Category Archives: writing/editing

Grading Peeves

I’ve often thought about handing out my students a list of expressions and mistakes to particularly avoid in their essays. You know, those bits that jump out and inspire a pained wince as well as a swift circling with the pen (or highlighting with the word-processor’s comment function). But I fear stifling their voices or having the handout be one more piece of paper they overlook or ignore.

These are hardly the most important elements of marking an essay, of course: I put more emphasis on students’ ability to craft a good argument and use research to support their ideas. But regular confusion of their, they’re and there, misapplication of it’s and a frustrating blindness to the importance of capitalizing proper nouns (and vice versa)? These errors grate.

Last night, I asked other twitterstorians how they felt about contractions in a formal essay. Almost all were adamantly opposed. Yet I’d say that most students, particularly new to university essay writing, don’t have a clue about that preference. Some are saved by their habits of fearful composition where they tend to the bigger as better. Others wander fearfully in the unfamiliar avenues of essay composition.

Uncomfortable with formal prose, student often mistake big words for impressive writing. We then end up with ‘utilize’ and its ilk clogging up essay sentences and long passages in the passive voice. Matters only worsen with the lack of time and skill in proofreading. How many of your students willingly review and revise their work?

Some problems are timeless: a large number of students will always make these mistakes. Other fashions come and go: textspeak, for instance. This year, I’m also seeing a lot of scare quotes (and not so many actual quotes, urgh).

But the one writing tic that irks me the most is to use ‘impact’ as a verb. That’s guaranteed to spike my blood pressure and no amount of saying that it’s in a couple of dictionaries as an acceptable use will convince my inner self that it’s anything but an affront.

What writing tics drive you round the bend?

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Maintenance

Tomorrow the nice fellow from the heating contractors comes to sell us a new furnace. Necessary maintenance moved up in our scheme of things when this year’s routine service required two further follow-ups with no resolution of the underlying problem. We’d thought we’d have another year of use out of the furnace but obviously not.

Whether it was this year or next, this was no surprise. It was on our horizon from the day we bought the home. A few years back, we got contractors to install a new roof with better ventilation. The other year we put a new ceiling fan in the foyer to circulate air throughout the house. Last fall break, Mike and I painted the upstairs hallway, living room and dining room. Just this summer, we replaced the bathroom fans. Plumbers, electricians and other specialists help us keep the house in good shape: since we regularly rely on their labour, there are only a few surprises in the upkeep.

As I look forward to fall break starting after class winds up at 11:30 tomorrow, I realize I’m also in maintenance mode when it comes to the classroom. Little re Next week won’t be a sloth-fest: there are midterms from the western civ class, short papers from the British survey and longer pieces from my M.A. methods students. My gradebooks are set up with formulas already set for calculating marks. Each paper is recorded on reception (hard copy and electronic submissions noted so I can track that all are marked). A feedback file of boilerplate comments I’ve accumulated over the years is open on my computer so I can cut-and-paste in comments on how to properly format notes and other common bits of advice.

These are my maintenance practices for teaching. In a less crazy year, that also includes completely revising three topics in each course but this year I’ve given myself a pass due to the overload situation. Thankfully, it won’t be a big problem because I’ve kept up the regular maintenance in years past.

But you know what I’ll be doing over reading week (besides writing and editing, that is): grading so that the regular maintenance of my teaching routine doesn’t get completely out of whack!

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10,000 hours

Typing away While Malcolm Gladwell may be an annoying gadfly at times, in his assessment of the importance of practice in mastery, he’s dead on.

Ten thousand hours, he explained in Outliers, is the amount of time believed needed to achieve true proficiency whether as a musician (like The Beatles whose years of nigh-constant performances in Germany put them over the top) or in other fields. Like, say, academic history or writing.

Those five years I spent pursuing the Ph.D.? 5 years * 40 hours/week * 50 weeks/year = 10,000 hours right there. That gave me a basic mastery of my field of history, though: not a mastery of writing. I managed to work my way through my thesis pretty painlessly once I stumbled upon an approach that worked for me (write from the middle, starting with something you know well and want to incorporate – worry about the introduction and conclusion later). I wrote, but not nearly as much as I read, researched and pondered. Five years of doctoral studies didn’t make me a proficient writer.

The problem is, neither did becoming a full-time academic. While in the last months of being ABD, I was hired here. I struggled with a new full-time job and the crazy expectations that included: teaching in fields far abroad from my grad school preparation although I’d studied widely, learning arcane elements of academic administration as I stepped into a major position before I was tenured, being expected to do all of this while bringing my French up to speed in a bilingual institution. I wrote, yes, but not nearly as much as I needed to write. Somehow, writing became more and more difficult, at least in my conception of matters. Plus, there was always teaching and administration that needed ‘doing’. Not to mention life!

That said, I wasn’t content with the status quo. I love to research and share the results. I was just out of practice and unsure of how to best get back in the swim of things. That’s when I borrowed Outliers from the library and hit upon this motivating tidbit. 10,000 hours? I was willing to devote serious amounts of time if it would help me out.

This year, I’ll have written somewhere close to 80,000 words and edited far more than that. Over the last few years, I’ve put writing and editing back at the top of my priority list: not easy to do in a term such as this when I’m also responsible for teaching five classes and almost two hundred students. The hard effort’s paying off: I’m writing better and I’m editing with more facility. I’ve clocked a lot of hours at the keyboard and that’s made it easier to plan out how these 5000 words or those 7000 words need to come together.

I’m not saying I’m an awesome writer. I’m not saying that my words will set the world on fire. I’m just saying that I can write well enough to meet my expectations and occasionally exceed them.

I suspect, if I sat down and figured it out, I’d have passed another 10,000 hour milestone recently. Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell!

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Could Be Worse

Could be dead, or stabbed. Or it could be midweek! But it’s Friday and I’m whole and hearty. Bonus!

Made it to the weekend and neither the meeting with the dean nor my burgeoning workload managed to bring me down. I am already feeling spread out thinly, like butter scraped across hot toast. Saw my schedule get just a little bit more crowded and hectic. We’re already tackling the question of what courses each of us will offer next year: the earliest we’ve ever thought about this in my department. But if we don’t, we won’t know where to make the cuts mandated as part of the university’s overall austerity program. Balancing personnel realities versus budget numbers is a frustrating exercise.

Still, I’m not chairperson and I’m so glad to say that. Once I’ve dealt with various service responsibilities as well as my class meetings, I’m doing my best to get out of Dodge. Even though home is alive with distractions, I find it surprisingly easy to ignore the siren call of the television for the luxury of real mind-work.

This term, I’m committed to Another Damned Notorious Writing Group, an online support group running twelve weeks. Week one is done and gone: I did some of what I’d hoped to do. The sad reality of seeing my writing hopes and ambitions running up against the unyielding requirements of my job’s other requirements? That’s the hardest part of term to deal with on an emotional level. I have such hopes of universal, regular progress, and I feel them dashed time and again by my wacky schedule.

As Dr. Crazy notes, writing every day isn’t an approach that works for everyone. I do my best when I write regularly but Tuesdays, for instance, when I’m booked all but one hour from 8-8? Writing doesn’t happen and I don’t try to make it happen. I might be able to squeeze in a little research or writing time during office hours or my lunch hour but I’d rather use these contingent timeslots for tasks that don’t suffer when I suddenly drop the ball. (Reviewing slidesets for classes so I can tweak the questions and images, for instance, or adding more material to the online course management system.)

I pray there aren’t any meetings on Friday afternoons because then I enjoy a wonderful “sweet spot” of four uninterrupted hours to drill down deep in my current project. Despite leaving breadcrumb trails in the form of ALL CAPS NOTES to myself, I need about half an hour to reorient myself as to what I’m writing as well as how I’m using the sources.

Sadly, this Friday wasn’t a joyous excursion into writing. My afternoon meeting was important and we accomplished our goals, but it chopped up my afternoon into precisely the wrong chunks. Even so, I’ve completed the key writing task I’d wanted to have finished in the last week. I’m fortunate that my family’s tolerant enough of my wacky work schedule to take it calmly when I say that this weekend is all about writing and editing because that’s what I’ll be doing.

It’s not ideal. It’s not even how I’m supposed to be working as I teach a 3/2 load on paper. You can be that I can’t wait for next term when my teaching commitments drop from five courses to three! But I think this stop-and-go schedule with a clear road map is something that’s working for me.

What’s working for you with writing, editing, research or study this term?

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Histories of “bad” people

I often get asked how I can research historical personages who aren’t “nice people”. It began with my doctoral research focusing on such wonderful people as Henry VIII (he of the six wives and several executed advisers including Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell), Richard Morison (a rabidly self-promoting evangelical humanist) and other early sixteenth century figures who emerge from history, warts and all. Some of them are more appealing than others: I’ve argued that Jane Seymour gets a bump rap from modern culture that’s eager to embrace Anne Boleyn as the epitome of a liberated woman while condemning Jane as a mealy-mouthed lump. That said, I don’t think I would have liked to be a part of her court!

Let’s be honest: we spend a lot of time trying to get into the heads of our historical subjects. We attempt to read everything they wrote and everything written about them. If we’re able, we travel to places they knew well, visit their burial sites and try to catalogue their libraries and possessions.

There are days when I think I know some of my subjects better than my own relatives. I can tell you in great detail about Morison’s illegitimate children (and his provision for the same) as well as his marriage to Bridget Hussey. His widow’s subsequent two marriages and high-profile courtiership are some of the jumping-off points for my forthcoming book. She doesn’t seem to have been all that easy a person to love, either, mind you!

So, how can I spend so much time in the company of people I would never want to invite over for dinner let alone a Meeting of Minds? I suppose it’s the same way that we can sit, fascinated by the awful truths revealed on shows such as Celebrity Rehab or following the beach-bound crowd on Jersey Shore.

It can also be that there aren’t that many “nice people” to study. At least in terms of the surviving historical record, it’s more often the strivers and back-stabbers who make their mark. Even some saints strike me as people who were rather too focused on their faith to be comfortable company!

Truth be told, there may be an extra dollop of interesting to study a few of the “bad boys” and “bad women” of history. We’re eager to see if the reality of their lives measures up to the legend and how they came to terms with their actions. They track widely through the historic record and often leave a wealth of material to explore.

But the last thing that a good historian wants to do is to become so emotionally involved with the figures they’re studying that they lose perspective. I have few illusions about Henry and Richard, Jane and Bridget, but I still have a lot of questions to answer so it’s back to the sources I go!

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Overcome By Events?

The last two days I’ve been nibbled to death by ducks, seriously eyed by the alligators that were in the swamp I drained or, as Notorious Ph.D. succinctly phrases it, Overcome by Events.

Some of it good, mind you. Our faculty union voted yesterday and ratified a three year contract. The New York Times is blogging about our next project, Star Wars and History.

Still, time flies and boy, does it! Since my sabbatical’s over, I submitted my annual report, updated CV, teaching dossier (for the first term) and copies of my publication. I’m acting chair so I’m in the office daily, advising a few students and ensuring no emergencies arise as happened last summer with the Great Flood.

With all of this, I mostly have had to deal with Real LifeTM (i.e. the kids, the pets, the house, the bills, the cat hair). I’ve not been seated for more than fifteen minutes (and that’s the bare minimum of time I need to get going on writing, even with a trail of notes accompanied by an extensive outline).

My writing’s and editing’s been confined to snatched moments of research reading and email correspondence for two days. Plus, I have an evening commitment that’ll keep me from getting any real work done tonight (hence, pecking out this blog post in the five minutes I have, here and there, between laundry loads and other Events).

So much for Write Early, Write Often? No way!

I’m miffed that I’ve lost a few days of writing, let’s be honest, but rather than sulking or snarking, I’m considering Tuesday and Wednesday in the form of my writing weekend. I wrote daily for the previous six days. I can afford a few days off. Besides, angst doesn’t get words on the (virtual) page or pay the bills!

So, tomorrow morning’s already been blocked off. No email, errands or appointments until I sit down and write the next section of the current chapter. I’m collating a pile of reference books so they’ll be handy for when tomorrow’s writing time starts. My writing time ends at middday, when I’ll need to take autistic youngest to get a filling and, looking at the rest of the day’s schedule, that’s it for writing time until seven unless the filling is accomplished quickly and easily.

Even then, I’m not abandoning all those hours to the gods of entropy. I have five interlibrary loan books I need to consult for the current project. Taking one of those and a stack of post-it notes, maybe even the ereader or the netbook, means that if I’m stuck sitting somewhere I can pull out the book and make the notes I need. Research is another vital part of the writing process, so it’s a constructive use of those stolen minutes.

How do you push your project ahead when your daily schedule resembles a jigsaw puzzle more than anything else?

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Write Early, Write Often

When I’m not embroiled in editing (a very pleasant chore in many ways, let me tell you, given the calibre of contributors we’ve found for The Hobbit and History) or taking care of the various mundane chores of Real LifeTM, I’m writing.

Even as my sabbatical winds up this very day (sniff!), I’m writing. I have two chapters to finish, an article I’m trying to wrestle into shape and various bits and pieces for the book project, all important and pressing professional obligations. Plus there are a few other pieces I’m writing for fun. . . .

I spoke with a colleague this week, who’d just read a book of writing advice for academics. What she drew from it was unsurprising and coincides a great deal with how she’s successfully worked to complete a book project despite her own heavy teaching and service loads. It also fits in well with what I’ve been reaffirming over this sabbatical. I don’t need fancy tools (though I would love to learn more tricks for using Zotero). I just need to follow my four rules of writing productivity.

  1. Write Early. Not early in the day. At least not for me, although I don’t open my email first thing since I’ve learned that’s a way to quickly get hijacked into serving another person’s priorities. For me, early is in the timeline of the project. I try to psych myself out with an even earlier deadline. I start with schematic plans of the project that are very loosey-goosey at first, often just a few paragraphs and points for what will be a chapter-length piece. Then I can spot the “holes” where I need to add more and research more (hence the two most recent interlibrary loan books sitting on my coffee table: The Military Leadership of Matilda of Canossa, 1046-1115 and Queen’s Apprentice). As the research is completed and the archival material is organized, I fill in the holes and keep on trucking.
  2. Write Often. Daily if at all possible. Five days a week if not seven (I’m of two minds about keeping weekends free from professional writing since I often lose chunks of weekday afternoons or evenings to other responsibilities.) Even if I can only get out a hundred words one day, or flesh out the outline another two or three points, that’s better than nothing, isn’t it? Five hundred words in a day is my best steady output. And if you’re aiming for a six thousand word chapter or a thirty-five page article, you can break it down into chunks. Five hundred words a day gets your chapter done in twelve decent writing days, leaving time if I’ve started early to put it aside and then return with a fresh eye to make all those vital revisions.
  3. Anything Will Do. Editing, yup: it’s necessary, but not when I’m writing. I have to strangle that inner editor when I’m trying to get writing. Editing doesn’t count in my daily goal-setting. I do my best now not to edit more than I absolutely must before a first draft is complete. I might leave notes that remind me I want to reorganize the second section to clarify the chronology or split up the economic examples across the entire chapter, say, but I don’t do that until I’m done. Otherwise, perfectionism rears its ugly head and slows me the heck down. (This is the lesson which took me the longest to learn!)
  4. Accept No Substitutes. I’m often asked to work on a policy document or edit a student’s work, sometimes on very short notice. During teaching terms, I have almost unending piles of marking. (Seriously, I have had dreams that it multiplies just like the brooms did in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.) I can’t count the other stuff I’m doing in my daily achievement. It might fill up my day, you betcha!, but even then, I can usually squeeze in a hundred words or so on my real writing priority.

What’s on your list of ways to get into your writing groove? I’ll check back in once I’m done with today’s writing!

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