15 Flags: How I Create Habits for Writing

I am constantly searching for ways to better integrate my digital life into the world of paper, pens, and printed materials that I still love (here, here, and here).  Although there are countless apps available to help create and track new habits–many of which gamify the traditional 21-days rule of habit formation with some very fun results–I have found the best way for me to track my habits is with a stack of sticky flags and my Moleskine.

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Refining Technique in Academic Writing



I wrote briefly last week about the importance of technique in academic writing.   Academic writing is, above all else, a specialised form of communication, which remains true whether we are teaching essay writing to first year students or working on a journal article addressing our research. Articles, essays, theses, and dissertations are all modes of communication that serve to share with readers how we have approached our topic and the conclusions to which we have come. And the success of this communication is dependent each writer’s display of technical mastery. This does not, of course, mean mindlessly following the model, although many writing teachers would agree that is preferable to write with good technique and be a bit monotonous than to write with no technique and lose the reader from the outset.

The aim of good technique is to create a fluid and organic microcosmic structure. What this means is, simply: 1) each paragraph is a self-contained unit, 2) which contributes to the argument of its individual section, 3) which contributes to the argument of its chapter, 4) which contributes to the argument of the work as a whole. No matter the length of the writing, these key building blocks will always stay the same, and should always help your reader to enter into your analysis with the tools to engage meaningfully with what you have to say.

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Out Next Month: Alan Hollinghurst and the Vitality of Influence

‘Technique’ and Academic Writing

Practitioners of the fine and performing arts are well acquainted with the notion of ‘technique’. One hears ‘technique’ spoken of regularly by commentators, adjudicators, and reviewers of the arts, who use term to characterise the success or failure of an artistic undertaking. The study of technique forms the core of advanced training in many disciplines, including dance, acting, music, voice, visual art, and design. For dancers, ‘technique’ entails an understanding of the lines a body casts in space, and an ability to manipulate and control these lines as required for various dance
styles. The ‘technique’ of singers involves the development and control of sound-producing resonators, and the ability to produce the desired sounds with as little strain and stress on the body as possible.

And in some instances, the technique has been extensively documented and codified. Most professional actors today have been trained in at least a derivative form of the technique promoted by Constantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, and, even more exhaustive than that, Bharata Natyam—the national dance of India—has a wide vocabulary of specific expressive hand gestures that each dancer must learn and perfect. These gestures form one component of the ‘technique’ of Bharata Natyam, and serve not only as an elemental part of the dancer’s training, but also as a clear benchmark of the dancer’s successful or incomplete treatment of the style.  ‘Technique’ is the specialist code followed by practitioners in a particular discipline. ‘Technique’ comprises the rules that first must be learned fully before they can be bent, shaped, and reworked in order to produce the desired effect.

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Developing Student Self-Reflexivity In Secondary Source Research

Library Word Find Puzzle #2

(Photo credit: herzogbr)

Yesterday I wrote about how I introduce secondary source research to students.  Those 7 questions, are, of course, only the starting point for helping students to get the full benefit from engaging with the work of other thinkers.

When our students are working with secondary source material in their writing, we should be encouraging them to use their sources to explicitly support, develop, or refine their own argument.  We sometimes forget that student writers can become part of the wider critical conversation on a topic.  By helping them to use their sources to develop their argument, rather than simply reiterating the arguments of others, we can help them to enter that conversation as well.

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7 Questions to Help Students Use and Understand Secondary Sources

May 2009: Academic Writing & ESL Resources Display

(Photo credit: tclibrary)

The university-level study of English is paradoxically both an individual and collaborative effort, with students developing their own analytical skills while simultaneously learning to think in collaborative ways with tutors and fellow students.  What this paradox demonstrates, of course, is that communicating with those around you plays a significant role in the development of ideas, including communicating with the critical body of material surrounding the topic (even if the line of communication is, in this case, distinctly one-way).

Academic writing, even at the most introductory level, is not created in a vacuum. Indeed, any piece of writing that students produce will be be a conglomeration of voices—some contemporary, some more distant—and their success in that writing will be dependent upon how well they harness this mass.

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Alan Hollinghurst and Some Archeological Digging

It’s not very often that my research requires me to get involved with something as interesting as archeology, but in tying up some last pieces for my new book The Vitality of Influence: Alan Hollinghurst and a History of Image (Palgrave Macmillan, early 2014) I have found myself tracking down archeological digs in some surprising places.

Skinner's Lane, the City of London

At the centre of Hollinghurst’s 1988 début The Swimming-Pool Library is the grand home of Lord Charles Nantwich, which is somewhat awkwardly hanging on in the City of London as the last reminder of a very different time.  One of the most fascinating features of Charles’s house is that it is covering the remains of a Roman bath, which serves as one of the points of reference for the novel’s paradoxical title.

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The Questions Academics Ask: Conference Edition

Steve Macone, The New YorkerI have always been a fan of New Yorker cartoons, and this Steve Macone piece from 2010 seems to hit closer to home than most.   Macone’s cartoon perfectly captures one of the several strange things that can happen during a conference Q&A.

In addition to the ‘shorter speeches disguised as questions’ there are also a number of other distinct flavours of questions–some good, some bad, but all of which we have seen before.

  • The Courtesy Question: There is always someone willing to fill the awkward silence when no one has a question to ask.  The Courtesy Questions is flimsy at the best of times, and asked merely as a kindness to the presenter.  Thank you and moving on.
  • The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question: This might be only one step above the Courtesy Question, but it is a question everyone is thrilled to receive.  The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question is so broad that you can say whatever you want.  It’s a great opportunity  to recite the parts of your paper you hadn’t gotten to when the moderator called time.
  • The Factual Actual Question: There is no harm in wanting to know a bit more.  Sometimes an audience member actually does genuinely want to know more about something you said: a particular source, a particular concept, a particular line of reasoning.  These might sometimes look like Courtesy Questions, but when you see more than a handful of pens scribbling during your response, you know that you have probably just been hit with a Factual Actual Question.
  • The Tell-Me-What-Your-Paper-Was-About Question: This question might be disguised as a Factual Actual Question, but its ultimate goal is quite different: to get a summary of what you have just said.  Usually this isn’t  because someone wants you to do all the work for them.  It’s more likely that, although your paper works fine when written, it is genuinely  too challenging to follow when read.  The lesson from this question is that reading and speaking are two very different things.

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Too Big and Too Small

English: More rooftops Looking over the roofs ...

Looking over the roofs of Muswell Hill Place and Alexandra Gardens towards Springfield Avenue and the Alexandra Palace TV mast, from the viaduct at St James’s Lane. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British domestic architecture is largely made up of strange angles and peculiar proportions.  Or, at least that was the case in the kinds of flats I lived in during most of my twenties, when I was, first, a student and, later, a young academic with precious little dosh for rent.  One flat had soaring double-height ceilings, impossibly narrow hallways, and, in my bedroom in the back, an overly wide Georgian door that opened to show shelves 3 inches deep.  Even my hairbrush didn’t fit.  In a later flat in Muswell Hill in London, the most exciting feature was a tiny window, three-stories up, that opened onto a massive flat roof the size of the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and bedroom below.  It was covered in gravel, but I spent many evenings there looking up to Alexandra Palace in the distance.

Neither of these flats were being put to the use they were intended, and the proportions of living seemed charmingly off-kilter because of that.  The former had been a Victorian boarding house in Leeds, before walls were shifted and latches were added to accommodate legions of Red-Brick students.  The latter began life as a middle-class family home in a leafy suburb that was neither then nor now serviced by the Tube.  But it has lately been carved up and made home to one middle-class family downstairs and several eager young career men upstairs, nearly doubling the original number of inhabitants.  From slim crevices to capacious outdoor landings, every feature of these buildings was always too big or too small.  Or, more regularly, both too big and too small at the same time.

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“How Do You Consume Your Media?” It’s Time to Get Serious


This week I reminded my students that if they are serious about getting a good job in writing or communications then they need to get serious about their media consumption.  That means: a daily newspaper with an international focus, a weekly news magazine, and two to three high-quality monthly magazines.  ‘But that doesn’t require you to read everything cover-to-cover’, I assured 22 horrified faces.  Rather, a good media consumption strategy gives you the framework to dip in and out of the most important events in the world, and allows you to feel connected to ideas bigger than yourself.  During interviews for the jobs that students with an English Studies degree will go into–marketing, journalism, PR, publishing, teaching, to name merely a few–the question of ‘how do you consume your  media?’ is becoming an increasingly common starting point.  And the response needs to be a bit more developed than ‘oh, I read Heat every Tuesday.’

It is advice that I give to students every year, but with the recent announcement that later this summer Google will be dropping Google Reader–their pleasingly functional and well-connected RSS reading platform–I began to think once again about how I consume my media.  I will be the first to admit that my methods of media consumption have been, until recently, what might be called… shady.  I’m of the generation of Napster and torrents, after all.  I’m part of the first generation of people who had computers in their bedrooms as children, paving the way for a bit of illegal downloading beginning with the era of Sugar Ray and Savage Garden and moving onward.  When a good friend of mine introduced me to the world of illegal .epub files for my Kindle, I was hooked.  But putting aside all the economic and moral arguments against illegal file sharing–and I do have a profound respect for musicians and writers, and believe they are owed fair compensation for their work–I have my own personal reasons for recently taking my media consumption more seriously.  And by that, I mean, exchanging cold, hard (digital) cash for the pleasure of consuming.

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