On acronyms in academic writing

I am not a huge fan of acronyms. I feel I should start with this disclaimer. I know that they serve a purpose in academic writing, and I do use them. But with caution, and only when needed. I think acronyms are, essentially, un-reader-friendly, and should be used judiciously to create and communicate meaning.

Photo by Alex Andrews from Pexels

Let’s start with what is useful about acronyms. Firstly, they can save you space and typing time. If you have a long term you need to use, such as “Southern African Development Community”, and you’ll be writing this several times in your paper or thesis, you can shorten it to SADC. This will reduce your overall word count, and also type 4 letters every time you use it, instead of 4 longer words. 

There are accepted acronyms in every field that you and your colleagues and peers will know and use. Think of CHAT (Cultural Historical Activity Theory) in Education, or RAM (Random Access Memory) in Computer Science, or WRT (with respect to) in Mathematics. To use these accepted, known acronyms is to signal your membership of your academic community of knowledge-making and knowers

However, as a writer I think it is useful to put myself in the position of my readers, and read the text, with the acronyms, as they might. Read this:

SG and SD are realised in terms of their relative strength or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that reveal combinations of stronger and weaker SG and SD together. These codes shift and move over time as SG and SD strengthen and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of SG and SD – where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example – are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following section. It should be noted, here, though, that SG and SD do not necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.

How do you encounter this text as a reader? You can assume, coming from the middle of a paper, that SG and SD have been defined earlier in the paper. Do you find these easy to make sense of?

Confession, this is a draft of a paper I wrote a couple of years ago. This is how I wrote it. But, when I got the reviews back, the reviewers both pointed out that the use of all of these acronyms had an alienating effect on the reader, especially as these refer to theory, which can already be difficult for readers new to it. I therefore rewrote this paragraph (and subsequent similar paragraphs):

Semantic gravity and semantic density are realised in terms of their relative strength or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that reveal combinations of stronger and weaker semantic gravity and semantic density together. These codes shift and move over time as semantic gravity and semantic density strengthen and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of semantic gravity and semantic density – where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example – are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following section. It should be noted, here, though, that semantic gravity and semantic density do not necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.

How does it read now? A little easier to follow? I think so. The thing that concerns me about acronyms, even the accepted ones, is that readers don’t always read out the term in full in their heads. Sometimes, they don’t read ‘SADAC’ or ‘semantic gravity’. Sometimes they read ‘ESS-AYE-DEE-CEE’ or ‘ESS-GEE’. And the more they do the latter, the less readerly the text becomes. Your reader can end up feeling alienated from the meanings you are making, and communicating to them. Readers who have to work too hard to make sense of your text, and remember what all the acronyms stand for, are likely not going to enjoy the reading experience.

I have become, through the process of writing and revising this, and a couple of other papers, more aware of the ‘acronymising’ I do in my writing. I have also become more aware of it in my students’ texts, as I read and offer them feedback. And, my observations and writing practice have led me to this advice:

  1. Try to stick only to the accepted, known acronyms, as far as possible in your text. Try not to create acronyms where there don’t need to be any (like SA instead of South Africa, or HE instead of higher education). 
  2. Put yourself in your reader’s head, and read your text aloud. Do the acronyms work, or does it sound odd, or confusing after a while to have as many as you have included? 
  3. Always define the term you are acronymising first – this is basic, but often something writers forget to do, especially when they know their field well. 
  4. I try to create text-by-text guidelines for myself – if I have a long text, like a thesis, I will use the acronyms carefully, and probably redefine them chapter by chapter to remind my reader what they mean. If I have a shorter text, like a paper, I won’t need to do this. I also try not to include too many acronyms, so I choose the ones that will be most useful and necessary in terms of saving words and typing time, and signalling my knowledge of the field 

I hope this advice helps you to consider your use of acronyms, and focus less on making your job as a writer easier, and a little more on making your text reader-friendly, and your meanings accessible and clear.

Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

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Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.

On the use of transition words and phrases in your writing

Words can be magical tools for creating meaning and relating ideas. The right tools can transform your writing from basically getting the job done, to being elegant, well-crafted and persuasive. One of these tools – a fairly misunderstood and under-rated one in my view – is transition words or phrases.

Transition words/phrases are those which connect different parts of your text together, and indicate connections and that awfully vague thing, ‘flow’. Think here of ‘however’, ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’, ‘furthermore’ and so on. In undergraduate writing courses I used to teach, these were presented to students as lists (see below for a typical example).

Students were generally told that they needed a selection of the right transition words in their text – varied but not too varied – to make their writing coherent, interesting, and engaging to the reader. In most cases, this was all that was said about them. So, many students (as witnessed in their writing), got the message that transition words must be used to make writing less boring and flat. They were seen as a discrete tool, and not clearly connected to authorial voice or positionality in text. They were also, therefore, often misused. I read a great deal of postgraduate writing these days, as well as papers being prepared for journal submission, and often observe that transitional words and phrases are misused, or at least poorly used considering their potential power in transforming our writing. The wrong message seems to have been passed on.

I am going to argue that transitional words and phrases need to be understood as connected, very closely, to authorial voice and positionality. They help you, in other words, to position your study and your argument in relation to the studies and arguments you are citing and building on (or critiquing) in your work. Thus, before you selecting from a list a word that sounds right, just because you need to have transitions in your text (something I think especially undergraduates may do), you need to understand the work that transitions actually do in creating a coherent text. This will enable you to make better choices, and begin to see the role that writing tools like this play in text creation. They are not discrete and stand-alone in any way.

Firstly, transition words can be used, quite powerfully, to indicate your position on, or view of, the work of other scholars in relation to your own work. Look at this example, taken from p.728 of a paper by Susan Carter.

Categorisation into genre usefully signals expectation as to what kind of social practice is being critiqued, interrogated and refined. Literary genre categorisation demonstrates this. Revenge tragedy implies an imbalance of power that renders justice by law impossible. Feudal loyalties demand vengeance. It is a masculinist genre. Women, passive and peripheral, will have their name linked with frailty. Women are usually efficacious in comedies, however. Because these end in marriage, and because women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society, they are a little more causal in comedies. They come to represent the natural world with its own problematically essentialist and positivist truths. The marriages of comedy typically reinstate patriarchy, but women are enfolded within it rather than drowned off stage. Genre categorisation enables analysis that penetrates into the social efficacy of literature. Tragedies typically comment on male loyalties and homosocial responsibilities; comedies, on heterosexual power relations, intergenerational responsibilities.

Let’s rewrite with no transitional words (highlighted in orange).

Categorisation into genre usefully signals expectation as to what kind of social practice is being critiqued, interrogated and refined. Literary genre categorisation demonstrates this. Revenge tragedy implies an imbalance of power that renders justice by law impossible. Feudal loyalties demand vengeance. It is a masculinist genre. Women, passive and peripheral, will have their name linked with frailty. Women are usually efficacious in comedies. These end in marriage, and women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society. They are a little more causal in comedies. They come to represent the natural world with its own problematically essentialist and positivist truths. The marriages of comedy typically reinstate patriarchy. Women are enfolded within it rather than drowned off stage. Genre categorisation enables analysis that penetrates into the social efficacy of literature. Tragedies typically comment on male loyalties and homosocial responsibilities; comedies, on heterosexual power relations, intergenerational responsibilities.

I have again marked the implicated text in orange. Do you see what removing the transitions has done? Each sentence now reads more like a statement – it is to be taken as fact in the way it is written. When you introduce the connectors, like ‘however’ and ‘but’ which are oppositional or point out an alternative or contrary view, and  ‘because’ which is causative, you introduce the writer to the reader. In text one, you can hear Susan making an argument, through her use of transitions.

Women are usually efficacious in comedies, however. Because these end in marriage, and because women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society, they are a little more causal in comedies.

She is making a claim in the first sentence, and showing you why this claim has validity in the second.

In the second text, with transitions edited out, it is harder to hear Susan-the-author making an argument:

Women are usually efficacious in comedies. These end in marriage, and women bring to marriage the futurity of unborn children and the renewal of society. They are a little more causal in comedies.

These are presented here as simple statements, drawn from a neutral, invisible source. From this simple example, then, you can hopefully see how using transitions is about more than simply writing a text that is pleasant to read. Transitions, used carefully and judiciously, place you as the author visibly in your text, as you craft and defend your argument.

Secondly, they do also create a text that is more pleasant to read, as they make your authorial voice clearer. Look at this example from p.414 of a paper by Sara Cotterall.

Viewing doctoral learning as participation in a (scholarly) COP highlights the centrality of writing in scholarly activity, and focuses awareness on how, when and where writing is attended to in the doctorate. The COP perspective suggests that newcomers’  writing expertise will develop as they observe experts writing and produce their own texts, supported by advice and feedback. Therefore doctoral students’  access to such opportunities is critical. However, in addition to practice, writing expertise also depends on familiarity with the perspectives, discourse and resources of the COP. How are doctoral researchers encouraged to acquire this awareness? Finally, the COP perspective is based on the notion that learning fundamentally changes who a person is. If we accept that doctoral education is ‘ as much about identity formation as it is about knowledge production’  (Green 2005, 153), how does doctoral writing contribute to the construction of scholarly identity?

Let’s take the highlighted transitional words and phrases out, and see how it feels to read both versions.

Viewing doctoral learning as participation in a (scholarly) COP highlights the centrality of writing in scholarly activity. It focuses awareness on how, when and where writing is attended to in the doctorate. The COP perspective suggests that newcomers’  writing expertise will develop as they observe experts writing and produce their own texts, supported by advice and feedback. Doctoral students’  access to such opportunities is critical. Writing expertise depends on familiarity with the perspectives, discourse and resources of the COP. How are doctoral researchers encouraged to acquire this awareness? The COP perspective is based on the notion that learning fundamentally changes who a person is. If we accept that doctoral education is ‘ as much about identity formation as it is about knowledge production’  (Green 2005, 153), how does doctoral writing contribute to the construction of scholarly identity?

Without any transitions, the text reads less smoothly – there is just a series of statements. The writer is not connecting these together for the reader, to show complementarity or opposition of the viewpoints or arguments selected as evidence or information for their own argument. So, there is no clear authorial voice, and there is a ‘jumpy’ text that relays information without indicating the value of, or relationships between parts of, the selected information.

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Transitional words and phrases are powerful tools for crafting coherent writing that positions you as the author within in your text, as you craft your argument in relation to the field you are working within. They are part of a writing toolbox that helps us to make and position our own argument, and highlight our contribution to knowledge as we weave the different strands of our thinking into a coherent paper or thesis. Thus, rather than simply selecting from a list, think carefully about what you want to say, how to connects to what other scholars are saying, and where you want or need to position yourself. Then choose the words or phrases that best capture your intention. Play around with different options – writing is a creative act that requires trying and failing and trying again. But as you play, keep your eye, always, on your argument, and how it relates to the work of other scholars in your field.

Writing mantras: do they work to get you through the Hard Days?

In my last post, I talked about the struggle of getting back into my writing. Last year was predominantly The Year for Other People’s Writing, and it has been so long since I have created any writing of my own that I feel my mojo is well and truly gone. I hope – I think – this cannot be so, but I am having a hard time finding, or creating it. I have resorted to using writing mantras. I am not really a platitude kind of person – I am not optimistic enough for that – but I am finding, to my surprise, that they are helping me through the Hard Days.

I have three I am relying on, and when writing it awful, and hard, and clunky and just painful, I remind myself of these mantras, and find that I feel a little less cross with myself, and less like to berate myself for no longer being able to write effectively. Most of the days right now are Hard Days, so I am leaning quite heavily on my platitudes. I though I would share these, in the hope that if you are having too many Hard Days, you too may find encouragement. At the very least, you are in good company!

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  1. First drafts don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be written.

Put another, cruder way: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’ (Hemingway). I like to remind myself that this is true. No first draft ever made it into print without substantial changes, revisions and rethinking. NO ONE is that good, not even your academic or fiction-writing idols. If I look at all the papers and chapters I have published, the minimum number of drafts is about 6. Before submission. So, really, expecting this first draft of the chapter I am currently clunking around with to be anything other than a mess is unrealistic. And being unrealistic leads to being mean to myself, and being mean to myself leads to further writing paralysis, and not enjoying the writing. This is a bad slope to ski down.

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2. You can’t build a fairycastle without all the bricks (and windows, doors and turrets.

This one is my own creation, and I am quite chuffed with it. I keep trying to edit before I have written, second guessing my wording, and sentence length and choice of sub-heading. It’s so counter-productive. I know this, but I do it too much anyway. This leads to more paralysis, and more bad feelings. I am trying to remind myself that I need to put all the pieces in one place first, before I can reorganise them, tinker with the placement of the windows, and so on. So, in other words, just write. Even if it sounds clunky, and you can see that the sentences are too long, and the words are not the right ones. You can refine, move things around, edit the structure and so on once you have all of the pieces you will need. This also reminds me, again, why planning ahead of starting to write is so important – it gives you a sense of which pieces you need to collect together.

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3. A journey of 1000 miles begins (and continues) with single steps.

Another version of this is to say that writing anything of substance and around 6000 words is not a sprint. You cannot do it all super fast – it’s a marathon and the execution takes time. But it starts with a single step. One pomodoro. 200 words. A plan. And then another step and another, and the more you do, the easier it gets to keep going, because the end of the journey draws closer. Yes, you will flag, and be tired, and have Hard Days inbetween the easier ones, as in any long-ish journey. But, you have to keep stepping forward, even if some days you literally do one thing, while on others you fly along the trail a bit. The slogging and plodding is all part of the process.

I guess I could close with one more mantra that underpins all of these: Trust the Process. I have done this before – created a piece of publishable writing from scratch. And I have survived all the Hard Days that went it that process. I know, if I do the work I will get to where I want to be. I know it will be awful at first and then get a bit easier. It is a process I have been able to trust and follow through before, so I can do it again now. Trust the process, collect the pieces, wade through the shite writing that has started me off, and start walking towards the destination, step by step.

What mantras sustain you through your Hard Days? Please share in the comments if you have some inspiration for the rest of us :-).

New year, new writing plans, new chances to ‘fail better’

Samuel  Beckett famously wrote: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. Maybe he said it out loud. Nevertheless, he made a valuable, and often underestimated, observation here that applies really well to writing and research. I find, and I know many others do too, that writing and research are not really about trying, failing and then succeeding, but about trying, failing, learning, and then failing better (and on and on).

If I could rewrite my PhD thesis now, there are a few things I would do differently, better, having learned so much from the one I did write, which was better than the MA thesis that came before that, which improved on the Honours mini-thesis. You see where I am going here, I think.

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Every paper I write is hopefully better than the paper before. But to improve – to try again and fail better – you need to become a more conscious and reflexive writer. You need to learn about yourself as a writer, take on advice, feedback and critique, and work to make changes and improvements where these are warranted. Otherwise you may just feel like you are trying and failing, without the bit about getting better at it.

This takes some work. I like, in my writing courses, to think about the possible learning in two areas: personal habits and needs, and writing habits and needs.

Area one, for me, involves things like: where and when I write most productively, the kind of atmosphere I need to write, how I react to and take in critique and feedback, and the time it takes me to read, think, write, revise and so on. I do best in the mornings, but I have a friend who is writing fiend between 11pm and 5am. I like to write in bed, but my back prefers that I sit properly at a desk – and actually, I am more focused and disciplined if I am at a desk and my back is not aching. I like quiet – not dead quiet – but loud noises are distracting and annoying. I also have ‘writing mixes’ on my iPod, and I plug these in and listen while I type when I really need to block out the ambient noise around me. I write fairly quickly, but only after a fairly long period of reading, thinking and scribbling in my research journal, and plotting outlines, so paper writing schedules need to take this all into account. These are the kinds of things it is useful to become very aware of, and work with, rather than against. So, trying to work in a noisy cafe, at lunchtime, and get a paper done in 2 weeks would be madness for me, and I would fail worse. But, if I recognise my personal (writing) needs and limitations, and work with those, I could (and do) more often than not fail better – in other words, get my writing done.

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In terms of writing needs, here I include actual nut and bolts stuff. For example: have you been critiqued (as I have many times) for writing overly long sentences? Do you use too conversational and colloquial a tone, so that your writing sounds flippant at times? Do you under, or over-explain theoretical or technical terminology? Do you overuse certain words and phrases? Do you over, or under-punctuate your writing? If you have received feedback on your writing on these, or similar issues related to style, tone, referencing, and so on that can reveal tendencies or patterns – such as my overly long sentences and occasionally overly chatty or strident tone – you can start to moderate your writing, trimming the longer sentences, making the tone more formal, less strident, more engaging without being chatty, and so on. You can begin to be aware of your writing from your readers’ perspective, and anticipate how they may take in your text, and what needs to be there, or not there, to make it more readerly, and enjoyable to engage with.

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The main thing I want to learn this year, as a writer, is not how to succeed: it is how to keep learning from my failures (and the things I get right), so that I can keep working, keep trying, and fail better, and better each time I write a paper, or a book chapter, or a proposal, or a blogpost even. I think, perhaps, if we change our writing mindset from success versus failure, to failing better each time, versus learning little to nothing about our writerly selves and writing, we could all probably be kinder to ourselves, and become happier, less anxious writers. Am I right on this one? I hope so.

Happy 2018 everyone!