lockdown writing routines – a.k.a a cheer for the humble pear

Most creative writers have their own idiosyncratic set of rituals and routines. Academic writers do too. But at least some of these practices may have had to change during WFH – working from home – during the various lockdowns. While I’ve been acutely aware of changes that lockdown has brought to PhDers I hadn’t thought a lot about what it meant for me. I’ve been aware of fluctuating motivation of course, something a lot of people experience at the best of times – but more so now. But that’s not all that’s been going on for me. As I realised a couple of weeks ago.

I was doing an online shopping order, as we privileged people are able to do. The supermarket site offered me the option of starting with my “regular items”. This seemed to be a sensible suggestion so I went ahead and pre-packed my basket. When I went to edit the contents, I was a little surprised to see pears. So many pears. Now, I don’t think of myself as a fan of pears. It’s not that I actively dislike them, I just don’t think of them as being something that I would choose over other fruits. But apparently I do.

The reason I now buy so many pears every week is down to working from home. I often have online meeting after meeting, jampacked together. As I am sure at least some of you do too. And rather than load up my desk with unhealthy things to snack on, I now seem to always have pears next to my keyboard.

Why pears? My favorite fruit is actually mango – but a mango is entirely unsuitable for desk duty on just about all counts. The pear wins hands down. Why? The pear has attributes. You don’t have to peel pears like oranges or clementines. Pears don’t go brown like apples when you take a quick bite out of them between calls or writing bursts and then put them down for a bit. Nor do they crunch like a good apple, so you can take a surreptitious bite of a pear when everyone in the meeting is focussed on the speaker. Pears don’t create a lot of mess in general, so you can nibble and not end up with a sticky-fingered keyboard. And pears don’t create a lot of waste to deal with afterwards, like bananas. Pears are size-limited so you can’t just keep eating and eating them, like grapes. What’s more, the pear does have a bit of juice, so they are good for those times when you need a bit of liquid, have run out of water, and don’t have a moment to sprint to the tap. Hooray for pears.

As I thought about pears, I realised that other things about my writing routine have changed too. I no longer have writing clothes which I change out of when I go into work. No, I now have something in between writing and work clothes. Respectable on top, but out of sight it’s comfort all the rest of the way down, and like this all day. I only take off the Uggs or Birkies when I actually leave the house. I am, so to speak, dressed for writing at any time.

But this wearing the one thing all day does make for a lack of demarcation between writing times and other forms of work. 

My previous routine was always to write first thing in the morning – that has largely still held true. But working from home means I can add in smaller writing grabs – I now do tiny tasks and meet tiny targets. If I’m sitting at my desk with fifteen minutes “to spare”, I now often fill in with a little bit of something writing related that needs doing. This new writing routine has meant that I tend to plan even more than usual about how to get a piece of writing underway and completed.

Of course, the lack of demarcation between writing at home and work at the office also means that writing has now blurred into other forms of work – emails, feedback, reviewing, analysing, meetings. And this may not be a completely bad thing. It did always seem before as if the office was the “real work” and the writing was something of an add-on. Now the writing is much more integrated into my calendar.

But the danger with WFH is that I just work more without stopping for a break. That’s a problem. While I don’t have to worry about concentration fatigue, as do many people, I do have to manage a chronic back problem. I think I’ve said before that I have an exercise bike in my office. Since lockdown I have taken to reading – or rather being read to – while I cycle. I’m very appreciative of the reading function of ipads which are small enough to prop up in front of me while I pedal away. I don’t really need to see pixelated hills – I’d much rather be following along with Karen. Yes, really, the English (Australian) voice is called Karen. And yippee! I can, it seems, get through a book in about a week of cycling. And the combo of reading and being read to allows me to plod systematically through some rather dense and challenging material. So I’m actually reading more and more serious books. Fuelling my writing and thinking.

I’m also aware of things I haven’t changed. For instance, as I don’t much go for social writing experiences – I prefer a rather solitary and silent location for writing – I haven’t taken advantage of any of the online writing rooms. I still use my desk top layout to signal writing work that is ongoing and the writing which is most urgent. I still keep notebooks in most parts of the house to jot down any brilliant insights I have while away from my desk – well usually more like, Oh no, I’ve forgotten about x. Better make sure to put x in tomorrow.

But how about you? 

People who used to like to write in cafes – what do you now do? 

Do the Shut up and Write online sessions work as well for you as the face to face or do you find them better? 

If you used to write in your work office how has it been shifting to writing at home?

Is your desk organised differently now that you do everything from it? 

Have you managed to find a new routine if you have parenting or caring responsibilities and can’t shut out interruptions and more pressing demands? 

Have you developed any new habits, like buying pears and/or being read to while you exercise? 

What’s changed for you in your writing routines and rituals? Do you think these changes will stay? What do you think you might keep when/if we go back to more familiar work routines?

Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

Posted in lockdown, routine, writing rituals, writing routine | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

use a structured abstract to help write and revise

Most journals don’t expect an abstract to be written in a particular format. But some do. They require writers to follow a particular format – a pre-structured template. These templates – structured abstracts as they are called – are specifically designed to focus on the key points in a paper. These abstracts are designed for readers. Readers can check out important aspects of the paper before they decide to read on, or not.

However, templates are also useful for writers, particularly to assist in the thinking process. Structured abstracts force writers to decide on and state, in relatively few sentences, key features of their paper. Often, the structured abstract demands writers pay attention to the textual features which they can easily gloss over, or fudge.

So, how can you use a structured abstract as part of your writing process? Well, you can use a structured abstract to kick off your writing, or as a way to organise your revision. You can also use a structured abstract as a final check – have you included everything in the paper and emphasised key points sufficiently? And even if the structured abstract is not your final actual abstract, the exercise of writing short, and to different formats, can help you to get clear on some very important aspects of academic argument.

Some structured abstracts follow a pretty conventional format – Objective, Methods, Results and Conclusion – or a variation on this. But even though this format is pretty familiar, it can still be very helpful to write a one sentence objective for a paper.

Getting clear on your objective – what you hope the paper does – can be challenging. Is it good enough to explore or investigate for example? Should your paper do something else instead – clarify, evidence, challenge, verify, reveal, develop, review, theorise, interrogate evaluate, assess, document, voice… ? Writing an objective can help you get rid of some of all-encompassing and vague verbs and hone in on exactly what you are trying to do.

One common variation on the OMRC abstract is to substitute Background for Objective. In Background, writers are expected to situate their study in a specific context – policy, practice or research – and justify their reason for writing the paper. Simply identifying a gap isn’t sufficient for Background – you have to tell the reader why the gap matters and how.

Abstract from Dentistry and Medical Research journal

As an aide for writing, I rather like the structured abstract required by most Emerald journals. Emerald demands that authors write a 250 word abstract – the generic journal abstract instructions say:

All submissions must include a structured abstract, following the format outlined below.

These four sub-headings and their accompanying explanations must always be included:

  • Purpose
  • Design/methodology/approach
  • Findings
  • Originality

The following three sub-headings are optional and can be included, if applicable:

  • Research limitations/implications
  • Practical implications
  • Social implications

Further explanation is offered for these terms. Purpose is clarified – 

This is where you explain ‘why’ you undertook this study. If you are presenting new or novel research, explain the problem that you have solved. If you are building upon previous research, briefly explain why you felt it was important to do so. This is your opportunity to let readers know why you chose to study this topic or problem and its relevance. Let them know what your key argument or main finding is.

Purpose is not the same as an objective, although it covers some of the same territory. Purpose is a broader take on your topic. The writer is expected to present the warrant for the paper – is it addressing a problem? What and why and to what ends? Is it adding to or challenging existing research? If so, what and why and to what ends? Writers are asked to get specific, rather than ignoring the particularities and presenting a de-contextualised purpose.

And originality/value is also explained further – 

This is your opportunity to provide readers with an analysis of the value of your results. It’s a good idea to ask colleagues whether your analysis is balanced and fair and again, it’s important not to exaggerate. You can also conjecture what future research steps could be.

The purpose and the contribution are of course connected. You establish in the purpose what the problem is, and then you say in originality/value what your answer is, what it means and why it is important.

But claiming your contribution, making its novelty, originality and significance clear to readers, is often hard. It’s particularly hard for less experienced writers who don’t yet feel that they have the authority to make any claims at all. Yet, without understanding your own claims and the So What – and the Now What, if you choose to add in the research, practical and social implications – it’s pretty difficult to write a decent conclusion.

Having to make the originality/value explicit of your paper clear in a couple of sentences is really good exercise to do, no matter where you are in the writing and revision process. 

Abstract from Qualitative Research Journal

Using structured abstracts as an aide to revision might seem counter-intuitive. Equally, using a structured abstract to orient your writing, even if it isn’t the abstract you will use in the final version, may seem equally odd. But as exercises, as part of the process of writing a well-argued paper, using structured abstracts can be a great help.

I have a collection of structured abstract templates that I use for just this purpose. I exercise my capacity to write succinctly, I don’t expect it just to be there because I want it to be. I practice.

Perhaps you too might want to practice by adding some structured abstracts to your bank of writing strategies.

With thanks to the authors of the two published papers – they may be very surprised to see their work appear here as illustrations of structured abstracts!

Posted in abstracts, academic writing, conference abstract, Pat Thomson, revision, revision strategy, structured abstract, structured abstracts, thesis abstract | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

meeting your readers’ expectations – a revision strategy

There are multiple ways to revise a paper. If you’re revising, you’ll find a load of strategies on this blog, just search using the key word revision. While none of these is The One Way to sort out your writing, all of them provide A Way to tackle drafts.

Having more than one way to tackle a writing problem is good. The more options you have – the more revision, and other, writing strategies you can call on – the better. Building up a repertoire of strategies that work well for you is an integral part of becoming the writer you want to be.

This particular revision strategy can help you to check whether you have included all of the bits that need to be in your text. You can see what’s left out. It’s a strategy that is designed to position you as the reader you hope to have.

When is this strategy useful? Well, at any time in the redrafting process, but there are two places where it can be particularly helpful.

  • Early on. Once you have a decent draft, definitely not the first crappy one but early, then it helps to run a check to make sure you have included all the bits that need to be there. Checking for missing content usually comes before examining structure,
  • At the end. A read through as the reader works equally well as a last check over the piece, before you send it out into the world.

So here goes. 

First of all, imagine your ideal reader. Or perhaps the reader you know you will have – your supervisor, your examiner. Next, think about the disciplinary community they are part of. What have they been reading, writing and talking about? What do they already know about your topic?

Now, bring these understandings of your reader to your draft. Read through your text answering the following questions. What are your reader’s expectations about:

The type of text you are writing? 

Does your reader expect your writing to follow a particular format? What heading, paragraphing and syntax conventions do they expect you to follow? Will they be happy to see some variation to a standard format? If you are writing something other than the expected genre, have you signalled this early on and explained why? What do they really not want to encounter in your or any text?

What you are writing about?

What will your reader already know about your topic? Will they expect you to cite particular texts or people? Will they expect you to use particular terminology? Are there any key debates where you need to state your position? Are there some sources and people that they wouldn’t see as credible? If you are challenging a core premise or understanding, have you explained why, anticipated objections and spelled out the benefits from doing so?

The trustworthiness of the research you have done?

What will readers take as sufficient information about methodology and methods? How much and what kind of evidence do you need to insert? Do you need to include pointers to full data sets and/or reports? Is it customary in your discipline to use diagrams, charts or images? What will be seen as too little to be trustworthy?

You as author and researcher?

What kind of writer/researcher do you want readers to meet in the text? ( neutral, expert, advocate etc) Do readers expect you to make your particular connection with the topic clear? Do you need to state your position as a researcher? Do readers expect to see ‘you” in the writing? What might be too much you? Where and how do you appear – where do you evaluate and use evaluative language? Where and how do you interpret and explain? Do readers expect to see you use some inventive categories? Literary techniques?

What they will do after reading your paper?

What do you want to accomplish as a result of writing this paper? Have you signalled this aim clearly at the start? Have you made the implications of the paper – the So What and Now What – clear at the end? Have you made your original and novel take on the topic clear to the reader?

If this was helpful, you might also like similar posts which offer a tighter focus on text:

revising with a reader in mind – ten questions

revising like a reader

Photo by Joel Reyer on Unsplash

Posted in authorship, reader, readers, readership, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

a first draft in five minutes a day?

This is a brief post. It’s a brief post about a brief strategy which helps you to get started on writing that feels a bit – well – a bit boring. It’s the five minutes a day strategy.

Boring? Yes … sometimes we all have to write things that don’t excite us. We often try to put off tedious writing. We find it hard to get going. We have no energy. Just thinking about the writing makes us feel tired. And perhaps resentful.

When faced with an enervating writing task, it’s tempting to put it off. To do something that’s more interesting. Or perhaps we could sit and look at the blank screen for a while, then switch to email, or marking, or analyse some data, or one of the many other tasks that need doing.

So the boring bit of writing stays unwritten. It becomes increasingly pressing. But no less tedious. You can’t face it. Rinse and repeat. 

Here is one way to get going. Set aside five minutes. Five minutes only.

For the first minute, brainstorm on your screen or on a piece of paper as many elements of the boring piece of writing as you can. What are the bits of stuff you have to write about? Just bullet point them. Don’t fret about it, you’ll know the most important.

Now you have a list. That’s already an improvement on a blank screen or page, but you can do more.

Pick the most boring of all of the boring items. Set your timer for four minutes and write or type as fast as you can about the boring topic for the four minutes. You goal is to reach 250 words. That’s it, just 250 words. Don’t pause, don’t correct the syntax, and leave a blank or write “something” if you can’t think of the right word. Just get stuff down. Your goal is not to generate a coherent flowing piece of writing but to get out as much of the boring stuff as you can.

At the end of the five minutes you’ll actually have made a start on the boring bit of work. You might like to reward yourself for getting going.

Now, if you have time, you can repeat this procedure straight away. Choose the next most boring thing on the list, set your timer for five minutes and write like there’s no tomorrow. Or continue on with the first one if you think you have more to say. Another 250 words down. Again another little reward. 

If you don’t have another five minutes, or the will to go on, put the list and the new 250 words aside and do the same exercise tomorrow.

Five minutes is not a lot of time. And two lots of five minute writing gives you a whole 500 words. (But if it’s not working for you, you have only spent ten minutes seeing if it will. Not a lot of time compared to staring at a blank screen. ) But if it has worked, good for you. You’re underway.

You can keep going in five minute slots a day. Once you have four slots done, you’ll have 1,000 words. Who knew a few days ago that 1000 words could be written without significant pain?

At the 1000 word point, you may want to put the chunks of writing together, and in the order that you think they will go in the paper. You can also add into the document the leftover bullet points from your initial brainstorm. And you now have something like an outline.

You may now be able to go ahead and fill in the various pieces, writing around the remainder of the points. Without timer. Without rewards.. Or you may like to keep going on five minutes a day, point by point, with rewards, until you have the entire outline – lots of chunks of stuff.

These chunks all need work, and they need to be strung together, to link into a narrative chain. But hooray. You do have, at the end of a sequence of only five minutes a day, something that is pretty close to a crappy first draft. Well done you.

So that’s the five minutes day strategy. It’s an adaptation of a common creative writing exercise, tailored to an academic purpose. While it may appear that the major part of this strategy is a short pomodoro, the more important aspect of the strategy is the development of tiny targets, sometimes called micro-goals. Each bullet point from your brainstorm is a tiny writing target.

For people who find getting going hard, or who have very little time to spend on their writing, developing and sticking with tiny targets can be very helpful.

You don’t have to confine tiny targets to boring writing. You can apply tiny targets to anything. With an initial focusing – the brainstorm leading to choice of the mini pomodoro – tiny writing targets can add up very quickly to a text that can then be worked on as a whole. It’s a crappy first draft for sure, but it’s not a blank screen or page. And even a lot of that next stage of second drafting, where you focus on structuring the argument, can happen in little five to ten minute slots.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

Posted in being stuck, boring writing, crappy first draft, pomodoro, speed writing, stuck points, tiny targets, writing to get unstuck | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

writing for publication – finding an angle and an argument

This is a story, a my story, which leads to eight pointers about writing for publication. 

I’m currently writing a paper. Well, yes, always writing something. But right now it’s a paper. A paper designed to do some thinking work that will then inform a book. I’m not writing this paper by myself, but I am doing most of the first draft with some crucial and well-timed help from my co-researcher Chris.

The paper began with some nagging data. You know the kind of thing, the bit of data that just sticks with you and won’t go away. The data was in the form of a set of themes from a sub-section of our research – Chris had produced these themes. This themed data just sat there – literally sat on my desktop, but also stuck in my thinking. And the data metaphorically waved to me whenever I started to think about the book. ( I’m here, I’m here, come play with me.) We have to do something with you, I thought, just not now.

And then the obstinate data somehow met an idea. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it often does. I could have done this connection work systematically I reckon, by brainstorming how the data might be used. But the connection just emerged one day and interrupted what I was doing at the time. I told Chris about it and she agreed it would be good to pursue.

So the idea. I knew from previous research and engagement with relevant literatures that there was a need for further work around a particular topic, let’s call it X. The case for X needing more thinking was in black and white in an important report. X and our data met in my subconscious and then I started to think quite consciously about what we could do. Our data had been produced and analysed precisely in the way that the big report on X suggested was needed. I told myself it ought to be possible to bring our stuff and X together. It was worth spending a bit of time to see if it could be done. Down tools on everything that could be downed.

I went back to the literatures. If I was going to write about X, then I needed to catch up on what had been published about X since I last looked.I also needed to work out which journal was particularly interested in all things X. Where was the conversation going on? As well, I needed to find out whether anyone else had put together data similar to ours with X (not the case, pleasure and relief combined). I also had to find out whether there was anything already in print that spoke to the potential combination of our data plus X. Well yes, there was, although not a huge amount of literature-as-a resource to call on. Some daily slots of reading, summarising, noting, Endnoting etc followed and the resulting writings went into a word doc where the summarised literatures were arranged in like-topic clumps. By this time I also knew the journal we could submit to.

My speculative foray into the literatures certainly didn’t suggest that I stop. I still hadn’t started writing the paper; I was immersed in the creation stage, not yet drafting but writing of a generative kind. Writing to work out what was there and what might be said.

I next went back to the data and did some finer grained analysis. I constructed three new categories from our existing themes and checked them against the literatures. They seemed to generally fit with the X conversation and there seemed to be something like a potential contribution. Worth keeping on then. 

Gah. Not all resolved. I still didn’t have an argument. I couldn’t just report data analysis and X. I had to say what X and our data together meant for how we thought differently about X. And so what! The paper had to take the reader somewhere. I had to find an angle that would be of interest to the journal readers, and would actually advance the conversation that had gone on.

I wasn’t at the point where I could write a succinct Tiny Text, so I had a first go at beginning the paper. I set up a problem in the introduction for which the paper would provide an answer, and then wrote the literatures and methods sections. This was about three thousand words and had quite a lot of references. It took me about three writing sessions to get this done – about four or so hours. This is not what I would ideally do, but I didn’t have enough sorted for a Tiny Text and I needed structure for the text – so timed unstructured writing would be counter-productive. I just had to plunge in and have a go.

I sent the three thousand or so words off to Chris to see what she thought. Chris of course knew the data and I had also already sent her a couple of key books to read so she would know what I had been reading. We booked a discussion. 

Chris could see what I was trying to do, without me having to explain it. She agreed there was a paper. But she thought I had the angle wrong – the way I had set up the problem didn’t work. The new categories I had generated were however right, and the connection with the literatures was sound. But the thinking wasn’t there yet. I thought so too. It was pretty clear I was writing my way into something, but what that something was wasn’t yet sorted. However, through our conversation, the problem that paper could address was refined. Chris had a different perspective which was very helpful. (Talking things over at this point of paper development is often very helpful.) A possible angle and argument were just about visible. This paper could be something that added to X and that journal readers would be interested in. I could see a way forward.

I then started a new document. Left the old one behind. Back to the beginning. I changed the title and rewrote the introduction which set out the problem we were addressing, suggested the contribution and laid out the argument moves as the reader would encounter them in the paper. I wasn’t entirely sure about a minor bit of possible theory, but put it in to see how it would read and feel. This was an entirely new text – no cut and paste, a clean sheet. Once again I sent this (now about) five hundred words to Chris for comment, this time in the body of an email.

Her feedback came straight back, and is now incorporated into the paper I’m writing. I’ve just written myself a Tiny Text and it’s all go. Of course I expect there still to be bumps and many revisions. But we do have a direction and something new to say about X. And Chris will have more to contribute as the paper gets drafted and polished. 

So what are the key points about writing a paper that emerge from this story? 

1 Follow your nose. If it feels like there’s something there, there may well be.

2 Connect to a body of literature early and find the space for development so you can see where the paper will fit and what kind of contribution you can make.

3 Dig into the literatures to find what’s helpful to situate and shape the possible paper. What does your paper build on? What does it speak to? 

4 Locate the journal where the relevant conversation is happening and the papers that have already been written. See how your new paper might engage. Think about what will be interesting to readers.

5 Don’t be afraid to spend time writing to see what the paper might be about. Sometimes you just have to write it till you get it. Even if you are a planner like me, you can’t plan if you don’t have your head around “the stuff”. 

6 Talking through a possible paper is a good way to help sort out whether your idea is viable and to get the angle and argument sorted.

7 Working with a trusted collaborator is fab – they can always see things that you can’t. 

8 Don’t be afraid to junk what you’re writing and start afresh. The first writings were necessary to get you to the paper proper so it’s not been wasted effort. Those early words have done their job. 

And of course a caveat. My process won’t work for everyone, or for everything you write. But some of these pointers, I hope, may be helpful to you. Write on.  

Photo by John Macdonald on Unsplash

Posted in argument, choosing the right journal, contribution, journal article, journal publication, literature a resource, the angle | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

reading groups/journal clubs are a good idea

There’s a lot written about the benefits of academic writing groups, writing rooms and writing retreats. But not so much about academic reading groups. And yet, they can be just as beneficial. 

Being in a reading group puts you in the company of others working with texts. It takes you away from reading as a solitary occupation. The people in an academic reading group will be, like you, interested in texts as resources for making meaning, for thinking/being scholar, and for writing. The texts your group reads together can provide reasons to write, directions for research and intellectual support and challenge.

Reading groups provide a forum through which members talk their way into and around scholarly thinking. Working together, readers can share information and help each other to find focus in their reading – here’s a few examples. Reading group members:

  • bring a variety of previous readings to a particular text and figure out together how these are relevant. Because group members are all likely to have been reading material related to their own research, they will bring different literatures to the group. Through locating the various relationships with the diverse body of texts, reading group members grow an ever stronger sense of disciplinary communities and conversations. Members see the very many interesting ways in which inter-textual connections enrich scholarly work.
  • become familiar with discipline specific terminology. Every discipline has their own lexicon, particular terms that are used within a specific area of study in distinctive ways. Such terms are often shorthand for a lot of “stuff” that is generally understood by members of that scholarly community. When disciplinary community readers encounter one of these terms (known as indexical expressions by linguists) they can fill in the necessary background information. (Think of all of the background information and experiences we now bring to the term lockdown.) And here’s where a reading group comes into its own. It is generally impossible for a writer to provide a reader new to the area with an adequate explanation of all of the insider disciplinary terms that they use, but a reading group can help newcomers get to grips with these shared understandings.
  • engage with various interpretations. It is almost inevitable that readers in a reading group will see different things in a text. These differences can spark lively discussion, as those offering their interpretations have to explain why they responded in a particular way. Such discussion is a great rehearsal for literature work more generally. But it also brings home to group members the reality that texts do not have fixed meanings – interpretation is always framed by who you are, where you are, and what you’ve read and experienced before. In the reading group it’s usually a case of vive la productive difference/differance.
  • apply the reading to their own and other’s research and/or professional or policy contexts and/or life experiences. Academic texts usually make at least one big point, the contribution, as well as a number of smaller associated points. Any of these points might resonate with, or have implications for, the way in which readers think about situations, events, positions, narratives, truths etc. outside the text. Reading group members can support each other in making these external links. And it is through sharing these insights that reading groups can become the stimulus for creative new associations, and sometimes new collaborative projects.
  • consider the writing genre and its crafting including audience, argument and contribution. Reading groups may or may not focus on the actual writing of the texts they share. However, they can. It is helpful for academic readers in particular to examine, at least sometimes, the ways in which writers present the warrant for their work, structure their argument, guide the reader through the text and make their claims. Sharing insights about writing helps all group members to build their repertoire of diagnostic and creative strategies.
  • build a critical, evaluative and appreciative stance towards text. Reading groups can set themselves an agenda. They might agree an order of events – first of all ensure that everyone understands the text, create space for various interpretations, and then get to various evaluations of the text. If the group evaluation begins by considering what the text does, as opposed to what it doesn’t do, then readers are positioned to consider what else the writer could have done. How might they have strengthened the text? Taking an appreciative stance can generate critical perspectives.

Reading groups can do more than simply hold members to account for reading the set text, and ensuring that everyone knows how to pronounce difficult terms out loud. These are useful, but clearly not all that is going on, and can go on, as the list above suggests. Reading groups are essentially talking, yes, talking as a scaffold to understanding, but also more.

Reading groups are a place where members can learn and practice the kinds of conversations that are the basis of scholarly consensus and generative disagreements. And such conversations are the way in which we sustain our communal cultivation of knowledges, the practices of knowing and ourselves as knowers.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Posted in "outstanding" publication, conversation, learning and talking, reading, talking, talking writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

help your inner ‘Creator’ and ‘Editor’ get along

You’re writing? And feeling a bit pulled in two directions at once? Perhaps that’s not surprising. Writers have two inter-related personae –the Creator and the Editor. Well, that’s according to Joni B Cole, and indeed a lot of other people who offer writing advice.

Don’t scoff just yet. Thinking about this inner duo can be very helpful for academic writers. According to Cole, who teaches creative writing, the Creator is an “artistic genius prone to bouts of agonising self-doubt” as well as feelings of exhilarating over-confidence. On the one hand, the Creator’s job is to allow “rich unfiltered material… to flow onto the page”. The Editor, on the other hand, “cleans up the Creator’s mess” and is “capable of achieving miracles in the revision process”.

Cole notes that these two writer personae are temperamentally opposed to each other and can easily sabotage each other if they are both in play at once. The Editor can stop the Creator from writing, and the Creator can be so attached to their words and so fearful of change that they stop the Editor from doing their job.

Now Cole’s conjoined writer twins can be read as a split between writing and reading – with the Creator writing and the Editor reading. However the Creator reads their text as they go along, but their reading focus is on generating and developing their ideas (narrative, characters, theme etc.)( for more on reading while writing, see for example Brandt 1990.) And the Editor doesn’t just read. They write too. They might make notes, and restructure and rewrite sections of text (or cut some things altogether). So both Creators and Editors read and write. But differently.

Now, equating writing only with the Editor can cause problems. If the writer in Creator mode automatically switches into Editor mode when reading their draft, then this can seriously disrupt the writing-reading-writing practice of generating text. Creators need to read like Creators when they are first-drafting, not like Editors. Or they may need to switch into Editor mode for a little while, and then reboot their Creator.

Getting the right writing -reading functions happening at the right time is important. But there are further implications of this dual writing heuristic too, particularly for the giving and receiving of feedback.

Cole suggests that writers often approach any public feedback, perhaps given during workshops (read supervision here), as Creators. They want reassurance and affirmation, sometimes adulation. Writers can forget to switch off their Creator when the conversation shifts – and then they don’t hear the constructive criticism they are given – rather, they experience it as a rejection of their work.

Cole advises that those giving feedback need to deal with both the Creator and the Editor. They need to give some reassurance to the Creator first of all, and engage with the positive aspects of the work that has been presented. This is the academic equivalent of the supervisor discussing what’s already strong. Then the person giving feedback needs to signal that they are about to address the writer’s Editor. And their task becomes one of helping the Editor focus.

Even when writers are in Editor mode they can easily get overwhelmed by feedback which gives too many points for revision. Editors need to tackle problems strategically, dealing with the most serious to start with. As Coles helpfully puts it, “ the rougher the draft, the fewer the variables you need to throw at the writer at once.” The feedback goal is to energise the writer. Feedback to creative writers, Coles says, often starts with characterisation as this generally drives plot. But when dealing with a thesis, supervisors often begin with the structure of the argument rather than the substantive detail of particular sections.

Cole suggests that giving feedback strategically often ends up with the writer in Editor mode doing more than what was suggested. This is because the big and early strategic changes often lead naturally to other readjustments.

When the Creator feels secure, and the Editor has made major changes, the feedback can become more detailed, more focused on finer details. Line edits are usually left to near the end of the rewriting process.

Coles also notes that not all Creators and Editors are the same. “ Some writers” she says, “ can choke on a crumb; others are able to handle more feedback at a sitting” – although all writers, she suggests, needs help setting priorities.

So maybe not a problem to feel a little Yin and Yang about your writing. Just got to get the balance happening. And perhaps Cole’s’ version of Creator and Editor can be of help to you.

Joni B Cole (2006) Toxic feedback. Helping writers survive and think. University Press of New England

Photo by Amir-abbas Abdolali on Unsplash

Posted in Creator and Editor, feedback, inner editor, Joni Cole, revision | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

writing argument – it’s not (always) a contest

We all know the word argument. By argument, we usually mean that people have some kind of quarrel. People take opposing positions about something and then each proceeds to try to convince the other(s) that they are right. When arguments are heated, participants aim to demolish all objections and perhaps even the people who make them. 

This kind of antagonistic positioning is not what we mean when we talk about academic argument. When an argument is academic, we generally mean something much more reasoned. Something which proceeds logically. Something which produces supporting evidence for both claims and conclusions.

But academic argument can – and often does – proceed with the same kind of conquer and destroy mind-set as the non-academic argument. An academic writer may see the purpose of their argument as converting others to their point of view. They think that they have to “prove” their thesis by anticipating and rejecting all possibilities other than the one they are advancing. They aim for a rhetorical knockout.

So this is academic argument as Game of Thrones. Winner take all. Take-no-prisoners. Leave ‘em reeling in the metaphorical or material aisles, struck down by brilliance, wit and un-refutable analysis. 

You often see the helmets-on-lances-at-the-ready academic stance on social media, but it’s also very live at conferences. You know, the conference questioner from hell. The what-about-this and haven’t-you-read leading to the how-could-you-possibly-think-that. This is yesbutyesbutyesbut broken record. And this is the resolutely declarative writer, itching for the duel at dawn, refusing to acknowledge that other positions are possible. 

The victory-oriented argumentative position stands in contrast to another possibility – that of the explanatory, consensus building stance.

Explanatory argument writing starts from the position that scholarly communication is a conversation. The purpose of academic argument is to create a dialogue which recognises different perspectives, which invites and supports further understanding. The writer of an explanatory argument seeks to make something intelligible, to make something meaningful and comprehensible. They want to converse, not convert. The explanatory argument is a yes-and, not a yes-but.

At this point I need to make one big caveat. There are times when you want to fight your corner, times when the Great White Walkers are trying to deny you a place in the (academic) kingdom. Then you need to prove your point. Taking an explanatory stance to argument might, in such circumstances, become a way of avoiding “talking back” to power. Sometimes a combative argument may be/is necessary.

However, “talking back” is also about building community around a particular set of understandings – of identities, relationships, cultural practices, economic structures. And it is in furthering understanding and creating consensus where the explanatory argument comes into its own.  

Explanatory writers begin without hubris. They do not assume that they know it all. They are open to new ideas and perspectives, even when they are writing something that they feel relatively confident about, and comfortable with. The explanatory writer has generally engaged in deep reading and has an understanding of the nuances of their field and topic. They are aware of how much more there is to know, while also maintaining the possibility of saying something. They accept that it is always possible to interpret phenomena differently, that scholarly knowledge is collectively produced and not the result of one person’s work and that it is best to be modest about contributions.

Taking an explanatory stance to argument means leaving behind a universal formulaic approach – proposition, reasons, evidence, counterargument, refutation. Instead, the writer pays attention to their purpose and readers and uses careful description, interpretation and elaboration to make evidence accessible and open to debate. They are concerned with the reader’s capacity to understand too, so they define, summarise and synthesise, compare and contrast, and use devices such as narrative, cases and illustrations. They offer hedged claims which leave openings so that others can join in.

While they can be authoritative, explanatory argument writers are less conquering heroes than scholarly colleagues writing to make sense of data and sources. Rather than writing to be invincible, less combative writers hope to encourage additional contributions to a conversation. Instead of position-taking, they see their task as becoming more informed themselves, as well as offering their readers deeper engagement with a topic.

This is scholarly writing and argument as dialogue.

PS Caveat Two: A tiny handful of disciplines require proof-style argument. If you’re in one, this post isn’t for you.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Posted in argument, conversation, explanation | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

academic writing choices – learning from blogging

I’ve been thinking about academic writing and blogging again. I’ve been wondering what we might learn from thinking about the writing that bloggers do.

Academic blogs are not all the same. They can be categorised in various ways. I’ve been thinking about categorising blogs as “action” – focusing on what they seem to want to do with and for their readers. So using “action’ as a lens, I immediately think of academic blogs that aim primarily to:

  • inform – these blogs report research. They might summarise, translate. They generally provide an argument about a key point arising from the research. They are often newspaper or journal like. They are likely to be short but can also be long reads. These are increasingly part of “public engagement” strategies.
  • review – these blogs evaluate published texts such as books, journal articles or research projects. Topics are generally located in a field and/or in a wider context familiar /of interest to readers.
  • report work in progress – these blogs often tell stories and are more magazine like. They are usually intended to inform and to gather an interested audience for the research. These too are often a “public engagement” strategy.
  • think in public – these blogs often share thinking stimulated by a particular topic. Writers may understand this blog as a way of doing “public intellectual” work.
  • provoke and debate – these blogs provide a reasoned opinion about a topic, often using research or literature. These blogs generally offer explanatory argument, can extend to essay like long reads or read more like print media op-ed pieces. They may focus on aspects of a particular topic and add to informed discussion about it. And they can extend to creative forms such as fiction and poetry. Like thinking in public, this too is “public intellectual” work.
  • share experience – these blogs offer first person accounts of events and experiences, may include references to readings. Writers often seek “fellow travellers”.
  • teach – these blogs offer resources that readers can explore and try out. They often have a strong explanatory bent. They may have a coaching or mentoring “flavour’ and overlap with blogs that –
  • offer advice – these blogs offer prescribed steps, tips and tricks, often in the form of lists and exhortations.

Some blogs of course offer a limited and selective combination of these actions – but their readers may be attracted primarily by, and to, only one of them. 

Inside the blog, turning the action into text, the writing. Individual academic bloggers, or a small blog team, often develop particular approaches to writing – or “voice” as it is sometimes called. Newspaper style blogs can’t do this and so they have guidelines, and often offer strong editorial support, to ensure some consistency of style over and above word length.

Bloggers might have preferences for writing that has:

  • a particular mode of address – is the reader addressed directly – as in “you” – or assumed and not mentioned at all.
  • writer presence – is the blog writer an “I” or an assumed absent presence? Writer presence can also be related to the larger associated question of how much is revealed about the “I” and their particular circumstances.  
  • ratio of active to passive voice – academic writing often uses a lot of passive voice; switching to writing more sentences which use active voice creates a less formal read and feel.
  • word choice – academic writing uses a lot of abstract terms (generally nominalisations or what Helen Sword calls zombie nouns).  Reducing abstract terms and translating them into plain English reduces the ‘nouniness’ (as Michael Billig calls it) of writing and makes it  more accessible. But including correct disciplinary terminology may be important if the aim of the blog is to inform, teach or review.
  • sentence length and variety – academic writing often uses long sentences with multiple clauses. Shortening sentences makes prose easier to read – and easier to gloss over. Varying sentence length may be important in retaining attention. But if the blog aims to review or inform, readers may be OK to deal with something that reads more like conventional academic prose, and even be insulted if the writing appears to “talk down” to them.
  • formality/informality and use of vernacular – using “speech-like” sentence constructions and popular terms, cultural references, scatological references etc can make a blog post read more or less like the writer is one of your friends, or someone you’d like to be your friend. If you are writing to inform, review, provoke, then friendship may or may not be what you have in mind.
  • referencing and links out – academic writing is characterised by its connections with traditions and literatures. These are most often provided through referencing and, depending on their number, can make the reader read more slowly. If the blog post reader expects something easy to get through, lots of referencing is a risk. But if the intent of the blog post is to inform, review, report work in progress, or provoke, then some degree of referencing is unavoidable. Are these connections to be provided through hyperlinks or to be made unavoidable and obvious through more conventional citation? 
  • invention of categories and terminology – researchers often invent new terms for their research results or for particular approaches or techniques they have developed. Is this blog to have a personal stamp through the use of particular set of terms? Teaching and advice blogs often generate a specific lexicon which mark them off from others.
  • use of anecdote – writers use anecdote as a means of engaging readers, presenting a way into an issue and/or illustrating an important point. Anecdote is used extensively in blogs which share experience, but is also used regularly for informing, reporting work in progress, teaching and providing advice. 
  • choice of images – most blogs use images, but variously. Reviews tend not to, and provocations and debates may not. Images may be integral to the substantive matter in reports of research. In most other blogs, images are used to illustrate a point, or to attract attention.  

So these are choices that blog writers need to consider. Together they constitute the particular personality of the blog. Now of course, most of these author choices apply to any form of academic writing, not just blogs. I am considering writing more about them in this new year.

I have a hunch that writing more about writing choices in blogs might help illuminate the variations and framings of what you can actually DO as an academic writer. And perhaps focusing on writer choices might help doctoral and early career researchers in particular consider how academic writing can be – and is – not a one thing, but many.

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Posted in academic blogging, blogging, blogging about blogging, research blogging | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

revise – by connecting academic reading with academic writing

How do you know what to do when you are revising your writing? Revision always involves making a judgment about your own work. You become a self-evaluator. But what criteria do you use?

Art educator and philosopher Elliott Eisner (1976, pp. 140-141) suggested that any evaluation of your own and/or others’ artistic or creative work demands a combination of connoisseurship and the critical.

Eisner described the art of connoisseurship as a private appreciation of experiences, be they gastronomic, aesthetic or textual. And appreciation, according to Eisner, means both being informed about the qualities of the experience and discerning of its attributes and subtleties – sometimes called developing “taste” and understanding “quality”. These two terms, taste and quality, indicate the connection of connoisseurship with norms and social/economic power.

Appreciation is “the basis for judgment”, Eisner wrote. But he argued that appreciative connoisseurship is insufficient by itself in evaluation. The public art of the critic is also important.

The critic’s job is, according to Eisner, to disclose the object of appreciation (a cuisine, a wine, a text) using “adumbration, suggestion, implication, connotation and rendering”. The critic does not translate. The critic interprets, “using metaphor and analogy, suggestion and implication”, in order to “brightly illuminate”, to help themselves and others to ‘see’ what a work or a text might be and mean.

Eisner’s twinned concepts of connoisseur and critic can be helpful when thinking about revising academic writing. The Janus-like connoisseur-critic reads and appreciatively evaluates their own and other’s writings. They develop ideas about what constitutes “good” academic writing, also understanding that any judgments of writing quality are framed by disciplines, institutions and wider social norms.

Connoisseur judgments can be put to the test through public discussions. It is through discussion in reading groups and in our writing about literatures, that we can develop, explain, deconstruct and justify our evaluative writing criteria. Our internalised understandings of the writer’s craft – structure, narrative, word choice, sentence length and syntax, metaphor and simile, anecdote and so on – may be challenged. But this helps to build our academic writing knowledge and know-how.

Losing the metaphor, we can say that is through ongoing reading that we develop own internalised criteria for what counts as ‘good’ in academic writing. Further, we can say that outing our internalised appreciative ideas means that we can examine, in public and perhaps in the company of others, our own writing decisions, assumptions and beliefs. Such public writing conversations may challenge and reduce the restrictive power of unhelpful norms.

We can then put our interrogated criteria for ‘good writing’ to the task of refining and revising our crappy first drafts. Reading for the writing supports our own writing.

This post is a belated answer to a question about what I mean when I say “read for the writing”.

Eisner, E. (1976). Educational connoisseurship and criticism: Their form and functions in educational evaluation. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 10(3/4), 135-150.

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Posted in reading, revision, saturation point | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment