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A Tentative Taxonomy of Writing (in Grad School)

A consideration of the types of writing a grad student performs.

November 5, 2014

Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can find her on Twitter at @krh121910.

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Before you ask, yes, I am aware that my title sounds like something a nineteenth-century anthropologist might pen. And yes, I am aware that nineteenth-century anthropologists might not be the best role models. But I want to suggest, here, that developing our own classification schemes for our writing can be extremely beneficial to our writing process and to our emotional well-being.

To begin, in defense of a writing taxonomy, I want to point out that much of our everyday writing is externally goal-oriented. By this, I mean that our writing goals and forms are often determined by someone or something other than ourselves—a deadline, an advisor’s request, or an application’s demands. How we format and conceptualize our writing comes not from our own individual relationship to our prose, but from something external.

A taxonomy of writing, by contrast, might offer us something a bit more internal and organic. A taxonomy of writing asks what type of writing we are doing, what our goal for this writing is, and implicitly asks us to compare all of the different types of writing we do on a daily basis. By developing our own individual taxonomies for the various types of writing we are expected to perform, we can begin to better understand our own relationship to writing, take control of our writing schedule, and develop a more positive relationship to writing that is independent from external motivators and rewards. So, I offer here one way to begin: a brief and tentative description of the kinds of writing I find myself constantly performing, along with links, sources, and tips for accomplishing each.


Type: Generating prose

Energy level: Low to medium; this is about creating text, not about finding fancy words or worrying about what your audience might think

Unspoken goal: To work through ideas and articulate your thoughts when first creating text; to write down things you have thought about but have not yet put into words.

Drafting is the first stage of the writing process. Ideally, it either is or derives from freewriting, though it may include synthesizing pages of notes, engaging with a small piece of evidence or data, or even just trying to articulate an idea. Drafting is often one of the messier and more difficult stages of writing, because it occurs when thoughts are still nascent and not yet fully formed. Yet it is also potentially easier than later stages of writing because it is supposed to be messy. Drafting is useful as both a writing process and a thinking process. In the drafting stage, we should aim to not be hindered by phrasing or organization, but just to get words out and work through ideas.

Rewriting I (General)

Type: Revision

Energy level: High

Unspoken goals: To sharpen your ideas, to  simplify your style, to clarify your argument, to organize your ideas for more coherent communication.

Rewriting refers to a step often skipped by writers in graduate school, often as a result of rushed writing at the end of the semester. Rather than writing a single draft, editing it for mistakes, and sending it off, rewriting asks us compose multiple drafts, often changing or rewriting completely large chunks (i.e. at least 50%) of our original text. Rather than fixing grammatical mistakes or finding better words, rewriting focuses on structure, ideas, and argumentation. Yes, it aims to organize your prose into a readable format, but more so, it aims to get the prose to say what it needs to say as clearly and effectively as possible. Rewriting requires asking some very difficult questions. How does each paragraph or piece of evidence move your argument forward? What is the purpose of this section and how does that fit into the whole? Do I really need these twenty pages of historical context? (hint: no) Essentially: what am I saying and is this the best way to say it?

Rewriting II (For Conference Papers or Oral Presentations)

Type: Presenting research, orally

Energy level: High (for the drafting process)

Unspoken goals: To translate your ideas, notes, and written work into something that can be understood only by listening; to clarify and simplify your writing for oral presentations.

Conference papers and presentations are short (usually 12-20 minutes), and should ideally be focused around a single topic or small cluster of examples. There simply isn’t time for more than that. This works to the benefit of the writer, however, because it is much easier to clearly explain a single idea or portion of data than to develop a complex argument in such a short amount of time. Conference papers are, notably, both written and oral documents. Generally, they take a slice out of your larger research project and present it to audiences in an oral format. Often, they offer your first foray into a research topic, and thus represent your initial findings or early ideas.

Because these presentations may represent either the early stages of your research or a small piece of a much larger and more complicated whole, your writing has to be simple and clear. This means that sentences need to be short, de-jargoned, and attentive to being consumed aurally. Flourishes you might relish using in written discourse lose their flair when heard aloud, and often impede understanding. You might think of a conference paper as a script for your future performance, and cue yourself and your audience accordingly.

Rewriting III (For Dissertation Chapters, Proposals, and Articles)

Type: Presenting research to committees who will evaluate it

Energy level: High

Unspoken goals: to present research in a way that balances your ideas with your committee’s expectations; to convince the committee that your research is both valid and worth continuing; to demonstrate that you are worth supporting as a scholar.

Rewriting dissertation chapters, articles, or proposals is a very externally-based form of writing. Generally, this level of writing is not simply to revise your prose but to revise it for a specific group of readers: your advising committee, that grant proposal committee, or the editorial board at a journal.

Grant or project proposals are among the most difficult types of writing to produce, because they are extremely short and condense huge swaths of information into a few pages. Proposals and funding applications generally ask us to explain our goals or hypotheses very clearly and concretely to both specialist and non-specialist audiences.

A dissertation chapter or proposal, by contrast, performs its pitch through its analysis and argumentation. A dissertation chapter functions much like a grant proposal in that they offer a pitch to your readers demonstrating the value and merit of your research, labor, and intellectual skill set. While a grant convinces an unknown committee to fund your work, a dissertation chapter convinces a specialist committee that is familiar with your project and research that you are a qualified scholar. Although dissertation projects can feel extremely personal and overwhelming, dissertations are above all a degree requirement, as a professor once reminded me. For both proposals and dissertation chapters, the goal of the writing is to find a way to communicate your ideas to a specific committee. This type of rewriting can be frustrating, because it requires you to adapt your work for a particular audience.

Professional Correspondence

Type: Communication through letters or email

Energy level: Low (anxiety level: high)

Unspoken goal: to communicate efficiently and effectively while demonstrating appropriate academic and social etiquette

Professional correspondence usually takes place over email, and may include communicating with peers, advisors, scholars in your field, journal editors, or potential employers. Balancing formality and friendliness is a tightrope act. Correspondence should be polite and short. Get to the point quickly, but don’t be brusque.

Writing, like the rest of graduate school, is best taken step by step, in small chunks. Hopefully, by creating our own taxonomies of the types of writing we want or need to accomplish, we can better understand the goals and requirements of each type of writing, and prepare ourselves better to meet them.

What categories of writing do you perform in graduate school? What expectations or unspoken goals are attached to each?

[Photo by author]


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