I say the key to good academic writing is saying complicated things as simply as possible. Winnie-the-Pooh says… pic.twitter.com/iYKFa4YxN2
— George Gosling (@gcgosling) March 9, 2015
Academia, whether that means teaching or studying, is ultimately a matter of communication. Our words are the lifeblood of what we do. So I regularly find myself stuggling to suppress my inner pedant when I read phrases that I know simply don’t do what they’re supposed to. So, if for no other reason than to release the build up of pedantry, here are my top six offenders. Of course, these are things for which I’d never dream of marking down a student, but I might counsel them against. If you use them all the time, it’s nothing personal.
This is one that gets used endlessly in student essays, and it’s hard to blame them when it’s used so frequently in academic texts. Unfortunately it is absolutely meaningless. Anything could be argued. I could write a blog post putting forward an argument for the sun being The Great Mother Satsuma, but I’d struggle to make the case convincingly. One of the things students find hardest to master is acknowledging complexity while still putting forward a strong argument. For me, this is the wrong side of the line. Arguably, starting a sentence by sitting on the fence like this is a bad habit to get into, as you can easily find yourself opting for this over and over, and miss the fact you haven’t actually argued anything. If you’re not convinced, attribute it to someone who is.
There is a simple way to structure an essay: argument, counter-argument, conclusion. It is easy, but I tend to advise against it. This is often a shock to those students who’ve had it drummed into them at A-Level. Structuring an essay this way is not wrong. It’s actually a straightforward way of producing an acceptable essay. However, it’s a really difficult way of writing really good essay. This is because it creates a number of traps – forcing you to simplify the discussion into two sides when it’s probably much more complex, and making it all too easy to avoid actually having an argument of your own until the closing sentences. No. Start with the argument and then make the case.
In fact, in my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. Again, it’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which a source is written, or from which they see events. That really can tell us something.
What happened is history (the past). How we interpret, explain and debate the cause, impact and meaning of what happened is History (the scholarly discipline). This wouldn’t be possible if all historians agreed, so there is some sense in distinguishing between the ideas and opinions of some historians and others. The problem is the obvious question it prompts: which ones? Not specifying implies historians are interchangeable, that the positions we take are random. We’re not and they’re not. This is why labelling historians as traditionalist and revisionist likewise falls short – suggesting it’s a fluke of timing. Once again this phrase only does half the job.
The objective historian is a myth. Once we recognise we are all biased commentators it can serve as a useful myth – giving license to rigorously question our own assumptions against both the available evidence and the wisdom of the crowd. This is a good thing, yet it’s often cut short by the negative connotations of bias. Labelling the premise of the historian’s assumptions should be a helpful way of engaging with their perspective on the past, but instead is often used to dismiss alternative interpretations rashly. Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never encountered this said of a male historian.
I used to use this all the time about a decade ago, and there’s no zealot like a convert. The reason as to why I turned against this unnecessary flourish is that it’s pretentious. I’ve never used it when speaking, so why when writing? It’s the over-compensating that comes from not feeling you have the authority to write about a given subject. There will always be an element of fake it ’til you make it, but this is too transparent a disguise it be any use. Good academic writing is a matter of saying complicated things as simply as possible. Decide what needs saying. Say it plainly. Then stop.
This post originally appeared on Dr George Gosling’s blog. It is reposted here under the terms of Creative Commons license BY-NC 4.0. Dr Gosling is a Historian of medicine and charity in modern Britain and beyond. Follow him on twitter @gcgosling.
Gone are the days of type-written papers and literature reviews built on index cards. In the age of information overload and email overwhelm, we need all the help we can get to stay sane and productive. I rely heavily on the 10 tools described here, and I hope that they might lighten your load a little too.
Many of these tools require an initial time investment and/or steep learning curve before you realise their full potential, so I don’t recommend trying to integrate them into your workflow all at once. Start with one or two that you think might be most helpful: if you are about to begin a PhD, get friendly with a citation manager; if you have 8 post-its permanently affixed to your monitor, get your shit sorted with Trello.
1. Citation manager
If I could give only one piece of advice for those starting out in academia, it would be this: use a citation manager! I use Mendeley, and get along reasonably well with it, but I recommend fiddling around with a few before settling (try Zotero, Papers, Endonte). Ultimately, the particular platform matters much less than the absolute necessity of integrating some sort of citation management software into your workflow. It may seem like a chore at first,1 but you’ll be glad you put the effort in.
Whereas Word and its ilk are digital extensions of the typewriters of old, Scrivener is a word processor built from the ground up to redefine the way we write on computers. Scrivener is at once simple and versatile, and flexible enough to complement the way you think and work when writing, whatever your style. I put snippets of writing onto virtual note cards and organise them by theme. The cards are easily edited and reorganised by dragging and dropping, while the powerful export function turns it all into a formatted and ready-to-go doc file.
The Chinese word for computer literally translates as “electric brain”, and this is exactly how I would describe Evernote. I use Evernote as my second brain, a giant electronic notebook brimming with everything from research-related news stories to recipes. You can clip direct from the web, add photos from your phone, or email notes directly to your account. It is available online and syncs across all devices, so you can access your stuff wherever you are.
Trello is a sort of virtual pin board. Pre-Trello, I would have at least 3 to-do lists on the go at any given time and would waste an inordinate amount of time faffing around with them. Now, together with my calendar, I use Trello to organise my entire life. I have changed the way I use the app a few times based on my needs at the time, so I recommend experimenting until you find what works best for you. Currently I have four main columns: One Big Thing (i.e. my primary task for the today); “Three Smaller Things”, in case I get my one big thing done; “Later” (for everything else); and “Done”.2 I also colour code, because why not.
Gloriously simple, and incredibly effective.
If you want to reach the holy grail of inbox zero, Unroll.me is going to help you get there. It “rolls up” all of your regular email subscriptions and newsletters 3 into one neat bundle and sends it to you daily/weekly at a time of your choosing (I receive mine every day at 4pm, the time that I am usually started to either fall asleep or look at cats on the internet anyway). This reserves your inbox for priority emails and stops you getting distracted by junk during the day. Unroll.me detects new mailing lists and allows you to leave the messages in your inbox, add them to your rollup, or unsubscribe 4 This nifty little app has spared me the distracting allure of 12,000 emails in the two years since I started using it.
Academics are notoriously sceptical of the merits of Twitter. Despite initially sharing in this somewhat understandable reluctance, I am now a full convert. I use Twitter to keep up to date with news and developments in my field, request articles that I can’t access, and chat with other researchers. As long as you are vigilant not to let tweeting take up too much of your time, Twitter can be incredibly useful.
While studies show that looking at pictures of kittens increases your productivity, wasting your day on the internet probably doesn’t. Freedom will lock you out of the internet for a designated period of time.5 The only way to get your connection back is to reset your computer, which is enough of a pain in the arse that you probably won’t do it. If you really do need the internet (e.g. for research) you can use Anti-Social instead, which only locks you out of particularly distracting sites.
Coach.Me is a motivation app for building good habits. You set up a checklist of things you want to do on a regular basis, and tick them off daily. I used it to get over my lifelong habit of biting my nails, to start brushing my teeth after lunch at work, and, during writing periods, to commit myself to X pomodoros a day. Not especially sexy, but eminently practical.
9. A clipboard manager
Modern academic writing involves as much copying and pasting as it does scribbling or typing, yet most of us still make do with the one-shot copy and paste feature built into our computers. I do not say this lightly, but a clipboard manager will change your life. The main advantage is the ability to copy more than one item for pasting later (if you’ve ever copied something only to forget to paste it and remember an hour later, you will understand the importance of this simple extension), but most of them have other handy features too. I swear by Copy’em Paste – while the $15 price tag might seem steep, it is pretty reasonable for an app that I use unthinkingly hundreds of times per day.
10. An external hard drive/Dropbox/Drive/Crashplan
Computers die, so you should back up
regularlymore or less constantlyas if your life depends on it. Invest in a decent external hard drive and make use of the backup software on your computer. Hard drives also die, so sign up for an online file storage service and put an extra copy your most important files in there too. I use Apple’s Time Machine to back up everything to an external drive (a recurring task in Trello nudges me to do this weekly), and I copy all my essential documents to dropbox as well. Better safe than sorry.
Already using these tools? What has your experience been? Did I miss something? Comment below or tweet @AcademiaObscura.