writing on the fly

New year, new me. Well probably not. But 2023 me has been in a new place, working away from home and from the office. And I’ve been reflecting on what I want and need in order to write.

I’m quite well set up for mobile work. The house where I am staying – yes the view the view – has good internet access almost all the time. I have a couple of mini devices – tablet and MacBook – with me, and they speak unobtrusively and easily to each other. Every file I have is in three different cloud storages. My bibliographic software and library are online. Access to journals online all OK. And I have enough ebooks to keep me going for the time I’m away. My partner understands I still need to work and can’t go out to party every morning. So everything ought to go swimmingly.

Alas. I have discovered something I couldn’t bring with me. I discovered I am addicted to a big screen. While I can put up with a little screen for a little while, I’ve become fed up with it pretty quickly. Both the MacBook and tablet are too tiny. I often find myself squinting at them. Their little screens just don’t hold enough. It’s tortuous toggling between several open windows. Yes I can cut and paste from my tablet to my book, but its really not the same as having it all there in front of me. It really does just takes longer to do pretty basic things like write and search in parallel.

It’s not just the screen. My chair isn’t great either. I have to get up much more often to make sure I don’t get too sore. I couldn’t bring my super comfy chair with me.

Being away from my usual work situation does have a down side.

So perhaps this is why I’ve been reading about mobile work, and what Gray and colleagues call “corollory work” – the unseen work you have to do in order to do the work you are expected to do. Their book “Made to work” focuses on three groups of workers – in the finance sector, the IT industry and academia. Gray et al’s interest is in understanding the tangle of humans, artefacts and processes in mobile work. And so they pay careful attention to exactly the things I am concerned about at present – the kit you work with, where you work, and how you make all of that work.

Gray and collegquges suggest that those of us engaged in knowledge work of various kinds invariably become “reflexive” about all of the stuff we do to get the work done. So it’s no surprise that I’m thinking about my situation. And no surprise that I understand that the concern I have with my screen and chair are not just mine, but fit into a much bigger picture – one where doing the work to make the work work is inevitable.

I’ve done the corollary work. And I’ve resolved one of my issues – the tiny screen. As I am parked in one place for a while, I have been able to acquire a monitor which I can now connect with my MacBook. I’m just about to set it up and I am really looking forward to no longer looking down at a tiny screen. The screen will be at eye height, the font will be bigger, and there will be at least two windows open so I can drag and drop at any time. Yippee.

I realise that this doesn’t make me a very good mobile worker. I already knew I didn’t like working in cafes and I thought it was because of the noise. Yes, I know a lot of you love this – I see you in cafes all the time, with your coffee and laptops open, typing and scrolling away. It’s just not for me. But I do also know that I can actually work through noise and not be too distracted. Noise is not the problem. I now realise the real issue – I have tiny screen aversion. Working away from the big screen is my problem. Give me a big screen and I’m happy. If there’s a café which offers temporary access to big screens I’m there.

But the implication is that I’m more than a bit limited in where I can work. Office writing is possible although there are generally other work things that get in the way. Home is good for writing. Actually home is great. Home is best. Because I don’t have children at home and have a discrete home office – the privilege which comes from being old, and permanently waged – I can happily write most days at home with my big screen. Timetable permitting of course.

However, it’s taken quite some degree of corollary work to get close to home now that I’m away. But today I have the screen, yay. Although the corollary work isn’t finished, the chair is still an issue.

2023 me has come to a realisation. I’m a good worker from home. WFH all OK. I’m not so good at mobile. And as it’s not really possible to drag around a big screen with me all the time, let alone a chair, I have to just accept that there is a limit to the amount of desk work I can do on the fly.

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on alt writing

I was recently asked why I didn’t write more about other forms of writing. Why I so often wrote and blogged about the “gold standard”. Did I not think other ways of writing were important? Well yes I do, but this post is by way of a bit of an explanation.

Academic writing is a changing. Or so some say. The evidence produced for this claim is the plethora of new genres of writing that academics now do. 

It’s not just peer reviewed papers and scholarly monographs, edited  collections and encyclopaedia entries any more. We now routinely see poetry, plays, short stories, novels, novellas, comics, posters, films, TV programmes, posters. And art installations, exhibitions and performances. We also have op-ed pieces, blog posts, zines, podcasts, websites, essays, long magazine articles, columns and articles for particular publics in their publications. Oh and of course press releases, policy briefings, you tube clips and texts for the various socials. 

I love this variety. And I do play in some of these places myself. But there is a down side to all of this textual innovation.

You see most of us are expected to be over a fair few of these new forms. Pretty exhausting if you’re a new scholar to get on top of all of these textual possibilities. But it’s also exciting to think that you might turn your hand to something other than the bog standard paper. So how to reconcile the challenge and the drain.

The problem is that the bog standard paper is still expected in most (but not all) disciplines, and particularly in places where there are audits of “outputs” as well as institutional emphases on citations as both measures of individual academic “productivity”, and also faculty/school status and institutional reputation. Most academics in most disciplines, in most faculties, and in most locations still have to turn out some of your basic default academic publications. And then they get to play afterwards.

It’s doubly or triply tricky if you’re precarious. Selection panels will be impressed by blogging and podcasting, but most still also want the standard fare. The REF-able as its called here in the UK, after the name of the national university audit programme, the Research Excellence Framework. Emerging academics are expected to show they can and already do have publications that can be submitted for this ranking ritual.

But all of us also have to do enough of the new stuff to contribute to the institutional profile as well as establish ourselves as good institutional players (yes, read this as the push to become an exemplary new neoliberal academic hell bent on furthering career and reputation by churning out texts and grant applications). We do the orthodox and the new, the trad and the boundary pushing. There really is little choice but to take on some of the alt. It does count for getting jobs And it counts in getting promoted. And the alt might well turn out to be the most pleasurable part of the work. So we can – should?- certainly engage with it.

However we ought not, IMHO, to think that the academic publishing ground is going to shift away from the bog standard text any time very soon. As long as the current emphasis on producing auditable texts continues, and there are league tables of institutions and individual academics ranked by H index, then the default peer reviewed journal and scholarly monograph will prevail. Even if big publishers were to take a hit because of open access, other larger policy changes would need to happen to make all our more obviously creative work count more. 

That’s not a reason for not experimenting, for developing skills in alt forms of writing, for engaging in the socials, for writing for popular outlets. It is simply to say that we ought not to make too big a claim for the imminent transformation of the academic reading, writing and publishing economy. And that therefore most of us will need to continue to hone our writing in the default genres.

Having said that, I will take a turn to the less auditable text next year, even if just for a bit. Alt texts to kick the year off.

Patter is now taking a tiny bit of leave and will return in the new year. I wish you and yours all the best for the festive season. 

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does the find-a-journal beta service work?

You may have noticed that a big journal publisher is offering to help you find the right journal for your paper. It’s got a beta version of a “journal suggester” as part of its “how to publish your research” web advice. The process looks pretty straightforward. You simply paste your abstract in a box, press a button, and the magic behind the screen offers you a suggested short-list of journals.

I decided to try the service out. And this is the result. The answer to whether it works is … Sort of.

I tried two different texts. The first was a lengthy abstract for a chapter about a national arts programme offered to young people. The other was the first two paragraphs of a report about research with school leaders.

In both instances I was offered seven journal suggestions. In the arts abstract, only two of the journals were in my own field of education. The others were in several different fields and included two I had never heard of (in tourism!!! and cultural studies). Neither of the education journals were the first recommendation (second and fifth) with the fifth being the one that I thought was most suitable for the argument I wanted to make.The school leader paragraphs returned three journals in education, the first being my least favoured and the fifth the most likely in my view (the other one was fourth).

So the magic suggestions and my own judgment about where would be the best place to put each publication were along the same lines, but also with significant differences. Both times what came up first in the suggestions wasn’t really a great fit. Well, that’s my view.

So did the magic know better than me about which journals were better? Not likely. I know the journals in my own field well and regularly work with doctoral and early career researchers about where they might publish. (Check my home page if you want to see whether I’ve got any street cred in publishing.) I back myself – I reckon my judgment is better than the beta service by a country mile.

But this find-a-journal service is not meant for people like me. It is meant for people who really don’t know their field well. And therein lies a problem or two.

Publishing a paper is not really best done as writing the paper and then finding the best journal fit. You can do it this way of course. People do. But really it’s better to work out who you want to know about your research – who is the reader – and then find the journals that your desired reader reads. Is this hard to do? Not really.

How do you find where your desired readers are? Well you could use a list like the one generated by the publisher magic, or you could simply look at the journals you already use and quote the most. These are the journal communities you are already in, and these are the readers who are already talking about your topic. Your most quoted journals are read by the people most likely to be interested in your work. If you’ve not written and published a lot, your top references are your quick-win suggested journal list.

And once you have found your readers and a target journal, then you need to work out how to speak specifically to those readers. You need to offer them something that they will be interested in, something that they don’t already know.

But let’s imagine you’ve selected a journal that was magically suggested to you by the publisher. Who only looks at their journals btw. And their journals may not be the best one for your contribution. But I digress.

The generic abstract that you inserted into their text box in the journal finder service probably isn’t good enough. It needs to be rewritten to be specific to your chosen journal and readership. Even journals that are ostensibly the same – as were the three leadership journals suggested to me by the magic beta box – are actually fairly different in their orientation, literatures used and general expectations of theory, method etc. You get to understand these differences when you look at the actual journal, not just the key words that appear in mission statements.

So. To sum up. Using the magic cut and paste suggestion box may not get you the best fit for your work. You will certainly need to do more research on the actual journal to make sure that you are submitting something that will make it past the editor’s desk.

But there is another issue here. Imagine that you decide to choose a journal that is out of your field. One you don’t quote. One you don’t know. One where you have no idea of the history of the journal conversations, the general literatures used. While readers of this out-of -your-field journal might be interested in your topic, you are going to have quite a job to make your paper fit with their expectations of how a paper goes.

I have spoken with a couple of highly experienced researcher authors in my own field who have published in disciplinary journals that aren’t ours. Both had “interesting experiences” they said – in other words they had to do a lot of hard work writing the initial draft but then also a lot more work when dealing with reviewer comments. Reviewers said things that were entirely unexpected. These were not Reviewer 2 but were speaking in disciplinary terms unfamiliar to the experienced education writers. The educational researchers were trying to get into a new conversation they didn’t really know a lot about. One author told me that he would not try this again, it was so difficult.

Of course, if you are already doing interdisciplinary work then border crossing may not be such an issue. But if you are tempted to choose something outside your usual field, it might be a very difficult ask and task. So beware the temptation to try the new journal out of your field just because it was suggested to you.

So to sum up. Again and properly. At this stage, this kind of find-a-journal service is of limited use. I think it could be easily made more effective if the author was asked what field they were in as well as posting their abstract. The magic could then put the field journals first and then offer a couple of additional out-of-field suggestions just for interest.

But it would be even more helpful if beta users were reminded that once they had made a choice from the suggested journals, they still need to do some work themselves. That the find -a-journal service is a beginning not an end point. That a bit of algorithm that reads key words and phrases can’t actually interpret and make judgments about what readers of the journals are actually interested in, what conversations they’ve had, what they expect to see quoted and used and what debates they are having. Having a warning on the service would help shield novice writers from a lot of unnecessary work and heartache.

So my verdict on the find-a-journal service? At this beta stage, use with care. Crap detectors at the ready. 

And big important multinational publisher – how about asking for field as well as text, and providing a few more directions for users. And make sure there is a clear statement of limitations about what this kind of service can and can’t do.

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academic writing knowhow – setting the scene

That first sentence. Your first thought. An opening gambit. Setting the scene. Attracting the reader. Aaargh. Starting a new piece of writing can be daunting. It’s no wonder that so many writers worry about how to begin.

But academic writers are comparatively lucky when it comes to starting off. Unlike fiction writers who must pull a brilliant beginning from the void, academic writers have something to fall back on. An established genre which they can use, if they wish.

What is this “established genre” I hear you ask? Well. Many academic texts begin with some contextual scene-setting. Papers, books, proposals often start with context. Then, once the scene is set, the writer goes on to say exactly what this particular text will be about.

Contextual scene setting can be comparatively slight in word terms, but a few sentences can do a lot of work. Scene-setting accomplishes five key things.

  1. It locates the paper/book/proposal in a field of study, an area of concern, a policy context, a professional practice, a geographical location, a moment in time. One or a combination of these things. And in doing this locational work the opener also

2. establishes the potential significance of the paper. The context makes the case that the paper will say something about an important matter. Nothing trivial here. There is good reason to take this paper seriously. The opener may also suggest that the text will be timely, something that people are already talking and concerned about. And once the significance is pointed out, then

3. the reader knows that the paper to come is something they should read. It also helps if the opener is inviting and well written so that

4. the reader think that this will be a paper they will enjoy. The reader wants to open the door, go thought the archway, fall down the rabbit hole. And very usefully

5. laying out the context at the start of the text allows you to go back to it at the very end of the paper, when you are discussing the implications of the work you’ve written about. Now you know this, what does that mean for this context? What should happen now, who might do what, given the results and this argument?

And of course these five points strongly suggest that in order to set the scene so that it speaks to a reader, you have start with an idea of who you are writing to, and what they will be concerned about. And just a little tip. Writing multiple openers for different readers is always an interesting way to decide which reader, which angle you are going to take in your text and which journal you will target.

So what does scene-setting look like? Well, here’s three examples. Let’s start with a one sentence opener from an abstract.

Lack of student engagement in online learning is reported as the major challenge contributing to poor academic performance and completion rates. 

This sentence establishes the context – online learning – and an associated practice problem – lack of student engagement. While the opener doesn’t specifically refer to the pandemic, it has been published at a time when many more of us have been involved in online learning and encountered the engagement challenge. And so we can anticipate, predict, that the next sentence is going to say that the paper addresses the problem that has been identified – the aforesaid lack of interest and enthusiasm. Yes, maybe you would write this context differently, but this is from a published paper – the opener has done its job.

Here’s a somewhat longer starter for ten taken from the published paper, not its abstract.

In April of 2020, the British government was accused on mislabelling the Sars-CoV-2 virus as the ‘great leveller”, harming the rich and poor alike (Milner, 2020). However, mounting evidence shows that the pandemic strikes more deeply at groups with pre-existing social disadvantages, impacting most severely people in precarious jobs and poorer communities ( Kristal and Taylsh, 2020; Plumper and Neumayer, 2020, Qian and Fan, 2020). 

This scene setting is geographical – the UK – and temporal – it addresses the pandemic – and takes a sociological framing – differential effects on different social groups. But the paper could be about anything. However, it is in a higher education journal so readers could predict something like this next sentence…

We ask whether this differential impact was replicated  within higher education. 

The reader now knows, after four sentences, what they are about to read and why it is important. 

Here’s another brief example from another published paper.

Although literature suggests that boredom and its associated negative outcomes should be avoided in higher education ( Feldges & Pieczenko, 2020) avoiding boredom may, it seems, be altogether impossible. Despite efforts to rid students of boredom, research reports high prevalence among higher education students (Dugan et al, 2019; Pekrun et al 2020; Sharp et al, 2020). 

This opener establishes another common problem in higher education – it could be called lack of engagement or lack of participation, but this paper focuses on boredom. Because the word boredom sounds a little like the feedback that comes in student course evaluations, readers may be very keen to read on. And readers of this journal, another higher education publication, won’t be surprised to read the next sentence which says what the paper is about.

A different strategy to dealing with boredom may thus be required. 

The reader is now very tempted to read on, lured by the promise of learning something new. And potentially useful.

Now, sometimes – in fact quite often – opening scene-setting goes on for a bit longer than these examples. I chose these because they were short and suitable for a blog post. The scene setting opener may extend to one, two, three paragraphs. But there is a limit to how much you can put in an introduction. If establishing the context goes on for too long, the reader may wonder what on earth the actual paper is about. Yes, but why am I reading all this? Focus dammit, they may start to think. It is important to move on from the opening scene to tell the reader about the actual paper to come.

The writer may have to add something more a little later in the paper about context. Or immediately. For example in the paper about boredom, the very next section after the intro explains and expands on how boredom is often understood, and how it will be understood and discussed in this paper.

So context. So setting the scene. If you are about to start a new bit of writing, one of the more straightforward things you can do is to write something about the context. And if you also think about how you might come back to the context at the end, this will help you orient the argument you will make in between the intro and outro.

I’m not suggesting that writing the scene setter is necessarily easy or quick. But it is a known process. It’s a default commencing, something that you can do to get started. Scene setting is not the only way to start a paper and you may choose to go back to your first draft and do something else, or kick off your writing in another way altogether.

But writing the scene- setter first does get you going. You no longer have a blank screen in front of you. You have a direction, and you can more confidently write the next sentences about what your text is going to do, and how it will address the context you’ve established. 

And yes, I’m sure some of you picked up that locate is the first move in writing a Tiny Text.

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the end of AcWriMo – now what?

It’s the end of the officially designated month of academic writing. I must confess to being a bit dissatisfied with what I’ve done. I do seem to have written a lot. But it’s been more like – some of this and a bit of that and a couple of completions. Writing these texts took up huge amounts of time. But the end result is that there’s not been anything I can look back on with huge amounts of satisfaction. I can’t really say that this was the month that I made major advances in or on… In almost every way AcWriMo was a month like all others.

While I did do more reading about writing, just so I could write a couple of blog posts, not much else changed. At the end of the month I find myself with a chapter still incomplete, a major report that needs huge amounts of work, and a lot of bits and pieces that require my undivided attention. Those three ideas for papers remain tantalisingly out of reach. That potential book proposal stays unwritten.

Mostly I can live with the undone things, although not finishing the report is causing me some grief. Being sanguine about multiple and very partial successes comes from knowing that this is the usual state of affairs. The scholarly norm is having not one but a set of writings on the go. It’s rare in academia to be in a situation where you write serially, completing one textual task before going onto the next one. No, the reality is that there are always some texts being finalised, some underway and some standing in line.

The PhD is really a preparation for living with multiple texts. Writing the big book thesis always involves working on several chapters at once. Even if you are focusing majorly on one, there are always things to think about related to the drafts that you have done. Does this bit go here in this new chapter or should it be in another ? If I write this here, will I need to go back to this bit I thought I had finished and change some things there? If I say this now, then I have to remember when I write the next bit I’ll need to do…

Learning to juggle various bits and pieces of writing is hard. But juggle is the name of the writing game. And its important that the juggle, keeping all those writing tasks on the go doesn’t keep you awake at night. You have to find ways to manage the continued movement of finishing, starting and leaving at the same time.

Some people manage the juggle via lists. Im a bit of a list maker myself and I do find that having things written down helps to keep tasks in line, keeps them from acting up in order to get immediate attention, to rudely change their position in the queue. There are various apps that help with lists and various forms of journals. Lists and apps are simply ways of setting up a bit of a brain addition, an external cognitive support which leaves more of the writing-mind focussed on the task immediately in front of us.

Perhaps the last task for this month then is to make a list of what remains to be done. Find an app. Consider. What textual tasks do you see before you ? What order should they go in ? Which is really the most pressing ? What do you most want to do straight away and what can you leave without causing havoc with larger timelines?

And of course, while list making and sorting out what gets done when, it’s also absolutely necessary not to beat yourself up for all of the things you havent done. To forgive yourself for the things you wanted to write but didnt get around to. To make peace with the fact that this month you did what you could, when you could, and that is just fine.

And yes, thats me too, list making and being kind to myself about all the not yet done things.

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revising drafts – #AcWriMo

In the spirit of #AcWriMo here is another book that you might find interesting and helpful – this week it’s Verlyn Klinkinborg’s (2012) Several short sentences about writing.

Klinkinborg writes a book-length prose poem about authoring. His goal is to unpick writing myths and orthodox wisdoms – he takes on writing blocks, genius and inspiration, topic sentences and the (non)usefulness of outlines (ouch). While Klinkinborg is not writing for academics, much of what he says is highly relevant to us – but ahem, perhaps outlines are still useful in academic writing where we have to carefully accumulate ‘stuff’ in order to make our argument. But put that gripe aside.

I particularly like what Klinkinborg has to say about revising. You may well be up for revising during #AcWriMo – you have to do something with all the text you’ve generated. Klinkinborg’s advice is pertinent to drafts but also to the kind of brain dump text that you generate during timed writing, if that is your thing.

Klinkinborg offers a middle road between ditching large numbers of words because you think they are all terrible, and holding onto every single word as if they were forged from precious metal. He cautions about being too ruthless, getting rid of things too quickly. He says

“It’s true that the simplest revision is deletion. 

But there’s often a fine sentence lurking within a bad sentence,

A better sentence hiding under a good sentence.”

Klinkinborg would have you look at sections of text where there is some kind of good idea going on, but the words aren’t great. He suggests you spend a bit of time working on some sentences and paragraphs to see what is worth preserving.

 “Work word by word until you discover it.

But, he warns, attending to sentences and paragraphs is more than shuffling the words around and around, or doing a bit of cut and paste. As he puts it

“Don’t try to fix an existing sentence with minimal effort,

Without reimagining it,

You can almost never fix a sentence – 

Or find the better sentence within it –

Using only the words it already contains. 

If they were the right words already, the sentence wouldn’t need fixing. “

Klinkinborg advocates a readiness to alter what is on the page or screen, combined with persistence and imagination. This means you play with the words, trying out new combinations of old and new. Lots of writers don’t get this, he says. They

“… sit staring at a flawed sentence as if it were a Rubik’s cube.,

Trying to shift the same words round and round until they find the solution.”

Klinkinborg is quite insistent about the need for thinking anew about drafty text. You have to be prepared to work at it, he says, to reimagine it.

“Take note of this point: it will save you a lot of frustration.

This applies to paragraphs too. 

You may not be able to fix the paragraph using only the sentences it already contains. “

But Mr. K also wants to provide some reassurance to any readers who may be getting very anxious about the possibility of working on a sentence for days on end. That’s we scholarly folk for sure. Writing in pressured and performative times does mean that we generally don’t have time to do the kind of careful sentence by sentence work Klinkinborg argues for. So it’s helpful that he advises,

“Look for improvement where-ever you find it,

And build on every improvement

But don’t look for too much improvement all at once. 

Finding a flaw is an improvement. So is discarding an unnecessary word or using a stronger verb.

 Writing even one clear, balanced , rhythmic sentence is an accomplishment. 

It prepares the way for more good sentences.

It teaches you how you respond, inwardly, to a successful sentence of your own making.”

A Klinkinborg maxim for doing the best you can in the available time and in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Thankyou.

Small writing improvements count. And what you learn from making small changes sets you up for the next revising task.

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Are long sentences always bad? #AcWriMo

Academic writing is often characterised as a load of long sentences packed full of complex ideas. It’s not surprising then that you often read and hear advice that says you can help readers make sense of your text by making your sentences shorter. On the face of it, this seems straightforward and sensible. But it may not be. I’ve been doing some reading which questions the short sentence advice.

This week, and following my own urging to use #AcWriMo to do some regenerative work, see previous post, I’ve gone back to one of my favorite writing books, Joe Moran’s (2019) First you write a sentence. The elements of reading, writing … and life. Moran’s syntactical exploration is my preferred combination of literary nerdiness and practical application. And the book is written beautifully as you’d expect. (Yes, you’d be cross if it wasn’t. Well, I would be.) Many of Moran’s sentences about sentences are both eminently quotable and also useful.

Moran has a number of key principles about writing sentences – for instance, they should be speech-like but not be written exactly like talk. He says

“Sentences should be as much like speech as you can make them–so long as you remember that they are nothing like speech. Writing needs to retain the loose shapes of talk, its rhythmic curves and breathing pauses, but overlay them with the tighter shapes of writing.”(p. 90)

Moran advocates writing plainly, not trying to sound too-clever-by-half. Easier said than done, perhaps. Wanting to sound academic is a common problem for new academic writers who are still working out what a scholarly text is and does. They try too hard to sound “classy” as Howard Becker puts it. Moran uses a different term to describe the problem but has an equally useful take.

“So much uncongenial writing comes from the fear of boring others with the obvious. Scared of sounding banal, we muddy our prose and it ends up sounding muddy and banal. The best way to unkink a twisted train of thought or to massage a misshapen piece of logic is simply to say what you have seen and let the reader join the dots.” (p. 100)

So of course Moran has something helpful to say on the question of complexity and sentence length, building on from his suggestion to focus first on meaning and clarity. His key point is that sentence length is a servant to clarity. Sentence length matters because making ideas accessible to the reader matters.

According to Moran, when explanations and argument need to be persuasive and credible, this sometimes does mean making sentences brief.

“When the ideas are complex, it is … crucial not to saddle the reader with long words and phrases, so he (sic) can expend his mental energy on the ideas. The sentences of ‘difficult’ writers like Nietzsche, Kafka and Beckett are often as short and clear as those in Mr. Men books. They may be hard to fathom but they are seldom hard to read. No evidence exists, however comforting its discovery might be for those of us who find it difficult to be easy, that difficulty in writing is a mark of profundity. More likely, long sentences are just overgrown graveyards where unconvincing arguments are conveniently buried.” (p 130) 

But focusing on the short sentence as the only way to achieve clarity and accessibility may well be a mistake. If the goal is to help the reader get to grips with the “stuff’ being written about, Moran says, it may be that making things clear requires long sentences.

“Long sentences have their uses. They can be more concise than a string of simple ones, because having a subject and main verb for each thought wastes words. And sometimes long sentences are useful for the opposite reason: not to save words but to expand them, to stretch out a thought so the reader can keep up as you think it through. ‘To know that simplifying may often mean expanding,’ Flesch wrote” (p. 130)

Moran’s argument nicely refocuses discussion about sentence length IMHO. The priority is what the writer is trying to get across. If the substantive content is complex and difficult, the writer has to think first about what the reader needs. Then and only then do they consider how sentence length might help. Or hinder. So the writer not only considers short sentences and cutting words that add little to the overall meaning, but also adding words –

“By expanding complex ideas into long, loose sentences, you mimic the stretched-out thinking-aloudness of speech. Cutting out long, derived words, such as nominalizations, often means using more words in their place–but it can make the writing feel less squashed. The slow train of thought needs plenty of track. This way of making a long sentence clearer sounds counterintuitive: make the sentence even longer by using more words. But the extra words help because they mark the start of phrases, so they break the sentence up into readable little chunks.” (p. 132)

Decisions about syntax are important, Moran says. But it is also important, he suggests, to craft your text not only for meaning and accessibility but also so it reads and sounds as if a human being has written it.

“Being sparing with words does not mean being miserly with them. Words are there to be spent. Even a seemingly redundant word can add a euphonious beat, or give the reader time to think, or parcel out the sense better, or just make the sentence seem as if it comes from a real, human voice.” (p. 132)

So there you go. Sometimes long sentences OK, they are just what the reader needs.

And if you’re not sure where to find a refreshing book for #AcWriMo then do get this one out of the library and give it a whirl. I’m sure you’ll find something in Moran’s work that gives you a new angle on the academic writing you’ve yet to do.

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not writing as usual #AcWriMo

A lot of writing advice focuses on how to be more productive. Write more. Write fast. Write often. Write regularly. Write better.

Do we really need this? Well, probably. Writing is important for getting a job, getting a promotion, getting a grant. And there’s no doubt that many of us are under pressure to be more productive and to write the stuff that will garner citations and prestige. So this writing advice is all well and good and useful.

#AcwriMo can be a way of achieving productivity goals. Set a word target, set a goal, finish off a big or important piece of writing, reward yourself when you get there.

But #AcWriMo might support other kinds of writing work too.

I wonder if November might be the month where we fall in love with writing. (Re)find our passion for the aspects of writing that we find pleasurable. A month where we no longer focus on the end point of the writing, but rather on what is most enjoyable about the process.

This might mean losing some of the ways that we have learnt to write. Abandoning the churn of text in favour of something more relaxed, less considered, more spontaneous and slower, maybe more focused on playing with words. It might mean a small experiment in putting the word and page counts away and just writing for writing’s sake.

I wonder if #AcWriMo might be a month where we discover new forms of writing. Where we experiment with new genres of writing. Give ourselves permission to write a haiku, to put images together with words, to write in multiple voices, to dabble with fiction. A month where we make the space to breathe and to be creative. A month where we refresh our ideas reservoir and replenish our writing repertoire.

So some of #Acwrimo might be spent seeking out those books and journals which have examples of writing differently. It might mean trying out something new each day. And it might mean finally reading that book that’s not really in your area but looks really interesting. It might mean setting up your own writing retreat where the aim is to support each other to write something out of the everyday ordinary. For the group to take risks in a nurturing space.

What if your #AcWriMo goal was not to produce pages or texts, but NOT to write them. Rather, the goal is to put the usual pressures aside in favour of just writing. To write as if the result didn’t matter. To write as if there was no audit. To write to better understand your processes of writing. To write how you’d been tempted to try, but hadn’t. Yet.

Of course, using #AcWriMo to fall in love with writing all over again and/or to experiment with new ways to write might also mean putting some writing on the back burner. Asking for an extension on a deadline. Revising the yearly publishing plan. Saying no to the invitation to contribute to someone else’s edited book or special issue.

Could #AcWriMo be the justification for the untoward act of a small writing rebellion? Sorry, I’m on a self-imposed writing refresher. Sorry, I’m running on empty and need to recharge my writing batteries. Sorry, I need to take a short break from everyday writing and do something extraordinary this month. Sorry, just pretend I’m writing what I’m expected to write this month. Sorry, I’m writing. Yes, really writing again. Here’s me in the corner writing for myself. Writing to learn. Writing to grow.

Just call me the Doctor – it’s #AcWriMo and I’m regenerating.

Photo by Christian Bass on Unsplash

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Ten quick ideas for refreshing your writing #AcWriMo

It’s nearly November. And that means its AcWriMo. Academic Writing Month. The idea of Acwrimo is to use the month of November to make major headway on a big writing project. Or to kick start a writing project. Or to get your writing started again.

Another possibility is to use the start of AcWriMo to take a fresh look at your writing. And the stuff you are writing about. To take a moment out to review where you are and what you might do now. More of the same? Something different?

If you have a load of things you are in the middle of, like me, then reviewing does mean that you need to interrupt your current production schedule. So you need something quick. And if you’ve been having trouble sticking to your schedule, like me, then maybe moving away from it just for a minute might help.

Here are ten ideas for thinking afresh about what you are writing about – your research. Yes, these ideas involve more writing. But it’s writing just for you and only for as long as it’s interesting. And maybe useful. Just pick one of these and have a bit of a play.

  1. Make a list of all of the things about your research that you find really fascinating. Then pick one and write more about it.  
  2. Write about the worst thing that happened during your research.  
  3. Write about the thing you love most about your research.
  4. Brainstorm a possible list of amusing and/or preposterous titles for your current writing project – try using numbers, colours, song titles, alliterative titles.  
  5. Find an everyday metaphor that sums up an important aspect of your research process or results – for example, meal, ladder, fog, box, river, key, gate, rock, mountain, window, knot… 
  6. Write about the process of generating data – the smell of the library, doing an interview while you were hungry, being distracted by the signs on the wall when you were meant to be observing, feeling sad while listening…
  7. Write about your research using the starter… If only….  
  8. List the turning point or points in your research. Pick one and write about it. 
  9. Write about the most boring aspect of your research.  
  10. Imagine that you conducted your research in a parallel universe. Write about what happened differently. Are there things that you can’t say about your parallel universe because you don’t know about them from your actual research? Now write about this.

When you’ve finished one, you might like to try another. Not compulsory. But it is helpful to have a look at what you’ve written to see whether taking a sideways look at your research has produced any new insights. Or any writing that might be usefully moved into your ongoing writing projects.

Activities largely adapted from Margaret Geraghty’s The five minute writer.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

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one key thing about making notes

There’s a lot of advice out there for doctoral researchers about how to take notes. Templates. Questions to ask. Visual queues. Mnemonics. It’s great to look at all of these and see what works for you. 

But regardless of whether you use any or all of the stuff out there, or invent your own noting system, there’s one key thing about noting you need to consider. And a couple of things that flow from it.

The most important thing about noting is that you are writing for two readers. Both of them are you.

Notes are written for present you. Presentyou. Noting is a way to help you understand what is being said or written. Summarising and synthesising that you’re reading and thinking in writing and image are important. It’s a great way to get to grips with the key message of a paper and its argument. A great way to sort out a line of thinking. Noting is making meaning. And making your reading and thinking meaningful is important in the moment, as you’re doing it. There’s good reason to note for present you.

But you are also writing for future you. Futureyou. Futureyou might be you just next week or the week after, or it might be the you that will have just completed a big bit of field work in a few months time. Or the you in three years.

Doctoral researchers almost always have to go back to notes they made early on about literatures, notes about decisions made during designing the research, notes about ideas they had earlier for analysis. The same is true of more experienced researchers who do lengthy projects. The notes made near the start of your project are often integral to your later work.

So it’s good to think now about what futureyou might need from the notes that current you is making. Futureyou wants to:

  • find things without having to look for ages and ages through mountains and mountains of stuff. 

Having a good searchable system that you use throughout your doctorate/project is important. Consistent ways of naming and dating files. Folders with stuff about the same topic filed together. Key words that allow you to search. Links that allow you to see common clusters of ideas.

  • find the key point, the pith, the nutshell, the core of what current you is writing about.

Futureyou doesn’t want to wade through pages of notes about every paper and book you read. Future you wants presentyou to sum up the key point and make it visible. Futureyou doesn’t want to waste precious time searching and searching. And then trying to reconstruct the key point if it is missing. Starting again. Going back to the original to find what current you was actually thinking. Nooooo.

Thinking about futureyou likely means that presentyou uses some kind of interlocking digital framings that will allow futureyou to easily search and find. But if you are an analogue person who loves a notebook then presentyou needs to find a pen and paper format which is searchable and where you are able to make easily locatable summaries.

Futureyou needs presentyou to be organised. Even if you are the most untidy person in the world, like me, and presentyou finds getting your noting in order a complete pain. Working against the grain to become neat and tidy can be hard. But futureyou will thank you. They will be delighted that you have noted not just for the now, but also for the work to come.

Photo by Nathália Rosa on Unsplash

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