Pack rats fascinate me. I know people who have two or three storage units to house all their stuff. And that’s not counting garages, spare bedrooms, attics, and all their other nooks and crannies. They tell me that they’re holding onto everything “just in case.” You never know when that electronic potato peeler might come in handy. But, of course, when they really do need to find something, it’s almost impossible. They’ve got some good stuff, but it’s hidden in all the clutter.
Writers are amazing pack rats. (Students are too.) We’ve accumulated so many important sentences, paragraphs, footnotes, and research. We just don’t want to let go.
So, we end up with papers and books that feel like they’ve been stuffed full with all the accumulated debris an academic pack rat can find. There’s probably some good stuff in there. But who can tell? Who can find it?
So, today’s advice is: kill the clutter.
Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can. It is comprehensible when I write: “The man sat on the grass,” because it is clear and does not detain one’s attention. On the other hand, it is difficult to figure out and hard on the brain if I write: “The tall, narrow-chested man of medium height and with a red beard sat down on the green grass that had already been trampled down by the pedestrians, sat down silently, looking around timidly and fearfully.” The brain can’t grasp all that at once, and art must be grasped at once, instantaneously. ~Anton Chekhov (HT AdviceToWriters)
This works in non-fiction writing as well. Unnecessary modifiers deaden prose; they numb the reader and make it difficult to figure out what you’re saying. Of course, adjectives usually aren’t the problem in academic writing. Even simple adverbs are too prosaic for us. We prefer to use entire clauses to muddy our writing.
Here’s an exercise for you.
- Take any paragraph from the last paper you wrote.
- Identify the main idea of the paragraph. (If it doesn’t have one, pick a different paragraph and remember that paragraphs should have a purpose.)
- See how much you can eliminate and still have the paragraph communicate that main idea. Make it a game. See how short you can make it and still deliver the purpose. This is the core of your paragraph and it’s what your reader needs to know. Anything that you add to this core has the potential to muddy the waters and make your reader miss the point of the paragraph.
- Go back to the original paragraph and look at the extra words/clauses one at a time. Ask yourself whether they really contribute anything. If you left them out, would the reader really miss anything important? If not, leave them out. If they’re not helping, they’re hurting. There is no middle ground here.
Now, I’m no minimalist. Brevity can be bad. Short sentences get boring. Variety is good. This is choppy.
So, feel free to mix things up a bit. Just make sure than when you do, you have a reason for doing so.
It’s the beginning of another school year, so it’s time to clean house. Set your pack rat ways behind you and commit to using your language carefully, your words wisely, your prose purposefully. (How many adverbs should I cross out from that sentence?)
Kill the unnecessary clutter.
[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]
Some words should never find their way into research papers. Wikipedia is pretty high on that last. So is anything that is not technically a word (e.g. IMHO). Fortunately, though I’ve heard from others who’ve experienced the terror of encountering these in papers, I have not yet experienced it myself. That’s a good thing. (Note to my students: for your sake, please keep it that way.) But, there are some other student favorites that I’d like to see disappear forever.
“So, I would like to try to explore the possibility of….”
This sentence and its ilk taint the beginnings of far too many otherwise good papers. Using a sentence like this to describe your paper is like building a solid table and then ripping one of its legs off. It may still be standing, but no one will want to use it. With one sentence, you’ve cut the legs out from under your own research paper.
1. Explore (investigate, consider, etc.): Really? You’re handing in a 20-page research paper and the only thing you’ve done is “explore” something? I’m going to assume that you didn’t actually find anything interesting, otherwise you would tell me. Right? You wouldn’t keep that a secret, would you? Because if I thought that you found something cool and were just keeping it from me, I’d be pretty upset. And that wouldn’t be good. So, as your reader, I only have to options here: (1) you didn’t find anything interesting and I shouldn’t bother reading your paper; (2) you found something interesting that you’re hiding from me, and I should be angry with you. Neither option ends well for you.
So, I’d suggest that you go ahead and tell me what you found. If Indiana Jones goes on an expedition and finds some ancient and extremely valuable treasure. He doesn’t come back and tell people that he just explored for a while. He tells them what he found! So, start with that. And, by the way, not finding something is still a discovery. If you went looking for X and didn’t find it, that’s worth reporting. If nothing else, you’ve demonstrated that it’s not there.
2. Try to (attempt to, seek to, etc.): This just makes it worse. With “explore” you’re telling me that you just wandered around for a while exploring without actually finding anything. Now you’re telling me that you’re not even sure you accomplished that! You didn’t explore, you just tried to. Was it hard? Did you encounter monsters along the way that made it difficult for you to complete your expedition? Whatever the obstacles were, I appreciate that you put further the effort. But, your paper would make much more compelling reading if you gave me some reason to believe, especially here at the beginning, that you may have actually succeeded. Otherwise, I think I’ll just stop here.
3. Possibility: This just keeps getting better. Now we’re not even sure that this thing you’re going to try to explore even exists. And, what’s worse, I’m reading this after you’ve supposedly tried to explore it. So, all I can conclude is that even though you’ve already tried to explore it, you’re still not sure whether it exists. I don’t know about you, but I have better things to do with my time that read about somebody who tried to explore some non-existent thing.
So, with one sentence, you’ve completely undermined my confidence in your argument. And, you’ve done it by making it exceptionally clear that you don’t have any confidence in your own argument.
Nonetheless, I find sentences like this in papers all the time. Why is that? Why are so many students eager to destroy their own papers at the very beginning?
1. Fear: Students use language like this as a shield they can hide behind. If I say, “I am going to argue that X is true or not true,” I’ve backed myself into a corner and I’d better make my argument. But, if I just say that I’m going to “explore” something, I’ve left an open door for escape. I haven’t really committed to anything, so there’s nothing to worry about. Fear is a powerful motivator for creating weak beginnings.
2. Beginning with the beginning: This introduction reads like the student wrote it first and then never came back to revise it later. I can understand how you might think at the beginning of the journey that you’ll just be exploring some issue. That makes sense. You don’t know yet how things will end. So, if you want to sketch an introduction from that perspective at the beginning to clarify in your own mind what your purposes are, fine. But that’s not the end of the story. When your paper is done, you should have something more interesting to report. And, since I’m obviously reading the paper after it’s all done, why not go ahead and tell me what that is? Revise your introduction!
3. No argument: Of course, it’s entirely possible that the problem is with the paper, not the introduction. Maybe you don’t have anything more interesting to report. If your paper just wanders around and “explores” or “summarizes” a lot of information, there’s not much your introduction can do to jazz that up. Unfortunately, if this is your problem, you’ve got some work to do. Simply re-writing your introduction won’t be enough.
4. A “student” mentality: I think this lies at the heart of the problem for many. Growing up, we’re told that the student’s job is to learn. So, we create papers from the perspective of the learner, writing tentatively and cautiously rather than confidently and authoritatively. That may be fine earlier in our academic careers (though I’d question that as well), but not in graduate or postgraduate research papers. If you haven’t already, it’s time to give yourself permission to be a teacher. You’ve done the research. You’ve (hopefully) constructed an argument and drawn a conclusion. Now, you’re the teacher. Inform me.
Do or do not. There is no try.
Yoda was a very wise man…person…goblin…thing.
[This post is part of our Tips for the Th.M. series, offering suggestions on how to survive and thrive in a postgraduate program.]
I’m big on outlining. It’s a great way to make sure that everything in your paper fits together and works toward the same goal. If you have stray elements, things that don’t really contribute toward your argument, they’ll really show up on an outline.
So, I think the first step of writing a good research paper is putting together your outline.
It can also be very effective as one of the last steps.
Here’s an interesting article on reverse-outlining: going back over your paper and outlining it as you’ve actually written it. It’s amazing how far your first draft can slip away from your original outline. So, reverse-outlining is a tool you can use to see if your argument still hangs together and if every section/paragraph still works toward that end. It can take a little time, but it’s well worth the effort.
I get more work done when I’m flying. It’s as simple as that. I can spend two hours on an airplane and accomplish almost as much as I can in an entire day in my office. What’s that all about? And, more importantly, how can I be that productive even when I’m not on a plane? I’d love to tap into that level of productivity on a regular basis.
So, why do I get more work done when I’m flying? It’s really pretty simple.
1. No internet, no internet, no internet. I have a laptop and a smartphone. So, wherever I am, the internet constantly beckons. Even when I’m not actually on the internet, “I’ll just…” lurks in the back of my mind, draining some small part of my mental focus. If nothing else, I have to assign a few brain cells to guard duty, constantly saying “no” to that ever-present temptation. And, if I give in, say goodbye to at least fifteen minutes. More if you count the time it takes to re-engage whatever I was working on. But, on an airplane, it’s gone. Not just the internet, but even the temptation. (I’m way too cheap to be even slightly tempted to pay for in-flight access.) So, flying equals instant productivity boost.
2. No Email. One of the great benefits of being in an office that uses Outlook for email comes from the fact that I don’t have Outlook installed on my laptop. When I’m away from the office, I need the internet to access my email. So, of course, no internet means no email. And, no email means that I can actually get some other things done. Granted, I’ll have to face those emails eventually. But for now, pure bliss. (I’m sure many love not being able to use their phones. But, I since I rarely use my phone as an actual phone, that’s not much of a benefit for me.)
3. No Drop Ins. Western Seminary is a great place to work. Faculty, staff, and students enjoy spending time together, and faculty always have their office doors open so people can drop in and chat for a bit. It makes for a wonderful work environment. But, it does take a toll on productivity at times. On an airplane, of course, drop ins are a bit more challenging. As long as I don’t end up next to someone who can’t figure out that the laptop, book, and headphones I pulled out of my briefcase when I sat down probably means that I don’t want to chat, I don’t have a problem with social interruptions.
4. Nowhere to Go. Unless you’re more talented than I, you can’t really go anywhere on an airplane. I suppose you might need to visit the bathroom on occasion, but that’s about it. You can’t run errands, go for a walk, visit another office, or frolic in the fountain. (I’ve never actually done that, but it sounds like fun.) You’re stuck. That’s probably not good for too long, but in short doses it’s fabulous.
So, planes are great for productivity. But, that doesn’t really help unless I want to start flying even more than I already do – which would eventually result in me writing a post on “5 Things I Learned about Why Flying All the Time Is Bad for Your Marriage.” The question, then, is how to replicate that kind of productivity when I’m not flying.
To that end, here are four things that I’m going to try implementing in my regular routine.
1. Find my peak productivity place. Other than airplanes, where do I get the most work done? It clearly isn’t my office. And, working from home is nice, but it’s hardly more productive. And, I can’t afford to buy a cabin in the mountains somewhere. So, the next best option for me is a coffee shop. Next to airplanes, coffee shops have long been my second most productive environment. But, now that they all offer free wifi, they’re not as good as they used to be. (BTW – If anyone knows a good coffee shop near Western Seminary that does not have free wifi, let me know.) So, I need to do a few more things to make a coffee shop my perfect productivity place.
2. Turn the wifi off. This isn’t quite as good as not having wifi, but it’s a close second. For some reason, actually turning the wifi off on my laptop removes some (not all) of the temptation. Granted, I can easily reach over and turn it on again, but that extra step is just enough of an obstacle to make me more likely to leave it off. And, the longer it stays off, the more work I get done.
3. Use “airplane mode.” This one’s actually a little harder. I use my cell phone. A lot. I’m one of those people who is constantly fiddling with their smartphone. So, if I’m going to get some good, focused work done, the cell phone must go. I could turn it off completely, but I don’t like waiting for it to start up again. So, “airplane mode” it is.
4. Use a “distraction free” writing program. The first three steps will work just fine if I’m just reading. But, when I want to get some writing (or note-taking) done, I’m going to try something else. Lately I’ve been doing most of my writing in Evernote, and it’s great. But, for maximum productivity, I’m going to try one of the newer “distraction free” writing tools. The idea behind these programs is that they go full screen and prevent anything on the computer from interrupting your writing experience. Once I’ve killed the internet, I’m not sure what else could pop up to distract me, but now that I’ve created a great work environment, I don’t want to take any chances.
So, that’s my grand experiment in increasing my personal productivity. And, so far so good. I wrote the first half of this post on the airplane this morning. And, I finished it this afternoon in a coffee shop using every guideline except the distraction free writing program. (I haven’t decided which one to use yet.) We’ll see if I can manage to make it a regular part of life rather than just an isolated afternoon. If I succeed, I’ll come back and let you know how it went. Stay tuned.
[If you’re interested in this, you may also want to check The 7 Habits of Serious Writers. Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]