revision – it’s not just about cutting words

We’re all told that the essence of revision is rewriting. Write and then write again. Rewrite. And rewriting means cutting, getting rid of the excess verbage we poured onto the page as a ‘brain dump’. We’re also told that the best way to deal with rewriting our crappy first draft is to adopt a ruthless attitude to our own work. As William Zinsser, the go-to for many on how to write well, puts it

The newly hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it. It’s not clear. It’s not logical. It’s verbose. It’s klunky. It’s pretentious. Its boring. It’s full of clutter. It’s full of clichés. It can be read in several different ways. It doesn’t lead out of the previous sentence. It doesn’t… The point is that clear writing is the result of a lot of tinkering. (83-4)

The solution to all this klutz and clutter is serial rewriting, which Zinsser describes as a process of ‘reshaping and tightening’. The big challenge, Zinsser says, is not to resist or get grumpy, but to get to love the process.

Learn to enjoy this tidying process. I don’t like to write; I like to have written. But I love to rewrite. I especially like to cut: to press the DELETE key and see an unnecessary word or phrase or sentence vanish into the electricity. I like to replace a humdrum word with one that has more precision or colour. I like to strengthen the transition between one sentence and another. I like to rephrase a drab sentence to give it a more pleasing rhythm or a more graceful musical line. (87)

Now I don’t disagree with this. But I do worry about someone cherrypicking this section of Zinsser’s book and assuming that rewriting is just a process of a bit of strategic trimming, a matter of tidying things up. Revision is often so much more than tinkering. It can be moving big chunks of material from one chapter to another, or shifting the order of the moves within a chapter. Rewriting the crappy first draft is not simply about cutting and replacing text at the level of the paragraph and the sentence. It’s also about attending to the overall structure of the argument. And it’s not at all uncommon in a thesis or a scholarly monograph to have several goes at getting the optimum order of ‘stuff’, despite all of our best efforts at planning, outlining and storyboarding.

However, rewriting can also be about adding words as well as reducing them. Yes, not writing less or writing differently, but actually writing more. It’s a mistake to think that revision is always about getting rid of some things and replacing designated dull words with some that are better, more lively.

Rewriting may mean finding the places in the text where the writing is poor because we are struggling to express an idea, to put into words something that we can barely get our head around. Not quite knowing what to say and how to say it is often a problem for researchers, be they doctoral or much more experienced. That’s because the research enterprise is about work at the edges of our thinking. By definition, making a contribution to knowledge means that we are always on the borderlines of what we know and can say. Inevitably, the struggle to make sense of our data appears in our writing. It’s not at all surprising that some of the problems in our crappy first drafts arise from the fact that we can’t quite yet say what it is we want to.

And rewriting can also be required in a text where our argument  is foreshortened – when we’ve left out some of the moves that are going to help the reader follow our line of thinking. Now the omission of steps in our argument can be because we are just so familiar with what we are saying that we simply forget to put in all of the necessary interim moves because they seem so logical to us. But just as often we miss steps out because while we know the general direction of the argument, we know its overall shape, we haven’t yet worked out all the middle moves that are needed. We haven’t yet sorted out the examples, counter examples, elaborations and/or illustrations that will help the reader to understand. Or perhaps our truncated text results from us knowing the moves but not getting the rhetoric working properly – we haven’t yet got the meta-discourse that actually carries our reasoning, we just have the substance.

If we think that rewriting and revision are just about cutting and reshaping, then we may very well miss the good/new/exciting insights that are struggling to emerge from our draft. Rewriting might just get rid of possibilities, cut off potential thoughts before they’ve fully developed – rather like whisking the lawnmower over the grass and forgetting that there are bulbs just coming up, cut the top off them and they can’t grow. Or the rewriting will efficiently  eliminate potentially good arguments, rather than us doing the additions that will make them work properly.

It is important to take all of that good advice about rewriting, cutting and tightening. But it’s also equally the case that we need to look, in the revision stages, for the places where we have to remake big structural decisions, and the places where we have to think more and add more in order to develop and mature our analysis and contribution.

Coming across a klunky bit of writing can be a sign you need to trim words, or it can equally be a time to grow those sentences before you tighten them up.

Zinsser, W (2006) On writing well. The classic guide to writing non fiction. £rd Edition:. New York: Collins

Posted in academic writing, editing, revision, rewriting, William Zinsser | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

why is this reading so hard?

It’s a fact of scholarly life that some of the reading we do is just plain difficult. Sometimes this is because scholarly writing is obtuse, dense and, well, not really very good. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the texts that we read are simply hard to grasp. That’s because their writers are dealing with difficult ideas, it’s not because the texts are poorly written.

It’s terribly easy to suggest that academic writing that isn’t transparently obvious at first reading is, by definition, badly written. If it was well expressed we’d understand it. It would be clear and obvious. We’d get it straight away.

Well no. While that might sound logical, it’s actually not always true. Getting into a new area or mode of thinking is actually a bit like getting to know a new physical location. When you arrive in a new city you don’t expect to know how to get around straight away. You don’t expect to know a new place in the way you know your own home environment. You understand that you have to make several trips before you have a sense of what is where, and how to get from one place to another without looking at a map for general directions and/or reassurance.

And that’s how it often is is with new literatures. You have to explore a bit. You have to get a sense of what is where – the histories of debate, the lines of argument, the language used, the kind of questions that are asked, the topics that are pursued, perhaps even the style of writing that is generally used in the field.

Entering a new field of inquiry through reading often takes the equivalent of several exploratory expeditions. You don’t get a sense of it all straight away. You have to get out and into it and get what you can. Each time you venture into the text, you can see and understand more – you become familiar with a little more, bit by bit.

It is sometimes very hard to discriminate between the writing that is unfamiliar and deals with difficult ideas that really challenge and stretch our thinking, and the crappy stuff. But it is important to do so. These two are not the same thing. The first is worth persevering with, and the second not. One – the unfamiliar and complex – will eventually reward you, the second will never yield anything much worth knowing.

The difficulty of picking between hard and poorly written texts is particularly an issue for people early in their academic adventures. Doctoral researchers often find that the books and papers that they encounter don’t yield much at the start. And the PhDers don’t necessarily know whether this is because they just aren’t yet sufficiently at ease with ‘the stuff’ being discussed, or whether they’ve just happened across a text that is thick,dull and plodding and isn’t worth pursuing.

The supervisor is the person to turn to if the difference between these two options is not clear. But this doesn’t mean asking your supervisor what the text means, but rather asking if the difficulty you are having with the text is a product of the writing or the ideas. You might want to talk to your supervisor about what you’ve understood so far in the problem text, because it is often in the talking that the reading becomes a little clearer. To continue with the analogy, talking over a text is like going home after a day out in a new city and debriefing with a friend. As you describe what you did, you think about the experience further and things start to fall into place.

The thing to know and understand is that all of us come across hard reading – and not simply during the doctorate. The reading doesn’t just suddenly get easier once we have a PhD. Whenever we encounter a new field, a new theorist, we are back into exploratory mode. We all often have to read a text several times, or read it very slowly, in order to make real sense of it. But as the field becomes more familiar, as we know its conventions and its idiosyncrasies, the less difficult the reading becomes.

And we all have to remember that writing that intends to disrupt our usual ways of thinking, that aims to offer us new approaches to understanding the world, and to provide different concepts and languages to those we are accustomed to, may initially require a bit of work. And, along the way, you do become much better at sorting out what is actually not very good academic writing, and what is interesting and well worth your perseverance and patience. There is no excuse for poor academic writing, but there’s reasons why some academic writing yields meanings to us more slowly.

Posted in academic writing, reading | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

writing, hand writing and pens

It seems that lots of us are fascinated by writers and how they do what they do. There was for instance a memorable photographic series in the Guardian about writer’s rooms that many of us loved. And there is a ready market for books written by authors about their own writing (for example here), and for anthologies about the everyday habits of writers. The subjects of these articles and books are generally fiction/non fiction writers, people who might be loosely clumped together as Literature of various persuasions.

There is much less written about academic writers – but perhaps there is the same appetite for information about our secret and eccentric habits. Just recently #sociologicaldesk appeared on twitter showing the varying degrees and kinds of minimalism, mess, cats, books and technological brain extensions adopted by social scientists. And there are some webby descriptions of academic writing processes – including my own. But there certainly seems to be room for much more writing and pictures about the actual milieu and practices that we scholarly types variously adopt.

Now I’m a bit of a Roland Barthes fan and I often go back to his collected interviews (2009) in which he speaks, a lot, about his own processes of writing. I’m sure that many of us relate to his stationery fetish:

I would say… that I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments. I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. I have far too many pens – I don’t know what to do with all of them! And yet, as soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them.

When felt-tipped pens appeared in the stores, I bought a lot of them. Since then I’ve gotten tired of them because the point flattens out too quickly. I’ve also used pen nibs – not the “ Sergeant Major” which is too dry, but softer nibs like the “J”. In short, I’ve tried everything… except Bics with which I feel no affinity. I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a “Bic style” which is really just for churning out copy, writing which merely transcribes thought.

In the end I always return to fine fountain pens. The essential thing is that they can produce that soft, smooth writing I absolutely require. (p 178)

Of course Barthes was speaking in a time pre computer. He was one of those people who wrote his text longhand and then finally typed it on his new electric typewriter– with two fingers apparently, being somewhat late to keyboarding. He spoke to interviewers about his love of what he called

…scription, the action by which we manually trace signs. …. Writing is the hand, and thus the body: its impulses, controlling mechanisms, rhythms, weights, glides, complications, flights… the subject with its ballast of desire and the unconscious. (p 193)

Barthes likened this embodied scription to the work of Cy Twombly, and as I read Barthe’s words I also imagined looking at Twombly’s big loops across a canvas – and making them myself.

2014-07-30 10.59.30
(unedited research photo from Tate summer school 2014)

The notion of something beyond putting words on the page, but closing the distance between thought and writing through the physical act of writing, was taken much further by Tim Ingold in Lines. I like to think that Barthes and Ingold would have had an interesting conversation about writing with the hand because, like Ingold, Barthes was highly ambivalent about the need for machines to help with writing. He wasn’t fond of his typewriter. It erased the thought processes of writing, he said. With handwriting the crossing out, the additional notes, the insertions, the corrections are all visible. This rethinking in text form was, Barthes suggested, the work of an author.

The writer is someone who thinks that language is a pure instrument of thought, who sees only a tool in language. For the author, on the contrary, language is a dialectical space where things are made and unmade, where the author’s own subjectivity is immersed and dissolved. (p 105)

Now, little snippets like these can keep me thinking about writing for a long time. Do I think of writing as a tool? Or am I an ‘author’?  Does the fact that I use a computer mean that I am missing out on something important in the process of writing? Have I put production above the embodied pleasure of writing? Or is my preference for particular fonts – Avenir being my writing font of choice – some kind of screen equivalent to Barthe’s love of particular pens and nibs? My words look clearer and more relaxed to me when they are in Avenir, so much less bureacratic than in Times or Cambria.

It seems to me that reading about and hearing from other academic writers is not simply a voyeuristic act – although it is of course that. It is also a stimulus to considering my/our own practices of producing text. This is much more than just putting words on a screen or page. Perhaps focusing on the practices of writing is a kind of (often tacit) crucible for the ways we think about the processes of academic knowledge production more generally. Barthes certainly suggests that this is so.

There’s much more in Barthes’ interviews than I’ve had space or time to divulge and I can certainly recommend a bit of a browse. And I’d like to hear about other places where I can read about academics talking about their own practices of writing…

Barthes, R (2009) The grain of the voice. Interviews 1962-1980. Evanston Illinois, Northwestern University Press.

Posted in academic writing, Barthes, Cy Twombly, hand-writing, Tim Ingold | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

I can’t find anything written on my topic… really?

Sometimes people tell me that they can’t find any literature that is relevant to their research. They are doing something that nobody else has researched and written about and so there isn’t anything to read. What, they ask, can they do for their literature chapter.

A lack of literature is very rarely a real problem. The real problem is that the researcher with the nothing-written-on-my-topic question has drawn the boundary around their topic too tightly. They haven’t thought about the kinds of literatures that might be relevant, even if they are not written on exactly the same question.

Let me give an example. Say a researcher is doing a project on the use of whiteboards in science lectures. OK, I don’t know why, but let’s go with this for argument’s sake. Its just a hypothetical. The researcher has searched and searched through the literatures and they can only find one paper written on the use of whiteboards in science. Hooray, they say, I’ve found a gap. My research is needed. But there is nothing written on it. That’s a problem. What will go in my literature chapter?

Well, no. That’s not the case. Of course there’s something in print.  Even if it’s not directly on the exact same topic, it’s related. Let’s think of some of the other literatures that might be connected and relevant to our pretend inquiry. There’s probably research about the use of whiteboards in subject areas other than science. There is some research into the lecture as a form of teaching and learning (I know this to be the case!). And there is certainly material about general teaching and learning in science. So all of these different literatures have a connection with our imaginary topic.

But wait, there’s more. There is an enormous literature about the use of digital technologies in higher education, some of which quite specifically addresses the pedagogical strategies that they do and don’t afford – this is relevant to the way in which whiteboards are used in science lectures. And there’s material about students’ experiences of lectures and their own personal use of digital technologies. And of course all of this related research is framed within a broader scholarly conversation about learning and teaching – and our mythical researcher concerned about whiteboards in science lectures is certainly going to have to establish their work within a general pedagogical conceptual framework – so there’s more reading.

So it’s not that there is no literature for the pretend researcher on their topic, it’s rather that they have to think more broadly about what they might need and use. They have to map the possible areas that are linked to their question and then sort out, by skimming and noting, what’s most relevant and related. They must then bring these selected literatures together in a way that supports the research they are going to do.

The answer to the no literature question is always, always, always – what else is pertinent. The resulting strategy is to widen the boundaries of the search to include related and framing scholarship. Take off the blinkers and look further… There is another answer of course. It’s one that always lurks behind the nothing-written-on-my-topic question. And this answer is a scary one, but its always one worth asking. Nothing in your area? Maybe there is nothing specifically written on the topic because it just isn’t that interesting. The topic is too narrow and specialised, and studying it isn’t that important. There’s a good reason no-one has looked at the use of whiteboards in science lectures in any great depth… Asking why no-one has been here before is a scary proposition. But it’s one that’s very important to dare to consider if you do happen to find yourself asking the nothing-written-on-my-topic question.

For more on strategies for doing a review of literatures – see scoping, mapping (here and here) and focusing (here and here).

Posted in focusing in, literature mapping, literature review, no literatures | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

do academic writers love reading?

Often, when I run workshops or give presentations about academic writing, I begin by talking about reading. I ask how many people like reading and how many people like literature work. I ask whether workshop participants read outside of the academic work that they do. And I’m always struck by the responses, by the sheer number of people – doctoral researchers in particular – who don’t seem to like reading. They do read, but they don’t want to do any more reading than they have to. Of course, these days reading can be complemented by other media – listening to podcasts and watching youtube clips for example. But at the centre of these media is still the practice of reading.

It strikes me, and I know this is going to sound a bit mean, that being a researcher/scholar and not liking reading is a bit like being a chef who doesn’t like eating, or a carpenter who hates working with wood. Words, language, ideas are the stuff of scholarship. They are what makes our academic world go round. As de Certeau put it, the university is a scriptural economy. If you don’t like reading and working with ideas and then writing so that other people can read your work, then the academic world is going to be a pretty tough and alien place to be.

And there is a connection between reading and writing. Those who are keen readers are more likely to be writers. Well, I might not have proof of that statement, so it could be dismissed as just an educated assertion, but that’s certainly my experience teaching in schools, as well as in universities. There’s a logic to a reading-writing connection of course. People who read a lot have a familiarity with writing, and with multiple authors’ approaches to writing; they are likely to have developed a degree of tacit understanding about the ways in which language and texts are crafted. They appreciate some writers more than others and can generally explain why.

The reading-writing connection is more evidenced at the ‘professional’ level. In interview, a lot of writers talk about their love of reading. Here’s Jane Smiley, who wrote a book about novels and novelists

When I was researching the nonfiction book I wrote about the novel, I discovered the childhoods of most novelists were similar to mine. Almost all novelists grew up reading voraciously, and many of them come from families in which it’s automatic to tell stories about family characters, Aunt Ruth or whomever, and they are curious and/or observant. I was one of those kids who had to be told to stop asking questions all the time, that’s what novelists do. We gather information, and we form what we learn into a story (p 207).

While academics don’t necessarily form their ideas in the same way as novelists, my educated hunch is that the people who are the most determined academic writers also read – willingly, enthusiastically and a lot. While some of this scholarly reading may not be easy, and most of the writing certainly is not, they don’t believe that reading time is wasted time.

I’d love to do some research looking at the connections between reading and academic writing. The accomplished academic writers that I know all read widely. Most of them don’t just read academic texts, but devour a range of other kinds of writing, including fiction. Many belong to reading groups outside of the academy. They live a kind of life of the mind, much of it through texts of diverse genres and styles.

Productive academic writers don’t see that reading is a tiresome necessity, that it’s drudgery, that it’s to be done only in sufficient quantity to get by. In fact they/we usually treasure the time that they/we do get away from daily duties  to dive into a new book.

And that love of reading is why I’m often tempted, when I am told by doctoral or other researchers that reading is something that has to be done in order for the ‘real research’ to take place – as if it’s simply some kind of administrative requirement or an archaic ritual – to respond by suggesting the reluctant academic readers need to take time off to read a lot of good books. Join a book club, I want to say. Go to a writer’s festival. Stock up your e-reader. And do this not for any reason other than to build your love of reading and words, to sink into the play of language, to take the time to listen, in Roland Barthes words, to the ‘rustle’ of the text.

Posted in academic writing, Jane Smiley, miley, reading | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

how is APRIL 1 for you – oh, just the usual game

Bourdieu says that academic work, like other areas of social, economic and cultural life, can be thought of as a game. This is/was my game today.

Academic Meeting 4.0

(Shortlisted for best British university simulation app, 2015)

What’s new in version 4.0?

Updated dictionary of euphemisms for Get on with it, Don’t let him speak again, No way are we doing that, When’s the coffee coming and What the hell is going on here.

New characters: Impact Management Director, Impact Management Deputy Director and Impact Marketing Manager; REF 2020 Coordinator; and Budget Readjustment Task and Finish group.

Bug fixes for crashes as Pro Vice Chancellor speaks.

Streamlined capacity to report off the record conversations via live tweeting.

Behind the scenes adjustments to make parking fines easier to accrue with reduced time to pay off.

Enhanced detail of attendees’ emails.

Expanded opportunities to add doodles to meeting agenda.

Improved compatability of new building programme with Times Higher league tables.

Added features: Increased sandwich choice, mystery meat on sticks removed and improved chocolate biscuits; live student social media lecture ratings.

Extension packs available for new IT system and changing logos.

So how is/was your day then? On or off your game? And which game are you playing?

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all that reading? think of it as tracing your family tree

When you start on a PhD, or indeed on any new research project, there’s always a lot of reading to be done. It’s easy to lose track of what this reading is for and to forget why engaging with all of the extant literatures is important. So a brief recap –  reading is the way in which we:

1. understand the history of the field and the key figures in it
2. find what has already been said about our proposed area of research
3. establish which prior research we can build on
4. identify any debates we might want to enter
5. ascertain if there is any research we want to challenge.

A helpful metaphor for orienting yourself to scholarly reading in general, and to all of the reading that has to be done for the PhD in particular, is tracing the family tree. Think of all that reading as a process of tracking down your ancestors.

Most of us are familiar with the notion of genealogy – the process of researching your own background, where you come from. We are probably also all familiar with the television version of finding your family tree, the one where celebrities are helped by professional genealogists to find their forebears. Their family tree work usually starts with parents and then grandparents. Tracking through census, births, deaths and marriage records (where these exist) often reveals surprising or sad – and equally often pretty ordinary – past lives which, the television programmes inevitably claim, have made the celebrities who and what they are.

Engaging with the literatures can be thought of as developing your research family tree. For instance, reading the literatures allows you trace various key influences on your work – you can map what you have inherited from your forebears. You can signal these inheritances so that readers can understand what material is yours alone and what is gleaned from what others have done. You can locate family squabbles – you might decide to ignore these, or to be part of them. You can also indicate branches of the family that have gone off on their own and have become estranged – you may or may not wish to reconnect with them. You might also want to look at the ways in which broader social events connect with your individual heritage to see how your family trajectory has been patterned and shaped.

Now, the family you are discovering through the reading you are doing is an intellectual one. The object of all of your reading is to find out what intellectual traditions your work is based in, what it refers to and uses. While you are reading you are also tracing connections, lines of development and ruptures, and family likenesses. You are lining up with particular vectors of thinking and of actually doing research. You are finding out who you are as a scholar, and taking your place in a line of thinking and writing.

And my own intellectual tracking here? I thought of the metaphor of the family tree while watching a youtube clip by Dr George Patton from Waldon University. He talks about the literature review as an intellectual history. I’ve taken that idea and built on it, just a bit. I recommend watching the whole clip, it’s not that long, as Patton goes into helpful detail about the ways in which the literature review functions as an intellectual history.

Posted in family tree, George Patton, literature review, metaphor, reading | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments