Tag Archives: Thesis writing

Autonomy and Doctoral Study

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

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

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

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

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

From @ntos, a great cartoon about blogging in academia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Monkey Cage blog, JSTOR Cracks the Door.

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

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

From McSweeney’s, some irreverent writing advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Links: Somebody That I Used to Know

I heard recently that ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ was the number one song on Spotify this year.* Encountering that unsurprising fact must have moved the phrase onto the tip of my tongue because I found myself using it later in the day to explain why I couldn’t answer a simple question about my own thesis from one of my students. The question that stumped me? What was the title of your thesis, Rachael? I was eventually able to recall the proper title, but I stumbled over a number of inaccurate versions first. I was mildly embarrassed, of course, but mostly I was just amazed. In less than 10 years, my thesis had gone from being my everything to being, well, ‘somebody that I used to know’. My students were tolerant, as always, but I wasn’t sure they really believed me. Which makes sense. When I was in their place, I wasn’t even sure I could finish the wretched thing, let alone finish and then forget about it. Perhaps if you find yourself in the thick of things, unable to see a clear path to completion, it may help to imagine that someday you may not even remember what it was called!

While I was still thinking about this diminishing importance of our theses over time, I read a post on The Thesis Whisperer from Ben from Literature Review HQ.  In this post, Ben reflects on his post-graduation case of Stockholm Syndrome. He knows he should be glad to have his thesis behind him—and, of course, is glad to have it behind him—but still feels a bit bereft. While that sense of loss is inevitable, Ben has the exact right response: he figures out what was good about the process that can now inform his new post-thesis working life. There is a great deal of intellectual struggle and psychological pain in the thesis writing process, but there is also a unique degree of freedom. That freedom can be an opportunity to learn about ourselves and how we can optimally organize our professional lives.

* If you hate this song, ask yourself if you really hate it or if you hate it the way the guys in the car hate it.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From the Lingua Franca blog, Lucy Ferriss on the rhetorical impact of using ‘we’.

From @thesiswhisperer, using the Cornell Method to limit, analyze, and annotate your own notes to prepare for writing.

From @ThomsonPat, an explanation of the metacommentary we use to frame our own contributions to the conversation.

From @CShearson, helpful advice about using strong verbs in scientific writing.

From @ThomsonPat, an interesting breakdown of the many complex tasks involved in reviewing the literature.

From @ThomsonPat, a helpful way to think about writing a road map.

From @fishhookopeneye, a radical approach to breaking down the tasks of thesis supervision.

From Inside Higher Ed, the final instalment of Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s excellent series on academics and perfectionism.

From @MGrammar, a discussion of why it is so annoying when someone says “I don’t know, can you?”.

From @ThomsonPat, interesting reflections on the way blogging readily disrupts any dichotomy between work and leisure.

From @ProfessorIsIn, a post by @rogerwhitson on successful collaborative projects (with lots of helpful links).

Do you need another way to distract yourself from academic writing?

Can a humanities PhD be done in five years? Inside Higher Ed discusses a new proposal at Stanford.

From Inside Higher Ed, a helpful discussion of a commonly asked question: how to cite our own work at various stages of completion.

From @chronicle, Cassuto on possible futures for PhD education.

From the New York Times, a fun post on what life is really like for lexicographers: Lies! Murder! Lexicography!

Glad to be included in the @thesiswhisperer‘s November newsletter, along with lots of great stuff on doctoral study.

Mind the gap! @ProfessorIsIn on a characteristic and crucial weakness in academic proposals and theses.

Comparing Insides and Outsides

During AcWriMo, PhD2Published has been running a series of posts from Wendy Laura Belcher, offering tips on academic writing. The post of Belcher’s that I have found most helpful thus far discusses the notion of social support for writers. Writing is so intrinsically solitary that finding its valuable social dimension is legitimately a challenge. Charlotte Frost and Jesse Stommel also had some great advice this week about writing more publicly. While increased openness about writing and its struggles is essential, such openness can unfortunately leave some people feeling even worse about their progress. James Hayton from The Three Month Thesis wrote recently about his concern that a natural reporting bias would make the AcWriMo Twitter feed a sea of positivity. In other words, we might hear more from those for whom it was going well; those of us (ahem) who aren’t being quite so productive might be keeping a low profile. While lots of participants are clearly making an effort to report the unvarnished truth, the Twitter feed has been pretty upbeat. I’ve certainly noticed some people commenting that the productivity of others has made them feel worse about their own lack of productivity.

So what do we say to people who feel worse when they see others doing well? There’s no point in moralizing, and there’s certainly no benefit in halting the sharing. But there is another option: maybe we should take other people’s good news in stride because, chances are, there is way more to the story than they are telling us. One of the most consistent practices that I see in graduate students is the habit of making harmful comparisons between their own ‘insides’ and other people’s ‘outsides’. At the simplest level, this means comparing our own awful first drafts with other people’s polished final drafts. I always ask student how many genuine first drafts (other than their own) they have seen; the answer is often zero, and yet they still believe their first drafts are uniquely bad. After I make my usual, run-of-the-mill, banal observations about the struggles of academic writing, I often hear in reply ‘Thank you for saying that—I thought I was the only one who felt that way about my writing’. Clearly, we need more honesty about the normal struggles of writing, so people don’t feel isolated and so those normal levels of struggle aren’t allowed to turn into something more problematic. However, in the context of increased openness, we still need to remember that we shouldn’t draw simple comparisons between our own private experience and the public face presented by others.

While I was thinking about these topics this week, I encountered a few other posts that relate to how we conceive of ease and struggle in our writing lives. (With all the different writing schemes going on, November really is an awesome month to be a reader—I don’t know how I’m supposed to get any writing done!) The Thesis Whisperer had a thoughtful post this week on the way that happiness tends to be the exception against which the more interesting struggles of life are measured. Jo Van Every had an interesting post this week on dealing gracefully with the unexpected and undesirable. Finally, Kathleen Fitzpatrick had a poignant post on the role of stress in our lives. I was particularly taken with her formulation that “Stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation.” According to Fitzpatrick, not only are many of us managing stress poorly, some of us are even seeking it out as proof of our worthiness.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @fishhookopeneye, helpful advice on crafting strong conference proposals.

From Inside Higher Ed, the second in their series on perfectionism in academia: concrete advice on ‘breaking the cycle’.

From @GradHacker, thoughtful suggestions for how graduate students might think about plagiarism in their own teaching.

From @ThomsonPat, wonderfully concrete advice on starting the literature review process. (Note: This post on literature reviews is the first in an ongoing series.)

From @fishhookopeneye, an interesting take on procrastination: a way of prolonging excitement or possibility.

From @DocwritingSIG, a call for precision without perfectionism and an awareness of how your discipline values style

From the New York Times, a fascinating discussion of note-taking. Is it fair to compare excessive note-taking to hoarding?

From @GradHacker, concrete suggestions for thinking about how to build the graduate school support networks that you need

From Inside Higher Ed, a thoughtful piece on the particular perils of perfectionism for academics.

A new guest post from @thesiswhisperer distinguishes between normal malaise and insurmountable misery in doctoral study.

From @mystudiouslife, a great elaboration of all she has done to keep the #AcWriMo spreadsheet functioning. Thanks!

Advice from @PhD2Published on committing to writing. Most important to me: Don’t wait for long blocks of time!

From @UVenus, a discussion of the way that #altac career paths may be different than graduate students picture them to be.

From @MGrammar, an interesting discussion of the costs and benefits of grammatical rules: ‘Rules aren’t free’.

From @ThomsonPat, an excellent post about the valuable ‘social existence’ our words could have if only they were shared.

From @AcaCoachTaylor, my kind of #AcWriMo motivation.

Academic Writing Month

Yesterday was the first day of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), a month dedicated to academic productivity and public accountability. The full ‘rules’ can be found at the PhD2Published site, but here’s the short version: Aim high, tell everyone, be strategic, check in, work hard. Even if you don’t have the flexibility to devote the whole month to writing, this approach is inspiring for its can-do spirit and its commitment to making academic writing less lonely. If you need convincing, The Thesis Whisperer has a great post about why AcWriMo is a better idea than you might initially think. In a similar vein, Anna Tarrant has an interesting piece in The Guardian’s Higher Education Network blog on the way that an initiative like this can create a much-needed social space for a sustainable approach to academic writing.

I didn’t participate in this project last year. In part, I made that decision because it was explicitly geared towards writing an academic book (it was actually called AcBoWriMo), something that I was mercifully not trying to do. More generally, I was also aware that I didn’t need that sort of productivity burst. There have definitely been times in my life—during some parts of the dissertation writing process, for instance—when it would have been very helpful for me to alter my life to achieve drastic writing goals. At this point, however, I need a more systematic approach. I definitely want to be more productive and consistent as a writer, so I am approaching AcWriMo as an experiment: what can I do to give writing the prominence in my work life that I so wish it had?

My goals will thus be of two sorts. In the first place, I have set some targets for myself: Five blog posts (which is the number I would have tried to write this month anyway) and a draft of an article (which will grow out of a conference presentation, so I am not starting from scratch). Prompted by the AcWriMo spreadsheet, I have set a target of an hour of writing a day, five days a week (the numbering may shift, but I am currently number 234 in the Academic Writing Accountability spreadsheet). My second goal will be to understand how participation in this project affects me. Should I have set a word count instead of making a time commitment? Should I have aimed higher or lower? Will social media accountability be helpful? I look forward to reflecting on these questions in early December.

But those questions are just about me and my own productivity challenges. The truly interesting thing about AcWriMo is the notion of people around the world engaging in academic writing ‘out loud’. What can be so inward becomes a bit more outward, which means that the usual frustrations can be a matter of public acknowledgement rather than private self-castigation. The shared sense of the intrinsic pain of writing—and I say that as someone who loves to write—can be a source of humour and encouragement. The #AcWriMo hashtag is already inspiring, funny, and enlightening: small triumphs, inevitable setbacks, lots of jokes, and a myriad of approaches from which to learn. I will be updating my progress here and on Twitter (@explorstyle)—I hope you’ll follow along.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @SDMumford, a call to study what you love (in his case, philosophy).

From @DrJeremySegrott, thoughtful reflections on a year spent using Twitter for academic purposes.

From @Margin_Notes, a great post on the research into the role of teaching in tenure decisions.

From @ThomsonPat, an interesting discussion of different types of post-experience reflection.

From @cplong, a Storify version of his experience live tweeting his own talk on Plato.

It may not be the most influential of his 40+ books, but Barzun’s Simple and Direct is one of my favourite books on writing.

From @ThomsonPat, a great response to the writing too early question: Writing the thesis from day one is risky.

From @readywriting, interesting reflections on different types of academic blogs: Profiling the academic blogosphere.

From Inside Higher Ed, an honest account of being miserable in graduate school and deciding whether or not to finish.

I love this! Lucy Ferriss (in Lingua Franca) argues that ‘this’ sometimes needs more than just a referent.

From @byagoda in the NYT Draft blog, a delightful endorsement of the em-dash for its versatility and its vitality.

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 Supervisory Relationship

This blog aims to present both my own ideas about graduate student writing and my commentary on other people’s ideas. I’ve struggled a bit with the best way to do the latter. I find that I often draft comments about interesting things I’ve read, but then don’t post them (because writing is easy, sharing your writing is hard!). Those sort of reflections can quickly become stale, so they end up sitting unused in a draft folder. Increasingly, I just share the things that I find interesting on Twitter; the commentary aspect is lost, but at least the sharing is timely. Since not everyone follows me on Twitter (@explorstyle), I am going to start including a list of the things I’ve shared on Twitter at the end of these posts. The post itself will consist of a comment on one recent item of interest. Today’s link isn’t particularly recent (unless, like me, you feel like July was just a minute ago!), but I know that it is one that graduate students will find relevant.

This post from the Thesis Whisperer blog on what doctoral students need from their supervisors highlights the potential for difficulties in the supervisory relationship. The post discusses what doctoral students can and should expect from their supervisors—and whether that relationship needs to be as fraught as it so often is. The post was inspired the actions of a new doctoral student who was looking to avoid the inevitable pitfalls. I thought the post did a great job of summing up two equally undesirable poles: one, avoiding all rookie mistakes or, two, suffering through every indignity that every doctoral student has ever endured. Surely neither of those extremes is ideal. Although a PhD is never going to come without some struggle, the process shouldn’t be a source of actual trauma. We all hear far too many stories about the misery caused by inadequate supervisory relationships; the Thesis Whisperer’s characterization of her role as that of a ‘global agony aunt’ is telling.

In general, I believe that the uneven quality of supervision, while unfortunate, must not be allowed to derail the writing process. Instead, the thesis writer needs to see themselves as capable of gaining the necessary expertise from a range of resources. Ideally, the supervisor will figure heavily in the writer’s development, but an unwilling or inexpert supervisor needn’t signal doom for the writer. And while I don’t think that the goal of supervision should be to make sure that each generation suffers as much as the last, I do know that trial and error can be an invaluable route to meaningful expertise. A good supervisor is many things, but not necessarily a protection against travelling down unproductive pathways. Those pathways are crucial—not to replicate a needless tradition of suffering but rather to give thesis writers the depth of experience necessary to complete this demanding and defining writing task.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

I love this cartoon from @xkcdhttp://xkcd.com/1108

More good advice from @GradHacker on successfully navigating conferences: http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/09/17/successfully-navigating-conferences-part-2/

From @GradHacker, a post on getting our ideas down on paper, so they don’t keep us up at night! http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/09/14/write-it-down-go-to-sleep/

From @ProfHacker, a post on the things that we should make easier and those that we should make harder: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/make-it-hard-on-yourself/42568

From @chronicle, something to make you laugh and feel better about your own presentation mishaps! http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/when-your-presentation-goes-awry/33710

@scholarlykitchn says the exact right thing about PowerPoint and Prezi: http://wp.me/pcvbl-77T

From the NYT, a clear discussion of the subjunctive in the always-delightful After Deadline blog: Save the Subjunctive! http://nyti.ms/QgRZQE 

From Barbara Fister, a very nuanced take on the way we talk about plagiarism: The Plagiarism Perplex http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/library-babel-fish/plagiarism-perplex

From @chronicle, a call for reverse mentoring: http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2012/09/06/why-we-need-reverse-mentoring/

The recent @GradHacker podcast on productivity systems is full of interesting and helpful insights: http://podcast.gradhacker.org/?p=122

From @ProfHacker, a helpful overview of Twitter for academics: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-and-why-to-participate-in-a-tweetchat/42380

From @GradHacker, a useful discussion of the pros and cons of Prezi: http://www.gradhacker.org/2012/08/29/prezi-a-dynamic-presentation-or-nauseating-experience/

I love this post from @stancarey on the choice between following bad rules or standing up to their eternal enforcers: http://wp.me/pglsT-3o7

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.