Writing

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Many moons ago, I sat down to reply to an email. A really long email.

I poured my heart out. Not literally, of course. That would have been weird.

But it was a masterpiece of personal writing. I was confident that the recipient would have a life-changing moment as soon as they saw my delightful prose upon their screen.

The end was in sight as I started the final paragraph, wrapping up the loose ends and signing off with a “Broom Broom for now”. Don’t ask.

As I sat there, half typing, half grinning smugly at my genius, something rather annoying happened.

A power cut.

photo by Jacob Haas

NOOOOOOOO! (photo by Jacob Haas – CC BY-ND 2.0)

I lost everything. Over an hour of writing gone. Around two-thousand words never to be seen again. Yes, this was an era before auto-saving drafts were the norm. That type of thing was reserved for Microsoft Word. Ah, the memories!

Let’s say I was unhappy and leave it at that. In the end, my re-written reply was two short paragraphs and a mumbled annoyance that lamented the lack of a witty and wonderful response after the power went out. It probably made no sense to the person at the other end of the message. No matter; I didn’t care any more.

I write this as a warning to you when you’re tapping away in a state of flow. You’re in the zone and on top of the world. Piffling stuff like saving the document doesn’t occur to you when everything’s going so well.

And despite the auto-saving beauty of so much we do these days, I’m sure the one time you encounter disaster will be the one time that automatic life-saver isn’t there to help you.

For me, it was just an email. That hurt enough.

Imagine the horror if it was, say, one of your essays.

On an allnighter the day before it’s due in.

And you’ve already had an extension.

Please. Press save. Back it up. Do it now.

And breathe.

Everyone Needs To Stop Doing This

Plashing Vole tweeted:

“As the Dissertation God for one of my subjects, the words ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ are now banned due to unthinking abuse.” [Source]

Apparently, some dissertations that had been submitted for marking contained this type of saying:

  • “Everyone is on Twitter.”
  • “Everyone knows X.”

It’s best to leave these sayings behind. Here’s why:

Crowd (photo by Redfishingboat (Mick O))

“It was amazing. Everyone was there.” – No. Not everyone. (photo by redfishingboat (Mick O))

Everyone is on Twitter

No. Not everyone. You know that really. It’s just a way of saying how popular Twitter seems to be. Surely everyone is using Twitter? But academia needs to be pedantic. Your coursework is not the time for casual remarks.

This isn’t the same as stating information that is generally regarded to be the case without need to explain further. More on that below.

To make a point, you need a reference. Twitter statistics are hard to come by in any up to date and accurate measure, especially in academic papers and textbooks. However, go to the source and you can make a good start.

Twitter’s own Twitter account posted on 18 December 2012 that there are more than 200 million active users per month. They give no further evidence, so it isn’t definitive (even if they say so themselves), but it is a good start if you want to talk about how many people use the service.

Similarly, if Twitter announced that everyone was using Twitter, you could reference that and find examples of people who do not use the service. That’s what research is all about…Although I’m pretty sure Twitter aren’t about to say that the entire human population on earth is now using Twitter.

Everyone knows X

Some information can be referred to and used without referencing. Usually when there is wide agreement, nothing controversial, and generally understood far beyond academic circles.

In these rare cases, I’m pretty sure the information won’t involve ‘everyone’ or ‘everything’. That’s another clue not to use those words.

If the detail is genuinely accepted and requires no further referencing, you can get rid of “everyone knows” anyway. First, because it’s not literally true (it’s unlikely to be stored in a knowledge bank in the brain at birth), and second, because they are pointless words. If everyone accepts it, why do you need to tell us? After all, you’re telling us what we already know.

But why am I telling you about this? I thought everyone knew not to do it… 😉

There are variations on this. When you start writing things like, “People say…” and “Many researchers note…“, remember that you need to be specific. Give examples. Refer to the researchers. Don’t call them ‘people’ or ‘researchers’ at all. Name them outright and give them pride of place.

Every time you find yourself writing along these lines, you have a way forward. Take the offending remarks and look for a way to reference the information instead. You’ll get a useful footnote in and you’ll show that you’ve looked for the detail. What first looked like a throwaway comment has suddenly become potential for a better mark. Not a bad incentive for dropping ‘everyone’ from the writing.

Practice or Flawless?

I like Pat Thomson’s comments on academic writing. It’s rare to think of writing as a process you practice and fine-tune before getting the best results.

Instead, you sit down and your internal editor rushes you to be instantly perfect. Sometimes a flash of brilliance comes about straight away, but not often.

Thomson says, “We all assume that we ought to be able to just do whatever writing task comes before us”. However, she continues, “we would never assume this of music for instance”.

Anyone can play guitar... Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Anyone can play guitar… Perfectly? Straight away? (photo by ginnerobot)

Writing a song may start with a few random chords or a stab at some lyrics. As you go along, you get more adventurous, add better chords, change words, and pick away until you’re satisfied. On the odd occasion, a song-writer may strike up a riff out of nowhere and get a song finished in minutes. And, like with writing, that’s rare.

With music, we’re aware that you need to practice. It’s important to practice how to play an instrument and it’s important to practice as you compose new material.

Yet with writing, perfect feels possible. No, wait, perfect feels NECESSARY.

Why?

I talked about 750words a while back. 750words is one way to let a stream of writing happen without getting bogged down with the finer detail. Just get on with writing and edit later.

Writing and editing are two different things.

Writing should be practice, all the time.

Okay, it’s more difficult in an exam. But even exams are best handled with plans. Before you write your answer, it’s handy to make a few notes for preparation and getting an order.

Outside the exam setting, the writing is the practice. The editing is the crafting. The re-writing is a combination of practice and crafting.

Telling you to ‘just do it’ is useful and misleading in equal doses. Useful because you’re getting words out and the practice has started. Misleading because writing isn’t just about random words on a page.

As you practice (i.e. as you write), you should still attempt to be clear. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’ll only confuse yourself later.

James Hayton of 3 Month Thesis says “you aren’t doing it wrong if you’re producing work you’re happy with! You are doing it wrong if you end up with a scrambled mess of half-baked chapters to sort out later”.

The take home point is this: Just getting the words on the page is not enough. It needs to be part of your bigger picture plan. Writing is practice, and so is editing. Everything is practice until you’ve finished.

Remember, ‘finished’ doesn’t mean ‘perfect’. Simply writing words doesn’t help you improve. Making use of those words and achieving clarity as you move along does.

Just write, so long as you understand why you’re writing and what you’re trying to achieve. Your inner editor will wince and scream at you, while you tell it to calm down as you’ll deal with that at a more convenient moment. That moment isn’t in a month or two, when you’ve forgotten what you were doing. However, that moment is at a different point to the writing.

Hayton calls advice to ‘just get words on the page’ as “the worst thesis writing advice ever“. That might sound harsh, but he’s right. Without context, the advice stinks. Give it context and know *why* you’re writing like that.

NOTE: I wrote this post without editing. I wanted to get the words on the page.

But…I had an idea of what I wanted to write. There was context. It may not be an academic text, but the same should apply for many types of writing. So long as there’s context!

For this post, the idea originated from reading Pat Thomson’s piece that I mentioned at the start. I considered what I wanted to talk about for a minute or two. In the process, I remembered my 750words post and looked for James Hayton’s piece on writing advice, because I thought it would fit. Thankfully, it did.

Armed with this, I started writing. It didn’t matter what words came out, because I had a purpose and I’d found enough context. The only editing was on the fly, when there was an obvious change in my head, moments after I’d typed the initial words.

I’m sure this post could be re-written and better crafted. But it took very little time and it still makes sense. That’s what I wanted to get across.

I don’t always write in this way, but it’s another way to practice. There is no single way to write and there is no perfect sentence. With that in mind, you should cut yourself some slack and enjoy the writing process. A new sense of calm may well help your writing improve. Win-win!

Why you need to use references and citations

You’re told to give references in coursework, but do you know why they are so important?

A friend asked me if references were mainly for respect and ego purposes. They wondered if the point of citing the work of others was a bit like tipping your hat to them, or saying “Well done, kudos for the great academic work you published”.

Academic work has references for very different reasons, even though I’m sure many people would love to see their work being used elsewhere.

photo by Nick Sherman

photo by Nick Sherman

The real reasons for referencing/citation include:

  • Showing how widely you’ve read around the subject;
  • Demonstrating your understanding of the context and research up to this point;
  • Highlighting points of view that differ to yours;
  • Backing up your own points of view.

Another great explanation of why we reference is offered by Monash University:

“Referencing helps create a map of knowledge, a web of pathways in knowledge; and each researcher helps extend that knowledge. It means that we don’t have to find out everything for ourselves all over again; we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In effect, referencing multiplies knowledge exponentially.
“But scholarship depends not only on the sharing of knowledge but also on the questioning of knowledge. It relies on both the acknowledgement and critique of the work of other scholars.”

My friend was concerned that all these references felt like collusion. They asked, “If you reference too much, where is your own work?”

Using the work of others in coursework is not collusion. Think of it more as collaboration. You recognise what has gone before and give that work credit as you extend upon it or put it in a different context.

photo by Horia Varlan

photo by Horia Varlan

None of this has anything to do with plagiarism. Plagiarism is completely different. You plagiarise when you copy something word for word. You plagiarise when you take other people’s work and reword it as your own. You plagiarise when you don’t give the credit for an idea that doesn’t originate from you.

If I’d reworded the Monash explanation as my own in an academic essay, that would be plagiarism. If, instead, I talked about referencing creating a map of knowledge and gave a footnote to the Monash piece, that would be fine.

There’s no need to reference when the facts or theories are fairly common knowledge. The dates of major historical events, for instance, can be used as a given…Unless they are widely disputed or you are trying to dispute the dates yourself!

Instead of worrying that too many citations make it look as if you’ve done nothing yourself, be confident that a number of well-placed references will give more relevance to your work.

References are your friend. I didn’t realise this enough myself when it mattered and it sounds like there are other students out there in a similar position.

Remember the need to cite this way: You’re adding sources to support your own content, not someone else’s ego.