Reflections On Writing Blog: Thoughts, Tips, and Suggestions

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

Explicitly Stating Intentions

In some ways, this blog is merely a continuation of a project of ten years or so, but switching it to a new URL is a beginning of sorts, and it can be useful to state intentions.

My general intentions for the blog are to post weekly, generally on a subject related to the process of writing, especially, but not exclusively, academic writing. My hope is that reflection on issues of the process will help writers find insight into their own processes. I often try to blend abstract reflection on ideas with specific practical suggestions, but I have been known to get absorbed in philosophy to the neglect of practical concerns. My hope is also that by presenting useful information about the writing process, I provide potential clients with evidence that my services are valuable. (I’ll risk the danger that my blog posts are so helpful that people who read them never need help again!)  Thus, to summarize, my intentions are multiple: 1. to blog with a certain regularity; 2. to cover a certain subject; 3. to help writers; and 4. to promote my business.

But those are only my intentions for the blog generally.  My intentions for this specific post are to describe my intentions for the blog, and to talk (well, write, actually, but…) about why I want to set my intentions, and, more generally, about the value I see in setting intentions/expectations/goals/what-have-you.

As a writer there are a few reasons that setting intentions/expectations/goals can be helpful. While I don’t think any of these reasons are rocket science or deep hidden secrets, I do think it worth trying to make them explicit as part of a program of convincing writers of the value of setting intentions.

Firstly, clearly stating intentions gives your readers a reason to read. By clearly stating that my intention is to help writers, potential readers who are interested in their writing process might be motivated to read. Admittedly, stating my intention also sends away potential readers who are not interested in writing, but that’s okay because I can’t really help people who aren’t writers. It’s not entirely out of the question that someone might enjoy my writing style, or might read my blog for a personal reason (like that they’re my friend), but on the whole, what I have to offer is help for writers. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to offer something that everyone wants—that’s got to be good for a business, right?—but rather that what I do have to offer is of value to only some people. By stating my intentions, I can create a connection with my readers.

A separate level of value in setting intentions is its value for my writing process. In this respect, setting intentions can be a two-edged sword: if intentions are poorly stated, disappointment can follow, and disappointment does not help a writer keep writing. At the same time, though, I believe that the other side of the dynamic is also operative: not only is there a danger of being disappointed after clearly setting intentions, but there is also a danger in not setting intentions, and not setting them clearly and realistically. Without setting intentions, you can spend a lot of time and at the end feel like you’ve got nothing to show for it (that may not be true—spending a lot of time writing, even if without clear intentions, can certainly help improve skill as a writer).

Setting intentions will help you focus efforts: if you say “I want to write a blog post”, that defines parameters. If you say “I want to write a blog post to help writers,” or “I want to write a blog post about setting intentions that will help writers,” all of these statements help me focus my efforts.  Having set an intention, I have a focus for my writing that guides me when interesting but tangential ideas occur to me, or ones that are interesting and completely unrelated. My intentions help keep me from getting distracted.

It can be frightening to set intentions—by saying “I want to get published,” a standard is defined that can be violated, thus leading to disappointment or frustration.  If I say (as I have), “I want to post a blog post each week,” then if I fail to post, I am disappointed. Multiple failures to post might even lead to sufficient disappointment in my ability to post that I start to think that I can’t live up to that standard. If I say I want to get published and I don’t get published, that is obviously disappointing.

But if we’re concerned with the psychology, isn’t it also worth noting that, because setting intentions is frightening—because saying “I want to get published” is intimidating—we might harbor the ambition without admitting it?  A creative writer might say “Oh, I’m just writing for the fun of it,” when, in fact, he or she wants to be published but is concerned about setting a goal and then failing to reach it.

It might be worth it to state ambitious intentions and then be OK with not quite achieving them. After all, if you fail to achieve a goal on a first effort, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it on the second. Indeed, often the first failure is crucial in providing guidance as to how to move forward. 

I’m going to wrap up even though I’ve got more to say. One of my general intentions for this blog—one on which I was pretty clear, but which I did not state earlier—was to write posts of about 1,000 words in length, and I’m getting right up to that now.  There’s more that I could say about setting intentions and the benefit in setting intentions, but I’m not going to cover it all.

Going forward, I want this blog to help writers. I want to provide guidance that helps people develop effective and productive writing processes and practices. My subjects and discussion will be skewed towards talking about academic writing, and especially common dissertation problems, because that’s where I’ve done most of my work, but a lot of writing issues are true for all writers.

Welcome to my new blog

Over ten years ago, I started a blog on Blogger, using that service because I didn’t want to try to manage my own blog (WordPress was still young, and I was unfamiliar with it–I’m hardly at the cutting edge of tech).

I started with a modest post about developing “momentum” as a writer–developing a sense of progress, a sense of motion that helps make each new writing session move better. It aimed at helping others with their writing, and also at providing a practice that would help me improve my writing.

It’s been an on-and-off project. For over a year back near the beginning, I wrote a post every day, usually with a length of around 1,000 words.  That practice helped me improve my own writing, but I let it lapse to focus on other writing projects (two books completed: one as second author–Horst Rittel’s Universe of Design, and one all my own–Getting the Best of Your Dissertation, as well as a third currently in submission to publishers).  For many years, I posted rarely, if at all, but last year, I started posting on a weekly basis with an aim to improving my search engine visibility, which is also my motivation for moving both blog and website to a new WordPress platform.

My primary aim is to provide useful suggestions and guidance for writers, though I will likely write about other subjects as they suit me. I invite you to ask questions: do you have any questions or ideas about the process of writing?

My old blog and its posts are currently at thoughtclearing.blogspot.com.