Tag Archives: Academic writing

Can You Have Too Much Writing Time?

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former student, asking for some advice about managing a summer of writing. With her permission, I am sharing her email and my reflections on our conversation.

Dear Rachael:

I’ve taken the summer off teaching with the aim of making considerable progress on my dissertation. I’ve only once had a big block of time for writing during the degree (very early on), and it was terribly unproductive. And terrible. Although I’ve made progress with writing, I’m oddly nervous that I won’t maximize my time and will have forgone a summer of income for nothing. I’ve made a writing schedule for the summer that I believe is ambitious but reasonable, but I would like to have another pair of eyes on the plan. I’m especially interested in your feedback, as someone who thinks extensively about dissertation writing and productivity.

My first thought upon receiving this note was that the student was right to be afraid of too much time. A generous block of writing time is an opportunity, not a solution. As with any opportunity, you need a sound strategy in order to take full advantage. If you find yourself thinking that time itself is the solution, you may not be engaging in the planning necessary to make the most of that time.

At this point, you may be thinking that having too much time is better than having too little: if we simply don’t have enough writing time, all the strategic planning in the world won’t remedy that problem. But just because too much time can be a good problem to have—and I’m sure some of you are desperate for more writing time—doesn’t mean that it can’t still turn into its own productivity challenge. The student’s letter had a telling detail: she had already experienced the perils of having too much time with not enough to show for it. Until we have had that experience, we may think wistfully that more time would be better. Unfortunately, far too many of us are familiar with having failed to take advantage of ample time.

Think of all the conversations that take place among academic writers in late August. “Yes, I had a good summer, but I didn’t get all the writing done that I had hoped.” Sound familiar? This reflection is often followed by one of three different sentiments:

But I needed a break, so I’m okay with how I spent my time.” In other words, there may be times when foregoing writing in favour of recharging is the best decision.

But my goals were unrealistic, and I’m happy with what I did get done.” In other words, if our goals are truly disproportionate to our time, we may fail to meet those goals while still having been productive.

And now the term is about to start and I can’t believe that I let the summer get away from me.” In other words, I needed to write and I had the time to write and still I didn’t meet my goals.

The first two sentiments are good moments for self-reflection. When deciding how to use our time, we should definitely be aware of the need for real breaks and of the tangible limits to what we can accomplish in any given time. The third sentiment requires a deeper kind of self-reckoning. Having had time to write and yet having not taken full advantage is a profoundly frustrating experience. Since it is still April, I thought now would be an apt time to reflect on the process of devising an effective summer workplan.

If you want to make sure that you maximize the benefit of a significant expanse of writing time here are some steps you can take:

  1. Create a timeline: What needs to be done and by what date? By explicitly defining your goals, you can move from a hope to a commitment. “I’m hoping to finish chapter three … ” can easily lead to “I didn’t get as much done on chapter three as I’d hoped I would.” Starting instead with “I’m going to finish chapter three …” puts us in a much stronger position. Of course, we must be realistic and rational about our timelines; however, once the timeline makes sense, we should endeavour to treat it as a commitment.
  2. Create a realistic breakdown of the task: The next step is to break the task down into composite parts. (This breakdown may show us that our original timeline was flawed; if that is the case, you can tweak that timeline before proceeding with this step.) “Three months should be plenty of time” becomes This number of days means that I’ll have to do that amount of work every day.” At this stage, it is crucial to resist any sort of magical thinking. A summer is never endless and it rarely involves a complete cessation of all other tasks. We need to count the number of weeks, subtracting those weeks that will be spent on crucial, restorative leisure. We need to count the number of days per week that we can realistically write, subtracting those days that need to be spent on other sorts of work or relaxation. Most importantly, we need to count the number of hours per day that we can write, subtracting those hours that need to be used in other ways. Not only do we need to leave time for all the other tasks that comprise our work lives, we also need to account for the fact that we can only consistently write for a certain number of hours per day.
  3. Create concrete interim tasks: With our committed timeline and our realistic breakdown, we are then able to define the constitutive tasks of each working session. Without this third step, it can be way too easy to let our writing time slip away. Let’s say you have four hours a day to write. First, make sure that you also have a couple other work hours in which to do all the writing-adjacent things that will need doing; needless to say, if you have four work hours per day, you won’t actually have four writing hours. If you have an open expanse of time, you can divide it up into writing time, non-writing work time, and leisure time. If you legitimately have four hours for writing, you will need a plan for how to ‘spend’ those hours. You won’t be able to do this all at once, of course. In April, you can’t know how you will use your time on the afternoon of August 16th. But it is a crucial habit to get into, at least for the near future. Its value works in two ways. One, if we have a concrete goal for our writing time, we can’t be satisfied with just having put in the time. And, two, the accomplishment of the concrete goal can give us a sense of satisfaction. If we have general tasks—of the ‘work on chapter three’ variety—we can end up doing very little or we can can end up doing lots while still feeling like we haven’t accomplished something specific. It is crucial to be flexible about these goals: writing is a mysterious process and you may be wrong in what you think you can or should be able to do in a particular time. This flexibility, however, shouldn’t be allowed to turn into imprecision. Precise interim goals are tremendously useful, even when they ultimately need to be revised in the face of the vagaries of the writing process.

This planning process is designed to help those of you with an expanse of writing time in the near future make the most of it. But what if, as is likely for many of you, you are looking at a summer with writing pressures and a lack of writing time? Perhaps you have to teach or work over the summer or perhaps your family responsibilities will ramp up as school ends for the year. As you face this tension, it can be helpful to remember that a shortage of time can be a manageable problem. Just as we sometimes err in thinking of time as a straightforward solution to writing problems, we can err in thinking that a lack of time must be an insurmountable obstacle. To be sure, a complete lack of time is a legitimate obstacle, but a shortage of time need not be fatal to our plans. When writing time is scarce but writing is still essential, it makes sense to think about how you will fit writing in without waiting for stretches of time that may never come. The planning process laid out here can help writers manage long stretches of writing time, but it can also help you maximize scarce writing time within the confines of a full and busy life.

Marking Up Your Text

The most popular post on this blog is consistently the one on reverse outlines. I’m sure this popularity is driven by the fact that reverse outlining is a powerful act of regaining control over a text. This renewed sense of control comes in part from the way that a reverse outline encourages us to mark up a text. There can be something so powerless about reading a text that we know to be flawed; as we move through the pages, we can end up mesmerized or demoralized rather than energized. This passivity can then impede our ability to revise since, needless to say, revision is essentially active. Doing a reverse outline can give us a sense of agency because we have to overcome our passivity in favour of actively marking up a text. In this post, I would like to discuss two other examples of gaining insight through marking up our texts: using highlighting to foreground proportionality with a text and using annotation to clarify the internal dynamic within sentences.

If you want to see what you are spending time on in your text, it can be very useful to make those allocations visible through highlighting. This addition of colour to your text will show you what you are up to and may even make you happy—academic writing feels way more fun when it has colours. You begin by deciding what you want to look for and then you mark up the text with a range of colours to make those findings visible. Generally, I advocate doing this when there is a question about whether we’re devoting the right amount of space to the right tasks. The two issues that I most often recommend tackling with this strategy are an insufficient focus on scholarly contribution and a reticence about using metadiscourse.

When introducing a research project, graduate writers often struggle to devote enough time to the elaboration of their own contribution. Instead, they spend a lot of time on the background context and supporting literature before turning quickly to their research plans; this quick transition often means that the underlying problem and its significance are under-explained. Taking an introduction and highlighting its different elements can show us how we are ‘spending our text’. When we highlight a text using the context-problem-response framework, we can see if we’ve given enough room to the elaboration of our problem and its significance. The goal is not parity, of course, but sufficiency: Have I said enough? Highlighting an introduction in this fashion also makes evident a common tendency in early drafts: saying the same thing in multiple ways. It can be very useful to say things in variant ways; doing so can be a crucial way to figure out what we want to say. And there are definitely species of repetition that fulfill important functions for the reader. But when the repetition is caused by the writer not yet knowing how they want to frame an issue—and thus coming at it in various ways—highlighting can help us see that dynamic and then move towards a more consistent message.

Another way we can use highlighting is to check to see if enough metadiscourse has been used. How much metadiscourse is ‘enough’ is obviously a legitimate question that can’t be answered in the abstract. However, it is always desirable to see how visible we as authors are in our own text, whether we are looking to become more or perhaps less visible. Being able to see our authorial presence in the text—by highlighting the various places where we crop up—allows us to make an informed decision about whether that presence is as it should be.

As we’ve just seen, highlighting is a way of marking up a text to illuminate broad tendencies in our writing. In other instances, we may wish to mark up a text to uncover what is going on with particular sentences. When a sentence has a lot of moving parts, we often struggle to manage its internal workings; by using some form of mark-up, we can lay bare those workings. I will use colour to demonstrate this here, but underlining (or italicizing or bolding) can work just as well. Consider this example:

Original: A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

Was the writer trying to say that the coalition prevented plans to relocate and to resist? That’s what the parallelism appears to suggest:

A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

But that reading makes the sentence incoherent: the two plans would stand in direct opposition to one another. It seems more likely that the writer wanted to say that the coalition prevented implementation and resisted efforts. That’s not what the original says, but that appears to be what it means.

A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

This version allows us to see that we need to change the form of the second verb (to resist) to parallel the first (prevented):

Revision: A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and resisted efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

The writer of this original sentence needed a strategy to help clarify its internal workings. By annotating the sentence, they would be able to see where it went wrong. Not all sentences deserve this level of attention, of course, but this practice can allow us to diagnose confusing choices in complex sentences. A variant of this strategy can also be used when reading aloud: we can use intonation to make sentence patterns evident to ourselves. But reading aloud generally only helps us to establish whether the sentence is working; once we hear that it isn’t working, we will often need to mark up the sentence to sort out exactly what has gone wrong.

When you are thinking about how you might use these strategies, it’s worth considering the difference between marking up on a screen and on a hard copy. My inclination is always to do them on paper: I love the feeling of stepping away from the computer and getting a pen—or a highlighter—in my hand. But that is a description not a recommendation. For me, a pen in hand leads to a particular sense of efficacy. And efficacy is the key here; these strategies are meant to put you back in charge of your text. Whatever places you in the driver’s seat is good. For some, that will mean working with pen and paper; for others, the digital setting is so natural that staying there will make more sense. I think working on paper—regardless of your inclination—is worth considering simply because it is noticeably different than working on-screen. Ultimately, however, it comes down to personal experience: choose the mode of revision that allows you to see your own text clearly and that gives you the efficacy to make the necessary changes.

Metadiscourse

The longer that I teach academic writing to graduate students, the more time I find myself spending on metadiscourse. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that metadiscourse has a bad name—in the sense of a dubious reputation—and an actual bad name. The dubious reputation is presumably connected to both a general suspicion of academic writing and the many instances of laboured prose we have encountered in our careers as academic readers. I’m sure this suspicion is only exacerbated by the fact that the term metadiscourse is a bit of a mouthful. However, this scepticism is deeply unfortunate since thinking about metadiscourse is a natural way to think about our responsibilities as a writer. And, needless to say, thinking more about our writerly responsibilities is crucial for most novice academic writers, making metadiscourse an indispensable topic.

So what is metadiscourse? Simply put, metadiscourse refers to those places in which a writer explicitly acknowledges that they are constructing a text. More specifically, metadiscourse can be defined as “the range of devices writers use to explicitly organize their texts, engage readers, and signal their attitudes to both their material and their audience” (Hyland and Tse, 2004). When we use metadiscourse, we are structuring a three-way relationship between the text, the reader, and the writer. Given our general anxiety about constructing a text that will satisfy the reader, we often neglect our responsibility to be present as the writer of the text. One of my most frequent comments on graduate student writing goes something like this: ‘You are telling me a great deal about your topic but not enough about the text that you are constructing’. This imbalance matters because, as a reader, I need guidance on how to read the text in order to engage fully with the topic.

In my experience, defining metadiscourse is necessary but far from sufficient. That is, a definition of metadiscourse—regardless of whether it is simple or more technical—does little to move graduate students past the sense that metadiscourse is a foreign or artificial textual intervention. To move past this discomfort, I find it helpful to provide a breakdown of different types of metadiscourse and then give examples of each. (For a more detailed version of this breakdown, see Ken Hyland and Polly Tse. “Metadiscourse in Academic Writing: A Reappraisal.” Applied Linguistics 25, no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 156–77.)

In general, we use metadiscourse to signal the following things to our readers:

How our text is organized:

I will start by presenting some of the literature that assesses governmental responses to AIDS in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Because they share many key concepts, these approaches to the experience of tuberculosis will be organized thematically.

How our ideas relate to one another:

To conclude, the historiography of consumer demand in the eighteenth century has undergone many changes since the inception of consumer studies.

The promotional materials produced by a university often promise that administrators will provide resources to assist students with the transition to university life; as a result, many students arrive on campus with the expectation of support.

How we are using evidence to support what we are saying:

Yet, as the American historian John L. Brook has demonstrated, Habermas’s account of the public sphere seems unable to reconcile the complexities of power.

Swain posits that language learning may occur though the production of language, either spoken or written.

How we are further explaining an idea:

Global norms are norms that are accepted worldwide; for example, it is currently a global norm that all students progress through the degree granting process by completing a series of homework assignments, exams, and research papers.

An assertion of ‘personhood’ expressed as a relation to property is crucial in every self-styled extension of the Enlightenment project. That is, when we equate personhood with property ownership, we implicitly accept a liberal notion of identity.

How much strength we attribute to a particular claim:

Hypothesized reductions in co-rumination during PMT/CBT may also be due, in part, to improvements in the mother’s depressed status.

To my knowledge, this problematic has never been critically examined.

How we feel about a particular aspect of our text: 

This remarkable achievement shows that policy goals are achieved more readily when those policy goals are clearly established.

Understanding the nature of the developments leading up to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is particularly problematic because of the lack of literacy in that time period.

How we want readers to orient themselves to a particular aspect of our text:

It is widely recognized that natural resources come to count as such through specific decisions, institutional practices, and socio-political processes.

This claim raises an obvious question about the clinical similarity of patients with aggressive dementia and patients with general stress disorders.

How the text reflects our authorial role:

My use of the term ‘revival’ here stems from an understanding of cultural revitalization as a flexible and organic process, wherein members of a community fuse individual innovation and musical sensibilities with contemporary interpretations of older cultural practices.

Thus, I will try to link insights from theoretical understandings of science and technology studies with resources geography, which may potentially advance both these literatures.

Examples are taken from student writing and used with permission.

What we see in these examples is how naturally most of them read. Rather than seeming stilted or artificial, these sentences appear to be doing important work. In fact, if we were to return to the broader passages from which I extracted these sentences, we could see that those passages work better with these sentences than they would without them.

The reason that I think it is helpful to consider this breakdown is that a typology allows us to see that we may have very different patterns of use for different types of metadiscourse. To deepen our ability to use metadiscourse well, it is essential to understand these patterns. One of the biggest obstacles to using metadiscourse effectively is a tendency to see it as synonymous with signposting and to imagine that all signposting has to be clunky and awkward. To help students see how they might be able to use metadiscourse better, I like to divide usage patterns into four basic types:

  1. We may use some kinds of metadiscourse pretty routinely; for example, most academic writers use evidence frequently, if not always effectively.
  2. We may avoid some kinds of metadiscourse instinctively because we believe that they may violate the norms of academic writing; for example, some academic writers avoid the first person or affective language that could signal their attitudes or how they wish readers to see the text.
  3. We may use some kinds of metadiscourse hesitantly or inexpertly due to inexperience with academic writing; for example, some academic writers may struggle to provide clear transitions or explanations and may have difficulty identifying the appropriate strength for their claims.
  4. Finally, we may under-use some kinds of metadiscourse because they require an understanding of our own texts that we lack; for example, many academic writers fail to explain the structure of their own text adequately because they don’t yet understand its internal dynamics properly.

These different orientations show us the fundamental inaccuracy of any attempt to see metadiscourse as good or bad. As writers, we can use these four categories to develop questions that will challenge our own writing practice:

  • If we are using some sorts of metadiscourse routinely, are we doing it well?
  • If we are avoiding some sorts of metadiscourse, can we deepen our understanding of the norms of academic writing to be sure this judgement is based on a sound understanding of disciplinary practice?
  • If we are using some sorts of metadiscourse hesitantly or inexpertly, could we improve our understanding of the value of such devices for the reader and thus overcome our reservations?
  • Lastly, if we are under-using some sorts of metadiscourse because we lack a sufficiently deep understanding of our own text, can we learn how to develop that understanding in order to meet the reader’s need for guidance through our text?

Taken together, these questions can help us to see how we might adjust and thus improve our use of these many varieties of metadiscourse. I recommend that any academic writer devote some revision time to the identification of the metadiscourse employed in their own texts. My strategy for doing this would be to keep in mind the breadth of work that metadiscourse accomplishes without focusing too much on the sort of classification found in this post. For most writers, it is sufficient to think about all the things we do to guide and engage our readers and look for those. Highlighting those places where we are present in our texts can be hugely instructive for all writers. In particular, if a supervisor is asking about voice or questioning overall coherence, I would use this highlighting strategy to see where you may still be absent in your own text. Even if you are more comfortable with the use of metadiscourse, I would still suggest this highlighting strategy as part of late-stage revision. It is only by coming to an understanding of our role in our own text that we can ensure that our readers will have the guidance that they need to get the most out of our writing.

 

Adopting a New Research Identity

Most people find it easy to accept that graduate writing challenges are connected to the profound shift in identity that often accompanies graduate study. The novel challenge of graduate-level writing can be so much more than just a technical challenge, more than just a simple matter of not having done something before. In fact, a sense of incomplete identity can manifest itself in the quality of writing and even in the ability to develop a productive writing practice. While I have long believed all this to be true, the idea became much more real to me after I had the experience of needing to adopt a new research identity. When I took my first sabbatical, I was doing so in a field that I hadn’t studied as a doctoral student; as a result of this disciplinary transition, I was embarking on a research project without much relevant experience.

Over the course of this research, I undertook the ethics review process; contacted potential interviewees; learned how to make and manage digital recordings; conducted interviews; arranged for transcripts to be made; completed the data analysis; and drafted an article based on the research. Many of these activities may sound benign or even routine, but they were fundamentally different from anything that I had done before. It is unsurprising that learning these various skills was difficult, but what was striking, at least to me, was how deeply uneasy I felt throughout. Being reflective about this uneasiness was crucial both because I needed to overcome the discomfort in order to complete the project and because I could tell that understanding my own experience would help me to understand the challenges facing doctoral writers. We are all aware of the transitions that this group is making: from generalist to specialist, from student to researcher, from novice to expert. Making comparable transitions myself and experiencing a sense of being unmoored from my usual sources of professional authority emphasized the potential vulnerability of academic writers. As a teacher of writing, I benefited from this tangible reminder that the weakness of doctoral writing often come from the enormity of the identity shift that students are undertaking.

To characterize the transition from student to doctoral researcher as one of identity formation rather than as simple expertise development is a powerful way to go beyond popular—and often facile—explanations of the weaknesses in academic writing. Writing problems are occasionally straightforward matters of convoluted syntax or arcane vocabulary or disorganization, but are more often indicative of deeper struggles. To take two common examples, think of an introduction that fails to emphasize the significance of the problem under discussion or a treatment of the literature that reads like a laundry list of what everyone else thinks. Weak introductions are a consistent issue for the thesis writers that I work with; novice writers often fail to remind the reader of the significance of the current research. This omission can result from the over-familiarity that sometimes causes us to leave the most obvious things unsaid or from inexperience with writing sophisticated academic texts, but it can also result from the absence of a conviction that our contribution is worthy of being highlighted. Similarly, novice writers can struggle to manage literature reviews in a manner that conveys the preeminent importance of what the current writer has to say. Students can be taught to write better literature reviews, but the ability to do so has to be grounded in an underlying sense that they have the authority to synthesize the existing literature in support of their own project. In other words, they have to believe that their own project is a legitimate successor to the literature under discussion.

These sorts of writing problems can, of course, be addressed at the level of technical expertise: it’s entirely possible to give students a range of straightforward strategies to counteract common academic writing problems. However, delivering that advice in a way that also addresses the underlying identity tensions can provide novice writers a way out of their writing difficulties that is grounded in improved self-understanding. Once we accept that the work of identity formation will be inscribed in the texts that we write, we can seek out both technical solutions and a deeper understanding of the source of the difficulties. In my experience, students are more able to assimilate technical solutions into their own writing regimes when they see their problems as connected with a legitimate professional shift rather than simply as symptomatic of their own inadequacy. Since the challenge of inhabiting a novel identity can then be framed as an inevitable part of the scholarly development process, we can increase the chance that graduate writing support will be seen as essential. Such a framing can move our perception of writing problems from a model of deficiency to one of professional development, helping writing support to gain institutional traction. If we see the limitations of a novice academic writer as a natural by-product of the process of shifting from student to scholar, we may be better able to advance a framework for doctoral writing support that goes beyond notions of remediation to become an integrated part of doctoral education.

A Productive Process

As I prepare for an upcoming dissertation boot camp, I find myself frequently returning to a central question: How do I talk about productivity without seeming to suggest that my audience is somehow at fault for being insufficiently productive? There’s no getting around the fact that self-improvement schemes often rest on a basic notion of inadequacy. Why else would we need to improve the way we eat, exercise, communicate, or store our socks? Obviously, many such suggestions are benign; even if you’ve been bundling your socks all wrong, it’s unlikely that any suggested improvement could make you feel particularly bad. You may even feel good about your existing sock storage regime and be happy to roll your eyes at those who advocate dramatic new approaches. But chances are that you lack the same insouciance when on the receiving end of writing productivity advice.

Advice about writing productivity is a sensitive topic for two reasons: one, because writing is an inherently hard activity that is intimately connected to our sense of self and, two, because writing often elicits our very worst tendencies. If it were just the former, things would be much simpler. Advice would scarcely be necessary: support and encouragement would be sufficient. But the truth of the matter is that most writers struggle to write enough. Our writing struggles are emphatically not a superficial issue: all this not writing isn’t freeing us up for more leisure or more sanity in our work-life arrangements. If anything, inconsistent writing habits are making it harder for us to achieve some sort of balanced allocation of our limited time. The promise of writing productivity is that if we learn to manage our distractions and use sound strategies to harness our good intention, we might spend less time writing and still get more done. While that sounds entirely good, advice about writing productivity can still often feel very wrong.

One of the reasons that productivity gets such a bad name in academia is that it often seems as though even good productivity advice fails to take into account the complex context in which academic writing takes place. Self-improvement, after all, puts the focus firmly on our self, leaving very little room to treat that self as subject to a wide range of social, economic, emotional, and physical pressures. When the individual is seen as the sole author of their own productivity woes, they are likely to experience a sense of personal inadequacy, regardless of the structural barriers that they face. However, while productivity can be a pernicious framework, productivity itself can be amazing. The ability to get things done is generally a significant factor in the happiness of a writer. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that a writer who isn’t writing because they have caregiver responsibilities or administrative duties or teaching tasks or a desire to enjoy these last days of summer vacation is doing anything wrong. There are so many reasons for not meeting externally determined goals, and I have no desire to contribute to the view that we are only doing right when meeting those goals and conforming to standardized productivity approaches. But while productivity can be a poor master, it can still be a good servant. Despite my reservations about the hazards of the discourses surrounding productivity, I’m still going to talk to graduate students about having a productive writing process.

My hope is that the shift from talking about productivity to talking about having a productive writing process will undercut any hint of guilt or blame. Being productive can mean meeting external demands in a way that is detrimental to our sense of ourselves and to our ability to live a full life. But having a productive process is something that naturally benefits us. We aren’t focused on producing a certain amount or on meeting disembodied requirements, but rather on what we need in order to be productive writers. To develop that self-understanding, we have to be reflective about all aspects of our writing process. What does being productive mean to us? What does a good day of writing look like for us? What sorts of things stop us from realizing those goals? What roles do guilt and anxiety play in our ability to write? What sort of writing support community do we want? What specific pressure points tend to push us away from writing and towards distractions? What might we do differently to change the patterns of our writing practice? These types of questions are a way of starting a conversation about building a productive writing process into our lives. And while that conversation needs to be critical about the conditions of academic labour and highly attuned to individual circumstances, it also needs to acknowledge the power of building a productive writing process.

Revising Out Loud

This past fall, I accidentally published a very rough draft of a post. I still don’t know how I managed to hit Publish instead of Save Draft, but I did. The post was so rough that I hadn’t even decided whether or not I wanted to publish it; I often use this space just to think through issues that are on my mind. After my initial horror subsided, I found the reader reaction interesting. Lots of people said that they were actually glad to see a provisional version of someone else’s writing. I’ve certainly talked here about how rarely we see other people’s weak drafts and have often wondered how best to combat this problem. Mistakenly posting a work in progress is certainly one way to show the world how muddled my thinking and syntax can be. I decided there must be some way to build on this accidental overshare, but I wasn’t immediately sure how best to do so.

As I pondered this question, I realized that my revision process has two phases. I often talk about the relatively simple fact that we ought to tackle some aspects of revision before others, but here I’m getting at something different. Before we can begin these sequenced stages of revision, we may need to confront our own ambivalence about what we’ve written. This preliminary phase—which I will talk about this post—is the hard one for me. The second phase is the fun one because it involves fixing something that I know I want to share. The hard part is deciding whether something is worth sharing and whether it can be revised into publishable form. This stage is harder because it is less about technique and more about self-doubt. My litany of self-doubting questions are likely familiar to many of you. Am I saying anything interesting? Is what I’m saying even right? Has someone else already said it better? Might I be inadvertently offending someone? Could I be unnecessarily complicating the issue? Have I contradicted myself? You get the idea. In the rest of this post, I want to talk about the process of responding to such early questions in a way that allows me to make an initial commitment to my own writing. In order to get to the point at which I’m ready to make the necessary revisions, I need to assess three aspects of an early draft: relevance; coherence; and manageability.

Assessment of relevance: The first revision decision is whether I want to share something at all. As I often say here on the blog, some things need to be written more than they need to be read, and I have lots of those in my unpublished drafts folder. To decide whether to publish something on the blog, I need to think about the relevance of the topic to my anticipated audience. In this case, the key point was that presentation slides benefit from being designed rather than written. Was that worth talking about? Since I see such a large number of slides decks that are full of text while being hard for the audience to follow, I decided that these reflections were relevant. By making this decision early, I try to avoid the inefficiency that can result from being noncommittal about my own writing.

Assessment of coherence: Once I establish that I want to keep a post, I have to assess its coherence. To do this, I turn to a reverse outline. Obviously, a reverse outline isn’t nearly as important for a short text as for a long one, but it can still be helpful. Identifying the basic point of each paragraph confirms whether I’ve been able to sustain my attention to a topic and allows me to see whether each of the paragraphs makes a distinct contribution.

Assessment of manageability: Finally, I find it valuable to create a manageable path to completion. It can, of course, be hard to decide how much revision is necessary: finished is not an objective state. Because revision can so easily become a self-perpetuating activity, I like to make a clear plan. This planning doesn’t necessarily stop me from late-stage tinkering, of which I do far more than I should, but it does make it harder for me to indulge my tendency towards endless revision. Knowing that revision ultimately has diminishing returns, I like to make an explicit plan based on revision priorities and available time.

Taken together, these different assessments give me a meaningful way of managing my own discontent. As is not uncommon, my early writing efforts often fill me with dismay. It is important, however, to have a concrete way to move past such feelings of inadequacy. It can be helpful to realize that others are also struggling, but that alone won’t enhance the quality of our texts. To improve our writing, we need a way of channelling any unhappiness. By asking myself these questions, I am trying to be deliberately hard on myself without succumbing to the negativity that results from being indiscriminately hard on myself. There is some discipline required here: I allow myself to be very critical on the condition that I will accept what I come up with when I address the criticisms. In other words, I can’t just continue to find new problems.

Once I’ve finished these initial assessments, I have to do the actual revisions. As I said above, this part I love. Figuring out what a sentence (or paragraph) is trying to do and then figuring out what is getting in its way is a lot of fun. While I often lack confidence in the things I’m trying to say, I sometimes feel real pleasure in my ability to make my sentences and paragraphs do as I wish. I’ll try to do a post in the future that looks in detail at that sort of sentence and paragraph transformation. In the meantime, I’d love to hear other people’s strategies for getting comfortable with their own early drafts.

2015 in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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