Tag Archives: Reader awareness

Is It All Writing?

Today I’d like to write about a topic that I find perplexing: What is the best way to define the term ‘writing’? Should we use writing as an omnibus term for every aspect of creating a text? Or should we use it more narrowly to refer to the initial act of getting words down on paper? Undoubtedly, we all do both, depending on context. Sometimes we think of writing as a soup-to-nuts term for everything from conception to publication, and other times we think of it simply as the moment of composition, distinct from both planning and revising. While I’m far from consistent in my usage, I know that my tendency is to use the term broadly. Is this just a lack of precision on my part or is there a benefit to being inclusive in the way we define writing?

When I hear myself offering a broad definition of writing, I’m often reminded of a mama-and-baby yoga class that I attended when my first child was born. This class was full of babies nursing, babies getting changed, babies learning to crawl, babies being irresistible, but it wasn’t full of anyone doing yoga. And the teacher used to say, as each class would finish without any actual yoga having been practiced, “It’s all yoga!”. Which of course it wasn’t. It was good and yoga is good, but that didn’t make it yoga. In using a broad category of writing, we may be engaging in a similar sort of self-serving inclusivity. Sorting my sock drawer? Well, I can’t write with cold feet and I can’t find my favourite socks and … it’s all writing! In a post last year on not-writing, I talked about ways that not-writing can overwhelm our attempts to write. Needless to say, allowing ourselves to define writing too broadly can hamper our productivity. But is there any benefit to including planning and revising—both obviously essential steps in the creation of a text—in our concept of writing?

To my mind, the benefit of thinking of writing broadly is that doing so may allow us to deepen our commitment to planning and revising. When we think of writing narrowly, we are naturally treating it as separate from planning and revising. And if that separation works well for you, that’s exactly what you should do. For some writers, however, treating writing as a category that includes a broader range of activities can be a helpful strategy for dealing with persistent writing difficulties. If we think of planning as a species of writing, we can then use writing as a way of clarifying our own thinking. When we hold off writing in order to plan what we need to say, some of us will flounder. Being stalled in the pre-writing stage is pretty common in the students that I see; I often see writers who have pages and pages of outlines and sketches, but who don’t feel ‘ready to write’. I’m not saying that writing is the only solution, but I know that writing generates writing. Starting early may confirm that you are in fact not ready, but it also may generate the text that you need or may lead you to a better understanding of your own topic.

Similarly, if we think of revising as species of writing, we can then use writing as a tool for extensive revision. When we think of revision as distinct from writing, we may be less likely to engage in the sort of vigorous revision necessary to move from first to final draft. That is, when writing is seen more narrowly, revision can be seen as conceptually different from writing, making it more likely to become a limited project of cleaning up mistakes. That limitation shuts off the possibility of using rewriting as a way of radically strengthening a text. Overall, if we use early writing as our way of figuring out what needs to be said and late writing as our tool for reshaping our text into the most suitable form, we are more likely to break out of the insularity of our own internal thought processes. The act of writing always anticipates the public. By framing all our writing activities as writing, we may give ourselves greater access to the power of writing to organize and reorganize our thoughts.

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:

What Are Your Paragraphs Doing For You?

When I first started this blog, I decided that having key principles and strategies as a permanent part of the homepage would be efficient. I couldn’t properly envision what blogging would be like, but I did anticipate that there would be a tension between wanting each post to stand alone and yet to contribute to an overall picture of academic writing. Having some basic precepts accessible in manageable bits allows me to link back to them without disrupting the flow too much. Those original posts, however, tended to be both general and brief, meaning that certain aspects of the topics were given short shrift. Today, I’d like to talk more about paragraphs in order to discuss an issue that was mentioned only in passing in the original post.

In that post, I listed four things that I wished people knew about paragraphs; the first one was that they are very important. After making that pronouncement, I went on to discuss the other three in more detail: topic sentences, internal cohesion, and the rhetorical significance of length. But my claim about the preeminence of the paragraph was strangely lacking in elaboration. Recently I came across a quote that made me want to articulate my commitment to the paragraph with greater precision. In a post on his blog, Research as a Second Language, Thomas Basbøll made the following claim: “The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition.”

This assertion totally stopped me in my tracks. When you spend a lot of time making strong claims about a topic, it can be unsettling to see someone making an even stronger claim. I think of it as my job to say that paragraphs are super important, often in the face of sceptical students. In my experience, most graduate student writers take paragraphing insufficiently seriously. By this I mean that their paragraphs are generally too short, with inadequate attention to clear topics and thematic development. Many novice writers pay too much attention to individual sentences, on the one hand, and the whole text, on the other, leaving little attention left for paragraphs. But in all my exhortations to take paragraphs more seriously, I had never thought to say that they are the smallest unit of composition.

While I don’t ultimately think the claim is true, I admire how decisively it tries to counteract our preoccupation with sentences. I do love a beautiful sentence, but a desire for perfect sentences can be a trap for many writers. Too much attention to sentences—especially early in the drafting process—can slow us down and get in the way of vigorous editing. Most of us need to think more about the way sentences work together than we do because it is sentences-working-together-in-paragraphs that propels the text forward. This notion of the paragraph as the prime locus of narrative development lends credence to Basbøll’s claim. Any given sentence might let us down as readers, but we generally push on in the hopes that the paragraph will give us what we need. When the paragraph fails, it won’t necessarily matter if it is composed of strong sentences.

This valuable emphasis on paragraphs can’t, however, change the fact that sentences are our basic unit of composition. In fact, we have something of a natural mismatch: we write sentence-by-sentence, but readers attempt to digest our writing in bigger chunks. If we’re not intentional enough about those bigger chunks, our readers may have trouble discerning our meaning, even if each sentence is fine. As is so often the case with writing issues, this tension is best addressed through the revision process. Since we do compose in sentences, we are unlikely to shift our attention towards paragraphs during the initial drafting stage. But our editing process should be geared towards the eventual creation of strong paragraphs. One of the reasons that the reverse outline is such a powerful strategy is that it takes the paragraph as its fundamental unit of analysis. Paragraphs are as much engineered as they are written: we write in sentences, but we construct meaning by revising and rearranging those sentences  into coherent paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are underdeveloped or incoherent, it won’t matter so much that they may be made up of perfectly sound sentences. Academic writing is a matter of  accumulation; each individual sentence will only be able to carry so much weight. When we shift some of the focus away from sentence composition and towards paragraph construction, we are taking our reader’s needs into account and giving ourselves a way to increase the coherence of our text. By asking ourselves what our paragraphs are doing for us, we are improving our chances that our paragraphs are doing what our readers need them to do.

A Question of Parallelism

The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked if I could reprint a version of the letter here on the blog. The letter writer’s problem was simple, but extremely common: the almost-parallel sentence. The fact that the necessary changes are small doesn’t mean that they are insignificant.

Dear Rachael:

Could you please tell me if the punctuation in the following sentence is correct?

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador, and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here is a reworked version of my reply:

The problem with the punctuation in this sentence is inconsistency. These list items could be separated by either semicolons or commas, but the pattern should be followed consistently. Here are three options:

ONE: The same pattern, used consistently

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have learned the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

The simplest solution: use the same verb in all four instances and replace the final comma with a semicolon. The benefit of this approach is the emphasis that comes via the repetition of ‘I have learned’; that simple repetition can help to draw the reader’s attention to the four different experiences. The downside is the repetition and the limits imposed by using a single verb to express many different things.

TWO: A similar pattern, with four different verbs

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have experienced the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have demonstrated patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

In this case, the four different sentences are given different verbs. This version avoids repetition and gives the writer the opportunity to express more nuance.

THREE: A different pattern, with one verb followed by a list

I have learned many things from my work in the field: humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here, the list is placed after a single verb. This approach works well when repetition is undesirable and when that single verb applies equally well in all cases.

Overall, the writer must consider meaning, preference, and context to decide on the best way to establish parallelism. Once we identify faulty parallelism, our decision about how to fix it must be based on a renewed understanding of what we are trying to say. And once that meaning is clearer to us, we can make further refinements based on our own stylistic preferences and any particular demands of the context in which we are writing.

Finally, the original question asked only about punctuation, so I focused my revision on the punctuation and the structuring of the list. Parallelism, of course, also relies on parallel expression. In this example, parallelism could be further improved by a consistent use (or omission) of ‘while’ and by a more consistent pattern across the four sentences.

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 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.

Contribution and Voice in Academic Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Germano’s Snow Globes

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

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

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

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

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

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academic Writer as an Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving from Problem to Response

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

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

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

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

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