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Ask Dr. Editor

Why formal analysis is key to bringing your research to life

This practice from art history can improve academic writing across disciplines.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | NOV 23 2021

Question:

As I progress in my (still early) career and get accustomed to academic writing, I feel more and more down about how dry it can be. I like to write with style, but my dissertation supervisor always wants me to cut those moments in my drafts. Can academic writing ever be fun?

– Anonymous, Psychology

Dr. Editor’s response:

“Fun” is a high bar to clear in most academic genres. This isn’t to say that academic writing isn’t ever allowed to be humorous — see, for example, Onnela et al. justifying their decision-making process: “the Louvain and simulated-annealing algorithms are much more popular than spectral algorithm in investigations of community structure (and life is short)” (2012, p. 13). Small moments of humour won’t distract from the overarching message of a manuscript, but it’s important that you don’t let a desire to amuse dominate in your writing. People aren’t approaching your journal article, grant application, or book chapter because they want a good laugh, and their needs matter more than your feelings about academic style.

I don’t mean to suggest that your writing needs to be dry — only that you need to keep the needs of your reader in the forefront of your mind as you draft and revise your text. If fun writing helps you to make progress in your dissertation, that’s great, but that doesn’t make it appropriate for the manuscripts you submit for review and publication.

So besides the occasional parenthetical interjection, what strategies can help you bring life into your writing? To answer this question, I turned to my colleague Cara Jordan, an editor of writing in art and art history, to learn more about a technique that art historians regularly use in their work: formal analysis.

Formal analysis, says Dr. Jordan, focuses on what the eye perceives when it examines an object: “the colours, the shapes, the light, composition, texture. This type of writing is the building block of art historical analysis. The writing should really paint a picture for the reader of the artwork or whatever else is being observed.” To learn more about formal analysis, she recommends this short introductory video from Smarthistory: The Center for Public Art History.

Dr. Jordan told me that, in art history, simply reproducing an image isn’t sufficient, because a reader may not perceive the same things as the writer — whether that’s because they haven’t noticed, say, the angle of the bodies in a painting; because they aren’t a specialist in the writer’s specific subfield; or because they have a visual impairment and are using a screen reader to access your text.

And the techniques that art historians use — their focus on what shapes and colours the eye perceives, the textures the fingers might feel — is a strategy that transfers well to academic writing across the disciplines. Take, for example, this description of “social avoidance” from your discipline, dear letter-writer, psychology:

In animals, social avoidance can function as a survival technique or is part of submissive behavior, often provoked by social threat, e.g. an intruding dominant conspecific. (Gellner et al, 2021)

Gellner et al’s description of social avoidance is accurate, but its lack of any sensory detail could lead someone to accuse it of seeming dry. In contrast, though, imagine a description of social avoidance that incorporated some sensory details in the verbs: “Social avoidance lurks behind psychological research of anxiety disorders.” This animated, specific verb personifies social avoidance: it presents the action as if it has a physical body that can “lurk,” bringing life into the text.

But such personification may not be appropriate in every discipline, and the more you read within your field, the better sense you’ll get for whether verbs that carry a sensory connotation fit well in the documents that you need to write.

If personification through verbs seems too “out there” for your field, consider providing examples that emphasize what your eyes might see if looking at your research subjects: “When a mouse cowers in the corner of a shared cage, we witness social avoidance in action.” Like an art historian, you can paint a picture of what you’re observing, detailing, even briefly — the body position and location of our socially avoidant mouse.

By verbally depicting these visual details, you can wrestle your writing from the realm of the abstract into concrete, tangible, perceivable reality, with all its colours, shapes, lights, positions and textures. Bringing this form of verbal illustration into your text can animate it just as much as a personifying verb. In contrast, much of conventional academic writing dwells in abstraction, in the space of “social avoidance,” “survival techniques,” “submissive behaviours,” “social threats” and “dominant conspecifics” — none of which can be pictured as easily in the mind’s eye as a cowering mouse.

One simple way to practise this strategy? Dr. Jordan recommends providing alt text of the images that you include in any social media posts. You’ll make your posts accessible for people who use screen readers, and you’ll train yourself to write about the tangible, physical world — a practice you can then apply in your academic writing.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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