What is “that”? and other feedback tricks

This post is by Associate Professor Inger Mewburn who also blogs over on The Thesis Whisperer.

Ah, feedback.

The bane of academic life. PhD students complain constantly they don’t get enough, while their supervisors feel like they’re always giving it out, but it’s not followed like it should be. Well, I’m probably exaggerating, but it’s still a rare PhD candidature where everyone feels the feedback equation is perfect all the time.

screen-shot-2017-02-10-at-4-09-31-pmMost supervisors are capable of giving great feedback – they’re just not always in a position to do it properly. I’m no exception. Giving good feedback is skillful, time consuming work. It requires both academic knowledge, patience and a sensitivity to the feelings of others. Sometimes research supervisors are called on to give feedback about things that are on the margins, if not outside their area of expertise. I’m thinking about those times that students are trying a new research method, using an instrument you are not familiar with or dabbling in esoteric theories that you have not had the time – or interest – to absorb yourself.

My first rule of feedback is Honesty. You must be honest about what you know, and even more honest about what you don’t. I’ve written before about the importance of ‘outsourcing’ some of the supervision work, but feedback on writing is one of those tasks where the burden is likely to fall entirely on you. I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way that make it a bit easier, and I thought I would share my top three with you:

Examine the first sentence of each paragraph

The first sentence of any paragraph of academic writing is the ‘topic sentence’ – the sentence where the writer declares what the paragraph will be about. Often the start of paragraphs is where writers should place ‘knowledge claims’. An example of a strong knowledge claim in a discussion section in my field would look like this:

“The results of our survey suggest that more educators should familise themselves with feedback”

A weak knowledge claim might look like this:

“The survey results showed that 68% of supervisors don’t know what feedback looks like”

In the first example the writer is taking a position. In the second sentence the writer is just stating a fact. In humanities writing I like to say that each topic sentence is like a friendly punch in the face. We’re full of opinions and want you to know it In the sciences this is not always as violent. A science paragraph might start with the fact and move on to the theory.

My point is, novice writers often don’t pay enough attention to the start of paragraphs. They will often start a paragraph half way through a thought. Find a couple of weak paragraph starts and rewrite them. Put a comment over the sentence to tell the student why yours is better. Then ask your student to go through the rest of the draft and check their first sentences get every paragraph off to a good start.

Look for “that” – is it clear what “that” is?

Helen Sword encourages all writers to avoid, as far as possible, various forms of the verb ‘to be’. I picked up this little trick from my friend and fellow blogger Katherine Firth who searches for “that” in each piece of writing. Often this pesky word is being used as a place holder – a way of avoiding being specific or really unpacking a thought or result. Search for that and circle them. Ask your student to write exactly what “that” is. This small change can produce big improvements and help your students articulate their theories and ideas with more intent.

Look for sentences with lots of commas.

Commas are useful, but under-rated pieces of writing apparatus. The worse kind of comma abuse is called ‘hypotaxis’. Hypotaxis is related to Parataxis. Parataxis is plain English. It’s one sentence. Followed by another sentence. It’s very direct. Your sentences are short.

Perhaps too short.

Hypotaxis is the use of clause after subordinate clause, which creates sentences of deeply satisfying complexity, that, even while you might get lost a little between the commas, reassure the reader that an academic of sober minded, careful, disposition is tapping away at the keyboard crafting very polite sentences which, because of those glorious clauses and subordinate clauses, are the horsey-est (if that’s actually a word) of all horsy sentences. You’re on safe ground with all that hypotactic fun, believe me, because you will find it impossible to be too enthusiastic, or too rude, about anything. It’s no wonder, since academics love being passive aggressive, which, by the way, is the avoidance of directly saying what they think, that you find most ‘serious’ writing is full of it – but it makes your writing into a boring granola bar that takes WAY too much chewing to digest.

Now breathe!

All the sentences in that paragraph on hypotaxis were grammatically correct, but hard to read because most readers will unconciously hold their breath until the writer comes to a full stop. Try not to fall into the trap of editing these kinds of sentences because your OCD can’t let them exist. Once you have taught your students what hypotaxis is, you can just circle sentences that are suffering from it. Send your student off to the academic skills and learning centre to learn how to re-parse these monsters into multiple sentences. You are helping them gain a skill for life and making your work a lot easier at the same time.

That’s my top three writing feedback tips – what are yours? Love to hear your feedback short cuts in the comments

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