Tag Archives: academic writing

Nuance starts with N

Nuance is subtle. It lives between things. A shade off centre, just off balance, not as simple as you thought, it is the complexity of life.

In Academic Writing, nuance is usually a good thing. Life is complicated. Academics know this, and work hard at fitting all that complexity into their work.


A couple of years ago, Kieran Healy suggested that in his field (sociology) there was too much Nuance. This over-abundance of Nuance tended to obstruct clear thinking. Healy presented a conference paper about this problem with the not-so-subtle title “Fuck Nuance.” In summary, Healy thinks Nuance impedes Theory. Powerful theories need less nuance as theories look for similarities, not shades of minute difference.

Healy makes an interesting case. I was all ready to write about how academic writing could use MORE nuance, not less. Clearly I need to be more precise in my suggestion. Perhaps some aspects of academic writing could use more nuance. Descriptive work, history writing, detailed ethnographic observations, all these need detail and depth. These call for nuance. Theory as it develops from observations needs to shed the detail, to look for patterns and similarities, and so needs less nuance. The theorist needs to decide what the important differences are, pay attention to those. Yes, theory is thus less shaded than description, but perhaps it is more powerful, useful, applicable if less nuanced.

Nuance is also an aspect of writing. Choosing just the right word or phrase and getting it right makes all the difference in the world. The New York Times knows this too.

Nuance: it is a many-shaded thing.

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Historiography is the fancy-pants word for the writing of History. It also means a theory of how to do this writing of History. Since I’m working on writing about a woman who is dead, that means I do historical writing. Historiography, both the method I should use and the writing of this History, plagues me.

How do we access the past? Memory. And then if the past we access is outside living memory, we used documents and artifacts, things left over from the past that can be studied and read. All documents and artifacts require interpretation, which will require another entry in this alphabet. It’s a good thing I comes after H.

There are all kinds of ideas about and practices of writing history. One way of writing and thinking about history is the “Great Man” theory of history. This theory turns history into biography, where only some biography counts – the lives of Great Men, whatever and whoever they may be. Note the non-inclusive language. Only Men need apply for greatness in most versions of this theory. While many historians have turned away from the Heroes Make History! way of thinking about the past, I think this kind of historiography infects many of our ways of thinking about the world. When defining “greatness” in humans, we think about history and how history will evaluate people. Those who are remembered are great. The rest of us are not so much. If history has not remembered a person, then they must not have been great, or had much influence. I’m not at all sure that this is true. I’m also not at all sure how to counter this reduction of history into biographies of the great.

Other ways of thinking about history include the shape and trajectory of history. Is history circular and thus repeat itself? Or should we picture history as a line moving toward some future end yet to be revealed? Does the line trend upward (progress!) or downward (doom!)?

This entry took me ages to write. I’ve been thinking about it and writing it and re-writing it (both in my head and on paper) since the last entry in this alphabet was published. I have several ideas of metaphors that undermine and counter the Heroes Make History! line of thought. There’s also quite a lot to say about memory, documents, and artifacts. In the end, I’ve talked most about the historiography that I think is faulty and infects our thinking, but given you nothing to replace it. Keep reading.

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That’s right, cite is today’s word, as in cite your sources properly. Always provide citations, not sightations. The trick with cite is it has homophones. They tend to throw people off their game. Let’s review these tricky sound-alike words.

CITE – the word for today, refers to listing or naming the source of a quotation.

SIGHT – has to do with seeing, and if it is a noun, it could be something that you see, often that is extraordinary. Tourists go see the sights of the place they are visiting.

SITE – has to do with a location in space, or cyberspace. An archeological site is the place people are digging. A website is a location in cyberspace.

To really mess it up, it is possible to cite the site you caught sight of the other day. Or you could sight-see at the archeological site you saw discussed in the article you cited.

One more time:

CITE – make references to books or other sources of information

SIGHT – the ability to see the things around you or (possibly) the things you are looking at around you.

SITE – locations in geographical or cyberspace.

Don’t mix them up.

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Alphabet Soup

About a month ago, I came across an article on the Guardian, “From Alright to Zap: An A-Z of horrible words.” Excellent, I thought. I rather enjoy alphabetical lists, and horrible words are always good for either agreement or outrage. Would the perceptive author include the abomination “impactful” or the over-used “utilize”? I turned to the article with interest. After reading it, I thought the article could be more appropriately described as a reflection on how language, English in particular, changes over time. Words shift in use. Neo-logisms appear. Some of these catch on; others fall by the way. It is a helpful reminder to define terms, particularly when I’m using them in a specific and nuanced way. In fact, this article has inspired me to write an alphabet of my own, a list of words I find troublesome as I do scholarly work. My A entry will appear on Monday, and B-Z will follow on from there. Please feel free to indicate any academic jargon you think should be included in the comments.

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Look, A Book!

It has been a slow December in this space mostly because I’ve been a bit distracted. Here are a few distractions for you while I work on writing a more substantial post.

  1. Misspellings of the year. This is a really good post. I’ve met some of these misspellings, or their ilk, in papers I’ve graded. “If you write like this, how can I pass you?” I want to scream sometimes. My personal favourite misspellings from this list are numbers two and seven, PROZAIC, and IMPECKABLE.
  2. Ice Storm! There was a big ice storm in Toronto last weekend. Some people — I know them — were without power until yesterday. Some are still without power. There are lots of tree branches on the ground. Lots of people had a pioneer Christmas! Guess what we talked about during coffee hour at church this morning? “And how long was your power out?” (For me, four or five days, I’m not sure because I was visiting relatives and it was on before I got back.)
  3. Literary catchphrases. Wonder how that phrase came into common English use? It was probably in a book.

I am working on a post about what it means to be well read, along with reflections on how most bookish online lists appear to be curated by people who are half my age. It might be slightly rant-flavoured. Or not. We’ll see.

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Turgid Prose

Previously in this space I have lamented Turgid Academic Prose. I have found one reason rising academics continue to write with such a pompous bombastic style: profs teach it.

I am reading a book on writing a particular kind of advanced research paper. It advises students that they should be formal and not be overly chummy in their style. I agree. An academic paper is not a blog post or a tweet or a facebook update. The author then quotes paragraphs from two sample research papers which I consider prime examples of Turgid Prose and lauds these as showing proper depth and academic rigour. One paragraph does not show depth or academic rigour. It may suggest that a subject will be treated with such depth and rigour, but it does not have to be dense and unreadable to do so. I throw up my hands in disgust. Why can’t North American academics write? Because they are told that if they write too clearly, they clearly don’t have any Big Ideas. This is so backwards I hardly know how to begin to reverse it. I do the only thing I can: advise my students to write clearly. Writing clearly does not mean you don’t have big ideas. Writing clearly does mean others may benefit from understanding your big ideas.

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Apparently it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. Really. Go look at the article. I’ve heard 10 years to become an expert, no hours per week attached, but my understanding was ten years of full-time hours. That is more than 10,000 hours, so something is funny somewhere. Whatever, it takes a long time. It also means that many of us aren’t really experts at anything because we don’t do hours and hours of intentional practice at much of anything. Things I’m probably an expert at:

1. Sleeping.

2. Watching TV, even though I grew up without one.

3. Reading fiction, especially mysteries.

4. Teaching.

5. Reading other texts, but I’m not sure that I’ve read enough non-fiction. Though I may have.

6. Writing/editing academic work. Maybe I’ve got close to 10,000 hours on that. Not sure, but I’ve been doing it for more than 10 years so it is likely up there.

How about you? Where is your expertise in the 10,000 hour definition?

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An Internet Reading List

I’ve found some interesting bits on the interwebs this week.

1. A blog post about flow and academic writing. My main issue with this piece is how to get into the “flow” state. I’ve been there, but it has been a while. I’ve been thinking my working environments have been too noisy as late, but I may also be a bit hypersensitive to sound. Maybe.

2. Some notes on boosting creative thinking. I particularly like the point that if one is to use the daydreaming/napping methods of ruminating on something, one must have done some work to have something to chew on. One cannot ruminate without grazing. If one puts an empty pot on the back burner to simmer, one ends up with a scorched pot and a big mess. I think the over-abundance of analogies in this case should now cease.

3. Just in case you hadn’t heard, the internet influences the way our brain works. It is unclear whether this is good or bad. There seem to be both pros and cons for the native digital generation. I wonder how we can help people navigate without their phones? That seems a bad thing. But then, I’m good at directions and finding my way. Others are not.

4. In other brain-related news, Scientific American Mind has a new website and blog. True confessions: I’m sort of an amateur neuroscience junkie. Just in case you hadn’t figured that out from this set of posts.

5. Back to books. I found some really cool photos of poetry using book titles. If you click on nothing else, check this out. It will make you smile and go look for the poetry on your own shelves.


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Further thoughts on Ethics and Academic Publishing

(This post makes more sense if if you read this earlier post and the comments on it first.)

First, some economic realities of academic publishing. University presses tend to lose money or do a little better than break even. They are not money-printing operations. There are probably some exceptions to this generality. Most academics do not make money writing and publishing — it is not worth their time if the only motivation was the money. Academics make money in publishing when they write a very successful textbook.

Second, some personal disclosures. I work in two areas of academic publishing. I write academic books and work in a bookshop that specializes in academic theology books. I am also linked to academic publishing in a third way as I teach, and so assign academic books as textbooks.

The fact that I produce books and receive royalties from their sales (piddling as these royalties may be) probably partially accounts for my strong stance against downloading copyrighted material. I did take a stance agains this before I produced books, realizing that photocopying books (which happened when I was an undergrad back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) or downloading scanned books is illegal. I don’t make copies outside of fair use for my students, didn’t before I was published, don’t now that I am published. I am pretty scrupulous about this. I realize that not everyone is so scrupulous.

Working in retail has given me a different perspective on academic publishing. In the bookshop where I work we give everyone the best price we can. We always discount 20% off the retail price where this is possible. Unfortunately, it is commonly not possible on textbooks because university presses give a short discount to retailers on textbooks. This is irritating to us in the store, and also to students. It seems backward, but see above. Textbooks are the one place university presses have a chance of making enough money to break even or do better. It is that whole captive audience thing. So part of me kind of understands it, though I find it irritating. In my mind, however, this doesn’t justify cranking out editions of very popular textbooks. That seems like pushing a good thing way too far.

So, as a producer and consumer of academic books what can I do? Well, do I want to publish with the Oxford University Press? Should I decline to publish with them because of their questionable ethical practices around the many editions issue, as exemplified in the Ehrman text? Do I avoid using Oxford University Press books as texts in my courses where that is possible? Yes, these are all things I should do. My own personal stance on this won’t change the OUP. But my conscience will feel better.

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Twelfth Day: Bad Theological Writing

I’m teaching this term and selected two textbooks for the course based on prior experience with both. I’ve been re-reading these books as one should do when teaching a course. One is not a bad read. The other is pretty dreadful academic theological stodgy writing. The grammar isn’t bad. It is just that the writing is terrible. You want an example? Happy to oblige. Please note that I’m not going to tell you the titles or authors of the books. I’m just going to show you what I mean by giving a sample sentence from both. Both are about Christian Education since that is what the course is about. Here is a sentence or two about education in the church from both.

Not A Bad Read: “I believe that a broad definition helps us to see the basics that are necessary in developing a strong and vital educational ministry. Education in the church calls for religious instruction, socialization, personal development, and liberation. There is a need for transmitting knowledge, for shaping people through their participation in communal activities, for helping people on their individual faith journeys, and for developing a critical consciousness that leads to faithful service in the world.”

Dreadful Prose: “Christians are called to be faithful in the theory and practice of Christian education to assure the transmission of a living faith to the rising generations. In support of this task, Christian educators are called upon to reappraise their thought and practice in relation to the foundational issues of Christian education. These foundational issues represent perennial or recurrent questions for those involved in the teaching ministries of the church. They deserve careful consideration by those who reflect upon their ministries of the past, the present, and future.”

Not A Bad Read isn’t great, but the author varies sentence length, tells stories, puts themselves into the text, and expands upon key points to explain them. Dreadful Prose has sentences all about the same length, saying similar things using slightly different language, without rhythm, and without really saying much. What does “their ministries of the past, the present, and the future” mean? Ok, I can unpack that, but shouldn’t the author do a little bit of unpacking and not be so dense? And if the first thing that happens when I read a sentence is to yell What? that means the author has not properly done their job in writing clearly.

I admit that I can write dense putrid prose with the best of them. I’m an academic theologian. It is what we do. But, I would like to write better prose so that reading theology doesn’t automatically cure insomnia or require reading at a snail’s pace with coffee and a notebook to unpack every sentence. I don’t think that is what academic writing should be like. You are not smart just because no one can understand you. You are smart if you can clearly explain your new ideas for others to understand them.

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