Tag Archives: Structure

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.

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Academic Writer as an Identity

Since this is the 100th post on Explorations of Style, I thought I would allow myself to return to one of my favourite topics: the notion that someone who engages in academic writing is, in fact, a writer. The most common search terms that lead people to this blog involve the words ‘identity’ and ‘writer’. As a result, the post in which I first looked at this question is one of the most popular on the site.

In the original post, I discussed how graduate students often embrace the category of ‘bad writer’ with an ontological fervour while still disavowing the simpler category of ‘writer’. But can you be a bad writer in any meaningful sense without being a writer? In other words, surely ‘writer’ is an inductive category: if writing is an essential aspect of your life, then you are a writer. Needless to say, this move from activity to category doesn’t work in all cases; doing something regularly doesn’t automatically turn that activity into a category. But while you may not want to adopt the personae associated with all your daily tasks—think how unwieldy that would make CVs and obituaries!—the transition from writing to writer is special. Being a writer may flow inductively from the act of writing, but it also doubles back and changes the act itself.

Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.

At the practical level, identifying yourself as a writer makes the act of writing more intentional and thus more than just a necessary evil. As a writer, you will have a reason to seek out explicit writing support or devote time to improving your abilities as a writer. My students often say to me that they would love to work more on their writing, but that they are too busy with their work. To some extent, I take that invocation of an artificial dichotomy between writing and work as a sign of my own failures in the classroom. My job isn’t just to provide helpful insights into the writing process; it is also to convey the urgency of the writing task. But I try to focus more on the helpful insights since those who do buy into the urgency are poorly served by a continual harping on that theme. I continue to work on finding the best classroom balance between exhortation and instruction, but the fact remains that people who don’t accept writing as central to their identity often continue to devote insufficient time to the task and to feel a commensurate frustration at their lack of improvement.

At a deeper level, accepting the role of writer means accepting that you are constructing meaning through your arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the role of writer is slighted, nothing is left but text and reader. And readers are rarely going to be satisfied with those sorts of ‘writer-less’ texts. Those sorts of texts are notoriously light on the sort of signposting and metadiscourse that the reader needs to appreciate what is being presented. If you are in the habit of thinking of your text as self-explanatory or if you tend to frame writing as a purely responsive act of ‘writing up’, you may be neglecting the role that you ought to be playing as writer. As the writer, you must perform the essential act of framing what is being read according to the overarching demands of your project. I read so many selections of graduate student writing that are brimming with insight and fortified by an impressive amount of research but that lack an authorial voice to help the reader manage the text. Deepening the connection to the persona of writer is one way of reminding ourselves that our job as writer is to go beyond the provision of helpful content to the more complex task of structuring that content in a way that anticipates how the reader will experience the text.

While I do believe that there is a manifest benefit to identifying ourselves as writers, I’d like to close by considering a possible downside to accepting this identity. Could identifying as a writer actually make things worse by hindering some students from getting the writing support that they need? Unfortunately, I think that possibility exists. Some students have bound their sense of self-worth so tightly to the activity of writing that they may resist accessing writing support; these resistant students have often accepted the widespread notion that graduate students should ‘already know how to write’. Similarly, these students often have trouble resisting the urge to compare insides and outsides; they may end up with a wildly inaccurate sense of how their writing actually stacks up because they are constantly making invalid comparisons between their own initial drafts and other people’s final products. On the other hand, I see some students who are very receptive to what I have to say precisely because they don’t see their writing as expressive of their truest professional selves. I think the answer to this dilemma comes from how we think about what it means to identify ourselves as writers. Ideally, adopting this persona will actually help to undermine the sense that we ought to be good writers already. Saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. Rather, adopting the persona of writer means making a commitment to learning how to be a strong and confident and competent writer, a writer who is able to meet key professional responsibilities with clear and assured prose. This goal is hard to reach and remains, for most of us, aspirational. But the goal cannot be met either by undervaluing the writing process and thus neglecting its development or by overvaluing it to the extent that the weakness becomes a crisis of confidence. Taking hold of ‘academic writer’ as an identity means devoting ourselves to writing and doing so because that devotion is the only sure-fire way to become the writers that we all want to be.

Moving from Problem to Response

Earlier this year, I had a post on the basic structure of an introduction, using a concept derived from Swales and terminology derived from Booth, Colomb, and Williams. In a subsequent post, I went on to talk about how to use this model to craft an effective thesis introduction. In both posts, I stressed the great importance of explaining the significance of addressing the problem before turning to the response. But I realized later that I’d neglected to talk about a related issue that often arises in an introduction: How do we move from problem to response? 

In some cases, the progression from problem to response can be quite simple: a general context naturally narrows to a specific problem, creating space for a particular response. In these cases, the general topic tends to be well understood, leaving a narrow area still to be grappled with. Usually, when a writer gets to this point, the transition to the response is made quite easily. However, there are other cases in which the problem is broad, making the transition to a narrow response more difficult. Since most research projects benefit from a narrow focus, it is essential that we understand how to move between a broad problem and a narrow response.

In these cases, the general context doesn’t naturally narrow to a specific problem. Instead, the context leads to a broad problem: “However, we don’t know enough about X”, where X is a broad area that hasn’t yet been satisfactorily investigated. It is crucial for a writer in this situation to recognize that the thesis itself won’t be able to address that broad area. What the thesis will be able to do, however, is to use an example of X to begin to develop our understanding of X as a whole. To be clear, there is always a specific problem, but in some cases that specific problem is simply being used as a way of getting at the broader problem. Perhaps we don’t, for instance, understand how any compound works under some particular circumstance; the thesis won’t look, of course, at all compounds: it will look at an exemplary compound. Similarly, maybe we have identified a broad phenomenon that has been under-examined, so we look at a particular text or use a case study to ground the inquiry. However, in these cases, when the specific response doesn’t just flow from the problem, writers sometimes falter.

What is needed is an explanation of how the narrow response is a useful way of getting at the broad problem. This task isn’t particularly difficult but is often neglected. There’s no one particular route that must be taken: the essential thing is that the reader is given a bridge. Otherwise, the reader will encounter a broad statement that not enough is known about X, followed by a very precise statement of what the current research will undertake to do. Just as the reader needs to know why addressing a particular problem is significant, they also need to know how the response serves to address the problem. In those cases in which that transition isn’t obvious, the writer must fill in that space. Needless to say, the key issue will be justifying why this particular response—why this compound, why this text, why this case study—can be used as an entry point into the broader problem.

In general, I recommend that all thesis writers pause before elaborating the specifics of their research project. Writers often feel more comfortable in the realm of the response; the task of providing a specific description of what the research will actually do can feel like a bit of terra firma. Unfortunately, out of a desire to reach that shore, writers often rush though necessary and important transitions between problem and response. Pausing at that point can help remind the writer of their obligations to help the reader to understand not just the research procedure but also the way this research will address the underlying problem.

Structuring a Thesis Introduction

A few weeks ago, I had a post on writing introductions, in which I discussed the standard three moves of an introduction. This model works very naturally in a short space such as a research proposal or article but can be harder to realize on the bigger canvas of a thesis introduction. Many thesis writers struggle with the need to provide adequate contextualizing detail before being able to give a satisfying account of their problem. Truth be told, this inclination—the feeling that our problem is so complex that any explanation will require extensive background—can be a bit of a graduate student weakness. Understanding that your thesis can be explained in a compressed fashion is often a step forward, if for no other reason than it can give you the wherewithal to answer the inevitable questions about your thesis topic without the stammering and the false starts and the over-reliance on the word ‘complicated’. I suggest that thesis writers take every possible opportunity to articulate their topic under severe space or time constraints. One possibility: look to see if your campus is having a Three Minutes Thesis competition this term; the first round at U of T is being held on March 22.

When I approach a thesis introduction, I start from the assumption that the reader shouldn’t have to wait to hear your guiding problem until they have the full context to that problem. You have to find a way of giving them the big picture before the deep context. Let’s take an imaginary example. You are writing your thesis on the reappearance of thestrals in the 1980s in Mirkwood Forest in the remote country of Archenland after a devastating forest fire caused by mineral extraction in the 1950s.* How are you going to structure an introduction in such a way that your reader doesn’t have to read 10 pages of bewildering and seemingly unconnected background? When a thesis writer attempts to give the full context before elaborating the problem, two things will happen. First, the reader will labour to see the significance of all that they are being told. Second, the reader will, in all likelihood, struggle to find connections between the various aspects of the context. Once you have explained what we need to know about thestrals, you will need to discuss the topography of Mirkwood, the endangered species policy framework in Archenland, the mineral extraction practices commonly used in the 1950s, and the way forest fires affect animal populations. If you haven’t started with your problem—the thing that brings these disparate areas into a meaningful conversation with each other—your introduction will begin with a baffling array of potentially disconnected bits of information.

The simplest solution to this problem is to provide a quick trip through the whole  project in the first few paragraphs, before beginning to contextualize in earnest. I am picturing a thesis introduction that looks something like this:

  1. Introduction to the introduction: The first step will be a short version of the three moves, often in as little as three paragraphs, ending with some sort of transition to the next section where the full context will be provided.
  2. Context: Here the writer can give the full context in a way that flows from what has been said in the opening. The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here.
  3. Restatement of the problem: With this more fulsome treatment of context in mind, the reader is ready to hear a restatement of the problem and significance; this statement will echo what was said in the opening, but will have much more resonance for the reader who now has a deeper understanding of the research context.
  4. Restatement of the response: Similarly, the response can be restated in more meaningful detail for the reader who now has a better understanding of the problem.
  5. Roadmap: Brief indication of how the thesis will proceed.

What do you think about this as a possible structure for a thesis introduction? While I realize that it may sound a little rigid, I think such an approach is warranted here. Using this type of structure can give thesis writers an opportunity to come to a much better understanding of what they are trying to say. In other words, in my experience, thesis writers tend to feel better after reconstructing their introductions along these lines. For some, it may prove a useful way to present their introduction in their final draft; for other, it may just be a useful scaffold, something that they can improve upon once everything is on a surer footing.

Using this structure can help the writer craft an introduction that responds to the needs of the reader, rather than the demands of the material. Typically, the thesis introductions that I see provide an introduction to the topic but not necessarily to the piece of writing. Writers—especially writers in the throes of trying to conceptualize a book length research project—often forget that the audience’s ability to engage with the topic is mediated by the text. Introducing your introduction is one way to meet your key responsibility to guide the reader through the text. The thesis reader’s journey is a long one—why not do what you can to ensure that your reader sets off with the maximal understanding of their destination?

* With apologies to J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Introductions

In a one-on-one writing consultation, the most common thing—hands down—for me to discuss with a student is the effectiveness of an introduction. Masters or PhD, humanities or sciences, native or non-native speaker of English, it doesn’t matter. Most draft writing comes with introductions that are inadequate to the task. Which is why I am grateful to John Swales for his essential Creating a Research Space (CARS) model. His model consists of three moves: establishing a research territory; establishing a niche; and occupying the niche.

While I value Swales’s insightful and durable model, I have never particularly warmed to the language he uses. I find it a bit removed from the language that we naturally employ when talking about our research; for me, it seems useful to use more hospitable language, language that reflects the instinctive way we talk about our research. I very much like the way that Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about the moves of the introduction; indeed, as I have said before, I generally like the way that they talk about all parts of the research process.  Their introduction model also has three stages: a common ground, a problem, and a response. Although I generally like their wording, I’ve moved away from using the phrase ‘common ground’. I find students sometimes interpret common ground as requiring an actual consensus rather than just an established context (which may, of course, be highly fractious). To avoid this misunderstanding, I find it easier to use the word ‘context’ to characterize the opening of an introduction.

Drawing on these two sources, here is the way I present introductions:

1. Context: What your audience will need to know in order to understand the problem you are going to confront. This background material will be familiar rather than novel to your target audience; it may act as a refresher or even a primer, but will not cover new ground. I usually suggest that students try to form a template sentence that they can then use as a prompt to help them sketch out each of the three moves. For instance, “Over the past two decades, research in this field has focused on … ”.

2. Problem (and Significance): What isn’t yet well understood. That is, the problem statement will explain what you want to understand (or reveal or explain or explore or reinterpret or contest) and why it will matter to have done so. For instance, “However, [topic] is still poorly understood (or under-examined or excluded or misinterpreted). This lack of attention is significant because knowing [about this topic] will provide a benefit OR not knowing [about this topic] will incur a cost”.

Given the importance of establishing significance and given the frequency with which this step is neglected, I have often wondered about framing it as a separate step. I haven’t done so, for two reasons. First, the three moves are so well established; it seems needlessly confusing to disrupt that familiarity by talking about four moves. Second, and more important, the problem and significance are genuinely connected; it doesn’t make sense to treat the problem and significance separately, even if doing so would encourage us to pay more attention to the significance. The significance is requisite for the problem, not separate from it.

3. Response: What you are actually going to do in your research. For instance, “In order to address this problem, I will …”.

The beauty of this basic model is, of course, that it makes a great deal of intuitive sense. When students hear it for the first time, they generally feel an immediate sense of familiarity. That intuition doesn’t, however, necessarily make it easy for them to deploy it in their own writing. I focus on four things about this model that may help writers deepen their understanding and thus be better able to use these moves proficiently.

The way it encourages us to take the perspective of the reader. These three moves tell readers what they need to know; having these needs met will then motivate them to continue reading. Our natural inclination is often to express our research as a by-product of our own thinking process. These three moves remind us to disrupt that inclination: instead of telling a story about the twists and turns of our research process, we need to tell the story about our research that the reader needs to hear. Take the example of context. As writers, we often struggle to define the correct amount of context to provide; if we approach this question from the perspective of the reader we are more likely to provide the right amount of context. The reader needs enough to appreciate the topic but doesn’t want us to take them through all the contextualizing information we have at our disposal.

The way it forces us to express the significance of the problem. The significance is generally the least apparent thing to the reader and yet is often the most neglected by the writer. The key here is to remember that the significance needs to be connected to one’s own discourse community. Some novice writers suffer from the sense that there isn’t much significance to their research because they are looking for significance in an unduly broad sense. Remembering that the current work needs to be valuable in the narrower context of the existing work in the field—responding to it, extending it, altering the way it may be done in the future—can help us to craft a clear and credible statement of significance.

The way its explicit breakdown shows us what may still be underdeveloped. By breaking down the introductory passages into distinct parts, this model helps us to see what is already there and what still needs to be addressed. It is very common, for instance, for writers to have a clearly articulated response but a confusing context and weakly expressed problem. For those writers, the response is what they have right, but they don’t yet know how to provide the necessary preceding information. Making the breakdown explicit can help us see what we still need to develop.

The way its scalability helps us to see how we must repeat and reinforce our key issues. Once these three moves are clear to you, you will see them—writ small or writ large—throughout your text. Take the literature review, for instance. Understood as a deeper iteration of the context, we are better able to understand what the work of reviewing the literature means. And we will grasp more easily that a literature review needs to be repeatedly connected to the problem that will be articulated in its wake.

These general observations can help writers to understand the three moves as central to our overall project of connecting our research to our intended audience. I’m out of space for today, but I will return to this topic soon. In particular, I will focus on this notion of scalability in a post devoted specifically to thesis introductions. Given the length of thesis introductions, the three moves have to be used in such a way that the reader doesn’t drown in an initial sea of detail.

References:

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. C., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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.

Self-Expression or Adherence to Form?

Earlier in the fall, The Atlantic ran a series of articles about teaching writing in American schools. One of the major themes in the conversation was the tension between writing as a form of self-expression and writing as a matter of adherence to established convention. That theme as it pertains to the way we should teach kids to write in the first place, while fascinating, is obviously outside the scope of this blog. But I am intrigued by the way that this dichotomy can influence our understanding of academic writing. Does strong academic writing come from an authentic sense of self-expression or does it come from an adherence to the existing genre conventions in the field? This formulation may appear impossibly stark, but it does reflect a tension experienced by many graduate students.

Graduate students often feel that they must choose between expressiveness and convention, even though they are ideally doing both. They are looking to give expression to something profoundly important to them, and they are doing so within the confines of an existing form. Coming to a sophisticated understanding of that existing form is what ultimately makes the dichotomy false; our self-expression as academic writers comes from our ability to express ourselves through the productive limits of the established form. The perception that the form is a rigid imposition rather than a meaningful framework is often what causes graduate writers to feel that they are being asked to check their creativity at the door. A lack of  familiarity with academic writing can make a potentially productive set of limits feel like an arbitrary set of constraints. Increased familiarity with those limits enables writers to find the space they need to give full expression to their insights.

Despite these assurances, some graduate students express concern that I am offering a vision of academic writing that is worryingly conservative. My argument, however, is that adherence to form is something other than just conservatism. The established form supports and promotes conversation, thus allowing openness and engagement. Some would argue that this view of conversation is inherently inhospitable to radical views that will inevitably go unspoken or unheard. I am not, of course, trying to dismiss the idea that there is power entrenched in the academy in ways that can determine who gets to say what. But at the level of writing, I believe that established forms are more capacious than some give them credit for. Conversation always carries the potential for something radical. Starting where others are in order to move to a new space is different from just starting in that new space. Novice academic writers have many key decisions to make about how they will orient themselves towards the status quo in their fields of study, but joining the existing conversation won’t diminish—and may well enhance—the power and innovation of their ideas.