What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm for explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender are social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

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This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.

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 :-).

Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

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But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.

 

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!