So, Jim put out this call for advice this week:


It’s been a while since I last posted here, and Jim’s tweet got me to thinking, so I figured I might write a few thoughts down. They’re not necessarily complete, because I do think that discipline and venue matter quite a bit, as does the student’s progress, work habits, and readiness. While it might be nice if there were a simple 10-point listicle that provided us all we ever needed to know about publishing, the fact of the matter is that it’d be pretty horoscopic. I’m not sure my advice will be any better, but it’s generally worked for me.

There are a few essays that I hand out to graduate students on a semi-regular basis, pieces that I’ve found really useful to have and to revisit every so often for my own writing. In honor of the listicle, I present to you my Top 5 Must-Read Essays for the Aspiring Scholarly Writer:

* C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” (PDF) — It’s dated, and it’s from the social sciences, but it’s worth every graduate student’s time to read and adapt Mills’ advice:

By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot `keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression.

Mills’ piece is a new one for me–I picked up a used copy of The Sociological Imagination years ago, but only happened to read its appendix recently. It may seem overly simple to imagine that there is someone who doesn’t realize that writers must “write something at least every week,” but it took me a long time to figure this out. I no longer assume that it’s something that goes without saying. Publishing is the tip of a massive iceberg of writing.

* Joseph Williams, “Problems into PROBLEMS” (PDF) — This is a long read, the academic equivalent of a novella, longer than an article but shorter than a book. Again, this may seem like obvious stuff, but I assure you, it can be really helpful to use the framework that Williams supplies to look at one’s own writing. The putative topic of Williams’ book is learning how to stage introductions effectively, and that in itself is worth the price of admission. But I use this text less as a means of helping me write my introductions than I do as a way to help me crystallize the point of whatever I’m working on at the time.

…posing and solving PROBLEMS is what most of us do, but most of our students, both undergraduate and graduate, seem unaware of not just how to pose a PROBLEM, but that their first task is to find one. As a consequence, they often seem just to “write about” some topic, and when they do, we judge them to be not thinking “critically,” to be writing in ways that are at best immature (Berkenkotter, Huckin, and Ackerman), at worst incompetent. Yet many of our students who do not seem to engage with academic PROBLEM-solving, in fact, do. Their problem is that they are ignorant of the conventional ways by which they should reveal that engagement; ours is that we have no systematic way of demonstrating to them the rhetoric of doing so.

The first time I read this work (the first of many, many), I was a little resistant to the idea that everything could be “reduced” to problem-solution; I’m not sure I feel that way any longer. I don’t think that it’s always necessary to make that framework explicit in one’s writing, certainly, and I think that there are times when we invent the “problems” we are solving, particularly in the humanities. On balance, though, it has helped me to think through my work in terms of this framework. I return to Chapter 1 frequently.

* Richard McNabb, “Making the Gesture: Graduate Student Submissions and the Expectations of Referees” (PDF) — This may be the single best essay for the aspiring graduate student that you’ve never heard of. It was published in Composition Studies in 2001, and is based on a study of graduate student submissions to Rhetoric Review over the course of nearly a decade.

The typical graduate manuscripts I saw as an associate editor suggest that the success of one’s argument depends on the appropriation of the correct gestures, that is, the discursive conventions that govern the ways of arguing and evaluating that define the language of the field. As I have tried to illustrate, writing for publication goes beyond producing a coherent, effective, well-supported argument; a writer has to be able to negotiate the publishing system by making the right gestures. I have identified two such gestures present in the scholarship (22).

“Gestures to a Rhetorical Mode” draws on Goggin’s taxonomy of description, testimony, history, theory, rhetorical analysis, and research report. “Gestures to a Problem Presentation” draws on MacDonald, Swales, and others to differentiate between epistemic and non-epistemic presentations. I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets to say that McNabb sees many graduate student submissions that rely on testimony and present themselves non-epistemically. What’s interesting about this piece is that it’s a rare study of a category of submissions that isn’t defined in terms of success, a problem that we run into if we only look at published writing when we talk about how to publish–it’s instructive to see the differences.

* Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin, “Gatekeeping at an Academic Convention” (from Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication) — Speaking of differences: once upon a time, our national conference made its submissions, both those that had and those that hadn’t been accepted, available to researchers. Right towards the tail end of that time (the early 90s, I think), B&H examined a fairly large random sample of CCCC abstracts pulled from three years’ worth of submissions, “in hopes of getting a more comprehensive picture of the genre” (102). As with the other pieces on this list, you can’t take too literally the results of a study of conference abstracts, one from 20 years ago at that, but at the same time

“In this chapter we have illustrated at least two of the principles laid out in Chapter 1, namely those of form and content and of community ownership. The former states that “Genre knowledge embraces both form and content, including a sense of what content is appropriate to a particular purpose in a particular situation at a particular point in time” (13). It is clear from our study, we think, that the ability to write a successful CCCC abstract depends on a knowledge of what constitutes “interestingness” to an insider audience, which in turn depends on timeliness, or kairos. The principle of community ownership states that “Genre conventions signal a discourse community’s norms, epistemology, ideology, and social ontology” (21). Here, too, we think our study provides some insight in to the intellectual constitution of the rhetoric and composition community” (115).

Much of this book is worth reading, if no other reason that to think carefully about what B&H call “genre knowledge,” and to learn how to recognize and to internalize it throughout one’s graduate career.

* [Insert Role Model Here]: This is not as tongue-in-cheek as you might think. When I watch a show or movie that I really like, I end up internalizing pieces of the characters, and the same goes for academic writing that I find particularly inspiring. One of the best things you can do is to locate your own role models for writing, and to read and reread them on a regular basis. I don’t do so in order to imitate them, necessarily, but I find that part of what I find inspiring about them is the way that they write, not just what they have to say. Don’t share your models with anyone–they are yours and yours alone. As soon as you start choosing your models according to what you think others expect from you, you’re sort of missing the point.

One of the common threads among all of the pieces I’m recommending here is the idea of genre knowledge–we tend to overemphasize “originality” of content at the expense of timeliness of contribution when it comes to scholarly communication. And timeliness is not something that can be planned out ahead of time, or captured in a listicle. It requires us to engage with the conversation, to see what others have to say, to think about where we might contribute, to account for the context of the discussion, and to make it worth reading in both form and content.


My words here are hardly the last ones on the subject, but these are the things that I’ve found helpful in my own work. Good luck!

UPDATE: Just as you find the perfect citation only after you send that article out for review, hitting publish helped me to remember a variety of texts that I could very well have included on this list. I first taught a grad course in 2005 that was a combination of genre studies and EAP, where I used these and many other readings. Some of the other books I could have easily recommended include:


and so on. Please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments–I’m aware of how partial my own list is…