How to Enhance Your Awareness of Writing Form

Ascension oil on panel by Jim and Lynn Lemyre


“So… what are you working on?”

Most of us in academia get called on to give “the elevator pitch.”

If you’re like me, when people ask that sometimes there’s this little freeze moment, or hiccup, or something—or it might actually be a dimensional shift where you skip to another universe, have a series of violent adventures that lead to rescues, romances, and balancings of good and evil, transport back with no lapse in time, and then forget about it and proceed with no memory of what happened.

You know what I mean?

Or maybe it’s the little hiccup.

Or, you very wisely have memorized your elevator pitch and are ready to give it at the drop of a kerchief.

Though this isn’t the point of this post, if you haven’t done so already—and even if no one asks—please do proceed to memorize this one or two liner.

In idle moments work on it, getting it just right. This not only helps get you out of that elevator looking smart, but it helps to have your project idea crystalized, for your own sense of focus and purpose. So that’s fine for that.

But notice that our elevator one-liner, or short conversation paragraph length version, almost without exception focuses on content. That’s fine and it’s what people want to hear. But it can also reveal to us a blind spot in how we habitually approach thinking about writing.

Because how many of us have a one-liner or elevator conversation that is about the form of our piece, about what kind of piece it is?

In other words, while we may have a notion of the form of our work, how habitually have we thought about it as form?

What if we answered that person in the elevator like in these examples:

“I’m presenting a series of transcribed street conversations interspersed with short descriptive observational anecdotes, each ending with my thoughts on a different pairing of theoretical quotes.”


“Each chapter starts with general quotes from Twitter communications on a social theme, and then they get increasingly particular, until I conclude with a slightly surprising content at the end which I show is actually at the heart of the matter.”

Try it sometime, I’d like to know what happens next.

Probably the other person will get skipped over to another dimension.

Because obviously this is not how we habitually think about our work, which is my main point here.

Let’s face it. Academia is content-oriented in it’s culture of attention.

Yet the paradox is: many successful and admired scholars innovate formally.

Form is actually valued very much, only not explicitly, not to the degree it actually matters for readers. Hardly anyone ever talks about it. It’s not the direction that we goad each other’s attention for the most part.

For this reason, it’s necessary to counter that conditioning with a deliberate and—above all—sustained strategy to maintain attention on form.

And it has to be sustained long enough to be able to harness this aspect of academic writing which is, none-the-less, highly valued on at least a subconscious level.

Our attention is typically not trained enough on this level. So when we write it can often be the case that we command less awareness, control, and ability to put our great ideas and content into the shape we hope for it. We just haven’t spent anywhere near an equal amount of time attending to formal aspects of writing as we have to the theories, ideas, contents of writing.

This leads to all kinds of troubles and tribulations. When a teacher comes out of the seminar room and into their writing study, or a grad student starts on their first major writing project– the sudden shift that can be quite difficult. Yet it also could be averted with a deeper education and attentional training in writing form.

There are many ways to train an awareness of form and I hope to get through a whole bunch of them with you in writing bootcamps on Academic Muse. Of course, it’s not just knowing the exercises that matters but also actually doing them and carrying them out on a systematic basis, continuously enough to counter the way our attention has been previously structured toward content.

If you want to get deeply into this, and especially if you want to stick with it, this is something we will explore here at Academic Muse.

Very soon, we will do this to an extent inside the Get it Done creative productivity bootcamp coming up (to an extent: because we have to focus on getting our main project done!).

And we can spend even more time on it within the other aspects of the members’ area that are under development.

For now, try these little exercises in separating form from content. You’ll be surprised how much difference they can make:

1. Come up with your form elevator pitch. A few sentences that talk about your piece as an object, with as little reference to content as possible.

Notice if the mind keeps wanting to take shelter in the content.

Be as strict as possible in not making much, or any reference, to the content. In other words, someone studying a completely different topic might come up with the same description of their project as you did.

And remember, this isn’t a theory about form and content–it’s an exercise and is, therefore, somewhat unnatural and counter-intuitive. For example, who really thinks to hold their body still, balance on their hands and toes, and bring their face closer to and farther from the floor?

When you’ve got the exercise down, keep your form description on a card posted somewhere, and change it from time to time when necessary. Keep thinking about what you are doing quite apart from content.


2. Describe the form you perceive in three different texts from other authors, in about a paragraph or so each.

Remember, as much as possible, to clearly separate form from content. And remember this isn’t a philosophy: I’m not saying form and content are separate things, or the same thing. I don’t really care about that—it’s about what happens to our attention when we are aware of form.


And here’s the real doozy “exercise”:


3. Write the book or article that is like the ideal one you would most like to read yourself, were it to exist.


Ok. That wasn’t an exercise. It was the real thing—game time. But that’s the point.

That’s where many the exercises we will have at Academic Muse are leading—no matter what your ideas are, what your research contains, what theories you are engaging—you can make your work into an object of attraction, an object you love, a piece of work you enjoy writing and enjoy presenting to others.

It starts with an awareness of form. And one little start is to have it consciously in mind, however unusual it is for academics to think about this. Know what the form of your piece is, or is to be. And consciously see the form in other peoples’ work.

Especially the good work.


Professors and Grads: Click Here to get the FIVE FREE eBooks full of techniques to Write with Success in Academia 

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