Tag Archives: Resources

“Can you recommend a good book on writing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thesis Writing Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From @seburnt, a helpful blogroll on language teaching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From @ThomsonPat, distinguishing your method from your methodology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shouldn’t I already know how to write?”

The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked the letter writer if I could reprint an edited version of the letter here on the blog. I thought it might be helpful to do so because the letter contains such a common assumption among novice academic writers. Graduate students so often think of writing ability as something they just ought to have. It is crucial to realize that not having those writing skills yet isn’t a mark of inadequacy.

Dear Rachael:

I am a PhD student. I constantly struggle with my professors about the clarity of my writing. I agree that my writing isn’t clear, but I am not sure how to correct this problem. I have no time to really think about the detailed feedback they give me. How do I make that feedback into teachable moments for myself? Fortunately, my university has writing tutors for PhD students, but I am often pressed for time due to deadlines.

I think back to my primary and secondary education and wonder what went wrong.  I have some ideas, but do I really need to take my childhood education into consideration? Writing down what you are thinking is a skill, right? Or are there those who are blessed with an ability to write?

I feel like I am a ‘fraud’ given the way that writing is hampering my progress through my doctorate.  Can you offer any advice?

Here is my response, substantially reworked for the purposes of this post:

Academic writing is absolutely a skill and not one that can be inadvertently picked up along the way. Some people will possess natural talent, of course, but most of us need time and effort to learn how to communicate sophisticated ideas in a manner commensurate with the demands of a given discourse community. I think it is very important to resist the notion that one is a ‘fraud’ for not already being an expert in academic writing; graduate school is precisely the place where people will learn to be academic writers. Expecting yourself to be one already creates an unnecessary burden. Needless to say, I also object to the way that faculty often contribute to this dynamic by talking about writing skill as something that their students ought to already have. Students will begin graduate study with widely divergent writing skills, but none will start where they need to end up. And it is unrealistic to imagine that navigating this trajectory will be effortless. By taking writing seriously—by treating it as an integral part of the scholarly enterprise—we can simultaneously remove the shame of being a so-called ‘bad writer’ and start improving our writing abilities.

So what does the imperative to treat academic writing as a project actually mean in concrete terms? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Accept that feedback on your writing isn’t a referendum on your competence as a scholar. You need to be open to feedback in order to improve. Not working with that feedback—for reasons of either pride or preoccupation—will ultimately be a short-sighted decision.
  • That said, recognize that it’s incredibly common for graduate students to find the comments on their writing oblique and unhelpful. For instance, being told that our writing is unclear gives us almost nothing to go on. As Joseph Williams says, “Neither awkward nor turgid are on the page” (Style, p. 17). In other words, looking for many of the qualities that people identify in your writing can be a fruitless endeavour because those qualities refer to the reader’s experience of your prose. Being told that your writing is unclear can be a necessary first step, but you will need strategies if you are going to make any improvements.
  • Try to learn about those writing strategies from people who are experts in writing. Writing tutors (if you have access to them) can give you the insight into your writing that you may not be getting from other readers. Learning to supplement the crucial feedback you are getting from your professors and supervisors with broader writing support can help you to move towards competency and autonomy in academic writing. 
  • Finally, keep the thesis writing stage firmly in your sights. Whatever writing difficulties are experienced early on, the orientation towards writing will necessarily shift during the full-time thesis writing stage. Keeping that step in mind can help overcome any initial sense that focusing on writing will take up time that ought to be devoted to elsewhere. The good news for some students is that the degree of focus during the thesis writing stage sometimes allows more time to attend to the writing itself. When there are fewer demands to dilute their attention and when writing itself takes up a greater proportion of their time, some graduate students are able to approach writing as an essential element of their work, with a commensurate improvement in their experience of writing.

Overall, banishing pernicious thoughts about what we should ‘already’ know will allow us to move ahead with the development of our academic writing skills. The ubiquity of writing can paradoxically obscure its legitimate importance as an area of study. Just because we do it all the time, doesn’t mean we already know how—and graduate school is the perfect time to embrace the challenge of becoming an academic writer.

Autonomy and Doctoral Study

In addition to writing about the topics on my mind, I enjoy using this space to talk about the topics on other people’s minds. Pat Thomson had a recent post on methods assignments and methods chapters that was fascinating to me. She was writing about the possibility that a certain notion of doctoral training might have deleterious consequences for how doctoral writers conceive of their intellectual task: “I’m worried that in instituting doctoral ‘training’ courses, we might have extended the under and taught postgraduate assignment genre, and everything it means, into doctoral research.” The specifics of her concern are connected to the shape and conditions of the doctorate in the UK, but the question of how much disciplinary training ought to be given to doctoral students is of broader interest.

My own doctoral education was pretty much a matter of trial and error; the overwhelming message was ‘we trust you, you’ll figure it out’. We were, by many measures, neglected, although we preferred to think of it as European (sounds better). From the very outset, we were expected to come up with our own topics—and our own due dates, but that’s another story—and our own reading lists. Those who finished the program (and many did not) were generally ready to take responsibility for an autonomous research agenda. While that sounds positive, the fact remains that the time-to-degree was unmanageable and the attrition rates were unacceptable.

It is with this slightly Darwinian back story that I now teach academic writing to graduate students. My biggest initial adjustment in this position was grasping the degree of support and scaffolding that my current university provides to doctoral students. To be clear, I think the growth of a supportive infrastructure surrounding doctoral education is an excellent thing. And so I was intrigued by the suggestion that doctoral training could have the unintended consequence of diminishing the extent to which doctoral students are able to inhabit their new role as researchers. I realize that this is somewhat dicey territory. I have absolutely no desire to be the person blathering on about my uphill walk both ways! Nor do I think that suffering should be replicated out of habit or misplaced ideas about its value. But I also know some of the frustration I see in some doctoral students comes from a certain stasis in the role of student. The shift away from student toward researcher can be facilitated but cannot, by definition, be taught. Autonomy will come from experience, not instruction. As I have discussed before in this space, I believe that doctoral writers need to avail themselves of a range of resources in order to gain the confidence and competence to occupy their new role.

As always, I will end this links post with things that I have recently shared on Twitter; since my last links post was in mid-December, there’s lots of great stuff!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @StanCarey, a strong endorsement of the singular ‘they’. Bonus: you won’t be forced to use ‘thou’ for the sake of consistency!

From @thesiswhisperer, having a key word to act as a theme or rubric for the year. My word: habit.

From @joshmkim, how inbox=zero has worked for him. A great way to make more rational decisions about what tasks to do when.

From @thesiswhisperer, a great @DocwritingSIG post on “working in the deep end of the methods pool”. Very helpful!

From @PhD2Published, a summary of the January 24th #acwri chat on the value of Twitter for academic writing.

From @phdcomics, a brutal comic on the perils of conference presentations. Don’t let any of this happen to you!

From @ntos, a great cartoon about blogging in academia

My favourite non-academic blogger (from the Dinner: A Love Story blog) has great advice about starting and managing a blog.

From the Lingua Franca blog, William Germano gives you all the ‘catfish’ puns you could ask for.

From @scholarlykitchn, a useful discussion of the systems in place for pre- and post-publication peer review.

From @ThomsonPat, a post on blogging identity: crafting private ‘texts’ (for instance, teaching conversations) into public and enduring ones.

From @professorisin, tough, helpful advice on crafting a teaching philosophy that doesn’t rely on emotion, aspiration.

From @GradHacker, an argument for the cognitive benefits of using pen and paper.

From @utpress, a new grammar feature on their blog: When to use a semicolon and a colon?

From the Academic Life in Emergency Medicine blog, reflections on becoming a peer-reviewed blog

@MacDictionary asks whether adverbs imply ill-chosen verbsCould your writing stand to lose a few adverbs?

From @fishhookopeneye, an argument for vibrant presentations regardless of disciplinary dictates. Here’s my take on the same question.

From @PhD2Published, a short discussion of typical patterns in research article conclusions.

From @raulpacheco, a great Storify on how academics can benefit from Twitter.

From John Tierney in the New York Times, an account of ‘positive procrastination‘: can you trick yourself into getting the important stuff done?

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on concentration, energy, laziness, adrenaline, and completion in our academic work.

From @StanCarey, a discussion of prepositions at the end of sentences, with the best example ever.

From @GradHacker, thoughts about the fine line between pernicious and productive anxiety.

From @AltAcademix, suggestions on expanding career preparation during doctoral study.

People are always trying to get forestall usage that irks them. I love this project to revive neglected words instead.

From @scholarlykitchn, interesting comments on online comments and the lack thereof.

From Inside Higher Ed, Barbara Fister on the way excess negativity can preclude much-needed rational responses to real challenges.

From The Onion, 4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

The first #acwri chat of the year talked about resolutions and motivation.

From @MacDictionary, a useful discussion of nominalizations and communicative goals.

From The Monkey Cage blog, JSTOR Cracks the Door.

From @UVenus, lovely reflections on superstition amidst rationality in our scholarly routines.

From @StanCarey, the need to question but not demonize nominalizations.

From McSweeney’s, some irreverent writing advice.

From @qui_oui, a great take on the balancing act performed by contemporary graduate students.

From @poynter, an entertaining list of media mistakes, corrections, apologies, hoaxes, typos, &c from 2012.

From @PhD2Published, a Storify of #AcWriMo success stories.

From the Crooked Timber blog, an excellent defense of Erik Loomis.

From the When in Academia tumblr, an accurate depiction of me and today’s blog post.

From @ThomsonPat, how to prepare to write a conclusion by returning to the commitments made at the outset.

This piece in The New Yorker made me think how a thesis can alternate between being a focal point and being a distraction.

From @PhD2Published, reflections and a Storify on conference presentations on social media and academics.

From Inside Higher Ed, a great round-up of a year’s worth of MOOC-related commentary.

Writing at @DocwritingSIG, @thesiswhisperer has some recommendations (including some kind words about @explorstyle).

From @ThomsonPat, a precise and perceptive account of what can go wrong in a thesis conclusion.

Links: Finding Online Communities

This week, PhD2Published had a post on using Google+ by Daniel Spielmann. In this post, Spielmann argues for the value of Google+ as a way of creating an online professional community (or what some call a ‘personal learning environment’). I haven’t (yet) found a role for Google+ in my life; in fact, a quick check of my Google+ page shows that I have three in my circles and that I am in six circles belonging to other people. And I probably said that wrong because I don’t really understand how circles work. Spielmann makes a strong case for using Google+ as a way of structuring a space for professional communication, a space that falls between blogging and microblogging. In particular, he suggests that Google+ has real advantages over Twitter: no restrictions on length; a greater ability to track conversations; the wherewithal to include media and not just links; and, finally, integration into the broader suite of Google products allowing easy video conferencing and file sharing. He also provides a helpful list of steps to getting started with Google+. These suggestions are tailored to Google+, but also act as a good road map for getting started with any form of social media.

The particular type of social media that we ought to be using is well outside my expertise. I’m on Twitter because a critical mass of people interested in writing studies and doctoral education are there, not because I can make a sustained argument for its superiority. I use Facebook for fun and Twitter for work (although ‘fun’ and ‘work’ dovetail beautifully on Twitter), and I don’t feel an immediate need for anything else. But Spielmann’s account of why Google+ is useful works as a statement of why any social media can be useful for academics: social media is a place to learn and share without geographical or scheduling constraints. By allowing the creation of organic networks—both broad and narrow—where people can come together without structural barriers, social media can form a valuable part of the professional support we all need. Spielmann’s post stresses the value of Google+ but, in doing so, also ends up describing the overall value of finding the right online communities for you.

I’ll be back next week with my post-AcWriMo reflections, including an unflinching assessment of my dismal performance!

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @PhD2Published, a writing productivity app for academics: ‘It tracks your writing journey in a way that suits you.’

More from Inside Higher Ed on perfectionism: How we may be ‘over-functioning’ in some areas to the detriment of others such as writing.

@ThomsonPat adds some nuance to the ‘just write’ advice.

From @thesiswhisperer, a fun post on how to practice academic writing.

From @ACW, the first post in a new series from @readywriting sharing her experience with the academic writing process.

From @ThomsonPat, the sixth in her series on literature reviews—a rare and valuable glimpse into other people’s research processes.

From @PhD2Published, a delightful discussion of how to plan a writing retreat. I wish I could go on one right now!

From @MeganJMcPherson, a great Storify of an Anthony Pare talk at RMIT University in Melbourne.

From @ProfessorIsIn, a lovely post on creativity and confidence.

From @qui_oui, a great post on how little we know about the optimal training for doctoral students.

From Inside Higher Ed, the third in their series on perfectionism in academia: how to write more productively.

From @StanCarey, a renewed call to abandon the confusing that/which distinction.

@3monththesis disagrees with the conventional wisdom on academic perfectionism; I’m intrigued but still unconvinced.

From @ThomsonPat, the next entry in her great series on doing a lit review: ‘Stepping back to focus in’.

From @DocwritingSIG, a discussion of the thesis genre as a form of hospitality to the reader.

The only thing better than @AcaCoachTaylor is @AcaCoachTaylor getting iterative.

A cartoon to remind us that nothing gets people’s attention like making a mistake in your writing.

Could a project management approach help you with your thesis? @GradHacker has some ideas about using these techniques.

Are graduate students facing greater expectations today than in past? Interesting reflections from @fishhookopeneye.

Using Resources for Thesis Writing

As a graduate writing instructor, I think about thesis writing much of the time. And this week I am thinking about the topic even more than usual. I am starting a new thesis writing course this afternoon, and I am making a presentation at a conference on Friday on thesis writing as professional development. Since thesis writing is all that I’ll be thinking about anyway, I thought I would devote today’s post to the idea of using resources for thesis writing.

In my presentation on Friday, I am going to discuss how a thesis writing course can be a valuable form of professional development for graduate students. Simply put, writing instruction becomes professional development when it focuses on the writer rather than on a particular piece of writing. As long as thesis writers see their goal as merely surviving the ordeal of writing a thesis, they are not likely thinking about their long-term development as academic writers. My presentation will focus on two ways that thesis instruction can encourage this sort of professional development. First, a thesis course can present the notion of thesis as genre, an approach which opens students’ minds to a new dimension to their responsibilities as writers; not only are they trying to complete a particular research task, they are also trying to convey that research in a form that is meaningful and valuable to the research community they seek to join. Second, a thesis course can also discuss the resources necessary for a student to thrive during the thesis writing process. It is this second aspect that I wish to touch on here today.

When I speak about resources in the thesis course, I am doing so in order to make students aware that there are so many resources available and that they can significantly improve their own writing process by availing themselves of such resources. Too often, I encounter students whose ‘writing resource’ is their supervisor; in some cases, of course, this works well, but more often it leaves the student feeling under-supported. Thesis writers generally need to move from thinking of themselves as fully dependent on a supervisor to thinking of themselves as developing academic writers who can take advantage of a range of resources. The sort of resources I have in mind include books on thesis writing; completed theses, especially if they are linked by a shared supervisor or by similar topics, methodology, etc.; thesis writing groups; courses on thesis writing or on academic writing more generally; published work in the student’s own field; and blogs about the thesis writing process. 

Such resources are plentiful (and multiplying rapidly), so I’ll mention just one today. I particularly want to recommend The Thesis Whisperer. This site presents wide-ranging advice that is both accessible and wise. Broad topics include the writing process; working with a supervisor; the oral presentation component of thesis completion; using new technologies in the writing process; productivity and other psychological aspects of the writing process; publishing considerations; and general research support. Anyone writing a thesis will find some parts of this advice, with its warm and supportive tone, helpful and relevant. It is impossible, of course, for any source of support to be universally applicable; a necessary part of using a broad range of resources is developing the ability to distinguish between advice that is appropriate for your circumstance and advice that would be better suited for someone else (for instance, someone working in a different country or someone from a different discipline or someone with a different theoretical framework). That is, even the most general advice is inevitably rooted in a particular context, and we all must learn to ‘read’ advice and support in such a way that its value for us becomes apparent.

Taking advantage of an expanding range of resources is a way of improving the thesis writing process. Although we all know that we are not actually the first person ever to write a thesis, many of us instinctively approach our writing life as though we were. Figuring it out as we go along; hoping for the best; using trial and error to make key decision; treating a supervisor as the only source of support and feedback—all of these strategies tend to isolate us and keep us unnecessarily apart from the community of thesis writers. If you are writing a thesis, take stock of your current situation so that you can find the resources that will ultimately improve your life as a writer.

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?”.