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.

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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.

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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.

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2020 reflection – on book writing during the pandemic

I’m not stopping my blog over the festive season. I’m changing tack, just a bit. I’m going to write a couple or three posts which reflect on what I’ve done this year. In 2020 I published two books. One was the result of a long period of unfunded, and probably when I started, unfundable, research.

How do we choose what to research? Do we choose, or do our topics choose us? I’ve been musing about this, as I’ve recently had to explain why I chose to spend six years collating information about the scandalous and sometimes downright corrupt practices in English schools. Why a focus on corruption?

My answer may seem a little “unacademic’ – I didn’t look for a gap in the literature, I didn’t think about how to make a contribution, I wasn’t looking for a distinctive new analysis. I was simply angry. More than angry – outraged indignant, furious. And I wanted to deal with my rage. I wanted to see who else felt the same.  I had a hunch that the anger-making events that existed would not surprise anyone, but seeing the sheer scale and spread of the problems might.

At first, I dealt with my anger by accumulating. As I am online every day and follow educational journalism and alt. media sources, it wasn’t hard to find and save a few posts each week. I initially used a Pinterest board and a cloud file for reports and larger texts. After a couple of years Pinterest changed the way it stored information, making a number of the clips useless. A salutary lesson about depending on commercial platforms. I wondered for a bit whether to just stop, as I still had no idea what I was going to do with all of this information, or whether to continue. But as the weekly flow of incendiary reports continued, I started clipping again, but now storing everything in a single – and unsorted – file. 

When I finally got round to analysis, I could see that there were some big themes in the 3,800 clips that I had saved. I had a lot of material about costs that had never been part of the education budget before – academy and free school start-ups, conversion of local authority schools to academies, the costs of re-brokering (shifting schools from one academy chain to another) and the use of public finance initiatives (PFI). There were more murky tales too: high salaries paid to school leaders; financial misreporting and mismanagement, fraud, dodgy procurement, both dubious and illegal Related Party Transactions and some spectacular instances of market failure. I also had news clips related to new forms of accountability: the (perhaps) unintended outcomes of punitive school inspection regimes and performance measures; and the use of a narrow, annually repeated and high stakes standardised testing regime. The perverse outcomes of these performative measures were readily apparent in official statistics about the inequitable classed, raced, gendered and locational distribution of qualifications. Even I was surprised by the chronic lack of transparency of decision-making at all levels of the system and disappointed by various forms of gaming (the most toxic of which were exclusions and off-rolling, the illegal practice of simply removing undesirable students from the roll), and various forms of administrative malpractice, most notably lying, misuse of statistics, bullying and harassment. 

While it was clear that while there were some “bad apples” in the system these were I reasoned at least in part the result of a larger systemic problem. There were a tangle of structural and cultural practices in play. It was abundantly clear that I had some kind of project on my hands. I sought out as much research and “grey literature” as I could so that I wasn’t entirely dependent on media sources and began to look for literatures that might offer some analytic heft.  Rather than reach immediately for my familiar sociological theoretical and disciplinary friends, I turned in the first instance to history, public administration and politics. I started to read about corruption. 

I was initially wary of bringing the idea of corruption to education. It’s an emotive term and one more associated with politics and business than schools. But as I got further into the literatures in the field, it seemed the most apt framing for the material that I had accumulated. I learnt that corruption was an ancient idea which originally referred to a state of being, and the state of the (nation) state. A corrupt state was a sick state, one that did not serve its citizens well, a state which was inequitable and unethical. Our more recent understanding of corruption refers primarily to illegal actions which bring unfair benefits to an individual or group – the bribery, fraud, cronyism and so on that I had originally noticed. Because I had material that covered both meanings of corruption, I decided that it might be better to differentiate between the two, even though the line between them is blurred. After toying with the idea of “bad behaviour”, I opted in the end for the notion of corrupted practices which I hoped would convey the sense of the unacceptable and unjust outcomes we now see in schooling in England. 

Of course, the book I eventually wrote does more than simply document corruption and corrupt practices. Books that start in anger can’t simply be a polemic. They have to be, as Bourdieu suggests, ‘expert” enough to be of use. So I offer an historical account of how corrupt practices came to be, and how an agenda for change might develop. I argue for recuperating and redefining the notions of efficiency and effectiveness as well as a re-moralisation of the public policy agenda, and the importance of redressing the democratic deficit.

Because I don’t want to either undermine the work of committed educators who keep the system going, or further erode trust in schools, I fear I may have trodden too softly on some particular issues. I’ve chose for example, to talk about what kind of regulation we might want, rather than argue for getting rid of the existing inspection agency. But I do, I hope, provide an informed analysis which will encourage others to be outraged at the sheer scale and variety of impropriety, profligacy, waste and greed  – it comes from the very top. It’s now hard-wired into the architecture of all public services. Marketisation, privatisation and contractualism proliferate the points of contact between the public and private and produce the immiseration and stigmatisation of particular communities and locations. And this is, in my book, the very definition of corruption and a corrupted state. 

I had no idea when I started on this long project that there would be a pandemic. I finished the writing at the end of 2019 and then spent the first couple of months of 2020 dealing with proofs. The book was to be published in June this year. It wasn’t.

I didn’t anticipate that publication of my book would be held back so I could write a new introduction connecting my analysis with current events. I didn’t imagine that what I had written about would now – finally – be front page news. I just couldn’t have guessed that my book would be published in the middle of lockdown when political mis and disinformation, nepotism, cronyism, lack of transparency and outright organisational bungling would be the stuff of mainstream media headlines. And that the ways in which the health and school systems run on the commitment and hard work of front line workers would be obvious to everyone. But this is just where we – my book and I – are. Bizarrely, and not something I had planned for I have, it seems, finally written something that is in the zeitgeist!

School Scandals: Blowing the whistle on the corruption of our education system buy here from the publisher Policy Press.

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working up a first draft: a twelve step strategy

If you are drafting, it is pretty easy to find a lot of advice about the benefits of free writing. Lots of people find that timed writing sprints help to generate content. Unstructured writing is useful to work out what you want want to say. The pomodoro sprint works really well for many academic writers, and it it used to kick off a wider variety of topics and genres. However, it is always useful for any academic writer to have a few alternative strategies in their repertoire.

If you are the kind of person who has a notebook, or who jots down a few random thoughts when you are starting to work on a paper, then this low key, note-based twelve step strategy might work for you – and for some of the things you need to work on. Like all writing  strategies, it’s not a one size fits all approach, it s a start-small-start-with-bits-and-build-up. Here’s how it goes.

1. Compile all of your scrappy notes, reading responses, bits of worked data, questions and fragments of thoughts. Bring them together in one place. In one document. Name it – (topic) workings. 

2. Make these random bits of stuff into a long list. Bullet or number them if you want.

3. Group the things that seem to go together into larger pieces. ( You might want to do this exercise using posits or on a whiteboard or by making a mind map).

4. Next, write each of the little bitty bits into larger chunks. This means moving everything into  proper sentences.This means making the sentences into something that makes some sense as a stand-alone. ( We might call these paragraphs or even several paragraphs, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.)

5. Shuffle these chunks around until you are satisfied that they are in some kind of order that seems relatively logical – remember these things are always a bit arbitrary and you can shuffle them around again if this ordering doesn’t work .

6. Now read through the chunks. You will see that there are bits missing. What might make the existing chunks hang together, flow more? Have a first go at writing in what could link the chunks together – make these thoughts into idea brackets, as in … [I need to talk about x here] or [perhaps the what connects these two things is y]. You  might even have something at the start or in the margins like [this seems to be developing into an argument about a, b, and c]. it can be helpful to use a powerpoint here, just to assess how the order of things works out – shaping media often generates new insights as you see things differently.

7. Rest. Then read through the text that you have made. Make any changes or additions to the [ …] that you need to. 

8. Turn the […]  into writing, into more complete thoughts. One at a time. One sentence after another. You don’t have to do the […] all at once. (And yes, these too might turn out to be paragraphs or several paragraphs but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves).

9. Read through the lot two or three times, then step away from the screen for a few days.

You can of course do any of these 1-8 steps as single activities or, if you have more time, they can take up larger blocks of time. It’s probably a good idea not to do them all at once because you probably need time to let the ideas just percolate. Let your subconscious keep working while you do something else. However, if you get a rush of energy and insight then just go with it and see where it goes. And of course you can do some focused free writing (pomodoros) around any of the points or […]s.

And finally, 

10. Read through the text you have written, asking yourself whether you have something that resembles a drafty draft. Perhaps it still needs a big point. Perhaps it needs a stronger argument. Perhaps it needs to be more firmly directed to a particular reader. ( You may already have had a reader and a publication outlet in mind right at the start. I usually do. But if you don’t, try to get that sorted now.) And you might find that getting clear about your controlling purpose is helpful at this point. Or you might like to write a Tiny Text to get the big idea, argument and reader sorted out. after this, you may find that the text needs reordering again in light of these decisions. The text probably needs more referencing, but you can leave that to the next stage if you want.

11. Decide what needs to be added and changed. Make the changes. Make sure you add something like a bit of an introduction and conclusion if it isn’t there – remember that these have to “shake hands” and refer to each other. 

12, Transfer all of this to a new doc. Name it (topic) first draft. Date.

And – Voila. 

At the end of these twelve steps, you will have something that is rather like a crappy first draft. That’s because it is a crappy first draft. Victory. A text you can work on further. A text that might still need quite a bit of finessing. But a text nevertheless  – a text that is now assembled, rather than remaining a randomness of scattered thoughts.

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revising like a reader

Academic writing is generally intended to be persuasive. The writer – let’s say that’s us – wants to put a proposition to the reader, and convince them that what we have presented is credible. Our writing is worth taking seriously because it has something serious, or interesting, or important to say.

Most academic writers don’t want to humour the reader, or to act as a minor distraction in a busy day. We aren’t writing to entertain – we want readers to entertain our ideas and our argument. If there’s a bit of humour, a memorable phrase, a noteworthy term that’s only because these complement the point we want the reader to remember.

So, as one of the very many strategies for revision that you might choose, here are some reader-ish questions you can ask of your text. Put yourself in the reader’s position and see if you can get a grip on how they might respond to your writing. Imagine yourself as your target reader. Now think about how they are going to react when reading your text.

It’s helpful to have a few pre-prepared strategic questions at hand to help get you in the right readerly frame of mind. Here’s a few to start you off:

Definitions – do you provide enough explanation and justification for the key terms that you are using?

Assumptions – do you spell out the things you have taken from others in order to build your own case? Will the reader take your word for something you have assumed as a “fact”? Are any of your assumptions things that you might need to explain or argue, that is, why this version of x and not y? Are there any unsubstantiated assertions that need some qualification?

Presumptions – check your citations – what/whose literatures and scholarship have you chosen to foreground as the place for your contribution? What presumptions underpin these choices?

Credibility – have you explained how you arrived at the “stuff” (aka data) you are working with? Are the steps in your argument (moves proceeding one after another through a linear text) reasonable/logical, given the genre of writing you are working in? Will the reader recognise what you’ve written as a well-grounded and clearly presented argument?

Interpretations – does the reader have enough to go on to understand the way you have interpreted your “stuff”? Are there any big leaps of logic – say from detailed description to a big idea – where you might need to put in a few more steps along the way? Will your interpretation hold up to the sceptical reader – have you anticipated their objections and dealt with them? Does the reader need more help to figure out what your version of events might mean, help them to understand how things connect with one another, see what they all add up to?

Significance – will the reader understand why they should take on board what you are saying? Have you told them explicitly why your point is important, is it connected to what they are already likely to know and understand?

Quality – how well can the reader engage with your text? Have you structured the writing so that the reader can follow? Is the text written in a style that they are likely to find acceptable? A text can be challenging, but not so much that the reader gives up – are there any points where the writing is very complex or dense and might need to be allowed to breathe a little more? ( e.g. check for sentence length and variation, number of complex terms in one sentence, “clever” terms that are clear to you that may not be to a reader.) Be self-critical and evaluative – do you think this text is actually well -written – if only maybe, how could it be improved?

Implications – have you provided some clues about what happens now that the reader knows your point? How might the reader use what you have written? Have you provided a steer towards potential changes in, for instance, practice, policy, teaching, research, thinking, field practice? And in light of your answer, do you need to suggest anything that the reader themselves might do?

You will undoubtedly want to add to this list. If you are working with loads of numbers for example, then you will need to pursue further questions around assumptions, accuracy of workings and/or interpretations. You might have to provide access to a data set, which raises its own set of questions. If you’re producing a comic then the questions about definitions and assumptions are important and sometimes tricky, as they go to the balance of image and words. And so on.

Are you happy to give this strategy a try? If so, take these questions as a selection of places to begin the process of reading like your reader. Then adapt them for your own purposes and writings.

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plan to write – a controlling purpose

At some point in the writing process, most writers develop a plan. Some writers may already have, before they plan, chunks of text or a crappy first draft that needs to be beaten into shape. Other writers begin with the plan, perhaps making an outline. Regardless of the point at which the planning happens, the plan itself needs to have a goal – or what is often called in writing instruction, a controlling purpose.

A controlling purpose is not the same as a topic. A topic is simply what you are writing about. It is content focused. I’m writing a paper about X or Y. A controlling purpose is different. It brings together the writer, reader and text, and is both action and content oriented. That is, you have an eye on what you want your reader to understand, feel or think after they have read your paper. Your controlling purpose is about your intentions, and what you are doing to do in the writing you are about to do, in order to make that intention a reality.

And perhaps this needs some explanation. Let me give an example to illustrate the difference between a controlling purpose and a topic.

You might say “Im going to write about the pandemic and its effect on my and other people’s research and funding.” That’s a description of the topic – the content. It’s what you’re going to write about.

Compare that to “I’m going to write for the Grad School blog arguing that the pandemic has been really disruptive of doctoral research and we all need our universities and funders to extend deadlines and grants”. This sentence specifies the point you want to make, who your readers might be and what you want them to understand. It’s a statement of purpose, controlling purpose.

Purpose OK. But control? Control here simply means that the writer takes charge of what they do and the choices that they make. When linked with purpose, the term control suggests that the writer wants to have a particular effect on readers. The writer wants readers to learn or think something as a result of their reading. So even though readers also have choices, and writing functions like an invitation to a reader and not an order, it is the writer’s intentions that are made clear in a controlling purpose.

A succinct controlling purpose has a number of benefits. It limits what you are going to write about. It helps you to clarify your ideas and shapes the way you will organise them. It provides you with the red thread or through-line that will make the writing hang together. It focuses you on a particular audience and thus underpins all of your choices of style, genre, words, text length, examples and citations.

So when do you have a controlling purpose? Well. It is very helpful to have a controlling purpose in mind when you are writing a journal article or conference paper. You have a rough idea of where you are going before you start. You are oriented to move in a particular direction rather than flounder about trying to find where to start. A controlling purpose can also provide a very helpful guide to an entire thesis. You move away from simply describing your problem and results. You have to find the end point – the point in fact, that you want for the entire text. This in turn helps you to locate the controlling point of each chapter and how, together, they add up to the whole.

Many outlines or writing plans do not have a controlling purpose. They are simply a list of topics, a description of the material to be covered. But outlines don’t have to be like this – they can have a controlling purpose written as an overarching beginning statement. The outline writer benefits from the c.p.’s presence at the start. The Tiny Text always has a controlling purpose as it is always directed to the reader understanding the rationale for the paper, the structure of the argument and the end point.

Questions that help you develop your controlling purpose include:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What do I want them to think/feel/know when they have read my text?
  • What is my argument?
  • What evidence do I need to marshall?
  • What does this audience expect of to see in a text?
  • What therefore is the best way for me to stage and present my argument?

At the end of thinking about these questions it is helpful to write your one sentence controlling purpose– make it just as simple and clear as the example given of the pandemic and extending funding and deadlines. It won’t go in your final text, it’s there as a guide for your writing. Writing the one sentence about controlling purpose forces you to focus on the operational aspect of your writing, what you will do.

Of course you might well revise your controlling purpose as you are writing. That’s OK. But using an initial c.p. statement does allow you to get going, set some early procedural goals and structure the writing ahead. A controlling purpose grounds an outline and makes it into a plan.

Adapted from Lisa Ede (2004) Work in progress. A guide to academic print and reviewing. St Martins.

Photo by Smart on Unsplash

Posted in argument, controlling purpose, the point, thesis, Tiny Text | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

#AcWriMo2020 goals rebooted

At this past the middling point in #Acwrimo2020, it’s good to pause and think about what you have achieved so far. If you have managed to get some writing done most days, then it is worth giving yourself a metaphorical cheer or two – well you can actually cheer out loud if you feel so inclined. And when looking back to see what you’ve done, it’s important to be kind to yourself. Given the times we are living in, and how long we have been living with risk, fear anxiety, grief, it is understandable and OK if we haven’t done as much as we’d initially hoped.

It’s really much more than OK to adjust your targets and plans. Look back at what got in the way of your writing, what made writing possible, think about what is realistic for the remainder of the month, and adjust your plan if necessary. Yes, adjust.

So a little self- accountability from me. The story of my very own reboot.

I’d planned to get four bits of writing finished, or at least well underway, this month. And I’ve not done too badly so far. Even though I haven’t been able to work on my target pieces every day I do now have two of the four crossed off my list. Two to go. However, only one of the pieces was entirely done. The other I sent back to my co-author with some final tweaking still to do – I just felt that I couldn’t see what I was doing with the text any more. But this is exactly where co-authorship is helpful. If one of you flags, the other is often able to pick up. But finishing off, or nearly, these two bits of writing wasn’t particularly satisfying. Yes they were off the list, but I felt I hadn’t really done anything that was terribly creative.

And more worrying… when look forward to the rest of the month it doesn’t seem as if I am going to have loads of time to devote to writing, if what I mean by writing is hand on mouse, seated at the screen. It’ll be a bit here, a bit there, everywhere a bitty bit. Not really very productive. Not really very #AcWriMo. So I’ve decided to lower my expectations of myself, and opt for three texts rather than four. December doesn’t look quite as hectic as November and I may get some solid time to work on the final and fourth piece.

But I haven’t stopped with simply reducing my target from four to three texts. I’ve swapped the order of what I’m going to write too. For the rest of #AcWriMo2020 I’m going to work on one new/old piece of writing. And I have re-thought what it means to write for #AcWriMOs in general.

Let me explain. This new text I’ve started has been quite a long time in the making. So while it’s new as a written text, it’s actually been hanging about for years. It’s an idea that was kind-of-there in several old research projects, but it was always a bit blurry, and there wasn’t really enough data to work with. But the idea – it’s about affect and visual art pedagogy – didn’t go away. Now however, the most recent research project points more strongly to this being an idea worth pursuing. And there is now a lot of material to work with.

But working with the idea has meant that my long-term collaborator Chris and I have had to read a lot of new theory and empirical work, largely drawn from another discipline. We’ve been slowly doing this reading over the last few months. (Some of you may know that I’ve taken to having my iPad read books to me while I’m on my exercise bike. This equates to about a book and a half a week.) The result is that I now feel on top of the literatures, well, enough to make a bit of a start on producing actual text. Last week I also did a talk where I was able to float the writing idea to see how it sounded out loud, and if it made sense to people. Chris and I also talked over the idea and developed it further. We were not only thinking about this new paper but also how it might feed into the book we are about to write. My feeling is that I need to write this paper in order to get on top of theory that will be important in the book.

The steps I/we have taken to date – an idea which hangs about and doesn’t go away and then makes its way to the surface, reading a substantial body of work related to the topic, speaking the idea aloud by putting it out in public, and a discussion which refines the idea – are often part of the academic writing process. We don’t always sit down and just write. Ideas have to percolate. We have to live with them, see how they feel, find out if they stand up to scrutiny. Alternatively expressed, only the ideas that hang in there get to be made into text and are shared.

Thinking back on these steps allowed me to reconsider what I had done these last few weeks. I had actually advanced this third paper to the point where it is approaching being written. Recognising this involved a recalculation – the exercise bike reading, the time spent preparing the talk and giving it, and the time spent with Chris in an enjoyable discussion, are all seen as worthy of counting. As legit #AcWriMo2020 writing activities. And using this more generous accounting, I can now say I’ve done a lot. I did more in the first half of the month than just finish two things off. I was also already working on the third.

And of course, this mix of activities over time is what any creative process often looks like. Not an aha. Not a sudden rush of text on the page. Not an immediate sense of achievement. Rather, academic writing as a creative practice is generally much more protracted, sporadic and opaque. The #AcWrimMo focus often only captures some of that academic writing process. If we let it. Well, not me from now on. For the rest of the month, I’m taking a more wholistic view of what academic writing includes.

Photo by freestocks on UnsplashacWr

Posted in acwrimo, Pat Thomson, targets | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

seven prompts for writing with literatures – #startingthePhD

if you have just started your doctorate, then your supervisor has no doubt asked you to read, and read a lot. By now, you probably have quite a few texts entered in your bibliographic software. You can start to write about these already. You don’t have to wait until you are asked.

#AcWriMo2020, held every year in November, is a good time to begin to experiment with ways to write with your literatures. Try out different approaches. See what it means to use the literatures to help you think and plan.

Here are a few prompts which you can use to write a chunk – for yourself or your supervisor – about the reading you have been doing. You could do any of the responses to these prompts as a timed writing session (a pomodoro), or you could set yourself a word or time target.

Prompt One: What are your literatures?

What combination of texts are you using, why and how? Are any of your sources unusual? What is your justification for this?

Prompt Two: How do the literatures help you explain the context of your research?

Write about the context, or background of your research, using relevant literatures.

Prompt Three: Write about your research question

What is your research question or hypothesis? Why have you formulated it in this way? How have the literatures helped you to select and word your question?

Prompt Four: Write about your key terms

What terms in your research question or hypothesis need clarification? Where do you stand in relation to the ways these terms have been used in the literatures you have read? Why?

Prompt Five: How do you understand the field you are in, and where you stand in it?

Use the literatures to help you construct a written description of your field, or of your multiple fields. Describe which group of authors and texts you want to align with and why. Your reasoning might be about content, but it is likely to also be about your positionality and methodology.

Prompt Six: Write about your research design

You may not have decided yet what your research design is going to be. Or perhaps you have. Whatever is fine. Just write about what your thinking about your design now is and why – think about the who, where, how many, what, how often…

Prompt Seven: Write a mini proposal

Done all of the above? Use your writing and the literatures to help you write a short mini proposal. Show all of the components of your research – of course it’s still to be conducted and you can change it at any time. Just have a go. Try using all of the above prompts, as well as the chunks of writing you have produced in response to them. Draft and edit. Share.

Posted in acwrimo, grey literatures, literature a resource, literature review, starting the PhD, writing prompts | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

setting writing goals and targets

#AcWriMo2020, like all of its predecessors, works on the assumption that giving priority to writing during this one month of November sets up, or re-sets, a regular writing habit. #AcWriMo also suggests that you set writing goals and make sure that you are held accountable for them.

Writing goals vary. Writing goals generally are of five types:

  1. time spent (in minutes or pomodoros), 
  2. words written, 
  3. pages written, 
  4. tasks completed, or 
  5. tasks moved forward (this is often called a directional goal as it is less specific than the first four.) 

And writing goals can be expressed as daily or weekly targets. 

Whether you’re doing AcWriMo or not, it’s obviously important to make writing goals realistic. You have to think about what is feasible given how you know you write, and what is possible and practical, given your other responsibilities. Of course, it’s also important to  build in some thinking time away from the screen and some real down time when you do something other than writing. 

Many AcWriMo-ers translate their goals into a visual format. Targets can be put into a calendar format, on an Excel spread sheet, Gantt chart or table. If you are working on tasks you could also use a pie chart. But you could be more imaginative than this and construct your own image – the journey and mountain are pretty obvious, but I am sure you could think of others. 

Once you have a visualisation, you can print it out. You can then cross off, colour in, put a gold star on the target when you reach it.

When your visual display of goals is pinned next to or behind your screen, you have an immediate visible record of achievement and progress – as well as a reminder to keep going. Some people like to also build in celebrations at the end or at key milestones. 

Not everyone can work to these kinds of goals. And some people need to mix them up or change them along the way. 

If you are wondering how you might mix up targets and goals, use AcWrimo slightly differently, or how you might carry it on afterwards, have a quick look at Canadian author K C Dyer’s Yahtzee planning approach. The Yahtzee method combines variable word count targets and counting back from a task completion goal. It’s an adaptable idea and can be modified to your particular circumstances. 

If you have a moment, it’s well worth watching this Creative Writing Academy clip about how Dyer turned the idea of Yahtzee into a writing planning tool – and how it might work for you in the longer term. 

And good luck with your writing for the remainder of the month.

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