Tag Archives: Revision

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.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

Between Drafting and Editing

Over the weekend, I went poking around in my own archives to look for posts that might be helpful for other people embroiled in AcWriMo. What I found was a lot of writing advice that presupposed the existence of some sort of draft. Some posts were explicitly geared towards the editing phase: committing to extensive revision; reverse outlines; and remembering to edit. Many other posts concerned the sorts of things that I wouldn’t recommend attending to during the initial writing phase: making effective transitions; crafting strong paragraphs; creating clear sentences with topic subjects and action verbs; working with problem sentences; letting go of passages we no longer need; reconciling our best laid plans with our actual drafts; and the perils of local cohesion.

I’m obviously not surprised that the bulk of my advice concerns working with drafts. I’m very hesitant to interfere with the beautiful mystery of getting words down on paper; I’ve got a healthy respect for the alchemy that allows us to turn thoughts into prose. Editing, on the other hand, is emphatically un-mysterious, requiring a hyper-rational attention to the principles of sound academic writing. So I began this blog with a recommendation to use writing to clarify thinking and then turned my attention to the more manageable process of revising our own work. The essentially ungovernable writing process has been left largely untouched. But in light of AcWriMo, I want to offer one piece of advice related to the early drafting process.

When we write as a way of clarifying our own thinking, we are often engaging in a somewhat chaotic process. We may not be writing to a specific plan, with a neat outline to guide us along the way. Instead, we may be trying things out and experimenting with different phrasings and switching course and just generally endeavouring—through trial and error—to find the best path. Later we can use various revision strategies to make sense of it all and turn it into something suitable for the reader. The value of separating writing and revising is clear: on the one hand, you get the full freedom of the writing process and, on the other, you get time to transform that text into something suited to its eventual audience. But this dichotomy between drafting and editing can be taken too far, so I want to talk about an intervening space: not quite editing, but beyond drafting.

Have you ever come back to a rough—emphasis on rough—draft and been unable to figure out what is going on? It’s great to free the writing process from the burdens of editing, but not if you are going to end up with a text that is ambiguous or opaque. Depending on your own writing processes and the demands of the particular project, the revision stage can be far removed from the writing stage. No matter how much we imagine that we’ll always remember what we know now,  we simply won’t. We all need to take steps to ensure that our future selves will understand what they are looking at. To this end, I suggest leaving a short block of time at the close of each writing session for rough editing.

This short block of time will allow you to do three things. First, you can clean up obvious errors so the text will make sense to you later. For example, during a recent round of rough editing, I found an errant ‘not’ in a sentence; it was obviously there because I had been experimenting with expressing the thought in a positive or negative way. I had chosen the positive expression but had failed to remove the ‘not’. Figuring this out took me very little time because I still remembered having struggled with this sentence. In a week or two, I might not remember and would have had to engage in a more complicated process to figure out what was going on. A quick read through—scrupulously resisting the urge to do any fine editing—can save you from great bafflement later. Second, you can take this limited time to record your quick reactions to the text so far. Switch to all-caps (or to a different font or colour) and comment on what you see. Have I done enough with this idea? Should this be here? Is the work of so-and-so relevant here? You may not have time to answer these questions right then, but you should have a system for capturing them. Third, the rough edit can be a great time to set yourself up to start your next session of writing. Whenever possible, leave yourself some sort of instructions that will greet you the next time you open the document. A concrete suggestion about the first thing you should do when you sit down to write will help you get underway and will make the prospect of returning to your text much more appealing.

I realize that this post is based on a particular assumption about AcWriMo. Judging from my Twitter feed (one Pomodoro, two Pomodoros, …), it sounds like lots of people are doing more drafting than editing this month. But that may or may not be true. I think the beauty—as I discussed last week—of the way AcWriMo has been framed this time is that anyone can use it as a way to spur productivity in whatever way they need. AcWriMo could be a month dedicated to intensive editing rather than drafting. However, since I do get the sense that lots of people are taking this month as a chance to embark on the initial writing of the texts they need to produce, I thought I would talk about the steps we can take to make sure that our eventual return to those texts isn’t too much of a shock. Happy writing, everyone!

A Cut-and-Paste Job

I recently met with a colleague to talk about his dissertation. As we read through his theoretical framework, I questioned the way that framework was being articulated. In response, he said that he had actually written it for a different context and then later imported it into its current location. It struck me how often I have a variant of this conversation: I say to a student that something in the flow or the perspective or the tone seems a bit off, and the student tells me that the material was ‘cut and paste’ from somewhere else. In some cases, this is said apologetically while, in others, this practice is treated as routine. Either way, the practice of cutting—or, more accurately, copying—and pasting is an interesting writing dilemma. And whether or not it is a good idea, we all do it all the time.

On the one hand, putting old text into a new document means that—Presto!—the new text has grown with very little effort. However, it isn’t coincidental that ‘a cut-and-paste job’ is used colloquially to indicate something that isn’t particularly well done; we naturally expect that something designed for one context won’t be as good in another. Text will almost always carry with it traces of its provenance. More importantly, using old text denies ourselves a chance to write that same material again from our current perspective. When I augment a document in this particular fashion, I always do so over a muffled objection in the back of my mind. I can always feel the way the imported text doesn’t fit in its new home and the way that I may have missed a chance to say it anew, to say it better.

Despite all these reservations, I am not actually suggesting that importing text is always a bad idea. Why not? Because early drafts are allowed to be weak, and getting to a complete first draft can be a huge step forward. Yes, there is still lots of work to be done, but having all the pieces can be significant. Once the basics are in place—including the imported text—we can turn our attention to the difficult business of making the full text work. I will sound one obvious note of caution: importing existing text into a new document can be a mistake if you’re not already committed to extensive revision. But if you are willing to engage in full-scale revision, you may benefit from experimenting with different bits of writing from other places. Even if this type of first draft will have even less cohesion than a conventional first draft, we can still use it a springboard for getting to a better understanding of our overall communicative intentions.

When my colleague went off to alter the way he presented his theoretical framework, he was doing so on the basis of a full draft of his chapter. He could have been stuck at his computer trying to sort out the one perfect way to present his theoretical framework; instead, he had put together a full draft that allowed him to show it to an outside observer. And talking to me about the draft allowed him to see things that still weren’t quite working. So while the cut and paste didn’t exactly ‘work’, it did do its job well enough to get him to the next editing stage. Sometimes that is what we need.

After completing this post, I read a great post by Pat Thomson responding to the Why Writing from Day One is Nuts post in The Thesis Whisperer. Her title (Writing the Thesis from Day One is Risky) and her discussion are both very helpful. Thomson does a great job of explaining how a deep understanding of the intellectual-identity-formation tasks of thesis writing make it difficult to advocate a strategy of collecting bits and pieces composed along the way. Thomson’s insights helped me to understand that the tolerance for cutting and pasting evinced above and the enthusiasm for writing early evinced in last week’s post come from the same place: a belief in the stimulating effect of seeing our own drafts (however rough they may be) and a faith in the efficacy of rewriting through editing. But she also gave me reason to question the depth of my attachment to those assumptions—and I greatly appreciate that. I will take these ongoing questions with me into a new section of my thesis writing course (which begins later today!) and look forward to returning to them in the coming months.

Can You Write Too Early?

The Thesis Whisperer had a guest post this week with the headline Why writing from day one is nuts.* The suggestion that writing early isn’t a good idea runs directly counter to a great deal of thesis writing advice (including that given in this blog). The post, written by James Hayton (who blogs at The Three Month Thesis), posits that writing from the get-go is unproductive. Hayton argues that writing done early isn’t useful because the writer will struggle to know what to say, will produce weak writing, and will end up with a morass of text that will be hard to transform into something usable. He also claims that early writing can be an ill-advised attempt to impress, but I think this is more a personal experience than a general problem. Finally, he talks about the danger of too much writing—and, yes, I did find that a difficult phrase to type!—because writing without an immediate goal may get us in the habit of not finishing our projects. I will return to this point below, after looking at his main point: that early writing will be poorly informed, weak, and hard to work with. I agree that this might happen (who hasn’t found themselves with exactly that sort of writing?), but I think that the value of the act of writing outweighs those weaknesses.

Hayton’s estimation that early writing is likely to be flawed is based on a notion of writing as product: according to this view, we write simply in order to get a text for some purpose or other. Needless to say, writing to get a product is a very common experience, and I agree that the most efficient way to get the right product is to work from the clearest possible understanding of the task. For instance, if you need to write an article response, starting to write before reading the article or grasping the goals of the assignment would be a terrible idea. But waiting to write a thesis until you have a clear understanding of the task will mean that you won’t use writing as a way of figuring out that task and that you won’t be practicing crucial writing skills. This is where Hayton loses me. Most thesis writers that I see—from across all disciplines—need to write more, not less. Bad writing, of a sort, will come from early writing, but so will a growing understanding of the underlying issues. The key is accepting that early writing will take work or may even be unusable.

What about Hayton’s claim that early writing gets us into the bad habit of writing without finishing? I’m afraid I can’t see any way that makes sense. So much of academic writing is part of a process that will lack an immediate connection to finishing. (Blogging, it must be said, is awesome for the amount of finishing there is.) Writing is common; finishing is rare. And the one thing that would improve the lives of most of the academic writers I know is the habit of writing. Comfort with the writing process gives us confidence and creativity. We can experiment and push ourselves and avoid writer’s block. In my view, cultivating the habit of writing tops the list of reasons to write early.

I’m also a little uneasy with Hayton’s tone. While he began his post with a genial statement about his own willingness to be corrected, he also expressed a clear commitment to an approach to writing and research that transcends disciplinary difference. I am always concerned when advice to graduate students is both highly contentious and narrowly informed. To put it simply, I have no problem with Hayton relating an anecdote about writing too early in an attempt to impress, an anecdote that I am sure will resonate with lots of people; I do object to his suggestion that this possibility is a reason why others—who might have very different motivations—should not be writing early. Overall, I think it is important to give doctoral writing advice that is limited and that helps novice academic writers to understand their disciplinary conventions and their own temperament as writers. I think Hayton does his own argument a disservice by overextending it; taking his experience with scientific writing and suggesting that he has a cure for what ails the humanities is an over-reach that threatens to undermines the value of his insights.

All that said, I do think Hayton sounds a useful note of caution about the call to write early. If you write early, you need to be aware of two things. First, you need to understand that your fundamental task will be to make your thinking concrete in order to allow you to advance that thinking; if you make the mistake of trying to create the final product too soon, you will probably be frustrated. Some students do write ‘too early’ in the sense that they try to create a finished product too soon; early writing, in my view, must be characterized by a certain openness, a willingness to change, discard, and move into new and more productive directions. Second, when you are writing as a process, you need to be able to work with the product. Hayton is right that there is always an artifact of the act of writing, and we all need strategies for doing something with that artifact. If we lack those strategies, we may end up in the situation he describes: with a messy provisional document that is—in its current form—unusable. But rather than concluding that we should put off writing, I would argue that we should deepen our understanding of the writing task. We should be writing early and writing often because doing so can deepen our intellectual insights and strengthen our writing skills.

*James Hayton has removed his original post from The Thesis Whisperer site; he explains his reasons for doing so in a comment below. You can find a helpful list of all his posts on his own site here.

 

The Perils of Local Cohesion

In my recent post on literature reviews and reverse outlines, I mentioned how doing a reverse outline can snap writers out of a certain complacency vis-à-vis their own writing. As I said there, this complacency rarely entails contentment, but it does impede our own editing efforts. One source of this editorial inertia is the presence of ‘local cohesion’. Even a piece of writing with serious structural issues may work at the local level. And if we lack strategies for macro-level editing, we may continue to refine a piece of writing by improving its local coherence without addressing larger issues.

I recently encountered a problem of this sort in a piece of my own writing. I realized—actually, it wasn’t so much realizing as it was being informed by an astute coauthor—that a paragraph wasn’t saying what I needed it to. I had missed this problem over time since the paragraph itself was internally coherent. Even once I saw the problem, however, I found it hard to devise a solution. The local cohesion had been deepened through many rounds of edits, which meant that the basics were very much in place: the paragraph had a discernible topic; each of its sentences appeared to address this topic; and the sentences had perfectly good flow between them. It was very hard for me to see how to go about making the necessary changes.

This may sound like I am just preparing to say (yet again!) that you’ll never regret doing a reverse outline. And I am saying that: getting at the skeletal form of your writing will definitely help you diagnose problems even when local cohesion is obscuring your editorial insight. However, I’m also acknowledging the difficulty of acting on that diagnosis. Once we have figured out what is wrong, we need to be tough on ourselves. It takes a good deal of intestinal fortitude to break up a piece of writing that is even partially working. It is so often the case that changing our writing has a significant ripple effect. Even if you can identify the particular point at which things go astray, you can’t just fix that point; you’ll also have to do the unsettling work of changing the supporting cast. Ultimately, editing our own writing is an act of faith. You have to believe that if you sacrifice local cohesion to global coherence, you are starting down a path towards a better piece of writing.

Literature Reviews and Reverse Outlines

After a recent discussion of reverse outlines on Twitter, I had a flurry of visits to my reverse outlines post. The Twitter conversation concerned reverse outlining as a way to help with literature reviews, so I thought it might be useful to spell out that connection more explicitly. A reverse outline is a great way to address the most common flaws of lit reviews: poor organization and poor articulation of research goals. These two issues are closely connected, but I am going to discuss them in turn.

I’m sure I don’t need to describe how poor organization bedevils lit reviews; the sheer volume of the material makes organizational difficulties near inevitable. The organizational scheme that you must devise is also a genuinely conceptually complex task. It is not like organizing your sock drawer; organizing your lit review requires a deep understanding of your project and its connection to the existing literature in your field. While a reverse outline won’t magic away difficulties, it will help you to confront the limitations of your early drafts. The beauty of a reverse outline is that it prunes away the distracting details, allowing you to see the underlying structure.

Let’s look at a sample reverse outline in order to get a sense of how this might work. As you likely know, the unit of analysis in a reverse outline is the paragraph. We number each paragraph and then ask ourselves some basic questions: What is the topic? Is there a topic sentence? Does the whole paragraph have thematic unity? For a more detailed explanation of this process, you can go back to the original reverse outlines post.)

Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The research into X
• However, there are also a few sentences on Y.
• No topic sentence found (although this might be okay if the whole paragraph functions as an introduction to a particular topic).

2. The historical background to X
• No topic sentence found.
• The paragraph is purely chronological with no thematic starting point.

3. The work of Singh and Johnson, who also study X
• No topic sentence found.

4. The main study that Singh and Johnson were responding to
• No topic sentence found.

5. The work of Gordonberg, who works on Z
• There is a clear topic sentence on Gordonberg, but no mention of Z or any link to what came before.

When we look at this reverse outline, the absence of detail helps us to see some basic problems. The truth is that many of us could have found those problems in the original if we’d read it. But chances are that we would have missed those problems in our own writing, the familiarity of which tends to lull us into a kind of editorial somnambulance. In my experience, that sleepy acceptance is often accompanied by an underlying uneasiness, but discomfort alone doesn’t break the spell. A reverse outline can be like a bucket of cold water. Often my first reaction to my own reverse outlines is ‘huh?’. Why did I put those things there? Those points are in the wrong order! That is the completely wrong organizational approach to that material! It may not be as bad as all that, but the evident weaknesses of the outline give me a sense that whatever I was trying to accomplish may not yet be working on the page. I can then start to rework at the outline level without being distracted by familiar chains of words or complex details.

Revised Sample Reverse Outline:

1. The importance of X, Y, and Z to my research project
• This paragraph will serve as an introduction to the subsequent discussion of X, Y, and Z, so may not have an obvious topic sentence.
• This paragraph may be short or long—or may even need to be broken into multiple paragraphs—depending on how difficult it is to establish the relevance of this topic to your research.

2. The research into X
• This could be more than one paragraph, of course, depending on the amount of material.
• The first version had a historical background paragraph; if that topic does warrant its own paragraph, think about whether you will be giving similar historical background to Y and Z. Another possibility would be that you need a combined historical background to X, Y, and Z; it is very common to speak about the historical background in a more unified way before dividing the field into its important sub-fields. As a simple example, consider the following sequence of sentences: ‘Serious scholarly attention to [topic] began in …’/‘For the next twenty years, scholars tended to …’/‘By the mid-1980s, however, a serious rupture began to emerge about …’/‘In subsequent years, the scholarly approach was often divided into X, Y, and Z’.
• What about Singh and Johnson? Were they included as an example of the work done on X? Are other thinkers being included? Why are they so important? Is the study that they are responding to important for you or is it just important for them?

3. The research into Y
• Try to follow whatever pattern you have established with your discussion of X; the length can vary, but the reader will expect X, Y, and Z to be treated in a roughly parallel fashion. If that parallel structure proves hard to sustain as you are writing, you may need to revisit your initial structural scheme.

4. The research into Z
• The discussion of Z should follow the broad pattern established in the discussion of X and Y.

As you’ve probably noticed, the modifications in the reworked outline also address the second common flaw in lit reviews, the tendency of authors to obscure their own research goals. Singh and Johnson may be significant researchers in their own right, but the reader can always go directly to them for their research. What the reader needs from you is a clear explanation of the way that the existing research serves as a backdrop or source or inspiration for your own. The reworked outline is stronger because it is better organized but also because it links each paragraph into the broader agenda of the author.

In their valuable book Helping Doctoral Students Write, Kamler and Thomson give a great collection of student metaphors for lit review writing (pp. 32–34). In my thesis writing course, I usually read those metaphors aloud to students and ask which one most closely represents each of their experiences. My favourite is the image of someone trying to put an octopus into a bottle. A reverse outline can be a way to convince your octopus to coordinate all its limbs in service of your research plan.