Sunday, August 31, 2008

Citation: A Rabbit Hole

Yesterday's blog entry got the following comment/question from Sarah:

I just remembered another rabbit hole of mine....Citations. short version-- I may have 6 texts that speak to incorporates progressive era reform, germ theory, race & immigration, so does that mean I list all 6 books whenever I summarize a concept that speaks about germ theory, or any of the other themes. The works aren't saying anything uniquely different from one another, I just don't want to be accused of plagarism or leaving out a critical text if I don't cite them all. BUT I also don't want to cite them all every time I make a claim covered by these texts especially when those claims are many pages apart from one another. I feel I'm in a rabbit hole with this one, do you have any suggestions to get out from it?

Since this is not the question of definition from yesterday's post (though obviously related), I figured I'd use it for today's (thanks for the subject, Sarah). My answer would be similar in character, though.

Let's start by looking at this in terms of what you want to accomplish, not in terms of what could go wrong. Now we see that part of the question shows that this situation is when you're trying to summarize (or define) a concept that is used/defined/discussed by others. As part of the discussion of the idea, you want to acknowledge the sources that you are aware of that define the idea (hence avoiding plagiarism).

What I would suggest is to try to frame the discussion of the concept in terms of a general group and an exemplar--something along the lines of:
"Concept X has been discussed, defined and described by several authors over the last three decades (AuthorA, 1980; Author B, 1985; Author C, 1990; Author D, 1995...). The concept, as described by these authors, conforms to a set of main points abut the concept that I will use as definitional in this dissertation/book. In order to discuss these main points, I will use AuthorA as an exemplar; discussion of the other authors would be similar."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Defining Terms

Language is malleable. Usage of words varies over time. At any given moment, there are any number of meanings that a word might have. Words are polysemous--they have many meanings--both historically and in the present.

When we write, we are trying to give voice to our thoughts--to put the ideas into words. Thus the words we are using represent our thoughts. And these words may not always fit. Sometimes we'll look for a word and find none that seem to suit us. do we then stop? Do we then give up and say "I can't find the word, therefore I must not have anything to say"? That would be one way of going about it. But frequently we use a word that is the best fit that we can find.

Now there may be sticklers out there who insist that a word means just what it means in the dictionary, but realistically, all writers do some definition of their own terms. We find words whose meaning is close enough, and we use them in a way that suits our work.

As writers we can then take time to define the term as we are using it. Such a definition may need to include some acknowledgment of other ways of using the word--especially uses of the words that are common in the discourse of your field.

By saying how we are using a term, and by explaining to our reader the usage we intend we are writing as responsible academic writers. This is a perfectly normal part of academic writing. This is even true if we want to use a term that might conflate some distinctions: we can, in defining our term, acknowledge the distinctions that we are cutting out of our discussion, and in so doing, both responsibly acknowledge complexity that exists in the discourse and at the same time keep our work focused on the material that is of greatest significance to us.

Definition can be a rabbit hole--there's a whole world to explore in the attempt to define a term. Each sentence we put forward in our definition can be seen as requiring its own explanation. When we try to incorporate all the different voices that have used a term and try to discuss the distinctions, we take on a project that is of massive scope--almost independent of the term that you wish to define. If we believe that words are meaningful in terms of their context (e.g., Charles Fillmore's theory of Semantic Frames), then different world views will often lead to different meanings of a word--even when the same or similar words are used in the definition--the underlying understanding of the world that shapes definition, means that the possible subtle (or not-so-subtle) definitions of different people will not match or mesh perfectly, and each attempted definition becomes embroiled in the need to explain a whole world view.

Sometimes definition can be relatively straightforward, but that's not usually the case for the terms we have to define. When writing, it's important to take the initiative on this sort of point: don't let yourself get bogged down in endless discussion of what the word can and does mean in other places and to other authors; focus on what the word means to you.

Here's the quote from an e-mail I sent to writer this morning who was dealing with the difficulty of pleasing an advisor with respect to a number of different terms that share close similarities, but also have distinctions:

Re: Terminology. I like to try to define my own terms and tell the reader "yes, I know that there are other ways to talk about this, and yes, I know that I may be conflating some theories that have important distinctions, and yes, I know I may be ignoring other theories that have important similarities, but for this paper, and for my work, I am defining the term in this general way, and may use similar terms as synonyms." The thing is, that if you really want to define terminology, that can be a huge rabbit hole: definition is problematic, and clearly distinguishing the subtle yet important differences between similar ideas can be time-consuming. If instead you head the reader off by saying "This is my usage, and I'm sensitive to other usages, but I'm still going to use the term this way," Then you can show the reader that you're sensitive to the important distinctions without being burdened by continual need to redefine terms, or to define new ones.

Generally speaking, by taking charge of the discussion and saying to the reader, "Yes, I see this alternate path to follow, but my choice is to continue down the path I was already on," the author shapes the reader's response by revealing both scholarship and a reasoned set of choices that guided construction of the work. A reader will generally feel more comfortable reading if he or she has the sense that the writer actually has a destination in mind.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Important to you

A friend forwarded me this link, knowing I worked with people on dissertations.

I particularly like his third point:


First of all, a dissertation topic must be important to you. If it is not important to you, then discard it and move on to another topic. If it does not seem important to anyone else yet, then do not worry quite yet. Sometimes, it takes time to communicate the importance of a dissertation topic to others. Sometimes, it takes time to articulate that importance out loud. As long as it continues to feel important, keep working on it. The clarity of communication will come sooner or later.

There are times when something seems important to you, but when others help you look at it, you can see that it is not as important as you thought it might be. Life is sometimes like this. Move on, but do not move on until you feel in your heart that you were wrong in the first place. It is better to be too bold than to be too timid in this case. All you risk losing is a little bit of extra time.

I often write about having a sense of purpose. This sense that the work is important is the same thing, I think. And I like the point that we can feel that something is important without necessarily being able to explicate the importance or eloquently put all our ideas into words.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Starter

There is, in most large motors, a starter. In cars that starter used to be a hand crank. Now there's a battery-powered electrical motor. Once the engine gets going, it starts to produce power and will run on its own with sufficient fuel. But getting started can be very difficult.

The engine is a good metaphor for productive behaviors. Sitting on the couch watching TV doesn't take much energy to start, but when you get up at the end, are you energized? Writing, and other types of 'work', take much more energy to get started. But, like an engine, they can generate some of their own energy once you get going. Sometimes work is draining, but often enough, we can get up from having worked feeling energized.

This seems true of a number of activities that one would think were more draining than not: athletics often leave one feeling exhilarated in addition to being tired. Many kinds of work have a similar effect.

Personally, with many of these activities, I don't engage because I fear putting in the energy necessary for the activity. And yet when I do engage--I force myself--I do find myself rewarded. For me this is most clearly played out in my running habit. Or almost-habit. Often I have no desire to run and I feel too tired; when I get myself going on such days I promise myself I'll keep the run short. And often on exactly those days, I find myself having a great run and going farther than I would have expected.

Writing can be difficult. There is no question that writing requires a lot of effort. But writing--especially writing about something that you care about--can also return its own sort of energy.

Too bad there's no battery-powered starter for a writer.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cheating Time

I didn't really write this on the 27th of August, but I did open the window, and so Blogger thinks that I wrote it on the 27th.
It allows me to cheat and pretend that I actually did write in my blog on the 27th. And when I look back, a few months from now, chances are that all I'll see is the fact that I did write the blog.

I didn't really have an intention when I wrote those first lines, but it does suggest to me something I like remembering: many of the imperfections of the moment fall away at the larger scale because we see the large-scale work, not the small scale work.

When we pick up someone else's work--a book, a paper, a dissertation--we are often impressed just by the mass of the thing--we look at the table of contents, the introduction, etc., and we see the work as a whole--and a completed whole is a worthy accomplishment. Have you ever read a book you thought unworthy of publication? And yet it is published--which is an accomplishment in itself. We can often criticize people who have been published as having sold out, but that doesn't mean that presenting oneself in a way that can be sold is any less difficult.

As we work on a project, we see the details of the immediate present. But when the work is completed, it will be a whole, and needs to be completed as such.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Wabi-Sabi and Silver Linings

Wabi-Sabi is a general philosophy associated with an aesthetic which, according to Wikipedia, "is sometimes described as one of beauty that is 'imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete' (according to Leonard Koren in his book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers)."

As a writer and philosopher, I cannot help but look at this aesthetic except as an extension of a more general philosophy (partly because the relationship between the Modernist aesthetic and philosophical positions--which are, after all, reflections of a general way of looking at the world--was an issue I considered at length in my dissertation)--please excuse the long digression--as I was saying Wabi-Sabi, as a philosophy, suits much of what I am see in the world
around and in the discourse of philosophy. In particular, notions of imperfection and incompleteness are of particular interest with respect to matters of logic, such as the ideas brought up by, among other things, Goedel's proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic (which has been interestingly and approachably covered in Hofstadter's "Goedel, Escher, Bach").

But I digress--What seems important to me, with respect to the problems facing the academic writer, is that our logic, our reasoning, and our work seem--from a logical perspective--to be fraught with imperfections completely independent of how hard we work on the problem. This is a very important logical issue for writers to recognize--especially if they're hung up on perfectionism: if it can't be perfect, then does that change how you react to it?

Beyond that, though, we see in Wabi-Sabi an aesthetic that valorizes the imperfection. And this aesthetic principle is also translatable to the idea of building an academic argument: academic arguments cannot be logically perfect. Wabi-Sabi allows us to see the beauty of these imperfections--which may help with our writing a limitations section in the results, or a representation of opposing views in the literature review. There is beauty (and strength) in an argument that recognizes its own weaknesses.

Seeing imperfection as something beautiful, or at least as part of a beautiful thing, is a matter of perspective and focus. It is something that we have some control over. And this is what brings me to silver linings: every cloud has a silver lining, so the saying goes, and Wabi-Sabi says that everything beautiful has an imperfection. We can see the beauty if we look for it--the "sri vision" that I wrote about a few days ago--or we can focus our attention on the things that are ugly and imperfect, and on how that ugliness and imperfection are problems.

Writer's block, and dissatisfaction with one's own work, often rely on our ability to focus on the dark cloud, or our ability to see the imperfection as detracting from our work.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ebb and Flow

Some days are more productive than others.
Some days I repeat myself.
Sometimes I just don't feel like I have much that is original to say at all.

Sometimes I reassure myself that I don't need to say anything original if I can find something interesting that someone else said. Sometimes I don't particularly want to do the research to find something interesting that someone else said about writing; although I read about writing frequently, I do not constantly read about writing.

Sometimes I wonder about the pressure we put on ourselves to work, and I wonder whether I work hard enough. I have mixed feelings about what sorts of expectations to have with a writer: do I push them to finish in a fixed time? My perspective has been to push people to develop a good relationship with the work--one that is more resistant to the ebb and flow, because even in the phases where making progress is relatively difficult, some progress is made. But to the extent that such a focus also aims at changing the person in a fairly profound way, I sometimes wonder if I ought not push more aggressively toward completion. I wonder if this is what distinguishes me from the aggressive, go-getter types who seek to actually be a professor.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Another Quickie

Once again I don't know what to write, and honestly don't really want to write at all.
But, by writing now, I anchor the habit; I keep the project moving. Tomorrow will come and I'll be able to look back and say "at least I gave it ten minutes." I may not like what I write, but at least I will have tried. And a month from now, I'll be able to look back and see that I did something today--even if it isn't great, and in that context, I'll see that I worked on the blog consistently, and that some entries are better than others--some long, careful, insightful, and others short, and hopefully sweet and hopefully insightful in their own way.

Just the effort to write something new. To put new words on the page, to see what comes out of that effort. Every day won't be equally productive, but in order to get the highly productive days, you have to be willing to face the days that aren't productive. By trying, you keep yourself engaged.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"Sri Vision"

This is going to be quick.

Today my yoga teacher was talking about "sri vision"--which, I suspect, but do not know, may be her own use of the idea of "sri".
In any event she was speaking of it as a way of looking at things that notices their beauty and their goodness--an all-encompassing vision that looks at the whole, rather than analyzing and breaking the vision down into little parts.

It is very easy, she was saying, to focus in on details, on pieces, and to lose sight of the larger picture, and thus to lose sight of the beauty in that larger picture.

While the notion of "sri vision" is relevant in a number of different ways in the context of academic writing, I was thinking of it particularly in terms of the loss of enthusiasm and the loss of the sense of significance that can occur, especially if your ideas--or your presentation or ideas--is treated harshly and subjected to destructive criticism.

Which reminds me that my yoga teacher specifically mentioned constructive vs. destructive criticism--something that had slipped my mind until I wrote the phrase "destructive criticism"--the difference between the two, she suggested, was the presence of "sri vision"--a sense or and appreciation of the whole, and the beauty that is inherent in the work.

I don't know if one has a choice, but it seems to me that it would be better to use sri vision, and remain passionate about a project than it would be to become jaded and cynical. Wherever we look, we can see problems if we look closely enough. Can we see the beauty in things as well?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

House Cleaning Analogy (2)

This is a brief follow up to what I was writing yesterday--taken from an e-mail exchange with a writer (who is probably going to read this blog entry--so thanks for being smart and interesting--you know who you are).

You say "all I ever wanted was to be proud of the work I complete". What if you said, instead, "what I want is to be proud that I completed my work (work which many who begin don't finish, and which most who aspire to will never even qualify to begin)."? What if you could take pride in completing an awkward draft on schedule?

I have this as a follow up on the house cleaning analogy, because I think it's the same principle: we need to be able to do what we can in the time allotted and be proud of having done our best. One neat thing about being proud of doing our best, is that if we work hard, then we have something to be proud of--regardless of what others say. If we depend on the product of our effort turning out well, then we are much more at the mercy of outside circumstances, and much more vulnerable to the complaints/criticisms of others.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

House Cleaning Analogy

Suppose that your home was a mess and you had one hour before a visitor arrived--a visitor that you wished very much to impress? You might start planning an excuse for the mess, but chances are you would also be frantically cleaning as quickly as possible, trying to present the best face possible. You would not let the fact that you didn't have time to clean everything perfectly stop you from trying to at least present a decent appearance.

Suppose you went to take an exam. And in that exam you had to answer questions that you had never seen before. What would you do? You would do your best to answer, right? Presumably, if you're writing a dissertation, you managed to answer exam questions quite successfully many times over the course of years.

What if you treated your dissertation, or pieces of your dissertation, in a similar fashion? What if you wrote them in an attempt to put together a complete piece in the time you have allotted for that?

Of course, one problem with the dissertation is the distant future. When you have only one hour, or three, before the hammer comes down, it's easier to maintain focus. The dissertation is months, maybe even years away. This distant horizon is problematic--it allows one to choose to defer the effort required to write. Or perhaps it allows one to defer the fear associated with writing. And thus we have procrastination.

But I think this is something that we want to work around, and that we can change our relationship. It is a matter, I think, of looking at the writing itself as an exploration--an attempt.

Suppose one sets a task--perhaps that task is to write an abstract, perhaps it is to write an introduction to a chapter, or to write a section of a chapter--we can call that task X. One then has a choice about how to approach that task. One choice might be to say "X must be accomplished perfectly." This choice, obviously, is the perfectionist approach that is so strongly related to procrastination (see, e.g., Fiore, The Now Habit). Another choice would be to say "I will attempt to complete X in a set time; I will cover all the parts of X, even if there are some imperfections." I would suggest this choice is basically the course of action we choose in the tight moments, when feedback will be immediate and it is obviously better to do what we can in the allotted time than to do nothing.

One thing about this approach for the writer is that writing itself is a process of learning, so if we decide to take the "exam" approach, and we generate a poor draft in a short time, we still have generated something to work with, and we have learned from the process. And then we simply try again. If we expect and plan on the iteration--the revision of our work--then it becomes much more sensible and reasonable to choose to try to put something down--even if that something is going to be problematic.

When we enter our house and it's a mess, and a visitor is coming, we know what to do to try to make the house look right. We know that we're striving for appearances. We may stuff things into closets where they don't belong, but we're trying to satisfy an image.

When we sit down to an exam that asks an essay question, we know that we want to try to create and organized and coherent answer to the question--who hasn't had a professor suggest outlining exam essays during the exam? We may not have time to pull together a really coherent essay--perhaps we have a new insight in the process of writing--but we do our best to generate a coherent whole. We do our best in the time allotted to create a piece that works.

What if we were to sit down and allot ourselves a set time--say 90 minutes--to accomplish a difficult task--like writing an abstract or writing a two-page section of a chapter, or writing an outline for a chapter or a chapter section? Could we then generate a draft of a coherent whole in that time? I believe that if you have passed essay exams in a college career, then you can generate an appropriate draft. That draft might not be very good, but it would be complete.

The problem with this pair of analogies is that both have a strong streak of negative reinforcement: in both of the analogies, there is near-immediate feedback, and potential for unwanted negative feedback. With the dissertation, there is no fear of immediate feedback from anyone (except, possibly, yourself). On the one hand, I think it a long-term mistake to set up patterns based on negative reinforcement, because such situations can create resentment and fear. On the other hand I like to use these analogies, because they point out the matter of choice: one can choose to act to create an imperfect solution. And that ability exists even when the immediate negative feedback does not loom.

This perspective--this recognition of our ability to choose to write an imperfect draft, and our ability to use that draft to learn and refine our work--seems to me to be crucial for those of us who fear that we cannot write well enough, or that we have not entirely worked out some aspects, or even some of the larger issues. If there is something that we don't think we can articulate, then that is precisely the time to choose to write something imperfect. By writing the imperfect draft, we can look back at our work and learn from it--we can start to get a better idea of what it is that we have not figured out.

The short version of this: choose to write, even if the result is imperfect. The benefits of having written will justify the creation of a draft that needs to be revised.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sense of Purpose: explicit statements

I had been pushing a writer to produce an explicit statement of purpose. Part of my motivation to do so was guided by my sense that if we have such an explicit statement to guide us, it will help us achieve our goal. (This is a principle frequently expressed in self-help books: a written goal is a goal that is supposedly more likely to be fulfilled.) I like the explicit statement because that statement can help shape all the rest of the work: we can then test every sentence in terms of that explicit statement.

But the writer asked whether such a statement was appropriate in the field of history. Not being a historian, I don't have a house filled with history books, but I did pull three "histories" off my shelves. The notes that follow are what I wrote to the writer.

I think that every author can benefit from clearly stating a purpose for their work--something that contextualizes the study, something that tells the reader what to expect, and how that piece fits within a larger world, and takes significance in that world.

I don't tend to read "history", per se, at least not what I would recognize as the product of a university history department, but I picked a few books off my shelves to see what perspective they give me on this.

Book 1: A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting
from the preface: "There are many books about...I feel strongly that there is a need for a book that looks at..." or to render the quote in full:
"There are many books about the current state of the environment and the prospects for the future but few probe very far into the past or explore the extent to which the environment has shaped human history and none covered the ground and asked the questions that seemed to me to be important. I feel strongly that there is a need for a book that looks at world history from a 'green' perspective."
I grant, of course, that it is a mass market book. But there's a clear explicit statement of purpose that contextualizes the work of the book in terms of our present situation and the purpose of the book in that situation.

Book 2: "A History of Western Philosophy" by Bertrand Russell, clearly we don't want to count Russell as a historian, but still...
The opening of the preface:
"Many histories of philosophy exist, and it has not been my purpose merely to add one to their number. My purpose is to exhibit philosophy as an integral part of social and political life..."
Again, a clear statement of purpose.
He closes the "Introductory" chapter with a statement that also expresses purpose and a sense that the purpose of the history is to serve a present goal--the final paragraph has these statements: "Social cohesion is a necessity...Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers...The doctrine of liberalism is an attempt to escape from this endless oscillation....Whether this attempt can succeed only the future can tell."

Book 3: "Mechanization Takes Command" by Siefried Giedion (an art/architectural historian of some reknown)
From the first sentences of the Preface:
"In 'Space, Time and Architecture' (1941) I attempted to show the split that exists in our period between thought and feeling. I am trying now to go a step further: to show how this break came about, by investigating one important aspect of our life -- mechanization."

When it comes right down to it, I think that an author is missing a very important opportunity if he/she does not tell the reader what his/her purpose is. Explicitly sharing your purpose with the reader--even through the use of a few short paragraphs in a preface--gives the reader reason to read on.

Readers of the blog have probably seen my past concern with sense of purpose and finding your own voice. Being able to state, in shorter and longer forms, a sense of purpose, a reason that the work is important, is what brings in the reader. I have here picked "history" because that was the field of the writer, but I think that this is a general thing: the academic writer should attempt to inform the reader of the reason for the book.

It is worth noting that in all three cases I looked at, the explicit statement of purpose was very close to the beginning--in the first paragraph, or even the opening sentence of the preface--which is the first text in the three books in question. Each of the three authors placed an explicit statement as very nearly the first thing the reader would read. If we assume that this is not a meaningless formalism, we might ask ourselves what would motivate the author to place such an explicit statement right at the beginning of the work. And we might ask: why not put such an explicit statement at the beginning of the work?

One can learn from books in different ways. I talk with a lot of writers who learn topical issues from the articles and books they read, but they don't learn about writing from those articles and books. By looking at a book to see what choices the author made--for example whether there is an explicit statement of purpose--we can start to think about the choices that an academic writer makes, and what choices seem to work when you read them.

A final note: if you look at a dissertation as a model, you will pretty much find an explicit statement right at the front of the dissertation: it's called the abstract, and, as far as I know, every dissertation is required to have an abstract.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Just to have written (again)

I know I've used this theme before, but it's a good one: in order to make your writing a practice, you have to be willing to get in there and practice with whatever time you have available. If you just have fifteen minutes, then that's what you do. If you have less, then you try to find more. Just so you write.

And that's all that I have time for right now.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Rules and principles; Structure and audience

I try to rely on principles rather than rules. To me the distinction depends on the difference between a goal I'm trying to achieve and a clearly defined prescription for behavior. This is something of a situationalist perspective: a principle guides, but does not bind, for the boundary cases where the proper path is not clear. By contrast a rule is a rule; it is to be followed.

As example we might contrast the Judeo-Christian rule: "Thou shalt not kill" with the principle (Buddhist, perhaps) of preserving life. The rule is clear cut: but what do you do in the rare (but much discussed) situation where your ability to take the life of one person will save the lives of many others? The rule is simple, clear cut. It does, however, put aside the difficult conflicting values in the problem. The principle is conflicted; judgment is left in the hands of the individual. It is more difficult to apply a principle in this kind of case than a rule--or at least the decision is more difficult.

Yesterday I was writing about structure and the structure of the Introduction. I got a question about the structure that said "...are we expected to...". I know I'm kind of misreading this, because the questioner, I think, is not looking at me as an authority figure who sets expectations that must be met (I hope). But it made me think about structure, formulas and why we use structures and formulas.

Part of what I wanted to show, in addition to suggesting a specific sort of structure, was that structure is motivated. The formula is not there simply as a formalism to be followed, but rather the formula is there because the writer has some purposes, and the formula helps the writer accomplish that purpose.

One purpose that all writers share is the desire to get the reader engaged. Hence there is an introduction of some sort. In fiction, writers introduce there work in ways that set up tension, or that address the reader; the reader of fiction has certain expectations, and the writer is going to play with those expectations. In academic writing the introduction is done differently: the academic writer wants to put all the cards on the table--or at least the most important one; he academic writer draws the academic reader in by convincing the reader that the work addresses a significant issue, and that the work is done well. What happens if the academic reader thinks the study deals with an insignificant issue, or the research was executed in a such a shoddy manner as to be worthless?

The point of structural formulas is that they help us engage the reader. The models have been used because they work, but they have also been used because they suit the writer's purpose. If you can see structure as a tool to help you reach the reader and convince the reader of the quality of your work, then you will deal with structural formulas in a different fashion: you will see them as suggestions that may help you act in accordance with a guiding principle (like the desire to engage the reader), rather than onerous prescriptions.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Structure and Audience 2

What I just wrote in my previous blog entry put me in mind of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, which is introduced with the following apropos passage (thanks to Project Gutenberg, a great resource for free electronic copies of many published works):

An author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money. In the former case, it is well known that the entertainer provides what fare he pleases; and though this should be very indifferent, and utterly disagreeable to the taste of his company, they must not find any fault; nay, on the contrary, good breeding forces them outwardly to approve and to commend whatever is set before them. Now the contrary of this happens to the master of an ordinary. Men who pay for what they eat will insist on gratifying their palates, however nice and whimsical these may prove; and if everything is not agreeable to their taste, will challenge a right to censure, to abuse, and to d--n their dinner without controul.

To prevent, therefore, giving offence to their customers by any such disappointment, it hath been usual with the honest and well-meaning host to provide a bill of fare which all persons may peruse at their first entrance into the house; and having thence acquainted themselves with the entertainment which they may expect, may either stay and regale with what is provided for them, or may depart to some other ordinary better accommodated to their taste.

Fielding speaks metaphorically, and as a writer of fiction, of course, but what he says is true for the academic writer, too. What is the abstract, after all, except a "bill of fare" in Fielding's terms? As writers, especially as academic writers, our purpose is (or ought to be) to share our ideas, and to that end we should endeavor to reveal to our readers what they can expect, so they can decide whether to read or move on. On a more general level, what Fielding is suggesting is that structure, generally,--that is out choice of where to place elements--is one of the ways that we can reach our readers: we make structural choices so that we get the responses we want--for example, so that the reader can decide whether to move on or not.

Structure and Audience

I wrote the following notes to a writer who had sent an introduction that was an uninterrupted six pages long. It was a pretty good draft, but...

But the structure of this as a whole could be more articulated. Right now you basically have six pages of uninterrupted flow which try to introduce the subject of the study and to describe its motivation. But, the different tasks of the introduction could be broken up into sections that you can then mark using section headers—which helps articulate the structure, so that the reader has an even easier time of following the structure.
A basic structure suggested in my preceding sentence would have two sections:
1. Introduction
a. Introduce ideas
b. describe motivation for the study

But this structure is a little more basic than is typically used in a dissertation, where the introduction is broken into sections, perhaps in the following manner:
1. Introduction
a. what it is that you're talking about (the subject matter)
b. why the reader should care (why the subject matter is important)
c. what you hope to find out about the subject matter (what your research question or intention is)
d. How you intend to learn about the subject matter (the research methodology—in your case this might also be a description of study aims like website creation).

In general it might help to remember that the writing is there to guide the responses of the reader: so sometimes think about the chunks of writing by asking yourself “what does this chunk of writing accomplish in my plan to control the response of the reader?” Notice in the four-part outline for an introduction above, each section has a plan with respect to the reader: first you give them an overview of what you’re talking abut, then you give them a reason to care about that subject, then you tell them how you plan to respond to that motivation (in two parts).

Concluding remark for the blog: We often forget about our audience when we're busy trying to say something, and when we're struggling to get it down in words. But keeping the audience in mind can help us focus our efforts, and make decisions about how to proceed. By reminding ourselves of the audience, and of our need to communicate with the audience, we are more likely to write in the important transitional material that makes a work readable.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I had a post titled momentum about a year ago, but it's been long enough that I thought I would recycle some ideas. In a way, this blog is a place where I am recycling ideas--thinking through the same concept again and again, and trying to write it out, to see it more clearly and to understand how to bring it to life. Writing and rewriting have something of the same character as trying to teach other people: we learn ideas in a completely new way when we try to share them with others--but that's beside the point.

I titled the post "momentum" because I was thinking of the importance of getting moving, and using the momentum of the project to help you in the writing. I was talking with two writers this afternoon--one who is closing in on completion, and for whom the project has a lot of momentum: she finds it easy to write; easier and less painful. The other is just starting to get going after being completely stuck; he is making progress, but feeling a good deal of frustration with a project that is still not well-defined. The first has a lot more momentum than the second, and each has more momentum than they did three months ago. I enjoy seeing the momentum build and the relationship with the work change, and these two cases very strongly reminded me of the importance of gaining momentum. I have also been thinking about momentum because I have lost momentum on one project I was working on earlier this spring, while I've kept it on another.

Yesterday I wrote about being over-committed and choosing what to work on--I chose to work on my blog, and I've beenmaking that choice pretty regularly. Not every day, but most days. Because I'm in the habit of doing it, I have momentum that keeps me working on it. The other project, on the other hand, I've lost touch with, making it harder to get moving into it again.

The momentum of the writer is something psychological--it's a familiarity with a project and a sense of purpose and direction. When we're working on a project regularly, it's fresh in our brains--indeed, our brains are working hard to integrate new ideas, so new things will come to us as we continue to work. The familiarity derived from regular, consistent concentration on the project also helps us work more efficiently: we don't have to spend time "getting up to speed", in the same way we do if we have lost familiarity with something.

When we have momentum working we seem to get a lot more from the same amount of effort. When we don't have momentum, every little bit of progress comes with much greater effort. This is just the same as trying to push a car: it's hard to start it rolling, but once it is rolling it takes much less effort to move at a given speed.

If we are writers who have lost our momentum, getting that momentum back is difficult, and perhaps more frustrating because we can sense that we're not being as productive as we once were.

But if a writer who has lost momentum remembers the metaphor or momentum he or she will not be surprised that getting started seems to take a lot of effort for seemingly little return; it is only what one would expect for a project that doesn't have much momentum.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I think it is endemic to be over-committed in our society. There are so many things to do; so many opportunities; so many responsibilities.

It's important to make choices and good choices in how we meet our conflicting commitments.
I'm a bit over-committed tonight, but spending a few minutes to write in this blog is sufficiently important to me that I chose to spend the time, even though it made me late for other things.

When we have multiple commitments, we have to choose which to honor. It's easy to let the commitment to a long-term writing project slide--there's always tomorrow in which to work on it. But if you don't make the choice to fit in the time for the dissertation, it doesn't get done.

That makes it important to have a good relationship with your work, so that you don't feel bad fitting in fifteen minutes of work here or there. It's the regular choice to work on the project that gets it done. With regular work, we get used to working on the project. If that regular work is done in a way that helps develop a positive relationship with your work, then you'll gain momentum; the work will become easier and the amount accomplished will grow.

When you're over-committed, the choice usually isn't mutually exclusive; while I don't advocate being late for appointments, one can choose to make the time for the writing at the expense of some other commitment. And that habit of choosing your work--even a little--is the habit that will get the project done.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Matter of Choice

While reading The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, by Neil Fiore, I find the following recommendation:

"Replace 'I have to' with 'I choose to'."

This is an idea that I ascribe to, and a notion that has appeared in my blog in the past. It's always interesting to find another expression of an idea that you harbor yourself. I can't necessarily trace my source of the idea: have I read it elsewhere before? I probably have, but don't know where. Maybe something by Anthony Robbins. The premise is very much a cognitive-behavioral one: by changing the stories we tell ourselves, we change our emotional reality.

It's all about the practice, to me. CBT is often seen as being behaviorist in the extreme form, where it may be believed that behavior is the psychological totality. But it seems to me that even if we ascribe to psychodynamic theories, there is a place for behaviorist principles.

If we want to remember someone's phone number and we have nothing to write it down, what do we do? We repeat it to ourselves. If we want to remember a poem, what do we do? We repeat it? If we want to master and remember a musical piece? We practice; we repeat. The behavior reinforces the pattern.

And so, it seems to me that we can benefit from practicing the stories that we tell ourselves. We can benefit from telling ourselves "I choose to," rather than "I have to." It reminds us that we have a choice in the matter--that we have a choice with what we do with our lives. Especially when it comes to things like working on our dissertation. Some things we have to do: we have to eat; we have to drink water; we have to breathe. But do we "have to" write a dissertation? Certainly the imperative to do the dissertation is not of the same character as the imperative to breathe.

So try to remember to choose the things that will serve you.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Working Patterns and Working Habits

Yesterday I met a professor from a junior college at a barbeque. We were each talking about our own work, and he asked me whether I advised people with respect to setting up a dedicated working space, and on how to get people to work six hours a day.

And I don't know if those are just things that I don't believe in, or whether I just don't think those are things that one teaches. Or at least they're not things that I would teach.

I won't dispute the importance of being able to put in a good six hours (or more) of writing and working. If you can't put in such days, your chances of finishing are greatly reduced. But I would not to choose to emphasize the importance of that in my teaching. I would think the six hour days should arise out of good working habits and a good relationship with work. If you have a good working pattern and a good relationship with work, then the six hour working sessions will come of their own accord.

As for the dedicated working space: well, I think it certainly helps to have a good place to work, but I don't know that a dedicated working space is necessarily an answer. Personally, I do a lot of good work in cafes, and I've met others who do even more. I know one professor at Berkeley who often puts in solid five or six hour stints in the cafe that I frequent.

I guess, as I write this, I think I'm more in line with what Julia Cameron says in The Right to Write about grabbing your writing whenever and where ever you can, without making excuses. There's a part of me that says if you have a good working habit, a good relationship to your work, then you will work enough. I don't like to tell people they need a dedicated space on the principle that not having the dedicated space can then become an excuse for not working.

But there's also a part of me that says "we're all different." What works for one person may not work as well for another. I truly and deeply believe that developing a good relationship with work will help all of us. But I'm open to the possibility that having a dedicated space for work is part of helping some people develop a good relationship with work. It's not what I wold choose to emphasize, but what works for me is not what works for everyone. Cameron does discuss having a nice place to write at length. It's not as if she is saying the place is unimportant.

In any event, the conversation with this professor (who happens to also be working on a dissertation-- Ed.D.) reminded me that what works for each of us is different. And yet, each of us must develop a habit and a pattern of working consistently.
Whether one develops a good relationship with work through working on changing ideas about work, or whether one develops that relationship by dedicating space and time to it--I don't know which of those factors to prioritize. It's quite possible that dedicating space and time to the project is a key to developing a good relationship with your work.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

For the writer, I think the expectation of a bad outcome is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is, at least, if we allow the expectation of a bad outcome to keep us from working and from circulating our work.

Writing is meant to be shared. If we are unwilling to share our written work (or if we produce no written work), then we fail as writers more surely than we could possibly fail by handing in a poor draft. At least when the deadline comes, if you have turned in nothing, you have no chance of your work being accepted; if you have something written, you have a chance--however slim you may believe that chance to be.

If you believe the outcome will be bad, you almost guarantee the bad outcome. This is often true in interpersonal dynamics--whether interviewing, presenting work, or even dating--if you show a lack of confidence, the audience will expect problems; if you show confidence, you're often well received.

It is true to some extent in presenting written work: often people present the work along with a long list of the problems they still see, with no comment on the good things they have accomplished--they're so sure the reader will see the problems that they want the reader to know that they've seen the problem, too. But this can backfire, especially if you see problems that your reader wouldn't have.

The old adage "you can't win if you don't play", is kind of true and kind of annoyingly simplistic. But the outcome of not playing is often exactly like the outcome of losing, except perhaps in the expenditure of energy. But that's not really a loss, is it? What good is it to be well rested, but still have the dissertation waiting to be written?

I suppose there is the fear that if one does try, one might be ridiculed for one's efforts, whereas the person who shows nothing, is not ridiculed. Of course, if you fear ridicule, you might also fear the ridicule of never finishing. Is it really worse to be known as the person who went for it and failed than it is to be known as the person who never went for it?

Chance always plays a role; it's always possible that one will find a winning lottery ticket on the street. But barring random chance, I feel like pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Getting things to work out right may be more difficult, but I believe that the optimistic mind also creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Confidence helps one perform better. Optimism and confidence also make the moment more enjoyable. If you can maintain optimism during a project, even if it doesn't work out, the act of working on the project may not seem so onerous, because it is an act filled with hope.

For my part, I have to work to keep an optimistic mindset, and it often slips away. Nonetheless, I believe that work in trying to be optimistic and in practicing believing in myself, is worth the effort.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I don't get many comments on the blog, so every one is kind of exciting.
I got a comment this morning (thanks!) that started me thinking.

"Hi, Dave,
I'm new to your blog and just wanted to let you know that I find your words insightful and even uplifting. Not that I'm promising to go work on my dissertation or anything...heh."

Now compliments are nice, but it's that final sentence that really struck me, just because it made me think of a book I'm currently reading: The Now Habit by Neil Fiore. I am something of a consumer of mass market psychology and self-help, which is what Fiore's book feels like to me. Fiore basically says that procrastination can often be ascribed to a sense that you're not doing a task because you want to, but rather because you feel as if someone expects you to do it. I've only read a third of the book, but as far as I can tell, the basic premise is that we get over procrastination by choosing what we will do--by feeling like we are making a choice and doing what we think we should do for our own benefit--not because someone told us to, but because we decided to.

This basic premise is one that I believe in, and one I believe I have mentioned in previous posts. We get the work done when we're doing it because we think we will make our situation better for doing it.

The kind author of the comment, of course, has no connection with me or commitment to me--no promise, and even if she/he did promise, I have no way of enforcing that promise. But that final sentence can be read as revealing the whole dynamic of procrastination as Fiore describes it: there is work that isn't getting done, and there is an author who is resisting, and who is referencing an outside authority of sorts.

Only of sorts, of course, because I am pretty much an anti-authority figure. I want everybody to work from a core of personal beliefs--including a belief that working on the project is a good thing.
It's better if one also believes that working on the project is not painful or agonizing in anyway, but that can be a slightly harder belief to come by. But it comes easier if you start thinking about the choice that you're making and the good outcomes that come out of making that choice and engaging with the project.

I'm not big on saying things like "you should be working harder; promise me you'll work harder." I'm more likely to say "do something that promotes your health--physical or mental, or better both. Do something that you think is important. Do something that helps give you better future prospects so you can live a better life." I figure if an author can't figure out how the dissertation relates to at least one of those three questions, then probably that author ought not be bothering with the dissertation anyway.

I'd like to suggest that every author try to have fun with their work. Explore the possibilities; look for the things that interest you and the things that you care about. See if you can rediscover the enthusiasm that directed you to the topic in the first place.

If you're only doing it because someone else expects it of you, then you're setting up a dynamic that will lead to procrastination (at least in procrastination as described by Fiore).

Thanks again for the comment! I hope that you had a good day, doing whatever you did.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Incremental writing and getting overwhelmed

Writing is detailed work. In academic writing the details can be overwhelming.
First of all there is the whole intellectual/theoretical aspect--and that is rife with details: on any particular point of theory there are probably a number of different points expressing different ideas about different aspects of the theory. Then there is the whole presentational aspect: the written work. There's punctuation; there are style rules and manuals, and so on. And all those rules have to be checked against every sentence that you write.

In short, writing requires attention to detail. The great difficulty in managing all the detail is one of the motivations for the existence of editors. If you have been looking at a written work for too long, then it is hard to see the work clearly. Editors come to a project with a fresh eye. Granting that editors may have valuable skills and insights that may assist an author, much of what the editor does can be done by the writer: it may be easier for an editor to check spelling, but the author can do that. Similarly dealing with rules, etc.

If you're not going to get an editor to help, the many details can begin to become overwhelming. Indeed, even if you do have someone edit you work, they may give you so much detailed feedback that it is hard to process.

The good thing about writing, however, is that it basically stays still. All those details that need to be attended to? They're waiting, and they will wait patiently for their chance. One need not try to figure out how to deal with all the details; it's enough to figure out what detail to work on next and how to deal with that detail. All the other details will be there later.

By keeping it simple, it's easier to deal with the task at hand. By breaking the work down into the natural increments demanded by the details, you can get in a habit of making progress.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Literature Review

The Literature Review is a chapter common to dissertations that report the results of an empirical study. I find that it is a chapter a lot of writers get stuck on. And it seems to me that perhaps they get stuck because they don't have a clear idea of what they're trying to accomplish in the literature review.

It seems to me that there is a common way of looking at a literature review: a report on relevant studies. But this common way of looking at it is not very useful. It doesn't help you find structure, or focus. How is the relevant distinguished from the irrelevant?

There is another way of looking at it: the literature review is a discussion of the sources in the literature that have shaped your study and have led to its current form, and a discussion of the major issues that those sources discuss and debate (including representation of salient opposing voices). I strongly believe that this is a more productive way of looking at the literature review. I also believe that it leads to a better written work--one that is more focused and less prone to getting lost in tangential details.

The literature is not meant to cover everything ever said about the general topic that you are using. It is not even necessary to cover everything ever said about a specific theory that you are using. It is necessary to cover the voices on which you rely, as well as the voices that provide a foil for the ones you wish to use: you want to use other sources that allow you to reflect on the sources you rely on the most. It is worthwhile to show opinions that disagree with the theories you are using: it provides an opportunity to discuss what is particularly salient about the ideas that you are using.

Start the literature with what you know and with the sources that you already have in hand. If you've only read three articles and your textbook, you can still write up a rudimentary literature review that will help you outline the ideas that you are using. If you have set up a good structure for the literature review, one based on the ideas that you are using, not one based on an attempt to describe all the different literature on the subject, then adding new sources to the literature review is pretty easy.

It seems like the literature review should be about reviewing what has been published, and therefore should somehow be structured by what has been published. But it's more productive to think about the literature review as discussing the ideas that provide a background for your work. What ideas led into your choice of method and focus within the topic? These are the questions that you have to answer in the literature review; that way the literature review follows up on the introduction--which gives the reader an overview of the whole scope of the project--by giving detail that the introduction couldn't accommodate, and then it sets up the methodology chapter that follows. The literature should be structured by your reasoning: what are the ideas that shape the study and how are these ideas debated in the discourse of your field?

I labeled this post under the "your voice" category, because ultimately the literature review is about revealing your voice, and showing how your voice reflects the larger discourse.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Sense of Futility

At some moments, in some projects, and in some lives, there are moments where we are faced with a sense of futility.

I was talking today with a friend whose work ethic has always impressed me, and whose passion for many projects has led him to many creative works. He had recently finished a project--a book that he had been working on in relation to his work as a teacher (and vendor) of a software package. The book had met with a cold reception and he was struggling with a sense of futility: it makes no difference if I try, he exclaimed.

I've had something of the same sense recently with this blog. There are moments when I look at the hundreds of posts and for all the effort, I've only ever heard from a handful of readers--four, or five. I wonder about the value of the effort. On the other hand, those who did contact me were appreciative. And maybe it's worth it just to have helped even one person.

One way to look at the issue of futility is to consider whether the activity is itself inherently worthwhile. I can find rewards for the efforts on my blog on a number of different levels. Some of those rewards of writing would be found in positive response from readers--which, as I noted above, is not overwhelming. But I can also find rewards in learning to write better, in practicing my writing, and in practicing a practice, and in struggling to refine and improve ideas that come into play in the work that I do.

When we're struggling with a sense of futility, I think that it comes from an overly narrow focus on the potential aspects of a situation. To follow on the example of this blog, I feel the futility when I think about the value of the blog to others. But when I think of the value of the blog to myself, then I have a more positive view: working on the blog has helped me learn.

Hypothetically a dissertation writer might find a sense of futility attached to a work--perhaps because some critique they received was harsh and belittling. Actually that's not so hypothetical: I know it happens all the time. But the work may be valuable to other people. And of greatest importance, you can ask whether the work has value for you. Chances are that you, as writer, started out with a sense of a question that interested you, or a cause that motivated you, is there some way to re-connect your work with that sense of interest or motivation?

By focusing on aspects of the work that do feel important, one can get around the sense of futility. With a dissertation or thesis, it can always help to remember that completing the work will lead to a degree, so the project is not inherently futile and meaningless if you can compete the work. Usually, though, knowledge of the degree is not sufficient to overcome any writer's block that arises from feeling a sense of futility. That's why it's so valuable to be able to connect with a sense of purpose that is internal: a desire to grow, a desire to face challenges, and a desire to share ideas that are personally important.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Just to have written something...

A common theme in my blog, and in books on writing, is to just write something.

Laurence Sterne, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, once wrote that it is better to send a bad letter in good time than a good letter in bad time (or something to that effect; I can't find the citation anymore.)

I missed posting last night and neither my head nor my heart are really in it tonight, but, just to have written something...