Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

Advice for Dissertation Advisors 2: Focus on Problem Definition

This is reposted from the TAAOnline blog.

Defining a good research question is crucial to developing a successful research project, and it is no easy task. For some, defining a good question comes easily, but for many, especially doctoral candidates who may have never developed their own research project before, it is a great hurdle. And, as I suggested in the previous post, if the research purpose and question aren’t defined, then there’s no point in your looking at other stuff: if your student hasn’t defined the research purpose clearly, they’ll have trouble making progress.

A good definition of research question or purpose is not only crucial, it’s usually really easy for a reader to find in skimming through a paper. Most drafts have several sentences that say things like “the purpose of this research is…” and “the research question is…”. These sentences need to be clear, and they need to agree with each other (multiple conflicting statements of purpose can often be found in early drafts of research). One of the first things I look for when I read a draft is a clear statement of purpose. If a draft looks problematic—poorly edited or shows other obvious signs of weakness—I’ll almost immediately limit my review to skimming in search of any statements of purpose.

Often, there will be several statements of purpose in any given draft of research writing: the abstract states the purpose of the work, as does the beginning of the introduction. Many introductions include a statement of the problem and a statement of the significance, which are a pair of related statements about purpose. And then there are research questions, which are defined by how they respond to the intended purpose. If these several statements aren’t coherent, or don’t suggest a coherent and practical research project, feedback needs to start there, with the foundational stuff. Spend your time explaining the problems and offering suggestions on refining and focusing the research project into one single task that is enough for a research project. If you’re doubting the quality of the work, skim for such statements, and if they don’t all line up, focus your effort on getting a clear statement of purpose.

Students who have not done their own research before often try to stick many related but distinct questions into one study. It’s pretty easy to slide between distinct but related facets of one project, especially if one has limited experience setting up a research project.When faced with some problem or phenomenon, they shift between asking about causes, asking about impacts, and asking about responses. All three of these things are reasonable areas for study, of course, but they are also disparate areas of research. To study causes of poor educational outcomes, for example, different data and different analyses are required than to study the effects of poor educational outcomes or ways to improve poor educational outcomes.

For students who are aiming at professional careers—educators, clinicians, etc.,—such ideas naturally work together to address the practical concern for responding to some real-world phenomenon. An educator quite naturally might think about the causes, effects, and possible responses to poor educational outcomes as part of the same problem because from the perspective of a professional practice, they are part of the same problem. But from a researcher’s perspective, they are quite distinct, and many students benefit from having those distinctions made clear. Viewing the different dimensions as part of an integral whole is a great view for a professional practice, which can create a strong emotional attachment to addressing all the issues. But it’s a lousy practical approach to research, especially when the researcher running the project is a student who has never before completed an independent research project, so it’s good to force focus. To get over that kind of resistance, it might be effective to tell them to try to focus on one aspect as a first step to defining the larger array of issues. Once students start to see the complexity involved in researching the single dimension, they start to appreciate the need to leave out the other issues.

Checking for consistent and useful statements of purpose can be an effective tool to review documents quickly. Those that have conflicting statements of purpose can get feedback on narrowing their focus without having to wade through details of a project. Keep in mind that if they redefine the purpose, a good deal of the rest of the material will also need to be rewritten, which means that effort spent giving feedback on the body of a work with poorly defined purpose may be wasted.

Often, I see feedback that is grossly inefficient, both in terms of helping the student learn and in terms of saving the professor time. Most often this is feedback that focuses on grammar instead of examining and critiquing the focus and purpose of the work. An example of this that I recently saw was a student’s methods chapter draft for which the professor’s feedback had been that it needed better sentence structure and paragraph structure before higher-level feedback could be given. The professor had read the whole draft and commented in many places on a 25-page draft. It must have taken at least an hour, if not twice that, to do all that reading and to make all those comments. But in the first two pages there were obvious problems with the hypotheses. As soon as I saw that, it gave me a clue of what else to look for and I quickly found large chunks of the chapter really belonged in the literature review. Bad definition of the hypotheses (i.e., the research questions) led to bad choice of content. These problems were much more pressing than the grammatical problems, which were no more than one would expect in any early draft (it was far from perfect, but it was not hard to read). In this case, by focusing on the problems with the hypotheses (which are an expression of the researcher’s purpose), big problems with the study’s foundations were identified.”

Until a sense of purpose is clear and research questions well defined, there is little need to attend to other aspects of a project, so if you’re looking to save time, you benefit from starting with the statement(s) of purpose. Skipping the details of a project with a poorly defined purpose isn’t a failure to give students the attention they deserve, it’s giving attention to the top priorities. And, from the perspective of the student, although it might be difficult to hear that the project is not well defined, focusing attention on defining the research purpose and questions can help avoid many pitfalls that graduate students fall into (especially the trap of trying to read everything ever published). Save time by focusing on getting the purpose and question right before looking at other stuff.

Standards of Judgement

How do we make a decision? What kinds of evidence and certainty do we use to make a judgement?  And do those standards vary from one context to another?

This discussion came out of a conversation on current events I had with my uncle. I am interested in the underlying principles involved, not in the specific issue, and so I am going to focus on abstractions rather than on specifics.

As an aside: I believe that political discourse should focus on principles, not on partisanship, because partisanship influences decision making, and specifically pulls attention away from crucial factors. It would be best, I believe, if we judged plans on their merits, rather than on who proposed them.

The abstract principles that I want to discuss are related to the different contexts in which different standards of judgement apply.  I don’t have a full general theory, but obviously one wants to apply more stringent standards of judgement for more consequential decisions.

One would reasonably want, for example, more evidence and greater confidence when buying a $500 object than when buying a $5.00 object because the cost of error is 100 times greater (obviously financial impacts are partly measured in relative terms: a billionaire might not give more thought to the $500 than to the $5.00, but the general principle holds even if we have to adjust the numbers).

One would reasonably want, for example, more confidence in the reason behind an active plan (e.g., a healthcare intervention) than in presenting a research conclusion about that active plan because healthcare interventions ought to be supported by the conclusions of several studies. Each individual piece of research has to live up to one standard; implementation of a policy or intervention requires that several pieces of research all live up to that same standard.

One would reasonably want, for example, a higher standard of confidence before convicting an individual to loss of freedom or loss of life than convicting them to a financial penalty. This distinction is held in U.S. courts, where criminal cases are held to a standard of being beyond a reasonable doubt, but civil cases can be decided by the preponderance of evidence.  This legal distinction is the one that is of direct concern to the current event that interested me and my uncle.

Let’s talk generally about the situation: a man is accused of a crime. What standards of evidence do we want to apply to this man? Obviously, I’m going to argue that this is contextually sensitive.  If we are talking about getting a conviction in a criminal court, then the standard of judgement is clear: the guilt of the accused must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt.  On the principle that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” (Blackstone’s formulation), we want to be absolutely certain that the accused is actually guilty.  It’s not enough to have a credible accuser and circumstantial evidence. The burden of proof is very high when we are speaking of meting out punishment.

If we were speaking of rendering a conviction of this man in a civil case, where the penalties are generally financial, a lower standard of proof would be required in U.S. courts—a  preponderance of evidence, which is could be interpreted as saying that guilt is more likely than innocence, even if there is significant doubt.

What about some other situations in which someone might render judgement on this man? What if the accused asks a person out on a date? What standard of confidence does that person need to apply? I would argue that she/he doesn’t need anything close to a preponderance of evidence. All a person needs to reject a potential suitor is the slightest reservation.

What about a business considering hiring the accused? What standard of judgement should that company apply?  There may be legal statutes that restrict businesses’ choices, but on the whole, businesses hiring individuals should should have some discretion to reject a candidate about whom they have doubts, even if there is less than a preponderance of evidence.  The situation is inverted because now the question is about presenting an award, not about meting out punishment. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it might be reasonable for a company to assume something like the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, but in reverse: the company might reasonably say “We will not hire the accused unless his innocence can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”  That’s pretty stringent, but a company is looking for the best performer, and if there is any reasonable doubt about a person’s guilt—even if there is a preponderance of evidence suggesting innocence—that might be a good reason to choose an alternate applicant.  

In that last phrase, I added a consideration that has not been previously mentioned, but that is certainly relevant in many situations.  Sometimes, the standard of judgement is not absolute, but is relative, and the focus is no longer on the individual accused but the organization that is looking for someone to fill a position. For a desirable job, there might be several applicants. In such a situation, the standard of judgement with respect to a person accused of a crime is reduced due to the presence of other job applicants: if the accused individual is no more qualified than some other person who is not accused of any crimes, a company might well decide to choose the person who has never been accused over the person who has been accused with no evidence beyond the accusation. The company might be very concerned to maintain the image of probity that is supported by choosing an applicant who has not been accused of any crime.

And if the job in question is a seat on the Supreme Court of the U.S., what standards should we apply? If there are a list of several candidates, amongst whom you are otherwise indifferent (Leonard Leo of the Federalist society said that the Federalist Society had a list of many potential candidates to fill the seat vacated by Justice Kennedy, and the “The list is really good…You can throw a dart at that list and in my view you would be fine.”), what standard needs to be applied to a candidate accused of a crime?  Can a candidate be rejected because of an unproven accusation? 

On the principles that I have discussed, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard is not the appropriate standard. A candidate accused of a crime need not be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as would be required for a criminal conviction. A candidate accused of a crime might reasonably be passed over even if the accusation is unfounded because, as noted before, the question is not of punishment but of reward, and because there are several equally qualified candidates who do not stand accused of a crime.

Writing as a Refuge

For many, writing is difficult and painful. And, when that difficulty and pain are combined with the obligation to write, the very idea of writing becomes wrapped up in the sense that there could be few activities less pleasurable or rewarding.  Given where most of us get most of our first writing experience—in school—where the only reward for writing well is a good grade, it’s easy to understand how people don’t think of writing as rewarding in any meaningful way.

Obviously there are some people who like to write, even when they’re just school students. When I was in high school, I couldn’t understand those people at all. But now, it seems much more reasonable to me.

Writing can be a rewarding experience. There are still difficulties in writing, of course.  But the rewards of writing are significant. Writing—the act—can be valuable, even if we set aside the possibility of some reward from having written well. Regardless of what happens when to your writing after you send it off to others—whether accepted or rejected, celebrated or vilified—the process of writing can itself be rewarding.

One angle to take on the rewards of writing is to look at it as a “flow activity”—one of the activities that suits the characteristics necessary to create the experience of “flow”, as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of flow as being one of the best experiences in life. Flow activities are challenging activities.  They are activities where your skills are stretched to their limits, where you have a chance to grow, and also where you have a chance to fail.  The best experiences, according to Csikszentmihalyi, are not many of the things that we might think of as fun—watching TV or a movie,  enjoying a gourmet meal, or other more passive activities—precisely for the reason that they don’t challenge us, because there is no growth, and no development. 

(On a side note, I think even connoisseurs of something—wine, music, art—gain as much pleasure from the difficulties overcome to become a connoisseur as from the simple sensual experience of the good [wine/music/art]—the sense that one has refined taste, and the experiences of bad [wine/etc.] are part of the pleasure. Or at least I have heard many who liked to think of themselves as connoisseurs speak with enjoyment of the unpleasant things they have done that help them think of themselves as connoisseurs—bad wines tasted, unpleasant concerts attended, distasteful exhibits viewed. They may not have liked it at the time, but after the fact, they find value in it, and perhaps an anecdote they like to relate. Of course, as I describe it this way, connoisseurship starts to take on some of the characteristics of flow activities—the necessary effort, the occasional failures, the challenges and opportunities for growth—that the simple pleasurable experience—the wine, the movie, etc.—doesn’t, by itself, have. The act of tasting one wine—which might be pleasurable—gets placed in the matrix of developing connoisseurship, and is no longer judged just in terms of the pleasure of drinking, but as part of a fabric of knowledge.)

As a flow activity, writing does require effort and it does have the possibility of failure, and thus it’s not an activity that is guaranteed to deliver pleasure.  There are days when writing is more difficult and less pleasurable. There are days when it takes a lot of effort to get started writing.  But as a flow activity, writing can be absorbing and positive.  And when it is, then it can serve as a refuge of sorts from other problems—at least from emotional ones.

Writing requires skill, and it develops with practice. If you only know writing as an occasional task that you avoid, then, of course, it won’t become any sort of refuge—it will only remain distant and difficult.  But if you develop a practice of writing regularly—if you work on writing, and you regularly work through difficult patches in your writing practice—then the practice itself is more likely to have pleasurable moments—moments when you feel like writing is going well—and therefore it is more likely become a refuge.

There are plenty of activities that people use as a refuge. Hobbyists typically find refuge in their hobby. And realistically, many hobbies are flow activities—building models, artistic pursuits, athletic skills–all of these share the characteristic that they have difficulties, failures, and the possibility for growth.  Most people wouldn’t view writing as a hobby, but there are those for whom it is, of a sort.  Other activities that might not be considered “hobbies” might also be considered refuges, for example, mediation practices or yoga.

Writing, of course, can be part of a job or a set of responsibilities, not just a hobby. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be both hobby and work. Nor that it is impossible to mix a hobby with work—indeed, many people do mix a hobby with work by pursuing a passion that started as a hobby and turned into a career, for example, an artist who leaves a day job to make an art career, or an amateur cook who decides to open a restaurant.  And I think, on an emotional level, one can move in the opposite direction: if writing is a job, one can, with practice and the right attitude, turn it into something of a hobby.  It may be hard to imagine enjoying writing, especially if you’re required to write in your career, but it’s possible.  

Writing in any setting can be absorbing. It is challenging, and for all that reason, it can become some sort of refuge from other problems, if you focus your attention on overcoming the specific challenge of writing. If you get absorbed in the attempt to describe or discuss or reveal a certain issue, or the attempt to relate a certain narrative, it can take your attention away from other issues, at least temporarily.  And that is the refuge.  It is easier to find this refuge when you believe your ability is equal to the task—but that’s why practice is so important: practice improves your ability, and improves your understanding of how to apply your abilities successfully. 

For my own part, I have various issues that trigger me and create negative emotions when I focus on them—anything from the un-scooped dog poop in front of my house, to reckless drivers who endanger my life and those around, to political malfeasance, and other larger social or global ills. When I write, and I start to focus on putting a focused set of ideas on the page, on finding good ways to express those ideas in writing, and on trying to find a good way to reach an audience, all of those considerations may take my attention from the things that trigger me.  Sometimes I write about one of those things that trigger me, but even then writing can be a refuge if it directs my attention to actions that could be taken to resolve those difficulties.

I’m over 1,000 words, which has been my rough goal for these posts, and realistically, I’ve made my point and may be getting redundant.  Writing can take your mind from other problems—and that’s something that’s more likely to happen if you practice writing. Not everyone is going to become a writer, but if, for any reason, you have to write in your life, then turning it into a regular practice will help writing become less of an ordeal, and more of an opportunity to find refuge from problems.

Missing targets

For the last year or more, my plan for this blog has been to post something every Monday. For the most part, I’ve been good about that, but there have definitely been times when that Monday deadline has slipped.  Today is Thursday and I haven’t posted for this week, making me several days behind.  

The reasons for my delay are minor—nothing particularly bad prevented me from writing a blog post in the last several days.  On Sunday, I could have written a blog post, but I chose to spend my time writing fiction instead.  That was not necessarily the best choice–I’m not really a fiction writer, having chosen to (mostly) focus my efforts on non-fiction projects. (I generally try to focus my efforts so that I can finish projects, and I think my non-fiction projects are better in quality and more marketable than my fiction, so when it comes to trying to finish something, the non-ficiton gets priority.)

But the delay does give me a subject: what to do when you miss targets.  (I have plenty of other potential subjects, actually, but this one seems the most apt for a day when I’m behind schedule. It is necessary to choose a specific topic, and follow it, rather than vacillating between different possible topics.)

So, what do I do when I miss targets? Basically, I don’t do anything special.  And that’s really what I want to suggest as the main point of this post: don’t let missing a target throw you. Don’t let it stop you, and don’t let it slow you down.  If you miss a target, the thing to do is to focus your attention on the writing project and to get back to writing.  Realistically, if you miss a target, the only way to recover from that is to get back to work and to keep working to try to find a resolution for that miss. 

What you (and I) don’t want to do after missing a target, is to focus your (or my) attention on the fact that the target was missed.  Turning attention to the writing project, gets you back on course toward whatever larger target you had been aiming for. Turning attention to the missed target doesn’t focus on what you want to create, it focuses attention on other things. If your goal is to create a piece of writing, it is crucial to keep your attention focused on the ideas that you want to express. If you start thinking about missing a target, not only is your effort distracted from what you want to create, but there’s a good chance that you will also have negative thoughts about yourself and your own work patterns.

Writing, writing well, and finishing writing projects, all require a big investment of effort.  It’s much easier to apply that effort if you are in a more positive emotional state. And it’s much easier to apply that effort if your attention is focused on the thing you’re trying to create instead of some personal failing.

In a way, this recommendation (keep trying; keep focusing on your project, even if you miss a target) is little more than saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” But it’s worth saying, I think, partly because the familiar aphorism is so familiar that it loses impact. And worth saying partly because the aphorism doesn’t contain any reasoning as to why it’s a good idea.

You might argue that my missing a self-imposed deadline for my own blog is very different from missing a target for a grant, for example, where that failure has significant impact. If I miss a blog post, nothing really happens to me.  Regular readers of my blog might be disappointed by the delay; they might even stop following my blog, but there is no clear and direct negative impact similar to what might occur if, for example, you miss a deadline for a grant proposal, for coursework, or for filing a dissertation or thesis.  There is certainly truth in such arguments, but that’s at a small scale: yes, the immediate impact of failing to meet some targets is greater than for others.  But on the large scale, the basic principle remains sound.  If you fail to get your grant proposal submitted on time, does that really change who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish? Or is that just a setback that makes it harder for you to pursue that goal?

There are times, of course, when failing to meet a target is a sign that you might want to find something else to pursue. But that’s a larger question, I think. It’s true that you want to use feedback about your performance to decide whether to pursue some course of action. But is missing a writing deadline a relevant reflection of your ability? I would argue that it is not.  If you submit something, and it gets rejected, then it’s totally appropriate to look at that feedback for guidance on whether to continue to pursue your goal—this is especially true where there are hard and fast criteria for judgement—a runner trying to make a national Olympic team whose best times are minutes short of qualifying should think carefully about whether they will be able to shave those minutes off their time in the future. But that’s a judgement based on reaching a target, at least in a certain way: the runner who completes a race too slowly has finished the race—so it’s a situation more akin to a writer who submits a paper that gets rejected than to the situation of a writer who misses a deadline and submits nothing. (And, it should be noted that getting a piece of writing rejected is not something that depends on clear criteria—judging writing is much more personal than comparing a runner’s time to some objective standard.)

In this post, I’m most concerned with the emotional impact of being late, of missing a deadline, not of missing a performance criterion.  In my experience, it’s pretty common for people who miss some sort of deadline to spend time and effort berating themselves for the failure to meet the deadline, and it’s really that dynamic that this post hopes to prevent.  Missing a deadline is not the end of the world. Missing a deadline is just a delay. I failed to post on Monday, and I planned, but I can still post today. I can still post another post next Monday.  If, for example, you missed a deadline to file your dissertation this month, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t make the next deadline to file it.  (Yes, for some people, there is a final chance to submit—some deadline set by a school that cannot be appealed—and such a deadline obviously is consequential in a different way from missing your target of filing this semester but them having to file next semester instead.) A lot of missed targets are not terminal issues, and for such targets, it’s best to focus attention on next steps and on continuing your project, regardless of having missed the target.  I think this especially true for people with big projects: if you miss some target in the course of working—you don’t finish a chapter on time, for example—it’s crucial not to let that miss keep you from working. 

Writing a Book Proposal for a Publisher

Recently, having worked on and sent off some proposals for a book, I’ve been thinking about these issues a good deal. So when faced with someone else’s book proposal to review, I definitely had suggestions.

No book, of course, is guaranteed acceptance, especially not at your first-choice publisher or agent. But a better proposal is going to get a better response.  So what makes a “better” proposal?

From a simplistic but pragmatic perspective, a “better” proposal is one that gets accepted, but, of course, you don’t know what will get accepted when you’re writing the proposal. But you can think about why proposals get accepted or rejected. There could be any number of characteristics that shape the decision on whether to accept or reject a proposal. Quality and content are obviously important. But, to be accepted, what matters is not just the proposal itself, but who is evaluating it. Beyond quality and content are specific factors that are important to the reviewer. In particular, people in the publishing industry want to know if a book will sell and to whom it will sell. It’s perfectly possible to have an editor think “This is good work, but I don’t want to try to sell it to my marketing department,” or “This is good work, but it’s not going to sell well.”

Understanding the audience for your proposal makes it easier to understand what they want, and understanding what they want improves your ability to give them what they want.  And that’s of crucial importance when proposing a book.

Writers—whether fiction or non-fiction—have stories that they want to tell and ideas that they want to share. An academic might have a theory to propound; a novelist might want to tell an exciting story, or explore the depths of the human psyche/spirit, but whatever they are trying to convey—whether entertainment or education—is central to what they’re doing, and they implicitly hope to reach readers who are interested in those same things. A scholar concerned with scholarly theory will hope to reach other scholars who are concerned with the same theoretical questions.  A writer who wants to write a vampire adventure will hope to find readers who care about vampire stories.  Reaching those readers and convincing them to read (and buy!) your book depends on describing the content in an enticing way. A scholar looking at a scholarly tome asks whether the content is good (i.e., whether the research and reasoning are sound). A vampire fan looking for entertainment asks whether the story is entertaining and exciting. Potential buyers of your book care about its contents and quality.

But people in the publishing industry will look at things rather differently.  When you send a book proposal to an acquisitions editor at an academic publisher (for academics) or to an agent (for fiction writers), you’re not necessarily sending the book to someone who cares about its content. The acquisitions editor may not be intimately interested in your theory. The agent may not necessarily care about, e.g., vampire stories. But that may not matter. The people in the publishing industry are crucially interested in whether they can sell a book at a profit. They look at a proposal wondering whether it’s worth their time and energy.  Could that book sell? Could it be produced at reasonable cost? Is it worth it to review that proposal and read the excerpts? Is it worth it (for the academic publisher, at least) to send those materials out to some expert reviewers (which costs the publisher money)?

Agents want to sell books, so they have to believe that they can sell the book to a publisher.  An agent may enjoy vampire stories, or whatever you’re writing, but you don’t your proposal to focus solely on how enjoyable it will be to read your vampire book. An agent wants to know why people might buy your book. So it’s useful to compare your book to others, to explain why your might replace or complement others. An acquisitions editor may be interested in your theory and may have the education to evaluate its theoretical importance, but even so, they’re going to have to be able to convince a marketing department that people will buy it. 

What really matters in a book proposal, I think, is talking about who would buy it, and why they would buy it.  If your story is the best story about vampires ever written for five reasons that you can enumerate, still, what really matters to a publisher is the question of whether or not lots of people want to buy vampire books.  If your theory completely revises an area of study and is incredibly powerful and groundbreaking, that’s awesome. But you’ll have to convince the publisher that many people are interested in that area of study.  The quality of your theory may be less important than whether or not a lot of books on the subject are sold and used. Is it better to have the reviewer to say: “Great content! Two people a year will absolutely need this excellent book,” or “I’ve read better, but lots of people will buy it”?  

It’s worth noting that expectations vary widely: publishers of academic monographs will look on sales of a few thousand as a success, while publishers of textbooks will be looking to sell ten times that. Fiction publishers are hoping for million-sellers, though obviously they don’t expect that of every book. (I don’t have a great idea of the volume that small-scale fiction and non-fiction publishers sell or hope to sell.) 

Every publisher is taking a gamble on each book: they hope for a big seller, and endure the duds.  At some level, a book proposal’s purpose is nothing more than to convince the publisher’s representative that there is a decent chance of having a big seller and small chance of having a dud.  Those two conditions are dependent on the size of audience: who is going to buy the book? How likely are they to buy it? If there is a huge potential audience (e.g., fans of vampire fiction), then only a small portion of that audience need buy to justify a book’s costs of production. If there is a small potential audience (e.g., scholars interested in some esoteric theory), then a lot of those people need to buy to justify costs.  These concerns should be central to your book proposal.

I imagine that most writers find it easier to describe the content of their books than to describe the audience who will buy it or the market to which it will be sold. But if you’re writing a proposal for an editor or agent, sales potential for a given audience is what they really want to know.  If your proposal doesn’t tell them that, the chance that they will accept your proposal decreases.

Grammar, Content, and What Really Matters

Grammar is not one of my great interests. As both writer and editor, it is important that I have command of grammar, but, as far as I’m concerned, grammar is a secondary matter. It’s like enunciation in speech: it’s important because it facilitates that which really matters: the ideas being communicated. Yes, of course, it’s important to enunciate in speech: if you mumble, your listener has to ask “what did you say?” If your grammar is so poor that your reader cannot understand you, that’s a big problem. But if your grammar is imperfect while your ideas are perfectly comprehensible? Whatever. Grammar is secondary. The ideas are what matter.

When you write or speak, what really matters is the message that you want to convey.  If you’re appreciative of someone and you write to them to express that appreciation, what really matters is that they recognize that you’re showing your appreciation.  If you make a grammatical error in conveying that message—for example, you write “Thanks. Your great!”—it may or may not prevent the recipient from understanding your purpose in writing. If the recipient does understand that you meant “you’re great,” what is lost due to your grammatical error? The recipient of the  poorly written thank you note might be disappointed by your poor grammar while also understanding your gratitude. But how much is really lost? (I ask that rhetorically, believing that not much is lost, while certain that some people will think that the decline of grammar is a terrible thing. But still, the grammar is secondary to the content.)  I’m pretty sure that a lot of people agree with me logically but not on an emotional level: If you ask people explicitly whether content or grammar is more important, people will usually answer “content,” but if you ask them to evaluate a piece of writing, their complaints about grammar are quite likely to come first.

Saying that the message is what matters does oversimplify a little bit, because communicating ideas does not solely depend on the ideas themselves: communication of ideas is influenced by the audience’s view of the speaker/writer, and the manner in which ideas are expressed influences the audience’s views. The first of these concerns—how preconceptions of the speaker/writer influence evaluation of what is expressed—is outside of my discussion of the importance of grammar. (If an audience is predisposed toward the speaker/writer, they are more likely to accept the ideas being expressed, and if they are predisposed against that person, they are more likely to reject, a phenomenon that has been termed “reactive devaluation.” While this is interesting, it moves away from this essay’s specific focus on grammar.) The second concern—how the presentation of ideas influences the audience’s view of the speaker/writer—is a matter of concern for grammar, but I will still argue that it is secondary. It’s not trivial that poor grammar might lead to someone forming a poor opinion of you and your work.  If the material you send to an editor at a journal or publisher is rife with grammatical errors, that will certainly influence their decision. But what if that material has only a few errors?

Here’s a question: would you rather be a person with good grammar and no ideas, or a person with good ideas and poor grammar?  Which person would you rather have as a student? Which person would you rather hire as an employee?  Which person do you think more capable of picking up the skill that they lack? Is it easier to get the good grammarian to have interesting ideas or to get the interesting thinker to develop good grammar? I’m simplifying to make a point about relative value: it goes without saying that it would be better to have both perfect grammar and great ideas, but on a more day-to-day, practical level, if you’re sitting down to write, and you have to ask yourself whether to focus your efforts on getting your grammar right or getting your ideas in order, which effort should you prioritize? My suggestion (obviously) is work on the ideas and to worry about grammar later (this is not to say that you don’t try to get grammar right, or that you don’t fix an error if you see one, but that your attention is not focused on grammar).

When I started writing this post, I was going to focus on one grammatical construction—passive voice—and discuss it, because I had been talking with a writer about how her advisor was strongly opposed to the passive voice.  I have generalized, because the more general issue—the relative importance of grammar and content—is the more important issue. For a scholar or researcher, the ideas are first and foremost. They’re much harder to get in order, and they’re something that the scholar/researcher must do him/herself in order to be able to claim credit for doing original work. In fact, if a scholar/researcher can get the ideas in sufficiently good order, it’s perfectly acceptable matter of scholarly ethics to have an editor check and fix grammar. Indeed, if you’re publishing a scholarly monograph with a substantial publisher like a university press, they will have a copy editor review and fix your grammar.  (This point can be taken as further evidence that an editor for a publisher will be more interested in the ideas of the proposal that you send than in your command of grammar: the editor/publisher will be planning on and budgeting for having someone fix minor grammatical errors. The editor/publisher will certainly have access to plenty of people who can write grammatical sentences; they will be looking for people who have good ideas to fill a book.) 

The work of a scholar/researcher is first and foremost evaluated in terms of the content and ideas. If the ideas are good, they will get accepted and (hopefully) discussed. If the research is well designed and conscientiously executed, the results will be valuable, even if there are grammatical errors in the presentation. (Again, I don’t want to discount the role that grammatical errors play in getting work noticed and accepted.)

Last week, in a post of advice for dissertation advisors, I wrote about this general issue—about how the content is what matters for a scholar, not the grammar. This version of the same discussion is more directed at the writers than the teachers: when you write, where is your attention? Are you worrying about getting the ideas right or are you spending time and effort on grammar? For a lot of people, time spent worrying about grammar can take attention and energy away from the work that really does matter. Again, it’s the contents that matter most. Grammar is not trivial, but it’s not what the writing is about (unless, of course, you’re actually writing about grammar). 

My advice for writers, especially for scholarly writers: write to clarify and explore your ideas. Don’t waste your time worrying about grammar. Yeah, I get it: Your professors will complain about bad grammar, and fixing that bad grammar will reduce complaints. Still, write to clarify and explore your ideas and to heck with good grammar. Once you’ve got the ideas in order, then work to get the grammar right, too. But first, get the ideas in order.

Expressing your voice and motivation

Talking with a scholar yesterday, I was emphasizing the importance of finding one’s own voice.  I was thinking about that point in a very specific sense with respect to the writing she had shown me—especially with respect to the importance of making clear reasons to care—why did the author care? Why should anyone else care? Even a scholar who is trying to present objective research can show us why she/he chose to pursue that particular course of research—presumably because the findings would have some value. When scholars make their motivations and purposes clear in their writing, it helps the reader connect that work to larger ideas.

I was going to write my weekly blog post with respect to those issues, but this morning as I was checking headlines, I saw an article on motivation and advice that connects to these issues from a somewhat different angle—the angle of motivation as opposed to purpose.  When we think about purposes, we can think of them as a form of motivation—“I did X because I wanted Y”—but now I’m thinking more of motivation in a more primal/emotional sense—a sense of willingness to act, and a drive to take action, rather than some specific goal to be reached (some goal is needed for the motivation, but the focus now is on the drive to act abstracted from the desired ends of the action).

The article on motivation and advice reports on a series of studies that showed that people found motivation when they gave advice.  The common presumption is that people who are struggling to accomplish something should seek advice—that by seeking advice, people will be more able and likely to succeed.  The study suggested, instead, that people already had important useful knowledge, and that taking action was the crucial missing element in success.  In the study, giving advice led to the advice-givers feeling more confident about their own knowledge and ability, and thus were more likely to take action.  In one of their studies, done with students at a middle school, “Advice givers spent 38% more time on their homework than the advice receivers spent over the month following the intervention.”

The authors of the study consider a number of reasons that giving advice helps with motivation which I will roughly summarize as the power of focusing on the assets (knowledge) one does have.  When one gives advice, one “conduct[s] a biased memory search by considering one’s past successful behaviors in order to generate advice for others.” When giving advice, the focus goes to strengths and successes (the bias, from the flip side, being that one does not focus on failures).

This basic dynamic of focusing on strengths as providing motivation is related to another study I once read about (but cannot cite), which suggested that optimists were more likely to succeed than pessimists for the precise reason that they overestimated their abilities/performance and thus were more likely to persist in their efforts.  The pessimists might have been more accurate in their assessment of their abilities and performance on the small scale, but that accuracy seems to have worked against them in the long run.  Of course, when giving advice, one is not misrepresenting things (or at least…well, here’s a matter for speculation, actually: to what extent do advice givers simplify problems, thus creating an unrealistic assessment, parallel to the optimists?), but merely focusing on past successes.

Winding this back to the scholarly writer who is presenting work in a neutral, abstracted way: if what you write is scrubbed clean of your motivations and the knowledge that you have, it takes your attention away from the strengths of your own work, and frames everything in a neutral light that avoids focusing on exactly that which is most important to you.

If you are trying to write a dissertation, your work is supposed to be original. So what makes work original? What makes work original is the thing that you have observed that others have not. From one direction, we could say that “the thing you have seen that others have not” is a purely objective thing, for example, you were the first to see the moons of Jupiter (well, that’s attributed to Galileo, but the first to observe some object or phenomenon).  That objective angle might be all there is to your originality.  But chances are that part of your originality was deciding to look for that thing in the first place, or in seeing some significance that others did not observe (indeed, seeing some potential significance that others did not observe is often part of the decision to look at something that others have not examined in the first place).

In expressing your voice, you focus your attention the depth and detail of what you know about the subject. In the studies mentioned above, the advice-givers worked more after giving advice because that focused on what they did know.  This is a reasonable attitude for the scholar to take, too. After all, what is an academic text but a form of educational work? Even the highest-level scholarly works written for other high-level scholars are educational in the sense that they attempt to educate people about things that they did not know. If you are writing a doctoral dissertation, master’s thesis, or other work of independent research, you are doing original research, and so you should be giving “advice” in the sense that you are educating others.  Focusing on what you have to teach others is important from the point of view of the content of your written work.  And, if we think of that same expression of your voice as a form of giving advice, then these studies of advice giving suggest that expressing your voice will also help motivate you. 

Advice for Dissertation Advisors

This was originally posted on the TAAOnline blog.

Dear dissertation advisors, as a dissertation coach, I don’t actually want you to do your jobs better, because that might cut into my business. But if you’re interested in saving yourself effort and hassles in working with your thesis and dissertation candidates, I have a few pieces of advice for you.

As a dissertation coach, most people who contact me are struggling with their work, and often those struggles are exacerbated by poor feedback or support from professors. This biases my view of the general quality of research feedback, but the general patterns of what makes good vs. bad feedback are still useful to keep in mind. Good feedback helps the student effectively, reducing demands on the teacher; bad feedback will hinder progress, and may ultimately increase teacher workload. It’s good when students finish their projects, for both student and professor!

Not only does effort spent giving good feedback pay off in satisfied and successful students, the good feedback practices that I recommend are less time consuming than what I discourage. In this series of posts, I make some suggestions for giving feedback that I think would help both students and professors work more efficiently toward better outcomes.

The best feedback is limited in scope and suited to the context, focusing on the important issues, and avoiding tangential concerns. The best feedback probably won’t touch on all the issues that need to be addressed; it will address a focused set of issues that should be addressed as a next step. Contextual issues are maybe obvious: if a student is going to file her dissertation next week, you probably ought to give her different feedback than if she’s still struggling to formulate her research proposal. By scope, I want to focus on giving a good amount of work—focusing feedback on a limited set of issues to keep students from getting overwhelmed, and to encourage their more frequent contact with you (more frequent, while potentially less intense, as things move more smoothly and evenly).

It’s no great insight to say “focus on what’s important and skip the tangential,” but it’s a principle that can easily be taken for granted.  What is important, and what is tangential? Your mileage may vary, but one way I would approach this is to say that what is most important is the same knowledge and insight that makes you—their professor—special, in other words, that which is at the heart of your research expertise. What is tangential is stuff that other people could tell them.  Approaching this point from another angle, we can say that the theoretical and intellectual content are important, and many or most practicalities and formalities are secondary. And from yet another angle, we could ask what a dissertation or thesis is for? Is it to teach them to do research in your field (where your expertise is crucial) or to teach them to write (an area where your expertise is less rare)? Spend your feedback time on things that require your expertise: the subject matter of your field, research methods in your field, and their research in your field.

Although most dissertation advisors would agree, I think, that dissertations and theses are meant to teach students how to do research, and that therefore feedback should be focused on research issues, I see a lot of feedback that skips by fundamental research issues like poor question definition or mismatch of method to question. (One concrete suggestion that could save dissertation advisors a lot of time is to look at the research question first: is it defined well? Only once you can answer that question in the affirmative is there any reason to look at anything else.) Of course, there are a lot of surface issues that can distract, especially the obvious errors in presentation, like grammar and style.

The paradigm for poor feedback, in my experience, is to focus on grammar and other formal elements (like citation style) when basic conceptual and content issues are obviously flawed. Grammar and formal elements should not be a professor’s main concern. I’m not discounting the importance of being a good writer and of producing works that are grammatically sound. Writing is an invaluable skill, and inability to write cripples an academic career. But writing is also something that a graduate student can learn from many people, while research is something that far fewer can teach. Additionally, I imagine that you would rather teach your expertise (research) than a general skill (writing). Here’s an argument to convince you to leave aside grammar: according to standard academic ethics, a dissertation writer can hire an editor to fix grammar and citation style, but cannot have someone else design or carry out the research. Help your students to do the things that they cannot ethically have someone else do.

Teach your subject and put the burden for producing a good document on the students—whether they learn to fix their writing, or they work with an editor is mostly immaterial. Tell them “Learn to write, it will help your career,” and “this will be inadequate for a final draft,” and move on to research problems. If a draft is so messy that it cannot be read, say “This is so messy it cannot be read. Edit it and return it.” Don’t spend your time fixing stuff that they should fix themselves. It’s worthwhile effort to look past grammatical errors and to focus on their intentions and ideas. Pragmatically speaking, while it may be really easy and quick to identify a single grammatical or typographic error, and it may take more time to find a conceptual error, on the whole, it’s much quicker to look for conceptual errors than it is to fix a string of minor errors. If grammatical errors are common, there will be a lot of them, which can suck away your time while adding little of value to the student. But, to give good feedback, you only really need to find one significant conceptual error–if for example, the purpose is stated poorly, or there is a problem with the method, then feedback can focus on that issue, leaving other concerns for a later draft (and if there is a conceptual problem, it doesn’t really matter much whether the grammar is correct).

Spend your time on the research issues, where your expertise is rare and necessary. Is the research question defined? Is the scope of the research reasonable? Is there a match between method and question? Are there important voices in the discourse that absolutely need to be considered?

Save time by focusing on fundamentals: If the research question needs to be defined, then there’s little need to give feedback unrelated to the research question.


Reasonable Expectations of Success and Rejection

Some people just have bad taste. Or bad judgement. Or at least different tastes or interests.  You could create a work of great artistic genius, and it might get rejected.  Responses that you get for your writing are not solely determined by the quality of the writing itself.  When you offer a work for review, the reviewer’s response is shaped by his or her own interests, concerns, etc. The response is not all about the quality of your work. Any number of causes could lead to rejection.

My book proposal got rejected by a publisher a few days ago. It’s a bummer, but it’s not actually a big deal.  I expected to get rejected.  Or it might be better to say that I was reasonably optimistic about my chances, where “reasonably optimistic” means “realistic about possible outcomes of submitting a proposal.” Some proposals get rejected. Some proposals of worth get rejected. And the people who do the rejecting don’t always get it right. Rejection is not necessarily a referendum on the quality or value of my work.

Recently, in a cafe, I overheard a conversation about the band “Crack the Sky.”  It happens that when I was about 14, my cousin gave me their album Safety in Numbers, which has three tracks that I love.  For whatever reasons, Crack the Sky never broke it really big.  Their first three albums made it into the lower half of the Billboard 200 in the 1970s, and they became very popular in the Baltimore area, where they remain popular to this day.  The question we can ask is why this happened.  Does their music have some lack that prevents it being as popular as other acts that have “made it”? Or was there some circumstance outside the ability of the band to make it big?

Ability and effort are not clear guarantors of immediate success. Crack the Sky may not have the talent of more famous musicians, and that may explain their lack of huge success. Or maybe they didn’t make it big for reasons separate from their musical abilities.  Maybe their record company did a poor job promoting them. Success and talent don’t always go hand in hand. Many great artists have only been recognized after their time.

Along similar lines, I’m remembering a passage from Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. He was writing about baseball in the early 20th century and about the minor leagues and the quality of minor league players. Many big league players, James wrote, talk about their lucky chance—how they had a good day when the scouts came out to see some other player on their team who had a bad day.  James goes on to note at least one example that suggests that the guy the scouts came to see—the guy who had the bad day that one day—went on to have a great minor league career because he was a talented player. We don’t remember that guy now in the same way we remember the major leaguer, but that minor league player might have been just as good or better. The difference between a major league career and a minor league one depended on that chance of having a bad day at the wrong time. Is the situation of Crack the Sky something like that?  Did they happen to play a bad show the night a promoter showed up? There’s reason to believe that they had the talent.

These situations are parallel to my book proposal, in a way: There are any number of factors that might determine whether my book proposal gets accepted, and some of these may not be a reflection on the quality of my book. Maybe the person who reviews my proposal is grumpy on the day that they review my proposal, and pessimism tempers their evaluation where on another day they would have felt more optimistic and would have been more interested. Maybe they like my book, but don’t think that they can sell it.

One thing that I do know (well, I don’t have statistics or citations, but…): most book proposals do not get accepted. Only a small percentage of book proposals get accepted. It’s not being unduly pessimistic to think that my proposal might fall into the larger class, even if I hope that my skill as a writer and the quality of the story that I share influence those odds. I would like to believe that my writing and my ideas improve my chances of acceptance—but I don’t believe that my skill or content can guarantee acceptance.  Not alone. 

In the long run, the question is whether I can get my proposal accepted by some publisher. I only need one acceptance. It would be great to get accepted on my first try, but I can hardly expect that. (As it happens, my very first book proposal was, in fact, accepted for publication by Routledge. It helped that my mentor, Jean-Pierre Protzen, the first author, added significant gravitas to the project, but I wrote the proposal.)  I expect to have to try several times.  It would be great to get accepted right away, but I don’t view rejection as a surprise, and don’t particularly view it as an accurate reflection on the quality of my work.  

I believe in my work. I’m highly self-critical, so I don’t think my work is perfect. I am, indeed, highly aware of many flaws in it.  But I still believe that the ideas I want to share about the writing and research processes could help many people, and I believe that the book is well written.  The strength of that belief is a support when my book proposal does get rejected. Because I believe in my work, rejection is frustrating and difficult, but I won’t rewrite my book because of it. I’m going to rewrite my proposal and send it to someone else.  I don’t want to be oblivious to learning from feedback, and maybe a long string of rejections will force me to reconsider the potential value of my project, but I do believe in my work.  

Hopefully you, too, can believe in your work.  It can be hard to believe in your own work if you are self-critical.  But, if you believe in your work enough to send off a book proposal (or abstract for review, or other application), then you should not let rejection shatter that belief. There is always a chance that a work will be rejected for some reason unrelated to its quality or value. Expect the chance of rejection as a reflection of the many vagaries of life, and focus on the larger picture of finding the one publisher who will take the work.

Opening Moves

How will you capture the attention of your audience?  The first words that readers see are crucial.  Will those words give a good impression? Will they motivate the reader to read on? Will they motivate the reader to care? Or to think well of your work (and of you)? Here are some suggestions for how to think about your opening words.

These considerations have taken on greater import to me than once.   Once, I would have said that the ideas were all. Was the underlying story a good one? That’s what mattered.  With greater maturity, I recognize that no matter how good the underlying story may be, if it is unheard/unread, it is of little value (setting aside the value that the writer may get from writing).  And to get the attention of readers, the opening moves are crucial.

I’m thinking specifically in terms of my new blog, but everything I write has a beginning. What works in a blog is not the same are what works in other contexts, but the basic consideration is still the same: I want people to read what I write. How can I accomplish that?  As a writer, the words I choose are the only tools I have to get people to read (well, I could include images in my blog posts, but, for better or worse, that’s not the aspect of writing that interests me). In this era of search engines, there’s a double level, in needing to get the search engines to notice and then getting readers to pay attention, but still, words are the tools I’m using.  

Whether you are writing a blog or writing for publication or writing a doctoral dissertation, a good opening helps. If you give your readers something that they want, and something that interests them, then your opening moves are going to help you the rest of the way. A good first impression matters.

Because I’m aiming at an audience of writers, I opened with questions of concern to writers, which I hoped would spark the interest of some to read on.  Different readers, of course, want different things. Your opening moves want to be particularly sensitive to these differences, because it is at the beginning of your relationship with the reader that you most need to draw them in. Once you have succeeded in getting someone interested in your work in a positive way, then you can start to pay more attention to your own interests and to discussing your own interests. 

Once you have captured the attention of your reader, you want to try to anchor it by suggesting that the rest of the work offers some promise that they want fulfilled.  For example, as the last sentence of my opening paragraph, I promise some suggestions for how to think of your opening words, which, I hope, is a promise that got you to read on (I suppose that if you’re reading this that it might have worked). Or, for example, if you’re writing about research, you get the reader interested in a general question, and promise to reveal interesting things about that question (or about researching that question). Or, for example, if you’re writing fiction, you foreshadow some future tension (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Austen), or you introduce a character (“Call me Ishmael” — Melville; “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man…. I believe my liver is diseased.” – Dostoyevsky), or something strange and interesting (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”).

What you don’t want to do is answer too many questions. You want to keep the reader wanting more. If you raise good questions right at the beginning, those questions can hold a reader’s attention through descriptive detail that gives background to your work, but that might be dry in and of itself (not that a good opening is an excuse for a bad continuation, but that’s another question). To keep the reader wanting more, it’s also useful to keep the opening short, that way the reader knows you’re not going to waste too much of their time—you don’t want to earn a “tl; dr” whether literal or metaphorical. And to that end, although there’s a lot more that could be said, I’m going to wrap this up.

To summarize:

  1. The opening matters
  2. Pay attention to your readers’ interests
  3. Appeal to those interests first
  4. Raise questions that you don’t answer
  5. Keep it short