Research interests:
educational responses to linguistic diversity; linguistic identity; bilingualism; second language teaching

“Are you a writer?” or 5 things I have learned about writing

Posted: September 11th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: academia, research, writing | No Comments »

The other day I was discussing a popular novel with an acquaintance and she asked me “are you a writer?” This question took me aback in the context of discussing fiction. No, I don’t write fiction, but yes, I do write as a part of what I do for a living. In fact, this spring I taught a course on Writing Educational Research. In true teacher fashion, I learned as much as my students. Or rather, in discussing writing I realized some of the things about writing I have learned along the way. (My apologies to past English teachers/professors of mine if you find yourself saying “I taught you that”. Honestly, like most students, I had to discover some things myself: the hard way). These observations pertain primarily to academic writing, the genre I work in, as interpreted by APA writing and referencing style.

1. Speaking of the American Psychological Association (APA),  “APA 6th” is more than merely a way of writing out in-text citations and references. While I used to worry about the distinction between sentence and title case in book and journal titles, I now focus on economy of language. That is to say, how can I say what I want in the fewest words possible. Try that again: Be direct because long sentences confuse readers. Contrary to popular belief, academic writing is meant to be clear, not confusing. Terminology and jargon should be explained. Lengthy phrases should be rewritten. The passive should be avoided. Oops, I mean, explain terminology and jargon, rewrite lengthy phrases and write in the active voice. Writing in APA style means writing with effectiveness and parsimony.

2. Learn to embrace the pronoun “I”. Reading a sentence like “the researcher surveyed 100 students regarding their opinion of what makes a good teacher” sounds like you are having an “out of body” experience or not entirely confident about your work if indeed YOU ARE THE RESEARCHER. I encourage my students to own up to what they have done, primarily in the methodology section of their papers. Now, I understand where the caution comes in. The use of “I” in the literature review section could lead to espousing personal opinions such as “I believe every student should have a university instructor who has taught at the K-12 level”. That’s interesting, but do you have anything to back up that claim? If so, then lead with that: “Studies show that students are more satisfied with university instructors who have K-12 teaching experience (insert citations here)”. For further reading on this topic, I recommend reading Timothy McAdoo’s post of the use of the first person in APA style. I have found the use of the pronoun “I” facilitates stronger, clearer writing.

3. Learn the difference between critical analytic writing and descriptive writing. The purpose of academic writing is to persuade the reader that your point is significant and well thought out. You need to argue this in a way that leads the reader to the same conclusion: “yes, I agree, why hadn’t I thought of this before!”

4. End each paragraph with your own thoughts. Tell the reader why the points you mentioned are important and what they add to your main point. For example:

Recently I wrote the following in a first draft:

Two innovative practices serve to reconcile competing discourses:team teaching and translanguaging. Team teaching in this context is understood to be the teaching of two classrooms of students by two teachers who both remain present in the classroom. Translanguaging is defined as an “instructional strategy that integrates and reflects bilingual usage” (Cummins, 2014, p. 14).

After I edited it and strengthened it, it read:

Two innovative practices serve to reconcile competing discourses: team teaching and translanguaging. Team teaching in this context is understood to be the teaching of two classrooms of students by two teachers who both remain present in the classroom. Translanguaging is defined as an “instructional strategy that integrates and reflects bilingual usage” (Cummins, 2014, p. 14). Both practices are currently found in bilingual education in North America, although their role in reconciling competing discourses is newly emerging.

The addition of the final sentence brings the reader back to how the knowledge of these two definitions will help him/her to understand how these concepts impact the study I conducted.

5. Making writing a social process mitigates the pitfalls of an isolated practice. The image of the writer sitting in an office typing for hours on end is just one way to understanding the writing process. Collaboration can include co-writing (either synchronous or asynchronous); mutual editing (I will find your commas if you find my spelling mistakes); mutual support (meeting over coffee to discuss whether each person is meeting their writing goals and encouraging one another through writing challenges); solicited advice (asking respected others for recommendations of suitable journals, sources, or solutions to writing challenges).  Wendy Belcher, in her book Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks recommends putting your commitment to yourself and other in writing, to solidify the commitment. All or some of these activities can support the writing process from idea to publication.

For me, moving forward as a writer means embracing the process as a continual learning experience, sometimes enjoying it and other times needing the courage to try and fail and try again. Documenting these recent insights facilitate my writing and hopefully the writing of others as well.