So, what is the difference between revising academic prose and re-presenting ethnographic writing? The short answer is, nothing really. There really isn’t a difference, except in your own perspective, except in terms of the ways that you might think differently about these two activities. Students often understand the revising of academic prose as an activity in “correction,” in trying to figure out what the instructor wants, in making their piece more direct, concrete, concise and formal. Honestly, there is truth to this perspective. Revision does entail working on clarity of writing, following the conventions of Edited American English, being able to directly state an argument and support that argument with identifiable evidence. You must participate in this level of revision, but you must also imagine moving beyond what you have already written to an understanding of where or why or how you can further explain your ideas. You need to strive to make your rhetorical decisions conscious, to consider why you chose the quotations you have used, the voice you present, the metaphors you create.
Writing isn’t about mastery of a subject matter. We become better at writing when we practice writing. We become better at writing with supportive and earnest feedback about our writing. We become better at writing when we are comfortable with and understand the feedback that we receive.
One of the most popular strategies for soliciting that feedback and encouraging student revision of work is peer review. Despite any mythologies about the isolated, insular writing genius, most writers write in community. Academics, novelists, poets, and journalists—just to name a few—all engage in peer review of their work. Sometimes the review is self-solicited, sometimes it is required by a publisher. The fact is that peer review is a crucial aspect of the writing world and many instructors will invoke this strategy precisely because it reflects the reality of their own experience as writers. So, no matter what you write, seek a review, solicit a response, and that you revise based upon the comments you receive.
But what if the comments are stupid, you ask? What if you can’t be sure that the feedback you get will be helpful or “correct.” The difference between useful and pointless feedback will hinge upon you and the questions you ask of your reader(s). Only you know the goal of your piece of writing, therefore you need to make clear this goal in the form of a question. In general, it is good to provide your reader with no more than a few different questions. If you have more questions for the reader, wait to ask another set following a new draft, or provide different questions to different readers. With a few questions on which to focus, the reader can concentrate on substantive feedback and feel secure that you are looking for critique and not just looking for copyediting. Specific questions help you to consciously decide what you’d like to know and invite a reader to help you get it.
After getting feedback and seeing your work and writing again in the light other people’s comments, you must spend the time re-working and re-writing. Here are some final suggestions to help you write an essay that will engage and resonate with the reader, a piece that can be understood as ethnographic writing:
On a global level:
- Highlight Complexity: Don’t be afraid to try and explore MANY facets of your observation/focus, making sure NOT to construct an argument based stereotypical or one-dimensional logic. Instead, explain that the reality you observed and are explaining is relative to many different factors.
- Reveal Reflexivity: Remember to include yourself as an integral element of this research project. Explain transitions YOU have made during the process of your research. You were there. You should write to acknowledge how you understand the reality of your research site. You are an authority on how you understand this site–write from that authority.
On an organizational level:
- Create headings for different parts of your essay; write it in sections. Use subject headings to break your prose into readable bits and to allow for juxtaposition of bits of text to engage the reader. Revise in such a way that you make sure that every bit you see has a guiding idea, an explanation, an example and some idea development. The “first…second…third….” sections of your focus statement.
- Select and use effective primary source examples that support your focus and make clear what you found meaningful and why and use quotes or paraphrases secondary sources, where appropriate, to expand your own analyses and observations.
On a sentence level:
- Use active present-tense verbs. One of the quickest ways to make your prose appear smarter, tighter and more engaging is to edit the verbs, seeking not only to make sure that they agree (the usual sort of correctness editing of a composition course) but to scan for every time you write “is” and write in past tense. Rewrite your essay so that if you’re speaking about some action, you write about it in present tense—you should always write in present tense about the ideas in an article or book. To add immediacy to the action, you not only want to write in present tense, but minimize use of the gerund (“ing” words) and the verb “to be,” otherwise known as “is”. To say that “John is walking,” is far less active and engaging than the sentence, “John walks.”
- Edit and proofread your essay carefully. Don’t let sentence level errors and spelling and punctuation mistakes ruin your beautiful paper.