Academic writing: Counting words of meaning?
Our priorities are reflected in our sense of professional identity. Are you an academic or a writer? Are you an instructor/researcher/research supervisor/committee member/conference presentation planner (not to mention parent, community volunteer and…) who is compelled to write in order to get, keep, or advance in a desired career? Do you see yourself as a writer who uses what you learn from your life and work to inspire others? Or are you looking for the right balance?
In recent Academic Writing Month posts, I was struck by the predominance of comments that expressed writing goals in quantitative terms. Many were focused on completion of a dissertation or the types of articles, chapters, or books required by their institutions. They discussed progress in terms of the number of words they produced, and their relative proximity to the finish line. Reading these statements, I wondered: what about goals for harnessing the potentially transformative meaning of those words? What about goals for creating tangible benefits for the readers, for inviting readers to go beyond the first sentences, rather than skim and click away to the next article? As academic writers, we hope the articles and textbooks we publish will advance thinking about a subject and motivate other researchers to carry unanswered questions forward. We count on instructors to assign our writings, but to create real impact, we need to find curious readers who are motivated to look beyond required list to discover and learn something more. To make a difference, we need readers who pay attention to the ideas we convey through our writing. Perhaps 2018 is a time to think about our identities as writers, and to articulate goals focused on the development of our craft, so we can move it to a higher level.
When setting goals and objectives, I’ve been programmed to refer to the Swiss Army knife of education: Bloom’s Taxonomy. The original 1956 version was updated in 2000, with changes that included describing the six stages of the cognitive process using active verbs (“analyze” instead of “analysis”) and differentiating factual, conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive types of knowledge (Anderson, Bloom, Krathwohl, & Airasian, 2000; Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956). I think this framework is helpful when considering what we are writing and how to make it more significant to our readers.
My own goals for the new year include reaching new readers, including those beyond my own academic fields. One way I can frame improvements to academic writing using these taxonomies is to intentionally situate the purpose for the particular piece. For example, am I trying to introduce someone new to the topic, either a student or someone from another discipline with whom I want to collaborate? If so, have I made sure to define terms and introduce important thinkers? Or am I trying to reach people with sophisticated understanding of the topic, in order to stimulate deeper evaluation of the ideas and development of new approaches? Another way might involve finding inventive ways to weave in procedural and metacognitive knowledge, that is, to include guidance and encouragement for the reader to use when making sense of or making use of the ideas I’ve presented. Accomplishing these goals will take careful awareness of writing style to better align with my purpose. I will look for examples, and hope to find those who are able to convey a vibrant enthusiasm for the topic at hand, versus those who were counting the words and just trying to get it done.
I look forward to hearing about your writing goals in a TAA Tweetchat or at the annual conference in Santa Fe.
Anderson, L., Bloom, B. S., Krathwohl, D., & Airasian, P. (2000). Taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (2nd ed.). New York: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
Bloom, B., Engelhart, M., Furst, E., Hill, W., & Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: Book 1, Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay and Company.
Janet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.