Talking about Ideas: A Conversational Approach to Academic Writing for the Rest of Us

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How can professors and graduate students improve academic writing through conversations?

We generally speak before we write. At least, to my knowledge, nobody has ever been born knowing how to write in APA style! Having conversations—whether through spoken language, sign language, or typing—comes to us more easily than writing research papers. As babies, we rapidly learn to communicate, accumulating vocabulary and grammatical rules through conversation. Through conversations we can more easily ask honest questions, solve shared problems, and develop trust. Power structures can temporarily be leveled by opening space for candid discussions. We all know this through our personal lives, since we have conversations with our family and friends every day. I bring up conversations because the typical graduate writing collaboration is fraught because takes place on the page.

The typical graduate writing experience goes something like this. An advisor asks their grad advisee to send them a draft of a piece of writing. It’s a fraught moment for the advisee, particularly if they haven’t been trained in the formats and expectations of academic writing. They’re worried about being judged and often unclear of the rules of the game. Professors then receive their advisee’s writing, and can be taken aback by unformed ideas. With a sigh, they dutifully mark up the document in Microsoft Word, then send it back to their advisee to revise.

The student opens the email and is immediately disillusioned that their ideas aren’t coming through. Encountering feedback through email can be jarring and confusing, particularly if there’s a lot of it (there often is). A professor who writes “huh?” in a comment is genuinely trying to improve the writing. But putting feedback on the page can chill such comments, making them cold and impersonal. The grad student interprets them, as my daughter would succinctly describe it in teen vernacular, as “judgy.” Through no fault on either end, working on ideas through writing saps a graduate student’s enthusiasm for research. At worst, working together on the page can even make graduate students feel like they don’t belong in academia at all.

The problem is that University professors haven’t been taught how to help students improve their writing. At best, they may have themselves had a professor in their life who imparted best practices to them. For their part, most early-career graduate students have never written an academic paper—they too don’t know any other way. So each muddles through by going through the motions of improving academic writing. But even with best intentions, what should be a great joy is turned into a chore. Collaborative academic writing an emotionally fraught and frustrating experience for professors and graduate students alike. I think a new way of working together on writing is possible.

Practitioners—particularly those working in education—have long recognized that conversations give us space to develop our ideas. Natalie Goldberg referred to talk as “the exercise ground for writing.” Talking about ideas lets us adjust them before they even go on the page. I’ve been particularly inspired by the late Mike Rose, who rejected the “deficit model” of writing that presumed students were inferior. Instead, he “modeled a deep compassion that asked teachers to understand students as whole people, with very mixed feelings about academic writing, who are nonetheless trying to do a very difficult thing.” Helping graduate students with their academic writing is an opportunity to raise up their ideas and simply recognize that academic writing is difficult but a skill that can be acquired.

In my writing coaching, I’ve found that what appears to be a technical writing problem is often a challenge of conceptualization, interpretation, or argumentation. Graduate students may actually still be exploring ideas when they write. They don’t not yet know what they are writing about when they start typing. They could inadvertently be basing their writing on an thin argument or building on a rickety foundation. Maybe they are basing an entire paper on an article they found with Google scholar, and aren’t sure how it fits into the larger developments in their discipline. Or students could simply be observing an important social phenomena. Through their own lives they could have accumulated evidence and vocabulary to talk about it. However, they are challenged when trying to make an academic argument about an issue that has personally affected them. This is less of a technical problem of using language; it’s more a struggle of organizing ideas on the page in way that is legible to peers and other readers.

I think of writing itself as an “associational medium.” What is good writing? If we take a formalist approach—the kind that Mike Rose rallied against—we would come up with one type of answer: a good piece of writing is written correctly from a technical perspective. By approaching academic writing as an associational medium, we get a different perspective. “Good writing” is writing that, through the process of writing and the later encounter by readers, brings us closer together. These associations help us share intimate parts of our selves, ideas, and blueprints for a shared future. Good writing unites us and connects us with the ideas of those who came before us. To me, such is the power of good writing.

My next book will propose what I call a “conversational approach” to collaborative academic writing. The pitch is that I believe we need to bring our ideas off the page before we put them on the page. At each stage of writing—conceptualization, structuring, writing, and revision—I’ll reveal how conversations can clear what I call “writing roadblocks” to pave the way for more productive, trusting, and enjoyable long-term academic relationships. It will be written, as the title of this blog post suggests, for “the rest of us”—particularly first-generation graduate students and others who don’t feel like they exactly “fit” in academia. I believe a conversational approach can make writing a joy again—a wellspring that intellectually and emotionally sustains us. Because that is what academia truly needs, and requires nothing more of us other than candor and commitment to each other’s success.

Dr. Andrew / Aure Schrock is the Senior Editor at Indelible Voice, an editing service for academic book proposals, book manuscripts, and journal article manuscripts. You can find them on Twitter at @aschrock.