Tag Archives: Graduate students

Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

In my line of work, I hear a lot of sentences that start, ‘My supervisor says …’. And the supervisory comment that seems to elicit the most confusion involves the concept of voice: ‘I can’t hear your voice in this’ or ‘your voice is missing from the text’. In my experience, these concerns are met with a great deal of bafflement from graduate student writers. The reason for this largely baffled response is, I suspect, the way that we tend to think of voice as a feature of literary or expressive writing. Voice is usually associated with the distinctive style of a particular author: the sum total of the way that person writes. Thus, when we hear about a lack of voice, we take that to mean a certain bland quality to the prose or a lack of overall consistency in the diction, the phrasing, the pacing, etc. Given those associations, it’s no wonder that novice academic writers may be puzzled by the suggestion that they lack a voice. Since we cannot fix a problem that we don’t understand, that puzzlement unfortunately often leads to inaction or ineffectual editing.

If, however, we shift from discussing voice to discussing contribution, writers often start to see what might be missing. ‘I’m having trouble seeing the contribution that your work will make to this area of research.’ Articulating our contribution is a significant challenge, but it is a goal that generally makes sense. Moving away from the nebulous concept of voice allows us to direct our attention towards the genuinely difficult task of clarifying our own contribution. There are lots of reasons that this task is so difficult; here are the three that I find most prevalent.

1. Modesty: One fundamental reason for downplaying the novelty of our own work is a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence often manifests itself in an unhealthy reliance upon the existing literature. If you are one of those writers who feels better when thoroughly encased in other people’s insights, you may be under-emphasizing your own contribution. You need to use the scholarly literature to set the stage for your contribution, rather than allowing it to take centre stage itself.

2. Inexperience: Our own contribution can also be neglected when we are unfamiliar with the new genre in which we are working; in other words, we may simply not know how to draw attention to our own contribution. In a recent post on introductions, I emphasize how we can craft an introduction that clarifies the centrality of our own contribution. In general, developing any sort of genre expertise requires a great deal of attentive reading of the sorts of texts that we need to produce.

3. Familiarity: In my view, the most persistent obstacle to a sufficient explanation of our research contribution is our preoccupation with our own material. While we get more and more familiar with our subject matter, our future reader maintains the same degree of unfamiliarity. The longer we spend with a text, the more implausible it becomes that we need to keep reiterating our key contribution. But we cannot ascribe an unrealistic degree of familiarity to the reader just because we are so fully immersed in the document. Finally, keep in mind that your readers will often be experts in the field, meaning that they may be very familiar with everything but the new ideas you are developing. Make sure you are emphasizing the novelty.

Overall, the absence of a well-articulated explanation of the research contribution is a significant weakness for many novice academic writers. But the problem becomes much easier to fix when we confront it head on. If we are sidetracked by the notion of an absent voice, we may fail to solve this crucial problem. To be clear, I am not saying that our academic writing can’t have a distinctive and personal voice; in the long run, most of us are striving to find just that. In the meantime, however, we can all be helped by the reminder that a clear articulation of scholarly contribution is essential in academic writing.

Observing without Judging

In a serene and sunny yoga studio on Saturday morning, my yoga teacher asked us to dedicate our practice to the notion of observing without judging. Being me, I immediately stopped thinking about my practice and started thinking about how this approach might also be helpful for academic writing. When we try to observe without judging we can create a useful middle space between two unhelpful extremes. One extreme would be an entirely negative stance characterized by either scolding or despair; the other extreme would be a neglectful stance characterized by an inattention to writing. Either end of this spectrum will be counterproductive: if we are thoroughly disgusted with our prose or if we are content because we aren’t paying enough attention, we are unlikely to be making the improvement we desire in our academic writing.

The reason I like the yoga analogy is the way it encourages an attitude of positive growth rather than mere criticism. Most people would agree that it sounds funny to say ‘I am terrible at yoga’.* Indeed, if you are trying to be ‘good’ at yoga, you may be going about the whole thing wrong. Is the same true for academic writing? Of course not. We all want to be ‘good’ at academic writing, but saying that we are ‘terrible at writing’ isn’t getting us any closer to that goal. If we could be ‘novice’ academic writers rather than ‘terrible’ ones, we would be positioning ourselves in such a way as to be able to improve through self-aware practice.

An important insight that emerges when we engage in this sort of editorial self-awareness is the difference between bad habits and significant weaknesses. We all need to become aware of own bad habits—feel free to point out how I overuse conjunctions at the beginning of my sentences or how I can’t get through a paragraph without multiple semicolons or how I write annoyingly long interruptions in the middle of my sentences—in order to limit the ill-effects caused by these crutches. These habits are hard to break, but they are not hard to understand. The more significant weaknesses in our writing—the poor structure, the missing information, the logical incoherence—are harder to grasp and require specific strategies for amelioration. Observation alone won’t help; we also need practice to address the deep problems we observe. But by making observation a conscious goal, we can develop a better awareness of where we are now and what we need to do to improve. The key here is to develop this awareness through observation, so we can avoid the discouraging negativity that comes from a single-minded reliance upon judgment.

*Although someone who spends an entire yoga class composing a blog post in her head is at least somewhat ‘terrible at yoga’!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @Jup83 in @LSEImpactBlog, an interesting exploration of whether to cite blog posts in formal academic work.

From @thesiswhisperer, great advice on approaching reading as a research task requiring techniques and strategies.

From @ThomsonPat, ideas about what to do when you find existing work that is uncomfortably close to your own project.

From @ProfHacker, how to better understand committee feedback by recognizing the potential for unrealistic expectations on both sides.

From @ghweldon, a humorous reminder—from outside the realm of academic writing—to keep the poor reader in mind.

From @scholarlykitchn, insights into the tension in academic publishing between the needs of the author and reader.

From @ThomsonPat, the final installment in her series on PhD by publication. The whole series is well worth reading.

I love @KoryStamper’s tweets on the ‘top lookups’ from Merriam-Webster, including explanations of why that particular word at that particular moment.

From @DocwritingSIG, a great post on finding a thesis structure that fits the topic and meets genre conventions.

From @ryancordell in @ProfHacker, a reevaluation of Prezi—and the things it does well—by someone who was initially sceptical.

From @GradHacker, advice on creating a suitably limited PhD project.

From @deandad, a call to think structurally about the job market without blaming the individuals on either side of the desk.

From @literarychica, the limits of using altac as a cure for all that ails the academic job market.

From Lingua Franca, how a slash might actually be a conjunction-slash-coordinator.

From @LSEImpactBlog, a very thoughtful piece on open access publishing and academic freedom.

From Sandra Beasley in the New York Times, an eloquent discussion of what plagiarism isn’t and is and what it takes away.

From @readywriting, a call to consider existing adjuncts when discussing altac career options.

From Lingua Franca, Allan Metcalf wants people with writing peeves to get some new material and he’s got some ideas.

From @NewYorker, on their famous use of the double consonant: “No kidnapper ever focussed so marvellously on this well-travelled territory.”

Links: Germano’s Snow Globes

Sometimes I choose articles for my links posts because I have something particular that I want to add to the topic. This week, however, I just want to be sure that as many people as possible see this great piece by William Germano. Even the title is interesting: Do We Dare Write for Readers? Germano, as most of you will know, is a wonderful writer and an insightful analyst of developments in academic writing and publishing. In this piece, he discusses the role of the reader and the way that academic writing, as it is often practiced, fails to serve that reader well. His analysis is informed by recent technological shifts in the way we read, but I think his argument would work just as well without the historical specificity: academic writing that strives for complete self-sufficiency can end up excluding the reader to the detriment of its overall vitality.

To convey this point, Germano characterizes academic writing as a snow globe: a smooth impermeable shell over a carefully staged scene with limited action. What I love about the snow globe image is the way it conveys the sealed-off quality of so much academic prose. Have you ever gotten inside a snow globe? Me either, but you can imagine that the experience would be messy and toxic, rather than interactive or instructive. Germano wants to supplant this notion of academic writing as artifact with a more dynamic notion of academic writing as a tool. A tool, of course, is something the reader can use, something that, as he says, “has consequence”. Germano uses the image of a machine to convey the more dynamic sense of writing as a tool. In keeping with his souvenir motif, I immediately found myself thinking of it instead as a map, one of those ones with a route traced out with little stylized footprints. A map of this sort tells its audience the truth as the creator understands it and yet leaves room for the audience to use that truth as it sees fit.

Germano concludes his piece by describing his conception of academic writing as less polished and more engaging:

I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.

It’s a challenging model, especially for novice academic writers who may be looking to replicate rather than challenge existing norms. But it’s also a compelling vision of writing as essentially open to what it does not itself contain. And however we choose to orient ourselves to this issue, we will be better writers for having reflected on Germano’s artful elaboration of the tensions within academic writing.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @scilogscom, an interesting account of the many ways in which jargon is a relative term.

Congratulations to the U of T participants in the Ontario Three Minute Thesis competition. Well done! 

From @nprnews, using ‘yo’ as a gender neutral pronoun: ‘Yo’ Said What?

From @evalantsoght, the different types of writing we can do ‘from day one’.  My take on writing early.

I’ll believe anything that advises me to get more sleep! From @GradHacker: Sleep in Graduate School.

From Lingua Franca, a very fun post on ‘slash’ as a written out form of punctuation.

From @NewYorker, a lyrical account of the existential mystery at the heart of the decision to do a doctorate.

From @literarychica, a great post on the dearth of options for writing support for doctoral writers.

From @ProfHacker, a profile of the Digital Public Library of America.

From William Germano, a must-read on academic writingCalling for writing that is engaging, open, and consequential.

From @ThomsonPat, part two of her discussion of PhD by publication.

From @ThomsonPat, an important post on the shift towards ‘PhD by publication‘ and the role of the integrated thesis.

From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, insightful advice on words that may betray a weakness in presentation slides.

From @DocwritingSIG, thoughts on writing the acknowledgement section of your thesis.

From @fishhookopeneye, helpful advice on how to explain academic work experience in a non-academic world.

From Lingua Franca, William Germano addresses the question of academic titles and rank.

From @sciam, encouraging graduate students to blog for the good of their writing. 

From @evalantsoght, a list of common mistakes. Every thesis writer should be keeping a list like this!

From @chronicle, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities”.

From @GradHacker, advice on thinking strategically during graduate study: going beyond ‘creativity and hard work’.

From @UVenus, interesting reflections on different models for publishing doctoral dissertations.

A question about originality posed to Leiter Reports generates an interesting conversation in the comments.

From @tressiemcphd, a great analysis of why “don’t go to graduate school” is problematic as a blanket prescription.

From @qui_oui, an excellent post on what it means to say that we are producing ‘too many PhDs‘.

Love this @ProfHacker post on Inbox Zero. It’s not about the Zero, it’s about limiting the power of the Inbox.

The Pace of Academic Writing

Chances are, if I praise a graduate student’s writing, I will hear something like this:

“Thanks, but it takes me so long.”

“It should be good, I worked on those two pages for three weeks.”

“Sure, but I’ll never be able to write a full thesis at this pace.”

It is rare, as I discussed last week, for anyone to express contentment with their academic writing. And it is common for those who have produced something they are happy with to feel that they spent too much time on it. Since the amount of time spent on writing is such a common concern, I thought I would suggest a few ways to think about the pace of academic writing:

1. Try to speed up by working towards a first draft without allowing yourself any early editing. There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. Even if you aren’t going to use a true freewriting approach, you can still force yourself to keep moving forward without giving your inner critic a chance to mess you up. Since writing more freely can leave us with a more chaotic document, I recommend using the ‘rough edit’ approach to make sure that you’ll be able to work with your text later.

2. Try to appreciate that writing simply is often a slow process. To figure out what we need to say, most of us have to produce a lot of words that may not end up in our final document. If you view that creative process as simply inefficient, you may end up feeling that your writing process is too slow; if, instead, you try to think about that process as both positive and inevitable, you may be able to change your own attitude towards efficiency and efficacy in your writing process. Since it can be hard to pull the plug on ‘perfectly good writing’, I suggest creating a repository for material that doesn’t appear to have a long-term future in your text.

3. Try to see how speed differs depending on what you are writing. Some aspects of your writing will take a long time, while others will yield to your attempts to speed up. Unfortunately, starting—for many people—can be the slowest part. These initial molasses moments can be frustrating in and of themselves and can also lead writers to extrapolate a dismal future: if it took me this long to write this much, my entire thesis will take a million years. Understanding and accepting the slow start without projecting the same pace throughout can help you persevere.

4. Try to identify the appropriate amount of time in the context of a given project. In other words, maybe there isn’t such a thing as too fast or too slow. Instead, it may be helpful to do a serious accounting of how much time you can give to a particular project. Some parts of our writing will simply take longer to write. But the pace of writing can also be affected by the amount of time we have; we may write the first three-quarters of something at a leisurely—or even torturous pace—only to find ourselves with no option except to pick up the pace to meet a deadline. This pattern can be instructive since it lets us know just how fast we can write. It also highlights the value of apportioning our time more rationally. The end stages of writing are the most significant, and we don’t want to shortchange them just because we are out of time.

If you do want to write more quickly—and again I’m not sure that is always the best aim—I suggest starting with your own writing temperament rather than with someone else’s notion of productivity. Last year, as Academic Writing Month wound down, I wrote a post in which I tried to provide an example of how to reflect on one’s own writing challenges. Once you have a better understanding of your own writing predilections and pitfalls, you can then take advantage of other people’s insights into productivity. Much of that advice will fall flat if it is taken as abstract truth; instead, we all need to figure out what productivity means to us and what strategies will get us where we need to go. The best pace for you may be faster or slower or some combination of the two depending on your writing temperament and the demands of the particular project.

Writing and Enjoyment

A recent post on the Doctoral Writing SIG blog addresses the idea of writing aversion. In this post, Susan Carter discusses her work with an academic who has an actual phobia of writing. Most of us don’t have such a dramatic disinclination towards writing, but it’s still rare to find much in the way of real enthusiasm. And this general lack of enthusiasm poses an interesting teaching challenge. What is the best tone to take when discussing an activity that has such high stakes and that poses so many emotional and intellectual challenges? Obviously, an important and difficult task like writing isn’t best met with mindless positivity. But reflexive negativity can have costs, too.

If I focus on that half-full glass, I know that I run the risk of annoying graduate student writers by potentially minimizing a genuine struggle. The last thing most graduate student writers need to hear is how super fun writing can be. Indeed, telling the truth about the difficulties inherent in academic writing is essential. Students will often tell me at the end of a course that they hadn’t previously realized that others were struggling as much as they were; they clearly value the opportunity to get away from their usual disciplinary spaces to a place where the real challenges of academic communication can be discussed honestly. Even if I accomplish nothing else as a writing teacher, letting novice writers know that everyone struggles with writing is worthwhile.

While I’m in favour of this sort of honesty about the writing process, I have no wish to contribute to a dismissive attitude. If you can’t talk about a love of writing in a writing classroom, where can you? In part, I’m looking to disrupt any narrative that equates unhappiness with profundity. Loving to write does not preclude taking it seriously or doing it well; writing needn’t necessarily involve opening a vein. The writing classroom should be a place where enjoyment of the writing process gets discussed. It should also be a place where the centrality of writing to the academic endeavour is acknowledged. Not everyone needs to love writing, but everyone who is heading down a career path based on writing needs to make their peace with it.

There is a natural middle path here: the pleasures of the writing process and its challenges are two sides to the same coin. To talk about the pleasure is not to deny the pain. But for those who are sure that writing is just a necessary evil, any discussion of enjoyment can seem naive. I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. The hard work of writing needs to go on  with or without inspiration, but that doesn’t mean we can’t approach it as a crucial professional commitment that must be something more than just an unfortunate obstacle. I’d love to hear how others talk about the writing process in a way that respects the inevitable frustrations without giving in to a narrative of negativity.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ThomsonPat, using your allotted word count well in order to meet the needs of your reader.

From @DocwritingSIG, developing good habits of academic writing early in graduate study.

From Inside Higher Ed, thoughts on automated grading of student writing.

From Lingua Franca, Geoffrey Pullum explains his distrust of Orwell on the topic of clear writing.

From @StanCarey writing in @MacDictionary blog, a great post on ‘whom’: where it will fade and where it will persist.

From Inside Higher Ed, advice on making writing instruction part of all undergraduate instruction: Teaching Writing Is Your Job.

From @ProfHacker, a set of questions to help us be more mindful in our pursuit of productivity.

From @ThomsonPat, a discussion of the politics of characterizing the practical impact of your scholarly work.

From Lingua Franca, a great look at an editorial prejudice:  can you have an ‘on the other hand’ without an ‘on the one hand’?

From @scholarlykitchn, a consideration of the new relationship between Elsevier and Mendeley.

From @cplong, an interesting post on using Twitter for collaborative note taking during presentations.

While I don’t entirely agree with this take on academic writing, the reminder about the author’s role in constructing meaning is apt.

From @OnlinePhDProgs, a great list of thesis and dissertation resources.

I think this is an interesting idea: Taking a Class I Usually Teach

From @UVenus, the relationship between inspiration and distraction.

From @evalantsoght in @GradHacker, good advice on working with an unmanageable amount of scholarly literature.

From Henry Hitchings in the New York Times, a nuanced take on nominalizations: what they are and why we use them.

From @AltAcademix, advice on what to do if you are “alt-ac curious” during graduate school.

“Can you recommend a good book on writing?”

I am often asked to recommend a ‘good book on writing’. A simple enough question, but one that is surprisingly hard to answer. In my attempts to do so, I feel a bit like a sommelier, responding to the question with a few of my own: Are you having the fish or the lamb? Do you tend to like full-bodied reds? That is, it’s hard to recommend a book without knowing what sort of writing project you are doing and what sort of support you are likely to perceive as valuable. This list includes some of the books that I find helpful, allowing you to see what might be beneficial to you. (This list expands on the list of five key sources that I use for writing.) I have tried to include a range of books that are relatively general—that is, ones that I think might meet the criterion of a ‘good book on writing’ for many different writers. In the future, I hope to devote some individual posts to more specialized texts on academic writing.

Needless to say, some of you will gravitate more naturally to online resources for writing. The blogroll (found in the left-hand column) gives some great places to start. I also want to mention the top thesis and dissertation resource list put together by the Online Ph.D. Program site, a helpful source of information on doing a doctorate online.

Note: I’ve included U of T library links for those of you who are local.

Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, Fourth Edition (New York: Quill, 2001). This is an interesting and highly readable book about style; it is divided into chapters on diction, linking, tone, meaning, composition, and revision. Barzun includes sample sentences and some hints towards improving those sentences. His aim throughout is to breed an analytical self-awareness about the choices we make when we write. U of T Library Link

Howard S. Becker and Pamela Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article, Second Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). Written by a sociologist, this book explores the issues graduate students face when they begin to write scholarly prose. The first chapter (‘Freshman English for Graduate Students’) discusses the way the task of writing changes for graduate students as it becomes a socially organized professional activity. U of T Library Link

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph Williams, The Craft of Research, Third Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). First published in 1995, this book provides invaluable advice about conceiving a research plan, conducting the research, and then conveying the results of the research in a manner that meets the needs and expectations of the reader. The book includes sections on the centrality of research; understanding your reader; finding topics; using sources; making and supporting claims; outlining, drafting, and revising; writing introductions and conclusions; communicating evidence visually; and the ethics of research. U of T Library Link

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues. U of T Library Link

Peter Elbow, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, Second Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). In this book, Elbow provides a deeply reflective discussion of writing aimed at a broad audience. The core theme is the reconciliation of the contrary impulses involved in writing: the open and imaginative impulse necessary to get words down on paper and the critical and rational impulse necessary to make those words coherent for the reader. This book will be particularly useful for students who need to draw on their creative side in order to be productive; Elbow’s emphasis on free writing and the ‘magical’ process of writing can be empowering for a writer who is finding the act of writing itself difficult. U of T Library Link

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Persuasive Writing, Second Edition (New York: Norton, 2010). This book argues that grounding our own claims in the previous scholarly work is “the internal DNA … of all effective argument”. In other words, all effective academic writers must learn how to situate their contribution within the ongoing scholarly conversation. This book offers concrete strategies for doing just that. By distilling the essence of the most common rhetorical moves in academic writing, this book is able to provide a useful collection of templates for academic writing. Even if using templates doesn’t fit your writing style, reading this book will help to clarify the extent to which effective arguments follow discernible patterns. Recognizing those patterns can help you to strengthen your writing or even to clarify what you need to say. U of T Library Link

Patricia T. O’Conner, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing (New York: Harcourt, 1999). This book, which is not directed at academic writers, offers sound writing advice with a great deal of levity thrown in. The information is accurate, but it is presented with a light hand. The examples are not taken from academic prose and the text does not address the unique challenges of academic writing; however, for some writers, the humorous tone and simple examples might prove valuable. U of T Library Link

William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, Third Edition (New York: MacMillan, 1979). This is a classic book on style, one which elicits a wide range of opinions. Strunk’s basic principles are strong and rarely disputed outright; for instance, he urges us to ‘omit needless words’, ‘use active voice’, and ‘avoid fancy words’. However, the brevity of the book can lead to two problems: one, a lack of room for explanations and strategies and, two, a tendency towards the oversimplification of complex writing decision. While these criticisms have a great deal of merit, the book does offer a compelling vision of clear writing. That said, most writers will benefit from a more elaborated approach; the Barzun book (listed above) and the Williams book (listed below) both treat similar issues in a more expansive fashion. U of T Library Link

John M. Swales and Christine B. Feak, Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills, Third Edition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012). This text is aimed at international graduate students who are new to academic writing in English at the graduate level. It is divided according to types of writing: general-specific texts, problem-solutions texts, data commentaries, summaries, critiques, and, finally, full research papers. While some of that terminology may not be immediately clear to students, the information contained within each chapter is useful and well-designed. The book starts with a particularly helpful chapter that outlines a general approach to academic writing, including excellent advice about formality. Grammatical issues are interspersed throughout the text as they arise in relation to the different writing tasks. The text also has several appendices that address key issues such as article usage and writing definitions. Overall, this is a valuable introductory text that clearly demonstrates its authors’ familiarity with the central challenges facing international student writers. U of T Library Link

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981; the edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost. U of T Library Link

Writer’s Handbooks: Another type of text that writers may be looking for is a writer’s handbook. Handbooks are comprehensive writing resources, with information on grammar, style, usage, documentation, and different types of writing. Four handbooks are listed below, but there are many, many more. These four were chosen because they are widely used, because they are Canadian, and because they are all available from the University of Toronto libraries. One handbook is generally very much like another; you have to try out a number of them to see what suits you and your budget. They differ mainly in length, amount of colour, type of binding, and use of tabs, all of which contribute to the cost of the text. The basic content will be similar. The reason for using a handbook—as opposed to, say, looking for answers online—is the reinforcing effect of finding a consistent explanation every time you look something up. The rules of grammar and usage are hard to remember; it is a definite advantage to use a sound resource consistently in order to help refresh your memory. Handbooks also provide useful information on the different citations styles (APA, MLA, CSE, etc.). During graduate study, students will generally start using a single citation style consistently; at that point, it makes sense to use the style guide published by the relevant organization. The role of a handbook can, of course, be played by an online resource as long as that resource is reputable; I usually recommend using the OWL at Purdue site.

Doug Babington, Don LePan, and Maureen Okun, The Broadview Guide to Writing, Fourth Edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2009). U of T Library Link

Joanne Buckley, Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians, Second Edition (Toronto: Thomson, 2008). U of T Library Link

Diana Hacker, A Canadian Writer’s Reference, Fifth Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011). U of T Library Link

William E. Messenger, Jan de Bruyn, Judy Brown, and Ramona Montagnes, The Canadian Writer’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2008). U of T Library Link

Writing without Inspiration

In a recent post at Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette discusses the way writing sometimes comes easy and sometimes comes hard. She is noting how a general love of writing doesn’t necessarily mean that academic writing will get done. To combat this unfortunate fact, Bessette has adopted a more consistent approach to writing productivity. To learn more about this process, I also recommend her series, An Academic, Writing, on her work with a writing coach from Academic Coaching & Writing.

I am particularly interested in the idea that we might be setting ourselves up for an unrealistic goal if we strive to love writing. Graduate students will sometimes say to me that they used to love writing before they came to graduate school. Before, in other words, all the unspecified expectations and ambiguous requirements and confusing genre conventions. During graduate school, writing often becomes deeply unlovable. Unfortunately, some of us stall as writers while we wait for the loving feeling to come back: if we can’t love it, we may conclude that we hate it. Or, to put it another way, we may give up on writing when it isn’t going well, rather than just persevering in the knowledge that writing is often nothing more—for long stretches of time—than hard work.

Following the #acwri Twitter feed, you sometimes see people saying that writing just isn’t working out for them that day. Now, of course, there are times that abandoning writing for the day is absolutely the right thing to do—and only you will know when the best response is a run or a drink or a bit of quality time with Netflix. But I know from my own experience with thesis writing that waiting for inspiration in order to write would lower my productivity to undetectable levels. For most people—including me once I eventually figured this out—theses get written through many bouts of uninspired productivity and rare moments of inspiration. Those moments of inspiration are amazing, but if we wait for them, we usually hamper our ability to reach our own writing goals.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @nomynjb, a helpful #Storify about learning to use Twitter for academic purposes.

From @evalantsoght, a great approach to writing captions for your figures.

From @GradHacker, an honest account of surviving a serious change to the topic of a dissertation.

From @ProfHacker, concrete advice on how to regain control of your inbox.

From Geoffrey Pullum in the Lingua Franca blog, on the apostrophe: Do we need it and is it even ‘punctuation’?

From FT Magazine, a claim that social media is actually improving the quality of writing.

Have you tried an #acwri chat? Here’s a #Storify of the latest one on literature reviews.

From @cplong, an op-ed on the value–both holistic and professional–of a liberal arts education.

From @Nadine_Muller, exploring the line between blogging the personal and professional.

From @ScholarlyKitchn, a good overview of a recent survey on attitudes towards Open Access publishing.

From @ThomsonPat, great strategies to keep your thesis reader on track from start to finish.

From @WritingCommons, info on the Duke composition MOOC.

From @RohanMaitzen, an insightful discussion of the issues facing a graduate student deciding whether to blog.

From @NSRiazat in @PhD2Published, a discussion of the evolution of #phdchat as an academic research community.

From @thesiswhisperer, a reminder how the supervisory relationship can be derailed by mismatched expectations.

From @MacDictionary, differences in education terms between UK and US.

From @UA_magazine, an interesting exploration of the gender divide in university-community engagement.

From @DocwritingSIG, is it possible to create a ‘thesis assessment matrix‘?

From @GradHacker, advice on managing your digital identity.

From @Ben_Sawyer in @GradHacker, some tips for turning your dissertation into a book.

From @NewYorker, an interesting comparison of Google Reader and Twitter.

From @guardian, the past and future of #hashtags.

From @financialpost, outgoing #UofT president David Naylor discusses the future of the Canadian university.

From Lingua Franca, a great discussion of the Oxford comma and the broader issue of consistency in punctuation.

From @yorkuniversity, interesting research on how people multitasking on laptops in class may distract others.

From @ProfessorIsIn, an excellent guest post on managing mental illness during graduate study.

From the NYT, what reverse outlining looks like for a fiction writer.

From @thesiswhisperer, what we can all learn from the impressive time management skills of part-time doctoral students.

From @readywriting in @academiccoaches, an important reminder that we must recognize academic writing accomplishments.

From @MacDictionary, helpful corpus-based account of when we actually use ‘who’ and ‘whom’.

From @m_m_campbell, an inspiring account of how to raise a future researcher.

From @rglweiner in IHE, an essay on the role of virtual community for graduate students.

From @ThomsonPat, wise words on needing to be alert to the language we use for talking about our research.

From @DocwritingSIG, some great questions about MOOCs and doctoral education.

From IHE, a discussion of the proposal at Duke to require a short and accessible video to accompany a thesis.

From @NewYorkerplagiarized theses in Russia.

From @raulpacheco, an explanation of how he uses #ScholarSunday to recommend academics to follow on Twitter.

From the Crooked Timber blog, a great #IWD post on equality for women in academia.

From @ProfessorIsIn, the value of presenting what you can do, not just what you are interested in, in an application.

From @fishhookopeneye, an excellent analysis of the distorting effects of familiarity on thesis writers.

From @qui_oui, thoughts on the benefits and real costs of public engagement for academics.

From the NYT After Deadline blog, a great reminder of what dangling modifiers are and why they are worth avoiding.

From @ThomsonPat, a post about verb tense in theses, demonstrating how it’s a matter of authorial stance not grammar.

Academic Writer as an Identity

Since this is the 100th post on Explorations of Style, I thought I would allow myself to return to one of my favourite topics: the notion that someone who engages in academic writing is, in fact, a writer. The most common search terms that lead people to this blog involve the words ‘identity’ and ‘writer’. As a result, the post in which I first looked at this question is one of the most popular on the site.

In the original post, I discussed how graduate students often embrace the category of ‘bad writer’ with an ontological fervour while still disavowing the simpler category of ‘writer’. But can you be a bad writer in any meaningful sense without being a writer? In other words, surely ‘writer’ is an inductive category: if writing is an essential aspect of your life, then you are a writer. Needless to say, this move from activity to category doesn’t work in all cases; doing something regularly doesn’t automatically turn that activity into a category. But while you may not want to adopt the personae associated with all your daily tasks—think how unwieldy that would make CVs and obituaries!—the transition from writing to writer is special. Being a writer may flow inductively from the act of writing, but it also doubles back and changes the act itself.

Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.

At the practical level, identifying yourself as a writer makes the act of writing more intentional and thus more than just a necessary evil. As a writer, you will have a reason to seek out explicit writing support or devote time to improving your abilities as a writer. My students often say to me that they would love to work more on their writing, but that they are too busy with their work. To some extent, I take that invocation of an artificial dichotomy between writing and work as a sign of my own failures in the classroom. My job isn’t just to provide helpful insights into the writing process; it is also to convey the urgency of the writing task. But I try to focus more on the helpful insights since those who do buy into the urgency are poorly served by a continual harping on that theme. I continue to work on finding the best classroom balance between exhortation and instruction, but the fact remains that people who don’t accept writing as central to their identity often continue to devote insufficient time to the task and to feel a commensurate frustration at their lack of improvement.

At a deeper level, accepting the role of writer means accepting that you are constructing meaning through your arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the role of writer is slighted, nothing is left but text and reader. And readers are rarely going to be satisfied with those sorts of ‘writer-less’ texts. Those sorts of texts are notoriously light on the sort of signposting and metadiscourse that the reader needs to appreciate what is being presented. If you are in the habit of thinking of your text as self-explanatory or if you tend to frame writing as a purely responsive act of ‘writing up’, you may be neglecting the role that you ought to be playing as writer. As the writer, you must perform the essential act of framing what is being read according to the overarching demands of your project. I read so many selections of graduate student writing that are brimming with insight and fortified by an impressive amount of research but that lack an authorial voice to help the reader manage the text. Deepening the connection to the persona of writer is one way of reminding ourselves that our job as writer is to go beyond the provision of helpful content to the more complex task of structuring that content in a way that anticipates how the reader will experience the text.

While I do believe that there is a manifest benefit to identifying ourselves as writers, I’d like to close by considering a possible downside to accepting this identity. Could identifying as a writer actually make things worse by hindering some students from getting the writing support that they need? Unfortunately, I think that possibility exists. Some students have bound their sense of self-worth so tightly to the activity of writing that they may resist accessing writing support; these resistant students have often accepted the widespread notion that graduate students should ‘already know how to write’. Similarly, these students often have trouble resisting the urge to compare insides and outsides; they may end up with a wildly inaccurate sense of how their writing actually stacks up because they are constantly making invalid comparisons between their own initial drafts and other people’s final products. On the other hand, I see some students who are very receptive to what I have to say precisely because they don’t see their writing as expressive of their truest professional selves. I think the answer to this dilemma comes from how we think about what it means to identify ourselves as writers. Ideally, adopting this persona will actually help to undermine the sense that we ought to be good writers already. Saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. Rather, adopting the persona of writer means making a commitment to learning how to be a strong and confident and competent writer, a writer who is able to meet key professional responsibilities with clear and assured prose. This goal is hard to reach and remains, for most of us, aspirational. But the goal cannot be met either by undervaluing the writing process and thus neglecting its development or by overvaluing it to the extent that the weakness becomes a crisis of confidence. Taking hold of ‘academic writer’ as an identity means devoting ourselves to writing and doing so because that devotion is the only sure-fire way to become the writers that we all want to be.

Moving from Problem to Response

Earlier this year, I had a post on the basic structure of an introduction, using a concept derived from Swales and terminology derived from Booth, Colomb, and Williams. In a subsequent post, I went on to talk about how to use this model to craft an effective thesis introduction. In both posts, I stressed the great importance of explaining the significance of addressing the problem before turning to the response. But I realized later that I’d neglected to talk about a related issue that often arises in an introduction: How do we move from problem to response? 

In some cases, the progression from problem to response can be quite simple: a general context naturally narrows to a specific problem, creating space for a particular response. In these cases, the general topic tends to be well understood, leaving a narrow area still to be grappled with. Usually, when a writer gets to this point, the transition to the response is made quite easily. However, there are other cases in which the problem is broad, making the transition to a narrow response more difficult. Since most research projects benefit from a narrow focus, it is essential that we understand how to move between a broad problem and a narrow response.

In these cases, the general context doesn’t naturally narrow to a specific problem. Instead, the context leads to a broad problem: “However, we don’t know enough about X”, where X is a broad area that hasn’t yet been satisfactorily investigated. It is crucial for a writer in this situation to recognize that the thesis itself won’t be able to address that broad area. What the thesis will be able to do, however, is to use an example of X to begin to develop our understanding of X as a whole. To be clear, there is always a specific problem, but in some cases that specific problem is simply being used as a way of getting at the broader problem. Perhaps we don’t, for instance, understand how any compound works under some particular circumstance; the thesis won’t look, of course, at all compounds: it will look at an exemplary compound. Similarly, maybe we have identified a broad phenomenon that has been under-examined, so we look at a particular text or use a case study to ground the inquiry. However, in these cases, when the specific response doesn’t just flow from the problem, writers sometimes falter.

What is needed is an explanation of how the narrow response is a useful way of getting at the broad problem. This task isn’t particularly difficult but is often neglected. There’s no one particular route that must be taken: the essential thing is that the reader is given a bridge. Otherwise, the reader will encounter a broad statement that not enough is known about X, followed by a very precise statement of what the current research will undertake to do. Just as the reader needs to know why addressing a particular problem is significant, they also need to know how the response serves to address the problem. In those cases in which that transition isn’t obvious, the writer must fill in that space. Needless to say, the key issue will be justifying why this particular response—why this compound, why this text, why this case study—can be used as an entry point into the broader problem.

In general, I recommend that all thesis writers pause before elaborating the specifics of their research project. Writers often feel more comfortable in the realm of the response; the task of providing a specific description of what the research will actually do can feel like a bit of terra firma. Unfortunately, out of a desire to reach that shore, writers often rush though necessary and important transitions between problem and response. Pausing at that point can help remind the writer of their obligations to help the reader to understand not just the research procedure but also the way this research will address the underlying problem.

Thesis Writing Groups

Last week, the Hook and Eye blog had a great post on finding community in graduate school. In particular, Melissa Dalgleish talked about the value of her writing group. In her words, here’s what they talk about:

Structure. Application of theory. Voice. Organization. Negotiating our committees. Publication. Productivity tools. Grammar. Turning conference papers into articles into chapters. Syntax. Analysis.

I’ve mentioned thesis writing groups in the broader context of finding autonomous sources of support for thesis writing, but I haven’t talked about them in any detail. While I was working on this post, @AnkeBrock sent me this link to Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s very helpful round-up of possible writing group configurations. I see no need to create a duplicate taxonomy, so I will instead provide a few potential questions that can be used to identify your own optimal type of writing group:

  • Accountability or support? Do you just need some form of structure to make sure you write or do you actually need the support of writing in a disciplinary context?
  • Friends or colleagues? Would your ideal support group be a warm and friendly place or do you like a more formal environment?
  • Connected or independent? Do you want this support in the context of your own department or do you need to go further afield for your support (within your broader university community or in an online space)?
  • Easily distracted? Could a writing group be a distraction for you? For some—especially if they find themselves in a group that involves extensive peer review—a writing group can become an obstacle to their own writing, rather than a source of support.
  • Role of the supervisor? While most groups that I see are completely independent of the supervisor, some groups do have some supervisor involvement. Some function with the supervisor present; others are composed of writers who share a supervisor without the supervisor being there. If the supervisory relationship is challenging, the latter can be particularly useful; the group can help to decipher unclear advice and can try to compensate for insufficient support.

I think the benefits of a good writing group are obvious: community, accountability, provisional feedback, broadening expertise, developing a range of useful collegial skills. But any thesis writer should also be alert to the potential disadvantages: a drain on time, a locus for competition, another source of anxiety. Overall, I think the benefits will outweigh the costs for most writers, but it is useful to be armed with a little insight before entering into any situation that may affect your life as a writer.

Explorations of Style has been busy lately due to the reblogging of my post on understanding incoherence in academic writing on LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog. Welcome to all the new readers! If you would like to follow the blog, you can do so by email, RSS feed, Twitter, and Facebook—all the options can be found in the left-hand column.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From Mark Carrigan in the @LSEImpactBlogblogging as ‘a distinctive space between academic research and journalism’.

From @korystamper, a must-read for National Grammar Day. Don’t be the ‘Batman of apostrophes’–nobody likes that guy!

From @KJDellAntonia, some questions regarding the lack of policy about parental leave during graduate study.

From @thesiswhisperer, her always-helpful monthly newsletter for February.

From @docwritingSIG, practical advice to think about formatting issues throughout the thesis writing process.

From @RohanMaitzen, a discussion of sharing our own blog archivesThe old stuff can be just as good as the new!

From David Perlmutter in @Chronicle, a great essay on dealing with advice: the good, the conflicting, the malicious.

From @seburnt, a helpful blogroll on language teaching.

From @dratarrant in @PhD2Published, a great reflective post on online academic knowledge production.

From @readywriting in the @academiccoaches blog, creating better work-life balance through greater awareness of time.

From @RohanMaitzen, an interesting, honest account of intellectual engagement and traditions of academic discourse.

From @Chronicle, an essay by Laurie Essig on manners and multitasking.

From @ProfHacker, some questions about sharing your teaching materials with students online.

From @PhD2Published, a step-by-step description of turning a conference panel into a special issue of a journal.

From Inside Higher Ed, some thoughts on being strategic in deciding what literature to cite in your academic writing.

In case you missed this lovely little video from a Toronto book store the first time it made the rounds.

Once you understand the genre of the research article, you can use it for anything, even romance.

From Inside Higher Ed, a follow-up to @thesiswhisperer‘s post on niceness in academia.

From @CShearson, a helpful explanation of the difference between ‘intensively’ and ‘extensively’ in academic writing.

From @fishhookopeneye, the life-cycle of writing an article. I’m relieved to learn that others also ‘procrasti-bake’!

From @thesiswhisperer in @PhD2Published blog, valuable reflections on blogging, identity, and sharing expertise.

From @qui_oui, balancing thesis writing, professional development, and paid work, while still finding time to think.

From @MacDictionary, a post on International Mother Language Day and the rise of English as a lingua franca.

Have you ever felt that our existing punctuation marks just weren’t enough? Have you ever needed the ‘andorpersand’? 

From @readywriting in the @academiccoaches blog, a post on the link between enthusiasm and voice in academic writing.

From The Monkey Cage blog, an interesting reply to David Brooks’s ‘data’ column.

From Ruth Starkman in Inside Higher Ed, a great collection of questions on the role of digital scholarship in professional advancement.

From @ProfHacker, using Facebook as a way to bring primary historical sources to life.

From Geoffrey Pullum in the Lingua Franca blog, a defence of adverbs and a call for careful, nuanced writing advice.

From @Chronicle, an example of thoughtful word-by-word editing of academic writing.

From @drdjwalker, introducing the Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, a collaborative, open access e-journal.

From @kyliebudge in @thesiswhisperer blog, an argument for an exciting thesis writing retreat. Would it work for you?

From the New APPS blog, a discussion of tacit knowledge in academia: how do graduate students learn what they need to know?

From @cplong, interesting thoughts about the value of adding an internship to doctoral education in the humanities.

From @DocwritingSIG, interesting account of the types of writing support available to doctoral students.

From @GradHacker, thoughts on increasing productivity within the time that you already have.

From @ThomsonPat, distinguishing your method from your methodology.

From @scholarlykitchn, a taxonomy of confusionCan’t decide if this sort of detailed diagnosis would help or confuse!

This Phillip Lopate piece in the New York Times made me wonder about the similarities between academic blogging and essay writing.

From Stephen M. Walt, a call for better academic writing. I don’t fully agree, but I like the way he frames ‘discovery versus presentation’.

From Barbara Fister in Inside Higher Ed, why suing librarians isn’t the answer.

From @LSEReviewBooks, some advice to help you decide if you should be podcasting. But I still can’t decide!

From @scholarlykitchn, a short survey on privatizing peer review. And here are the results.

From @LSEReviewBooks, @PJDunleavy gives a helpful account of the decline in the status of books in social sciences.

From @charlottefrost, interesting reflections on @PhD2Published: how it works, what it takes to run, where it is going.