“Writing Powerfully from the Margins” By Natasha Yurk

About Natasha Yurk:  I am a PhD student in sociology and statistics at Indiana University.  My research generally examines the dynamic relationships between families and schools; how family background may affect education experiences, and how education experiences may affect families.  My favorite line of work now looks at college student time use differences by financial status and other characteristics.

I do not have a blog, but below I have written a guest blog post, “Writing Powerfully from the Margins.

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Many scholars have writing anxieties: we can only write at a certain time of day, wearing a certain kind of clothing, a certain amount of time after eating, with a certain genre of music playing in the background. Everyone has their own list of quirky (and sometimes unrealistic!) demands. Some of these preferences are no doubt important, but there are other, more existential concerns that may be more harmful for academic writers on the margins. They go by many names: imposter syndrome, inferiority complex, or self-doubt, just to name a few. Whatever form they take, they may threaten a scholar’s productivity and undermine her work.

Over the years I’ve found that if I’m not feeling confident, those feelings really show up in my writing. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve had a great experience in graduate school and I’m proud of the work I’ve done—but my low-status background occasionally creeps up in unflattering ways. Several of my colleagues have had similar experiences, and I’ve compiled these into the list below. For the moment, I’ll set aside issues of conformity versus protest in the academy and assert that more powerful writing leads to a more successful and satisfying career. These are things to look for in your writing; to make sure you are presenting your most powerful argument and self.

Your article is not an apology letter. The overall tone of an article can either be apologetic or authoritative, and even small word choices can transform your writing from the former to the latter. One of my co-authors once pointed out that I had been using the word “merely” repeatedly in our article. “We merely argue,” “we merely point out,” “our data merely reflect,” etc. The word stands in for an apology and shows that you aren’t confident in your argument. The same goes for “simply,” “only,” “somewhat,” and other words that are meant to indicate degree—they only undercut your writing and make you seem disappointed in what you’ve produced. Search for these words and remove them.

Similarly, your lit review is not a love letter. Remember that your literature review has a specific function in your overall argument. You do not review the literature so you can pay deference to every scholar who has preceded you, but to show why your work is unique and necessary. This is not to say that you should be unnecessarily critical—reviewers and readers don’t like jerks—but don’t cite others without also paving the way for yourself.

Overselling your limitations undersells your work. Limitations can be tricky. You want to point out potential flaws because it shows your readers that you’ve been careful in your analyses and that you’re thinking about new directions for the field. But laundry lists of limitations, or painstaking descriptions of limitations, don’t help your case. You don’t have to explain everything that’s wrong with every variable in your dataset to keep your readers engaged and your article from getting rejected. Briefly engage, then explain how you’ve done the very best with what you have.

Don’t shy away from “I.”  This advice is discipline-specific (and sometimes even journal-specific), but writing with pronouns is so much more direct than writing without them. You may be avoiding the first person because you don’t like talking about yourself, or you don’t like taking credit for what you’ve done. A carefully-selected sample of 100 people were not interviewed by some anonymous person in the ether; you did the work, and your writing should reflect it.

Although these tips are important, there is no substitution for honest feedback from trusted colleagues. Even though I try to be conscious of issues in my writing, old problems are always recurring and new problems are always emerging. But with a vigilant attitude and the right kind of support, you’ll be on your way to being a better, more powerful writer.