refresh your writing ideas

Reading is key to developing your understandings of what makes good academic writing. Anthropologist Ruth Behar (2020) suggests that academic writers shouldn’t stop at the classic texts in their discipline, but also read other genres. She says

We need to read poetry to understand silences and pauses. To challenge the oppression of punctuation. To learn how to make words sing. To liberate ourselves from chalky paragraphs.

We need to read fiction to learn how to tell a story with conflict, drama and suspense. To tell a story that leaves us breathless.

We need to read memoir to learn how to write meaningfully about our own experiences. 

Children’s books should be on our shelves, to keep our souls full of wonder. (p. 48)

If you are in the middle of revising a draft, or coming to the end of a big text you won’t want to stop right now to read. But now might be the very time that you need to step back. It is always worth considering taking a little time out to refresh your take on academic writing. Through using reading.

You might find it interesting to experiment with a structured approach to using reading for writing. Here are four reading-based strategies to refresh ideas. Four to begin with. Adapt them, invent your own.

(1) Take an extract of published writing from your field, perhaps a classic that is generally understood as good writing. Rewrite it. Now compare your version with the original. What is textually different about the two? Does this help you to see what to do in your rewriting? (adapted from Narayan, 2012)

(2) Take a published text that you consider to be in need of some rewriting. And rewrite it. What was it that concerned you? Are there things like these to change in your own draft?

(3) Find a few texts that challenge the dominant modes of writing in your field. What do they do differently? Can you incorporate any of these differences into your writing? 

(4) Find a published text that is something like yours. Read it slowly looking at the writing. What mood does the writer create? How does the writer manage the pace of their narrative? How do they use sentence structure and length to convey rhythm? If there is direct speech used, how is it introduced and incorporated? What metaphors are used? Are there novel categorisations? How did the writer manage their tenses? Where, how and why did they use adjectives and adverbs and to what effect? What kind of punctuation did they use?

Some simple ways to generate new possibilities for your own writing. Via reading.

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trouble finding a writing angle? try cubing

You have research results. You want to write something – a book, a chapter, a paper. You’re in a field where there is already an active conversation. You’ve done an analysis which seems to repeat what is already out there. Noooo! You know that this probably isnt going to be good enough; the publisher/editor is going to want something more. Something novel. Something with offers a different perspective. Something which looks at topic and the results from a slightly different angle.

There are several strategies that you can use to generate novel possibilities – the most obvious are brainstorming and free writing. And variants on these. Another approach is cubing. Cubing is a strategy which encourages you to rethink. Cubing is generally attributed to Cowan and Cowan (1980) but has been adapted numerous times and in different ways. (And yes, I’m a cubing adapter too.) 

What is cubing I hear you ask? Imagine you are holding a cube. It could be a child’s building block or a Rubik’s cube. Hold it in your hand. Describe it. Now twist it about 30 degrees to the right. Again, describe what you see. Turn it so that you can see what was previously hidden underneath. Describe it. Turn it so that you reveal what was at the back. Spin the cube slowly – what do you see? What surprised you when you moved the cube around? If its a Rubiks’ cube you’re holding, then you can also twist it beyond its basic cube shape.

You get the idea. Of course you can do this with a real cube, just to see what differences emerge when you observe something as apparently straightforward as a cube. You can do this with any object, it’s just that the six sides of the cube create a useful limiting frame. And the trick with cubing is to not dwell on any particular view, but to move quickly. 

The cubing strategy can be used loosely. Using the example above as the model, see your current research results as the equivalent of the straight-on view of the cube. So now turn the results. Shift your view so that you can see some of what is underneath. Turn your results so that you reveal what was hidden. What happens if you think of your results as being in motion. Where have they been and where are they going? Were any of these views of your results a little surprising? Do any of these surprises give you an insight about how you might write your book, paper or chapter to show something that other papers, chapters and books haven’t?

But you may find this approach a little waffly and open-ended. So try a more structured approach. Use these six questions about your research results, focussing on description, association, connection, comparison, application, argument. As in…

  1. How can you describe your results – what do they sound like, look like, smell like, taste like? How would you categorise them? Can you break these results up into smaller stand-alone pieces?
  2. If your results were an image what would it be? If these results were a meme what is it? If they were a billboard? A poster? A cartoon ? What do your results remind you of? What popular cultural text or artefact, literary text or work of art might you associate with your results?
  3. How do these results connect with your previous research? What experiences have you had that connect with these research results?
  4. How are your research results different from other work in the field? 
  5. How and where could your results be used? Who uses it, where, how and why?
  6. If someone disagreed with your results what would they say? How would you substantiate your case? What are the pros and cons of their counter-argument? 

Cubing can also be used to generate new perspectives on a research topic too, particularly one which is already often researched. So, cubing is helpful for developing research bids and research proposals. And cubing is very often used to support reading and interpretation. Readers are asked to write about their text using six prompts (six sides of the cube) – description, comparison, association, analysis, application, argumentation. 

Why not give cubing a go? Try cubing next time you are stuck looking at what to write about a set of research results besides the completely obvious. 

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2021 is nearly done – but 2022?

Living with Covd19 has not been the occasion for an unexpected and bonus writing retreat. Well, it might have been for a few. But for most people, working from home didn’t become the occasion for increased productivity. Many people had increased caring responsibilities, with their usual supports harder to access. Those of us in higher education found it difficult to do our research and had to reinvent projects or put them on hold. And teaching had to be re-organised each year to cater for different blends of face to face and remote learning. All of this took time away from writing. Well. I’m not telling you anything. You’ve lived through this too. 

As well, the connection between writing and wellbeing became clearer than ever. It’s hard to focus on sustained writing when you’re isolated and every day is marked by low level anxiety. So it seems pretty important, at the end of this second plague year, that we forgive ourselves if we haven’t been as productive as we wanted. As productive as we might have been in a more usual year.

It’s also important that we don’t set writing goals in New Year 2022 that compensate for 2021. Last year I only wrote x when I wanted to do y. So this year I’m going to do x+y+z. If we do end up with another year of more viral spikes and troughs, then we’ll finish this time next year feeling very frustrated and down on ourselves. It’s about being kind and real.

There’s a delicate balance to be found. On the one hand its probably good to have a routine that keep us in touch with our writing and keeps our writing muscles exercised, and to make some plans about what to write when and in what order. On the other hand, there’s a problem with having goals that are unrealistic and inflexible. Lining up a load of commitments and deadlines may seem to be a good way to keep on track, but may end up being a recipe for feeling inadequate. 

That delicate routine, plan and goal balance is going to vary from person to person of course. But we can use our experience of, and reflections on, this year to consider what is likely to be possible next year. We can make modest but achievable plans for 2022. Well, that’s the approach Im taking to the New Year. No more wildly ambitious monthly targets. Something more gently paced is in order. Something that will support recovery.

But I also don’t want to let the year finish without acknowledging three colleagues who died in 2021, colleagues who contributed to my thinking, writing and this blog. 

Dr Julie Rowlands wrote four guest posts for patter – about conference apps, writing the book from the PhD, lazy reviewers and the performative imposts of institutions on PhDers. Julie was building a distinctive place in critical higher education studies and had a unique insider knowledge of higher education management. 

Dr Kip Jones often commented on posts on the blog and on social media. Kip was an innovator whose work on performative social science, particularly through the use of film, was very influential. Twitter just isn’t the same without his regular posts.

Professor Terry Wrigley was a co-editor/writer whose activism and passion for education inspired and energised so many. We had plans to do more work together. 

Vale Julie, Kip and Terry.  We’ll miss you. I’ll miss you. 

Patter is taking a couple of weeks off – she will be back on 10th January, 2022.

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for the book from the PhD

I do love the book that comes from the PhD. The book seems like a fitting reward for all the hard work done during the doctorate. Indeed, in some countries, the post defence thesis is published as a book. That’s the book of the PhD, not from it. 

There’s nothing quite like getting the first copies of your first book. There’s something uniquely satisfying about being able to hold the book in your hands, to feel its weight, its substance. It’s joyous to be able to give copies to the people who supported you. And it’s amazing to see the book advertised on publisher and commercial book sellers’ websites and on real shelves.

Of course not every PhD is book material. Some theses are better suited to being broken up, deconstructed into a series of papers and chapters of varying types. And some disciplines typically publish via papers and not books. It’s not that the book is superior. The book is just different to papers. And of course it’s not that writing papers isn’t rewarding – seeing your papers in print also feels wonderful – here you are, in the company of people in your reference list.

All of the publishing that comes from the PhD is to be enjoyed and celebrated. 

But not everyone holds the book in high esteem. Just this week, as I heard about another book from the PhD being made ready for publication, I had an anxious moment. I found myself thinking about those people whose PhD could be a book but who felt they needed to publish papers in highly ranked journals instead. That they didn’t have the time to write the book and get it through the publication process and be competitive in the job market. That they needed to max out the number of papers they  could get out in the shortest possible time. I wondered, what are we losing out on by insisting on particular types of publication?

I worry about how the current pressure to publish straight after the PhD plays out, how the need to produce a particular kind of CV propels people into particular types of publications. Well, you know all the reasons producing piles of stuff while you’re precariously or newly employed is a problem and unfair.

It’s not uncommon for institutions push for more papers, arguing subtly or blatantly that papers lead to higher scores in international league tables across the board, regardless of discipline or topic. Such “strategic” institutional interventions are often associated with audit measures of various kinds. Writing a book may well take longer than writing a paper. So the audit measure of papers v. books is also about a particular version of productivity, where volume per year counts most. 

I’ve heard a lot of people say that books no longer matter. Just this last week someone said this in my hearing. That journal articles matter more. This kind of comment worries me, as the interview panels and funding committees I’ve been involved with do take account of books. The most recent research audit in the UK has in fact allowed books to be counted as a double entry. But if it is the case that in some spaces and places the book is seen as no longer important, this needs to be challenged, it ought not to remain unquestioned. 

The book has an important place in our shared scholarly library. While some kinds of academic work are best suited to short-form genres such as papers and chapters, other work is not. Sometimes a long-form write is required to do the scholarly job. There are some research projects which need a book rather than a smaller pieces which tell parts of the story. Similarly, there are some PhDs which need a book in order to present their case, to maintain the integrity of the work done, to make the significant contribution.

The problem with an emphasis being placed on a narrow spectrum of genres, because they are quicker, easier to audit and compare, is that we lose out on particular forms of scholarship and reduce the possibilities for communicating scholarly ideas and research results. And we leave the book as a playground for established and job-secure scholars. Not OK.

I‘m not arguing here that the book is dying. I’m not discussing book costs or publication practices or digital books or open access, all of which are really important. I’m simply saying that I would like all PhDs to feel – and be – able to write a book from their work, if that is the form that the work needs to take. And this choice shouldn’t jeopardise their future prospects. 

So can we just reorganise the world so this is possible, please?  And do just call me Pollyanna. 

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citation blues #1-#4

Blues  – African-American musical form dealing with sorrows, trials and tribulations

Blue –  Australian slang for making a mistake. As in “I made a blue” 

So its possible, (particularly if you are Australian), to have the blues about making a blue. A state that academic writers want to avoid if at all possible. And particularly doctoral writers. 

One place to avoid getting the blues about making blues is in citations. The references you make to other people’s work.

When examiners read dissertations and reviewers read papers, they are always aware of in-text citations. They don’t necessarily look for them but they see them. They will almost always pick up the four most common citation mistakes – if they are present. And if these citations are problematic and numerous, reviewers and examiners may well leap to the conclusion that the writer hasn’t done enough careful reading. They have been cavalier with the work of other scholars. They may even decide that the writer is unscholarly or that the writing and scholarship is “sloppy”.  They have cited for appearance’s sake rather than from a deep understanding of their field.

Well you don’t want your reader to form that view of your work. So it’s as well to know exactly what the four cost common citation blues are, so that you can avoid them. 

Citation blue #1. Attributing a common idea in the field to a particular person

Most fields have categories and ideas that are common parlance. For instance in social science the notion of social class is ubiquitious. But lots of people have used the term in different ways. So it is important not to cite the term “social class” per se but to say which interpretation you are using, what the interpretation is and why you’ve chosen it.  So I might write something like “The category of social class is commonly used in social science. There are x common approaches to social class (1) etc … “

Citation blue #2. Attributing an idea to a user not a source

If you connect an idea to a person via a citation, you are saying that this is where the idea or category or data comes from. Not that this is where you read about it. 

It’s always important to attribute correctly. If you are dealing with something that a load of scholars have discussed then you need to cite with an e.g.  If you are referencing an idea, category or phrase that did unequivocally originate with someone in particular, then you need to cite that person, not the other people who have used their work. The implication is that you need to know the provenance of ideas. 

So when you go to cite someone you have to check that they are not attributing the idea to someone else or to a corpus of literature. And if it is clear that they got the idea, term or data from somewhere else, then you need to go back to the original text and make sure that you cite the idea correctly. If you can see that the idea has changed in its usage, then you might want to explain the shift in meaning in the text or in a footnote, depending how crucial the idea, term or category is to your research.

If you want to refer to something for which there is an authoritative source – say population data or the results of a survey – then you need to find the original and cite that, and not the scholar or news item where you first read about it. 

If you frequently cite borrowers and users of an idea, data or category – as in (Marx date in Smith date), reviewers and examiners will get sniffy about your scholarship. They may well ask you to go back and find the original. “What stopped you reading Marx for yourself?” they may well ask.

Citation blue #3. Referencing a minor comment

When you are writing you need to reference and work with the words of scholars whose interest is the same as yours. In other words, you want to engage with sources and papers whose major focus is the same topic that you are addressing. It’s always possible to find papers where the issue you are dealing with is mentioned in passing. So there are lots of papers that mention social class but it’s not the main thing that they focus on. The in-passing reference is not particularly helpful to you anyway. You need to read, use and cite work that speaks seriously and in depth with your own. You need to take the time to get beyond the paper that makes a passing sentence or paragraph to the papers that discuss your topic in detail and in depth. Then use and cite them. Don’t reference the paper with your interest as a side issue.

Citation blue #4 Putting incompatible bedfellows together

If you are discussing a particular topic where there is a lot already written, it is tempting to add one of those long strings of references which show quantity, or perhaps works written over a particular period. Doing this carries the risk of suggesting commonality between texts where there is little. I could easily write a sentence saying that social class is frequently discussed in relation to poverty and then add a string of names and debates. When I do this, and say no more, I have textually suggested that there are no significant differences between the writers. That there is nothing more to be said about the ways in which each of the scholars referenced have used and discussed social class. The point here is to be more specific. Rather than simply saying that truck loads have been written about social class in relation to poverty, you need to go on to spell out the major trends in the ways in which the relationship between class and poverty has been understood. And put people in their shared interpretation groupings. When reviewers and examiners read long strings of undifferentiated references they are likely to ask whether you are glossing over important debates and differences.

The message? Avoid the citation blues by avoiding #1-#4 basic citation blues.

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writing – pleasure and/or satisfaction?

As AcWriMo 2021 finishes off, so am I. The self-imposed discipline of producing the first draft of a short book ( 50k words) in a month is just about over. I began the month with 14k words in hand and finished with just over 51K. A good effort.

Better come clean though. 51k is not quite as impressive as it seems, as the book is based largely on patter blog posts. There was already a bank of material available for me to work with. However, I did have to rewrite existing text into a somewhat less bloggy ‘voice’, wrestle discrete chunks into a structure that made sense, write new material to fill the gaps and turn some posts into exercises. New work was required.

At the end of this month I do feel a strong sense of satisfaction – I’ve got the draft done. But I can’t say it was a pleasurable process. 

Some dictionary definitions say that pleasure is a sense of satisfaction, happiness and enjoyment. Similarly, satisfaction is defined as fulfilment of expectations, goals, wishes and needs or the pleasure derived from attaining these. Pleasure and satisfaction are one and the same thing. Well I beg to differ.

Before this month, I hadn’t thought a lot about whether there was any difference between satisfaction and pleasure. Whether one was possible without the other. And I accept that they might be the same most of the time. But I have a somewhat different perspective now. I do think pleasure and satisfaction are not necessarily the same.

I normally find writing a pleasurable process. Even when the going is tough and I need time away from the desk thinking through a knotty problem, the process is enjoyable. I can’t say the same for this book. I haven’t really enjoyed getting up early every single day and spending at least thirty minutes at the desk. I don’t mind doing that for a few days a week. My regular writing habit is actually not every day, but most days. But I’ve found the relentlessness of November pretty hard.

Despite not finding the writing pleasurable, I was however well satisfied with the progress that I was making. I was buoyed by being able to file completed chapter after chapter as I ploughed on through the month. And it was a truly satisfying moment on Sunday morning when I had the first draft done. Today I will put all of the chapters into one document and set up a new folder for redrafting. I might even take another moment to congratulate myself too. But was this a good time? Did I feel pleasure in the writing? Do I want to do a book again in the same pressure cooker? Not on your Nellie.

I have written this many words in a similar time frame before. More than once. So the 51k word count in this time frame isn’t that uncommon. I write quickly. I usually relish the creativity in finding the words to express an idea. A well-turned sentence is particularly pleasing. Writing is pleasurable in part because it is also surprising thinking. I enjoy seeing the argument develop and unexpected insights appear in spite of my best laid plans.

At other highly productive writing times I have been excited by the process of putting-thoughts-into-text. And this could have been the case this month, even though I was working with known material. But I had signed myself up to AcWrimo.

AcWriMo – or rather, the way that I interpreted AcWriMo2021 – placed the emphasis on end point, the product. The writing became the means to an end, rather than something good in itself. And my sense of must-reach-the-end wasn’t helped by having a research report due at the same time – even though I wasn’t first authoring it (heartfelt thanks Toby), there was still a real deadline with a public launch attached. So November was dogged writing to reach one full draft and another final text. Well, I got the job done.

But I’m really not doing this again. I’m not ungrateful to AcWriMo2021 for giving me the push and structure to make a writing leap forward. But this year’s experience has made me swear that next time I won’t be writing anything as potentially pleasurable as a book in such a compressed time frame. I want to let the writing spool out in a less pressured way. I want the writing to find its own measure, its own rhythms.

So when AcWriMo comes around next year, I might set myself a goal of writing for pleasure, rather than writing for product. And I imagine the pleasure wont come at the expense of being satisfied. I’ll be doubly pleased this time next year. Don’t let me forget.

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check for the passive voice

Passive voice. Put simply, the active voice is when the actor, the person doing the action, is named. The writer does not name the actor when using passive voice.

Ironically, the first sentence above does not name the actor – it is as if action of writing in the active voice just magically happens. However, in the second sentence, the writer is responsible for naming who is acting – the writer.

So that’s what happens when you use passive voice. The active agent disappears, and the focus is on the recipient of the action. Let me illustrate again.

Academic writing is typically weighted more to the passive voice than the writing found in newspapers, magazines and fiction. (That first sentence, and this one as well, are both written in the passive voice.) We academic writers are so accustomed to reading passive voice that we really only notice when there is too much of it, or not enough.

Too many sentences in the passive voice puts even the experienced academic reader to sleep. But too many sentences in the active voice may give the reader the sense that they are not reading a scholarly work.

We might ask ourselves – why is passive voice such a strong academic writing convention? Perhaps it’s because the passive voice creates an illusion of objectivity. The text appears to deal only with facts. Research results appear untouched by researchers, events, places or times. Conclusions appear logical and unassailable because writer-researchers and their decisions are removed from consideration. Researcher’s interpretations, interests, cultural positioning and their beliefs are excised – it is as if the human has no possible bearing on what is reported and argued.

But academic writing doesn’t have to be like this. If the omniscient, but absent. researcher is not your preferred (epistemological) position then you might want to check your use of passives. Check knowing that writing in passive voice is a choice, not a matter of blindly following convention -nor is it simply about opting for a particular readable style (although that is very important).

It’s good to have some strategies that you can use to help you make decisions about how and when to write in the active and/or passive voice. Here’s one approach. It is a strategy for revising.

Read through your text underlining the sentences are that in the passive voice. You can often find passive voice by looking for sentences that use the verbs am, is, was, were, are, been, has, had.

Once you have located the sentences using the passive, you can then visually assess the balance. If the weighting seems rather skewed one way or another, you can then do some targeted rewriting, adjusting the passive/active ratio. But before reaching for the mouse and keyboard, it’s very helpful to check where the meaning becomes clearer through the switch.

Of course I’m not suggesting you need to write entirely in the active voice. There are actually some circumstances where you may decide to keep the passive voice. But in order to decide what these are, it is helpful to assess your underlined sentences and then decide what to do.

When you find a sentence written in the passive voice ask yourself:

  • Is the use of passive voice typically used in my discipline for this purpose? 

e.g. Interviews were chosen as the primary method of data generation. Do I need to follow the convention? Or do I have a choice? I chose interviews as the major data generation method.

  • Do I want to emphasise the thing, material or object rather than the actor? 

e.g. The vaccine was trialled and approved in record time.

  • Do I want to leave the agent un-named?

e.g. Risks were taken during the research.

  • Am I unsure about exactly who the actor was/is? 

e.g. The postbox had been yarn-bombed several times. ( Can I find out? Should I find out?)

  • Is the active agent too complex for me to explain here? Will the explanation act as a distraction and a major side-alley I don’t want to go down?

e.g. Thousands of koalas were killed in the 2019 bushfires

  • Do I want to make a generalised claim?.

e.g. Clear writing is preferred by readers. (Can I say that readers prefer clear writing? Do I then need to back this statement up?)

Then consider

  • If my use of the passive voice obscures the actor, is this really what I want to do?

e.g. Care home residents were left vulnerable during the pandemic.

  • Does my use of the passive voice hide important information that the reader needs to know, information that I need to insert?

e.g. Research has indicated that mask wearing is important. – who are these researchers? Where are their studies? Can the reader check them?

  • Finally, ask, is the recipient of the action more important than who dunnit? Does my naming of the actor distract from the most important point of the sentence?

e.g. Student failure was attributed to covert forms of discrimination. Covert forms of discrimination were held responsible for student failure. These two variations put either student failure or covert discrimination as the most important aspect of the sentence, not who was reporting.

So there you are, nine questions to use to check the passive voice. And if, as a result of your diagnostic reading, you want to switch sentence to the active voice, the easiest first step is to identify the actor. Then start your new sentence with them. After that, you can finesse the syntax.

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the disappearing writer – a redrafting strategy

Academic writers often lose themselves when writing about literatures. It is easier to be textually confident when writing about what you did yourself than to summarise, synthesise and assess other people’s texts. Particularly if those texts are produced by more experienced and well regarded writers. It is even more tricky to put your analysis of the literatures to work in your own interests.

Anywhere in your text where there is a discussion of other people’s work is  a prime site for revising and refining. Advice often confines the focus for revision on a literature “review”. But you are likely to have used literatures all the way through your text – to establish context, to locate your work, to show what you have used to build your study and analyse its results, to establish your research design, to explain the contribution.

Whether you have a standalone literature chapter or a section of text, it can be very informative to look for a pattern of writing in which you disappear. The disappearing writer syndrome is a product of a particular approach to literatures work – you discuss other people’s work first, usually in the form of a laundry list, and then briefly refer to your own. The brief reference to your work often lacks specificity.

Here’s an example of the disappearing writer

A number of papers examine how Art can develop students’ creativity. These include a two-decade classroom-based autoethnography (Gaw and Fralick 2020), the six-year 52-school Oklahoma A+ Schools project which identified increased creativity as one of the largest detectable outcomes (Barry 2010; Thomas and Arnold 2011), the SPECTRA+ Arts Integration project (Luftig 2000) and the global Community Arts Zone (CAZ) project (Griffin et al. 2017).  Art’s benefits to creativity have been detected in students’ use of iPads and other digital content creation (Drotner 2020; Sakr 2019). A study from Israel used students’ performance in other art forms (performing arts) as an early predictor of their levels of creativity (Milgram 2003). Others suggest that ACD integration leads to more creative thinking (Land 2013; Allina 2018). Commentators have contentiously suggested that art lessons (available to only 26% of African Americans; Mitra 2015) should be replaced by lessons in creativity (Gregory 2017). The research highlights the value on creativity of improvisation (Sowden et al 2015), the students’ self-expression (Roth 2017), the supportive role of adults (Kouvou 2016) and exposure to contemporary art (Dear 2001). My research draws on this body of work.  

It is clear from this paragraph that the writer has read, summarised and synthesised a body of work about art education and creativity. Key points have been established. However, the author and their research comes last in the paragraph – other people’s work is discussed, their own comes a distant last.

Furthermore, if we look at the verb following the author and verbs allocated to other writers, we can see that the writer is drawing on, while others have detected, used, suggested, contentiously suggested and highlighted. The verb ‘drawing on’ also shows the writer beholden to the work of others, rather than being a confident selector and user.

What’s more, we don’t have a clue what of the above literature has been used in the writer’s own research, and how. We simply know that it matters, somehow.

It is not necessarily a problem to devote space in a text to another person’s writing. There will likely always be some writing in literatures work which does discuss a key writer or two and their works. But discussing one author especially germane to your study is not the same as showing how a particular group of texts have informed your research.

So what to do? Step one. Read for this pattern – a big listicle of other people’s work followed by a vague reference to your own – when revising. Found some do this? Step two. Try the easiest rewriting tactic – simply reverse the order of things and put yourself first. This switch automatically requires you to manage the introduction and discussion of the literatures texts more authoritatively, and with more detail. Rather than disappear, the writer comes first.

I have begun to rewrite the listy paragraph using the put-the-writer-first strategy.

My research investigates the ways in which Art education contributes to creativity. There is already evidence that there is a strong correlation between art education and creativity: a two-decade classroom-based autoethnography (Gaw and Fralick 2020) of the six-year 52-school Oklahoma A+ Schools project identified increased creativity as one of the largest detectable outcomes (see also Barry 2010; Thomas and Arnold 2011;  the SPECTRA+ Arts Integration project (Luftig 2000) and the global Community Arts Zone (CAZ) project (Griffin et al. 2017)).  Researchers have suggested that: students’ performance performing arts is an early predictor of their levels of creativity (Milgram 2003); students’ use of iPads and other digital content creation leads to creativity (Drotner 2020; Sakr 2019); and that ACD integration leads to more creative thinking (Land 2013; Allina 2018). There has even been a suggestion that art lessons (available to only 26% of African Americans; Mitra 2015) should be replaced by lessons in creativity (Gregory 2017). Most pertinent to my research topic is research which suggests the value of improvisation (Sowden et al 2015), students’ self-expression (Roth 2017), the supportive role of adults (Kouvou 2016) and exposure to contemporary art (Dear 2001); I built these insights into the research tools I used ( see Methodology and Methods)

Your text won’t look exactly like this of course. This is not a sentence skeleton. And this is a far from finalised draft. It is simply the next stage of drafting.

But you can now see the argument moves in the redrafted paragraph – this is my research, there is evidence to show that my research in this area is warranted, I have used some of the research as a building block – and their effect. The paragraph is about the writer’s research.

Switching the author to the front of the text has shifted the focus away from other people’s work to their own research. And note the authoring verbs which show that the writer is taking researcherly actions – investigating and using – activities on a par with those whose texts are discussed – and making evaluations through the use of a qualifier – most pertinent. In a literatures chapter these moves may occur over a long series of paragraphs rather than one. In a journal article, there may be very few.

However, the switcheroo move to find the disappearing writer often works for rewriting both long and short engagements with other people’s work.

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revising? start strategically

Whether you are revising your own writing or responding to reviewer feedback, you need to work out what to do. But you also need to work out where to start. 

You may have made a revising plan or written out a list of reviewer recommended changes with your proposed actions next to them. That’s good. But you aren’t finished thinking about revising just yet. There is still the task of working out your re-writing strategy.

It is important to find the best place to begin revising. Choosing somewhere to start does have the immediate effect of making the task seem more manageable. But there is another reason for being selective. Revising one aspect of a text often has knock-on effects on other aspects of the writing.

To avoid getting in the situation where you do a whole lot of work and then find that the last thing you do makes a lot of what you’ve already done completely superfluous, you need to choose your starting point very carefully. It is debilitating and frustrating to go down your list of changes, make a series of small adjustments and then come to something which is much bigger and which wipes out pretty well all of the modifications you have just made. It is crucial to locate the textual alterations that will affect the entire piece. 

So, rather than simply start at the top of your list of changes, you need to find the most significant. The improvement that makes the most difference is likely to be something that affects the whole text – changing the structure of the paper to make the argument proceed logically, using a different theorisation, writing a new introduction which sets up the problem differently and which will match the conclusion. But sometimes a change may appear small but have considerable re-writing heft –  for example making a small section less stodgy and more lively opens up and steers revising the whole text.  

If you aren’t entirely sure about where to start and what to start with, choose a smallish number – no more than 4 – things to begin with and get them done. This may be revising one section of the text rather than the whole, or it may be following a thread throughout. When you have completed your initial number of changes, go back to your list of revisions and make another selection.

But it may be, as you were working on the first four things, that you can also see a need to start elsewhere. Being flexible, not assuming you just start at the top of the list and work your way down, and continuing to diagnose your writing while you are revising, is a sensible. And often time-saving.

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revising? try a four step approach

Many people approach revising as if it is a single shot process. They tell themselves, “I’m just going to sit down now and revise my paper”. But revising and refining a text are not one activity, they are several. The writer who thinks that revision is a onesie could be setting themselves up to feel daunted by the magnitude of what needs to be done, and potentially frustrated if it doesn’t all come together in the one big writing stint.

At a minimum, revising consists of four interconnected, interlocking and circular steps:

  • reading your text 
  • diagnosing problems 
  • generating solutions – deciding on what needs to be done and in what order, and 
  • re-writing. 

These steps do not necessarily happen serially and separately. But they don’t always flow seamlessly into one another either. You are highly likely to need thinking time in between at least some of them. After reading and diagnosis, you may decide that you need to go back to checking out literatures or looking at your data analysis. You may also want to check your diagnosis and proposed solutions with a supervisor, a peer or writing mentor.

To avoid revising-refusal or revising-fear you can organise shortish periods of time around each of the four steps. Using shorter sessions for daunting revisions has the advantage of making the task seem more do-able. Expectations are lowered too – the writer tells themselves, “I don’t have to finish it all today. All I need to do in this writing time is to read my text and begin to identify the problems, I don’t need to do everything now”. Read first and then a second writing session might see the writer read again, complete their diagnosis and begin to develop solutions. A third session might focus on textual changes and sorting out the order in which the changes need to be made. The final session(s) is tackling the text itself.

Of course it is possible to do all the steps in one go. But most of us need more time on revising than the single go. And we benefit from the mulling over spaces in between them.

You can support your revising by writing notes to yourself in the margins of your text. Or you can make a simple table to serve as a guide to writing. Your table can be broken down into chunks of time, with particular revision chunks allocated to specific diary slots.

Problem in the text, page number. You can also cut and paste in the beginning and end of the text at issue. From… to.. DiagnosisRewriting solution
Column headings for revising plan

You could also add a fourth column – time and date.

Of course, it is not necessary to be so systematic. It is quite possible to move through the steps for revising without breaking the task up in this way. However, if you DO find yourself unable to start revising and find yourself gazing longingly at tempting reasons to procrastinate, then the act of developing a staged plan can help.

Making a plan means that you are taking charge of what revising you will do, how and when. You are standing back to assess and evaluate your own writing. You are putting your writer self to work on improving your text.

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