Occasionally I offer strategies that you can try to see if they work for you. If they do, and not everything works for everybody, then you can add them to your academic writing repertoire. Today I’ve got an exercise designed to support diagnosis of your own writing weaknesses.
In the quiet of your own work space, find a passage of text written by someone other than you. A text which seems to you to be not as well written as it might be. Read the text. Take note of where you think there might be some clunky writing.
Now read it again. Identify the problems.
Here’s a starter list of some things to look for.
• Headings – too many? Not enough? Too vague? Don’t seem to be what the text is about? Too clever by half?
• Meta-commentary – you can’t work out the point of reading this? Where does the writer tell you what they are doing? What do they say? Alternatively, too much meta commentary? (I get it, stop now please.)
• Paragraphs – not clear what the paragraph is about? Sentences seem in the wrong order? Doesn’t connect to the paragraph before or after (there is a big leap in topic and sentence subject between paragraphs)? Too long, goes on for ever through multiple ideas and points? Argument doesn’t seem to have all of the steps – the paragraph doesn’t seem to be in the right order? Seems like there is a missing step?
• Other people’s work – Too many quotations? Too many authors as subjects of sentences? So many citations you can’t keep track of what’s being said? Too many assertions – where is the support for key statements?
• Sentences – too long? Too short? All the same length? Do they all start the same way? Too many phrases and clauses and you can’t keep track? Everything is written in the passive voice?
• Words – loads of abstract multi-syllabled words (nominalisations)? Word repetition? Specialist terms not defined? Too many obscure words ( you have to go to the dictionary too often)?
• Dull – Needs livening up, could use a few more engaging words? Could do with an interesting and memorable category, a metaphor, an anecdote?
Now, you get to play with the text. Your goal is to try to make the passage ‘better’. Remove what you can of any unnecessary text. Change things, move them about, add and rewrite.
Read again. Does the text now seem better? Why? Were some of the improvements you made more important than others? What is ‘better’? What might this exercise help you understand about the writing you aspire to do?
Reflect. Think about what this exercise might tell you about your own writing.
Now go to a first draft or a text that you suspect needs a lot more work. Use the same process. Ask the same questions. Remove. Change. Add and rewrite. Read again and reflect on how this might influence what and how you write next. Use the understandings you gain to help you work on subsequent messy first drafts.
This exercise is named after and inspired by a creative writing strategy developed by Beth Kephart in We are the words (p. 119)