Tag Archives: Professional development

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:

A Change is as Good as a Rest

Thinking back over a month’s worth of AcWriMo conversations, I was struck by how frequently people mentioned the need to negotiate the demands of multiple projects. In particular, I was interested in the notion that we often wish to work on tasks other than the ones we are currently doing. Is this true for you, that the grass is always greener? That nothing sounds better than writing when you actually can’t write? That working on an article makes the simple task of preparing a class handout seem relatively easy? That other projects become more appealing as soon as you need to work on this project? That you fritter writing time away only to find yourself dying to write while stuck folding laundry or running endless errands on the weekend?

In part, this response is surely just human nature. Working on the other project can seem like a way to avoid the inherent difficulties involved in working on this project. We could, of course, strive to cure ourselves of this wrongheadedness. Or—and this is the simpler path—we can harness the allure of the other project by allowing ourselves to move between multiple projects. Anything that allows us to capitalize on this perverse tendency has to be good. If you are labouring away at one task, a different task can start to look a bit like a shiny object that you want to play with. Better that than the gazillion shiny objects that make up the Internet.

So clearly I’m a fan of switching from one thing to another when the situation demands it. And there’s always something else that we can do: editing earlier writing; working on the literature; thinking about teaching; marking student papers; keeping up with administrative work; and so forth. I think it’s better to have that other task for when we are stalled because, ultimately, it’s better to get something done than nothing. But that doesn’t answer the perennial question about whether it is actually better to work on just one writing project at a time or to have multiple writing projects on the go. There is absolutely no correct answer to the mono- vs. multi-task question. But there are some other questions to help each of us figure out what will work best for us.

1. Do you have to do multiple projects? Sometimes the question is not about work flow, but about priorities. How many additional projects should a doctoral student take on? How many conferences a year? How should publication plans be integrated with ongoing dissertation writing? What about blogging or contributing to edited collections? Those priorities need to be addressed with a supervisor rather than approached as a question of work flow.

2. What does your standard work week look like?  Do you like to work in long stretches or in short bursts? What role do your family responsibilities play? Do you have a job outside of graduate school? What are your non-writing graduate student activities? Your writing schedule should be planned with your actual schedule in mind; that may sound obvious, but in my experience many writers create writing schedules that are destined to fail because they don’t take reality fully into account.

3. Are other people involved in your deadlines? Do you have to get something to your supervisor, co-author, or writing group? If you know that your work will spend significant time out of your hands, it can make sense to have multiple projects to fill those gaps.

4. Finally, and most importantly, what do you prefer? For the sake of argument, imagine that you have a conference abstract and an article submission that you want out the door by the end of the year. Can you imagine setting up a leapfrog system in which one lies dormant while the other is active and then vice versa? Or would you just like to get one done completely before moving on? Again, I don’t think there is a right answer, but I do think that each of us needs to answer this question for ourselves in order to optimize our work flow.

If a student asks me about multi-tasking (and has absolutely no preference or decisive external factors), I suggest trying the leapfrog, for two reasons. First, most of us produce better writing when we can let it rest before turning our attention to revision. Second, to return to my original theme, having multiple projects means that we have worthwhile activities to turn to when our current task becomes intolerable. If you find that the other project never gleams so brightly as when you can’t attend to it, you might as well make that state of mind work to your advantage. After all, if you can’t have a rest, why not enjoy a change of scenery?

Lastly, a quick thanks to Charlotte Frost of PhD2Published, to all the other AcWriMo ‘ambassadors’, and especially to all the AcWriMo participants. It was another inspiring and thought-provoking month. If you haven’t had a chance, I urge you to look through the #AcWriMo Twitter feed for successes, challenges, calls for carrying the momentum into December and beyond, and reflections on the whole experience. I’m already looking forward to next November!

Writing and Not Writing

As AcWriMo got underway, lots of people in the Twitter feed (#AcWriMo) were wondering what counts as writing for the purposes of this month of academic writing. This question registered for me when I started my first Pomodoro (using my PhDometer!) and quickly realized that the revise and resubmit project I’ve set for myself this month is going to require a lot of not writing. What will I be doing while not writing? Reading the reviewers’ comments closely; thinking about the editor’s summation of those comments; returning to the original article; making decisions about the relevant literature; and so forth. To turn this article into a new and improved version of itself will take relatively little writing, if writing is defined narrowly. But it all counts in my mind since my goal is to get this article back to my co-author in good shape, not to meet some abstract goal of writing a certain amount.

As I read people’s questions about what might count as writing, I began to see a range of possibilities:

Pure writing: When we put our heads down and just write. This sort of exploratory writing involves turning off your internal critic and allowing yourself to figure out what you need to say. This style of writing is well suited to the sort of productivity goals that many have set for themselves this month. As I’ve said many times in this space, I think this sort of uncensored writing is invaluable. However, it’s also potentially fraught with difficulties, so it’s important to be reflective about the process

Provisional editing: When we look back at the writing we’ve just done to ensure that it will make sense to us later.

Revision: When we return to our writing, ideally with a bit of distance, to make it better. Perhaps we’ll start  with a structural editing strategy, such as the reverse outline. At this point, most of us need to be flexible about what is needed: more time to think; a different organizing scheme; a new framing question; a fresh take on the literature. The work we do here may not look much like writing, but it’s definitely moving the text forward. This is the space where I picture myself hanging out this month.

Not writing: When we do things that aren’t writing during times designated for writing. I see three main categories of ‘not writing’. First, we have simple avoidance: in my case, for instance, an assiduous attention to office organization schemes. Is it really efficient to have my paper clips in a different drawer than my binder clips? And come to think of it, why are my paper clips themselves not sorted by size? Or better yet colour? And off I go. Those things are absolutely hazardous to my productivity, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m in full avoidance. We all know what our particular avoidance strategies look like. Second, and here is where things get more complicated, we have understandable avoidance: doing the things that have to get done, such as marking, emails, and meetings. We absolutely have to do these things, but we can try to organize our schedules so that they cannot encroach on our writing time. One of the great things about AcWriMo is the inspiration it provides to carve out writing time and to protect that time. The final way that we avoid writing may be the worst because it involves doing things that look very much like writing. Engaging in writing-adjacent activities can readily eat up our writing time. Maybe for you it’s too much reading or maybe it’s too much editing or maybe it’s too much second guessing before allowing the words to hit the page. Or writing something—a blog post, perhaps—other than what you were meant to be writing. Whatever the replacement activity is, it will use up your writing time and even undermine the concept of writing time. We all need to understand and resist our own habitual avoidance techniques in order to preclude the disappointment that comes from not writing.

Overall, I think it’s helpful to approach AcWriMo with two questions: What writing do you need to get done this month? And what do you want to change about your writing process this month? So, any activity can count as writing if it contributes to your overall goal. And it won’t count if it’s the sort of not-writing activity that has tripped you up in the past. AcWriMo is not a gimmick—it’s an opportunity to make writing work better in your life in the long term. All decisions about ‘what counts’ as writing should be made in that spirit.

AcWriMo is At Hand!

November is Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), an entire month devoted to the fostering of academic writing, brought to us by the great people at PhD2Published. If you’re bothering to read this blog, academic writing is already central to your life. You may even feel a little sceptical about a month dedicated to academic writing. Academic Writing Year (or Decade) might seem more accurate. Isn’t the creation of ‘days’ and ‘weeks’ and ‘months’ just about raising awareness or raising money? Most of us are all too aware of academic writing, since we think about it all the time. And we know it won’t make us any money. So what is the value of assigning a month to academic writing?

The value, in my opinion, comes from the way that AcWriMo leads to so much talking about writing. Talking about how badly it’s going. Talking about how great it’s going. Talking about the reasons—the totally legitimate reasons and the slightly suspect ones—that we haven’t written enough. Talking about the new strategy that has made a difference to our writing. All this talk means that academic writing isn’t hidden away. Instead, it is out in the open, and this openness makes it harder to believe that our writing struggles are a sign of our own uniquely deficient selves. When you are exposed to a lot of chatter about academic writing, you quickly learn that most people think they are ‘bad at it’. Over the course of the coming month, we will see evidence that most people are either struggling to write enough or else managing to write enough by employing some sort of strategic gambit such as software, time management approach, peer support, or unholy external pressure.

This evidence acts as a useful reminder that academic writing is consistently difficult; our weaknesses are not primarily the result of a lack of will power or ambition. In fact, most academic writers are trying extremely hard to do consistently challenging tasks. Even leaving aside the tremendous time constraints that many academic writers face, the act of academic writing is inherently hard. AcWriMo is a chance to prioritize writing and to do so in an instant community. On the road to becoming successful academic writers, I think we can all benefit from the honest company of our peers.

The people at PhD2Published explain AcWriMo in six simple rulesDecide on your goal. Declare it! Draft a strategy. Discuss your progress. Don’t slack off. Declare your results. We can all do that, right? The key to making AcWriMo work, in my estimation, is to be sure that it is different than any other month. Here’s my take on the three adjustments that can help make AcWriMo valuable:

Set manageable goals: In real life, many of us have vague and/or unrealistic writing goals, leading us to write consistently less than we want to. AcWriMo is about facilitating your ability to write the amount that you need to write this month. It is essential that your goals fit your time and objectives. I’ve already seen people on Twitter worrying that they’re not able to aim ‘high enough’. There is no high enough: the goal of this month doesn’t have to be spending more time on writing than makes sense in your life right now. Make this the month that you get reasonably close to the smart and accurate goals that you set for yourself. 

Tell everyone: This imperative is one of the best ways that AcWriMo is different than other times. We usually avoid complete honesty with total strangers about our writing goals and productivity. But the single biggest academic writing problem—in my experience, anyway—is the way that it slips noiselessly down our to-do list, elbowed out by the clamour of the everyday. The email, the marking, the student appointments, the meetings. Those things all make themselves heard, and we conscientiously attend to them while neglecting writing. Declaring our goals can help us to move writing into the must-do category. Telling everyone also means telling everyone how we are managing as the month goes on. This decision to keep in touch with a community of academic writers online is also probably the most dicey part of AcWriMo. For some of us, getting more writing done and spending more time on social media will feel like incompatible goals. Be aware of the line between finding community and squandering valuable writing time; the fruitfulness of the online writing community means that it is easy to spend too much time there without feeling like you are procrastinating.

Be strategic: Another important difference is that you can’t approach AcWriMo the same way you’ve always approached writing. If writing is going to be better for you this month, what strategies will you employ to make that happen? A writing group? Timed writing sessions (à la Pomodoro)? Rearranging some aspect of your working schedule to make writing more prominent? The strategies will be different for each person, but the key is making a change that will allow for more productivity.

Still interested? The accountability spreadsheet is the easiest way of getting started. If you are not sure how best to structure your goals, you can scroll through to see what other people—like me!—have planned. You can also declare your intentions on Twitter, using the hashtag #AcWriMo. Any questions? Feel free to ask in the comments below or on Twitter. Good luck everyone—I look forward to writing with you!

My AcWriMo announcement post from 2012
My AcWriMo reflections post from 2012

Imposter Syndrome and Academic Writing

I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the frequent invocation of imposter syndrome. I recently heard someone say that all academics have imposter syndrome, and that claim confirmed why I am hesitant about the designation. If everyone suffers from a particular syndrome, it starts to seem less like a syndrome and more like the human condition. Or, in this case, the academic condition. But before I explore my objections, let’s consider what imposter syndrome is.

Imposter syndrome is the feeling that we aren’t qualified or entitled or competent but that we have somehow managed to fool people into thinking that we are. It is often described as a failure to internalize success. (If you want more information, here is a webpage with an extensive bibliography.) It’s easy to see how these feelings take root in academics. At many points—especially early on—we are judged on our potential while being given very little concrete feedback on our finished work. The emphasis on the potential over the actual easily leads to anxiety. We are admitted to graduate school on the basis of past performance and a statement of what we hope to do in the future. The grant application, the conference abstract, and the dissertation proposal all follow the same pattern: we write a compact and aspirational text and then start to worry that we won’t be able to produce the actual work. Not living up to our promising promises will lead to us finally being revealed as the frauds we secretly believe ourselves to be.

Needless to say, this description rings true for lots of us and shows an awful cycle in which successes can make some people more uneasy. Instead of enjoying being ABD, a doctoral student might believe that, with all the ‘easier’ steps completed, she will now be unable to write the dissertation. The imposter mindset is pernicious because it often feels cumulative; each new success means that the fraud has still not been detected, making the eventual unmasking of the imposter even worse. Imposter syndrome thrives when we fail to take into account the meaning of all the success we experience. The antidote is to trust the people who grant us approval along the way. Think of how easily we often denigrate that approval: ‘I was just lucky.’ ‘It was a weak field of applicants.’ ‘Nobody else was available.’ Any of those statements could be true—and there are real benefits to humility—but we almost never know them to be true. We all need to trust the experience and expertise of the people who express approbation. Of course, any given evaluator may in fact be throwing a stack of papers down the stairs and using the results to make decisions, but such randomness is rare. Over time, positive results mean something, and dismissing those positive responses as error or luck denies us the opportunity to deepen our confidence in our own abilities. (Here is a helpful post from Inside Higher Ed on the role of mentoring in managing feelings of inadequacy in graduate school. And another from The Singular Scientist blog that deals with the full spectrum of under- and over-confidence.)

Given all this, surely it seems useful to talk about imposter syndrome. I certainly encourage graduate students to be reflective about the way that approbation functions in academia. We can all benefit from being able to take a compliment. And there are people whose sense of their own imposterhood is so deep as to be a significant impediment to their work. So I am not objecting to the use of the term, but rather to the notion that it applies to all of us. In other words, my objection is to the way that a universal application of the term appears to pathologize inevitable aspects of academic life.

This overuse of the term concerns me for two reasons. In the first place, if the term is used to describe everyone, then it doesn’t have much power left to help those who are genuinely suffering. Those who need  resources to help them find a way to internalize their successes might be helped by having the term reserved for a more specific condition.

In the second place, I worry that treating dis-comfort as exceptional contributes to the notion that we ought to feel comfortable. In particular, I am troubled by the notion that we ought to feel comfortable about academic writing. Writers must learn to live with a great deal of uncertainty and vulnerability. Exposing our ideas to public scrutiny is uncomfortable, and recognizing that discomfort as inevitable can actually help make us more comfortable. The recognition of discomfort acknowledges the inherent and ongoing challenges of academic expression. It helps keep us humble, which matters if we are going to produce interesting and honest work. It makes us work harder than we might otherwise do. Academic writing is a struggle and not a realm in which confidence and complacency are ever likely to predominate. It’s not my intention to valorize any notion of suffering for art, but rather to accept the likelihood that producing good academic prose that we are willing to present to the public will be a struggle. Students often seek out writing instruction so that the writing process will become easier. However, in many cases, it’s more realistic to focus on writing better than to focus on lessening the emotional costs of writing. This acceptance of writing as an intrinsically challenging act seems particularly important for novice writers who often assume that the challenges come from their inexperience rather than from the very nature of academic writing.

Overall, while I see great benefit in understanding the dynamics of imposter syndrome, I want to be cautious about the idea that there is something wrong with us if we find academic writing deeply challenging. For most academic writers, the best course of action may be to acknowledge the psychic toll that writing takes and to focus on acquiring strategies to make both the writing and the writing process better.

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.”

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.

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.