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On writing

Every once in a while, someone asks me a bunch of really good questions and I am inspired to write a long email in reply. Although I try to limit this to an hour, sometimes I write quite a lot very quickly. Sometimes some of it is even half-clever. (My fingers seem mostly to know what they’re doing.) But then the reply gets sent off, and I forget about it. I don’t even archive the text.

This is bad. Wasteful; inefficient. I’ll try to do better.

This time, several of our honours students—Marta, Finn, Sarah, Gökçe, and Lasse (they didn’t give me their last names)—asked me about writing as part of their internship in curriculum development. So I gave their questions my customary hour. And I was so pleased by the results of their efforts that I was led to rethink my entire approach to how I update this website.

What follows is only lightly edited. The questions are theirs.

What do you think is lacking in the academic writing skills training at the university?

We don’t really have a writing curriculum in the psychology department. We should, though. What you’re doing is important and valuable.

If the goal is to be able to understand and explain psychological science, then we should be teaching as much about writing as we teach about statistics. (What good is a statistician who can’t explain what they’ve done in a way that a non-statistician can understand?)

What are some common mistakes that students make when writing papers?

Students don’t revise enough. They get to the “conclusion,” or they hit the word limit, and then assume they’re done. But they’ve barely begun.

One of the first things I say in the master Writing Skills course is that “writing is rewriting.” And I show the students my own process, which is so revision-heavy that it involves explicit version control. (That’s a different useful thing to know.)

Everyone should also be reading their drafts out loud. Because your ears can hear what your eyes can’t see.

Reading more good writing would be beneficial too, to train the ear, although it’s hard to ask students to do more work outside of class. They’re already overloaded, and an ECTS is worth only so many hours of study. So I encourage them to listen to audiobooks, even if only while doing other “self care” tasks like cooking or cleaning. Fiction is fine for this: just hearing the rhythm of English, and absorbing the tacit structure that native speakers don’t even know to talk about explicitly, is very helpful.

By listening, students begin to notice when they’re translating instead of writing. Then they see, for example, that you can’t “give an advice” (when you mean “advise,” “recommend,” or “strongly urge”). Or that you can’t ask someone to “borrow me a book” (when you mean “lend me”). These are Dutch or German thoughts expressed using English words.

More directly, in terms of addressing mistakes by formalizing our writing curriculum, even my masters students don’t know about rhetoric or structure. Before they arrive in my course, nobody has explained why APA Style is the way it is. Or how it can be adapted, and the rules bent. They don’t know why there’s an order implicit to the presentation of psychological science. So they just follow rules, unthinkingly, then wonder why their texts are full of “non sequiturs.”

What are some helpful tools that you can recommend to students that want to improve their academic writing?

To improve as a writer, you need to read more stuff that’s good (so you can see what’s possible in your own writing) and you need to write more every day (to develop writerly habits and practice your skills). Then you need to get feedback from someone who’s a better writer than you, to show you things in your own approach that you couldn’t otherwise see.

This is what I do in the master Writing Skills course. I teach some basic skills. Then I use the wikis in Nestor to help the students to reflect on what they’re doing, relative to those lessons, while also helping each other to implement the lessons’ learning goals by peer reviewing each other’s writing.

Their skill is all approximately at the same level. So they don’t give the same kind of feedback as I give later in the course (when they’re ready for it). But they also have never been taught what I teach them. So the peer reviewing is sufficient to get them writing and reflecting and sharing.

I oversee the process, nudge where appropriate, and customize my lessons to address the problems that I see. Then they continue to help each other to reinforce those lessons, in the wikis, and I continue to monitor and guide them.

In addition to the Wikis, I’ve also designed a number of exercises that are intended to provide a foundation for them to continue to build on after the course ends. These are tools too, but of a different sort. In combination with their reading and my teaching, they then make rapid progress.

Of course, this is not enough to make them professional writers. But it gives them what they need to continue making progress on their own.

What do you personally think makes a great paper?

A great paper makes me want to keep reading, and it doesn’t give me reasons to stop. When I have questions, it answers them. It also does this when I want, not when the author wants. And this sometimes means using explanatory footnotes, which means other readers can skip over what is—for them—irrelevant detail; trivia.

In other words, great papers serve the needs of the audience. Not the needs of the author. (This isn’t “creative writing,” and those who simply want to “express themselves” can get that elsewhere.)

Great papers show, rather than tell. And they explain what they show. They make the science clear. They also do this as simply as possible, without dumbing down the content.

Great papers are easy to read, even if the results and insights they report are complex. They should prevent misunderstanding. As a result of having read them, I should know new things. Or understand new things. And I should want to share them.

So far as I know, we don’t really teach any of this. But we should. (Basics like the difference between “there” and “they’re,” or between “its” and “it’s,” are below the level of what we need to be focusing on; that’s remedial English, not science communication.)

Categories: Archived Writing

J. T. Burman

JEREMY TREVELYAN BURMAN, PhD, is tenured Senior Assistant Professor (UD1 with indefinite contract) of Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The primary focus of his research is Jean Piaget, but he is also interested more generally in the formalization and movement of scientific meaning—over time, across disciplines, between languages, and internationally. To pursue these interests, he uses methods borrowed from the history and philosophy of science (esp. archival study) and the digital humanities (esp. network analysis).

Selected recent major works
Burman, J. T. (in press). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4), 129-159. doi:10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren, eds, The Cambridge Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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