Can I use the word "I" in a research article? This and other perplexing questions about the range of styles you can employ in your research writing are answered in this episode of the Teaching Writing podcast. As writers of research documents, we need to answer that question along with many other specific questions in order to write successfully (read "get published'). In this post, though, I'll also try to point us towards some of the bigger questions and issues that help us understand the answers to the specific ones. (For the more attentive among you, you'll notice I've already used I, you, and we!).
Let's begin with an answer to that first question: I think the short answer is yes--you can use the first-person pronoun. Generally. though, in research articles I've co-authored over the last few years, we'll use "we." However, we don't use it a lot--mainly in the introduction where we make the main claim or argument of the article:
To answer these questions, we used triangulation (Candlin & Hyland, 1999), which allows both collecting data from multiple sources and using multiple approaches to analyze the data (Hastings, 2012). Triangulation “provide[d] multiple lines of sight and multiple contexts” (Hastings, 2012) to examine and enrich our understanding of the move-visual interactions in research articles in discrete mathematics. Our results show notable associations between the move structure and the visuals used in the articles in ways that contribute to the central rhetorical purpose of the articles, namely establishing facts (i.e., new knowledge). Here we first summarize some existing research on visuals in academic genres. Next, we briefly describe the study design. We then present results including the roles that visuals play in RAs in discrete mathematics as well as examples of move-visual associations in their rhetorical structure. Lastly, we discuss the implications of our findings, including the pedagogical implications for academic writing classes in mathematics and related disciplines.My apologies for the length of the quotation, but I think it helps to make the point of how extensively you can use "we." Whatever you do, you need to be consistent in your usage. I'll note that "we" shows up frequently in the methods section of this article as well as in the discussion part of the results section, and again in the conclusion (full citation at the end of this post).
Ultimately, the journal and the editor you send your manuscript to controls the decisions you make about style. English for Specific Purposes (the article I'm quoting from) has a 13-page booklet listing their style requirements. One of your first tasks when preparing a manuscript is to find those requirements and ensure that you've met them. Everything from how you report your data to how you visualize it might be specified.
OK, so we can use "we." But how personal can we be in research writing? In the slides that I used in my in-person workshop you'll see some quotes from a recent article by Randy Harris. Here's a quote from the first section of that article:
I have a neighbor, just into her seventies. She walks her dogs past my yard daily, and when she finds me puttering about, she infallibly asks, with a mischievous grin, "Are you working hard, or hardly working?" Same question. Every time. My neighbor is resisting the incursions of Alzheimer's Disease, resisting the erosion of her memory and her Self, and her armament includes rhetorical figures.After the end of this prologue (titled "0. Two Tales of Resistence"), section "1.0 Introduction" begins this way:
Rhetorical figures are neurocognitively motivated linguistic assemblages which achieve degrees of salience, memorability, and aesthetic pleasure by the way they recruit our biases for particular patterns and relationships. Their neurocognitive resonances enable figures to make specific colligations and constructions more resilient to the fragility of memory, individual and cultural; to the vagaries of attention, individual and cultural; to the presence of noise, internal and external; and to any combinations of the above. I think most academic readers will recognize this text as academic for all kinds of reasons. But Professor Harris has already made himself present in the text, and he continues to do so through the use of "I" in footnotes and occasionally throughout the manuscript.
I wondered how much of Harris' use of informal language is a product of gender (it appears not to be a major factor), status in the field (he shows tendencies to vary linguistic register in an article in the early 1990s when he was just establishing himself), and field of study (rhetoric). The formality of the field and values of the field of study can influence the acceptance or rejection of informality, with discrete mathematics standing out as one example of a field that values precision ahead of personality.
Moghaddasi, S., Graves, H. A. B., Graves, R., & Gutierrez, X. (2019). “See Figure 1”: Visual moves in discrete mathematics research articles. English for Specific Purposes, 56, 50–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esp.2019.08.001
Harris, Randy Allen. "Dementia, Rhetorical Schemes, and Cognitive Resilience." Poroi 15, Iss. 1 (2020): Article 12. https://doi.org/10.13008/2151-2957.1301
With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!
Sometimes clarity presents itself and you know just what to say to someone in a way that they understand immediately. Other times, well, you have to work at it, as Watterson suggests. Of course, we usually don't think we're trying to be unclear--we think we're communicating in the way we're expected to communicate. The irony is that the result can often be foggy.
What happens to create that fog? As with many things involving words, the answer can be complicated. The heart of the answer, though, is this: clarity depends on a meeting of the minds between the writer and the reader. In other words, it is negotiated and created out of that interaction. That means that being clear isn't totally up to the writer, and that is where things go sideways, at least initially.
Achieving clarity is difficult. Why?
Readers negotiate with writers to decide what a text means. As a writer, you may or may not have a good idea of who will read your work. It could be that your immediate audience is your supervisor at work. Then again, it could be (using this article as an example) that you don't know all that much about who is going to read your document and you have to make a series of educated guesses about them. I'm going to guess that you've got some post-secondary education, that you work in a white collar-type job, and that your job requires you to write--which is why you would read an article about clear and concise writing strategies.
How do you change your writing knowing that readers are jumping around and not sitting still and reading what you write word-for-word? Here are some of the strategies I talk about in a recent podcast:
Conciseness, like clarity, depends on your knowledge of your reader. If you know that your reader already knows something, that means you can skip over that topic or cover it briefly. Knowledge of your reader is the number one way to write less.
Here are four other ways to write concisely:
When I prepared the workshop I delivered on concise writing strategies, I came across these websites that you might be interested in, too:
Purdue OWL on wordiness
APA Blog on wordiness
Plain language equivalents for wordy phrases
Grammarist on wordy phrases
Good luck with your writing. And to paraphrase Mark Twain, if I'd had more time I'd have written a shorter article!
Style and academic writing: joining those two terms could be seen, by some, as an oxymoron. That is, they aren't always thought of together, and for some people they are poles apart. But let's ignore that for the moment and concentrate on the two key terms here: style--what is it, and how do you identify it?--and academic writing--which to some extent requires a variety of writing styles.
In a recent podcast I gave some examples of how style has been defined:
None of these are wrong, but they aren't particularly helpful, either. Let's also consider what style is not:
Some of the component parts of a writing style include:
In another post I shared a document that helps identify these and other features of a written text and prompts you to identify those features either in your own writing or the writing of someone you are trying to emulate.
In the podcast and the slides you can see examples of the three levels of style that classical rhetoricians identified:
Ultimately, you'll want to develop your ability to write at each level, depending on your purpose. I'll examine each of those styles in future articles and podcasts.
Style in writing defies easy definition. That makes it hard to talk about, and harder to master. The ancient rhetoricians grouped style into three categories: the high or florid style (used to entertain, as in literature); the middle or forcible style (used in political discourse); and the plain or low style (suitable for instruction). In a previous article I gave an overview of the three styles; in this article and in a recent podcast episode I focus on the plain style.
First, let's clear up the confusion between style as linguistic element and style as cultural display. Plain style, because it is utilitarian and accessible by most, historically was associated with the lower classes in society. For our purposes, let's just ignore that association. The plain style, as it is used today, dominates communication. Speaking plainly and writing clearly matter across class boundaries.
Most workplace writing should be written in the plain style. But what is the plain style? Here are some characteristics:
How do you get to the point where you can start and finish writing projects efficiently? Many people who have attended my workshops ask that question or some variant of it. Those same people already know of the vast self-help literature on the topic: a search of an online bookseller will turn up pages of listings, many offering "tips" and activities guaranteed to turn readers into writers.
My experience teaching writing for 35 years and running workshops for both students and instructors tells me a different story. For a recent workshop and podcast, I decided to look at the problem of academics who are having trouble getting their writing done from a different perspective. I took as my jumping off point Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: 25 million readers couldn't be wrong, could they? I then combined his ideas with Helen Sword's Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write. Finally, I added insights from research in writing studies about what kinds of knowledge writers need to have to succeed, drawn from Anne Beaufort's College Writing and Beyond.
Here are Covey's habits with my translations of them for writing in parentheses:
In a recent podcast, I took up the topic of online writing tools and what they can, and cannot, do to help you with your writing. What is out there? What might help you?
Let's get started by establishing some baseline ideas about writing. First, writing is a process, that is iterative (repeated) and social: you write, largely, to communicate with others. One more thing: Writing is genre-driven, which means that there are types or kinds of documents that are used to accomplish a variety of specific purposes (resumes are a genre that serves the social purpose of getting hired). At first glance, it isn't clear how online tools can help with those aspects of writing.
We also need to consider the sub-skills that contribute to good writing performances. To write well, you need to understand your writing process and what would help you at each stage of the process. You also need rhetorical knowledge: who are you writing or communicating to and for what purposes? Do you understand and have experience writing the kind of document (the genre of document) that your communication situation calls for? And finally, do you know enough about the topic to write well about it?
So, what online tools can help? At the early stages of drafting a document, some sites can help you add to your subject matter knowledge base. Because these are specific to each person and context, I can't really link to any. But Google Scholar will connect you to academic research, and other sites and search techniques would also help.
After you have a draft, grammar and spell-checker software can help you with sentence-based grammar and spelling. Grammarly is one popular tool; GradeProof is another, free one (an add on for Google docs). There are many others, some of them free. Check out the many reviews to find something that fits your needs and budget. But try to select something that not only corrects the errors but also explains why the correction needs to be made at all.
A key component of improving as a writer is feedback: how can you get it? You might use LinkedIn and Twitter to follow others with a similar subject matter interest or writing consultants that might give answers or advice if you are one of their followers. You could also search out hashtags that identify strings of posts that might help you with a writing issue.
Most important, though, is joining a writing community or finding others who are working on similar documents. If working in a large organization, perhaps you could connect with others in your organization. That would sidestep the problem of sharing work-related documents outside of the organization, and it would help build your network within the company. Writing well depends upon excellent reading skills; if you exchange drafts with others in your organization, you can learn an enormous amount about how to write well from reading and offering comments on those texts. Google Docs, Dropbox, Word, and other file sharing software applications that offer the ability to comment on documents are all tools that can support sharing and commenting.
How can we develop better graduate student writers? In this episode of the Teaching Writing podcast, I discuss several strategies for developing the writing skills of graduate students: mapping out a plan of development over the entire degree program; developing and using specific models of the genres students need to master in order to graduate; and four specific strategies to adopt right away.
For instructors who are not teaching a writing course, how much attention should they give to grammar errors and proficiency in student writing? In a business context, the issue presents itself differently, and I'll talk about that in a future podcast. For instructors at post-secondary institutions, though, this presents something of problem.
Students sometimes resent losing grades for grammar and punctuation errors because "this isn't an English course!" But for instructors who are aware that writing proficiency is part of the graduation outcomes for university degrees, not pointing out errors in grammar and punctuation can seem like they are not helping students achieve that important outcome. So what should they do?
In this podcast I review the research that explores how effective it is to teach grammar to native speakers of English at post-secondary schools. I then review the social issues around enforcing Standard Edited English before offering some positions instructors can take when they prepare rubrics or scoring guides to help them grade student work.
Grammar and Errors in Student Writing
What is the best way to respond to the writing of a student or a co-worker? If you work as a teacher or post-secondary instructor, your main concern might be efficiency: the sheer number of papers may pose your biggest challenge. That workload can take time from your other job requirements and your personal life. If you are working with co-workers or employees you supervise, managing the relationship with that person may well be the number one priority. You want to help them, but if you are too critical you risk offending them.
Let's start with students: In a recent episode on my Teaching Writing podcast, I reviewed the best practices for that context:
In the workplace, the context is much different. I've worked as a writing consultant to help employees learn how to create better documents faster. One of the keys to that work is to translate or even identify for the writers the criteria for good writing in their workplace. Those criteria change from one workplace to another, so building a firm understanding of what makes for good writing is a key starting point. After that has been established, we work on identifying how closely the writer's drafts have approximated the key criteria.
In many ways, best practices for workplace feedback are similar to classroom feedback: focus your comments, understand the key aspects of the documents being written, and make sure you encourage the person doing the writing. In the workplace, though, respect the power structure: you may not agree with the criteria for good writing in that workplace, but whoever is in charge gets to make that decision. Identify what they want, and help the writer give it to them.