‘Writing is social as well as solitary’

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I’ve been struggling with a piece of writing for an academic journal which needs revising. The editor of the journal sent the two reviewers’ comments to me and my co-author with a simple comment “you’ll see that the one reviewer is a tough customer”. This review is nearly seven pages long and feels like somehow we touched a nerve and set this person off. The lecturing tone also makes me feel like an intruder into someone else’s disciplinary home, so the decisions about how to rework the piece feel very fraught. This was the state of mind I took with me into a writing workshop with Pamela Nichols one recent Saturday. It didn’t take long before Pamela’s use of the “Toulminised” method of argument and lots of little squares of white paper with words like “claim”, “context”, “reason 1”, “reason 2”, “evidence for 1”, “evidence for 2” had sorted out this particular fog and indecision. I (and my co-author who was there too) now have a very clear idea of what we want to say, and how to find the important bits in the review and to ignore the unimportant bits.

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It’s not often you come across an academic with Pamela’s particular blend of commitments: to excellent, logical and thoroughly-supported argument; to the practicalities of making meaning by exercising thinking and writing; and to the wonderful creative possibilities of kinds of writing which unblock, release, inspire confidence AND work across genres.

Pamela is the Director of the Wits Writing Centre which has a marvellously agnostic attitude to types of writing and authors of writing. She is also the editor of Writing Works, a portal for South African writers and poets. She has a PhD in literary studies from New York University and came to South Africa to Wits to teach English literature. A brief biography explains a little of her approach: from the UK she went to New York to do her doctoral studies and at NYU paid for her degree by teaching writing and helping other students with their essays and theses. This introduced her to the very rich seam of the US college approach to writing and its embededness in academic life. This attitude (so unlike the one at both British and South African universities, she says, which treats the English language like a closed country to which you need to prove you’re worthy of a visa) holds the creativity inherent in writing in high standing and often blends the creative with the academic. At the Wits Writing Centre this same rich approach to the usefulness of writing of all sorts is promoted. Pamela arrived at our workshop at Rhodes on Saturday with a suitcase full of hand-outs and introduced us to writers and methods in a gentle, suggestive way so that we found ourselves having the hugest amount of fun with the largest challenges we have as journal article writers and thesis proponents.

As a result of that very productive, enjoyable day I’ve used many of her prompts and tools with my class of long form journalism writers and with thesis writers to very helpful effect. Some of the important learnings (or relearnings) for me:

  1. Writing is social as well as solitary, Pamela said right at the beginning. It’s a both and not an either or and the trick is to learn when to get social and when to get solitary. They are both spaces of possibility and can be used judiciously.
  2. Voice is a negotiation — particularly for the academic writer who doesn’t want to be presumptious or arrogant but who does want to sound authoritative. Pamela’s comment was that “voice is framing” and is always linked to argument and the position one takes as the writer. Voice is the way the writer communicates complexity to the reader, makes the connections and the relations (which are often evident to the writer but much less so to the reader).
  3. As a beginning exercise complete these three sentences which clarify the purpose of the writing: I am studying…    Because I am trying to find out…   In order to help my reader understand…
  4. Use Aristotle’s triangle to think about the writing project — logos, ethos. pathos: logos — the argument, claim and the evidence; ethos — the implied credibility of the writer which rests on voice; pathos — the engagement of the audience via their values, beliefs and principles. And then remember Peter Elbow’s advice that perhaps you want to create an entirely new audience for a piece of writing.
  5. To get to an appropriately phrased research question distinguish between practical research (the practical problem in the world that needs to be fixed by doing something) and academic research (the gap in knowledge that leads to a research question, a research problem and a research answer). To give an example from the journal article I am revising: the practical problem would be: Why would editors of journalism publications employ a memoirist to do political journalism in Southern Africa? the academic question would be: How does a memoirist gain currency as an analyst for newspapers and magazines?
  6. Taking a leaf from The Craft of Research (chapter 9 edited by Booth, Colomb and Williams) inflected by Toulminised argument (see this video) and using Pamela’s method of doing this exercise on separate small pieces of paper, write out: the main claim for the piece of writing; the context; detail each reason for the claim being made. Then write the evidence for each reason (see our plans for the revised journal article photographed above).
  7. Then think about “warrants” — the assumptions or taken for granted beliefs which allow one to use a particular support for a claim. These sneaky hidden ideas are hard to surface but practice in getting to them allows one to see clearly whether one is making a claim of fact, or value or policy. An interesting point, noted Pamela, is that the warrant resides in pathos, ie the audience’s values, beliefs and principles. Knowing audience is key to knowing what warrants can be activated.

We ended the day with a loop writing exercise (based on Peter Elbow) which was extremely interesting because some of us applied it to creative writing, some to theses, some to journal articles. A little like free-writing you just respond immediately to the prompt. It went like this:

  1. First thoughts
  2. Prejudices (positive and negative)
  3. A person associated with this
  4. An object/objects associated with this
  5. An anecdote in thumbnail sketch
  6. Another/other voices
  7. Insights

Pamela uses loop writing because it’s a “bit like cubist art; your subject is in the centre and you keep approaching it from different angles so as to see it differently”.

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