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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Notebooks


I’ve been going through my old computer files and notebooks lately hoping to find some encouragement. It’s always interesting too look back, be it in a diary, an old collection of photographs, or even old posts on a blog. Pages and photographs fortunately have a stronger sense of permanency than timelines or twitter feeds, and even if you can find everything online, the nostalgia is physical when leafing through the old pages written in slightly different handwriting and in faded pencil or ink.

Aside from my newest Moleskine and a collection of my newest fascination as a writing medium, yellow A4 lined paper, I believe it’s called legal pad, I have all kinds of paper and notebooks scattered around the bookshelves and packed in boxes around the home. All of these have served some function in my scattered and impotent career as a Nobel laureate.

I don’t really write much here about poetry, as it’s something that I consider myself far from an expert on. But it drives me crazy to the point that sometimes I lose sleep over it, or I am a useless conversationalist. More than anything, I’ve always looked to excel at writing poetry, as to do it well is more than art, it is pure craftwork.

My poems to me are mostly biographical, at least in their instance, and reading back over them reminds me of how I was thinking at that time.

The thing is, I’ve never been one to keep a diary, and this blog certainly doesn’t serve as one – it least not in the day-to-day sense – so reading through notebooks I’ve written in serves odd reminders of what I’ve done in my life over the past few years. There are peculiar connections and many of these start with the actual medium itself, be that the notebook or the loose sheets of paper I wrote on.

Many pages are neatly organised together and appear like a final draft, or as close as I got to one, and then many are roughly folded with the edges frayed from being kept too long in the bottom of my bag. Some I recognise from the time I wrote them, such as white printer or copier paper, which often suggests to me that I wrote this while I was teaching in class (say nothing), or possibly at my desk on a break. Of course I can’t recall when and where I wrote whatever it was, but these scattered sheets are equally scattered memories.

Unity comes from between the binding of my notebooks. Each starts with a flourish infected by the desire to spoil the freshness of the recently freed paper, and ends slowly and unconvincingly as enthusiasm wanes with the final few pages, and I look to start a new notebook before the older one is even finished. This has always been the way I’ve used a notebook, from my primary and secondary school copies to my newest much underappreciated Moleskine which I seem to needlessly carry with me everywhere.

Every page in these old and new notebooks of mine is like an old cryptic diary arranged around some thoughts I had at some stage. Often these memories are vague and cliché, with nothing more than the impression that I was living in a big city and I was utterly appalled by the post-modern condition of urban habitation, or something unoriginal like that. Sometimes there are bits worth keeping though.

I have one of those cheaply made notebooks with plastic covers which you see being sold on the side of the street in Seoul. They are always too big even for the most ambitious writer. I bought mine back in 2007 at the top end of Insadong and I ended up writing in it right up until 2010, and maybe even 2011, but there’s still room for more. It wasn’t my only place to write, but it is without a doubt the one notebook I will reach to if I am looking to raid my memories for new material, or a simple dose of nostalgia.

But there are glimpses of the moment too. There are times when I travelled around the country with herself, there are poems from our honeymoon, such as this one which was published by Wordlegs:

“Foça”

“The wind has been blowing here
for three thousand years
and it will not stop
just for your honeymoon”
the fisherman told us,
soaking and shivering
from the gust laden tides;
the Aegean not as warm
as the guidebook
had optimistically implied

(As a gesture of goodwill and decency, please give Wordlegs a visit and have a read of some of the other excellent poetry and prose on their site)

There are poems from the creative writing module I took while doing my masters in Southampton, and there many, many poems and stories and comments on all other aspects of life. There are also a few poems I wrote to Herself, although I won’t post any here. There are notes for articles I wrote for magazines in Korea, and even the first couple of drafts for a post which still attracts a certain amount of attention here (just checked the super-sexy and detailed WordPress statometer and it’s ranked #8 all time most clicked post – what the fuck is up with that?). There are doodles, lists, phone numbers, and even email addresses for people or places I have no memory of. This is all just from one notebook, and I’m sure there’s more elsewhere.

If I were to stack all my notebooks up I’m not sure how high they would reach. If I combed through every page I’ve written I don’t think I’d fill even a small notebook with anything worth keeping. But as a good friend and mentor explained to me, undoubtedly as we were drunk in Itaewon late at night back in the day (or night), for every piece you’re happy with there is bound to be ten more you’ll never look at again but you have to keep writing because you’ll only know the difference if you have plenty to compare them against. The same ratio is probably true for anything I write which would be deemed good quality by an editor other than me – even here.

But that’s what writing is all about. The more you write the more you put down into a more permanent and physical kind of memory that can be actually picked up and looked back on. Unlike a photograph, words written down in an apparently random situation force you to think and force you to remember and recreate that situation. For me this is essential for any and all future written efforts.

Right now I’m half way through a new chapter of memories like this. There may be less words, but there are other things which act as a flint, such as a wireless password for a guesthouse in Langkawi, a picture of me that looks nothing like me drawn by a friend of Herself’s, and a several lists of things I should have done but I seem to have crossed very little off. That’s just me. Soon I’ll finish that and move on to the next one and soon those pages will be vague memories for rekindling. I look forward to the fire where I will bring this notebook and all those other notebooks too.