Notes on an Academic Writing Class

While I visited UC Berkeley, I took the opportunity to follow a writing class aimed at visiting researchers. Natalie Reid, who has written Getting Published in International Journals: Writing Strategies for European Social Scientists, gave four lectures on the basics of punctuation, editing (your own text) and revising, organization and how to structure arguments, and a curious topic she called journal analysis. In her lectures, Reid drew on her experience as a professional editor and writer and supplied illustrative examples and instructive stories of writing gone good and bad.  And she made no mistake reminding us of her book throughout the course.

Ever since I entered academics, I have entertained an interest in good writing. I found Reid’s lectures a useful reminder of all those small things important but that is easily forgotten in the heat of the writing. Below, I have transcribed some of my notes from the lectures (in the order they appear in my notebook). Some are important, some are good, some I disagree with, and some are just great quotes.

  • English is not a language, but a language group, for example with differences between US English and British English. Reid repeated this message endlessly. Some of the repetition could with advantage have been traded for some important details on these differences, of which Reid said very little.
  • ‘Writing is thought made visible.’ (Famous quote, but I failed to take note of who said or wrote it.) Implication: Clear writing cannot arise from unclear thinking. McCloskey discusses the point at some length somewhere (in her Rhetorics, I think), and goes on to maintain that writing is thinking and thinking is writing. McCloskey’s point is that they are not unconnected processes and that they must and should happen in parallel.
  • A definition of Rhetoric: Organisation and strategies speakers and writers use to affect their audience. (And it is a two-way street: the audience affects the rhetoric.)
  • The reader should not have to think (by themselves), only absorb and consider.
  • Good academic writing (in the Anglo-Saxon tradition or whatever) follows Aristotelian logic.
  • Reid advanced the following advice for how to structure an article (or argument): Tell the reader what you are going to tell him; tell him; tell him what you told him. McCloskey (one of my rhetorical heroes, as my hypothetical readers may know) argues against such unnecessary repetition and I agree with McCloskey (see her Economical Writing if you think you disagree).
  • Rewrite.
  • Murphy’s Law will strike: If there is any chance the reader can misunderstand, he will.
  • A good sentence is clear on first reading.
  • We suffer from tunnel vision when we write. (We only see our meaning, not what we are actually writing; we should try and revise with a cool eye.)
  • Less is More: Make every word tell (see Strunk & White’s Elements of Style). Shorten structure words (like due to the fact that; in view of the above; in the course of).
  • Avoid too long sentences: You should be able to read a sentence out loud in one breath.
  • Avoid the common ‘previous literature’ (of course it is previous, what else?).
  • ‘It is’ and ‘there is’ is bad writing. (I find this advice hard to follow, by the way. What am I supposed to write instead when I want to make the reader aware of the existence of whatever?)
  • One of my favorites: Sound like an expert (reduce hedging).
  • Editing for clarity: avoid ambiguity; use the active voice, check modifiers, use parallel structure; check punctuation.
  • The solution to vagueness is (often?) repetition.
  • Use not ‘this’ and ‘these’ by themselves; attach the appropriate noun.
  • Only use ‘it’ when there is only one word it can refer to.
  • ‘Which’ and ‘that’ can only refer to the word immediately before them. Further, ‘that’ (with no comma) for essential information; ‘which’ (with comma) for nonessential information.
  • ‘Good writing is speech written down and then cleaned up’ (a Reid-quote, I presume).
  • Avoid the passive voice. It requires more words, it obfuscates the order of things and adds mental strain, and it is boring.
  • Watch modifiers. (This advice is also hard to follow as modifiers pop up all the time and seldom with a red flag.)
  • My notes on Reid’s lecturing on organisation and arguing in Aristotelian logic are unfortunately insufficient to be valuable.
  • Conclusions (the final part of an article) should derive solely and logically from the body of the article; no new arguments are to be introduced. If the journal in question has discussion and conclusions in the same section, conclusions are to come first and discussion second.
  • The abstract is the last thing to be written.
  • Outline, outline, outline. Reid laid out a strategy for outlining: 1. Write down the purpose statement in one sentence. 2. Write a (vertical) list of all things that goes into the article. No second-guessing: brain storm. 3. Do the entries on the list serve the purpose in step 1? Be critical, make everything fit the purpose. 4. Sort the list into  different sections. 5. Sort each section into a logical order. 6. Sort sections. (I actually tried this, but realized I did not know everything that was going into my paper. Not from the top of my head, at least. Step 2 has to be a deep exercise if Reid’s strategy is to be useful, I think.)
  • Revision: Is the language correct? Is stuff in the appropriate section? Do the argument support the conclusion? Boring or confusing? Counter all possible objections. Use an editor (a self-serving advice on Reid’s part, of course, but still not a bad advice). Follow journal guidelines.
  • Some advice on writing resubmission letters: Do not assume the editor remembers anything. ‘Echo’ comments before replies such that the editor do not have to check back to his original letter (in general, make the editor’s job as easy as possible). Use respectful language (can be trickier than one might think when one ain’t a native speaker).
  • On paragraph length: Language influences paragraph length. The British has a peculiar habit of writing long and short paragraphs in imperfect alternation. The Americans want their paragraphs to be no more than ten to twelve lines of type. But a journal may have its own ideas about paragraph length. McCloskey’s advice is that the paragraph is the unit of thought (or something); one idea (or perhaps argument) per paragraph. Some of my arguments certainly require more than twelve lines of type, but I am of course a rather poor writer.
  • Reid spent quite a lot of time on what she called journal analysis and implicated that serious scholars habitually spend considerable time on journal analysis every time they are about to submit something. Journal analysis helps you decide on where to submit work, and how to decrease the chance of rejection. Journal analysis covers several pages in my notebook, but I am not convinced of its usefulness. The process suggested by Reid would take too much time, in particular as much of the process is far removed from the actual writing.
  • Suggested literature (popped up at different times throughout the course): Dictionary of Concise Writing (Rob. Hartwell Fiske; Ayn Rand’s book on writing. On Writing Well by Zinsser. Stephen King’s book on writing.

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2 Responses to “Notes on an Academic Writing Class”

  1. Wild Pronouns | Kvams Says:

    […] while we’re talking of style, ‘it is’ is bad style according to Natalie Reid. The sequence ‘to be not wild but tamed’ also seems graceless. Better perhaps is […]

  2. On Writing by Stephen King | Kvams Says:

    […] Reid made me aware of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in her academic writing class. I was reminded of it when Cal Newport reported that he re-reads On Writing every few years in […]

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