Tag Archives: Revision

Writing and Not Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

The Discomforts of Uncertainty

One of the overarching themes of this blog is my faith in the power of writing as a way of clarifying what we are thinking. Just write. Let yourself write. Make yourself write. Nothing is set in stone. Try things out. Decide later if you want it. Writing alone will tell you whether something needed to be written. While I remain entirely committed to this notion, I think it is important to articulate the ways that this practice can be hard. After the great reaction to my last post on the inherent difficulties of academic writing, I thought it might make sense to devote some time to difficulties we are likely to encounter when trying to put common writing advice into practice. In this post, I’m going to talk about two ways that exploratory writing can be a source of discomfort.

In the first place, exploratory writing can be nerve-racking. Even if we tell ourselves that nothing is set in stone, we may still feel the weight of the chisel in our hands as we write. What if this isn’t what I need to say and what if I’m unable to change it later? ‘Write now, edit later’ may in fact be good advice, but we can still feel as though we are digging our own graves with every new word. At some point in the drafting process, most of us will lose faith in our own abilities as an editor. This feeling of dread requires delicate handling. Good writing rarely feels like good writing. So giving up on a direction in our text because we’ve decided it’s awful is a risky proposition. In general, I try to keep faith with my early drafts, forestalling my own anxiety with the recollection of all those times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a text that I thought was irredeemable. Of course, there are times when we need to cut our losses. I’ve talked about being willing to get rid of ‘perfectly good writing’ later through editing. But there may also be times when we need to pull the plug on the grounds that the incoherence feels unmanageable. A compromise option is to carry on while using a different font to signal to ourselves that we’re on thin ice. The simplest way of doing this is by using all caps, but a distinct colour or a fancy handwriting fonts (I like Segoe Script) can also work. The important thing is convince ourselves that we’re just spitballing. This lack of commitment can help us to overcome anxiety that might otherwise stop us from writing.

A second difficulty with exploratory writing can be the disorienting experience of returning to the text during editing. We may experience a kind of vertigo caused by a sudden uncertainty about what we actually want to say. Did we mean to say ‘A causes B’ or should it be ‘B causes A’? And how are such fundamental questions even possible? Shouldn’t we just know what we are trying to say? We naturally feel that the decision ought to be made on some bedrock of intention. Which is fine except that the unsaid is often still unknown, especially in the case of writing that is very abstract; the first draft is often the first opportunity to make a decision about meaning. We are rarely in the position of simply ‘writing down what we think’. Instead, we are putting words together in a way that then shapes meaning. Sometimes the editing process can show us—in a helpful way—what we’ve been trying to figure out in our heads. But other times it shows us puzzling statements that we may or may not be able to claim as our own. The demands of syntax or the limits of our ability to craft sentences can lead us to say things that we may not recognize. This experience can be alienating and can easily make ourselves doubt our own capacity as writers.

These two types of anxiety can both be traced back to a decision to use writing as a way of figuring out what needs to be said. To me, the other option—waiting to write until we know what we want to say—would be fine except that it doesn’t work for most people. Without the challenge of writing, most of us can’t articulate meaning. But if we are going to treat exploratory writing as an essential part of our process, we need to be aware of the anxiety it can produce, during both the writing and editing process. That anxiety, while unpleasant, isn’t a sign that things are going badly; on the contrary, the uncomfortable uncertainty of a first draft is often a sign that we are on our way to making the decisions necessary for a successful final draft.

Truth in Outlining

Recently I was working on a reverse outline of a text that I’d been struggling with. As I tried to write the outline, I could feel the basic incoherence of my text; it can be hard to write an outline when the paragraphs aren’t related to one another or even properly unified internally. But rather than let that incoherence become visible by honestly recording what I’d done, I began to nudge the outline into coherence. So I was left with a text that I knew was terrible, but an outline that allowed me to pretend that things were actually okay.

Despite the allure of the illusion that all was well, I did realize that I was cheating. Reluctantly, I returned to the document and did a proper reverse outline that showed what was wrong: necessary transitions were missing and the emphasis was misplaced. I was then able to rework the outline into a more coherent form, and, with that new-and-improved outline, I was able to revise the text. Problem solved. But the experience reminded me how easy it is to collapse the reverse outlining process by skipping the necessary step of creating a truthful and possibly terrible outline. Our immediate goal in reverse outlining isn’t the creation of a coherent outline. First, we must create an honest outline with all the warts showing; then we can craft a better outline that will act as a guide to revision. By collapsing those two steps into one, all I had done was paper over the ugly flaws in my early draft.

Reflecting on this experience reminded me of a recent reaction to reverse outlines from a student. After I described the process of creating a reverse outline, she argued that it was fine for all those people who write coherent first drafts but that it wouldn’t work for her. Clearly I wasn’t doing a very effective job in the classroom that day! First, I’d failed to make it clear that there aren’t any ‘people who write coherent first drafts’. Or maybe there are some, but they aren’t the norm, and aspiring to become one of those people can be a frustrating approach. Better to aspire to write coherent subsequent drafts and to allow those first draft to help you to figure out what you need to say about the topic. Second, I must have done a bad job describing the reverse outline itself because it is, in fact, the perfect strategy for handling chaotic first drafts. But it only works if we tell the absolute truth in the outline and don’t allow wishful thinking to creep in. The point is to find out what you’ve got. If you cheat—as I did above—you won’t be able to see that. Let the reverse outline do the work it was meant to do, even if that means confronting how far you still have to go.

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.

The Pace of Academic Writing

Chances are, if I praise a graduate student’s writing, I will hear something like this:

“Thanks, but it takes me so long.”

“It should be good, I worked on those two pages for three weeks.”

“Sure, but I’ll never be able to write a full thesis at this pace.”

It is rare, as I discussed last week, for anyone to express contentment with their academic writing. And it is common for those who have produced something they are happy with to feel that they spent too much time on it. Since the amount of time spent on writing is such a common concern, I thought I would suggest a few ways to think about the pace of academic writing:

1. Try to speed up by working towards a first draft without allowing yourself any early editing. There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. Even if you aren’t going to use a true freewriting approach, you can still force yourself to keep moving forward without giving your inner critic a chance to mess you up. Since writing more freely can leave us with a more chaotic document, I recommend using the ‘rough edit’ approach to make sure that you’ll be able to work with your text later.

2. Try to appreciate that writing simply is often a slow process. To figure out what we need to say, most of us have to produce a lot of words that may not end up in our final document. If you view that creative process as simply inefficient, you may end up feeling that your writing process is too slow; if, instead, you try to think about that process as both positive and inevitable, you may be able to change your own attitude towards efficiency and efficacy in your writing process. Since it can be hard to pull the plug on ‘perfectly good writing’, I suggest creating a repository for material that doesn’t appear to have a long-term future in your text.

3. Try to see how speed differs depending on what you are writing. Some aspects of your writing will take a long time, while others will yield to your attempts to speed up. Unfortunately, starting—for many people—can be the slowest part. These initial molasses moments can be frustrating in and of themselves and can also lead writers to extrapolate a dismal future: if it took me this long to write this much, my entire thesis will take a million years. Understanding and accepting the slow start without projecting the same pace throughout can help you persevere.

4. Try to identify the appropriate amount of time in the context of a given project. In other words, maybe there isn’t such a thing as too fast or too slow. Instead, it may be helpful to do a serious accounting of how much time you can give to a particular project. Some parts of our writing will simply take longer to write. But the pace of writing can also be affected by the amount of time we have; we may write the first three-quarters of something at a leisurely—or even torturous pace—only to find ourselves with no option except to pick up the pace to meet a deadline. This pattern can be instructive since it lets us know just how fast we can write. It also highlights the value of apportioning our time more rationally. The end stages of writing are the most significant, and we don’t want to shortchange them just because we are out of time.

If you do want to write more quickly—and again I’m not sure that is always the best aim—I suggest starting with your own writing temperament rather than with someone else’s notion of productivity. Last year, as Academic Writing Month wound down, I wrote a post in which I tried to provide an example of how to reflect on one’s own writing challenges. Once you have a better understanding of your own writing predilections and pitfalls, you can then take advantage of other people’s insights into productivity. Much of that advice will fall flat if it is taken as abstract truth; instead, we all need to figure out what productivity means to us and what strategies will get us where we need to go. The best pace for you may be faster or slower or some combination of the two depending on your writing temperament and the demands of the particular project.

“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.