Metaphors for Academic Writing - From Aspiring Author to Published Scholar - Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Writing for Publication: Transitions and Tools that Support Scholars’ Success - Mary Renck Jalongo, Olivia N. Saracho 2016

Metaphors for Academic Writing
From Aspiring Author to Published Scholar
Professional Roles and Publishable Writing

Metaphors are a tool for capturing the essence of experience (Cameron, 2003; Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011). Noller (1982), for example, used the metaphor of “a voiced scarf” to describe mentoring. Just as a scarf surrounds the wearer in warmth and offers protection from the elements, a mentor can help a protégé to attempt new challenges and to avoid beginners’ mistakes. When the idea of voice is added to the scarf, we can visualize it close to the wearer’s ear, whispering encouragement, offering suggestions, or advising caution. This captivating metaphor conveys what the best mentors do for their protégés.

Effective metaphors can provide a fresh perspective, suggest similarities, offer insights on how to redefine a problem, and effectively communicate a complex idea to others (Hadani & Jaeger, 2015). Where academic authors are concerned, the metaphors that they choose to represent their writing process frequently encapsulate their major concerns. A doctoral candidate from the English Department chose a bulldozer at a landfill as her metaphor. She likened the process to grim determination, plowing through, rearranging heaps of ideas, and periodically backing up to bury useless material, with the warning beep sounding off the entire time.

Activity 1.2: What’s Your Metaphor for Writing?

The symbol that you choose to represent your image of self as writer speaks volumes about how you view experience the writing process. What, then, is your metaphor for writing? What is it about this metaphor that aligns with your writing experience?

In a focus group study of doctoral students conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Australia, doctoral students were invited to choose a metaphor to represent their writing process (Jalongo, Ebbeck, & Boyer, 2014). The students ranged in experiential level from those enrolled in their first doctoral-level course to students who had recently defended their dissertations. Among their choices were: a circle, a brick wall, a tree, an egg hatching, a milestone, and tending a vegetable garden. Some additional metaphors for scholarly writing proposed by higher education faculty and doctoral students have emphasized the hardships associated with writing: giving birth, burnt toast, and a jail sentence. In their interview study of doctoral students, Nielsen and Rocco (2002) concluded that, because doctoral candidates generally are accustomed to getting positive feedback on papers, they struggled with constructive criticism of their written work. These graduate students had not yet learned that real colleagues read for one another, not to seek uncritical approval, but as way to strengthen the overall quality of the manuscript.

With time and experience, representations of the writing process often change as well. After the English major who once viewed writing like operating a bulldozer experienced success in academic writing, first by publishing an article in College Composition and Communication and later by transforming her qualitative dissertation into a university press book about women in Appalachia (Sohn, 2006), her bulldozer metaphor no longer pertained. As skills and confidence with professional writing are built, the process becomes less onerous and the metaphors, more positive. For example, a doctoral candidate who had successfully defended a dissertation now regarded writing as “a prestigious membership”, explaining that it was an honor and a pleasure to be able to share research with others. As authors begin to relax with the process more, play with ideas, and learn which instincts to trust, new metaphors emerge:

Writing was hard, but I gritted my teeth and plowed ahead. During those exhilarating and difficult years, I became aware of odd moments in which the less I plowed, the more the words flowed. I had only inklings, but these moments seemed to coincide with a tacit rejection of what I was taught. I began to pay attention. The flow seemed to be triggered only when I gave myself over to that disconcerting chaotic fullness inside my head, acknowledged the untidy, sideways leaps of thought, let go of logic and prescriptions. I liked the feeling, though it came all too rarely, like dreams of flying that cannot be forced. (Rico, 1991, pp. 4—5)

Prolific authors have identified metaphors for writing as well; writing expert Peter Elbow (1973) for example, has likened writing to growing plants, fishing, and cooking while E. L. Doctorow has said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Two metaphors used specifically with scholarly writing are detective work (Wallace & Wray, 2011) and putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle (Nackoney, Munn, & Fernandez, 2011). A recurring theme in the metaphors and processes associated with writing is that, for many people, writing is a task they find difficult to control; as Rocco (2011) asserts, “Writing can be a miserable chore, a difficult undertaking, and a challenge that produces growth and satisfaction—all at the same time” (p. 3). The process can be particularly arduous for writers who lack confidence in their command of sophisticated academic writing skills (Swales & Feak, 2012).