Monday, August 31, 2009

Composing Clean Sentences

I had promised to say something about the implications of political correctness this morning. I'm only barely going to keep that promise.

Peter Klein at Organizations and Markets alerts us to a thoughtful post by Stanley Fish in the New York Times.

A few years ago, when I was grading papers for a graduate literature course, I became alarmed at the inability of my students to write a clean English sentence. They could manage for about six words and then, almost invariably, the syntax (and everything else) fell apart.

He quickly traces the problem to the undergraduate composition courses (in which his students are instructors). Very few of these courses, he discovered,

emphasized training in the craft of writing. ... Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization.

I have noticed similar things about instruction outside of the composition classroom. It is too often assumed that the problem is "getting the students to express themselves" or even "getting the students to think". At the extremes, teachers fear that criticism, and especially the sort of formal criticism that points out grammatical mistakes and vague language, will stifle the student's desire to write. I think it is high time we begin to push back against this trend.

Even at the PhD level, "clean sentences" are at times far and few between. As in the undergraduate classroom, PhD students are too often encouraged to struggle with ideas rather than words. Indeed, I sometimes think they've been told that worrying about clarity of language reveals that they aren't really interested in the ideas. (I had a philosophy professor once who left us with the distinct impression that he was suspicious of students who spent too much time proof-reading their papers.) One of my missions here in life is to foster a greater interest in the quality of academic writing among young researchers so that they may pass that interest on to their students.

I don't actually think that composition courses are the solution, though I agree with Fish that if you are going to teach composition you should teach it as such. I think criticism of language is the solution. Teachers and supervisors must point out when a sentence fails to convey anything other than unfocused enthusiasm for the subject matter—or worse, an obsequious enthusiasm for the writing assignment. [Update: students also sometimes confine themselves to expressing an impetuous contempt for the writing assignment, sometimes imagining that this displays their "independence of mind". Spare me. Spend your energy writing clear sentences on the assigned topic in the assigned manner. I'm trying to teach you something.] Academic writing must divide into paragraphs with clearly defined points, and these paragraphs must divide into sentences with easily discerned content. It is not enough to feel the importance of a subject. One must use the occasion of writing to think some portion of the subject through.

Edmund Burke said that clarity is the enemy of enthusiasm. But this should not get us to valorize obscurity. Rather, we should valorize the intellectual enthusiasm that survives the expression of an idea in clear, clean sentences.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Avoiding Gendered Pronouns

Here's a good example of the problem of the gendered pronoun. The back cover of Helen Gardner's The Business of Criticism announces her main idea as follows.

The good critic, Miss Gardner believes, carries a torch: he does not wield a sceptre.

Presumably, "Miss" Gardner is a good critic; presumably, then, "he" does not wield a sceptre. The Business was published in 1959 and today I can't imagine a copy-editor letting this problem pass uncorrected, certainly not unqueried. Interestingly, the solution is not at all straightforward.

Certainly, "he or she" would ruin the effect.

The good critic, Miss Gardner believes, carries a torch: he or she does not wield a sceptre.

Indeed, most style guides insist on avoiding gendered pronouns (he, she, his, her), not simply neutralizing them by using both genders. The standard suggestion would be to render it in the plural, making it refer to "critics" in general rather than an arbitrary "critic". But this, too, becomes very clumsy because of the several items the several critics must then handle or refrain from handling.

Good critics, Miss Gardner believes, carry torches: they do not wield sceptres.

You'll agree it lacks the crispness of the original. So what do you do if you want to get the reader to imagine an individual but unspecified person ("the good critic", "the ideal employee", "the modern manager", "the busy CEO")? E.g.,

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre: he carries a torch.

You may find yourself insisting that there is no other way of achieving the effect you are after. One solution is to repeat the original subject of the sentence:

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre; the ideal manager carries a torch.

If you're absolutely adamant about refering to an individual, you should probably use a convention that analytic philosophers were very fond of in the 1980s: just use "she" instead of "he" as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

The ideal manager does not wield a sceptre: she carries a torch.

But if Miss Gardner had been a "Mr." we'd have had the same problem as above. So before you go that route (which may not please your copy-editor anyway), try dropping the pronoun altogether:

The ideal manager carries a torch, not a sceptre.

Unfortunately, it forces you to give up the difference between "carrying" and "wielding" because introducing a new verb requires a new subject (and since it is the same person, the personal pronoun is a natural choice). There may be no perfect solutions in this area. Sometimes the simplest sentence is not politically correct.

Implications on Monday.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Paper Needs a Process

A good writing process does not just make you a more efficient writer; it can also also make you a more effective one. Your writing process determines the quality, not just he quantity, of your writing. Planning your work, after all, forces you to do specific things with your text in a predetermined order. If you don't have a plan, important tasks can remain undone.

One thing that I've become sensitive to lately is the question of whether a text has been subjected to the discipline of the "after-the-fact outline". If I were teaching undergraduate composition, I would spend a lot of time on this step in the writing process. It would be a fixed assignment, and one that the students would be graded on separately.

I'm beginning to suggest the after-the-fact outline instead of trying to line-edit a text. And I think that in the future I'm going to suggest that the author send me the outline instead of the first draft of the paper for general comments. I also think colleagues should exchange such outlines, rather than full drafts, for comment more often.

An after-the-fact outline is simply a series of sentences, each of which represents a paragraph in the current draft. You make the outline by reading each paragraph in the draft and summarizing it in a single sentence. It should be possible to do this simply by choosing the paragraph's key sentence. You end up with 25 or 30 sentences that mark the progress of the argument of your paper.

It should be obvious that such an outline gives you an overview of your argument. But is also gives you a simple way to reorganize it. You can move the sentences around and rewrite them to fit into new sequences. You can write new sentences to mark place where you need to fill holes in your argument. You can remove sentences that aren't needed. When you have completed this step, i.e., when your after-the-fact outline is done to your satisfaction, all you have to do is "flesh out" the skeleton, bringing each whole paragraph back where it now belongs.

You then need spend some time with each separate paragraph to get it to support the claim in its key sentence. If you spend 20 or 30 minutes with each paragraph, you will need about 10 hours (roughly three writing sessions) to get through the whole paper. It is my sense that those hours are often just what the paper needs.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Begging the Question

Here are two examples, both from articles in Organization Studies, of what some linguists call the new meaning of the phrase "this begs the question". Others call it the wrong meaning.

If, as Adler argues, paleo-Marxism has been ‘eclipsed by neo-Marxism, of which LPT is an exemplar’, this begs the question: which labour process theorists have taken this retrograde step resulting in the inadequate acknowledgement of socialization?

In the former conception, ‘even the question of “internal”organization and administration now becomes related to an outside network of relative prices and costs’ (Robbins 1984: 71), which really begs the question of how much organization is left in this conception of ‘internal’ organization.

Originally, one would say "this begs the question" only to indicate a petitio principii, i.e., the act of assuming an answer to the very question you are addressing. Using it in this way, one would not follow "this begs the question" with a specific question (as in the two examples here). Instead, one would account for the sense in which an argument assumes precisely what it is supposed to prove. Today, however, many writers use it to mean simply "this raises the question".

Whenever that is the intended sense in a text I am editing, I normally change it accordingly, replacing "begs" with "raises". I do this for two reasons. First, it captures the intended meaning just as well; second, it avoids the unnecessary criticism of the reader who insists on the technical sense of "begs of the question".

Friday, August 21, 2009

Music Lessons

A few weeks back, Fabio Rojas posted some examples of guitar playing he had found on YouTube. That post was an inspiration. I had already been toying with the idea of using the process by which we learn how to play a musical instrument as a model for teaching academic writing. One of the most important features, sometimes avoided in writing instruction, is the direct evaluation of a performance of the relevant competence. Another is the essential role of practice.

I am embarrassed to admit that Fabio's post was my first conscious encounter with the work of Andrés Segovia. Here are some excerpts from a famous masterclass he held in 1965.

If I am not mistaken, what he says at the end is that the good artist displays a "delicate lack of respect for the rhythm" (my emphasis); this, he says, is the source of the "nuances" of the playing. It is the sort of thing that only a master is allowed to say, because only a master will know when the apprentice will understand what it means.

I play guitar myself, albeit at a very recreational level. After reading Jonathan Mayhew's new book about Lorca, I got curious about the Spanish style of playing. So I did what anyone would do; I searched YouTube for instructional videos. When I play, I normally just practice various vamps, some of which I've been taught by others, some of which I've cribbed off pop songs, and some of which I've made up myself (if that's possible). So I was happy to find the following video.

At 2:35, after running through the relevant scale, he points out that there's "a lot of music to be found" there. I thought that was a very good way of putting it. In fact, I've been finding the music in that scale ever since, slowly expanding my range of expression on the guitar.

I think there are equivalent lessons in writing academic prose. The teacher can demonstrate forms of argument and figures of speech, sprinkling in some occasionally cryptic remarks about what produces the "nuances" of a truly great style, and the student can be left to discover the knowledge that is "to be found" there. The communication of that knowledge is, the student will discover, supported by forms of expression that were shaped by a long craft tradition of "prosing the world". That craft can be developed only by practice.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Don't Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight?

I a big fan of Josh Marshall's news blog, TPM, but journalism does not always produce the best sentences. Here's an example:

At Obama's town hall there, one man was arrested for having a gun hidden in his car after the Secret Service found him at Portsmouth High School hours before Obama arrived carrying a pocketknife.
Does Obama carry a pocket knife to his town hall meetings? This sentence leaves the strange impression that the issue is the mismatching of weaponry: the unnamed man's crime is to bring a gun to a knife fight. There is also something strange about the unqualified use of the word "hours". While the journalist is no doubt just trying to inform us that the arrest happened well before the president was in the building (and that he was therefore in no danger), writing it this way has the effect of trivializing the whole episode. ("Oh, but that happened hours ago!") That is probably not what was intended.

What this sentence needs is a bit of editing. In fact, the ambiguities in the sentence arise from wanting to do too much in the space of a single sentence. We can fix the problems as we break it into two shorter sentences.

At Obama's town hall there, one man was arrested for having a gun hidden in his car. The Secret Service had found him carrying a pocketknife at Portsmouth High School in the hours before Obama arrived.

That's all this morning. Next week, I'll be drawing my example from the organization studies literature.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reading and Writing

One of my readers writes to ask me about how to organize the process of writing a literature review:

In a writing literature review, one cannot necessarily read one book and write, read another book/article and write, and so on. Because the literature review needs to be both expansive and inclusive, because it needs to be coherent and to connect all the dots, it would be almost impossible to start writing without having read most of the books on the topic in advance.

But, it seems that I take this step to the extreme by not writing anything at all before finishing all the readings. By the time I finish all the reading, I would have forgotten most of what I have read earlier. And so I would likely be faced with the same situation as before: the blank pages and the list of the books to read.

Could you tell us, then, how we can start writing and reading at the same time and build on each instance of writing for our final product?

I'm grateful for the question, which raises a very a general issue. One of the barriers to writing is the assumption that all the legwork has to get done before you can commit anything to the page. Whether we are talking about a literature review, a theory section, or the presentation of results, authors sometimes imagine that they have to do all the reading, thinking, or observing first.

Sometimes I think people should turn this problem entirely on its head: write the whole literature review before you've done any of the reading. That is, write a literature a review about what you expect to find in the literature before you go and read. Then use your readings to correct your preconceptions, seeing the actual writing of the review as a (somewhat radical) act of editing. The point of this exercise (which you are free to take as merely a thought experiment) is to draw attention to the knowledge that is implicit in already having the list of readings. If you know what you have to read, you already have a great deal to write about.

A literature review is not just a survey of everything that has been published on your topic. It is an argument for the need for your study. A literature review is not so much about what has already been done as it is about what remains to be done. There is a sense in which it does "need to be both expansive and inclusive, coherent, and connect all the dots", but it is much more important that it have a focus. And the work of establishing that focus, of defining your perspective, offers a fitting writing task in the early stages of writing the review.

One thing that should strike us about this reader's question is the assumption that it is somehow more "possible" to go ahead and "read the most of the books on the topic in advance" than to write the review. It assumes that "the list of the books to read" is somehow given. But making the list itself offers a specific research problem, one that can be described in advance of knowing what you find.

Also, the list needs to be prioritized, and your reading needs to be put into a schedule. You only have a finite amount of time to complete your reading, and you need to decide when that part of the work has to be done. So you need a much more specific strategy than "read everything on the subject in advance". Again, since this implies that you have a bunch of reasons for reading and rereading specific texts in a specific order, you also have an argument to present to your reader. Once you know why you are reading, you have plenty of things to write about. Spend your writing time (which should also be scheduled, of course) describing those reasons, working through the problem that guides your reading.

All good readers are really re-readers, said Nabokov. And a literature review is not a summary of all the studies on your subject that have been done so far; it is an argument for the relevance of your study. At the very beginning of your research you probably did some unfocused searches through the literature and got a sense of the contribution you wanted to make. A literature review is a systematic re-reading of the literature that gives you a basis to make the case for your own relevance.

PS: Ezra Zuckerman's radical formulation of the basic idea in this post is worth noting: "Never write a literature review" (PDF here).

Friday, August 14, 2009

About This Blog

I was thrilled to discover that Olivier Chatain has suggested this blog as one of (so far) three resources for PhD students under the heading "Scholarly Writing". I am flattered by (but wholly in agreement with) the implication that budding management scholars should (1) get a grounding in Booth, Colomb, and Williams' classic The Craft of Research, (2) let Paul Silvia's invigorating How to Write a Lot motivate their writing process, and (3) read this blog every other day to help keep their eye on the ball. I thought I'd use the occasion to say a few things about what I'm trying to do here.

The main purpose of this blog is to serve as both an argument and resource for publishing in what we call "international journals" here on the continent. Whether you are a native or non-native speaker of English, learning to write in your research idiom is a bit like learning a new language, hence the name of the blog. I have a broad range of interests and Olivier is right that I try to keep things practical. That goes also for my management of this blog, which I update according to a regular schedule: three posts a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. This semester, I want to write three kinds of post.

First, and most importantly, I want to write about style and grammar. Learning how to write academic prose means learning how to construct sentences and paragraphs of a particular kind. Once you have mastered the basic grammar, however, there is still the question of "finding your voice", i.e., developing your style. Working from examples in the published literature, both good and bad, I will try to identify useful figures of speech and rules of grammar to help you in the day-to-day business of putting words together for optimal effect.

Next, I am very interested in the scholarship and epistemology of the managerial sciences, especially organization theory. What standards are in force in the literature? What counts as high-quality research? What does it mean to "know" something about management and organization? Here, I write from the perspective of a social epistemologist; that is, I assume that knowledge is a social achievement and that the most interesting question is not what knowledge is as such (or even whether or not something is known) but how knowledge circulates (and where it can be found). I also try to defend traditional values of scholarship (that's where Booth, Colomb and Williams come in). As in the case of style and grammar, I ground my reflections and sermons on examples drawn from the literature.

Finally, my work as the department's resident writing consultant has gotten me increasingly interested in the writing process. How do you organize your writing projects to ensure you make continuous progress and meet your deadlines? How do you ensure timely and relevant response from peers and colleagues? And how do you organize your working days and weeks to "protect" (as I like to put it) your writing time from the many other pressures of an academic career. Here Paul Silvia's book has been great inspiration.

Welcome to Research as a Second Language. Do drop me a line, either by email or in the comments, and let me know what you think and what you'd like me to think out loud about. Happy writing!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Try to Work

Here's a brief clip of Mordecai Richler, the Canadian novelist, talking about the work of writing. Regular readers of this blog will find his approach familiar. "You can't just work when you're moved to work." He was no doubt taking this advice from Hemingway, the paragon of the "professional" novelist. In fact, in 1951, nineteen-years old, he went off to live in Paris, just like Papa Hemingway. In 1968, he wrote the following:

I frequently feel I've lost something somewhere. Spontaneity maybe, or honest appetite. In Paris all I ever craved for was to be accepted as a serious novelist one day, seemingly an impossible dream. Now I'm harnessed to this ritual of being a writer, shaking out the morning mail for cheque-size envelopes—scanning the newspapers—breakfast—then upstairs to work. To try to work.

Replace "novelist" with "sociologist", "anthropologist", "philosopher", "intellectual", or whatever your chosen field is, and you have something that might just as well apply to academic writers. It's part of what I meant by the "catastrophe of vocation" that must be faced at the completion of the PhD thesis.

Intellectual curiosity is important, very important. But it is while writing your dissertation that you will realize that it is not by the force of your original ideas (though you will have original ideas) that you will find your vocation. The budding researcher begins, one hopes, with an "honest appetite" for knowledge, a spontaneous will to learn. But you don't become a "serious" academic merely by satisfying that craving. As Dorothy Parker said, you must learn to put your ass to the chair.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Up and Running

Next week, is the first of sixteen weeks that will once again be organized by my "jogging and blogging" regimen. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I will write a blog post from 6:00 to 7:00. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I will go for a jog, and will do so again on Saturday or Sunday, taking a longer run before lunch or dinner.

The rest of an ordinary weekday is spent editing people's writing in the morning and meeting with them or doing administrative work in the afternoons.

Last week I implemented the jogging part of that regimen. This week I'm going to add the blogging part in a casual manner to get used to getting up at 6:00 again (I've been having a much less structured summer). The point of having a such a regimen is to train your mind to think terms of weeks, days, and hours in which to get work done. And to make sure that you actually have that time to do it in.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Blogs, Posts, and Comments

Just a quick terminology note.

A "blog" should be distinguished from a "post", and a "post" should be distinguished from a "comment". A post is a separate entry in a web log (i.e., blog), made by the blog's owner or some other contributor (there are group blogs with several contributors and all blogs may invite "guest bloggers"). A blog comment is a response by a reader made to an individual post.

You don't "write a blog", you "maintain a blog" or "post to your blog". You write a post or a comment. (You may post your comment after writing it.)

To say "Jones wrote a blog about it yesterday..." is akin to talking about "the Google" or "the Internets". It's illiterate (about the web). Jones either wrote a blog post or wrote about it on his blog; he did not write a blog on the topic.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


While on vacation, I met a guy that was preparing to run a marathon later this year, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was using a 16-week training program to get into shape for it. I also know of at least one business coach who presents budding entrepreneurs with a "sixteen-week challenge". It got me to thinking: is there something magical about that number?

Probably not. It's just in the right range of what we might call "finitude". While say, one year or half-a-year or one semester are all finite amounts of time, they either don't suggest divisibility or only an infinite kind of divisibility.

You can carve up a length of one (or one half) in any number of pieces. But a length of 16 suggests, well, 16 pieces. A 16-week running program will normally imply 64 runs. It's much easier to imagine progress (say, 5 kilometers the first day and 25 the last) over such a concrete number than committing yourself to runnning "four times a week until Christmas".

As a point of departure for a writing plan, I suggests 5 "working" pieces (weekdays), so about 80 pieces altogether (of 3 hours each). The idea of getting, say, two papers written during 80 writing sessions is simply clearer than devoting "next semester" to "getting something done". It is therefore easier to put into practice. 48 (3 times a week) or 64 (4 times a week) gives you less time but produces the same experience of finitude.

So that's the lesson for today: a writing plan should give you a sense of the finitude of your task. We don't all have to run a marathon this year. But we do all have to make some progress.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Catastrophe of Vocation

Yesterday, I came across the following sentence in Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading.

Call Jonah the model of the poet who fails of strength, and who wishes to return to the Waters of Night, the Swamp of Tears, where he began, before the catastrophe of vocation. (14)

I imagine many recent PhDs will know the feeling.