Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Day Three - Reflections on Academic Writing

Today is day three of the November Writing Challenge! We hope that you have got off to a good start with your writing. It is important that you recognise that each small step you take will lead you closer to your goal. If your writing has been a little sluggish so far, don’t agonize and don’t rebuke yourself. Return to your goals, re-consider your plan if necessary, and start writing today!

Today’s guest blogger is Dr Kylie Mirmohamadi. She is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of English and a Senior Research Associate working on the Mallee Lands Project in the School of History. Kylie has authored a number of books, including, with Sue Martin, ‘Charles Dickens: What Australians Made of the World's Favourite Writer’, which was published in 2012.

In today's piece, Kylie reflects eloquently on the ways in which writing is conceptualised and wielded in the humanities. She reminds us that academic writing is often concerned with anticipating criticism and defensively insisting upon the correctness of the ideas that it attempts to capture. This, she suggests, can erode the capacity of writing to ‘carry’ and ‘explore’, and can negate the exciting and alluring untidiness of ideas. Finding a voice which is expressive of one's individuality and which concurrently satisfies disciplinary norms, is a delicate, but most certainly worthy, challenge for academic writers.

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Ideas and feelings: Some reflections on academic writing

Dr Kylie Mirmohamadi

Academic Writing Month provides a timely opportunity to reflect on the notion that, while all writing involves ideas, it is never purely an intellectual exercise. Putting thoughts into words and publishing them is, at some level, an emotional risk for any writer. As scholars, we expose our work to public scrutiny and sometimes hostile readings, and its inevitable mistakes and shortcomings can seem to sit like little discursive landmines, always threatening to be uncovered and detonated.
An editor once commented to me that the book we were working on had scope to be ‘generous to the reader’ in the matter of endnotes. This way of seeing referencing – as part of the reading experience rather than a structural component of evidence – alerted me to my own, entrenched, writing desires. At times, it is as if I write merely to prove myself ‘not wrong’ rather than to engage in the messy, fraught business of exploring ideas. Humanities scholarship doesn’t tolerate negative results in the same way as the sciences do, and perhaps this disciplinary difference generates a timidity that not only impedes the wilder, more exciting, reaches of our thinking, but also obstructs literary style.
If we write, as most of us now must, for a crossover market, the default defensive style of scholarly writing will in any case merely annoy our readers rather than impress them with the unassailability of a given intellectual position. General readers demand clearly-written prose which carries ideas rather than wields them as weapons, and opens up for them new ways of seeing rather than insisting on the absolute correctness of our own. This is our challenge, if we are willing to take it up.

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Kylie’s meditation on writing might encourage you to think about the writing cultures that exist within your own discipline. How is your writing shaped by the discipline in which you work? Is there space to write in ways that deviate from the disciplinary norm? Does defensive academic writing undermine our capacity to engage a broader readership? Does anticipating the criticism that your work might receive help you to sharpen and clarify your ideas? These are all interesting questions that you can reflect upon over the coming days of the Writing Challenge.

Some additional food for thought can be found in this lovely little blog post on the writer's voice written by Pat Thomson from the University of Nottingham. She reminds us that, for reserachers, writing is a form of 'social action'; it is through the act of writing that we move from being observers to being participators and influencers. Helen Sword argues that scholarly training can have the effect of flattening and de-humanising our writing voice. You can learn more about the interesting ideas she has on how to make academic writing lively and engaging here. Finally, you might like to have a look at Judith Brett's  facinating and provocative article 'The Bureaucratization of Writing: Why So Few Academics Are Public Intellectuals'. In it, she describes the pressure that bureaucracy exerts on academic writing and invites us to re-imagine our identities as writers, and enocuages to reconceptualise the audiences we write for.Published in 1991, she explores the pressures that

Well, that's all from us today. Remember to keep us in the know about your Writing Challenge progress or let us know about how your writing has been bounded by your discipline or how you have pushed the boundaries of academic writing in the commens section below.

Happy writing!

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