October 31, 2015

Effective, Efficient, Effectual, and Efficacious: Attempts to Define

Are there some words that drive you crazy because you're not sure which of many apparent synonyms to choose?

Maeve Maddox, who writes the Daily Writing Tips blog, discusses the various ways that the words "effective," "efficient," "effectual" and efficacious can be used. 

I thought that these words may play a part in your scholarly writing; or maybe, like me, you just enjoy thinking about words and language.

effective stampIf so, then check out her blog.  It will be an efficient use of your time, and may be an effective way to improve your writing.

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January 8, 2015

Poms revisited

Poms, Pomodoros, Tomayto, Tomahto...

I received a reminder today from Ellis Wakefield that this blog hasn't featured Poms for a while.  He wrote me to let me know that he had recently published a short article called "The Pomodoro Technique – The Ultimate Task Ender" in Red Shed, about the use of Poms, or Pomodoros, in getting tasks done.  I thought it was a nice, clear, simple explanation and I refer you there.

We've blogged about Poms before -- see "What on Earth Are Poms?" by Susanne Morgan.

Here is the official Pomodoro Website and the book created by Francesco Cirillo, the originator of the Pomodoro Technique.

Want Your Own Tomato?

Want your own Pomodoro Timer?
Click the tomato -- it's only US $.49
In case you get inspired to have your own actual tomato timer ("pomodoro" is Italian for tomato) ticking away while you write, click on the tomato timer on the right to access one for $.49.  Many Pomodoro technique fanatics feel the ticking is soothing but also reminds you to stay on task.

The Pomodoro Technique has become incredibly popular in the chat rooms in our Academic Writing Club (AWC), our structured, online, accountability-based coaching system that has helped thousands and thousands of academics write more productively and improve their careers.

As a matter of fact, below is a screenshot of a recent Challenge Chat, which is inexplicably beige -- I haven't figured out how to turn it back to a white background!

As you can see, this Challenge Chat is hosted by Coach Debra.

Debra hosts these Challenge Chat at regularly scheduled times, and Academic Writing Club members join her for that extra motivation to write.  It's like meeting a friend in the coffee shop to do some work.  In fact, we call our main chat the Club Café.  There's nothing like companionship when you work.

Debra asks people to say what they're going to work on, and then they switch to Pom language.  I'd like to call it Pomeranian, but some dogs took that name.  After 25 minutes (the first Pom), they reconvene and say how their writing has gone during that Pom.

Then some decide to keep the Poms going, with breaks according to the Pom rules.

A Challenge Chat, which in reality has a WHITE BACKGROUND AND NOT BEIGE.  Sorry to rant.

Consider joining us in the Academic Writing Club!  As you can see people have lots of fun and lots of Poms and support each other, and they get fantastic results.  Can you afford not to write?  

What do you think of this Pomodoro Technique?

September 25, 2014

Are you an editorial hypocrite?

Why do some academics still sniff at the idea of using a professional editor?

Some in academia believe that without rigorous standards the integrity of their rarified product is at risk.  I argue that this is not only untrue, but harmful to the productivity of many academic writers. I’m not the first one to raise these questions, but I have a few pretty good arguments that I hope will convince you to use a professional editor if you feel the need.  Let’s look at the myths that keep academics from using an editor
  • The editor might give you an idea, so it’s not original. I’m tackling the big one first.  Try this on for size:  it’s not where an idea comes from that matters. After all, you get ideas from all kinds of places – colleagues at conferences, from your friends, peers, the guy next door, your professors, in classes. People are noting ideas from each other all the time.  No idea belongs entirely to anyone.

    What matters is the originality of an argument and its precise expression, the persuasiveness of a thesis based on the evidence presented.

  • The best work gets done by one isolated individual. Creative writers in MFA programs expose their work to relentless workshopping, and yet no one questions whether the final draft of a story, poem or novel belongs to that writer alone. In many disciplines, particularly in certain areas of the humanities, personal creativity and originality are at stake, and yet collaboration (which is not what editors do) is understood to be part of the process.

    How is the issue different for a writer because he or she is an academic? If one’s position is that editing is synonymous with collaboration, then why is that argument not universally extended to any kind of writing?

  • We’re so smart that we can do our own editing.  Intelligence and writing ability are not necessarily correlated.  Also, in some circumstances, employing an editor is a necessity: In multi-author works, for example, a disinterested party is essential to smooth out transitions and create a consistent tone. Without that, the paper will feel like a series of chapters by different authors instead of the joint project it was intended to be.

  • I don’t care if English isn’t your first language; that’s no excuse to hire an editor.  So many brilliant and creative academics come to English-speaking countries to enjoy our excellent educational system.  Most English-speaking people are not even fluent in one other language, particularly when it comes to language. After all, people who came to their new country 40 years ago can make small language mistakes.  (I should know; I’m engaged to one!)  

    Even native English speakers get confused about their own language.  For example, prepositions.  People are now starting to say, “I’m excited for…” instead of “I’m excited about.”  In many cases, when English is an academic’s second language, not employing an editor would be a tragic mistake.  

  • Because some people use writing help unethically, we should ban any kind of help with writing.  Of course, there are right ways and wrong ways of using editorial help. It’s never acceptable to hire someone to do the writing for you, or to plagiarize published sources.  But let’s not get carried away because some people do the wrong thing.  Let’s bring an informed understanding of what legitimate editors and writing coaches actually do. 

  • Dissertation advisors or faculty mentors provide enough help, so academics don’t need editors.  No comment needed.
It’s unrealistic to expect academics to be experts at everything, if you value academic excellence, then it’s hypocritical to discourage the use of professional editors.

Is it OK to use a professional editor?  Where do you stand on this?

August 21, 2014

If procrastination is "a common pulse of humanity," then what can we do to stop it?

In "Getting over Procrastination," NY Times writer Maria Konnikova discusses Piers Steel's research The Procrastination Equation, Steel explains that "procrastination leads to lower over-all well-being, worse health, and lower salaries."
on procrastination, reporting Steel's finding that procrastination is "a common pulse of humanity," and that it affects 99% of college students in one way or another and translates to significant monetary losses in the work world.  In his book,

So if procrastination is so bad for us, why do we do it?  According to Konnikova, Steel's research indicates the answer lies on "the flip side of impulsivity."  Those of us who are not good at self-regulating or delaying rewards until after we have engaged in unpleasant tasks will often be the same people who struggle the most with procrastination.

But I wonder -- most academics have been able to delay rewards while they suffered and struggled to achieve their goals.  Most of you were not the kind of child who never did your homework, for example.

Yet academics struggle with procrastination, especially on projects that have no external deadlines.  So, for example, a faculty member may write a report for the dean, but neglect her own manuscript.  After all, that can wait until tomorrow and the dean can't.

In a way, academics have learned to put their needs last.  And writing up your own research is much more unpleasant than whipping up a report.  Besides, you have no choice with the report.

Procrastination is a more insidious problem for those who have seemingly endless time to complete their project.  Unfortunately, however, the time until completion is not endless.  You either finish your dissertation or leave, at some point. You either publish enough (and fulfill other requirements) to get tenure, or you're out.  And there is a specific date for that.  Seemingly very far in the future.  Not.

If you are a chronic procrastinator, Konnikova's entire article is well worth a look, as is Steel's book. The article also includes a link to an online procrastination test and several other tools that may help you assess your tendencies to put off that which is the most important, or, in Stephen Covey terms, those tasks that are "important but not urgent."

Be sure to watch this blog for a follow-up article, where I'll offer some practical suggestions on how you can tame the procrastination beast.

Do you procrastinate, especially on your own important writing that has no specific deadline?  If so, what strategies have worked for you at interrupting procrastination's common but destructive pulse? Is the supposedly non-existent deadline actually creeping up on you?  

November 1, 2013

Participating in Academic Writing Month? Six Cool Tools for Planning and Drafting Your Writing

Did you know that November is National Academic Writing Month? Based on the same concept that has led novelists all over the world to write 1667 words a day for the month of November, Academic Writing month focuses on helping writers meet daily word count or time-based goals.

Don't want to write 1000+ words a day? No problem. Academic Writing month allows you to set your own goals. It's a way to be mindful about what you want to accomplish during the month of November--a month when many of us will be happy just to make it to Thanksgiving.

Many of you know that I prefer time goals to word # goals. But we all need to change it up every once in a while, and you need to experiment to find what works for you. So give word # goals a try and see if it helps you!

Are you intrigued by the concept, but not sure where to start? Or do you already have goals for your writing, but you're still facing the terror of the blank page? You might want to check out these free (or nearly free) websites below, which are designed to get your minds and fingers moving:

1) Freemind

When planning out your academic writing, it's important to let your mind roam, but then to capture some of that roaming on paper. A good tool for managing that process is a brainstorming tool called a mindmap. Rather than arranging an outline in a linear order, mindmapping allows the writer to discover the relationships between ideas and to express them in a more fluid, visual way. Freemind is an open-sourced mind mapping program that you can download to any computer, and while it is one of the older mindmapping tools available, its consistent presence on Internet "best mindmapping" lists makes it a definite tool to consider.

2) bubbl.us

Similar to Freemind, bubbl.us is a simple, free mindmapping program. The virtue of bubbl.us is that you can go to it from anywhere on the Internet and just start working, right there on bubbl.us's site. The downside is that you will need to sign up and log in before you can save your map, so make sure that you do that if you don't want to lose your work. The plus side is that it's easy to use and you can get started without downloading a program.

3) Coggle 

Another useful tool, and perhaps even simpler than bubbl.us, Coggle is google's mindmapping tool. Completely free, it has most of the features of professional mindmapping software, and comes as a web app, so works whether you're a PC or a Mac User.

4) 750 words.com

For those times when you generally know what you're going to write, but still just can't seem to get started, 750 words is worth a try. Based on creativity guru Julia Cameron's concept of writing three daily “morning pages,” 750 words counts your words as you type, and whether it takes 15 minutes or two hours, when you reach 750, it awards you points. The more days in a row you write 750 words, the more points you get, until you win a virtual award. The website is cleanly laid out and intuitive, and while there is a $5 monthly fee to participate after the 30 day free trial expires, if you like writing to word count goals, this might be the best site for you.

5) writeordie.com

While some writers may not like the dire name of Dr. Wicked's web app, many swear by it. Like 750 words, the application does count your words, but here there is no set word count goal as the site centers around the concept of timed-based goals and fluid, continuous writing. You can elect from three different writing modes: (1) gentle, where if you stop writing, you'll get a friendly prompt, (2) normal, which plays an unpleasant sound if you aren't writing consistently, and (3) kamikaze, where the screen actually turns red and if you don't continue to type after a certain period of time, the site begins erasing your words.

6) writtenkitten.net
For those who prefer a gentler approach but don't want to set a goal as high as 750 words, writtenkitten may work for you. Similar to 750 words, writtenkitten provides an online writing space and counts your words as you write them. Unlike 750 words, this site allows you to choose your own word count goal and then displays an adorable animal photo if you reach it. You can choose to have a cute photo displayed after every 100, 200, 500, or 1000 words. If you like cute cat pictures, this may be the site for you. Caveat: Unless you use Google Chrome as a browser, the site won't save your work, so make sure to copy and paste.

Whatever tools you use, remember the important thing is that you're getting the words down. We support whatever you can do to help facilitate that process, including joining the Academic Writing Club, our supportive small group accountability-based program.  It is the original online accountability tool meant for academics only.  Learn more about the Academic Writing Club here.  If you haven't joined, why not give it a try when our next session starts? Remember, there is a new session every 4 weeks, so sign up now!  Click here now and get help you on your Academic Writing Month goals.

October 1, 2013

You, a Creative Writer? 4 Techniques To Help ANY Academic Get Published

Did you know that you were a creative writer?

As an academic, you may be saying, "Nooooooo, I do research!"  And you certainly do.  You research, you write, you revise, and you publish, and all of those things require creativity.

Somehow along the way, we've made a false dichotomy.  We've made a distinction between creative and academic writers that really doesn't serve either. It especially doesn't serve us as academics.

In fact, by applying some of the tried and true techniques of creative writers, we can engage the reader from the opening sentence until the very last page.

If you can engage your reader like this, you are much more likely to GET PUBLISHED.

1) Find Your Research Arc

Screenwriters and novelists know that the easiest way to bore a reader is to take away the narrative drive of the story.  The same is true for your academic book or article.  If there is no clear hypothesis or argument near the beginning, readers will become uncomfortable and distracted.  They may start skimming, and in so doing, may miss what you're trying to say. 

It's important for you to be able to express your argument clearly and immediately and then to keep coming back to it throughout the work.  This is what publishers and editors call “finding the arc of your research.”  It's the organizing principle that makes your work whole.

2) Keep Your Subjects and Your Verbs Close Together

The further apart your subjects and verbs are, the harder it is for readers to track your sentences.  You don't have to follow a simple subject-verb-object sentence structure, and your sentences don't have to be short.  But just make sure that you know where your subjects and verbs are and that there aren't lengthy phrases between them.  In particular, try to structure your sentences so that lengthy parenthetical citations do not interrupt the subject-verb flow.

3) Beware of Lists

Academic writers too often rely on lists, separated by semi-colons, particularly when they are discussing previous research.  Try to avoid this, or if you have to have a long list, make sure that each item in the list follows the same sentence structure as the rest.  One way to do this is to take the list and put it in bullet form during the revision process.  Once the list is in bullets, you can examine each item and make sure all the parts of the list are grammatically correct and parallel.  Then you can put them back in prose form.

4) Use "Beta" Readers

Novelists use "beta" readers for feedback on the second drafts of their novels -- academic writers can also use this strategy.  Share your work early, so that you don't become too attached to it, and with readers who will be supportive during those initial stages.  Remember to repay the favor by reviewing your readers' work too.  Eventually, you will develop a strong network of colleagues who can review for you, and vice-versa, and you will become increasingly comfortable sharing your work.

Finally, remember that, as Wallace Stegner said, "hard writing makes easy reading." Good writing takes work, energy, and time.  But if you're willing to put in that time, you can improve not only your writing itself, but your chances of getting that writing published. You can get into that top-tier journal, get that grant, or get that book contract.

Publishers and editors do want original arguments and convincing results, but they also want work that readers will actually read.  Keep this in mind as you work on your current projects, and as you brainstorm projects to come.

September 6, 2013

Avoid Beginning of the Semester Panic: Six Scheduling Tips for the Already Overscheduled

For those of you who have just made it through the first, overwhelming week of school, congratulations!  It gets better.  For those who are about to head into a new term, hang in there.  I know this is a busy time for all of us, and it's easy to fall into the trap of giving up our writing completely as we settle into our semester routines.  Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate the effects of the whirlwind.  Get your calendars and your timers ready, and think about your goals for the term as you read these tips:

Schedule all appointments directly into your calendar. 


This includes grading, teaching prep, research time and writing.  I know many people who write down their schedules and their to-do list for the week or day and think they've done enough to plan.  While some planning is better than no planning, unless you have a reality check with your calendar, 
you may tend to overbook.  You may want to use an electronic calendar for this, although paper daytimers can work well too.  The important thing is that you are actually writing down the task within the block of time that it will take to do it.

Be realistic about how much time a task will take.

If you know that it's going to take five to seven hours to grade your 35 essays, for instance, there is no point pretending that you'll "just get them done" in two or three.  Most project managers will tell you to estimate the time a task will take and then double it -- yes, that may sound scary at first, but by doubling the time, you will prevent your teaching and other obligations from creeping into your scheduled research and writing time.  And if you finish a task early -- that's great!  Then you can either take a break or use the extra time to get ahead on other things.

Refrain from spending too much time on teaching and service obligations.

This is a difficult one, especially for TAs and new faculty. Just remember that, as Robert Boice says in his now classic Advice to New Faculty, you can limit the time you spend grading and prepping for teaching. Use a timer for both and try relegating these sorts of tasks to the spare moments you have throughout the day.  These little bits and pieces of time will add up, and by not doing all of the prep and grading at once, you'll likely be a better teacher too.

Write in brief, structured periods of time and with carefully defined goals. 

This is another instance where a timer can help - -remember to make use of those pomodoros (Italian for tomato, a timer technique widely used by writers)! Remember that even 15 minutes a day will accumulate over the course of a week, and you might be surprised at how much you will get done.

Make use of your office hours, especially early in the term.

Early in the term, students aren't as likely to come to your office hours, so make good use of them.  This is a good time for those tedious tasks like making copies or setting up your gradebook as well as for getting ahead in your grading.  If you can do your research or writing during this time, even better, but if you are worried you'll be interrupted, try scheduling in tasks that take less mental energy.

Be conscious of your semester and long-term goals. 

Finally, remember to streamline your schedule as much as you can and to say no to things that will not help you.  Every Friday afternoon or Sunday evening, you may want to sit down with your calendar and make sure that you have a good plan for the next week, and that your plan is in accordance with your goals and values.

If you set yourself up well while it’s still early in the semester, you will be able to pick up momentum in your writing and research and be less stressed as you go through the weeks to come.  The life of academics is never easy, but with some thoughtful planning and scheduling, you can release yourself from a perpetual state of being overwhelmed.