The Admitted Perils of Academic Writing


At the two year milestone of my five year Doctor of Education I thought I’d take the time to return to this blog to talk a little about how it’s going and how it has helped and/or hindered my writing. I often look to this very blog as a great influence for becoming a more prolific, and in that sense a better writer. It was the encouragement I got online that drove me forward and which later saw me getting both non-fiction and journalism published, but also my poetry and some stories. It is also part of the reason that I felt that writing would not be such a chore while working towards my doctorate over five years.

It has been a long time thought since I’ve written any journalistic articles or poetry, which I suppose is a bit of a shame. There has also been the minor matter of having to complete a bucket or two full of reading for two large essays, as well as other activities, twice a year for my course. The course, above all, is mentally taxing, and with my kids keeping me extra busy, the joys of sitting down throwing out a thousand words appear to have vanished in the ether.

Writing academically is certainly very different. Even for all the criticisms writing academically may receive, and they are ample, I’m going to give you some feedback based on how I feel and what I understand about writing has changed.

  1. Every word matters

When you have a wordcount to fit a very complex argument into, this goes without saying. Beyond that words go even further to determine how we are understood. Agonising over phrasing is not something that only creative writers shed tears over. Individual words mean specific things and how we say things bears connotations. Shift + F7 really doesn’t find the right answers and even if it is the right word, it’s likely that in review someone will find a more appropriate word. Accuracy seems to be king and striving for perfection seems to make the world, at least when writing academic pieces. What is said and how it is done so seems to carry greater weight than ever, and even then the accuracy may be left wanting.

  1. Your opinion hardly matters

Don’t take this too hard, because I’m listening, really, but it’s just that regardless of what you’re saying I just prefer what that other person is saying. But hey, it’s ok, thanks for trying and maybe next time I’ll pick up something you wrote. Such is the way that I think dialogue surrounds the world of academic writing.

For the hours that people probably spend devoted to the work they are experts in, become respected and become sought after and respected and all those other positive word, it may be the case that there are as many people who discount your findings or hard work because of some fickle reason. The hours spent crafting are a labour of love, but this love does not appear to be reciprocal.

  1. Does being a good writer matter?

It is an answer which I thought would carry me through many of the hurdles this process is presenting to me. I thought that, as a strength, it would single me out advantageously. And perhaps it will do so, but only after much more time working and crafting the way that I write. I was kind of scuppered some months back as I was hauled in as the quality of my writing was put to task. It was not said that how I wrote was bad or good or anything like that. Essentially, I was told that my writing was wrong. I’d never really considered writing as ever being that way.

The rebellious part of me wanted to raise the middle finger and carry on attempting to break the system. This part of me huffed and puffed and spat and cursed, but to what end? It struck me as things were explained to me that the content was what mattered, and not the style, as the primary function of writing in an academic setting. Style, it would appear, is secondary, and a product of the labours of accurate graft.

Don’t get me wrong: it is very important to be able to write well, but well is defined as being concise, clearly, and highly organised, often with the choice of particular words agonised over. Not, as is my wont, a glorious fluent adjective laden cavalcade of English whisking the reader away on a personal narrative of insight and romance. No.

  1. What’s in a comma?

Following on from previous points, the individual functions and purposes of different elements of writing count. They are tied in, not only with style, but also more than I have felt before. The comma, for example, all but a simple short tick downward at the heel of a word can carry the meaning of a sentence, and with that it can carry the meaning of a paragraph, and perhaps it could disjoint the meaning of 1000 words. Placement is as important as non-placement, and perhaps you should really think about why are there so many commas and no full stops. The comma is a vital piece of punctuation that should be considered superior in the crafting of any written piece, but in an academic essay it becomes something far more sophisticated and which has a particularity that not only controls what and how we say, but what do we actually mean when we write words. This is a message which concerns every single utterance from the keyboard, and while the comma is of course a significant example to

  1. There is no such thing as a final draft

I say this with a pinch of salt. Of course everything must be completed and submitted with a sense of finality. It takes a brave writer to say anything they’ve written is complete, regardless of genre, but the more I write the more errors I find, the more I discover passages that needs rewriting. On top of this personal reflection it appears that even the realm of academic writing purposefully seeks out reasons for further drafts to be completed.

Do not get me mistaken with someone who does not appreciate the necessity for new drafts or a significant review. We are all constantly striving to improve our writing to reach the highest standard, but sometimes reaching an agreeable standard may be the most difficult task of all.

Personally, I have found that I have had to change not only the ay in which I write, but also the style of my writing. Gone, I hope from an academic perspective at least, are the long winding and circuitous prose-like sentences of my former self. Now, brevity is king, but a frequently flexible ruler I should emphasise. I am no longer an expert and my opinion now counts for very little, and the quality of my craft once lauded for its finesse has been turned on its head by those who simply know so much more about the game I am trying to play. What I am trying to say here is that I have tried to be myself and found this coming up short and that a new writer needs to be found from somewhere within, if such a thing is possible.

So that is that. Academic writing has been me and it is where I have been. I am, more than ever, learning a new game and it is far from what I thought I was capable of. Probably I look at this as one of the biggest lessons I will learn, as I have been turned inside out a little, and I have had my confidence taken out, turned upside down and given a good shaking. What is left in my pockets is small change and probably a dirty tissue and a few receipts (what’s new?). I have to make do with this and what remains stuck to my bones. If that is possible, then I will do so. Until then, I had better go and catch up with some reading I should be doing. Education waits for no man, or woman.

 

P.S. To spite the system I am slowly being engulfed by I am avoiding a thorough review of this article in the hope that my genius shines through, spelling mistakes or no.

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Smartphone Perspectives


Not so long back a blog post by photographer John Steele on the pros of using a smart phone for taking photographs turned up in my timeline.

Of course, you’d have to live under a rock, and that rock would have to be in the middle of a very large and uninhabited space to not realise the dominance of smart phones in 21st century everywhere. Not just for the photographic capability, but also for their connection to the wider internet, and all their other conveniences. Let’s not forget the well worn trope of folks staring mindlessly into their screens 24-7.

I’m a bit of an Instagram nut as you already know, but when I’m not posting pictures there I can be found taking pictures of other things. Like John Steele, I also use Snapseed, but mostly on my iPad where I actually edit pictures taken with my DSLR. I decided I’d download the app again to my iPhone and try it out on my shots there.

I’ve used other apps for editing photos before, like Camera+, but I’m more familiar with Snapseed’s simplicity of use, and I quite like the colours and tones that come from the editing process. They’re not as smooth or natural as Lightroom on a desktop, but they can almost give an HDR effect.

Here’s a few recent spring type shots taken around Suwon, with a Gangwon-do cameo in there for added effect, that I’ve edited with Snapseed over the past week of two.

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As I am the proud owner of the humble iPhone 4, which is approaching vintage status at this stage, the pictures probably don’t have the clarity of newer and more advanced Smartphone cameras. When I put them up on a larger screen they could do with some more clarity as the graininess is pretty obvious. I could buy a new phone I suppose, but after dropping over 500,000 won on this one a few years back I‘m inclined to want to get more milage from this – I also like the idea of have a phone bill of a mere 30,000 won every month.

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And yes, I know that all of these pictures are in colour.

Yeongtong in November, Take 2


A while back I wrote how I had been enjoying what seemed to be an especially long autumn here in Yeongtong-dong. Over the past few weeks I’ve been gradually editing some of the pictures from this post, and this is what I’ve come up with.

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I’ve been trying to share these out on the Internet to gauge the quality of them, and it’s not easy. While I use flickr for many photographs, I get a lot of views this way, but little in the way of likes or comments. In comparison, I’ve been trying out the photography site 500px.com also, and while the appreciation levels can be quite high, less appreciated photographs seem to get little to no views at all. If anything I find myself chasing after a higher pulse score with every upload, and to be honest I find the lack of likes for some pictures I’m proud of quite disheartening. At least with flickr I can rely on a higher number of views, although I never really know who the viewers are.

So I’m not sure where I really stand. Are my photos actually good, or are they not, or are they just suffering for that eternal internet problem of being one more tiny pixel in a hundred billion others? I think I already know the answer.

Hwaseong Again


I’ve been living in and around Suwon for over four years, and without doubt one of the most interesting places to visit is Hwaseong Fortress at the centre of the city. I’ve written about it before I believe, and I think if you spend two minutes with a Google search you’ll find ample information on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, not only from your typical Korean government websites praising all that is wonderful about Hwaseong, but also a shovel full or two of blogs in English by other visitors (if I could suggest somewhere to start, I’d suggest taking a walk with the Qi Ranger).

But me being who I am have grown a little used to the fortress and can only explore so much of its windy wall. It’s always enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but what I find more worthwhile is a wander in between the many streets which snake in and out on either side of the 300 year old (or thereabouts) fortification. This space is old Suwon. It is where the city sprung from, and from the busy markets of Paldalmun to the laziness of the pretty much everywhere else, there is a maze worth getting lost in.

I think I’ve had a look at about 5% of what this area has to see, but regardless each step on a familiar pathway still intrigues. There’s something about the unspoilt ugliness of these narrow, often poorly maintained streets. And while they create this impression, the closer you look the more you see that they are in fact well looked after, just not by the city, but by the people who live there. It’s a bit of a paradox I suppose, but again, that’s probably why I find it interesting.

On Sunday (November 24th) I was wandering around with Herself, her folks, and of course +1. It was a dreary afternoon, a day that only Hwaseong’s surrounding area could only look well in. We took our time strolling around trying to find a restaurant which didn’t specialise in either fried chicken of boiled pig’s feet, both of which I adore, and needless to say I took a few pictures.

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Of late I’ve been experimenting with editing. Previously, I have just taken pictures and posted them here as I consider getting as many pictures taken as possible and then sharing them to be my main objective. I’ve also attempted to use editing software and failed royally, mainly due to my own impaetience.

A good friend in Korea put me on to an easy way of editing quickly and effectively, and I’ve been doing it regularly of late. It’s a simple as this. I use the Snapseed app on my ipad to edit quickly photos which I can now transfer to my photo album simply through dropbox, or indeed directly off my memory card thanks to a simple card reading device which I picked up for a very reasonable price. I’ve always thought that Snapseed was a good app, although not having the ease to upload and edit photos quickly seemed to turn me off using it (I am realising that I must be very impartient with technology and my use of it). Over the past few weeks though, I’ve been enjoying editing my photos, especially touching up the colours, shading, light, and some moderately effective sharpening. The success I’ve had with my photos is encouraging me to challange myself again and learn how to use photo editing software.

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All in all though, photography has been keeping me quite busy of late, and if you pop over to my flickr page you’ll see some of my many uploads, some edited and some not, including some late uploads from holidays in 2012 to both Thailand and Malaysia.

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All photographs © Conor O’Reilly 2013. All rights reserved.