Despite the awkward state of my literature review’s grammar and spelling, (footnotebegin)My advisor strongly suggested I turn it in without the final proofread because she knew it would take me a week to closely read and correct the thing. And that I probably couldn’t leave it alone… (footnoteend) I am quite concerned with writing well. Being an academic is no excuse for being utterly boring. Says the cataloging teacher…

I am now writing my proposal and I noticed I am repeating words: summarize, describe, review. This reminded me I have been meaning to compile an academic writing cheat-sheet: lists of useful active verbs organized by relationship, lists of what not to do (common wordy phrases, favorite terms that I use too much), lists of commonly misused words, etc.

I found a good starting point for the first at University of Toronto Scarborough:
Verbs in academic writing [pdf]
Verbs for citing sources [pdf]
Adjectives and adverbs for academic writing [pdf]
Useful Sentence Stems for Summary and Critical Review [pdf]
Link Ideas in Your Sentences Effectively [pdf]

I want to plug another good resource for academic writing that I certainly never considered before a few months ago: the university writing center.

It felt utterly bizarre to start going to UNC’s Writing Center last spring. It was not my own idea. Honestly, I was highly resistant to the idea. I’ve always thought of myself as a good writer. I was that kid bored out of my skull in English class, doodling or surreptitiously reading a book. And then I made 100s on all the quizzes and got recommended for the school newspaper staff and literary club. Everyone seemed to expect that I would become a writer of some sort. When I switched my undergraduate major from English to Commercial Art, someone suggested I was disappointing God by not using the special gift he gave me. This same person years later learned about the concept of “paradigm” and suggested we lived in two different ones. I’ll say.

Why did I go to the writing center? I was clearly completely stalled on and overwhelmed by my literature review. Recently gained data clearly explained why all my old tricks weren’t working, why they wouldn’t ever work, and why I had such trouble following all the good academic writing advice out there. I needed help figuring out some new strategies.

Kim Abels at the Writing Center is absolutely wonderful. I met with her regularly for a few months. It was very helpful to discuss with her in detail my entire research writing process, from source identification through reading, note taking, outlining (or lack thereof), drafting, revising, and polishing. She immediately identified the pattern causing most of my trouble and gave me a range of practical strategies to experiment with counteracting that pattern.

The most helpful strategy for me was this:

  1. Identify how long you can work steadily (or in my case, how log to work before forcing yourself to take a break to actually move your legs, focus your eyes far away, and go to the bathroom). I settled on 50 minutes.
  2. Break the paper down into pieces you think you can complete in that period of time.
  3. Each piece should be a section, group of paragraphs, or even just one paragraph
  4. Make a list of sections, set a timer, and attack the first section. Desperately try to finish. Make it a game.
  5. When the timer rings, stop. Even if you are not done. (I was rarely done.)
  6. If you did not finish, add that section back to the end of your list.
  7. Take a break, then come back and take on the next section.
  8. Repeat as necessary

I later ran across this same sort of idea under the name “time boxing,” and yep, it addresses my main problem: the compulsive need to work on any project for all available time. It prevents realizing the day before it is due that you’ve only written the first quarter of a paper that you’ve been working on for three weeks. Yes, I’ve done that. But not any more…

So, the point of all this is if you are struggling with academic writing (there can be a million reasons why, and it is not always “butt not in chair”), most universities have valuable resources that can help you for free. Even for grad students. Even for faculty. Even if you are a Good Writer. Especially if you are a Good Writer, since most of us Good Writers have never had to stop and think about any part of our writing. And then we get to grad school…

If you have been spinning your wheels on writing, go to the writing center. The people there have read everything on writing (the research on the writing process, writing how-tos, etc) and they know a million strategies for helping with any writing problem.

Oh, and if you are in the social sciences, read Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article by Howard S. Becker.


Two days down. Three to go.

What my advisor told me is unsurprisingly actually true so far: it is actually kind of fun. The four hours flies past. It’s just playing with ideas and writing.

One thing it is teaching me is I can crank out 7-8 not too terrible pages a day if I actually sit my butt in a chair and work in a highly focused manner for four hours straight. And it is not even unpleasant. I feel energized, if slightly dazed, when I am done.

So yeah, it’s really not that big a deal, though I never believed any of the other doctoral students ahead of me who told me that.

back to the everyday.

So my literature review for comps has been distributed to my committee members. It’s a tome [1], so I feel a little bad about dropping in the collective lap of my committee. But it was a very useful paper for me to put together.

One of the things I argue in this paper is that the predominant conception of everyday life in LIS is limited in its negativity. In her dissertation [2], Jenna Hartel surveyed everyday life information seeking (ELIS) studies and found 80% of the ELIS-related studies in her analysis focused on information seeking in either compromised everyday life situations such as illness or crisis, or in the everyday lives of populations seen as marginalized or disadvantaged.

This problem-centered orientation also pervades much of information behavior research outside “the everyday.” Information need has typically been conceived of as “having a problem” that information can help you solve. Our models of information behavior are full of anxieties and gaps and anomalous states.

In a recent paper, Hartel and Jarkko Kari argued for a shift of research attention to the higher things in life, which they define as “usually positive human phenomena, experiences, or activities that transcend the daily grind with its rationality and necessities” [3, p. 1132]. I concur that LIS has a taken a negative view of information phenomena and that as a discipline we should also attend to the role information plays in the the higher things of life.

However, they contrast the higher things in life with the “lower things” of the everyday, described as “relatively drab, uninteresting, and involuntary basic events that dominate people’s behavior” and “dominated by conformity, rules, rituals” (p. 1131). This is where I disagree. This view may be the going thing within LIS but we need not keep it.

I argue, citing works in sociology and critical studies, that everyday life does not exclude the pleasurable and the profound. There are myriad ways in which people bring the pleasurable, the profound, and the creative into their everyday lives. Michel de Certeau views the ordinary person in everyday life as an active, creative individual making and seizing opportunities, triumphing over imposed order, and making joyful discoveries [4, p. xix]. This is what makes life worth living.

It is with all of this dancing in my head that I stumbled upon this article in the NYTimes: Unboxed: Can You Become a Creature of New Habits?

Yes we can, and it is good for us:

Rather than dismissing ourselves as unchangeable creatures of habit, we can instead direct our own change by consciously developing new habits. In fact, the more new things we try — the more we step outside our comfort zone — the more inherently creative we become, both in the workplace and in our personal lives.

This bodes well for my creativity, as I am the queen of instituting new habits which are inevitably replaced with new and different habits. Heh.

Anyway, the connection with notions of the everyday is that even our habits are not thrust upon us. We can design our everyday routines creatively. Of course there are always constraints (money, limited time, the need to sleep at some point even though Provigil exists); but, we are not cogs in a drab machine. That everyday life provides us with opportunities for higher things, and not just a tedious daily grind, is supported by a further quote from the article:

The first thing needed for innovation is a fascination with wonder…But we are taught instead to ‘decide,’ just as our president calls himself ‘the Decider’ … to decide is to kill off all possibilities but one. A good innovational thinker is always exploring the many other possibilities. … You cannot have innovation…unless you are willing and able to move through the unknown and go from curiosity to wonder.

Ah, this last bit brings to mind some of Henry Miller’s rhapsodies:

The prisoner is not the one who has committed a crime, but the one who clings to his crime and lives it over and over. We are all guilty of crime, the great crime of not living life to the full. But we are all potentially free. We can stop thinking of what we have failed to do and do whatever lies within our power. What the these powers that are in us may be no one has truly dared to imagine. That they are infinite we will realize the day we admit to ourselves that imagination is everything. Imagination is the voice of daring. If there is anything God-like about God it is that. He dared to imagine everything [from Sexus, I know not which page].

How amazing the everyday is! And when did I become such an optimist?

But if anyone asks, I’m going to chalk up the length of my lit review to innovative thinking and the need to explore many possibilities and connections. It’s not just that I appear to be constitutionally unable to write concisely.

1. Final version was 171 pages, citing 663 sources.
2. Hartel, Jenna. 2007. “Information activities, resources & spaces in the hobby of gourmet cooking.” PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
3. Kari, Jarkko and Jenna Hartel. 2007. Information and higher things in life: addressing the pleasurable and the profound in information science . Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 58 (8): 1131-47.
4. de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The practice of everyday life. translator Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press


I have a question on which I’d like any opinions… this has been coming up for me lately, as I assess what I can do in the future to develop a more efficient, faster research/writing process.

Here is the type of situation I wonder about. I’ve made up a hypothetical one:

Let us say I want to discuss the concept of “cyberincentableness” in a paper. I learned about cyberincentableness in a paper by Doe, who explained that the concept of cyberincentableness was first developed in Smith, 2001.

So, do I:
1. Say “cyberincentableness is a term coined by Smith, who elaborated the concept in the context of the Theory of Insufferable Neologisms” and cite Doe, which is where I got this information?


2. Dig up Smith, 2001, read it to verify that Doe’s interpretation is correct (or at least agrees with my own), and cite Smith, 2001 for my statement: “cyberincentableness is a term coined by Smith, who elaborated the concept in the context of the Theory of Insufferable Neologisms” ?

To me this is a no-brainer and the correct answer is 2. But as I pay attention to this in the (peer-reviewed) literature, I notice more and more of the first. In fact, the example I made up is adapted directly from something I just read in a well-regarded LIS journal.

Do I have an idealistic, perfectionist, and ridiculous notion of the level of work I am supposed to be doing? Is that (part of) why my literature review has taken 18 million years to write? Because when you go back to Smith you inevitably find that cyberincentableness is based on the ideas of Jones and Patel, who have some other ideas that seem relevant to my work…. etc etc etc.

(all hail the mixed blessing/curse of the highly associative mind!)

At some point you have to stop tracing everything back to its foundations, or you will spend your entire life reading backward in time. I think the process of the lit review has taught me to be much more skillful at knowing when to quit.

Do I also need to be training myself to not go read the original, but instead rely on the interpretations of others?

I’ve also been noticing the disturbing proliferation of a certain typo in the surname of a researcher who wrote a huge, dense, oft-cited work. It is not exactly a time-priority of mine to go back and ascertain that my sense is correct, (maybe I should do a study…) but it seems that authors citing papers that make the typo are likely to make the typo. Is it cynical of me to start to suspect that these people are citing something they haven’t put their hands or eyes on? It is hard to believe that the same careless mistake would be made by so many people so many times.

Early on in my doctoral studies I was disabused of the notion that I should only cite works I had carefully read in full so that I felt confident I understood all of the concepts and arguments, and could remember and talk about them at any time. (But saying so still feels like divulging a dirty secret.)

My current understanding of “the rules” is that you are not supposed to cite things you have not even looked at. Am I wrong about that too? Or do we say it is BAD to cite things you haven’t looked at, but the dirty secret is that it is done all the time…?

I guess the larger question is how many corners can you cut before you start cutting into your academic integrity? And is my notion of academic integrity getting in the way of me producing my academic work in a timely manner?

music for writing.

It’s difficult for me to read anything dense if there is music or other auditory distraction. Sometimes I’ll play nature sounds to drown out other sounds. Ocean and Storm are my favorites.

For writing, however, music is essential. Somehow having music playing entertains some over-analytical and busy part of my brain that gets in the way of pushing words out.

What works best for busying that part of my brain is instrumental (or mostly so–if the vocals mostly blend in, it’s ok) music without a strong beat or any abrupt changes. Complexity in the music is good, but it can’t be obvious about the complexity. This category ranges from insanely loud guitar rock to quiet ambient stuff. Here are some favorites:

Mogwai — This would represent the insanely loud guitar rock end of the spectrum. The Scottish guitar army. It was while writing and listening to their Happy Songs for Happy People that I realized how well this type of music works for me while writing. After completing a particularly long review, I couldn’t listen to Mogwai for months without feeling slightly ill. Now that I’ve collected more writing music, I love Mogwai again. [hear/buy]

Rhys Chatham
A Crimson Veil — A composition for 400 electric guitars, recorded live at Sacré Coeur in Paris. It was comissioned by the city of Paris for the Nuit Blanche Festival and performed in 2005. It is drony, shimmering, vast, and soaring. I wish I could have heard it live. [sample/buy elsewhere (i’m mad at emusic)]

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
— another in kind of the same vein. [listen/buy]

Explosions in the Sky — I have several of their albums and they are all great for writing. They get accused of being Mogwai-ripoffs, so of course I would like it. [samples @ amazon]

Loop GuruThird Chamber and Loop Bites Dog — Electronic, trancy, world-music inspired. I love Loop Guru’s more energetic and bouncy albums like Amrita…All These & the Japanese Soup Warriors and Loopus Interruptus, but Third Chamber and Loop Bites Dog are very mellow and work great for writing. [listen/buy]

Yume Bitsu — More orchestral guitars. Here’s one description: “space-drone quartet Yume Bitsu play ambient rock music that could be the soundtrack to a psychedelic art film — or a psychotropically stimulated excursion into the deep space of consciousness.” That’s nice, but they have a 18 minute, 29 second song entitled “The Frigid, Frigid, Frigid Body of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg.” That is enough for me. [samples @ amazon]

7oi — A very recent find. 7oi is an electronic music composer from Iceland who makes up some of the best song titles ever. Much of this music is good for writing, but not all, so I pick and choose what goes on the playlist. [hear/buy]

Steve Roach
— “ambient-atmospheric-electronic music” [listen/buy]

Stars of the Lid
— “a duo specializing in drone-based ambient music” [listen/buy]

A mix: My friend Jens recently put together a mix called Shiver 2, which I’ve enjoyed for writing.

And there is more, but that’s all I’ll write about now because, er, I need to go actually do some writing.

treasures of random link clicking.

The Academic Word List (AWL) – developed by Averil Coxhead at the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. 570 word families that appear frequently in academic texts, but are not in the most frequent 2000 English words. Divided into 10 sublists based on frequency.

Effective Use of Microsoft Word for Academic Writing – This looked helpful for a moment. I’m always up for learning better ways to wrangle Office products. And then I noticed it is a 1 hour, 24 minute video presentation. Which makes me want to run screaming.

I do not like information transfer regarding skills via “presentation.” You cannot skim over what you already know. The speed at which humans can speak and take in speech is frustratingly slow for this kind of information. It isn’t dense enough.

I am freshly irritated about this because I recently attended a 4 hour class in which I learned a small amount of content I could have sucked up myself in less than an hour. But I wouldn’t have gotten the practice at putting what I learned to use. Or so I have been telling myself.

But back to the topic at hand… this Word presentation is on ResearchChannel.org, which I have never seen before, as I don’t do TV (can’t sustain interest in any one show over a season).

Remarkable speakers, researchers and scholars present revolutionary thoughts and discoveries on ResearchChannel. The University of Michigan, the University of Washington and the National Science Foundation are just a few of the world-renowned institutions that participate and whose programs are featured.

Despite my frustration with presentation-watching, this may come in handy for keeping my brain occupied while I am exercising.

The Martini Method for finishing a PhD – Ha! No really, this blog–academicproductivity.com–looks like it might actually be good. Because the key to academic productivity is another blog to read… but no really! Look! The Interruptron is going on my computer tomorrow because since I’ve stopped tracking all of my time by the minute in a spreadsheet (and outputting pretty pivot charts to show how much time I spent brushing my teeth versus folding clothing), I haven’t been as good at maintaining a work/rest schedule and productivity has slipped a little. The Interruptron makes graphs. I love it already.

And now back to taking notes from the book I need to return to ILL tomorrow.

things to look forward to.

I’m pretty psyched about Zotero. It’s not yet developed to the point that I can use it. I really need batch record editing to get anything done (and to import my thousands of already-gathered-in-Procite citations).

Where this might come in handy for me now is gathering citations from the web. Then I can export them in RIS and import them into Procite to work with them.


Today I started re-reading Lakoff’s Women, fire, and dangerous things.

The first time I read it was in the first year of my masters program (2001-2). It was hard slogging through.

And now… I zip on through. I guess maybe I haven’t actually been getting stupider, despite the way it feels sometimes.


I filled up the entire journal re-shelving shelf with print journals from which I copied papers not available online.

I think I gave myself “stapling elbow.”

Now home to update the Procite db, eat, and read read read.