a book about style and form

I read at least one book about writing every month. Because nobody sends me these for free, this means I buy at least one book about writing each month. I know you are imagining my bookshelves, but rest easy, most of these are now ebooks. Slightly cheaper and much easier to transport. 

The books are not always great reads and there are some I wouldn’t recommend for that reason. Others I don’t recommend simply because they are a little more niche than I imagine most people who read this blog would want. In other words, they are not advice. They are either based in formal research or the result of professional experience. So yes I buy books by language scholars, which I’m not, and by writers, which I might be sometimes – in between teaching and researching and administrative duties. 

Last month I particularly enjoyed reading Amitava Kumar’s (2020) Every Day I Write the Book. Notes on Style. I was pleased to find Kumar again, as one of his early books Passport Photos (2000) (a mix of images, poetry, criticism, cultural analysis and personal account) really helped me to understand that academic texts didn’t have to follow a conventional format. The current book om style has even more of the kind of episodic montage that I am particularly drawn to, and which I occasionally get to play with myself. 

Kumar is Professor of English Literature at Vassar. There are a number of English Lit people who write about academic writing – and even more people who have English Lit tucked away in their undergraduate pasts (like me). Kumar also teaches writing so he works with ‘exemplary texts’ from fiction and from a range of academic disciplines. He also researches writing, using this reading to help him think critically about his own writing process. As you’d expect, his writing has clarity and elegance as well as substance. 

Notes on style is divided into nine parts, eight of which consist of nine pieces. Or chunks. Or in some cases, fragments, as the pieces range from about half a page to several.  There are occasional images of media clippings and handwritten notes. So the book looks a bit like an anthology of Post-Its and extended Post-Its. It’s not really so surprising then that well into the book I found … In my composition classes, I pass around a stack of Post-It notes and ask students to first write just enough to fill the small yellow square of paper in front of them. The Post-It note, like the small-size notebook I always carry in my pocket, gives comfort when I recall the Latin dictum, Nulla dies sine linea ( No day without a line.)

Yes, Kumar promotes a regular writing practice, to the point of performing writing even when you aren’t doing it. I recommend that if you aren’t writing, you should nevertheless perform the ritual of sitting down to write about what you are not writing. (You can write other things down. Write down what you see outside your window, or what you remember of your dreams. Or what your plans are for the day of the week.)

Occasional practical writing advice like this is scattered through the book. But the book is mostly, as Kumar says in his introduction, about the thinking about writing. Kumar wants to build bridges, bringing criticism together with creative writing, and academic writing together with non-academic writing. Refusal to present this quest as a seamless tightly edited argument shows, through its choppy form, that there is not really any fully-formed way to achieve these reconciliations and that the author is still thinking about various dimensions and permutations of the task. Puma still has doubts and concerns as well as insights.

Kumar talked to a number of writers and writing researchers while writing this book. It’s not clear to me how many. I don’t remember finding a list of people per se, although various names are presented throughout the book.  I noticed the omission of a list of – interviewees, correspondents, participants – whatever they might be called. Their status is not clear either. But this omission is part of Kumar’s point, I am assuming. 

Blurring the boundaries between fiction, non-fiction and academic writing might mean giving up some deeply embedded conventions. Asking does the point being made really suffer from the lack of n=? If the goal of the book is to stimulate my thinking, then omitting some of my disciplinary mannerisms might be good for me.

Kumar is equally and more explicitly critical of the ways in which much academic writing lays out what it will do at the outset, even down to the use of the ubiquitous topic sentence. Academic writing suffers from a lack of surprises, he suggests. Kumar is an advocate of preserving strangeness and what is whimsical in academic writingIt starts, he says, with an understanding that language is your closest ally and that if you align it with your desire for freedom, you will be able to live forever. I am still not at all sure what he means by this, although I am very drawn to the notion of whimsy in academic writing.  

I have really enjoyed reading this book. While its apparently bitty nature might suggest that it is something that can be dipped in and out of, over time, I took a contrary view and read it all in three sittings. The book then became much more like sitting in a train watching frames of the world go past, more like a filmic montage. I simply ate up the different snippets, variously and together erudite, amusing, bookish, personal, challenging, memory-invoking, thought provoking. The sum total more than the parts, although the parts are also generally interesting. 

The book won’t be everyone’s idea of a good read about writing.  But it was mine. Reading it has encouraged me to think again about style and form. Not simply as something I might teach or know about, but as something I might experiment more with myself. Having just about finished a monograph written as classic argument, that is a very appealing idea. 

If you are English LItt-ish, and invested and interested in questions of writing, you might also enjoy this lecture by Kumar on voice.

Posted in academic writing, Amitava Kumar, form, style | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

last-minute proofing – 12 things to look for

The last stages of handing in a thesis or book can be very trying.  It’s taken you an age to get to the point where this big hefty manuscript is as ready as it’s going to be. Well just about. You really want to press that send button and get rid of it. But… always with the but. 

Proofing. There are often last minute proofing – formatting and consistency – checks to do. Proofing may even be necessary after you’ve checked for missing references, repeated words and phrases and unnecessarily klutzy sentences. But at the end of a long haul, proofing is generally the absolute last thing that you feel like doing. But it has to be done.

Examiners and publishers get pretty irritated by carelessly checked texts. Sometimes publishers even send them back. And irritated thesis examiners – aargh, no, no – will certainly ask for corrections. But they might also approach all of your text with a dim view of your scholarship, and you want to avoid this. 

So here’s a little list of proofing issues that need a very last minute look. This is just a beginning I’m afraid, but the listicle will help you to search for some common causes of inconsistency in your wodge of pages.

  1. References 

Trust me when I say that examiners look at references and copy editors certainly check them all – and they will ask you about anything missing or incorrect.  If you don’t have to follow a particular referencing style, the big question is which style you will choose and whether what you do is consistent. 

Hop over to your reference list and check that your use of capital letters is consistent. How are the capitals in titles of chapters and journal articles? 

While you’re doing this, you might also look for missing page numbers and publisher locations. And before you leave the references, do have a look at the way in which you report works by the same author – do you repeat the author’s name or use a dash?

And just before you go, just check what you do after a colon – do you use capitals or not? As in I am here: Not there versus I am here: not there.  

2. Linking

In big manuscripts you often refer in one chapter to other chapters. Linking helps jogs readers’ minds so they can go back to the relevant bit if they want to. And you don’t have to repeat yourself at length. 

But it takes a long time to write a big book and you may have changed the order and numbers since you started. So you need to check that all of those I address this in more detail in Ch. X (or p.) are still right. And of course, do you say See Chapter One, See Ch. 1 or some other combination? And do you put this instruction/reminder in brackets or not? 

3. Spelling

A big one. If you’re writing in English, are you using British or American spelling? The most common word processing programmes usually default to the American. You can check these fairly easily using a search function. Look for ise/izeour/or for starters. 

4. Numbering figures and sections

The key thing here is to ask yourself whether your system is systematic? Is your numbering consistent from chapter to chapter? 

And what do you call the stuff in boxes – are they all figures or are some images or tables or something else – and is this consistent? 

Have your figures all got a useful heading ( the most common convention)? That’s one thing – but have you anchored all the whatever-you-call-them back into a relevant place in the text? Should you? (Lots of people get annoyed about floating images and diagrammes.) 

5. Quotation marks

When do you use double and single quotation marks? Look at what you’ve done with direct quotes from literature, quotes from people and scare quotes. Have you done the same thing all the way through? 

Where do you put quotation marks in relation to full stops – inside or outside? – “It was hot.” or “It was hot”. Getting quotation marks sorted can be a time-consuming job.

6. Spaces

Spacing is one of those things that people notice if it shifts around without apparent rhyme or reason. Do you use consistent spacing between sections and lists? Do you use a double space or single space between sentences? Do you put a space around dashes or not?

7. Commas 

Some people really use a lot of commas. Others don’t. Some people insist on there being correct ways to use commas, but in the UK publishers and examiners are generally a bit more relaxed about what you can do. As long as you are consistent. So think… are you a fan of the Oxford comma – this, that, and the rest – or not – this, that and the rest.

8. Lists

Some of us like a good list, as in this. But do you put stops at the end of each item in a list or not? Do you start each item in a list with a capital letter or not?

9. Stops

We’re not done yet. Is your use of stops in acronyms consistent? (U.K. or UK) How about with names in your reference list – M K Fish, M.K. Fish, MK Fish… ? And do you always use three stops as in … or something else?

10. Abbreviations

And the pesky abbrevations. Do you follow common conventions with abbreviated Latin terms – e.g., etc. ? Some referencing  styles are very particular about abbreviations, not that I’m looking at you APA.  So you may need to check the rules you’re meant to follow. 

And it might be a good idea to check its and it’s while you’re at it. and perhaps there, they’re, their and there. 

11. Numbers

The list goes on. Yes, I know it seems to be unending. Do you use words or numerals to report numbers? The usual English convention is words from one to ten and then numerals from 11 onwards. But do you use a different convention- if so, what? 

How do you report percentages- as percent, per cent or %? And would you ever say ten%? How do you report number spans – maximum 135-136 or minimum 135-6

12. Dates

Wait there’s still more. But we are nearly done. How are you reporting dates – 24/06/2022, 22 June 2022, 06/22/22 or something else?  Don’t forget to check how you’ve written dates for conference papers and media clips in your reference list. 

And – Fonts

Yes one more. I just didn’t want to have 13 in the list, so its a baker’s dozen. But really, you do need to check the heading fonts and font sizes and whether you have the hierarchies of type and sizes right. Also if you are using coloured headings and fonts, check that the pattern is obvious. You might be using a pre-set template, but it’s always worth checking.

Now… I do think that’s enough for now.

it’s actually a pretty good idea to take a list like this one and work out what you actually want your text to be, before you start proofing. Then you can read your manuscript against your own checklist to see what and where you need to apply a quick fix. 

And a confession. Dealing with proofing is my least favourite writing activity. But it does have to be done. Yes, I know you can pay someone to do it, but there is something satisfying about making your own work ready to send off.

My co-author Chris and I are just about at proofing point with our book manuscript. If you are also here, we feel your pain. And we share your impatience. Speaking of which it’s back to checking those quotation marks. 

You might also like to check out this post on HOW to proof read.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Posted in academic book, Big Book, proof-reading, proofreading, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

patter’s diary

Health warning. This post contains no advice.

Here in the UK we are now over the results of the Research Excellence Framework, REF, the UK audit measure of institutional “quality” and “productivity”. We can all breathe a sigh of relief and go back to life as we want it – right?

No chance. Just a few weeks after the REF results, some universities are back to counting how many publications of what number+* ranking we have already accumulated. That’s how performativity works, right?

The university audit regime is what sociologists call a gamified activity. So think video games  here.  In order to make the video game work, there must be a clearly defined overall goal which players buy into. There must also be levels which sort out players with different skills, and scorekeeping and scorecards. In your average video game,

  • there is frequent feedback on progress – it doesn’t take long to either move up to the next step or lose 
  • the behaviours that are integral to the game  are rewarded – winning points, assuming new identities, getting ”stuff”  – and 
  • achievements are made visible and celebrated – league tables of highest scores, longest play etc. 

Some games can require a lot of coaching, they aren’t intuitive. Some have communities too – peer support groups, elite cliques. 

Just like the video game, the academic audit game has winners and losers, levels, league tables. But people can choose whether to play or not, I hear you say? Well yes, but not really. If they want to work in a UK university, academics have to play the game – it’s at the heart of what they/we do. Its about whether they/we keep their/our jobs. Or whether they get a job that is more than an occasional chance to play. The expectation that academics will produce particular kinds of “outputs” is central to employment practices, promotion applications, applications for leave, internal and external funding bids and meetings.

The centrality of audit to academic work means that many people in the UK are already getting anxious about what they might need to write over the next few years. This anxiety is entirely rational. Audit affects different people differently. It’s outrageously tough on precariously employed people who have to find time and space in between doing all manner of casualised work to do their own publications. They often don’t have access to formal support schemes, mentoring, writing retreats and the like. They are out of the conversational loops about what the various levels and categories of academic writing look like. But the audit game is also tough on more securely employed academics who increasingly find themselves being pressured to up their publishing game or face ever more teaching.

The emphasis in the UK on particular kinds of “REF-able outputs” means that there are now three broad types of expected academic writing – the REFable output, the “scholarship of teaching” output (also subject to its own and separate audit regime) and writing for non academic audiences, “public engagement” – also part of REF, particularly if it leads to “impact”. These categories are problematic for all kinds of reasons. Research is severed from practice. Conversations with the public are instrumentalised. Writing is rhetorically an end point of a research process rather than integral to it. Impact is about academics handing important stuff over to other people who use it. Academic versus non academic. I could go on but I’m sure you know all of the problems as well as I do.

The most insidious aspect of the REF is that it wheedles its way into your head. That how performativity works, right?

Because I have been through several iterations of this form of institutional audit, I now categorise my writing even before I do it. The game has become automatic, just part of the way that my academic work gets done. Even though I will be well retired by the time the next audit comes around, I’ve still got the wretched REF embedded in my publication planning. There’s the writing I have to do for the REF, writing for professional audiences and then the other writing that I actually want to do. And it is the writing I want to do that is more creative, less narrowly genre-bound and much more interesting.

My publishing plan always has these three types of writing. That’s the way I make sure that I dont just do REF oriented writing. This is not actually resisting the REF but it’s the only way Ive found to make sure I’m not entirely consumed by it.

As it happens I’ve already written just about enough for the next REF. Once my co-author and I hand in our book manuscript in a couple of weeks I can probably put away my REF headset and just get on with writing what I want.  I can opt out of the game. But of course, as I’m still working, I can’t. I need to focus more on trying to help others who have no choice but to play. 

Maybe the game will change. Or maybe, and more realistically, I will just give up caring and turn to writing other things. I notice that two of my retired colleagues are now writing and publishing whodunnits, crime fiction. And my former writing-about-writing coauthor Barbara Kamler is writing and publishing poetry. This could be me.

But aside from me, I’m pretty sure that one of the things that needs to happen is that we revisit the narrow notions of what makes a REFable academic output. Well, certainly in my field where the standard IMRAD format seems to dominate. If one of the criteria for judgment is novelty/creativity/innovation, then why not embrace tests that challenge the form, as well as the content, of texts? Although that might take the fun out of them once they become part of audit.

Meanwhile back in the game. So this week I’m running a writing retreat (which is probably mainly going to support other people to write for the REF), and finishing off that REFable book output. But I’m seriously thinking about what else I might write instead of the unholy trinity of REF, TEF and REF. All ideas welcome!

Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash

Posted in audit regimes, REF | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

should you highlight the paper you’re reading? 

The short answer to the question is… maybe, it depends. Not a yes or a no. That’s because should you highlight is not a simple question. Unless you are a marker addict of course, in which case the answer is an unequivocal yes. 

Highlighting is a form of engaging with writing. It’s a particular kind of annotation. We read a text and mark out the things that we think are important. And highlighting what we think is important is only half of what we have to do.  Highlighting a text is usually understood by  those who research it as three steps:

  • Selecting text to highlight
  • Organising the highlights into some kind of mental or material schema and
  • Integrating what is highlighted into what is already known about the topic. 

And here’s the rub. Unless you make it to step three then highlighting doesn’t actually help your comprehension of a topic. Simply having a lot of pretty colours on a page isn’t in itself particularly useful. It might look like you’ve engaged with the text, but unless you spend time with those highlights, thinking about what they mean and how they add to what you know, then they aren’t really worth the ink they are made with. So you do need to do more than make marks on your pages. 

It seems that adding a complementary learning strategy– making notes, writing memos, making a diagram or mind map – can really help you to work with highlights, can help you to get to stages two and three. Rather than simply relying on thinking about what you’ve coloured in, it’s good to find some tools that support you to sort out what you’ve selected and make it into something meaningful

But don’t assume that even with the addition of a complementary tool or two, that highlighting is all you need to do with your paper reading. Researchers are generally sceptical about the value of highlighting. They say that school students in particular really aren’t very good at turning their highlighting into actual learning – they don’t get much past the first step of making marks. That’s not only because they stop at marking, but also because they often don’t know what they are actually looking for and they highlight things that aren’t significant. Anyone who has been a school teacher can attest to the reams of meaningless copying that can go on in a class, with very little gain in comprehension. You have to put a firm stop to mindless colour work. Random highlighting and copying is just busy work, not learning.  

The literature on highlighting suggests that university students are better at selecting useful points in a text, presumably because they know more and they are more used to using highlighting as a learning strategy. And maybe doctoral researchers are better still. Or maybe not. 

The problem for doctoral researchers, in fact for all scholars, is that we very often read a text in an area that is new to us. We read in order to get to know something we dont already know. Yes, of course we have areas that we know well and our reading is very much part of an incremental process of building knowledge. But we are often in the situation where we need to get on top of literatures about something we haven’t got much of a clue about.

So, just like the inexperienced school student, we are faced with the challenge of selection. How do we know, when we start to read in the new area, what is important and what is not? Just like the school student, it is pretty tempting for us to start on a new topic, marker in hand. How do we know what to mark? It could well be very helpful to have a bit of a think about what we are looking for before we start reading, and certainly before reaching for the yellow marker.

A focus on selection means considering what we are trying to get from this paper. We might formulate a few questions for ourselves that help us clarify what we are looking for. We want to see the key point the paper makes about the topic, yes, but is that all? We might also want to do other things – such as

  • Identify key terms used to discuss the topic and clarify how they have been understood
  • See what assumptions appear to underpin research in this areato this topic
  • Establish connections with things that we already know a lot about.

Each of these – key point, key terms and definitions, assumptions, histories of the field and connections with our existing work – can become a focus for highlighting. There are of course other possible things we might read for – for instance, how this topic is usually researched, with whom and where. The important thing about beginning to read is to work out what you are looking for.

Once you have an idea about what you want from a paper, then – and only then 🙂 – is it time to pick up the marker. Or markers. You might be one of those people who like to have different colours for different questions. But do be careful that each colour really does have a purpose and helps rather than skews the next step of sorting out the stuff that you’ve highlighted.

Once you have made your highlights you can then go on to the very necessary next steps of making sense with and of what you’ve marked – the organising and connecting. And do remember sometimes it make sense to skim the paper first before you do anything. Get the big point and then go back for the detail that you want.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Posted in highlighting, note-taking, reading | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

propositional density – a helpful steer on writing and revising

Yes, it’s another post on terminology, on naming. Being able to give something a name is important – a name is shorthand for a lot of information. When we name something we can then discuss it, and this is of course what we frequently do in scholarly work. But sometimes learning a new name for something familiar can also help us to see that something differently. And being able to de-familiarise what you’ve written is pretty well always helpful in academic research and writing.

So to today’s term – propositional density. My design dictionary puts it this way. A proposition is a simple statement, a statement that cannot be made simpler. So The cat sat on the mat. Now take, Schrödinger’s cat sat on the mat. Ive added something much more than the name Schrödinger. Ive added a reference to a famous “thought experiment’ in quantum physics. The statement now has serious propositional density.

Propositional density refers to the amount of meaning that is conveyed in an image, web-page or text through the relationship between its various information elements. A statement has both surface density – the meaning is immediately apparent, it is visible, the cat is on the mat – and deep density – meanings that come along with each of the elements, meanings that can be inferred.There is something important in the seated cat example about this very particular cat. So far so good.

High propositional density of the good kind occurs when there are multiple and interesting meanings to be made from an apparently simple surface proposition. A pun is an example of a proposition that you can read and understand at its most literal, at the surface level. However, the pun becomes amusing, appealing and memorable because of its double meaning, because of additional deeper embedded meanings that can be inferred. 

Designers suggest that a good design is one where the number of deeper propositions exceeds the simple. When this happens, viewer/readers/users are engaged, delighted, stimulated. If you want to know more about how designers think about propositional density, try this blog post by David Knell who looks at logos, character design for films and the use of symbols. 

However, designers caution, high proportional density can be mis-handled. High propositional density of the not-so-good kind happens when there are so many possible meanings that the reader/user/viewer loses sight of the surface proposition. Too  much noise. Just too many possible interpretations and wrinkles to think about. The viewer/user/reader has so much to consider that they cannot work out what is going on. They are confused. The point contained in the surface reading is lost. As designer Stephen Bradley puts it, “Contradictory propositions will confuse your message, nullify the benefits of a higher propositional density, and work against your concept and theme”.

Still with me? OK, let’s move on. Propositional density can be a helpful complementary idea in academic writing. It particularly helps us to examine our syntax and paragraphing. to get granular with our writing.

We often hear about the problems of propositionally dense academic writing. When supervisors write “unpack this”, they usually mean that the writing is propositionally dense, but not in a good way. When people complain about academic writing being clunky and hard to follow they usually mean that the writing is propositionally dense, but not in a good way. When I say that reading something is like chewing cotton wool, I am referring to propositional density, but not in a good way.

Scholars typically work with high proportional density. We deal in complex ideas. Our key disciplinary terms are concepts that have extended histories. But there are often debates about key ideas and multiple interpretations. This is why we always explain what we mean when we use categories and labels. We don’t let our readers assume what we mean when we use particular terms – we try to steer their reading so that they can follow our argument.

We can’t avoid scholarly propositional density. Just look at your key disciplinary terms – those complex ideas with long histories and debates – they often take the form of abstract nouns. So in my branch of social science we routinely speak of democracy, class, society, media etc. (Sometimes these disciplinary terms get very multi-syllabled and very very complex — democratisation, classification, socialisation, mediatisation. ) These are important terms and we/I need to use them.

However, when we use a lot of complex ideas in a short space of time it can get very difficult for readers. This is not just because the words we are using have a large number of syllables. It’s the sheer weightiness of the ideas that they carry that matter – and because they make our text, the overall statement, propositionally dense. But not in a good way. There’s just too much going on for the reader to make sense of what we are trying to say. Too many possible meanings jostling for attention.

Academic writers, just like designers, have to carefully manage propositional density. They/we want sentences and paragraphs where the surface meaning is clear, but there are also layers of meaning for readers to consider and enjoy. But too many complex ideas jammed in all together, in just a few words, and the reader will lose their way and lose sight of the point the writer is making. 

Now this might all seem obvious. And it is. Really. But my point here is that having a term like propositional density gives us a useful academic writing tool. We can for example simply put propositional density on our list of reminders to ourselves when we write. And when we revise. 

When we revise our writing and find statements with high propositional density of the not so good kind, we need to ask whether the overall surface density can be made clearer by removing some of complex elements. By making the statement less propositionally dense.

When we write we can consider the propositional density of our text by asking ourselves these questions – 

  • Have I put enough nuance into the draft? Is this work propositionally dense in a good way?And perhaps more importantly
  • Is this work too propositionally dense? Is this sentence propositionally dense in a good or not so good way? Have I jammed too many ideas with too many potential meanings into one small sequence of words? Will the reader get lost working their way through all of the potentially deeper meanings? Does this paragraph hang together because the overall surface meaning is clear to the reader? Or are there just to many ideas crammed into this one sequence of sentences? Is there too much going on here for the reader to grips the overall point that I want to make?

Looking for sentences crammed full of multi-syllabled words can often be your key clue to finding propositional density. As can lots of titles, quotes, multiple phrase and clauses jammed tightly together. But what you are looking for when you find these tell-tale signs is whether the reader can see the surface meaning, and have enough of the deep to understand, learn from and enjoy your point.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Posted in nominalisation, nouny, propositional density, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

using the progressive disclosure principle in academic writing

I work a lot with artists and designers. Because I’m a bit of a magpie, I have a habit of collecting – and then using – their principles and approaches. A lot of them are interesting, because they make you – well, they make me – stop and think a bit.  I reckon that visiting concepts out of your usual neighbourhood can be pretty helpful. As is the case here.

This week I’ve gone back to think about the progressive disclosure principle. A term common in design. As the name implies, it’s about the way in which information is presented. The basic point is this – the provision of information needs to be staged in order to prevent information overload. Overload happens when the user/viewer/reader has so much information all at once that they really don’t know what to think/do/believe. A managed flow of information allows the user/viewer/reader to deal only with what is necessary and relevant. Because designers know the progressive disclosure principle, they organise their webpage/book etc so there is step-by-step guidance.

I am sure we can all think of examples of the progressive disclosure principle in action. Thinks of web design interface for instance – those buttons that say click here for more information are a classic PD principled approach to limiting overload. The designer has made sure to support users/viewers/readers to access what they need, when they need it, as well as offering more for those who want it. Hyperlinks forwards and backwards, and new windows that open to reveal more, also offer additional information. But the PD principle means that people who just want the narrative through-line and the bare bones information get it straight away. They can choose not to go further. Not to click or follow the link. Those who like to know all the stuff have the option of following up then and there, or later. 

I am equally sure we can all think of times when the progressive disclosure principle wasn’t adhered to – I suppose there must be someone who hasn’t had to struggle with flat-pack instructions that seem to be simultaneously too much and not enough. Those surplus screws… User error you say? Well maybe, but more likely that the right information wasn’t given in the right order in a way that the user/viewer/reader could understand. 

Anyone who teaches or writes instructions thinks a lot about progressive disclosure. Or they ought to. What do people need to know first of all and get a grip on before they can go on to the next step? Do they need to know what the point is and how the whole activity proceeds? Or are they happy to have things unfold?

I guess by now you can see how the progressive disclosure principle might be of use in thinking about academic writing and communicating research. 

One of the issues that is critical in constructing an academic text is order – what has to come when. What do readers need to know at the start of an academic text? What needs to be discussed in detail before the information is put to use? These questions are really important.

PhDers are often highly vexed about what goes where in their thesis text. Am I talking about my results before I have explained how they are produced? Am I using an idea to explain my results that I ought to have introduced earlier? These are key questions in drafting and also revising a thesis.

The progressive disclosure principle sits behind a supervisor’s suggestion to put the research question or hypothesis early on so the reader/examiner knows what the rest of the text is about. And its the PD principle lurking behind a supervisor comment like – you don’t have to say this all at once. Not the kitchen sink!! And of course the p. disclosure principle is implicit in supervisor feedback that the PhD writer needs to do more signposting of what is to come.

All academic writers have to think about the sequencing of information. We have to think about pacing too – how much time we need to spend with a particular set of “stuff” before moving the reader on. We generally have to consider how to present highly complex ideas without totally confusing our readers. We not only have to think about order and quantity of material but also how to offer nuance and access to further pertinent information

Of course it is harder in a linear hard copy written text to do the equivalent of click on this button for more information or use this hyperlink to access more detail. The hard copy text traditionally used different tools – we write (see p. x), ( see Appendix z), or we use footnotes or endnotes. Sometimes hard copy academic texts are accompanied by a DVD with instructions given in the relevant place of the text. But these days, with the proliferation of digital PDFs and e-books, including the digital thesis, there may well be hyperlinks added. When this is the case, we can use some of the digital tools available to us to manage progressive disclosure.

There is more opportunity now for academic writers to think like web designers. And because of this, it is perhaps also important for academic writers to understand and name the principles that underpin the design of their/our work.

I don’t know that we academics talk a lot about progressive disclosure as a principle. We work with it all the time. I suspect that our academic writing and supervision practices might benefit from being able to use the terminology of progressive disclosure. It’s a neat encapsulation of something familiar. The word ‘principle’ suggests that there is something common writers need to attend to, it’s not just me/you. But it also suggests an element of choice, it’s a principle, not a rule to be blindly followed. It’s something to think about and apply as it applies. Using the PD term might thus help our writing conversations – and our learning and practices.

Photo by Julia Kadel on Unsplash

Posted in drafting, progressive disclosure principle, revision | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

anonymisation – what’s in a name?

Many researchers find themselves inventing names because it’s standard ethical procedure to anonymise the people we’ve talked with and the places we’ve been. And naming is of course a simple and straightforward process. Well, maybe. Well, not all the time. Perhaps hardly ever. Names can be very troublesome and researchers can spend surprising amounts of time working out what to call things. 

Sometimes it is possible, and desirable, to get people to choose their own research name, their pseudonym. Sometimes it is not possible or desirable – people can’t see the point and/or they’ve already spent enough time on your research thank-you very much and/or they don’t care what they are called as long as they won’t be recognised and/or there just isn’t the relationship between you and/or there is no time or, or, or…  If your research is one of the or, or ors, then you will likely find yourself faced with a decision about what to call people and places.

Now first off, a warning. It is possible to get too-clever-by-half with names. Once upon a time, long long ago, a colleague and I decided to give the schools we were studying the names of English trees. We’d done a study of one school that we called Hollytree so we decided to stick with an arboreal convention. So we had Elder and Hawthorn and Oaktree and Plumtree and so on. We allocated these tree names randomly to our thirty case studies. We didn’t need to do this. The tree names told us nothing about each school. 

Hollytree had been a fine anonymisation. It was one school and we’d spent two years researching it and we wrote a lot about it. But this wasn’t the case here. We had thirty schools, our interest was in identifying patterns across them and we didn’t write much about about each of them individually. We would have been a lot better off if we’d just stuck with numbers or with something that combined region and school type – Primary Midlands, Secondary Northern for example. But no, we went with trees. The names had zip, zilch and zero benefit for analysis but did mean we always had to have our naming key to hand whenever we did any writing. Lesson learnt! 

Don’t be us. In order to avoid the too-clever-by-half option, it’s helpful to have a bit of a handle on the choices you have in naming. There are some predictable options. 

There are simple, descriptive choices:

The name is relevant to the kind of person or place selected for study e.g. University 1, University 2 etc. 

There are more descriptive choices – where the name bears some relationship to the research question and analysis: 

  • The names uses chronology e.g. university ( new), university (old) 
  • The name is relevant to demography e.g. academic (female), academic (non-binary) academic (neurotypical)
  • The name is relevant to location e.g. university ( south) university (London)
  • The names is relevant to size e.g. faculty (small), faculty ( medium) 
  • The name is relevant to the organisation  e.g. academic ( temporary), academic (tenured) academic (senior) administrator, clerical staff
  • The name is relevant to magnitude e.g. academic (most cited) academic (least cited) 

There are descriptive choices of names which aim to humanise the person so that the reader will see the words and get an idea of the person speaking e.g. people are given new names – Maria, Fred. Re-naming can be tricky. Researchers of course need to take care not to use a name or nickname of anyone in the study. But they also need to consider class and cultural questions. Are they stereotyping people by giving them particular names? Are they steering readers’ expectations – for instance, what would you assume about an undergraduate called Rainbow, or one called Tarquin? ( Apologies to any Rainbows or Tarquins reading this.) And it is always important to consider whether naming is going to be confusing – do readers really need this person to have a name, or would a number or some other less human name be just as good and potentially less risky? 

And places and organisations can be given names that carry information. e.g. Royal Livery University (probably old and posh), University of the Southern Islands (possibly remote and involved in distance education with a community focus). But the researcher has the (often difficult) question of what information gets carried with the name. How would you respond to a Midlands Entrepreneurial University or Northern Trades College? If names are central to the analysis carried out, then they might be apt. Or they may skew the readers’ impressions. And of course if there is only one organisation which fits the name, then apparent anonymity might give away far too much. What would a google search of Midlands Entrepreneurial University produce for example? 

Yes, this is not all there is to say about naming and anonymisation but I hope, dear anonymous, this is an answer of sorts to your question. Use the categories listed above as a starting point to think through what kind of naming you will do. And do remember, naming is often a lot more complex than it appears at first glance. It’s worth spending that extra time thinking about it.

Photo of a hollytree by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Posted in anonymisation, anonymity | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

everyday annotation

Last week I stumbled across the book Annotation, written by Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia. As the title suggests, the book is all about the history and practices of annotating texts. And probably because the book is from the MIT Press, the authors don’t stop at books and papers – they also tackle how digital technologies offer new possibilities for annotation. They consider how annotation might be used in the interests of open scholarship and open government.

Kalir and Garcia see annotation as one way that readers respond to texts. Not the only way of course, as copious memo-makers can attest. They say “Annotation is a way that readers talk with their texts, to their texts, about and beyond texts and within and through and through texts” (p. xii). The authors offer a generous take on annotation – seeing it ranging from underlining, and redacting to making extended commentary in the margins. Annotation “binds reading and writing together”, they say. 

Annotation is a particular genre, according to Kalir and Garcia, a “synthesis of reading, thinking writing and communicating” (p. xiv). It is about the reader making meaning of and with the text. “Annotation connects together people, texts and ideas, enabling shared insights, engaged dialogue, and new understandings and knowledge”, they suggest. (p. xii) As a genre, annotation serves five purposes – “providing information, sharing commentary, sparking conversation, expressing power and aiding learning” (p. xiv) All of these are of course of interest to people engaged scholarly activities.

Kalir and Garcia see academic work as continually engaged with annotation. They take up the notion of academic work as a Great Conversation. Kalir and Garcia explain the Great Conversation this way –  “Scholars have participated in an ongoing an iterative process whereby an author references another colleague, ideas are built on prior insights, and intellectual inquiry refines the cumulative progress of learned societies” (p. 100). This explanation of scholarly practice as conversation obviously underpins my positive response to the book – I am always banging on about writing as being in conversation with other scholars. And on focusing on exchange and contribution rather than deficit and gap-talk.

According to Kalir and Garcia, annotation is an inextricable part of ongoing scholarly dialogue. “ As this Great Conversation continues it propels forward an ever -expansive network of annotation – including endnotes, interlinear glosses, in-line citations, and recent advances like hyperlinked texts and open data sets – that provides intellectual lineage to substantive claims relevant to skeptics and stalwart researchers” (p. 100).  Yes, absolutely. 

As you can probably guess, Kalir and Garcia are not judgy about people who write on their books. This is not necessarily everyone’s view. I’ve seen lots of scolding social media about the horrrors of writing on the pristine page. But K and G do present a persuasive argument about why writing on and in your books is good practice – and they point to lots of historical examples. They see book-marking as the reader engaging productively with the writer’s ideas. As we read we make a mark to, for example, signal important information or to ask questions about what is written or to add information or to challenge an interpretation. Rather than defacing the book these are, K and G say, signs of engagement. (Of course if this is a library book, then annotating a text might be problematic. But if it is your own book, then annotating is a way to make sense as you read.)

Kalir and Garcia are also fans of footnotes and endnotes. As am I. Some scholarly publishers try to dissuade their authors from using footnotes and endnotes. I am not sure why. It is as if these publishers think that authors must make their main text cover everything. It’s neater. Perhaps they think it is easier for readers. But footnotes and endnotes can add nuance and supporting information and/or refer out to other discussions which make the text richer. And you don’t have to read the footnotes and endnotes if you don’t want to! Of course, I was partly trained as an historian and am well disposed to footnotes. I don’t see it as problematic to spend time away from the main text.

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are looking for something that offers practical, tips on note-taking and annotating, then this book is not for you. There are no immediate handy hints. The authors don’t cover how to annotate. They do however offer leads to follow up – they point to software that supports annotation and projects where the software has been put to use. I’m going to chase some of these up.

And Kalir and Garcia do discuss social annotation – when people annotate together – and how this can be part of a pedagogical process. They give examples where groups have used annotation to support close reading of a text. They also address questions of power and knowledge – who has the capacity to annotate, when and where – and thus speak to current discussions about whose knowledges count in scholarship. And, very importantly, Kalir and Garcia point to the possibilities for annotation becoming part of a more democratic and open information infrastructure. If you are interested in open scholarship but don’t know where and how to start, this book might be one place to get into the topic (and conversation).

And in case you were wondering, yes, the authors did make their draft text open and they invited annotations, some of which are in the book. And you can talk with them, and other people interested in annotation, on twitter on #AnnoConvo.

Photo credit; Shelley CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in annotation, footnote, marginalia, note-taking, reading | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

my supervisor expects me to keep revising – why?

I often hear doctoral researchers asking this question. They’ve sent their supervisor some writing. It’s come back with feedback and suggestions and maybe actual corrections. The doc. researcher has attended to all of these and sent the revised text back to the supervisor. And then it comes back again with yet more feedback and suggestions and maybe actual corrections. The doctoral researcher is crushed. Or perhaps angry. Or maybe just feels like whatever they do isn’t going to be good enough. Or they think that they clearly didn’t understand what was being asked. Or that their supervisor is an unreasonable so and so who will never be satisfied. Or perhaps that their supervisor didn’t know what they actually wanted and told them to do the wrong things.

Now, while any of these things might be true, the odds are that they aren’t. So let’s assume for the rest of this post that the supervisor isn’t mean or stupid and neither is the doctoral researcher. Let’s start by assuming that what the doctoral researcher is experiencing is a developmental writing-thinking process in which both the supervisor and they are involved.

Try thinking of these asynchronous textual interactions as an iterative conversation.

A key point here is that in this iterative conversation the doc researcher’s work is not being marked. The writing is not right/wrong. The conversation between the doctoral writer and the supervisor reader is intended to clarify meaning and interpretation. To make the work stronger and more defensible.

The supervisor’s starting position is that the text will be refined through various and multiple versions, generally called drafts or revisions. But this iterative text writing and response process may not be what the doctoral researcher expects, or has experienced in any of their work leading up to this point. They may have done one or two rounds of revisions up till this point, but not the multiple versions that seem to be the norm in the doctoral process.

It’s important to understand that serial revising is the scholarly norm. Scholarly writing typically goes through several versions before it is let out of the closed circle in which it is being written. And feedback – both written on the text and given through conversation – is the most common supervision pedagogy used to support rewriting.

An example. Right now I’m part of a group writing a text. I’ve first of all worked with a doctoral researcher just trying to make sense of data – we used a collaborative writing process to sort out what we had and what we didn’t. I then took on the job of wrestling the text into some kind of shape. Finding the argument. Finding the point. Working out what data definitely needed to be included and what didn’t. 

I am now on the forth draft. Each draft has been sent to other members of the group and they have provided some comments on the text, asked questions, made suggestions about literatures to include, challenged interpretations. We’ve also had two team meetings where we discussed the text and the process we would use to bring the text home.

It was only in this fourth version that I was able to write a succinct paragraph about what the text says. The structure and key points have become quite focused. But I will have another go at the text – version 4.1. – before it goes to another team member to do more of the refining work. And none of us imagine that the fifth draft will be the last. One of our team remembers a similar text written a few years ago which went through thirteen drafts. None of us will be surprised if this is the case here too.

The reason that we are taking so long to get our textual act together – and it’s also the reason that the doctoral researcher has to write several versions of their work – is that we often don’t entirely know what we have to say when we start to write. And even when we do have a sense of the overall argument and our point, we still need to work out the strongest and most persuasive and interesting way to present it. The ongoing authoring, or composing, let’s call it what it is, the rewriting is where we sort out how to construct the best possible version of the “stuff”. We are doing writing and thinking at the same time. And feedback helps.

Just as the team I’m part of is doing this writing thinking job together, the supervisor-supervisee relationship also does that sorting out and sorting through work together. The reading and response conversation via text feedback is (intended to be) a dialogue which allows the text message and form to become clearer with each draft.

Supervisors do approach the conversation around revising quite differently. It’s as well then for supervisors to clarify their approach. I always work on meaning, argument and structure first of all, and leave finer textual points till later, and I think many supervisors do this. Sometimes I point out a persistent writing tic that the writer can sort out as they go along. And often there is additional reading for the doctoral researcher to do in order to sort out their argument. And often I can’t see more reading is necessary or some kind of structural change is needed until we are some way on in the writing process, and the doctoral researcher has got clearer about what they want to say.

But this conversational approach always means there are a few versions of a text needed to get the “right amount” of the “right” material in the “right” order – “right” always being a/my/supervisor’s judgment call. Once you have a rough text stuff-order sorted, then it can be polished and refined.

Alas. My fourth draft hasn’t yet reached the stage of the “right amount” of the “right” material in the “right” order. I’m afraid my colleague doing the fifth draft is going to have to work particularly hard on one section where I have only just managed to group the material together but not yet wrestle it into shape. Yes, we’re all a bit worried about how long it’s taking. But we have faith in the process. We know the process will get us there. Along the way we just have to deal with any feelings of inadequacy or frustration any of us have and focus on the productive changes happening with the text.

Yes, there’s always feelings. Who secretly doesn’t want this revision to be the last? Well, maybe some one. But it is only human to get tired of iterative revisions. It’s not necessarily easy to put your own feelings about yourself as a writer to one side during revising. That’s true for all of us, but particularly the case for doctoral researchers who are moving from the right-wrong culture of previous academic work to the could-always-do-more reality of scholarly work.

So as you can see, and already know, the process of getting feedback on writing is not just about improving the text. Revising is also about learning how to deal with the emotional side of writing. It is also crucially about seeing both the writing and the writer as benefiting from feedback and multiple versions of the text. Despite wanting the writing to be over, we know that feedback is useful. The emotional dimensions just need to be managed.

Support is helpful. Ask for support. That’s what doctoral researchers are doing when they ask questions about supervisors and revisions. They need a big metaphorical, or perhaps actual, hug and reassurance that this apparently endless revising process is not unusual and it’s OK to feel a bit out of sorts with it.

As long as that doesn’t stop the writing and revising process. And who knows, they – and you – may even get to see revising as pleasurable – at least some of the time!

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Posted in doctoral experience, doctoral pedagogies, revision, supervision, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

why journal articles get rejected – #3

Every journal article is expected to make a contribution. The writer has to say something that adds to the conversation about the particular topic in the target journal. And through this addition, they participate in the discussion in the field. If a journal article does not offer a contribution, or if the contribution is not new or is not significant, then it runs the risk of being rejected. New and significant, that’s the thing to note today. Editors say that a common reason for rejection is that the writer has nothing new or significant to offer.

The novel contribution can be of many kinds. It might be the application of a new method to an old problem. The contribution could be new results from research which uses the same kinds of methods as previous research. It might replicate an existing study. It might use a new data base to examine a long standing question. It might bring new theories to a problem. It might offer a different interpretation. It might analyse the field for trends and challenges. The contribution might offer new “evidence” about a taken-for-granted issue. New location, different participants. You can keep adding to this list, because there are a lot of ways in which contributions are made to a discussion in a journal. 

It is obviously important then to look at your paper asking yourself what the contribution is – what am I adding to the conversation in the journal? Then ask yourself if it is new and significant. What am I saying that is new to the field?

Perhaps an example will help think about new and significant. Let’s imagine that you have a study which looks at supervision and doctoral completion. You’ve looked at the stats for completions in your country and in the university where your study is situated. You’ve also looked at completion rates across disciplines, and over time. (This data is generally available within universities and is routinely used for audit purposes). You’ve also interviewed 15 dyads  of supervisors and recently completed doctoral researchers across three disciplines (n=30, five dyads in each discipline). And you’ve managed to chase up a few people who dropped out while you were doing your research. You interviewed their supervisors too (n=6). You wanted to do a survey of doctoral researchers and supervisors informed by these interviews but well, you just ran out of time. And your supervisor said you had enough data for now. And when you look at the data you do have, the biggest thing that leaps out at you is the importance of the supervision relationship. 

So you write a paper which has precisely this sentiment as its conclusion, and as its contribution – Supervision matters in completions you confidently write. You send the paper off to a well-known higher education research journal. You feel good. Your paper fits the journal. You know that readers are interested in supervision. You have a clear point to make – supervision matters. But your paper is almost immediately desk rejected with the reason given as “no contribution”. 

Well, you can probably see from this example why this would be the case. Everyone who reads the well-known higher education research journal already knows that supervision matters in relation to completions. You do too. You only have to be doing or have done a doctorate to know that supervision can count, a lot. Or be on the socials for just a minute to hear countless stories about the importance of supervision. So not only the readers of the journal but also anyone only marginally informed about doctoral research don’t care that you have found out that supervision matters. They already know that. Now if you’d claimed out that supervision doesn’t matter … but you didn’t.

The readers of the well-known higher education research journal are much more likely to be interested in associated questions about supervision – they aren’t asking whether supervision matters but how, why, when, where, for whom, how much… 

Now imagine that you are advising the person who has written the desk-rejected paper on supervision. You’re sympathetic. You’ve administered tea and a big hug.  Now. I am sure you are now going to ask questions to the disappointed writer such as: Is there anything you can say about supervision practices that lead to dropping out? Is there any variation across the three disciplines that you can talk about – and if so, how do you account for it? Are there particular issues that these supervisors seem less well equipped to deal with that appear to be linked to dropping out? Are there particular themes in the supervision practices where your doctoral researchers have completed? Are there any things in common about the non-completing doctoral researchers that might suggest an area(s) in need of improvement in supervision or institutional support? Can you say anything at all about the importance of supervision compared to other things like institutional practices, higher education in general, or life circumstances? And so on. I am also sure you can add lots of other questions about different angles that might be taken, and that could be taken, on the data and analysis from this sort of research. 

Let’s get real now and forget the imaginaries. This is about you writing your paper wanting to avoid a quick desk-reject. 

There are two obvious strategies that you can use to minimise the risk of the no-significance rejection. It’s a no brainer. Put simply,

  • you need to think hard about what would count as a contribution to this particular scholarly community. Perhaps confirming and replicating is important in the journal and your discipline. But perhaps it isn’t, as in the example above. If it isn’t you have to think about what you will add. You have to ask yourself what is already known about the topic and what  is taken for granted. What else you can say about it? Is there anything that asking how, why, when, where, for whom, how much might point to? Ask yourself – Does everyone already know this?
  • you need to tell the reviewers what the contribution is going to be in the introduction where you establish the problem and address its significance. Don’t use this sentence but try it on when sorting out your argument. Everyone knows that supervision is an issue in completion (references) but there is still more to be understood about ( the topic of your paper) because… And then you need to revisit the contribution and significance in the conclusion when you talk about the implications of your results for policy, practice and/or research. 

Yes of course.  I know what you’re thinking. Whether the contribution is significant or new is ultimately a judgment call by peer reviewers. And, as we know, peer reviewing can be feral territory –  your very best efforts to clarify your contribution might still not be enough. (I’m going to say some more about feral territories in another post in this series.) But your odds are certainly improved if you’ve thought carefully about the existing knowledges in the field and in the journal, and the expectation that you’ll add something. 

Remember the questions – what is already known about the topic and what  is taken for granted? What else can I say about it?  Is there anything that asking how, why, when, where, for whom, how much might point me to?

Photo by Crissy Jarvis on Unsplash

Posted in contribution, journal article, peer review, rejection, significance | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment