Stop Pussyfooting around and Just Say It!

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The most common reason for people to join the Academic Writing Club or request coaching is that they are stuck, confused and overwhelmed by their writing projects.  I’m sure you’ve felt this at times – you have a sense of what you want to write, but you just can’t seem to get it “on paper.”

So in coaching, I use a simple technique – I ask them to explain it to me.  Luckily, I rarely know anything about their field, so they are forced to explain it to an intelligent layperson (pardon the bragging) in words that leave out jargon and get right to the point.  Often, while they are explaining, I just type every single word they say.  When they’re done, invariably there are two results.  The most frequent result is that my client suddenly says something along the lines of “I can’t believe it – that’s it!  I just discovered what my point really is!”  The other possible result is that I tell them I’ve typed out what they just said and I offer to email it to them immediately.  About half the people take me up on this, (the other half feel so strongly that the “truth” has been revealed to them that they don’t need it).  Those who select to have me email them my notes often find them useful in making the points in their own writing – after all, these were their own words, verbatim!

So what is going on here?  Why does explaining your work at a point where you are stuck help you gain clarity?  I have some thoughts on this, but not definitive answers.  Perhaps some of you have ideas about why this works; that’s why I’m going to put this article in my blog, so that you can put in your ideas and comments.

Why does explaining your work to a layperson help?

  1. You momentarily forget what “the experts” might say. By stripping away all the confusion caused by the possible objections that a person in your field would have, your “inner editor” can rest easy, and allow you to talk.  After all, how could I, a mere intelligent layperson, possibly critique the ideas of an expert in their field?
  2. The change in modality — that is, talking instead of writing — might activate a different part of the brain.  It’s another way to quiet the inner editor.
  3. It’s harder to edit and second guess yourself when you speak as opposed to write. This forces you to get to the heart of your argument more quickly.
  4. The need to simplify the issues that matter (for the attentive, listening layperson) helps you get right to the point; again to drill down to the meat of your argument.
  5. Those who feel they are not good writers are free to express themselves.  Just the belief that you don’t write well can stop you from coming out with some really good thoughts.  So talking bypasses that problem.

In what situations could this technique help you?

  1. When you’re trying to write an abstract.  Abstracts are often difficult to write because you have to weed through all the complex thoughts that went into the article and again come right to the point.  Try writing your abstract imagining that you’re explaining it to a colleague in a very different field than yours.
  2. When you’re overwhelmed and confused and have lost track of your argument.
  3. When you can’t write what’s next and you don’t know why.  In this case, the kind of questions you might want to answer would include:
    1. What are your choices?
    2. What is getting in the way?
    3. If you were to write one of those choices, what would you say?
    4. If you wrote the other choice, what would you say?

Where do you find an intelligent layperson?

This is a tongue-in-cheek question – I’m sure you’re surrounded by them.  (Or maybe not – see next section.) The only caveats I would offer are:

  1. If you are very self conscious about your work, try to find a non-academic.  Academics are too analytical and critical.  No offense.
  2. Make sure that the person you choose is willing to do this.  They should be willing to ask “dumb questions,” because by answering disingenuous questions, they will force you clarify your argument.
  3. If possible, find a fast typist and ask them to type what you say.

What if you’d rather do this on your own?

Perhaps your spouse or partner doesn’t feel comfortable doing this, and all your other friends are academics?  What if Aunt Mary is hard of hearing?  Here are some suggestions for techniques you could try, which you could do on your own. These techniques also may silent that inner critic and help you get to the core of the problem.

  1. With a clear idea of an intelligent layperson in mind, get out a tape recorder and talk into it as if you were talking to that person.  Then transcribe what you said.
  2. Try free writing.  I’ve written about this elsewhere, but here’s a short summary.  The idea is that you sit down and start writing about your conundrum, with the knowledge that your writing is only for your use and not to be shown to anyone or used in any future work.  You can then write about the problem at hand without worrying how stupid it looks.  Try it first with a timer, giving yourself 10 minutes to get to the point.

ImageTry not to “pussyfoot” around

So many academics are hesitant to plant a pole in their little stretch of academic land and claim it as their own!  So they make the reader hunt around and try to figure out what they really mean.  This annoys the reader.  A lot.

Come right out and proudly state what your finding or argument is.  And to the extent possible, do this in every paragraph. Of course, coming right out and saying it also helps you find the flaws in your logic.  It’s much better to say it and be clearly wrong, than it is to annoy your reader and be wrong!  Best to get it over with, so you can correct your errors in logic or statistics and move on.  Being fuzzy in your writing won’t make them think that you’re brilliant.

You’re brilliant – they just might not know it yet; and you might not know it either.

What if your idea is actually a good one?  And your lack of clarity comes from your reluctance to put it to the test?  How unfair to the world, that this idea is not allowed to see the clear light of day.  How unfair to you, that your brilliance is not being recognized.

One final note

Please don’t hide behind “I’m not a good writer” or “Engish is not my first language.”  You can hire a developmental editor such as Claudia Castaneda (, get a copy editor, or hire a professional who specializes in English as a second language editing.  You might find someone who can translate from your native language.  (It’s best to find a native English speaker in that case.)  The idea is to…

GET THAT IDEA OUT THERE!  And stop pussyfooting around.



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