Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Academic writing, Torill's take on it.

There's a blogpost making the rounds in social media about the "psychology" of common writing advice. I actually quite like most of the tips in the article, and some of the reasons, but I am not sure if I would claim the reasons are all that psychological. But let's have a peek at the advice.
"Write shorter" is always a good idea, even with patient readers. Of course, "short" is relative, and the problem isn't really that it's easier to type words than to delete them. I can delete a whole document in one go. The problem is to prioritize. When cutting, what can I cut without removing a vital piece of information? With the disastrous memory of removing a chapter my supervisor felt was redundant, just to have the examiner ask for exactly the topic covered in that chapter, I don't take "make this shorter" advice from just any odd editor, thank you very much. So if I was to rewrite "why you fail" I'd say: Because you don't know what is important in your own text. And in "how to fix" I'd ask you to look at your initial reasoning for writing this at all, your hypothesis, your question, your topic line. If it isn't clarifying your original goal, throw it out. Or change your goal and throw out the rest.

"Shorten your sentences." This is solid advice for academic writers in particular, and quite a few non-academic. I'll point to advice one, reason one, and stop this paragraph now.

"Rewrite passive voice." Absolutely, but not because of your insecurity. Or, in a way, but it comes by way of power structures. We believe that if we can make it look like something happens "naturally", without human agency, it appears inevitable. At the same time - sometimes it is absolutely vital to be able to use the English (or other language) passive, and if you are less than passive about that, here's an interesting article for you.

"Eliminate weasel words." Obviously not an academic writing this. While I am in favour of reducing the amount of "maybe", "perhaps" and "under the right circumstance we can understand this as", there are cases when these words are not weak, but true. This isn't a bad science article, even if it has a few sensationalist phrases, but it downplays a few of the important aspects of the more expansive report. The main thing is the usual problem: correlation is not causation. In the study they have found that expert gamers have more activity in certain parts of the brain than more casual gamers. Now they are building on theories and previous studies on brain development to assume that this is a result of gaming, and they are doing a longitudinal study to see if that is true. This in order to test if the truth is that you need an active and well developed brain in order to compete at the top level of gaming. That won't snag the readers though. "You need to be really smart in order to do well in gaming" isn't exactly news, considering that you need to be really smart to do well anywhere. So the "weasel words" get eliminated, and the message becomes something along the line of "you will be smarter if you play games, says research" - which isn't what they are saying.  I think I'll keep that room for error in my writing until I am absolutely certain I am right. Then I'll say it in a short, active sentence in a clear, compressed abstract.

"Replace jargon with clarity." This is eternal truth. However - pick your audience. Sometimes jargon is clarity. If you had read Eco's The role of the reader you know the distinction between the model reader and the empirical reader. We can replace that term with "try to make your model reader and empirical reader overlap." Of course, to do so I use jargon, but this is a jargon that, combined with (Eco 1979:7), allows my model reader to quickly grasp what Eco used a book to express. I'd need to write a few books myself to make my students grasp the distinction if I couldn't point them at Eco. However, don't mess around with the Eco understanding of readers if you want to tell the PR department to identify your target audience though.

"Cite numbers effectively." Yes. Totally agree here.

"Use I, we and you." This one is tricky. Not because I disagree, but because removing the first person is an exercise in taking on another point of view, and positioning the reasons for the argument beyond "me". "I said so, now believe me" is not a good argument, unless I have asked you how you feel about something. But I do land on the side of using the first person, because it underlines that there is no neutral, objective machine that produces this text - I do so, and I take responsibility for it, errors and all. Here, have a reference to somebody who discusses this more in depth, ironically anonymously from of Duke University writing studio.

"Move key insights up." This is journalism 101, and the opposite of clickbait. Great advice for introductions, and why the introduction should be written last. I don't think we ignore it because we are trained to write deductively, but because it is through writing we actually do the work of deduction. It happens because the writing process is when we think through the material, and so the revelation at the end is a reflection of the process.

"Cite examples". OK, this one made me giggle. Academic writing is more "CITE EVERYTHING". Also "spend half your time on research." Nah, it's more like "spend your life on research and teaching, then put everything on hold while you hide out in a secret parallel universe because if you used actual time on the writing, you could do some more research." If casual writing is research low, academic writing is a matter of cramming enough research in there.

"Give us some signposts" - yeah, I am fine with that. It's what you should do in the introduction.

Now it's time to offer you Torill's revised ten tips. It's a result of thinking about this through writing, not the goal of my writing. Here, on this blog, I am the model reader.

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