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Which “writing” book is best suited for me? A map of the literature based on a re-read of Helen Sword’s ALTS

The one question that I get asked by just about every single person I have ever interacted with, who reads my blog and knows about my Reading Notes of Books I Have Read section of my Resources pages, is: “which writing book do you recommend? Which book should *I* read?”

Well, I’m here to tell you that I have no clue how to answer that question. A recent re-read and reconsideration of Helen Sword’s Air, Light, Time and Space made me think about how what we know about a certain field is contingent (dependent) upon what we already have read and learned.

In early 2017, I had read very few if any books on writing, and on academic writing specifically. Right now, in mid-2019 I am at a very, very different stage in my academic life and I have purchased and read a ton of books on this topic, not only for myself but also to become a better supervisor and help my doctoral students complete their journeys.

Acwri books

The truth is that I have learned about writing (and more specifically academic prose production) through reading AND writing. I read about writing and I write, a lot. I submit my work for peer review, I get rejections, I revise my writings, and I sometimes (often?) get published.

Acwri books 2

I wrote a Twitter thread on how I revised my thinking about Sword’s ALTS and how I went from hating it to actually liking it. My opinion changed because I knew WAY MORE about academic writing than I did in 2017 and even more importantly, by the time I re-read ALTS, I already had read a ton of books on the topic.

I tweeted a couple of screenshots to make a point that is better explained in a blog post than a Twitter thread. When I re-read ALTS, I saw bits and pieces of other books there. I saw how ALTS fits within the broader landscape of books on academic writing and the scholarly enterprise.

In ALTS I see bits and pieces of Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse + Joli Jensen’s Write No Matter What + Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing + John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice, Patricia Goodson’s Becoming an Academic Writer and Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Article in 12 Weeks.


Let me explain: ALTS is a book on gently developing YOUR own approach to writing (Zerubavel+Jensen), your own writing practice (Warner, Goodson, Belcher) based on lessons drawn from empirical research that Sword has done on academic writers.

What does this imply, in practice, and for those of you who teach #AcWri? It means, as I’ve argued in previous threads, that you need to more-or-less know the landscape of books on writing BEFORE recommending one for someone (which is why I almost never recommend). How you’ll read a book will be dependent on how much you know about the topic beforehand, as I said above.

This thread, and blog post, outline why I don’t like being asked which book is the best for ME. Because only YOU know what is best for you, and unfortunately, much like research and scholarship itself, the only way to know that is by trial and error.

Read a book on academic writing.

Take the parts you like, discards the ones you don’t.

Develop a writing practice.

Refine this practice with time.

Sadly, that’s how life as an academic happens: doing the work.

Posted in academia.

Dealing with The Dreaded Blank Page

I have been writing a lot for a very long time, and I *still* find myself dreading the process of opening and facing a new document template.

The Dreaded Blank Page.

Dreaded Blank Page

For many of us, facing The Dreaded Blank Page is an exercise in self-loathing, frustration and hand-wringing. Even though I write a lot, and I specifically focus much of this blog to the scholarly writing enterprise, I still find myself, on occasion, stumped and dumbfounded by The Dreaded Blank Page.

The way out, in my view (and this is what I preach to my students and research assistants and to anyone who will listen to me) is to gradually develop a writing practice and to make of each Dreaded Blank Page not a summit to CONQUER, but an issue that we have to to DEAL WITH.

To recap, my suggestions to deal with The Dreaded Blank Page:

  • Break down the project in smaller pieces.
  • Deal with each piece of writing/research on its own.
  • Use the completion of each small piece of writing as a Quick Win, or just focus on it for 30 minutes at a time.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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On reading up a lot, mind mapping the literature, “finding the gap” and writing paragraphs in your literature review

While normally I write Twitter threads or blog posts in response to requests, particularly of my students and research assistants, but also when I hear from scholars across the globe, this post (based on my Twitter thread) comes from my own needs, both as a writer (I am writing and revising a literature review section myself) and as a student and RA supervisor (I wanted to have a resource to share with my team).

Editing by hand

In this blog post, I walk through my process of mapping out the literature, relying on systematic reviews, and situating my work within the broader debates around a particular topic. Finding a gap in the literature requires us to really map out the different ways and approaches in which different authors have approached a specific topic. The only way to do this, unfortunately, is to read.




Two important things escaped me the first time I wrote this thread. The first one is posted here (links to topic-sentences-focused blog posts).

Hopefully my process as broken down can help others as well!

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing a literature review assignment (and for instructors: providing guidance)

One of my former students asked me recently whether I had written anything on how to write a literature review, as he was asked to write one on a topic he hadn’t ever done research on (I do have a blog post on how to map an entirely new topic and write a literature review).


His request, and coming across another similar one over Twitter prompted me to reflect, first of all, if the structure of my Resources page and Literature Reviews subpage was not clear enough (I have written A TON of blog posts on the topic of reviewing the literature) and secondly, whether there was some sort of missing connection between what students are asked to do and the guidance that instructors provide. So this thread I wrote is aimed at tackling both issues.

Before I go on with my strategy to teach someone how to do a literature review, I show them two diagrams that are important to me. The first one explains how the literature review is situated within the production of a scientific paper. This process applies to any other type of research output (a book, a dissertation, etc.)

Full diagram paper with annotated bibliography and banks of rhetorical precis and databases

The second diagram that I share with my students and RAs is an overview of the different scholarly products we can generate (and their intermediate outputs): packages of rhetorical precis, sets of synthetic notes, folders filled with memorandums, annotated bibliographies, Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump tables, literature reviews (see diagram below).

Components of a Research Paper Data

In my own case, if I wanted to teach someone how to approach a new body of scholarly literature, in addition to teaching them Reading Strategies and Note-Taking Techniques, the sequence of blog posts that I would recommend they peruse (and I have used as teaching tools) would be (is):

  1. How to write a rhetorical precis
  2. How to skim/summarize an article using the AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) content extraction technique
  3. How to develop a Synthetic Note
  4. How to write an Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED)
  5. Developing a literature review, based on 1-5
  6. Expanding a Synthetic Note into a full-fledged Memorandum
  7. Writing /robust/effective memorandums

Citation tracing forward and backward and reading analog and digital

I find enormous value in (DTP, CSED, outlines) because students and researchers alike can all get lost and bogged down in the details, missing the forest for the trees. They’re useful for me as a supervisor and for my students and RAs.

Now, for instructors – what kind of guidance do we need to give students and research assistants?

I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon us (those asking for a LR) to offer some degree of guidance. I suggest a few areas here:

What do I mean by “idiosincratic responses”? Well, we all like different scholarly products our own way. There is NO SINGLE APPROACH to writing a literature review, which is why I suggest that those requesting it write a handout or offer at least verbal or hands-on guidance on topics, key authors, etc.

Workflow: Finishing a paper

So, what does this guidance look like in practice? These tweets offer an overview of what my interaction with my PhD students looks like when we discuss LRs.

Hopefully this blog post, full with links to other posts I have written and to my Twitter thread will be helpful both for students and supervisors/professors.

Posted in academia.

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Using Overview Devices in scholarly research and academic writing

While I do not study nor research academic writing (there are people who do!), there’s something that has kept popping in my head: the notion of Overview Devices.

Index cards, Excel Dump, memorandums, synthetic notes

I define Overview Devices as artifacts (diagrams, techniques, strategies) that help us sustain a “bird’s eye”, a panoramic view of what we are doing. While writing a short Twitter thread for Dr. Jackie Bruce, who mentioned was struggling with her literature review, and after having my work recommended by Dr. Courtney Vengrin, I figured I would write about the four Overview Devices I have discussed on my blog:

  • The Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump (CSED) – gives you an overview of the material you have read for your literature review.
  • Mind maps – which give you an overview of ideas and concepts and the relationships between them.
  • The Dissertation Two-Pager (DTP) – which gives the student (and the supervisor!) an overview of the entire thesis and where each element fits with each other, progress degree and tasks remaining to be done.
  • The year-long plan section of my Everything Notebook – which gives me an overview of what I am going to be writing, when the deadlines are and what I am supposed to be generating, which conferences and workshops I committed to attend, etc.

Why do we need Overview Devices? Because the research and writing process is messy and non-linear. We may get bogged down in details and we forget sometimes to see the big picture, or the forest for the trees.

I am glad this question was asked because this notion of Overview Devices had been hovering in my brain for a while and I’m happy that I finally figured out a few of the reasons why I enjoy thinking in such panoramic, broad view way, and the strategies I use to do so. Hopefully these will be useful to others!

Posted in academia.

A synthetic memorandum on advice on academic research and writing

This blog post comes from a Twitter thread I did on snippets of wisdom that I have drawn from a broad range of writers. It’s like the synthesis/distillation of all (or most of) the books about writing that I have read. This wisdom applies to writers of books, articles, or theses.

MAKING SPACE: Most authors I have read (Joli Jensen, Eviatar Zerubavel, Stephen King, Helen Sword) recommend that people carve a physical space to do their writing. This ritualistic approach may not work for everyone, it does for me. I have 3 spaces where I work (home, office), and my home office in my childhood bedroom at my Mom’s house.

Clean campus office

I try really, really hard NOT to work in my dining table (I now have a big enough house that I can do this, but even when I lived in Vancouver in a shoebox, I had a little alcove that I used to JUST write my doctoral dissertation). The point that Stephen King and Joli Jensen in particular make is that you need to CARVE that space out of whatever you have available at the moment.

MAKING TIME. The authors I mentioned, plus Bolker and Boyle Single, all suggest that you should designate (or carve) *SOME* time to sustain a writing practice. Most people say 15 minutes is not even enough to launch the laptop. Probably, BUT I have found that if I am able to devote at least 15-30 mins to writing, I feel like it helps ME move my work forward.

I try to always remind people that nobody has the same schedule. Contingent faculty cobbling courses together don’t have the luxury of carving time. Let’s fight this. I want an academia where contingent faculty are moved up to permanent contracts, where they are paid decent wages, and where they are able to carve time to write instead of having to struggle to make ends meet.

At any rate, for me, carving chunks of time and creating a physical space are also associated with creating a “mental space”. My brain needs to be “in the right head space” to write.

Holiday Inn Express Guadalajara ITESO (El Mante, Guadalajara)

ENERGY: You need the right amount of energy to write. This is something I realized when I started with my chronic fatigue/pain. I don’t always have the energy to write. Again, most writers (but especially Jensen) suggest that we acknowledge that in order to write we need to be in decent/optimal energy/health state.

Nobody can provide a magic formula for how to develop the energy to write simply because we are all different (and I recommend that you read Chronically Academic, so you can understand the struggles of individuals facing chronic illness, and many of the wonderful folks who are courageous and brave and speak out about mental health issues. Let’s accept that academia is a highly competitive environment that has at the very least the potential to have very negative effects on people. Let’s also admit that to write we need energy/mental state.

AcWri while travelling

PROCESS: Zerubavel, Dunleavy, Single, Sword and Jensen all emphasize that we should have a writing practice. John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice provides some examples of how to develop one, I do have mine (you can check blog posts I’ve written on this topic by clicking on this link)

There is huge variation across writing practices. Some authors recommend writing every day (Jensen, Zinsser) because, you know, it’s like a muscle, others (Zerubavel) suggest that you block out when you CAN’T write and make the time for writing based on those “Can’t Do” slots.

Highlighting, scribbling, reading

PREPARATION AND PLANNING – this is the part that I see very clearly in Zerubavel, Single, Jensen, Dunleavy, Heard, Sternberg: you need to pre-write (which includes outlining, reading, researching, synthesizing literature, gathering data, analyzing, etc.) before writing.

AUDIENCE: Warner, Germano, Rabiner and Fortunato, Zinsser, Kamler and Thomson all insist that part of your preparation includes determining the audience. This is also why I love Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit. Our audience wants (for the most part) clear prose, although I know a few academics who seem to revel in writing obscure stuff.

QUALITY AND QUANTITY – Paul Silvia tells you that you should write a lot, which coincides with most advice (Bolker and Dunleavy included) that says that “the best dissertation is the done dissertation”. I don’t know if you should write a lot, but what works for me instead is breaking down the work in smaller components and then engage with those work packets.

I write memorandums, synthetic notes, rows in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. I try to write a bit every day (I’m not a “words per day guy” for the most part). Most advice does suggest “words per day” as a metric, but your mileage may vary. I encourage my students and research assistants to look at “paragraphs and sentences completed” instead.

On quality: I’ve seen some very senior academics say “I don’t want to read a half-baked paper when peer-reviewing”. I’m going to try to say this in the nicest way possible: “Remember that your definition of half-baked may not be that of other people, please provide kind, concise and actionable feedback on how someone can turn a half-baked paper into something that you’d like to read”. Particularly senior people, you’ve been in this business longer. Please help out whenever you can.

Editing by hand

SUMMARY: There is no perfect approach to writing. I examine my own process regularly, adjust, change, try different things. Waking up early to write works for me, writing every day works for me, reading about how to improve my writing works for me.


And remember: we all struggle with our writing.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing the literature review chapter of a book

I was reviewing my Twitter feed after my website went down for a few days because of a coding error, and I found a request from Dr. Sara Chatfield regarding suggestions for how to write a literature review chapter for a book manuscript. Dr. Ryan LaRochelle suggested that she look through my website to see if I had written something about the topic.

Strangely enough, I haven’t. I have written about how to write introductory chapters and concluding chapters for book manuscripts, but I hadn’t written about how to write a literature review chapter within a manuscript intended to be published as a book.

Working at my campus office

To be perfectly honest, I could not recall at the time I got this request if I had ever read a book that had solely a literature review chapter (my doctoral dissertation has one, but I also have been revising it for publication as a book, so I can’t say that I will keep it as a stand-alone literature review.

So what I decided to do was to come to my office and check a few books and see whether they had a stand-alone literature review chapter or not, and if they did, how they wrote it, and if they didn’t, how did they incorporate the literature review into the entire manuscript.

For another of my book manuscripts, I am doing individual chapter literature reviews because it’s somewhat of a collection of individual pieces of scholarship about bottled water. For the book that is coming out of my doctoral dissertation, I have a major literature review in the first chapter, which is the introduction, and then I add a little bit here and there in the other chapters.

As I had promised Dr. Chatfield and Dr. LaRochelle, I’ve checked a few books to see if they had a dedicated literature review chapter. There’s a broad range of approaches, but the vast majority of books I reviewed put the literature review in the introduction and add in each chapter on an “as needed” basis. Since I already did a Twitter thread I am just going to paste my overview here.

I am hopeful these notes I took from different books will achieve the goal that I intended: help other authors consider how they’ll frame their literature reviews in their manuscripts. I wanted to add a few comments and responses I got to a Twitter query. As shown below, other book authors vary their approaches and there is ample divergence in how people approach the literature review in their books (stand-alone chapter vs interspersed throughout the manuscript and having most of the literature review in the introductory chapter).

Posted in academia.

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The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, Williams) – 3rd Edition – my reading notes

Every few weeks, somebody asks me for recommendations of books on academic writing, “how to do a PhD”, or research methods. Most of the time, I answer based on what I have available either at home or at my office, or what I can recall from memory. And as I noted in my Twitter thread related to this book, I had forgotten about “The Craft of Research“, whose fourth edition has more authors. I own the third edition, which was still written by Booth, Colomb and Williams, and this is the one I am going to be referring to throughout this blog post, but you may want to get the most recent edition.

I very strongly recommend this book.

Research books 003

My Twitter thread summarizes what I think are the key elements of BCW, particularly their approach to writing stuff that can be supported by evidence (their Claim, Warrant, Reason, Evidence, Acknowledgement and Response model is a bit overwrought, I think, and I preferred their previous approach that had Warrant, Claim, Evidence .

If I were teaching a research methodology course or a thesis seminar, I would very much use BCW to guide my students throughout the research process.

Posted in academia.

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A proposed research process mind map

I have been pondering how to organize my blog in terms of what techniques I have developed for my students and research assistants, and how people could potentially navigate my website. I am doing this in advance of compiling this blog into a printed book.

research process map

This mind map is where I am at, right now. I think I need to write a little bit more about how to plan a research project, or at least, make it a lot more explicit in the mind map. I would appreciate any and all suggestions on what’s missing here!

Posted in academia.

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Reading heuristics: Finding a core idea in a paragraph by searching for keywords/terms

This fall, I’m going to be teaching my Public Policy Analysis class (as per usual), but I promised the 4 cohorts of our Bachelors in Public Policy that I would give them a few tips on how to read better/faster/absorb the material more easily/in-depth. I had noticed that my blog had fewer resources for undergraduate students than I would like. This is an oversight that I’d like to fix throughout the fall and perhaps in 2020. This series of blog posts on reading techniques for undergraduates is an attempt to “beef up” my Resources for Undergraduates page.

Highlighting and scribbling

This blog post describes a heuristic I use when I am reading under time pressure and two other conditions apply: what I am reading is a key piece for what I’m working on, and it’s not structured in a way that would allow me to do an AIC (Abstract-Introduction-Conclusion) content abstraction. What I do then is, I screen the paper (I also said “comb” on Twitter, because what better metaphor than sifting through, combing or screening?) for keywords or specific phrases or terms that are relevant.

The paper I am reading right now is a book chapter in the following edited volume: Guha-Khasnobis, Basudeb, Ravi Kanbur, and Elinor Ostrom. “Linking The Formal And Informal Economy: Concepts And Policies”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

This is a chapter on informality, important for a paper I am working on, but not THE key reading for my work. This is what I call a piece worthy of “meso-level” reading (i.e. because I don’t have the time to really read this paper in great depth and it is not the most important one for my research, I will need to scan the text for keywords so that where I see definitions or explanations of these concepts, I can stop and read more deeply). I show my heuristic in the following Twitter thread.

As my Twitter thread shows, my heuristic consists of scanning the text for keyword definitions, explanations, key phrases, lists of concepts, ideas, etc. Then I highlight the text that is important to me, and I leave the rest for a second, “at a later time” read. Hopefully this heuristic will help my (and others’) undergraduate students read faster and absorb the material better!

Posted in academia.