hard to improve the first half of a chapter or an article; in these meetings, we find that so many questions lead us to a discussion of what is yet to be written. Those writers are often hampered in their ability to fix what is already there because of the uncertainty caused by what isn’t there. To be clear, I’m not advocating pressuring yourself to finish any piece of writing as quickly as possible. Writing often starts and then needs to stop for more research or data analysis. Or because life gets in the way. But serious structural revision will work best once you’ve reached that end point, and the value of getting to this stage is notable enough that you may wish to push ahead, allowing the draft to be manifestly flawed.

Despite having just written these words, I’m still struggling with the desire to create a perfect plan. Even though I know that the strengths and weaknesses of the current plan will emerge from writing the chapters, I’m fixated on the notion that I can reconceptualize my way out. For some writers in some writing circumstances, that reconceptualization might be the right strategy. I’m pretty sure, however, that this stepping back from writing to do more planning is just me losing my nerve. It was fun while it lasted: there were big sheets of paper and a variety of post-it notes and lots of coloured pens. And maybe it helped me see things more clearly. And maybe I’m being a bit puritanical about it: if I enjoyed it, it must be wrong. Whatever the timeout meant, I’m putting a stop to it. I have put away my beloved markers and am going back to the hard work of implementing my imperfect plan (just as soon as I publish this post).

I’m not pushing ahead because of some abstracted notion of productivity but rather because I literally can’t make a better plan right now. Knowing that the current plan may be wrong is a valuable perspective to carry with me, but that insight isn’t leading to any more meaningful actions. I’ve written out my worries (What if chapter five is now too long? What if, despite being too long, it is also not enough? What if the reviewers were right about my inadequate understanding of applied linguistics?) and now I’m going to give it my best shot. I’ve written about this type of anxiety before on the blog, so I’m going to end with a passage from that post:

… I have come to accept how easily I am thrown off my game by potential problems. Current problems would be one thing: it is genuinely hard to write when you hit a conceptual roadblock. But I am dissuaded from writing by the mere possibility of problems in the future. What if I’ve chosen the wrong approach to this issue? What if my observations are completely trite? What if my argumentation doesn’t fit my desired conclusions? The sane reaction, obviously, is to keep writing until the potential problem becomes a real problem or fails to materialize. I’m working on getting better at blocking out the ‘whatifs’ when I write. Do you know that Shel Silverstein poem? It’s one of my favourite kids’ poems: Last night while I lay thinking here/Some Whatifs crawled inside my ear/And pranced and partied all night long/And sang their same old Whatif song:/Whatif I flunk that test?/Whatif green hair grows on my chest?/Whatif nobody likes me?/Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?…

This post is the fourth in a series of book reflections posts. As I go through the writing process, I’ll try to pause to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process itself. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be to reflect on what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude each of these book reflections posts with a status update. Needless to say, the complexity of life over the past four months has made writing extra challenging. I have now finished my provisional revision of Part One and completed a full draft of Chapter Four. My original schedule had me further ahead and contained the optimistic claim that ‘a viable schedule always includes time off’. While I still wholeheartedly believe that, I’m going to spend some of my vacation time this month trying to catch up. Here’s my revised schedule:

  • December 2019: Chapter One
  • January 2020: Chapters Two and Three (plus Part One revision)
  • February 2020: Chapter Four
  • March 2020:  
  • April 2020:  
  • May 2020:
  • June 2020:  
  • July 2020: Chapters Five and Six (plus Part Two revision)
  • August 2020: Chapter Seven
  • September–October 2020: Chapter Eight 
  • November 2020: Chapter Nine (plus Part Three revision)
  • December 2020–March 2021: Full Revision

I’ve left March through June of 2020 blank because I think that’s a legitimate representation of my writing experience in recent months. The challenges of parenting during a lockdown and the demands of transitioning to emergency remote teaching were enough to swallow up all of my planned writing time. I’m using this schedule as a reminder that I’m not simply ‘behind’ on my writing: my writing was overtaken by unexpected events. I’m still planning to meet my deadline, but none of us knows what the upcoming academic year has in store for us. Whatever gaps you may be experiencing between what you needed or hoped to do in 2020 and what has proved possible, I hope that you are being kind to yourself and reworking your own schedules to reflect what is possible for you right now.

 

Writing Right Now

Earlier this week, I participated in a tweetchat with #VirtualNotViral, a great initiative from Anuja Cabraal and Pat Thomson. On their site, you can find out more about their resources for doing doctoral work during a pandemic, including information on upcoming tweetchats. I was invited to discuss academic writing during these challenging times. I found it helpful to process what I’ve been thinking about writing right now, so I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here.

The key for me during these extraordinary times is that each person ought to be given space to reevaluate what they are able to do. Thinking that you should be able to carry on as usual or, worse, be more productive is to underestimate the effect of everything going on around you. If you need a break from academic work because your caregiving responsibilities have changed, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your financial situation has worsened, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because your research plans just fell apart or because the incredibly difficult academic job market just got more dire, of course you should take that break. If you need a break because you are finding the state of the world traumatic, of course you should take that break. If you need more than a break and need support to cope through this time, I hope that support is forthcoming. Each of you is responding to a unique set of personal circumstances, geographic factors, and institutional policies, but nobody should be pressured to be productive during this time. I think this bears repeating: events beyond your control have dramatically altered the conditions under which you are working, and you shouldn’t be required to act as though that weren’t happening.

I’ve now said as many ways as I can that you shouldn’t feel pressured to write right now. But some of you may want to write. Writing may lend normalcy to your otherwise upended routine. Writing may make you feel better about not being able to pursue other elements of a research agenda derailed by self-isolation. Writing may keep you in touch with an important part of your identity that may be threatened by the current disruption of your life. Writing now may actually feel better than dreading the implications of not having written later. Whatever your reasons for wanting to write during this time, I do think it can be a valid choice.

While some of you may be choosing to push ahead with writing right now, I don’t have any great new advice. The new part is that you shouldn’t be pressured to do so. With that caveat in place, I think good writing advice now is pretty much the same as it ever was. Writing support should be, it goes without saying, supportive. Should recognize the full embodied person that is doing the writing. Should recognize that caregiving work is crucial and not always conducive to a consistent writing practice. Should recognize that such caregiving work is often gendered. Should recognize that writing in English is often obligatory, placing additional burdens on those for whom English is a subsequent language. Should recognize how the persistent whiteness of the academy complicates the writing identity of racialized people. Should recognize that academic writing is a source of anxiety for so many. This list could go on, but my point is that anything that I might put on this list now was already there two months ago. On academic Twitter, you are seeing a lot of thoughts that start with the phrase ‘now is not the time’: Now is not the time to be berating people, questioning their commitment, presuming that they are using the crisis to cheat or slack off in some way. But I’ve yet to see something that we shouldn’t be doing now that we should be doing the rest of time.

Now, as always, we should be talking about academic writing productivity as a matter of process. This shift away from a model of pressuring writers to produce and towards one of supporting writers in finding a productive process has two main elements: first, writers need to be exposed to a range of options to see what writing practices will work for them and, second, writers need access to writing instruction because expertise is crucial to productivity. Both of these interventions can move us away from a moralizing treatment of productivity that lays blame on the individual for what they aren’t getting done. If you were a better person, would that solve all your writing woes? That would only make sense if your writing woes were in fact the result of a deficient character. If, instead, your writing woes come from the fact that academic writing is hard and lonely work with high stakes and a pernicious lack of community, you’ll need productivity advice that recognizes those inevitable challenges.

One thing that may be unique to writing in this moment is the variability of your reaction to everything that is going on. At some points, everything may feel close to normal; at other points, you may feel genuine panic about these profound disruptions to the life you know and to the plans you had for the immediate future. In addition to this daily yo-yo, you may also have found that your reactions have shifted as these weeks go by. You may have felt energized through the initial rush of reorganizing your life but now feel a sense of lethargy. You may have been somewhat paralyzed by the shock of everything changing so quickly but have now adjusted to a manageable new routine. If your reactions are shifting, so likely are those of the people that you are responsible for. Parenting may present very different challenges one day than the next. Managing your relationship to loved ones who are now physically distant can shift over time. All of which is to say, as you think about academic writing during this time, expect that you will need to be flexible and gentle with yourself: what might make some sense one day may seem impossible the next.

So I have no particular “how to write now” advice because there is no singular experience of now and because I hope you are already following advice that tells you to be mindful of who you are and what you need. Be kind to yourself; write if you want to; write if you have to; temper your expectations of yourself; if others aren’t tempering their expectations of you, try extra hard to be kind to yourself. And reach out for support. I always tell my students, graduate writing may be done by you alone, but it needn’t be done by you alone. Now, of course, we are all more alone than usual, but I hope you’re finding the virtual writing community that you need.

Here are ten pieces on working through this time that I’ve found helpful:

Aisha S. Ahmad, Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions

Pat Thomson, Getting By and Getting On

Inger Mewburn, Should You Quit (Go Part Time or Pause) Your PhD During COVID-19?

Erin Wunker, Shifting Strategies

Christine Tulley, Resetting Your Research Agenda

Cally Guerin, The Year of Wonders: Doctoral Writing in the Time of COVID-19

Nadirah Farah Foley, Don’t Forget About Graduate Students

Chris Smith, Five Strategies for Writing in Turbulent Times

Fay Lin, What Not To Say to Grad Students During a Pandemic

Anuja Cabraal, When I Write, I Write for Myself

 

Living Without Links

One of the things that I’m confronting as I write this book is my overwhelming desire to use hyperlinks. The link is truly one of the great affordances of blogging: each time I set out to say something new, I can easily point to things that I’ve already said. As I’ve been thinking more about this issue, I realize that links play two slightly different roles in my posts. The first is a straightforward offer of more information. Any time I type the word ‘paragraph’, for instance, I can render it a link. My reader doesn’t necessarily need to know what I think about paragraphs to continue reading; I’m just putting it out there, in case they want more. In the second case, however, I’m using a link precisely because the reader does need to know what I mean by the term, and I don’t presently want to tell them. I often do this with ‘metadiscourse’, a term that I use frequently and that I know to be unfamiliar to many readers. Broadly speaking then, some links offer the reader supplementary information; others offer the reader something that may be essential now. In both cases, the reader is able to choose their own adventure: they can take a byway or, if they wish, just stick with the main path. Links allow me to construct each post to stand alone, but where I think my point will be enhanced by a familiarity with earlier posts, I can indicate that without breaking my stride. Every time I create a link, I take pleasure in the efficacy of these potential digressions: offered but not mandated.

In the process of composing the linear narrative of a physical book manuscript, however, I’m struggling to manage these types of internal references. Like all writers (of non-digital texts), I’m trying to make an accurate estimation about what type of orienting information my readers might need. In the earliest drafts, I found myself writing versions of ‘see above’ and ‘see below’ way too much. No reader wants to be constantly dispatched to a different precinct of a book. We expect the writer to dole out information in the exact right way: enough repetition that we know where we are, enough anticipation that we know where we are going, and never a suspicion that we’ve missed something. As a writer, I’m learning to be more judicious, both in providing reiterations of key points and in trusting the reader’s ability to manage without such reminders. If they’ve been paying attention—and I’ve done a good enough job—they’ll understand abbreviated references to earlier material and they’ll have faith that they’re being given what they need now.

This issue doesn’t just affect someone like me who is making this particular blog-to-book transition. Any academic writer is going to have to puzzle through how to give the reader enough guidance to orient them on their journey through a text. In general, we accomplish this task through the prudent use of signposting and strategic repetition. As we’ve discussed often here, signposting is a particularly crucial type of metadiscourse. A simple ‘as will be discussed below’, to take a common example, lets the reader know that they’re not expected to fully grasp that topic yet. This placeholder allows the writer to raise an idea without explaining it or needing the reader to understand it. If the writer lacked this option, they would have to try to explain everything at once or would have to hope that the perplexed reader sticks around long enough for full edification. We all know that neither of those options is ideal. Prioritization—a determination that a reader needs this now and can wait till later for that—is part of our job as writer. A promise of an elaboration to come is a crucial tool for managing that dynamic.

Similarly, using a device like ‘as discussed above’ prevents the reader from mistaking strategic repetition for inadvertent repetition or for a new idea. If a writer repeats themself and gives no indication that the repetition is strategic, the reader may be annoyed or, worse, may question the acuity of their own reading. That is, they may suspect that they’ve misread something because they thought this idea had already been introduced. Being puzzled about repetition isn’t as deleterious as being puzzled about new information, but both have the capacity to interrupt our forward momentum as readers.

As writers, we all understand the need to deploy appropriate markers of anticipation and summation, of alluding to what is to come and recapping what has already happened. The tricky part comes in the negotiation of what is, in each context, appropriate. As I continue working on this manuscript, my ability to negotiate the appropriate markers—and thus to live without links—is slowly improving. You’ll have to read the eventual book to see if I end up with a well managed flow of information!

This post is the third in a series of book reflections posts. At least once a month, I’ll come here to talk about my progress and, more importantly, about my thoughts on the writing process. The progress reports are really just for me: I’m using the public nature of the blog to keep me accountable. The actual point of these posts will be what I’m learning about writing and how these insights connect to the topics covered here on the blog.

Status Update: In the spirit of public transparency about my book writing process, I’m going to conclude these book reflections posts with a status update. I am currently even less on schedule than I was in my last update. I still haven’t finished my provisional revision of Part One, and I didn’t get Chapter Four completely drafted by March 1st. I hope to be able to complete these two tasks in the next week and move on to Chapter Five on March 11th. I think my next book reflections post will be on the dynamics of managing an artificial and aspirational writing schedule!