Why can’t I say ‘I’ when I’m doing the writing?

In South African universities, the dominant trend in academic writing is to use the 3rd person and to write in the passive voice. For example: ‘In this essay it will be argued that…’ or ‘This essay will claim that’ – so there is no ‘I’ obviously doing the arguing and claiming, and the passive voice particularly lends the essay a more serious and ‘academic’ tone. This post considers why this trend continues; whether we can question and change this or any trend; and what change could require from us.

The arguments for writing like this tend to go like this (broadly speaking): the 3rd person is a more academic way of writing. It sounds more formal and it goes some way to preventing students from making wild claims that they cannot support – just saying ‘I think’ all the time. Writing in the passive voice also has a more academic or formal tone, and it makes the writing more scholarly in tone and style. It’s also the way many disciplines have always written, and so perhaps this trend continues uncritically because those who set and assess written tasks do not stop to ask themselves why they want their students to write like this and whether they could do things differently.

Now, I know I am generalising and that not all disciplines in South African universities ask their students to write like this. But many do, and many students don’t understand why they can’t say ‘I argue that’, or why they can’t use ‘I’ at all. After all, many of their tasks say a version of ‘You must evaluate the arguments and motivate your answer’. I should probably come right out and say that, in general, I don’t think you have to be either hidden behind the 3rd person or be passive in order to sound and be academic or appropriately formal in your written register, tone or style. But I do think that using ‘I’ and understanding that this is not  followed with your own personal or un-researched opinions and thoughts is not something novice student-writers necessarily understand, and I think that learning how to write appropriately and well in the disciplines takes time and needs guidance.

I think (along with many other writing centre and academic literacy specialists) that any writing in academic disciplines, whether in the 1st or 3rd person, needs to be carefully modeled and taught, and I think the best way to do this is by showing students why we make the choices we do when we write, and what the effects are on our writing. This, however, is always easier said than done, especially for lecturers who don’t spend much time thinking about their students’ writing (except when they assess it and then call the writing centre for help 🙂 ). Many academics who research, write and also teach in their disciplines find it easy to show you a piece of writing that meets the standards and a piece of writing that does not but struggle often to say, explicitly, why the good piece is good and why the other piece is not. Even though lecturers often design rubrics and try to spell out assessment criteria, some of what goes into assigning this mark or that mark is tacit, and is borne of years of experience as well as their own sense of what counts as good writing.

Good writing tends to be writing that makes sense, not just in terms of what it is about and how well researched and structured it is, but also in terms of how well it fits with the assessor’s idea or sense of what writing in English Lit or PoliSci or Sociology looks and sounds like. We often find it much easier, when we are asked about what good writing is, to focus on things like the referencing style and the grammar and spelling; the organisation into clear paragraphs – these things are identifiable and you can more easily assign or take away marks when students have hit or missed the mark. It’s harder to pin down tone and style. A lot of what makes an essay stand out is students’ ability to really get the tone and style right – to find the nuances and explore them; to be critical and inventive and have a clear and engaging voice. This is, really, what makes any piece of writing stand out. But this kind of writing is hard to do, both as an academic researcher and as an undergraduate student.

I have digressed a bit, so back to the ‘I’ in writing: I can’t say here that writing in the 3rd person should be scrapped wholesale or that we should all start writing in the active voice. I don’t write in the 3rd person all the time, but sometimes I do and I must say it feels safer than saying ‘I’. If I write ‘This paper/thesis/study has claimed that…’ and I’m a little (or a lot) off in my claims, then I feel a bit protected by the passive 3rd person. ‘I wasn’t wrong – the study was!’ I know I’m the person who did the study and made the claims, but the 3rd person gives me a little bit of distance from being so personally involved and sometimes that helps writers, I think, to take a leap and make bold claims they may otherwise hesitate to make. I was reading recently that scientists in many fields still tend to use the 3rd person because it enables them to present their work more objectively, as a kind of truth. Perhaps they too feel safer behind the 3rd person rather than coming out and say ‘we/I have found the answer/cure/etc’.

At any rate, whatever the reason is for using these conventions (whether they are the ones focused on here or others) the important point for me, working as an academic development/writing specialist helping academic and students alike with the challenges of academic writing, is that we focus not just on the content of the writing but more explicitly on the rules and conventions that shape the writing itself. We, in the academic development sphere, need to be brave enough to ask, and keep asking, those working in the disciplines tough questions about why they make the choices they make when they write, and why they want from their students the kinds of writing they do; we need to understand more about the what that students are writing about, as well as the why and the how of the writing itself. In asking these questions, and in forging relationships with lecturers and tutors who want help with their students’ writing, we can begin to cast this understanding back onto the disciplinary insiders, and so begin to think more carefully about why we maintain or challenge any of the rules and conventions that shape the way we write.

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Lessons learned and lessons shared: writing advice from writing tutors

This was a fun post to devise and also to write. In a recent staff meeting I posed the question: ‘what advice would you give yourself about writing if you could go back in time to yourself as an undergraduate student, or yourself starting out with your postgraduate degree?’ This is what we came up with, and we would like to share it with all of you. There are 20 pieces of advice, in no particular order:

1. Procrastination is not always a bad thing. Taking a break from a piece of writing and doing other things can lead to greater clarity when you can go back to it with fresher eyes.

2. Critical friends are an essential part of the writer’s ‘toolkit’. It’s scary to ask for feedback but if you ask the right people and take their advice, it will help you to grow as a writer.

3. Revisions almost always take longer than you think they will. Make notes about how much time writing takes you, and learn from this when you plan future writing tasks and revisions so you can plan your time realistically and avoid frustration.

4. Learn how to use the MSWord shortcuts and tools well. They can save you lots of time and make the technical side of writing less stressful.

5. Don’t underestimate the importance of giving yourself time to think. Thinking is an essential part of doing good writing – the thinking you do before, during and also after you produce a piece of writing all enriches the writing process and the writing itself.

6. For postgraduates, grounding yourself solidly in the field in which you are doing research before you start coming up with research questions is helpful. Read, read and then read. And make good notes!

7. Develop a system that works for saving your files and readings so that you can approach your writing tasks in an organised way. This saves hours looking for files and source documents that could be spent writing and revising.

8. Keep a journal – take note of where your notes come from: which reading were you writing about and what is the full reference. Create a good system for keeping track of your references, and use the journal to assist you in writing summaries in your own words of the relevant points and arguments made by different authors.  This will help you to be more organised, and also to write more comfortably in your own ‘voice’.

9. Save your drafts with separate file names, and develop a logical system for doing this (like Draft1_Eco paper_date). This helps you to keep track of your own development as a writing, and can also be encouraging when you see how far you have come. At postgraduate level especially, saving multiple drafts means you can cut chunks of good writing out of a final draft but still have them saved to use in a conference paper or journal article where they may be more relevant.

10. Keep the topic you are writing about clear in your mind while you are reading and writing; this will keep you on track and make sure that you don’t read  and write about irrelevant or off-topic ideas and information which will confuse you and your readers.

11. Every day should be a writing day, especially for MA and PhD students. All the small bits of writing add up, even if you are scribbling informally in a journal about ideas you have had. A paper, a thesis, a dissertation – these are all written one paragraph at a time.

12. Read, read, and also read! Start reading on a topic you are writing about as early as you can before the due date and read carefully, making notes as you go. Try to summarise the main ideas and arguments that are relevant to the topic you are writing about or to your research questions. Confident writers are readers.

13. Use the work of writers and thinkers you admire and whose work you are using in your own papers and research to help you find a writing voice or style that is relevant in your field and also feels comfortable for you. Find your ‘writing heroes’ in other words :-).

14. Make sure you understand the key arguments you are drawing on in what you are writing well before you get tangled up in the writing. This can help you to stay on topic and write clearly. Often, especially with theory, depth is better than breadth, but this can also depend on your field.

15. Writing is not a ‘paint-by-numbers’ exercise, which is often what makes it hard to ‘teach’. You need to find your style of writing by writing as often as you can and getting feedback from an advisor you trust, like a tutor, a lecturer, a peer or a supervisor.

16. Writing is not a skill, it’s a practice. You only get better at it if you practice it, and you can only practice by doing it. Writing for yourself every day, in a research or reading journal, can help you to grow in your thinking and writing.

17. Planning is an important part of writing so don’t skip this step. Make time to develop and plan or a basic structure for your essay or chapter before you write, so that you have something to guide you.

18. Save your writing in more than one place. Email it to yourself, or sign up for a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive (among others) so that you never have to be let down by a computer than crashes or a flashdrive that gets lost or breaks.

19. Writing can be difficult, and when you are working on a big piece of writing like an MA or PhD thesis it can also be lonely. Find yourself cheerleaders who can encourages and motivate you, even if they can’t help you with your writing.

20. Writing shouldn’t always be a chore. Writing should also be an activity you can enjoy. If you find academic writing, or any writing, tough, try to look for the bits you do enjoy and use that feeling to help you through the bits that are less enjoyable. There is almost always some part of writing you can enjoy, even if it is just handing in a finished final draft! 🙂

An ode to freewriting

It’s been a while since I have posted something here. That is mostly because I have been very focused on writing Chapter 4 of the Thesis, and have had little emotional and mental energy to do much of any other kind of writing and thinking. But this post has been floating around in my head for a few weeks, and Nvivo10 is frozen, so now is a good time to get it down and put it up.

I want to write about freewriting. This is tool that many of us who write and teach writing and work with writers use in different ways, and much has been written about it; notably, Peter Elbow’s seminal text Writing Without Teachers, published in the 1960s and republished in 1998. In essence, I understand freewriting to be a tool that enables a writer to unlock their thinking by creating a space free from second-guessing and judgement and fear where they can just put ideas and thoughts down on a page, in writing, in whatever form or language they take.  This is, at any rate, the way I use it in my own writing and in workshops with students and colleagues. All writers get stuck, or blocked. There are so many ideas in your head but you don’t know where to start in order to organise them and write about them coherently and sensibly. For many students, this happens when they have heard a lot about the writing topic in lectures, and in tutorials and in conversation with peers, and they have done some research and reading, and they are not sure how to start or where to start writing in response to the task. Freewriting, in these cases, in an excellent tool to get past the fear and doubt, and get the  ideas flowing  and the writing started.

The method is fairly simple. Set a time limit – 3 or 5 or 7 minutes. Set a timer – on your watch or cellphone or on your PC if you are near one. Create a topic. ‘I want to write about the link between the concept of framing and the data about teachers’ pacing of their curriculum (this is from my own research).  Then write. In pen, in pencil, on a PC – the main thing is not to stop and think and wonder and delete and rephrase; don’t stop at all until the timer goes ping! If you do stop, I tell students, write to yourself about why you stopped. This also them becomes a way to learn something new about yourself as a writer, and your writing process. Maybe you are thinking too much, or scared that your ideas are wrong, or that your grammar is clumsy. You can work on these fears and doubts if you know they are there.  When the timer goes ping, finish the sentence you are writing and stop. Read what you have written. You may be surprised at just how much you could write in a few short minutes. Now you need to move to the next step, and think about which pieces of your freewrite are useful for the bigger thing you are writing, like a section of a chapter or a paper. Which pieces fit the topic you are responding to and which do not? What claims have you made that want to use, but need to find evidence for? Do you have the evidence or do you need to do more reading and research? Have you only written about the data and the evidence you have found? If so, what are the claims you can make, and how will you express them?  From this first freewriting step, you can move on to do more structured and thoughtful writing and thinking, and this is possible now because you have freed your thinking a little, and have opened the way to more thinking and writing.

I wrote the first draft of Chapter 4 last week. 50-odd pages. It was a huge task and a very, very daunting one when I started. I didn’t know where to begin, so I started with a series of  freewrites. I set as topics or headings my conceptual tools and wrote about what stood out in the data and what I was trying to claim under each ‘heading’. I pasted that all into a new file, and I started building: adding evidence from the data, writing, rewriting, shaping and reshaping. It was really tough, and I am kind of dreading having to do it all over again with the rest of the chapters I still have to write because there is so much to think about and write about. But I’m not worried about finding my way because I have tools in my writer’s toolbox to help me. There are many tools I use in my own writing, and freewriting is one of my favourites, and one I use often with many different kinds of writing tasks. I use and enjoy it because I don’t have to second-guess and doubt my ideas while I’m writing about them, which I often do. When I use freewriting the ideas flow, and I feel productive and I feel like I am moving forward. There is no judgement when I write freely, just me, my pen, and my thoughts and ideas. If you’ve never done it, give it a try. If you are a freewriter like me, keep writing 🙂 – I hope your next writing project is easier because of it.

Spelling and grammar checkers are not always simple tools for students to use

Image from examiner.com

Image from examiner.com

How many times have you read a student’s (typed) essay and been really frustrated by their poor spelling, not to mention all the commas either missing or in the wrong places? How many of you, in that situation, have thought ‘why do they ignore the red and green squiggles? Why don’t they just use the spelling and grammar checkers?’ I confess, I have thought that. And in workshops in recent years I have urged students to learn how to use these tools to their advantage as student-writers. However, recently I had a conversation with a student that made me wonder just how helpful these tools are, especially to students for whom English is not a mother-tongue or first language, or prior language of learning and teaching.

This student, in response to my querying whether they were comfortable using MSWord, and whether they knew how to make best use of the spelling and grammar checkers, commented that she knew what they were, but that often they left her feeling confused, and she made choices to change spelling and grammar without always knowing what she was doing. Often, she said, she could not make a grammar correction because the ‘help’ was not helpful. For example, when the grammar checker advises you that you have a ‘Fragment’ and should (consider revising). Or when it helpfully suggests that you are writing in the ‘Passive voice’ and should also (consider revising). If you do not know how to consistently write in full English sentences, you will not find the first suggestion of ‘help’ useful. It will confuse and even worry you. In South African universities, and in some disciplines like many of the natural sciences and also History and English, the passive voice tends to be preferred over a more active voice, also leading some students into confusing territory. There are also many other pieces of advice that the grammar checker suggests that would actually make your sentences nonsensical if you followed them, usually concerning subject and verb agreement. When it underlines your work in green squiggles, MSWord is telling you that your writing is not correct, but it also is not always helping you to make  the right revisions or explaining why you need them. So, a simple and flippant ‘just use the grammar checker’ is perhaps not always the most useful thing to say to an undergraduate student, even one who has been taught previously in English or has it as a first or home language.

Furthermore, spelling checkers are, in my opinion, only really usable in an educated way if you already have a sense of how the word should be spelled. If you have no idea, then being presented with options may not be helpful. Often, the spell checker is more useful in picking up errors in spelling caused by typing clumsiness  rather than actual errors in spelling, and in these cases students can often work out from the options given which word they intended to type and choose from the list. However, where they have genuinely misspelled the word because they do not know how to spell it at all, they may just choose the first option, and that may not be the right one in the context of the sentence. When I was teaching academic writing courses I could always tell when a student had blindly followed the spelling and grammar checkers’ advice because their work bore the marks of the confusion and missteps that the checkers prompted them to take. I wish I could recall actual examples, but I think many who have marked these kinds of essays will have their own to relate this to.

Many students in South Africa are fairly new to computers when they come to university, and many still, even if they are very familiar with this technology seem to trust that computer knows what the answer is, because, after all, it is programmed to have the answers. Google always does, so why not MSWord? As I always tell students in workshops now, while acknowledging the challenges of using these tools and their shortcomings, is that the computer does not have an active, thinking brain, It is only doing what it is programmed to do. You have an active, thinking brain that has a seemingly endless capacity to learn, including how to spell words correctly, and how to write clearly. It’s not easy for many students, but with time, practice and help, I think it is possible to improve your writing and become better at being your own spelling and grammar checker; at least so that you can tell the PC when you are going to ‘Ignore’ its suggestions with greater confidence!

Why I enjoy blogging, and why students could too

I started this blog for the Writing Centre in April last year. I was very new to blogging at the time, and wanted to find a way of writing about what we do and who we are and the issues we are concerned about as a writing centre team that allowed us to connect to readers and interested people more immediately and more informally. I also wanted the tutors to begin to write some of the posts and find a less daunting way of thinking about some of the aspects of their work with students and as writers, and share these thoughts in this informal space.

Academic publishing is a tough field. In South Africa we are encouraged to publish in accredited journals, and many of these have high rejection rates and it can take more than a year for your work to appear in print. Many of these journals make papers available only to those with subscriptions, so your work is not available openly to all who may want to read it, for free. Writing for these journals and at this level is also challenging, takes time, needs to conform in specific ways more often than not, and is not always enjoyable, especially when a paper you hoped you were done with comes back with reviewers’ reports requesting significant rethinking, revising and rewriting in order to be publishable!

I love blogging for these reasons. It’s online, it’s free to read and anyone can sign up to follow your blog and read and think about what you have to say. There is a sense of a more immediate community in some ways, as people ‘like’ posts and can comment on them quite informally, and that is always encouraging. I don’t have to reference, and find lots of evidence for all the claims I make. I can wonder, conjecture, provoke and think in this space, and just leave questions out there without immediate answers. I don’t write just any old thing and I do think about what I want to say and the relevance it may have for readers interested in writing and academic literacy in education – as an academic it all comes from spaces in my head and work-life that have theory and thinking within and behind them. But this space feels freer than my other academic writing, and it takes less time to do. I can adopt a more relaxed and even humorous tone, and I can play with words and phrases in ways that academic publishing does not often allow.

I enjoy blogging because I enjoy being free to write without second-guessing what I write, and because it gives me a space in which to form ideas and think about things I am not quite ready to research and write full journal articles about. I gives me, and hopefully also my tutoring colleagues, a place to write about ideas we may never write formal articles about but which are still interesting to us, and hopefully others, and which should be put out there, perhaps for others to take up and carry further. Many academics ask students to blog now as part of ongoing assessment, as a way to get them to think about and reflect on what they are learning – not necessarily for lots of marks, but definitely for lots of learning. As a form of low stakes and formative assessment, I think blogs are an excellent teaching, learning and writing tool. And they make writing fun, which for students ( and academics) is always a good thing :).

Why we should still be writing academic essays at university

I have been wanting to write this post for a while, but I had the sense that I needed to do a bit more by way of research in order to write it well, and have thus been putting it off. I always seem to have too many other Things To Do, like write my PhD draft. Which is, itself, like a very long essay. It has an introduction,  it is developing an argument using research, data and other kinds of evidence and my own critical thinking about that evidence and my own argument, and it will finish with a conclusion that will (hopefully) pull it all together. Granted, it is about 78000 words longer than the average undergraduate student’s essay, but the basic idea behind the structure, and I would argue, the intent, is the same. The point is to teach me, as the student, to produce a well-research, sustained and academic piece of writing and thinking that will enable me to move forward in my own ability to think critically and to do research that contributes to knowledge in my field. It will also enable me to more confidently join, and also contribute to and extend relevant conversations and debates in my field. I am learning how to think outside of my own narrower conceptions of the world and even my field, and I am learning to think in ways that allow me to more ably join what Wheelahan (2010) calls ‘society’s conversation about itself’.

This is, ideally, what the university essay is aiming to teach undergraduate students. In many of the essay writing guides I could find online, the first paragraph was an introduction to why students are asked to write essays at university. They mention things like ‘learning to think critically’; ‘producing a sustained piece of thinking and writing’ on a particular topic; learning to write in the forms required of the discipline, and so on. Undergraduate essays generally focus on getting students to read a range of sources on a particular topic, and respond to a question that asks them to take a stance and make an argument, using those sources to support the claims they make. They are responding to the specific, but learning to move to the general to explain it. They are learning to think about, read about, and join conversations that take them beyond their own narrow ways of thinking about the world, and help them to see, appreciate and also challenge other world views, as well as defend their own. These are useful skills to have in the world of work. All work requires workers to be able to apply knowledge and skills in a range of ways to different situations. We can’t always predict what these situations will be. Thus, we need to learn how to navigate between what we know and think now and what is yet to be thought, to borrow from Basil Bernstein (2000). We need a bridge between the specific contexts in which we are working and the general or abstract world of theory and knowledge that we know and also that we don’t yet know, and in the complex process that goes into producing academic essays we can learn how to do this, and in different ways as we become more proficient and confident readers, writers and thinkers.

While there are many other forms of written work that are useful for students to be writing, like reports, portfolios and narratives, and while changes to the way we find, use and think about knowledge and learning may have led some in and outside of universities to wonder whether students should still be writing essays over other more ‘relevant’ kinds of writing, I think the university essay will endure. Not because of what students write about in these pieces of work, but because of what these extended exercises in reading, thinking and writing are training students to do in terms of developing their capacity to join and contribute to, and also to extend, society’s conversations about itself.

Keeping calm and freaking out: more on the writing process

keep calm and write on2

Image from cafepress.ca

My name is Sherran and I am a PhD student. This post is part personal confession and part semi-academic musing on writing. I am swinging between keeping calm, writing on and trusting the process, and freaking out and believing the small voice in my head that says this thesis will never be done on time (although it will eventually, surely, be finished). It’s got me thinking a bit more about this thing we call ‘the writing process’ and how perhaps, while we acknowledge that it is iterative and non-linear and tough when we talk to students about it, we tend to maybe describe or present it as this ‘thing’ that can be cracked and that if you just crack it, writing will be easier and less painful and difficult. This is obviously not true, or helpful.

I have written about drafting and revising, and writing being an iterative rather than linear process here. It’s a messy business, for sure, whether you are writing something short or something long, like this mammoth of a Thesis that is currently weighing me down like many tons of heavy bricks. I have read ‘self-help’ thesis writing books, although admittedly only two of them because they made me cross and also made me feel a bit thick because I couldn’t really recognise my own muddled process in those texts. I felt, reading those books at the start of my PhD journey, like I had not cracked ‘it’ whatever ‘it’ was and therefore should perhaps not be registered for my PhD until I was ready (which clearly I was not, yet). Perhaps I would have found a more helpful book had I kept looking. (Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson’s Pedagogies for Doctoral Supervision is quite excellent, but I only found this very recently).

I am not trying to cast scorn on the writers of these ‘How to write your Thesis and not go mad’ type books – there is value in having guides and advice because academic writing is difficult, and writers need help – but I am wondering how helpful they really are for doctoral students, especially those who are starting out or at quite an early point in their studies. Theresa Lillis argued a few years ago that ‘how to write an essay’ guides are actually only helpful to students who already know how write essays, and from my own limited experience I think the same is true of ‘how to write a PhD thesis’ guides. They are only really insightful and make proper sense, I suspect, when you are finished, or very close to being so, so that you can recognise some of yourself and your journey in what these guides are advising you to do. So where does that leave people who are not yet finished, and are finding their own process quite difficult?

Sadly, as with all kinds of different writing processes and journeys , and all kinds of different things that one can write, I do not think there are easy answers or compact and neat ways of presenting a ‘guide’ to writers that will make the process less… well, process-y; complicated, iterative, frustrating, at times enjoyable and at times maddening. A lot of emotional energy goes into all the reading and thinking and writing and rewriting and this amount is different for everyone. I think any notion of a process that can swing you from being a calm, focused writing machine to being a panicked and freaked out mess and back again needs to be cognisant of the different ways in which the process could progress and also end. We need to aim, in our work with student writers at every level, for a way of allowing them to muddle their way through their own particular writing journeys, and have, at the rights points along the way, spaces and places where they can talk about where they are and get help and advice that makes sense. The challenge is finding more spaces and places in higher education that can fulfill this weighty brief. In the meantime, I shall take my own advice, keep calm, and write on :-).