Tag Archives: Research

Links: Time Enough, What Not to Do, Writing Across Boundaries

This advice from the GradHacker blog is excellent: wanting and needing more time aren’t necessarily the same thing. We almost always feel that we could use more time with our academic writing projects; when there is no objective way to determine that something is finished, we are often reliant upon our own assessment of quality. Since our assessment of our own writing is frequently negative, we end up feeling that we need more time. But it is important to ask ourselves hard questions about our writing and to be aware of the potential for diminishing returns on time spent with that writing. What is the piece of writing? Who will read it? What sort of expectations will that reader have? In other words, what is ‘good enough’ in each case? We may lack the ability to make this judgement because we habitually only stop tinkering with a piece of writing when we are out of time. But think of the value of being able to determine sufficient quality on our own. With a developed sense of what is sufficient in each case, we are more likely to devote the appropriate amount of time to each of our writing projects, without getting stuck in a cycle of unproductive revisions.

Here is a great post from The Thesis Whisperer blog on mistakes that rookie researchers make. (This post is a few months old, and I would urge everyone to read her current post on thesis writing despair, too.) I think her specific advice here is very good, but I particularly like the overall approach of the ‘reverse list’; “I like a reverse list because it highlights the problem more than the suggested solutions, leaving you free to choose your own.” The beauty of being told what not to do is that you get forceful advice that doesn’t assume it has all the answers. In other words, bossyness that doesn’t tell people what to do. Getting a PhD, needless to say, has as many ‘right ways’ to do it as there are doctoral students; while this is true, thesis writers—in their periodic moments of quiet writing desperation—aren’t looking for relativism or anodyne truisms. They want real advice, and I think the reverse list is a great way to deliver that advice: it doesn’t presume to tell you what to do, but it does use the benefit of experience to highlight some consistently unproductive paths.

The Writing Across Boundaries project from Durham University offers reflections on academic writing from established academics. These reflections—varied and extremely interesting—give novice writers a chance to see that polished and assured academic writing is still accompanied by struggle and self-doubt. These reflections all come from social science writers, but I think their insights are applicable to the broader academic writing community.

My links posts are a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

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Links: Drafts and Formatting, Teaching and Productivity, Writing and Relativism

Here is something from the new Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education on excessive formatting in manuscripts. The author, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, is making an important point about manuscripts: editors don’t want complex formatting. All that formatting just has to be stripped out, a process which is time-consuming and which can, potentially, lead to inadvertent changes to the material. As a writing instructor, my interest—as I have mentioned before—is keeping drafts free of fancy formatting and thus keeping them easy to revise. As I write this, I realize that enthusiastic formatting may be more than just a random phenomenon, at least in my writing process. I’m pretty sure I turn to formatting for comfort when writing is going badly; the less confidence I have in what I am writing, the more likely I am to start messing around with fonts and footers and subheads. That way, even if my work sounds terrible, at least it will look like a real paper. Needless to say, this is a counterproductive strategy. Not only does the premature formatting add nothing, it may well act as an impediment to digging into a draft and making substantive changes.

Here is a report from Newswise on some new research on STEM students who supplement research with teaching. The research suggests that time spent teaching may actually improve students’ abilities “to generate testable hypotheses and design experiments around those hypotheses”. The researchers suggest that this improvement may simply come from the process of explaining complex issues to students and from having to look at research problems from multiple perspectives. The findings make intuitive sense, so it is interesting that teaching and other activities are so often seen as distractions for graduate students rather than as valuable professional development.

Finally, here are some remarks from William Zinsser on the cultural dimensions of learning to write in English. His audience is journalism students, but the ideas may also be of interest to academic writers more generally. Most multilingual graduate students will benefit from having a good working understanding of how academic writing in English may differ from academic writing in their other language(s). Of course, no writing teacher will want to reify the cultural differences in academic writing. But students themselves—through alert reading and sensitive comparisons—can come to a valuable understanding of different practices of academic writing. I think that some relativism about ‘good academic writing’ is of value to students who may otherwise feel that there are universal standards of academic writing that are simply oblique to them.

Links: Writing More Quickly, Reading Styles, Relating to Your University

Explorations on Style is now on Twitter. If you are so inclined, you can follow me @explorstyle. I will tweet new posts and related links. In the event of breaking news in the area of academic writing, I am now ready!

Here are a few articles that I found interesting as I attempted to catch up after my vacation (it wasn’t easy to narrow it down—Google Reader left unattended for a month is an alarming thing!).

Here is something from Slate on writing more quickly. The author comes to two key conclusions: one, writing is intensely cognitively difficult for almost everyone (so, it’s not just you); and, two, surmounting those difficulties requires sustained hard work and the application of familiar principles (so, there are no quick fixes). An efficient writing process generally requires adequate preparation, realistic goals, and a regular commitment to writing. Even though this article isn’t saying anything new about the challenges of writing, it does a good job conveying the psychological toll that writing can take. That psychological toll seems to be exacerbated by the persistent sense that writing is somehow harder than it should be. I think many writers would benefit from the awareness that writing simply is that hard: writing is a complex process of thinking and not a simple matter of reporting what we already know.

Here is something from The Chronicle of Higher Education on deep attention and hyper attention. The author’s own interest is the role of deeply attentive reading in an undergraduate education; his interesting contention is that education generally requires something other than deeply attentive reading. My interest, however, is in the perennial question of how we should read the crazy amount of material available to us. I’ve posted articles on this before; I think I am drawn to this topic because managing our reading time is crucial to our eventual ability to write about what we know. For many people, reading is easier than writing; for a smaller group of people—of whom I am one—writing is easier than reading, an inclination that comes with its own set of challenges. For the perpetual readers, good strategies for reading are essential if they are to be able to get to the writing stage. For those of us who rush the reading to get to the writing, good strategies for reading are also essential if we are to have the mastery of the topic that underlies good writing.

Finally, here is something from The Thesis Whisperer about the university as a bad boyfriend. What I particularly liked about this post is the tone: realism without bitterness. Finding this stance vis-à-vis the university seems crucial if we are to hold our institutions accountable without succumbing to hyperbole or despair. There are, of course, many reasons to be critical of our institutions. And it can be intellectually satisfying to hone those critiques. But if you are staying within the university, it is also necessary to know how to engage with the university in a way that will be personally fulfilling.

Links: Supporting Scientific Innovation, Libraries and Abundance, Writing to Your Dissertation

Explorations of Style will be taking next week off; I have to travel for a conference and, first, to make that travel worthwhile, have to write the paper I will be presenting at the conference. The presentation is on the role this blog plays in my classroom teaching, so don’t imagine the lack of posts means I’m not still thinking about the blog all the time. I will return with something new—or at least something adapted from my presentation on blogging and teaching—on June 1st. See you then! I will leave you with a few weekly links.

Here is a great piece from Slate on the best model for funding innovative scientific work. Tim Harford offers a fascinating discussion of the relationship between funding—both public and private—and scientific progress.

While I don’t know much about libraries, I am sure that those of us who benefit from university libraries ought to listen to what librarians have to say about the sustainability of the current model of managing collections. Here is something from Barbara Fister, writing at Inside Higher Ed. I particularly like the way she uses a food analogy, stressing the need to think about sustainability even in the face of apparent abundance.

Finally, from McSweeney’s, here is someone’s letter to his dissertation. This letter is part of their series of ‘Open letters to people or entities who are unlikely to respond’. I am obliged, of course, to say that you would be better off writing your dissertation than writing to your dissertation. But I found this line funny: “You probably sense that I am a little frustrated, the way that I spend time with you every day but it’s never quality time, the way you are always on my mind but we never seem to get anywhere.” (Thanks to The Thesis Whisperer for the link.) If you spend any time with your thesis over the weekend, I hope it is quality time.

Links: National Inquirer meets Scientific Research, Social Media and Academics, DIY Academic Sentence Generator

This article from Inside Higher Ed describes an attempt by the Association of American Universities (AAU) to defend scientific research from mockery and poorly informed funding cuts. Make sure you follow the link that the article provides to the Scientific Inquirer: it will take you to the inaugural issue of a faux tabloid that the AAU has created to show how easy it is to make valuable peer-reviewed research sound daft and wasteful.

Here is something from The Chronicle of Higher Education on social media use among academics. The author summarizes a new report from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, a report which found that academics are using social media for “collaborative writing, conferencing, sharing images, and other research-related activities”. Interestingly, the researchers found that the biggest users of social media were scholars from the social sciences and humanities; they suggest that the appeal of social media for these scholars may be the increased speed of dissemination. The Scholarly Kitchen provides a nuanced and critical response to the study, focusing in particular on the fact that ‘social media’ has been defined so broadly in this study as to be potentially meaningless.

Finally, if you have some extra time on your hands this weekend, The University of Chicago Writing Program has a great game for you: Write Your Own Academic Sentence. Here is my first attempt: ‘The linguistic construction of the gaze invests itself in the historicization of agency.’ To get the full effect, you need to use the ‘Edit It’ option on your sentence. Once you are satisfied, you can even get a second opinion from a virtual critic: ‘Your desultory treatment of the linguistic construction of the gaze deserves the obscurity into which it has fallen.’ Hopefully, once you are done playing, you’ll be able to get back to writing sentences that don’t sound like this!

P.S. I mentioned the Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities project last week. If you are interested in seeing how this project is shaping up, you can follow blogs from all the participants here.

Links: Same As It Ever Was, Revision and Sprezzatura, Writing as Habit

Here is a review in Times Higher Education of a book about the management of scholarly information in the medieval and early modern world. The reviewer calls it a prehistory of our current predicament and argues that there is nothing new about our feeling that there is ‘too much to know’. I am interested in the idea that we have always needed strategies for managing information, that reading ‘the whole thing’ has never been a simple norm in scholarly work.

In this article from the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Greenblatt discusses the invisible labour of writing: writers revise endlessly, but readers only see final versions. Greenblatt’s interest is Shakespeare and the notion of sprezzatura, but these ideas are also relevant for academic writing. We might make more time for revision if we understood how much revision goes into published work. Imagining that everything comes easier to other people may be tempting, but it will not help us commit to extensive revision.

Finally, a blog post from The Thesis Whisperer that I could not resist. It starts with an anecdote about infant sleep patterns and moves on to some astute observations about the role of habit in writing. Every parent of a newborn knows (or has been told) that ‘sleep breeds sleep’; could it be equally true that ‘writing breeds writing’? And is it possible that we resist writing as vigorously as babies resist sleeping? The post goes on to suggest that one obstacle to good writing habits may be the absence of an obvious audience; to counteract this anti-social aspect of writing, the post lists some interesting questions designed to bring our potential audience into focus while we write.

Key Sources

Today’s post will discuss the sources that I find most helpful for academic writing. This list could be longer, of course, but it was abridged intentionally: these are the five books that I would not want to write without.

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

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

Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Written by a professional editor, this books attempts to demystify the process of sentence-level editing so that writers can understand and improve their own sentences. It also has two helpful appendices: one, a technical discussion of the parts of a sentence and, two, a glossary of ‘questionable usage’. Cook has a deep understanding of sentence-level problems and a subtle approach to solving those problems; this book can be a great resource but it requires a willingness to dive into a technical treatment of grammatical issues.

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

Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). This valuable text offers a comprehensive approach to revising complex prose into a form that is optimal for the reader. After an interesting discussion of the causes of bad writing, Williams offers four main lenses through which to approach style: clarity, cohesion, coherence, and concision. The book concludes with two additional chapters, one on elegance and one on usage. The chapter on elegance offers modest guidance about what we can do to our clear, coherent, and concise prose in order to make it even better. Finally, the chapter on usage offers a delightful discussion of the nature of rules in writing, one which leaves the reader with far fewer rules and far more insight into the history of linguistic infighting. Throughout, the text is animated by Williams’s belief that managing complexity so that readers can understand what is being expressed is a key social responsibility facing any writer. Note: This book has appeared in many forms and editions since its original appearance as a textbook in 1981. The edition discussed here is widely available at the lowest cost.

When asked to recommend one book about writing for graduate students, I usually choose The Craft of Research. I think this book is the most valuable because graduate students rarely have writing tasks that are not also research tasks. Placing writing in the context of a research agenda is usually fruitful for graduate students. And if more engagement with issues of style is required, The Craft of Research does have a great chapter on style, one which fully reflects Williams’s approach to sound writing.

Note: A more extensive list of books on writing can be found in a later post, “Can you recommend a good book on writing?”.