Reading to Write

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 If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that – Stephen King, On Writing

A recent article from the New York Times describes Americans as poor readers. We’re notoriously bad at reading comprehension. Consequently, we’re not reading enough to fully comprehend complex books and articles. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve known for years that Americans simply aren’t reading enough. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, there is an overall downward trend in reading among American adults. Frighteningly, this same study shows that over a quarter (26%) of American adults haven’t read a book in a year. Though two years have passed, I’m willing to bet that this trend hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s probably worse.

Now we’re certainly reading. Everyday we’re bombarded with the electronic word through social media. And while we tend to focus on the ‘media’ part of social media, we’re actually reading a lot of content across posts, tweets, and forums. Personally speaking, I’m constantly bouncing back and forth across posts and article links from morning till night. Unfortunately, the time we spend on social media isn’t creating better readers. As a matter of fact, it’s making us worse. Social media and the internet has led to an array of bad reading habits.

I don’t want to disparage against social media. I still think that it has the potential to create well-informed students. However, we’re going to need to adjust our social media habits if we want to become better readers and students. Furthermore, I believe that better reading habits, including more quality reading, will improve our writing skills.

In the past, I’ve had a number of students ask: “how can I learn to write better?” My response is usually: “read more.” There’s no secret magic formula to writing well. It’s not a mysterious skill that only a few possess. I believe that every single person has the potential to become a good writer. Does this mean that we all have the potential to be the next Shakespeare? Probably not, but there is absolutely nothing stopping you from becoming an effective and skilled writer. Writing is a skill, and you must immerse yourself in it to develop that skill.

Nothing will turn you into a good writer overnight. Much like learning a new language, writing skills take practice and patience. Yet, there are things you can do to speed up that process. Practice makes perfect of course, and learning to write requires doing more of it. However, that is only half of it. One of the best (and easiest) things you can do is read more!

Academically speaking, you’ll want to read more in the field you’re currently studying. Reading Harry Potter probably won’t help you write a research paper (you should still read Harry Potter). This means that you’ll need to tailor your academic reading to the top books and articles in your field. We learn by imitating and emulating the writing styles of others. The pressure to read is enhanced for academic writing. No one is born, even naturally gifted writers, with the ability to write great academic papers, theses, or dissertations. Yet, we expect ourselves to write these papers without reading and drawing upon prior examples. More often than not, we wait to read these things until it’s time to write the paper, thesis, or dissertation. Thus, we’ve added the extra strain of learning how to write as we’re writing. An almost impossible task!

Do you want to become a better academic writer? Do you want to remove the fear and anxiety you feel when faced with writing a final paper? If the answer is ‘yes’ then start reading!

Tips for reading to write:

Start by setting aside 30 minutes a day to read an academic book or journal article. I know that reading a book or article doesn’t rank very high on your to-do list. God knows that there are some days that I don’t feel like reading a theology or philosophy text. Nevertheless, you need to develop your academic skills and keep them sharp. Begin with a minimum of 30 minutes. As you continue, you’ll probably want to increase that to 45 minutes or an hour. The most important thing is to not rush it. You won’t become a better writer (and scholar) by cramming information. Writing is a lifelong process. It won’t take long to get better at it, but you’ll always have more to learn.

When reading, focus on unfamiliar vocabulary and academic words. Write down any words you don’t know or understand. Search for those words using Google. You’ll want to develop and fine-tune those comprehension skills. If you don’t understand a word or phrase, then look it up. A better understanding of your field or topic will equip you for communicating and explaining it to others.

Read a wide variety of quality sources. Try to mix it up and read a large sample of what your academic field offers. Strive to read both books and articles. Draw from a diverse range of authors. In addition, find a balance between past and contemporary sources. Some fields (particularly STEM) draw heavily from contemporary research. Others (such as the humanities) incorporate classic texts from different eras. Knowing the major works, figures, and researchers in your field will help develop your reading list.

Be critical. Not everything you read will be a good example of academic writing. This is where the value of variety pays off. Reading more will enable you to find the common issues and problems that plague even the most gifted intellectuals. As you read, you’ll become better at distinguishing good writing from bad. Compare the writing styles of different authors. Pay particular attention to those authors who write with clarity and conciseness. The overall trend in academics is direct language and active voice.

Don’t be afraid to read outside your field. Whenever possible, expand your horizon to related fields and topics. Compare your field’s style with others. Learn how to incorporate the best of others into yourself. Consequently, more knowledge will prove to be an asset later on.

You have to invest time to become a better academic writer. It’s easy to be absorbed by whatever is happening on Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter. Just remember, the time you spend on social media is time you could spend reading. Skillful writing begins with making time for reading.

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When Do I Cite?

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“When do I cite?”

Students ask me this question all the time. It’s such an innocuous question that, until recently, I never gave it much thought. When asked, I usually responded as any good librarian or teacher might by saying, “Cite whenever you quote or paraphrase someone else’s work.” Now at the time, this seemed clear and obvious to me. However, after getting the same question semester after semester, I started to ask myself exactly how clear and useful my response was. Moreover, I never considered how stressful citing sources can be for a student. Because in addition to citing correctly, a student needs to know where and when to cite their sources! This undoubtedly adds extra pressure to the student as he or she is writing a paper. Furthermore, it isn’t only an undergraduate problem. I’ve seen the same anxiety and problems occur at both the masters and doctoral levels. In fact, I’d even argue that the stress is worse at those levels. The stakes are higher and there’s more information to cite. Furthermore, the fear of citing (and doing it correctly) can destroy our confidence with second-guessing and frustration. This is detrimental for dissertation and theses writers!

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) both provide tips for citing.

CMOS 16th edition recommends:

Whether quoting, paraphrasing, or using others’ ideas to advance their own arguments, authors should give explicit credit to the source of those words or ideas. – pg. 621.

APA 6th Edition is equally vague:

Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work. They may provide key background information, support or dispute your thesis, or offer critical definitions and data. – pg. 169

Not particularly helpful, is it? Neither tells me how much or how little I should cite. Now I’m being a bit facetious here; both CMOS and APA have incredibly useful information for academic writing. However, there is only so much these guides can tell you. After all, no manual knows you and your research exactly.

Writing papers, especially dissertations and theses, involves a great deal of hard work. Think of all the hours you’ve put into your research. The research process can be both rewarding and grueling. It provides us with immense joy when we learn and make connections. Research can enlighten us with new ideas and topics. But let’s be honest, research takes time and attention. Any paper, from a 10-page research paper to the 200-page dissertation, often requires a proportional amount of research time equal to (and often more than) the time it takes to write. Consequently, after all this work, you should want to show it off!

Let’s put aside the question of citing the work of someone else by changing our focus. Consider the problem from your perspective. Think of citing as showing your research work. For example, remember every math class you’ve ever taken. It was never enough to show that you had the answer. With every math problem it’s required to show your work. Your teacher or professor wants to know how you reached the answer. The answer doesn’t make sense without the steps and equations that lead to it.

Citing your sources is much the same way. At certain places in your paper you’ll want to show how you arrived at such an idea, question, or conclusion. Think of citing as showing your work. Citing is more than an exercise we go through to avoid plagiarism. Consider it the manner in which you can show off all the hard effort you’ve done during the research process.

I’m a big fan of using footnotes (I live and breathe the Chicago style). When I write, I often think of my footnotes as my mathematical equations. It’s my way of showing how I worked through the problem. With each footnote I come closer to showing the reader how and why I made my conclusions. Citing shouldn’t be a tedious chore, rather it should be one of the more enjoyable parts of academic writing. It adds a little extra validation to the time and effort we put into the research process.

This is why the research process is so important. When writing, you should know your sources inside and out. Ideally you’ve set aside plenty of time to explore and think about your sources. Problems with citing (especially when to cite) often arise because we haven’t given enough time to research. Without adequate preparation time, our sources appear to us as a jumbled mess. Messy research typically translates into a messy paper. We don’t know how to use our sources. Consequently, we don’t know how to properly cite them. I’ve seen this phenomenon manifest into two common types of papers: excessive and absent.

An excessive paper overuses the sources. The paper reads like a mismatched book report. It’s a Frankenstein paper. Bits and pieces are hobbled together, creating something that’s often horrific. As such, the citations are confused and sporadic. Usually this translates into some things being cited while others are ignored. Or, and this is very unfortunate, excessive papers become plagiarized papers. Haste and unfamiliarity can lead to nasty habits like lazy paraphrasing, copy and pasting, and huge block quotes. And herein lies the problem: you don’t know what to cite because it’s all someone else’s work! Thus, it feels like you should cite every single sentence!

In the second type of paper, absent, there is little to no citing. You’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with your sources. Thus, in this scenario, you don’t use them enough (if at all). Now much of this might be due to a lack of resources. If you don’t have anything to cite, then naturally the sources are absent. However, I don’t think this is always the case. I’ve read plenty of papers with a decent reference list. The student just didn’t know how to use them in the paper. It’s hard to show others your work when you haven’t taken the time to work it out yourself.

But with both errors I notice the same thing: sporadic and inconsistent citing. Thus, it’s completely understandable that this translates into a paper that never quite shows the research as intended. Again, think about math class. It’s impossible to answer the question if you don’t understand the background work behind it (addition/subtraction, multiplication, division, algebraic formula, and so on). Showing your work requires knowing the work. And when you know the work, you know how to show it properly.

Citing and research are intimately connected. Answering the question, “When do I cite?” begins with the research process. Knowing your sources is the first step toward a well-cited paper!

Look for more on citing in later posts! I’ll write more about the nuts and bolts on citing. Stay tuned!

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Standing up to Writer’s Block

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For writers, nothing is more dreaded or feared than writer’s block. There’s never a good time for it, yet writer’s block seems to strike us at the most inopportune times. It cripples our progress, making us feel that we’ll never finish our dissertation, thesis, or paper. Writer’s block is a confidence killer, and for many of us it’s almost impossible to recover from. It’s hard to continue while suffering from writer’s block. We often lack the motivation and will to stare at a blank screen.

Academic writing adds further challenges. A blank screen reminds us of our inability to produce, which only adds pressure to overcome it. We don’t have the luxury to work it out leisurely. There are deadlines to meet, and the external pressures are immense. Our professors and committee members are waiting for our work. In addition, we might only have a few hours a week to write because of obligations to work or family. More importantly, writer’s block stands in the way of graduation. Thus, writer’s block is more than a creative barrier. It is a barrier to our own career and personal goals, making writer’s block absolutely devastating.

I’ve experienced more than my fair share of writer’s block. While writing my dissertation, I’d often become frustrated over my lack of progress. There were days where I couldn’t write so much as a sentence. The blinking cursor taunted me, daring me to continue. Sometimes writing felt like trench warfare, and progress depended on a sheer determination of will. Over time I’ve developed practices that helped me alleviate and stand up to writer’s block. While writer’s block is unavoidable, there are ways to limit our experience of it. Writer’s block shouldn’t hinder our progress for days or even weeks. Instead, writer’s block is something we can manage and control.

Take breaks: Mental rest is absolutely necessary. We can spend way too much time staring at a screen. Staring at the screen reminds us of our lack of progress. From there the pressure grows to write something, anything to relieve the stress of our deadlock. In this situation, the will to write becomes frustrating. At this point it’s better to step away. It’s time to take your mind off of your project. A break (15-30 minutes) might just be the thing to get you back on track. A quick nap, a walk outside, or a snack are all good ways to reboot your mind.

Reward yourself: Writing doesn’t need to be torturous. There are ways to make writing not only bearable, but even enjoyable. Check your writing environment. Is your area comfortable? For example, a small and uncomfortable office chair will make writing feel like torture. Physical discomfort is not only bad for creativity, but also associates writing with physical pain.

Instead, make your area comfortable and well lit. Add snacks and drinks to your writing experience. Preferably these should be relatively healthy. However, there’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself with a cookie or small piece of candy for a job well-done. Speaking for myself, I enjoy the experience of coffee and classical music. I create a relaxing and rewarding mood designed to encourage my imagination. Furthermore, this experience makes writing something I look forward to. Writing can become a meditative activity if you’ll allow it.

Change the situation: Writing at home has its pros and cons. Home can be both comforting and distracting. Over time, even the most comfortable environments become distracting.

A change in scenery can do wonders for curing writer’s block. At home you’re reminded of chores and other duties. Getting out of the house reduces the need the impulse to do the dishes, vacuum the house, finish the laundry, and so on (you can always do these later). Moreover, it brings you out of household isolation. Working around other people at a Starbucks or library can reignite our spirit. Writing doesn’t need to be an isolating experience. In fact, it’s not healthy to shut yourself off from the world for long hours at a time.

Go back to the sources: Writer’s block might be a sign that you need to do further research. Research is rarely a one-and-done deal. Meaning research is a cyclical process. There’s nothing wrong with searching for new sources or re-visiting your research. Returning to the research process is an excellent way to recover your inspiration.

Edit: Finally, writer’s block doesn’t mean you can’t be productive. Use the opportunity to read through your work for grammar and clarity. Working through your document can alleviate the anxiety of productivity, and may even spur new ideas. Don’t think of editing as a chore, but an opportunity.

Over the next few posts I’ll explore each of these practices individually, and show you how they can help make academic writing a joy!

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
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