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04/26/2022

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Heather Wallace

Hello from someone who professionally helps philosophers write more clearly. The resources I list here are from my blog, so this is a bit of self-promotion. But hopefully you will find it useful.

My blog hosts a guest series from philosopher Bryce Gessell, who explores how we might use deliberate practice to improve our academic writing. He suggests we set goals for improvement, put strenuous effort into meeting those goals (perhaps that's where daily writing practices fit in), and then, crucially, get feedback on our work (the kind of feedback a coach gives to her players). He considers what that process looks like for academic writers, especially since this sort of writing feedback is quite rare in graduate school and beyond. Read more from him here: https://writingisthinking.com/deliberate-practice-i/

I'd add to that: do as many sentence revisions as you can. Take sentences from the texts you are reading and break them down: what's the core subject? what's the main verb? what other clauses are part of the sentence? how are those clauses supporting or interfering with the core idea of the sentence? This process has helped my own writing tremendously. When I have tighter control of my sentences, I have a clearer understanding of what I want to say. When I'm deciding on the shape of my sentence, I'm discovering my philosophical ideas: do I want to say "argue" or "claim" here? Wait, is this sentence summarizing someone else's position or expressing my evaluation/opinion?
Here are some examples of sentence revisions (sentence makeovers) to show you how this process can work: https://writingisthinking.com/category/beforeafter/

Finally, it can help to check-in with yourself about your writing process and struggles. Do you just need to put in more time to your writing? What kind of feedback have you gotten recently on your writing and from who? (Are you able to identify for yourself what you need to improve? Have you asked a reader for feedback about how they experience your text? where they lost you or got confused, etc.) Or perhaps hard emotions come up around writing, and you need to find some effective coping skills for when fear or self-critique gets in the way. I've found that writers can usually write more clearly when they imagine speaking to a curious, interested reader. When they find themselves writing for an audience of blood-thirsty philosophers, they often adopt a defensive posture and lose sight of what they want to say. Their ideas get bogged down by their urgency to address objections and qualify all their statements, which can be confusing for a reader. Finding confidence in your ideas and what you have to say is a key part of becoming a better writer. One way to build this confidence in your writing is to take strategic notes for yourself about what you are reading. Your audience is yourself, and your goal is to express what you think (This text bothers me/is brilliant because...)

There are lots of small tips and tricks for improving your writing (more precise verbs. shorter sentences! reading aloud.) But focusing on strong sentences and asking for lots of feedback from your readers will take you a long way to improving your writing. I'm happy to be in touch if anyone has questions or would like to correspond. Happy writing!

Madeleine Ransom

All great tips above, two things I would add are, first, that when you are reading papers pay attention to structure and use that as a guide to structure your own papers (I think I saw somewhere years ago that Berit Brogaard had a guide to '4 types of philosophical papers' or some such, but can't find it now). Having a good structure makes your writing better because it is clearer to the reader how everything hangs together.

My second broad point is that with clarity of argument comes clarity of writing: when you are clear on how your argument is supposed to go then the writing is also typically clear.

To help get clearer on your main argument you might:

1. practice expanding and contracting your papers: at least some of your term papers are starting points for publications. Target a conference and take that 8,000 word paper and contract it (or part of it) down to 3,000 words to submit, or whatever the requirement is. This will force you to get clearer on your main argument. When you go to rewrite the paper, take your contracted draft and work from there to expand, rather than just try to edit your previous larger paper.

2. present your work at conferences: If the paper gets accepted then presenting your paper will again force you to get clearer on your main argument. Having the audience in mind so directly usually helps me think carefully about what I need to say when so everyone can follow.

3. present your work in other places: you could form a work in progress seminar with your peers and hold a weekly or monthly meeting where people take turns presenting (I did this during my dissertation writing stage and it really helped me, we also set goals and talked about how things were going); or you might just pretend you are giving a talk and actually make slides.

4. try argument mapping: this is a new one for me, I recently incorporated argument mapping into my critical thinking course. It's kind of a fun way to visualize your argument.

Tim

Write everyday is solid advice. I would also recommend clustering your writing on topics. So write 2-3 papers on closely related topics before moving on to another group. A major component of writing academic work is just getting a handle on the literature. Writing on topics with overlapping/the same literature reduces that work time.

However, OP may want to get comfortable with the idea that they just have too many ideas, and they will never been able to write them all up. Prioritizing the most promising, the most interesting, or the most likely to be published are all good advice then.

Daniel Weltman

Along similar lines as Tim, one of three things is always going to be the case:

1) You're a better talker than writer.

2) You're a better writer than talker.

3) You're equally good at both.

At some point you'll be about as good as you can be at both of these things, and yet it may be the case that you're a better talker than writer. So be it! It's true that writing is rewarded more than talking in the profession, but that is merely a reason to be a good enough writer, or even to be as good a writer as you can be. It's not a reason to be better at writing than talking. You may just be very good at talking, such that your writing will never catch up, no matter how good you get. At that point, the goal ought to be to make peace with it, not to achieve the unachievable.

ethan

I second much of what the comments above say. At the same time, it is hard to answer the OP's question directly, because a lot depends on the respect in which their writing ability lags behind their other skills.

As with anything, the best way to improve a skill is by practice. But you want to practice effectively, intentionally targeting the thing that needs the most improvement. Speaking for myself, when I want to work on some skill, I start by reflecting on what exactly the thing is that I need to improve. In life, as in philosophy, often the most important thing is to figure out exactly what the problem is.

Newly Dr.

One more suggestion, which will only help certain people but is nonetheless worth mentioning:

I know a lot of people get stuck in the first draft stage of the paper because they keep editing and going over earlier parts of the paper before getting to the end.

I think this is generally because it is easier to edit than to write new content (and it feels like productive work rather than procrastination). So we have a problem of motivation.

One way to help avoid this temptation is to write by hand: the effort involved in editing by hand is much higher, which shifts your motivation towards filling in the parts of the paper you haven't written yet. I think this works at the level of sections and at the level of individual sentences.

This can be a helpful way to get a first full draft of the ideas down on the page, before you worry about making them presentable.

Writing by hand like this can also help with another problem many of us suffer with: writing too much. Especially if you are good at thinking faster than you can write you may find that you end up with a lot of words on the page, but they may not be saying much. The extra effort involved in writing out sentences by hand certainly helps me to keep my writing less verbose.

Unfortunately I didn't think to try drafting this comment on paper before typing it up. If I had, I suspect it would be much shorter and still get the point across.

Shay Allen Logan

https://hemingwayapp.com/

I love this app. I know it my feel demeaning to use such a thing at first, but you'll get over it. It helps with the godawful sentence bloat we all fall into. It helps with the godawful fancy-word-itis we all catch from time to time.

It's just all around useful. Drop a paragraph or two that you're struggling with in. Fiddle around. When it's good enough, plop them back in your paper, then do a general rewrite. Use the new paragraphs as a guide to the style you're looking for throughout.

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