Tag Archives: Structure

Marking Up Your Text

The most popular post on this blog is consistently the one on reverse outlines. I’m sure this popularity is driven by the fact that reverse outlining is a powerful act of regaining control over a text. This renewed sense of control comes in part from the way that a reverse outline encourages us to mark up a text. There can be something so powerless about reading a text that we know to be flawed; as we move through the pages, we can end up mesmerized or demoralized rather than energized. This passivity can then impede our ability to revise since, needless to say, revision is essentially active. Doing a reverse outline can give us a sense of agency because we have to overcome our passivity in favour of actively marking up a text. In this post, I would like to discuss two other examples of gaining insight through marking up our texts: using highlighting to foreground proportionality with a text and using annotation to clarify the internal dynamic within sentences.

If you want to see what you are spending time on in your text, it can be very useful to make those allocations visible through highlighting. This addition of colour to your text will show you what you are up to and may even make you happy—academic writing feels way more fun when it has colours. You begin by deciding what you want to look for and then you mark up the text with a range of colours to make those findings visible. Generally, I advocate doing this when there is a question about whether we’re devoting the right amount of space to the right tasks. The two issues that I most often recommend tackling with this strategy are an insufficient focus on scholarly contribution and a reticence about using metadiscourse.

When introducing a research project, graduate writers often struggle to devote enough time to the elaboration of their own contribution. Instead, they spend a lot of time on the background context and supporting literature before turning quickly to their research plans; this quick transition often means that the underlying problem and its significance are under-explained. Taking an introduction and highlighting its different elements can show us how we are ‘spending our text’. When we highlight a text using the context-problem-response framework, we can see if we’ve given enough room to the elaboration of our problem and its significance. The goal is not parity, of course, but sufficiency: Have I said enough? Highlighting an introduction in this fashion also makes evident a common tendency in early drafts: saying the same thing in multiple ways. It can be very useful to say things in variant ways; doing so can be a crucial way to figure out what we want to say. And there are definitely species of repetition that fulfill important functions for the reader. But when the repetition is caused by the writer not yet knowing how they want to frame an issue—and thus coming at it in various ways—highlighting can help us see that dynamic and then move towards a more consistent message.

Another way we can use highlighting is to check to see if enough metadiscourse has been used. How much metadiscourse is ‘enough’ is obviously a legitimate question that can’t be answered in the abstract. However, it is always desirable to see how visible we as authors are in our own text, whether we are looking to become more or perhaps less visible. Being able to see our authorial presence in the text—by highlighting the various places where we crop up—allows us to make an informed decision about whether that presence is as it should be.

As we’ve just seen, highlighting is a way of marking up a text to illuminate broad tendencies in our writing. In other instances, we may wish to mark up a text to uncover what is going on with particular sentences. When a sentence has a lot of moving parts, we often struggle to manage its internal workings; by using some form of mark-up, we can lay bare those workings. I will use colour to demonstrate this here, but underlining (or italicizing or bolding) can work just as well. Consider this example:

Original: A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

Was the writer trying to say that the coalition prevented plans to relocate and to resist? That’s what the parallelism appears to suggest:

A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

But that reading makes the sentence incoherent: the two plans would stand in direct opposition to one another. It seems more likely that the writer wanted to say that the coalition prevented implementation and resisted efforts. That’s not what the original says, but that appears to be what it means.

A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

This version allows us to see that we need to change the form of the second verb (to resist) to parallel the first (prevented):

Revision: A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and resisted efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

The writer of this original sentence needed a strategy to help clarify its internal workings. By annotating the sentence, they would be able to see where it went wrong. Not all sentences deserve this level of attention, of course, but this practice can allow us to diagnose confusing choices in complex sentences. A variant of this strategy can also be used when reading aloud: we can use intonation to make sentence patterns evident to ourselves. But reading aloud generally only helps us to establish whether the sentence is working; once we hear that it isn’t working, we will often need to mark up the sentence to sort out exactly what has gone wrong.

When you are thinking about how you might use these strategies, it’s worth considering the difference between marking up on a screen and on a hard copy. My inclination is always to do them on paper: I love the feeling of stepping away from the computer and getting a pen—or a highlighter—in my hand. But that is a description not a recommendation. For me, a pen in hand leads to a particular sense of efficacy. And efficacy is the key here; these strategies are meant to put you back in charge of your text. Whatever places you in the driver’s seat is good. For some, that will mean working with pen and paper; for others, the digital setting is so natural that staying there will make more sense. I think working on paper—regardless of your inclination—is worth considering simply because it is noticeably different than working on-screen. Ultimately, however, it comes down to personal experience: choose the mode of revision that allows you to see your own text clearly and that gives you the efficacy to make the necessary changes.

Metadiscourse

The longer that I teach academic writing to graduate students, the more time I find myself spending on metadiscourse. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that metadiscourse has a bad name—in the sense of a dubious reputation—and an actual bad name. The dubious reputation is presumably connected to both a general suspicion of academic writing and the many instances of laboured prose we have encountered in our careers as academic readers. I’m sure this suspicion is only exacerbated by the fact that the term metadiscourse is a bit of a mouthful. However, this scepticism is deeply unfortunate since thinking about metadiscourse is a natural way to think about our responsibilities as a writer. And, needless to say, thinking more about our writerly responsibilities is crucial for most novice academic writers, making metadiscourse an indispensable topic.

So what is metadiscourse? Simply put, metadiscourse refers to those places in which a writer explicitly acknowledges that they are constructing a text. More specifically, metadiscourse can be defined as “the range of devices writers use to explicitly organize their texts, engage readers, and signal their attitudes to both their material and their audience” (Hyland and Tse, 2004). When we use metadiscourse, we are structuring a three-way relationship between the text, the reader, and the writer. Given our general anxiety about constructing a text that will satisfy the reader, we often neglect our responsibility to be present as the writer of the text. One of my most frequent comments on graduate student writing goes something like this: ‘You are telling me a great deal about your topic but not enough about the text that you are constructing’. This imbalance matters because, as a reader, I need guidance on how to read the text in order to engage fully with the topic.

In my experience, defining metadiscourse is necessary but far from sufficient. That is, a definition of metadiscourse—regardless of whether it is simple or more technical—does little to move graduate students past the sense that metadiscourse is a foreign or artificial textual intervention. To move past this discomfort, I find it helpful to provide a breakdown of different types of metadiscourse and then give examples of each. (For a more detailed version of this breakdown, see Ken Hyland and Polly Tse. “Metadiscourse in Academic Writing: A Reappraisal.” Applied Linguistics 25, no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 156–77.)

In general, we use metadiscourse to signal the following things to our readers:

How our text is organized:

I will start by presenting some of the literature that assesses governmental responses to AIDS in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Because they share many key concepts, these approaches to the experience of tuberculosis will be organized thematically.

How our ideas relate to one another:

To conclude, the historiography of consumer demand in the eighteenth century has undergone many changes since the inception of consumer studies.

The promotional materials produced by a university often promise that administrators will provide resources to assist students with the transition to university life; as a result, many students arrive on campus with the expectation of support.

How we are using evidence to support what we are saying:

Yet, as the American historian John L. Brook has demonstrated, Habermas’s account of the public sphere seems unable to reconcile the complexities of power.

Swain posits that language learning may occur though the production of language, either spoken or written.

How we are further explaining an idea:

Global norms are norms that are accepted worldwide; for example, it is currently a global norm that all students progress through the degree granting process by completing a series of homework assignments, exams, and research papers.

An assertion of ‘personhood’ expressed as a relation to property is crucial in every self-styled extension of the Enlightenment project. That is, when we equate personhood with property ownership, we implicitly accept a liberal notion of identity.

How much strength we attribute to a particular claim:

Hypothesized reductions in co-rumination during PMT/CBT may also be due, in part, to improvements in the mother’s depressed status.

To my knowledge, this problematic has never been critically examined.

How we feel about a particular aspect of our text: 

This remarkable achievement shows that policy goals are achieved more readily when those policy goals are clearly established.

Understanding the nature of the developments leading up to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is particularly problematic because of the lack of literacy in that time period.

How we want readers to orient themselves to a particular aspect of our text:

It is widely recognized that natural resources come to count as such through specific decisions, institutional practices, and socio-political processes.

This claim raises an obvious question about the clinical similarity of patients with aggressive dementia and patients with general stress disorders.

How the text reflects our authorial role:

My use of the term ‘revival’ here stems from an understanding of cultural revitalization as a flexible and organic process, wherein members of a community fuse individual innovation and musical sensibilities with contemporary interpretations of older cultural practices.

Thus, I will try to link insights from theoretical understandings of science and technology studies with resources geography, which may potentially advance both these literatures.

Examples are taken from student writing and used with permission.

What we see in these examples is how naturally most of them read. Rather than seeming stilted or artificial, these sentences appear to be doing important work. In fact, if we were to return to the broader passages from which I extracted these sentences, we could see that those passages work better with these sentences than they would without them.

The reason that I think it is helpful to consider this breakdown is that a typology allows us to see that we may have very different patterns of use for different types of metadiscourse. To deepen our ability to use metadiscourse well, it is essential to understand these patterns. One of the biggest obstacles to using metadiscourse effectively is a tendency to see it as synonymous with signposting and to imagine that all signposting has to be clunky and awkward. To help students see how they might be able to use metadiscourse better, I like to divide usage patterns into four basic types:

  1. We may use some kinds of metadiscourse pretty routinely; for example, most academic writers use evidence frequently, if not always effectively.
  2. We may avoid some kinds of metadiscourse instinctively because we believe that they may violate the norms of academic writing; for example, some academic writers avoid the first person or affective language that could signal their attitudes or how they wish readers to see the text.
  3. We may use some kinds of metadiscourse hesitantly or inexpertly due to inexperience with academic writing; for example, some academic writers may struggle to provide clear transitions or explanations and may have difficulty identifying the appropriate strength for their claims.
  4. Finally, we may under-use some kinds of metadiscourse because they require an understanding of our own texts that we lack; for example, many academic writers fail to explain the structure of their own text adequately because they don’t yet understand its internal dynamics properly.

These different orientations show us the fundamental inaccuracy of any attempt to see metadiscourse as good or bad. As writers, we can use these four categories to develop questions that will challenge our own writing practice:

  • If we are using some sorts of metadiscourse routinely, are we doing it well?
  • If we are avoiding some sorts of metadiscourse, can we deepen our understanding of the norms of academic writing to be sure this judgement is based on a sound understanding of disciplinary practice?
  • If we are using some sorts of metadiscourse hesitantly or inexpertly, could we improve our understanding of the value of such devices for the reader and thus overcome our reservations?
  • Lastly, if we are under-using some sorts of metadiscourse because we lack a sufficiently deep understanding of our own text, can we learn how to develop that understanding in order to meet the reader’s need for guidance through our text?

Taken together, these questions can help us to see how we might adjust and thus improve our use of these many varieties of metadiscourse. I recommend that any academic writer devote some revision time to the identification of the metadiscourse employed in their own texts. My strategy for doing this would be to keep in mind the breadth of work that metadiscourse accomplishes without focusing too much on the sort of classification found in this post. For most writers, it is sufficient to think about all the things we do to guide and engage our readers and look for those. Highlighting those places where we are present in our texts can be hugely instructive for all writers. In particular, if a supervisor is asking about voice or questioning overall coherence, I would use this highlighting strategy to see where you may still be absent in your own text. Even if you are more comfortable with the use of metadiscourse, I would still suggest this highlighting strategy as part of late-stage revision. It is only by coming to an understanding of our role in our own text that we can ensure that our readers will have the guidance that they need to get the most out of our writing.

 

The Evolution of Signposting

When teaching graduate students about metadiscourse, I often hear the same thing: “My supervisor doesn’t like metadiscourse.” If we think of metadiscourse in its more technical sense—as the various devices that help a writer structure a text to facilitate the reception of that text—it makes little sense to be against it. That would be like being against effective writing. But what this objection generally seems to mean is that the supervisor just doesn’t like it when too many of the seams are showing. Rather than being against metadiscourse in the broad sense, it’s possible that some supervisors are simply against signposting. Or at least against overly explicit signposting. Even if this explanation is correct, I still find this mistrust of signposting hard to understand: I think signposting offers a great deal of benefit to both the writer and the reader.

First, the writer. In my view, producing explicit signposting is unambiguously valuable for the writer. The act of describing—as bluntly as you wish—the order of what is going to happen in your writing is so useful. If you push yourself to write a road map for your text, you will gain insight into what you did (or didn’t do). Maybe you meant to do something and then didn’t end up doing it. Or maybe you did something and need to explain why. Of course there are limits. I certainly hit mine when the introduction to a standard IMRD paper ends with this sort of passage: “The next section will present the method. The results section will discuss the results. Then the discussion section will discuss those results. Finally the article will conclude with a conclusion.” This (real) example is obviously an outlier, but it may help to explain why some are so suspicious of the practice. What the suspicion overlooks, however, is how much we can learn, as writers, from the task of trying to articulate where we’ve been or where we are going in a text. When the signposting feels circular, as in that last example, it probably isn’t necessary. But much of the time, the structure isn’t that transparent and articulating it will be instructive for you as a writer. But will it be good for the reader?

Often the answer to that question, in my mind, is also yes. As readers, we appreciate being told what’s up. Academic writing is full of thickets; having access to the writer’s explanation of the structure can ease our way through. However, to return to our starting point, just because signposting is potentially helpful doesn’t mean that some readers won’t find it irredeemably artless. Given its utility, there must be a way to avoid throwing the baby out with bathwater. Can we find a way to let useful-to-write signposting evolve into instructive-to-read signposting?

Here’s a place to start:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to my topic. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on this topic. The next step will be a re-interpretation of my problem in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implication of my topic for the broader field.

This is the sort of passage that gives metadiscourse a bad name. Obviously, it’s weak because it lacks all specificity; if other writers could easily lift your signposting and drop it into their writing (with little-to-no alteration necessary), it’s not doing much for you. Here’s what happens when we make this passage a little less generic:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to [my topic]. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on [my topic]. The next step will be a re-interpretation of [my topic] in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implications of [my topic] for [my field].

A little better, right? It still feels way too much like an academic Mad Lib, but it would definitely be more informative than the first passage. The next step is to take this passage and transform it into one that reflects the demands of the project rather than just detailing the parts of the text.

The first step in discussing [something] must be a consideration of [some sort of background issue]. To get a better feel for [this issue], we will need to look at [a particular aspect of the literature]. The dynamic that we see between [these two strains of thought we’ve identified in the literature] will provide a new way to understand the [current topic]. It is only when we see [this topic] in this new way that we can grasp its implications for the broader project of understanding [some issue facing the field as a whole].

This third passage is potentially better because it tries to indicate the way that the topic needs to be discussed. By describing what is to come as inherently necessary for this topic rather than as just a series of textual steps, we can arm the reader with useful fore-knowledge without relying on road-map boilerplate. This approach to signposting stands the best chance of informing the reader without deadening the writing. However, this more sophisticated signposting won’t appear in our writing out of thin air. Most writers need to learn to describe their texts in this way; crafting more explicit bits of signposting can be an essential first step along that road. Most of us will be able to produce subtle and instructive signposting only once we grasp the internal structure of our text. Drafting a provisional signposting passage can be an invaluable way of gaining that initial understanding and thus enabling us to craft a more evolved explanation of our own texts. If we give writers the idea that signposting is inherently clunky and part of a broader problem of academic writing, we may lead them to miss out on its beneficial effects on their own thinking and writing.

While it isn’t directly relevant to our discussion here, I can’t resist ending with one of my favourite examples of understated signposting. At very end of the introduction to Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams tells us what is to come (emphasis mine):

“No one can teach clear writing by rule or principle, simple or not, to those who have nothing to say and no reason to say it, to those who cannot think or feel or see. But I also know that many who see well and think carefully and feel deeply still cannot write clearly. I also know that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see, and that in fact there are a few straightforward principles—not rules—that help. Here they are” (p. 14).

Topic Sentence Paragraphs

In a recent writing class, I talked about reverse outlines and topic sentence paragraphs as techniques for identifying structural issues in a piece of writing. While I’ve talked about reverse outlines in this space a great deal (both potential applications and potential pitfalls), I realize that I’ve never mentioned the topic sentence paragraph. It’s actually helpful to think of the two techniques as complementary: just as the reverse outline tells us what is wrong with an early draft, a topic sentence paragraph can help us see what is right with a late draft. Or, if it’s not quite right yet, can help us to see what needs tweaking. Our deep familiarity with our own intentions and our own writing patterns means that we often fail to see glaring cohesion problems, even late in the game. A topic sentence paragraph can help us to ensure that all is well.

The technique itself is quite simple: copy and paste the topic sentence from each paragraph into a new pseudo-paragraph. This new creation won’t be a true paragraph because it’ll be weirdly choppy and overly long, but it should be a functional microcosm of the text. As such, it should be able to carry a coherent narrative. A topic sentence paragraph isn’t as dramatically informative as a reverse outline; it’s more likely to offer confirmation than revelation. Once you’ve got a draft that you think is structurally coherent, you can use the topic sentence paragraph as a way to confirm that intuition.

The moment to use this technique must, of course, be chosen carefully. You can’t do it too early−because all it will show you is that the text isn’t ready yet−but you also can’t do it too late. To me, the topic sentence paragraph marks the end of my willingness to do large-scale edits. A crucial corollary to a commitment to extensive revision is an acceptance that extensive revision mustn’t be allowed to go on indefinitely. Otherwise, a certain mania will set in: any draft can always be other than it is. After a certain point, we have to ask ourselves about diminishing returns and about the very real possibility of messing up what is already working. A hard deadline can sometimes stop us from obsessive editing; whether or not we’ve crafted the best possible document at the point of submission, at least we’re saved from endless tinkering. But when there isn’t a firm deadline−as with, for instance, an early dissertation chapter−editing can become a thing that we do long past the point at which we ought to have moved on. If we are to manage our workflow effectively, every text needs to move through our hands and out into the world. The fact that we could always make it different doesn’t mean that we would be making it better or even that making it better is always the best use of our time.

Another reason to establish a point after which structural edits are verboten is that we can’t edit for all types of issues at once. A text must have a point after which big questions are off the table in order to allow smaller points to engage our attention. Not only is it difficult to proofread a document that is still in flux, such a document is vulnerable to a range of new errors that are the direct result of our own editorial intervention. Being strict about the type of editing that is suitable for each stage of the process can help us to create a document that is well-edited at both a macro and micro level.

Drawing the structural editing phase to a close with a final check is a way of making sure that we haven’t missed any ongoing gaps in cohesion and a way of setting the stage for the final edits. This final editing phase can then lead us to a cleaner text and, perhaps even more importantly, lead us that much closer to a finished text.

Academic Writing Month  2014 (#AcWriMo on Twitter) is coming up in November. Read an explanation on PhD2Published and start thinking if this might work for you! Here are some of my thoughts on AcWriMo 2012 and AcWriMo 2013.

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.

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.