Too Much to Say?
Who knew that writing about note taking could stir up so much interest? Well, I have heard from quite a few of you, and through these exchanges, I have had the opportunity to think about note taking some more, and I have learned about new programs and approaches from you. I will be writing about it in the future and in greater detail, as I promised in my previous column. And I’ll be incorporating additional ideas and suggestions that I have learned from you. So watch for these columns in the future -- they will be titled something like Piles, Stacks, and Folders Revisited.
For this column, I will address a question posed by Lee Elaine Skallerup. In a comment, she wrote: “I would be interested to know, what about the opposite problem, having too much to say? I was so wrapped up in my research, I never knew when or how to stop.” Great question.
Even for those of us academic-types who are introverted (I am in that category), we certainly have plenty to say, and knowing when to stop is a difficult and too often overlooked aspect of writing. So, what do you do when you have too much to say? My solution is to consider your audience, to consider what you want to transmit to your audience, and to be strategic about dissemination. We’ll address the first two in this column and the third in my next column. Regarding the first two, ask yourself: “What is the one main point that I want my readers to think about and perhaps reference when they have finished reading my article/essay/book/book chapter, etc.?” Then consider: “What are the three sub points?” Sound simple? I wish. But it’s possible and as you’ll read below, the possibility increases exponentially when you employ the help of a colleague, a writing partner, or members of your writing group.
To back up just a bit, academic writing is about information delivery. It is about teaching, convincing, arguing, and persuading. Certainly we don’t have to be boring while doing so, so yes, academic writing can also be entertaining; but that is not the main purpose. On the other hand, creative writing is less about information delivery and more about entertainment or using a story to deliver a message. After rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I don’t think “Hum, what is the main point of this book?” and then spend the next week debating whether the main point is the triumph of good over evil or whether it is about the power of love. Nor do I spend too much time thinking about the three sub points and considering how the three deathly hallows represent… you get the idea. Rather, when I finish reading the final page, I think, “Ah, so that was the importance of Harry’s eyes looking like his mother’s.” And “I’ll bet James Sirius is adorable.” But most likely I am thinking “Professor Slughorn has got to be retiring soon. I’ll have my CV ready to apply for the Potions Master position.”
As I mentioned earlier, academic writing is about teaching, convincing, arguing, and persuading. In order to do these effectively, you have to have a clear sense of your audience. Who do you want to teach, convince, argue with or persuade? What is your purpose for reaching this audience? While it may seem counterintuitive, you can often write something that is more universally appealing if you are focusing in on a small audience. Why? Because you will have a crystallized sense of your audience and your writing will be consistently focused, rather than addressing one chapter to one audience and inadvertently addressing the next chapter to a different audience.
In my forthcoming book, Demystifying Dissertation Writing, I knew my audience from the very beginning. While I was teaching a dissertation writing course, I used a few different books on dissertation writing. Many of them are very good but none of them served my purpose. So, I ended up writing detailed outlines for each class period. As I expanded on these outlines, I soon realized that I had inadvertently written a textbook of sorts that could be used for a dissertation writing seminar or an informal writing group. I also realized that I had infused every sentence, paragraph, and chapter with my belief that habits of fluent writing are best developed within a supportive, honest, and candid writing environment.
I had clearly identified one audience and I wrote to the members of that audience: doctoral students working on their dissertations who are either taking a writing seminar or in a writing group. While I wrote to one audience, it meant that I have three implicit audiences or three different audiences to reach. My first audience is individual dissertation writers who I encourage to join or establish a writing group. My second is doctoral students who are already in a writing group who can use my book as a guide. My final audience is doctoral program administrators and faculty members who can use the book as a ready-to-go syllabus for an already established dissertation seminar or a seminar that they would like to offer.
Having a clear sense of audience is one part of being able to determine what you want to say and when to stop. The other part, as mentioned earlier, is having a clear sense of what you want your audience to obtain from your writing. I was talking with a friend about her recently completed manuscript while I was writing this column. Consequently, I asked her how she managed not to say too much when she was writing her manuscript. Sara Lehman, an assistant professor of Spanish literature at Fordham University, said that she sent the manuscript to a colleague who pointed out to her that she needed to be more focused throughout the manuscript. I am not making this up. The very first thing she said is that she relied on the feedback of a colleague and her statement reinforced my belief that we need the help of writing partners, friends, and colleagues to point out flaws in our own writing; and they need our help to identify their flaws. We just can’t see it on our own. I wish we could, but many times we can’t.
Based on her colleague’s advice, Sara wrote down the main and sub points that she had written about in her manuscript, which ended up numbering about 15. Then she whittled this list down to six bulleted points, printed out these six points in 16-point font, and tacked the page to her cork board so that she could refer to it while she was writing and revising. While we were talking, she said, “When I am revising and especially if I am getting stuck, I look at the six points and compare them to the paragraph that I am writing. If it doesn’t support one of the six points, I don’t include it in the book.”
As I mentioned earlier, the solution to having too much to say sounds simple, but it is not. Knowing your audience and starting with a set of main and sub points is only a start. As we write, we learn new things along the way. We need writing partners to point out aspects of our writing that we can’t assess for ourselves. Sorry, even research on writing and writers supports these points. Then, based on what we have learned along the way and our colleagues’ feedback, we need to revise, revise, revise.
Nonetheless, dissertation writers need to start with a plan. And, dissertation writers need to be strategic about writing their dissertations in a manner that sets them up for the next stage of their careers. In my next column, I will introduce the concept of a focus statement and offer advice on being strategic about writing your dissertation so that you can readily revise it into a book, a series of journal articles, a grant submission, or a training series. As always, if you have questions, comments, or suggestions for future articles, please contact me.