Tag Archives: Metadiscourse

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.

 

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!

The Evolution of Signposting

When teaching graduate students about metadiscourse, I often hear the same thing: “My supervisor doesn’t like metadiscourse.” If we think of metadiscourse in its more technical sense—as the various devices that help a writer structure a text to facilitate the reception of that text—it makes little sense to be against it. That would be like being against effective writing. But what this objection generally seems to mean is that the supervisor just doesn’t like it when too many of the seams are showing. Rather than being against metadiscourse in the broad sense, it’s possible that some supervisors are simply against signposting. Or at least against overly explicit signposting. Even if this explanation is correct, I still find this mistrust of signposting hard to understand: I think signposting offers a great deal of benefit to both the writer and the reader.

First, the writer. In my view, producing explicit signposting is unambiguously valuable for the writer. The act of describing—as bluntly as you wish—the order of what is going to happen in your writing is so useful. If you push yourself to write a road map for your text, you will gain insight into what you did (or didn’t do). Maybe you meant to do something and then didn’t end up doing it. Or maybe you did something and need to explain why. Of course there are limits. I certainly hit mine when the introduction to a standard IMRD paper ends with this sort of passage: “The next section will present the method. The results section will discuss the results. Then the discussion section will discuss those results. Finally the article will conclude with a conclusion.” This (real) example is obviously an outlier, but it may help to explain why some are so suspicious of the practice. What the suspicion overlooks, however, is how much we can learn, as writers, from the task of trying to articulate where we’ve been or where we are going in a text. When the signposting feels circular, as in that last example, it probably isn’t necessary. But much of the time, the structure isn’t that transparent and articulating it will be instructive for you as a writer. But will it be good for the reader?

Often the answer to that question, in my mind, is also yes. As readers, we appreciate being told what’s up. Academic writing is full of thickets; having access to the writer’s explanation of the structure can ease our way through. However, to return to our starting point, just because signposting is potentially helpful doesn’t mean that some readers won’t find it irredeemably artless. Given its utility, there must be a way to avoid throwing the baby out with bathwater. Can we find a way to let useful-to-write signposting evolve into instructive-to-read signposting?

Here’s a place to start:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to my topic. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on this topic. The next step will be a re-interpretation of my problem in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implication of my topic for the broader field.

This is the sort of passage that gives metadiscourse a bad name. Obviously, it’s weak because it lacks all specificity; if other writers could easily lift your signposting and drop it into their writing (with little-to-no alteration necessary), it’s not doing much for you. Here’s what happens when we make this passage a little less generic:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to [my topic]. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on [my topic]. The next step will be a re-interpretation of [my topic] in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implications of [my topic] for [my field].

A little better, right? It still feels way too much like an academic Mad Lib, but it would definitely be more informative than the first passage. The next step is to take this passage and transform it into one that reflects the demands of the project rather than just detailing the parts of the text.

The first step in discussing [something] must be a consideration of [some sort of background issue]. To get a better feel for [this issue], we will need to look at [a particular aspect of the literature]. The dynamic that we see between [these two strains of thought we’ve identified in the literature] will provide a new way to understand the [current topic]. It is only when we see [this topic] in this new way that we can grasp its implications for the broader project of understanding [some issue facing the field as a whole].

This third passage is potentially better because it tries to indicate the way that the topic needs to be discussed. By describing what is to come as inherently necessary for this topic rather than as just a series of textual steps, we can arm the reader with useful fore-knowledge without relying on road-map boilerplate. This approach to signposting stands the best chance of informing the reader without deadening the writing. However, this more sophisticated signposting won’t appear in our writing out of thin air. Most writers need to learn to describe their texts in this way; crafting more explicit bits of signposting can be an essential first step along that road. Most of us will be able to produce subtle and instructive signposting only once we grasp the internal structure of our text. Drafting a provisional signposting passage can be an invaluable way of gaining that initial understanding and thus enabling us to craft a more evolved explanation of our own texts. If we give writers the idea that signposting is inherently clunky and part of a broader problem of academic writing, we may lead them to miss out on its beneficial effects on their own thinking and writing.

While it isn’t directly relevant to our discussion here, I can’t resist ending with one of my favourite examples of understated signposting. At very end of the introduction to Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams tells us what is to come (emphasis mine):

“No one can teach clear writing by rule or principle, simple or not, to those who have nothing to say and no reason to say it, to those who cannot think or feel or see. But I also know that many who see well and think carefully and feel deeply still cannot write clearly. I also know that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see, and that in fact there are a few straightforward principles—not rules—that help. Here they are” (p. 14).

In Support of Academic Writing

Last fall, Steven Pinker promoted his new book, The Sense of Style, with an article in The Chronicle Review entitled “Why Academics Stink at Writing”. I didn’t write about this article at the time because I hadn’t yet read the book; while I had a lot of concerns about the article, I was reluctant to share them in the absence of an understanding of his overall intentions in the book. Over the winter break, I read the book in order to write a review; what I found was a thoughtful diagnosis of the habits that impede strong academic writing and a great deal of incisive writing advice. I recommend Pinker’s account of how what he calls the “curse of knowledge” (p. 59) prevents us from grasping what the reader needs to know. And I recommend his approach to managing complex writing, especially at the sentence level. I feel certain that most serious writers could benefit from both aspects of this book, but I remain uneasy about the overarching tone with which Pinker addresses academic writing.

My uneasiness is straightforward: I worry that Pinker’s decision to treat academic writers as a monolithic group worthy of some measure of scorn is potentially discouraging to novice academic writers. That is, it seems awful to be labouring to join a club that everyone agrees is full of people who are terrible at the thing that they do. Obviously the pressure to be productive means that all aspiring academics do want to join this club, but it’s dispiriting to work so hard for an accomplishment that is so easily and casually derided. Furthermore, since we often learn to write from exemplars, it can be perplexing to see those examples so widely condemned.

The issue is more than just a broad one of how we feel about the enterprise of academic writing. The way we talk about academic writing also has implications for actual decisions that we make as writers. Pinker mentions many things that bog down academic writing: inexpert use of metadiscourse; reflexive indications that our topics are too complex to be readily explained; nominalizations and passive constructions; imprecise or clichéd language; and excessive hedging. All these things are clearly capable of weakening academic prose, and he has good advice for managing these and other potential pitfalls. However, he fails to consider how fraught many of our academic writing decisions are. Take hedging, for example. Pinker describes “compulsive hedging” (p. 43) as a lack of commitment to our own ideas; by characterizing this familiar type of prudence as a problematic lack of confidence, he evinces a lack of interest in the complex process of developing an academic identity. An academic identity of sufficient strength to allow us to take a firm stand behind our own interpretations is not easily formed. Excessive hedging can be irksome to the reader, but it is unrealistic to imagine that novice writers ought to simply abandon their natural and often pragmatic embrace of caution. Pinker has offered ways for academic writing to get better, but he hasn’t paid much attention to why the characteristic tics of scholarly writing persist.

It’s not that I want to defend all academic writing, and it’s certainly not the case that I want to preclude intelligent analyses of why writing goes astray. As I said above, Pinker’s discussion of the curse of knowledge is very helpful and far better than the frequently heard suggestions that academic writers can’t be bothered to write well or that they can’t afford to write well lest they expose their own emptiness. But I do think it is important that novice academic writers begin writing in a supportive atmosphere with a clear grasp of the complex array of pressures attached to their writing choices. Academic writing isn’t laughably bad—it shouldn’t be the butt of a joke. And it isn’t monolithic. An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article. Pinker’s critique often makes it sound as though academic writers simply appear whole cloth without any process of learning the craft.

In the end, Pinker’s analysis of academic writing seems to run the risk of being disregarded by the established writers who might benefit while being taken seriously by all the wrong people. These established writers may not listen to his valuable suggestions since they likely have a certain a confidence in their existing style. My concern is that while these writers carry on undeterred, two other groups may take Pinker’s critique too much to heart. First, there are those who wish to believe that academics are engaged in an inherently meaningless and solipsistic enterprise; this group will certainly find solace in Pinker’s critique. And, second, there are those who are already daunted by the prospect of joining the academy; this group will likely feel discouraged by the view that even if you succeed as an academic writer, the accomplishment will always be clouded by a lack of respect. His “professional narcissism” (p. 41) critique may be apt when levied against the sort of senior academics that he is targeting, but it feels downright uncharitable when extended to graduate student writers. He clearly feels that there are writers who should be held accountable for continuing to provide turgid and limp prose to the world—and maybe he is right that they should know better. But there are also many developing academic writers who aren’t in a position to avoid all these potential stylistic problems, at least not yet.

Before engaging too deeply with the academic-writing-is-terrible narrative, I urge novice writers to be reflective about their own writing situation. Some of the habits of novice academic writers will reflect the challenge of trying to marshal their thoughts about complex topics for a difficult-to-define audience with a tremendous amount at stake. This challenging situation doesn’t necessarily give rise to great writing. In my view, Pinker offers us excellent advice on improving writing but fails to see how our own positions within the academy may affect our ability to take his advice. By overlooking the developmental side of academic writing, he is overlooking the crucial work associated with becoming an academic writer. This blind spot is unfortunate because the advice itself is outstanding and beautifully presented. However, improving our academic writing—a goal we can all share—takes more than good advice; it also requires a good understanding of why we struggle. And while it is obviously possible to improve our writing in the face of widespread contempt for academic writing, I wonder if it might not be easier in an environment that offers a little more support for the whole enterprise of academic writing.

2013 in Review

Happy New Year! Before heading into a new year of blogging, I thought I’d take a quick look back at 2013. In response to my own students’ interest in introductions, I began the year with a general post on the benefits of a standard ‘three move’ introduction. I returned to this topic a month later to address the more specific challenge of structuring a thesis introduction; given the length and complexity of a thesis introduction, it is crucial to have a strategy to help position the various elements in a manner that will make sense to the reader. Introductions made a third appearance in a post on managing the move from a research problem to a particular response.

Early in the year, I had a note from a graduate student with a question that summed up a great deal of the struggle of doctoral writing: Shouldn’t I already know how to write? The short answer to that question is an emphatic no: academic writing is a particular skill and most of us need time and effort to learn how to do it well. The post then delved into the way that this pernicious question can undermine confidence and dissuade graduate students from the necessary and challenging project of learning how to be proficient academic writers. The question of our status as academic writers was also addressed in my 100th post, which looked at the notion of academic writer as an identity.

One of my favourite things about writing this blog is the opportunity to engage with interesting material from other people’s blogs. Like many writers, I often don’t know what I want to say until I see what someone else has said on the topic. Over the course of the year, I was inspired by many people: William Germano on reader awareness; Peter Elbow on understanding incoherence; Melissa Dalgleish on finding community in graduate school; Pat Thomson on autonomy and doctoral study; Lee Skallerup Bessette on writing without inspiration; Susan Carter on writing aversion; Thomas Basbøll on the paramount importance of the paragraph; and, lastly, my yoga teacher on observing without judging.

While I felt that I didn’t spend enough time this year on writing at the sentence level, I did manage a few posts on nuts-and-bolts issues. Having already covered all the more controversial punctuation marks, I was left to consider the use of the period; in fact, I think the decision about when and how to end a sentence is a fascinating one. Punctuation also came up in a discussion of parallel constructions. My own over-reliance on the phrase ‘of course’ led me to write a post on the rhetorical significance of presenting something as obvious. And in response to a perennial question about finding good books on writing, I provided a brief annotated bibliography of books on academic writing.

What blog would be complete without a little bit of navel gazing? In my first post back after summer vacation, I reflected on the nature of the expertise presented in a blog such as this one. Part of the value, for me, of the advice found on social media is the way it requires us to be a reviewer as well as a reader. The advice on this blog might be good or it might be terrible. And even if it is good for lots of people, it might be terrible for you. In deciding what writing advice to take, we are honing our understanding of the writing process and of ourselves as writers.

As always, I spent a lot of time looking at the various ways academic writing challenges us. In a post on reverse outlines, I discussed how easy it is to write an aspirational outline instead of an honest one. I also discussed the disorienting effect of returning to our own exploratory texts. Since we all struggle with the time-consuming nature of writing, I devoted a post to the pace of academic writing. Taking a broader perspective on writing challenges, I looked at what imposter syndrome means in the context of academic writing.

My favourite post of the year was on the concept of contribution and voice in academic writing. In that post, I argued that voice can be a nebulous concept and that it may be better to focus on articulating our own contribution. Over time, we all strive to develop a clear and consistent voice, but, in the short run, explaining our particular contribution is perhaps a more pressing goal.

It was a pleasure to participate in Academic Writing Month again this year. Over the course of the month, I used the interesting questions and comments from the Twitter feed as the basis for posts on a range of topics: the many forms that not-writing can take; our sources for academic writing inspiration;  and managing the demands of multiple projects.

I ended the year with a post on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. In this post, I drew on material that I had used for a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share the webinar here on my own site; I’d also like to thank the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog for sharing the post on their site. The post itself links to many posts from this blog’s three-year history to explain my approach to confronting, accepting, and surviving the anxiety of academic writing.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing. As always, I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics for future posts.

Confronting the Anxiety of Academic Writing

Last week I gave a webinar for the Text and Academic Authors Association on confronting the anxiety of academic writing. Since the presentation, which I’ll embed below, was relatively short, I thought I would use this post to point to the places on the blog where I elaborate on its key points.

I began the presentation by discussing the key dilemma of academic writing: although writing can be the decisive factor in professional academic success, we often lack both training in the act of writing and time to complete the necessary writing tasks. As a result, we often dislike our own writing or find the process of creating acceptable writing unduly onerous. To make matters worse, these problems are often compounded by the sense that our difficulties are illegitimate, that we should already know how to write. Since we often aren’t expert writers, especially early in our academic careers, we tend to think of ourselves as bad writers. People are generally quick to call themselves bad writers, but they may not be so willing to embrace the broader category of academic writer, with all that entails. To identify yourself as a bad writer without making the commitment to being a writer seems a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The overarching theme of this presentation was that the challenges are real; we all struggle with our writing technique and with managing our writing time. Unfortunately, even though everyone has these struggles, many people think of themselves as alone in their writing challenges. One of the reasons that we remain convinced that these challenges are ours alone is that we engage in a lot of unfair comparisons. Instead of assuming that others must be struggling in much the same way that we are, we compare our insides with their outsides and thus conclude that we are uniquely inept.

How then to confront the anxiety that this negativity and isolation creates in academic writers? It can be helpful to begin by distinguishing between intellectual difficulties with writing—figuring out how to do it—and practical difficulties with writing—simply finding time to do it. Most of us struggle with both, but it is still helpful to tackle them separately. It’s also crucial to tackle them with novel strategies. New strategies are key because otherwise we are left with no avenue for improvement except renewed effort. And renewed effort only works if a lack of effort was the original problem. We all have days, of course, when a lack of effort is definitely the problem. But overall a lack of effort is generally a symptom of some other underlying difficulty. Simply put, trying harder won’t solve most writing problems and when it fails we end up feeling even worse about the whole thing.

One way to tackle our intellectual difficulties with writing is to try to think differently about the whole enterprise. Sticking with an approach, whatever it may be, that has caused us difficulty in the past isn’t likely to give us dramatically new results. As regular readers know, my approach relies on three principles that I’ve borrowed from Joseph Williams: using writing to clarify thinking; committing to extensive revision; and understanding the needs of the reader. These sentiments are all easily found in Williams’s excellent formulation: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader.” This quote has the potential to change the way we conceive of the activity of writing; in my view, that reconceptualization can be a necessary first step in shaking free of writing anxiety.

Such a  reconceptualization is potentially very valuable but also needs to be connected to concrete strategies. If we are going to write to clarify thinking, we will need to be aware of the challenges of exploratory writing. And we will need strategies to keep our texts manageable. If we are going to commit to extensive revision, we are going to need to improve our basic understanding of the editing process. How can we make revision part of our regular writing routine? How can we make sure that we are engaging in structural edits and not just tinkering around the edges? How can we prepare ourselves to let go of the material in our writing that is no longer serving us well? Finally, if we are going to be more aware of our readers’ needs, we will have to grasp the differences between the reader and the writer. How do we understand the breakdown of responsibilities between reader and writer? What guidance do we give our readers as they make their way through our texts? Are we constructing our paragraphs in a way that acknowledges their importance to our readers?

After this discussion of avenues for improving the act of writing, I turned to a discussion of productivity. Most anxious writers find that the time available for academic writing is never sufficient. Since finding more time is like trying to get blood from a stone, most of us need to find strategies to use our existing time better. There’s a world of productivity advice to be found, and it’s crucial that we expose ourselves to that world. We just need to do so with an understanding that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. Be wary of advice, even as you seek it out. Even if you do find a helpful source of advice, remain attuned to your own style of working and respect your own intuitions about what will make you more effective.

I ended the presentation with a polemical question: What don’t you know about writing? If writing is, for you, laden with anxiety, it will be helpful to confront the gaps in your knowledge. You are generally expected to have picked up enough about writing along the way to get the job done, but few people thrive as writers without systematically addressing themselves to improving their technique and to finding effective productivity strategies. At the end of the presentation, I was asked to comment on a familiar dilemma: writing may be really important, but so is everything else and there just isn’t enough time to focus on writing. I’m not at all unsympathetic to this sentiment, but I’m also pretty sure that time spent on writing is time well spent. I think that is true for all of us, but it is particularly true for those who are anxious about writing. Anxiety is itself very time-consuming and inefficient. Tackling the source of that anxiety—by becoming a more proficient and productive writer—is likely to be a valuable investment of time, even when that time is in short supply.

Putting this post together reminded me of an important part of any good productivity strategy: taking the time to look back at and appreciate past accomplishments. Being able to assemble this collection of posts—with all their flaws—was a useful reminder of what I have accomplished thus far with the blog. For many of us, the next few weeks will be a time of reflection. As we look towards the new year and perhaps think about all the writing that has inevitably gone undone this year and about our plans to remedy this state of affairs, we should also spend some time thinking about all we have done. Those accomplishments are what we have to build upon, and they should not be neglected. I wish you all a very happy and productive winter break!

Thank you to the Text and Academic Authors Association for allowing me to share this presentation here:

You Know It and I Know It

A recent post from the After Deadline blog about the use of ‘of course’ got me thinking. Mostly I started thinking about how I much I rely on ‘of course’ and similar expressions such as ‘needless to say’ or ‘obviously’. These expressions are so handy since they allow us to reiterate or reinforce aspects of our text without appearing too obvious or unsophisticated. Here are some examples, found with very little effort from earlier posts:

According to this breakdown, signposting is, of course, a form of metadiscourse. The reason I like to pull signposting out and treat it separately is the tendency of novice academic writers to neglect it. (Signposting and Metadiscourse)

There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. (The Pace of Academic Writing)

The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here. (Structuring a Thesis Introduction)

 I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. (Writing and Enjoyment)

In all of these cases, you can see that the ‘of course’-statements are pretty obvious; the reader isn’t reliant upon those statements for new information. And if I presented the information as novel—without the metadiscoursal mediation—my readers might become suspicious. How could they trust me if I were to repeat myself or provide self-evident material as though it were new and noteworthy? But using ‘of course’ shows that I’m not trying to tell them something new; instead I’m trying to anticipate objections, add emphasis, acknowledge divergence, manage parallel structure, etc. Looked at that way, you can see that these statements may be obvious in and of themselves, but they still have a role to play in the broader argument.

As helpful as these statements may be, we still need to be sure we’re not overdoing it. Are you sure you can’t do without? When you are presenting your own observations as obvious—needless to say!—you need to be confident that you’re not wasting your reader’s time. During editing, all these statements ought to be looked at closely. Another consideration: might you sound condescending? Using ‘of course’ is only effective if your reader is familiar with your claim. Or at the very least doesn’t care about not being familiar. If the ‘of course’ sounds like an implicit judgement, you could alienate your reader:

Her early work is, of course, much stronger than her later work.

If your reader didn’t know that there was an early or late period, let alone that one was better, this statement might fail. To avoid inadvertently excluding our reader, we may wish to adopt a more neutral tone:

As many scholars have argued, her early work is much stronger than her later work.

Or, if you want to let your reader in on even more of the story:

As many scholars have argued, her early work—with its explicitly autobiographical tone—is much stronger than the more experimental work that she produced later in her career.

As with any bit of metadiscourse, we need to ask whether we are creating the optimal relationship between reader, text, and writer. Allowing that something is obvious can be extremely helpful, as long as doing so supports the overall dynamic that we are striving to create.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @evalantsoght, ideas about how to generate conference presentations from research that’s not yet complete.

From @MacDictionary, a great plea for descriptivism.

From Crooked Timber, a fascinating post about employing a former student to critique current teaching practices.

From @chrishumphrey, a list of websites that carry post-PhD interviews and profiles.

From @ThomsonPat, advice on what to do in the event of conflicting reviewer comments.

From the New York Times, Christy Wampole on the value of the essay form: “an imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t but could be”.

Are you a part-time graduate student or researcher? If so, this Twitter Chat on academic writing for part-time people may be of interest.

From @ProfHacker, how grad students must say ‘no’ in order to evolve from student to scholar.

From @LSEImpactBlog, a reblog of my post on articulating the contribution of your academic writing.

From Inside Higher Ed, an attempt to define the academic job market as something other than a lottery or a meritocracy.

From @UVenus, a thoughtful post on deciding not to go to graduate school.

Great comment from @Comprof1 about how lack of ownership may also hinder our ability to articulate our contribution.

From @Gradhacker, the possibility of ‘meta-dissertating’: Can you plan/prepare/organize too much?

From @fishhookopeneye, interesting reflections on negotiating conflicting graduate student identities.

From @ThomsonPat, the perils of ‘early onset satisfaction’, especially given the pressure to publish.

From @scholarlykitchn, a new podcast on projects, issues, and trends in scientific and scholarly publishing.

From @chronicle, a touching letter to Jacques Barzun from his grandson.

Great advice at any stage of your academic career: Make a date with your academic writing.

From @ThomasBasboell, a provocative claim: ‘The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition’.

From @GradHacker, a great list of questions to help grad students decide whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request.

From @ThomsonPat, helpful questions about co-writing with a supervisor.

From Crooked Timber, an unusually generous approach to questions of potential plagiarism.

From Inside Higher Ed, more on the Richwine dissertation. Fascinating story for anyone interested in the role of supervisors.

From @academiPad, extremely helpful advice on using QR codes in academia.

From @kar_took, an interesting discussion of the difference between an author and a writer.

From The Singular Scientist, why imagining your audience naked is a terrible idea.

From @ThomsonPat, helpful thoughts on academic self-promotion and how it may vary by nationality, gender, age, &c.