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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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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4 Tags That Make Sense of It All: Best Practice for Tagging Academic Notes


2013 is already looking like a busy year for me, not least because of an exciting move from the University of London to City University of Hong Kong.  That means new courses, new students, new administrative systems, and a lot of new projects.  Since I have set some time aside this week to take stock and review my plans for the coming year, I wanted to share one of the things that keeps my note-taking organized and ultimately helps to support my work as an academic: a clear, consistent tagging system that I use everywhere I can.

The academic life is a chaotic mixture of teaching, research, service, knowledge transfer, partnerships, publicity, and planning, so it has been important for me to find a way to seamlessly blend these strands.  To this end, every piece of information that I put into Evernote or Things immediately gets these types of tags (I use the hashtag to denote a type of tag–these don’t actually form part of the tag itself):

Context > #Output > #Topic > #X-Ref

Because I use this same tagging system in both my task manager and my note taking software, it is incredibly easy to cross-reference details or to find the information that I need.  Before I explain how these tags function within Evernote and Things, here’s a quick summary of each:

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Tighening Up Some Flabby Prose

Flabby Writing

With all of this semester’s exam scripts marked and off my desk, I have finally begun to read the books that have been piling up in my Kindle over the past semester.  (On second thought, can eBooks ‘pile up’?  Surely we need a new metaphor in the digital age.)  One that I have particularly enjoyed is Helen Sword‘s Stylish Academic Writing.  Far from an abstracted treatise on writing (as so many advanced academic writing texts are), Sword’s work highlights both the finest and guiltiest features of contemporary academic prose and uses these examples to demonstrate practical techniques for better writing.

The companion website to Sword’s earlier book The Writer’s Diet (unfortunately not available on Amazon.co.uk) offers a diagnostic tool to check the ‘flabbiness’ of prose.  The diagnosis of several pages from a recent article of mine was not entirely positive.  My writing, it seems, is a bit overwhelmed by adjectives and abstract nouns, but, then, so is a great deal of recent academic writing (see below). So my resolution for 2013 is to make my concrete nouns work harder, because up until this point they have been getting a free ride from my favourite adjectives.

Win One Year of Evernote Premium


I have been using Evernote since the early days of my PhD (see how I get Kindle notes into Evernote for my teaching), so I was thrilled when they invited me to be their Higher Education Ambassador. Starting today I will get to do lots of cool stuff with them–a bit of traveling, a bit of writing, a bit of speaking.  Awesome!

So, to mark the occasion, I have some great Evernote stuff to give away.  Here’s how you can get it:

To enter, respond to the following question in the comments at the bottom of this post: ‘How do you organize your teaching, research, and writing?  Paper, digital, post-its? File folders, shoe boxes, digital tablets?’  Everyone has their own system–what is yours?

This isn’t just for academics, but for anyone who writes, thinks, doodles, ponders, pilfers, or philosophizes.  And there are some great prizes to be won…

Entries close at 11:59pm GMT on 12 December 2012 and winners will be chosen randomly from all entries on 13 December 2012.  Make sure that you include your e-mail address when you comment so I can contact you.

Effective Use of Secondary Sources

There are three main ways in which secondary source material can be integrated into an essay: summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting.


Summarizing means explaining the central argument of a secondary source in your own words.  It is generally the case that a summary cannot be attributed to a specific page number, so simply the date (in Harvard style) or the bibliographical information without a page number (in MHRA style) can be used.   Summarizing can be helpful because it shows, firstly, your ability to extract the main point from a source and explain it in your own words.  By boiling down the argument in such a way, you will be able consider several important sources simultaneously.  In this way, it makes source material work for your argument, and frees up the time and space for you to develop your own response rather than laboriously outlining the argument of someone else.  Make sure, though, that your summary takes into account the full scope of the author’s argument, otherwise you might be paraphrasing, which is dealt with in a different way and serves a different function.


Paraphrasing is a more specific form of summarizing, in that you are explaining in your own words a short passage from the source material.  You might paraphrase a single sentence or perhaps a full page.  Doing so allows you to integrate the source material seamlessly into your own essay, and to streamline passages that would be too long to quote directly.  You must make sure that your paraphrase is substantially different to the original, because otherwise it will be considered plagiarism. The key difference between summarizing and paraphrasing is that, while a summary explains a source’s argument, a paraphrase explains a piece of evidence that the source uses to support that argument.  Because the paraphrase refers to a specific portion of the text, it is required in MHRA style that you cite the page number in your footnote.

Direct Quotations

The selection of direct quotations to include in your essay is an important component of the overall effectiveness of the argument that you pose. Firstly, they give the reader a sense of the original style and tone of the source material.  While, in one sense, professional academic writers often contrive to be neutral and evenhanded in argumentation, you may find that occasionally the style and tone of the writer is a significant component of their main point.  If so, a direct quotation could allow you to highlight this feature.  Direct quotations also prove to the reader that the text says what you claim it says.  I don’t want to suggest that you must slavishly validate every point that you make about a secondary source, but direct quotations can often serve a  helpful illustrative purpose when introducing them to your reader.  Direct quotations also highlight an especially interesting or well-stated point in the author’s own words. Sometimes the original author simply said something better than anyone else ever could.  If so, celebrate this fact—share this quotation with your reader.


This post is based upon teaching resources I developed while teaching at the University of Leeds.

The Art and Science of Academic Writing

Informal, Academic, Writing Experiences

(Photo credit: nashworld)

Academic writing is both an art form and a science.  Various conventions of style and argumentation have emerged because they tend to produce clear, effective pieces of writing. To a great extent, the conventions of grammar that we will be covering must be taken as rules that must be followed.  But conventions of structure, organization, and argument formation are merely tools that you must learn to make work for yourself.  They might sometimes seems overly reductive or formulaic, but it is important to remember that they are only guidelines to help you develop your own personal, authentic critical voice.  In the same way that a painter, sculptor, dancer, actor, or architect must practise and refine his or her art, academic writers must practise and refine the art of writing.

Drafting: The Reader Sees / The Writer Sees


Essay (Photo credit: emilybean)

Once you have finished the draft of your first essay and you are happy with your work, leave it for a few days and move on to something else. Then, when you come back to it, read through it twice. The first time, imagine that you are a reader who has never seen the essay before and only knows a little bit about the topic. The second time, image that you are a professional writer reviewing his or her own manuscript that is about to be sent off to a publisher. Answer the following questions.

The Reader Sees (reading the essay as an outside who only knows a little about the topic):

  1. What did you find most interesting about the argument posed in this essay?
  2. What confused you about this essay?
  3. What questions do you have after reading this essay?

The Writer Sees (reading the essay as a professional writer):

  1. What are you proud of in this essay?
  2. Which section(s) did you skim over or read through very quickly? Why?
  3. Are you convinced by your own argument? Why or why not?


This activity asks you to consider the important relationship that exists between reader and writer. It is crucial to think about the needs of your reader because your writing always exists independently of you — you will not be there to explain your ideas if your reader has any questions. Responding to the questions that a reader might have, or clarifying and streamlining a section that might confuse them will allow your essay to stand on its own, and will ultimately allow your reader to trust you more. The relationship between reader and writer is based upon how well the reader thinks the writer understands him or her, and anticipates the kinds of concerns that they might have. Stepping into the shoes of your reader for a few minutes can be a big help.

This post is based upon teaching resources developed while teaching at the University of Leeds.

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