A guide to academic writing and an annotated bibliography of books on writing

Note: below is a short guide to writing better. Skip to the end for the annotated bibliography.

No part of my graduate coursework emphasized writing. It was assumed that we could all construct a sentence, a paragraph, and (hopefully?) a dissertation chapter. As someone who struggled with his writing in the early parts of graduate school, this was frustrating. Since then, I’ve realized people with PhDs don’t talk about improving academic writing very much either. But they should. Everyone should. Below are some strategies I’ve used to improve my writing.

Improving your writing in the short term

Think about writing as three different stages: planning, writing, and revision. In reality, the lines between these stages are blurred and its okay to revise each paragraph as you go or to change the outline as the chapter unfolds, but when you’re trying to improve, thinking deliberately about each piece is critical. The three small suggestions below address each of these stages. If you feel the first two are too obvious, you can ignore them, but you should try the third one if you don’t do it already.

1. Work from an outline. You want to have a clear sense of how your chapter or article should unfold. Once I have my plan, I go back to my evidence (or material) and often sort it based on the outline. An outline is also the best cure for writer’s block. If you can’t start writing, just make the outline more detailed. This refines your argument and you end up writing a lot of the topic sentences for the chapter. An outline is also handy when it’s time for revision. In fact, if you’re struggling with the structure of an already written draft, make a reverse outline, which is an outline constructed with the actual topic sentences (in order) of the written chapter. You can then compare your actual structure—and the clarity of your topic sentences—with the original plan.

2. Topic sentences. Again, this feels too basic. It’s not. As I was finalizing my manuscript, I realized that bad topic sentences were responsible for almost all the problematic or confusing parts. Topic sentences guide the reader as well as keep you honest: you can’t write them clearly unless you really understand the point you want to make. If you revise nothing else, make sure your topic sentences are clear.

3. Print your work and edit in pen. You probably edit on the screen. That’s totally fine. But if you want to improve your writing, I strongly suggest actually printing your work. First, it forces you to treat revision with the respect it deserves. Secondly, I think it alienates you from the text, which is actually a good thing. It makes it easier to see how the piece is constructed since you’re coming into contact with it in a new way. It also means you revise in two stages; when you first make the edits in pen and again when you enter them into the manuscript on the computer. Even if you aren’t persuaded, just try it. I’ve convinced a few people to do it and they all found it useful. There’s not much to lose, though be sure you like the technique before buying a new laserjet printer.

Improving your writing in the long term

The cliche is that you should read a lot (and widely). It’s good advice, but I’m guessing you already do that. The key is to train yourself to read like a writer. You should be reading not just for enjoyment and/or information, but to understand how the piece you’re reading is constructed.

1. Go through your favorite books and think about how they are written. Ask yourself why you enjoyed your favorite academic book so much. Can you apply any of the author’s techniques? How did they open your favorite chapter? Similarly, look at a prize-winning article you like. How is it constructed? You’re already familiar with the content of these works, so focus on the writing. Initially this requires deliberate effort, but over time you’ll learn to think about the writing whenever you read anything.

2. Read other people’s drafts. It teaches you to think about writing. When you revise one of your own pieces, you face familiar challenges. When you look at something you never would’ve written about or something written in a completely different style, you train yourself to be attuned to alternate stylistic choices.

3. Write as much as possible. Revision counts. Almost everyone I’ve met who writes beautifully kept a diary growing up. I didn’t, but since it’s a little late for that, I write as much as possible. It’s okay to write things that never go anywhere. Experimentation is a good thing.

Annotated bibliography of academic writing resources

William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

My favorite. Zinsser emphasizes simplicity and clarity. While this is all relative (particularly in academic writing), his philosophy of writing and concrete suggestions are great. The book is beautifully written, so it makes for a good read if you need inspiration.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.

Basic, but if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP. Lots of specific examples.

Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing.

This one is useful because it’s written specifically for academics. It’s also practical, dealing with questions like titles, chapter openers, etc.

Helen Sword, Air & Light & Time & Space.

Bad title, great book. Based on Sword’s conversations with academics about their writing.

Paul Silvia, How to Write a Lot.

I like this one because it deals with the mental aspects of writing. Silvia is a psychologist and he gives motivational suggestions as well as practical advice on writing and submitting articles.

Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor.

Save this one for when you’re moving to the revision for publication stage (particularly for a book). I found it really useful when I was revising my book manuscript.

Wendy Belcher, Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks.

The title says it all. If you want a step by step guide to writing, revising, and submitting a journal article, this is it. I’ve never tried to follow the plan exactly, but I found it an interesting read.

If you have book recommendations, send me the title and a sentence on why it’s useful (I’ll give you credit). You can find me on twitter or via email.

A short guide to preparing for general exams

General exams are scary. At least until you pass them, and then you remember them fondly and condescendingly explain to early graduate students how much you enjoyed your generals prep year and that maybe they should too. I remember finding that dynamic infuriating in my second year of grad school and then contributing to it in my third. In the spirit of helping people who are panicked about general exams (aka orals/quals/prelims), here is a guide I wrote for a friend shortly after passing them myself back in the day. Since my exams are a fading memory, I haven’t really changed the advice, which served me extremely well. The suggestions are based on the generals format I had in graduate school, where you prepare four exam “fields” (long lists of books) and must demonstrate mastery of them in an oral exam. However, these techniques work well for any exam in which you need to familiarize yourself with a huge academic literature.

1. Triage your books: Take your list for each field and divide it into three parts. The first category comprises the most important books. You might feel like they’re all in that category, but they’re not. This is probably the most important 15-20% of all the books/articles on the list. You’ll need to read these carefully, so be sure to allow time for that each week. Then there’s the books that are pretty important, but you won’t have time to read at normal speed. Allow time for either a slower skim or read introduction/conclusion and 1-2 chapters carefully. Finally there’s the books that matter least. You’ll be skimming these. Give yourself an hour (or so) with each. At first it’ll seem too difficult to understand a text in an hour, but you’ll get better with time. For all of the books, read reviews to supplement. Pro-tip: if you’re an Americanist, Reviews in American History is one of the best publications around/ever/of all time.

2. Take useful notes, NEVER longer than a page: When you finish reading (reviewing?) a book, write a one paragraph (sometimes two) summary of the text, providing an overview of the argument and any other key information. This is absolutely critical as it develops your ability to quickly identify an argument and it makes reviewing much easier.

3. Develop historiographic narratives: Come up with your own way to link books conceptually. If you can put the books into dialog you’ll be better able to think synthetically about the field and you’ll actually remember the specific arguments as well. For example, if you had to explain the linkages between books A, B, and C, you could say something like, “Book A established the earliest perspective on this subject, while B followed years later as a corrective. While B’s account was useful, C observed that a more nuanced account would adapt B to account for the critical parts of A.” You get the idea. Generals is all about historiographic narratives.

4. Review with a friend: Once you have useful summaries or notes, anybody can quiz you. In the month (or two) before the exam, get friends to quiz you incessantly. Have them flip through your notes asking you what the arguments of the various texts are. Write a list of sample generals questions and have a friend quiz you. They don’t need to know the answers. You’ll know if you’re getting them right. As the exam approaches, you can even do mock fields or mock exams. Get a list of ten questions and have a partner ask you questions for thirty minutes. Then you can switch and do the same for him or her. This is perhaps the most important principle. Generals is about understanding how to explain history and historiography out loud and you’ll only get good with practice.

Oh, and stay calm. I really enjoyed my generals prep and maybe you should too.

Questions/comments? Find me on twitter or send me an email.

Three ideas for developing a dissertation topic and scattershot suggestions for if you haven’t a clue.

By the mid-point of my second year of grad school I really needed to settle on a dissertation topic. I had a project idea—the history of the Confederate dollar—that I thought was good, but I was also interested in meat consumption in America, the history of dog-fighting, and even conspiracy theories. I told people I was writing about Confederate money, but really I had no idea. Most of the advice on choosing a dissertation topic that I found on the internet or received from friends and colleagues wasn’t very practical. I eventually settled on a project on beef in America, because it was the one I was most excited about, even if it didn’t seem like the most strategic choice at the time. It turned out to be a good decision and I ultimately learned a few things about developing a dissertation idea. Below are three suggestions for people trying to choose from a few different ideas as well as some scattershot (but effective!) suggestions for those of you with no idea.

1. Be strategic…after you have a topic.

Eventually, you are going to be sick of your dissertation topic. So you need to choose something you start out passionate about. At the same time, your dissertation also needs to fit into a wider scholarly conversation. But here’s the trick: any dissertation can fit into an exciting scholarly conversation. It’s all in how you frame it. So the key with a dissertation is to find the topic you’re excited about and then spend all your energy framing it in a way that’s strategic. To do that, you should…

2. Use draft project titles to refine your topic.

Take out a piece of paper. Draft ten different project titles for your hypothetical dissertation. You want titles that reflect both the topic and your approach, so use a “[TITLE]: [LONGER SUBTITLE]” format. Limit yourself to at most 10-12 words. You can take either a broad approach, brainstorming radically different titles, or start with a basic title and gradually refine it (the former is harder but more effective for a first pass). If you write ten different titles, you’ll get a sense of what you most want to argue, as well as how to convey it in the most succinct way possible. Its how I got from “Everything but the Moo: the Rise of the Cattle-Beef Complex” to “Red Meat Republic.”

3. Practice explaining your project.

People often view the “elevator pitch” as the key to promoting a project once its done, but its actually a great brainstorming strategy for the early stage as well. Explaining your project in conversation is a good first step to being able to write about it. Talk to fellow academics as well as nonspecialists. You not only get a sense of what people find interesting, but you can figure out what you really care about. When I was deciding between Confederate finances and the history of beef, it wasn’t until I started explaining the new idea to people that I realized how excited it made me.

If you really don’t have any ideas….

If there was an easy answer, you wouldn’t be in this situation. So all I’ve got are some scattershot suggestions. I have one core belief when it comes to good topic ideas: creativity is mechanical. A great idea doesn’t just spontaneously generate. It might hit you in the shower, but only after a few hours of reading or tearing your hair out in front of a blank piece of paper. That’s why I like the draft title idea: if you write ten titles, you get one interesting one. If you write ten more,  you might get a great one. Try the strategies below and you’ll eventually get something.

* Make a list of the ten academic books you like most (half inside your field, half general books) and write a sentence about why you like each.

* Do the draft titles exercise but for completely different projects. Write five sample dissertation titles, then pick your three favorite and try developing two alternate titles for each of them. You end with three potential topics and three framings.

* Brainstorm topics that interest you outside of an academic context. The best thing about history is you can write about anything (as long as its in the past). Think about your interests and explore the historical context. You can figure out the strategic framing later.

* Talk to people about their work. It somehow helps get the creative juices flowing.

* Chill about it for a minute. You’ll think of something eventually. Any topic has potential. It’s all about how you frame it.

Three hard lessons from my early career

By the end of grad school, I’d (pretty much) figured out how to be a historian. Though some of my peer reviewers probably disagreed, I felt like I knew what was going on with researching, writing, giving presentations, etc. But in terms of thinking about a long-term research trajectory, I was pretty much disaster. While this remains a work in progress, below are three lessons I learned the hard way.

1. Find your niche (at least in the short-term).

Intellectually I’ve always been a bit all over the place. I get excited about work in anthropology, sociology, and law, and I’ve always got three or four radically different project ideas. This curiosity (or lack of an attention span) is one of my strengths. However, it is also a problem. For instance, most of my work focuses on the environmental/economic history of meat. Four years ago, I wrote an almost completely unrelated spin-off piece. It’s been rejected four or five times from various journals. I just didn’t have the right sense of the relevant literature or more importantly, the key scholarly debates. Further, because it is a spin-off article, I just don’t have the research time to give it the archival attention it might deserve.  I’ve spent a huge amount of time revising the piece and while I remain very enthusiastic about it, I’m not sure where it will end up.

The point: reading and writing about radically different subjects is intellectually healthy, but it’s a good idea to recognize where your core expertise lies and to focus on that. I am an environmental historian of meat production. I know the relevant literature and archives. I know how to write and think about food production and consumption. You are probably in the same situation with your dissertation and first book topic. Especially early on when building a profile is important, focus on your expertise. We can all reinvent ourselves after our first book comes out.

2. Find your people.

I’ve always known that its important both professionally and intellectually to connect with colleagues wherever I find myself. I was much less good about identifying my wider scholarly community, whether that’s environmental history, western history, or business history (I still might not be sure). Because I did a poor job of talking with those people, I found myself a bit out of the loop a couple years into my career. 

Academic life is fundamentally social. The best ideas start as bad ones that you discuss with other people. The key then, is finding your scholarly community and being active. This leads to new insights, but also has mundane benefits like providing leads on important new books, presentation panels, and even archival nuggets. Attend the relevant conference in your subfield; often small ones such as the BHC and ASEH conferences I’ve attended are best. Further, simply emailing people whose work you enjoy and respect can work wonders.

3. When it comes to publications, exhibit patience and pushiness in equal measure.

One common piece of advice is to learn to deal with rejection. It turns out I’m pretty good at it. But what I wasn’t ready for was dealing with how long everything takes. For instance, I did a great job of quickly revising my dissertation for submission to a press. I sent the full manuscript to an (enthusiastic, or so I thought) editor and it sat in their inbox for nearly eight months with no response, including to a couple follow ups. Eventually I had to move on. I probably should’ve done so after three months. Similarly, I sent a piece to a journal, after a year received a “revise and resubmit,” turned it around relatively quickly, only to wait another four months for what was ultimately a rejection. Fair enough, but each wait was brutal.

Learn to be patient. Publications take a long time. Keep that in mind as you plan your research schedule. Meet deadlines to the extent you can, and get started on things sooner rather than later.  Finally, regarding pushiness, don’t be afraid to follow up with people (obviously only after a reasonable amount of time). They have a million things on their plate and they might’ve forgotten or never even have been interested in the first place. Better to know now than in six months. 

Note: optimism is a required baseline for this one. I’m now pretty happy about my situation regarding both my manuscript and the article mentioned above.

Giving conference papers and presentations: a short guide

Note: this is the text from a guide I made for grad students preparing to give their first conference paper. Here is a pdf of the handout this draws from.

Below are my key suggestions to giving a strong presentation. General tips are on the reverse. People engage with presentations fundamentally differently from written work. This is a curse and a blessing; when listening to a presentation, people have a harder time following dense analysis, but they are better at thinking big picture.

Structure

  1. Hook: An anecdote or example that draws the reader in and embodies your argument. It, along with the title, will explain the focus of the paper.
  2. Overview: Summarizes what you’re saying and why we should care.
  3. Content: This is the body of your talk.
  4. Conclusion: Reiterates your overview. Also (can) introduce bigger questions.

Few talks actually follow this clear a format. As a result, audiences are generally bored, confused, or both.

Clarity

  • Talks should never, ever, be dense. You want people able to follow you. Generally this means that you can only speak to one key theme or idea. Ask yourself: “what one thing do I want my audience to take away from this?” At most, they’re only going to remember one thing from your talk anyways.
  • People are distracted, so repetition is always good. In writing, repeating identical phrases can be a bad thing, but it’s actually important in a talk. Similarly, signposting is vital. Don’t be afraid to say “my argument is…”, or “in conclusion…”.

Performance

A conference paper is a performance. Therefore, you need to think about how to communicate your ideas in an engaging way.

  • Think about your audience. A presentation for specialists looks different from a presentation for a general academic audience, which looks different from a talk at the local retirement communication.
  • All good performances start with practice. Be sure to practice your talk, including questions (if you have a partner).
  • Enthusiasm goes a long way. Think about what makes you excited about your topic and how to communicate that to your audience. When answering questions, be excited and interested. This saves you when you don’t know the answer; saying something like “I hadn’t thought about that,” or “I need to think about that more,” makes the questioner feel good and makes people more willing to share their thoughts. It does not make you look unprepared.

Minor suggestions

Design:

  1. Slides are a good, but they should have as few words as possible on them (5-7 at most!). Anything more overwhelms the listener and they will ignore you and focus on the text.
  2. A slide should only be up for 1-2 minutes. This helps pace your presentation.
  3. If you want to wait a long time before switching slides, consider putting up a blank slide. This also refocuses the listener.
  4. Images keep a listener engaged. Any topic has relevant images; if you only include a few, keep the previous tip in mind.

Presentation:

  1. Practice, practice, practice. Say your talk to yourself. If you’ve written the talk, read it aloud to yourself. Practice with a friend and do simulated questions. Practice!
  2. Talking from a script vs. bullet points / notes: both approaches work well. It’s actually often harder to give a good talk from a written script because it’s hard to write how people talk. Talking from notes forces you to think more schematically, which is good. That said, I’ve seen masterful examples of both.
  3. Be comfortable. Dressing professionally is important, but make sure you don’t feel uncomfortable in what you’re wearing. This might mean practicing in what you’re going to wear or wearing something similar the day before, even around the house.
  4. If you’re nervous, getting to the room early can often help. Try chatting with other people on the panel or other people in the room, this helps build a connection with the audience and can make you less nervous.
  5. On that point, feeling nervous is completely normal. It will get less acute over time.

Argument / content:

  1. Talks are the best place to trial new ideas. You get high-level feedback and you only need a few illustrative examples rather than a wealth of evidence.
  2. Dense historiographic analyses can work for talks, but only if that’s the central focus of your talk and your audience is very specialized. Otherwise its too hard to follow.
  3. People love lists of threes, but they think in binaries. If you want people to understand an idea, set up a contrast or difference (binary), and if you want people to follow along or remember something, try presenting it in three parts.

Note: job talks are more intense and have slightly different requirements. The job talk is always a combination of big picture perspective on your work (breadth) and then a deep dive into a couple of examples (depth). If you put all the advice here in that context, these suggestions are applicable to job talks as well.

Questions/comments? Joshua.specht@monash.edu Or TWITTER.