Wonder Woman Origins: Where to Start?

I’ve fallen into a deep dark hole of DC comics today and I can’t seem to find my way out. Yesterday I released the abstracts for LGBTQIA+ Fantastika Graphics digital symposium, including my own which I posted here. Although merely days ago I cautioned against writing a conference abstract without knowing some details of your plan/structure, I rarely follow my own advice. 🤷🏽‍♀️ So here I am, trying to figure out where to start my research with Wonder Woman’s origin story.

There are two general versions and they are in oppositions to each other. One is extremely feminist, centering on a parthenogenetic birth (a birth without requiring male interaction) and a matriarchal society spreading the message of peace and enlightenment. The other not only requires male interaction for Wonder Woman to be created but also changes the Amazonian society to make them more aggressive, and more often than not, a group of man-haters. This view is the opposite side of the feminist spectrum, a view presented by male authors who completely misunderstand feminism itself. LGBTQIA+ phobias also get mixed in here (with the idea that a woman would only want to be with another woman because they both hate men). It’s a disturbing and complicated history as each reboot clearly reveals the author’s own views on feminism.

That being said, I still have no idea where to start. Which comic runs should I focus on? The 1940s’ golden age? The 1950s’ silver age? The 1960s’ bronze age? The 1980s’ Crisis on Infinite Earth series which plays with parallel universes? The 1987 reboot which follows it? The 2005/6 reboots? The 2011 one? 2016? The 2017/2020 film adaptations?

I suddenly remember why I’ve avoided looking at Marvel or DC characters for so long. But the longer I put it off, the more “catching up” I’ll have to do. And I thought being an epic fantasy scholar resulted in too heavy a reading list.

But where do the babies come from?

It’s Friday, I’m burnt out, and I’m doing the mom thing today (chasing the kid around nearly an hour past his naptime as he hasn’t eaten his lunch yet). So today I’m going to post a preview of my LGBTQIA+ Fantastika symposium paper – in abstract form. You can find full details of the event here:

But Where Do The Babies Come From?: Evaluating the Effect of Mothers as Matriarchs in Monstress, Wonder Woman, and Y: The Last Man


What happens in a world where there are no men or patriarchs?How are political alliances arranged? How are relations formed? And where do the babies come from? These are some of the questions posed in the works of Monstress, Wonder Woman, and Y: The Last Man. Although men still exist in the world of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, it is striking that the political alliance between the Dawn Court and the Dusk court are made via the marriage of two females. While patriarchal marriage alliances are generally made in order to combine bloodlines, Monstress blatantly ignores this objective. In contrast, while in the original Wonder Woman comics, Hippolyta creates her daughter Diana from clay, in the 2011 retcon DC changed this parthenogenetic birth so that Diana is created from the union of Zeus and Hippolyta, reaffirming the role of heterosexual parentage. Meanwhile, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man undermines this heterosexual/binary parentage completely. At the beginning of the series, Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand are the only two living males left on the entire planet, as a mysterious illness kills anyone with a Y chromosome. One of the explanations offered for this illness is, due to viable cloning, males were no longer necessary, and Mother Nature destroyed them. All three graphic narratives offer interesting perspectives of the place and space of men within a queered world. While these texts are still fairly conservative (as they do not engage in sustained conversation about either intersexuality or pansexuality), each narrative still reveals insights into the binary nature of power structures and family dynamics. This paper will begin this dialogue as the first steps of a larger project examining power and gender roles in fantasy fiction.

The University 811: Lessons in Abstract

Continuing the blog series on university tips that I started here, today we’re going to talk about writing abstract. I’ve said it before (here, here, and here), and I’ll say it again, first and foremost for any piece of writing you need to identify your objectives and your audience(s). This is especially important for abstract-writing. In most cases, your objective will be “I want to have my piece of research accepted.” Regardless of what the objective of your research is, the purpose of the abstract is the sales pitch for that research. Since that objective, acceptance, hinges on external factors, your audience, you can see why it’s absolutely imperative to consider your audience.

If you’re writing a conference abstract, then your audience will be first reviewed and approved by conference organisers or a reviewing committee. Have the CFP (call for papers) at hand when you write your abstract. Does the CFP posed any questions they hope to answer? Are there any specific areas or themes that the CFP particularly highlights? Are there any keywords that leap out at you? What is the subject of the theme of the conference itself? What is the background of the people hosting the conference? Who are the keynotes and what are their contributions to the field? You’re not setting out to answer these questions in your abstract, but you should hold them in your mind as you write. You want to frame your abstract so that it’s an obvious fit for the conference. The worst conference abstracts I’ve seen (and I’ve organised 10 conferences so far) are ones which do not match the theme or purpose of the conference. You want your abstract to tell the organisers that you have something meaningful to add to the discussions that they’ve created a space for.

The second audience to consider for a conference abstract are the attendees of the conference. Once your abstract is accepted by the conference committee, it will likely be published in the conference programme itself (either printed or online). Often, there may be several panels occurring at the same time and attendees will have to choose between two or more panels to decide which one to attend. So you want to write your abstract in a way that is appealing to conference delegates with the aim of getting them to come see your presentation. Again, consider the audience’s background and the conference theme. This assessment will allow you to moderate the tone and jargon in your abstract. For instance, I recently presented a paper at a postcolonial conference. As I work on fantasy fiction, I needed to present my abstract in a way that in understandable and approachable to literature scholars who may be unfamiliar with fantasy criticism, or with the fantasy genre itself. If I were to write the abstract for a fantasy conference, then I would need to frame the research in a different way, perhaps highlighting postcolonial elements that a group of fantasy scholars may be unfamiliar with. If I were to write an abstract for a postcolonial fantasy conference, then, again, I’d need to re-frame the abstract accordingly. In each case, your abstract situates your work in relation to the field, but identifying the field itself depends largely on the theme of the conference. While in all three examples, I’m pitching an abstract to literature scholars, there are subsections within this field that I need to consider, categories within the field which are distinct from each other. If you’re writing an abstract to accompany an article submission, then the same ideas apply. i.e. What is the theme and aims of the journal? Who is the audience? How does your work fit within this field?

The difference between conference and article abstracts (IMHO) is tone and tense. Conference papers usually present a small portion of your research. In most cases, this research is in some stage of development, i.e. you may be nearly done or just starting, but generally you have acquired some data and are presenting your initial findings and analysis. Occasionally, you may present at a conference after the research is done and you’re nearly ready to publish (or have published). In this case, the conference paper operates as a summary of your findings and conclusions, inviting the audience to read the full published text. Alternatively, you may be presenting at a conference before the research has even begun; in this case, you would be outlining your plans and methodologies and what you hope to accomplish. All of these scenarios are perfectly acceptable if you treat conferences as a way to test your ideas and get informal feedback from your peers no matter what stage of research your at. (Even if you’re done, you may want to consider directions for your next project, or how to expand the work further.) Thus, your tone and tense-choices may differ depending on the stage. If you’re at an earlier stage, you will likely use more conditional language, stating what you hope to accomplish or plan to do. But your abstract should still be written in a way that makes it apparent that you have considered a rough outline for your conference paper. The second worse conference abstracts I’ve seen are vague ones that summarizes the topic or discusses the importance of it, but tells me nothing about the presenter’s argument and/or methodology. (Check out my blog on the ‘so what’ factor, to tackle that issue further.) In many of these cases, (especially in the humanities) these abstracts are written before the presenter has put any major thought into what they hope to accomplish. Now, while it is entirely possible to write your conference paper on the train ride to the conference, if you’re submitting your abstract to a competitive programme, you may want to avoid statements in your abstract that makes it apparent that you haven’t done any of the work yet.

In contrast, article abstracts are written for research that is ready to be published. Like conference papers, it may only be a small portion of your larger project, but that piece is ready to be publicly disseminated. So your abstract must clearly outline your arguments, your methodologies, and the steps you’ve taken to reach your conclusions. Ideally (and this is only my opinion as journal editor; other editors may prefer other approaches), I prefer abstracts that read as a mini-outline of the project, operating almost as a set of guideposts to your reader. Putting myself in the position of reader, when I’m researching a topic I appreciate abstracts that tell me exactly what the article will do as it helps me decide if the work is applicable to my own research or not. Reading a vague abstract – or one overly complicated with complex language and technical jargon – makes me unwilling to do the work of procuring a copy of the text and reading it.

There’s another type of abstract that doesn’t get talked about often when discussing abstracts, the proposal abstract for grant applications. As there are a number of varying grant types and funding bodies, it’s difficult to summarise audience expectations here. But, in most cases, treat your audience as an educated general audience – i.e they may not have much experience with your particular field, but they will be highly educated, so either avoid using any jargon or concepts that are specific to your field or explain them if you have the space to do so. The key thing to keep in mind for grant applications is that you’re asking someone outside of your field to invest a lot of money into you and your project. So, while above I advise that you don’t dedicate too much time explaining the importance of the project, here you need to make sure that you have one or two sentences which clearly and strongly states your case. The difference in approaches, again, is due to your audience. In conference or article abstracts, you’re pitching your abstract to a scholar related to your field (in my case, another literature scholar); they’ll likely understand the importance of you work within that field. But with grant applications, it’s entirely possible that the review committee may have no experience in your field at all. For instance, while my own funding application focuses on literature, my readers and reviewers may have experiences in a completely different area of the humanities (sociology, history, etc). While these types of abstracts are generally shorter than conference or article-abstracts, you want to use your abstract as a pitch that invites your reader to continue reading the rest of your proposal.

Whether you’re writing an abstract for a conference, an article, or a funding proposal, in all of these cases, the abstract is the ‘first impression’ that you’re presenting to other scholars; so make it a good one. And good luck!

The University 411/811: The ‘So What’ Factor

Continuing the series of student tips that I started here, today we’re going to be talking about research projects. You might need to turn in a research paper or presentation as part of your grade. While as a former university instructor I’ve seen plenty of students struggle to articulate their argument, I want to re-assure you that you’re not alone. It’s part of the process and I still see it as editor when we receive submissions for Fantastika Journal (and – indeed – in my own work!). You can’t – and shouldn’t – approach your research with a pre-planned argument. Even if you’re studying in the humanities, you should start with a hypothesis to test. But the hypothesis should be meaningful.

One of the main problem I’ve seen is when students/researchers struggle to distinguish their topic statement from a thesis statement. What do I mean by that? Let’s take an example from my own life. This November I (through Fantastika Journal) will be hosting a digital symposium on LGBTQIA+ narratives. The topic is important of course, but I also want to make sure that we’re making significant contributions to this discussion. So I’ve struggled for ages to come up with my own paper ideas. If you were following along with fantastikapress on twitter or Facebook, you’ve probably seen that there are hundreds of LGBTQIA+ Fantastika graphics (the symposium’s focusing on graphic forms). So, for the humanities, a topic can be any combo of theme plus text. “Non-binary identities in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman“. “Transphobia in Futurama’s ‘Bend Her’ episode” “Censorship in the dubbed Sailor Moon”. These are all examples of topics. When someone asks you what you’re research is about, you can respond with “I’m looking at non-binary identities in Sandman“. But if someone asks you what are you arguing, you should not make the same statement: “I am arguing that there are depictions of non-binary characters in Sandman.” Of course there is. That’s not an argument. Most informed people (in this case, readers of the graphic novels), will not argue with this statement. As I’ve mentioned when I outlined the thought process for my own PhD proposal, even if an educated person does object to the statement (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. Don’t set out to pick a fight as your central objective.

So how can we turn a topic statement (‘I’m looking at LGBTQIA+ in Sandman”) into a thesis statement?

One of the ways to do this is to ask yourself “so what?” What are you hoping to achieve by researching this topic? What does your research tell us about LGBTQIA+ or Sandman? Be sure to consider the audience carefully when you ask this question. Let’s say you answer the ‘so what?’ question with the following: “It’s important to bring attention to these representations.” Agreed. But who’s your target audience for your research? Are you making this argument to other students and instructors? Or is your research directed to the industry (writers and creators), or maybe to audiences of these works? Think carefully about what information and pre-conceived notions your audience has and how your new research will fit into this. If your target audience is inclined to agree with you, then you haven’t answered the ‘so what’ successfully.

If you’re a postgraduate student, you may also want to consider your audience in terms of different specialities, especially if you’re planning on submitting an article for publication. If you’re setting out to research LGBTQIA+ narratives in Sandman your “so what” answer will depend on the topic of the journal. Is it a Fantasy-specific journal? A journal dedicated to graphic novels? The top journal in English literature? A journal dedicated to LGBTQIA+? Consider how your research will add substantially to that field. A paper that looks at the impact of Sandman for a Fantasy journal will be entirely different from one that focuses on graphics novels. Your topic stays the same (non-binary in Sandman) but you must adapt your argument and hypothesis to answer the ‘so what?’ pertinent to each field.

As I said above, don’t worry if you don’t have an argument when you begin your research. It’s perfectly acceptable (and expected) to start with “I’ve noticed x and I find it interesting.” But keep in mind that it’s just a place to start your research. Don’t stop there. Ask yourself ‘so what?’ until you’ve found an answer that contributes meaningfully to the field and doesn’t just make white noise.

Tomorrow we’ll continue the discussion of tackling the research process with a look at abstract-writing. Until then, take care!

Can you hear the violins? BBC’s Merlin and the Arthurian Canon

I’ve done so much close reading analysis that never made it into my published pieces. If you are working on publishing something yourself, it’s a hard lesson to let your darlings go. i.e, you might have this terrific piece of analysis, but it might not add much to your overall argument and/or because of word length or copyright requirements, you need to find a way to be concise instead of digging into the full quotation.

The following is material I’ve had to cut from an article published in Fantasy Art and Studies (details here; you can also find discussions of my problems with publishing this piece here). It (the cut material) focuses on BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012). As my final published piece took a survey approach, I couldn’t spend as much time to dedicate to Merlin as I had originally hoped. The first draft of this piece (a conference paper) focused almost exclusively on the television show. It took me years to figure out that I needed to cut back my attention to the show in order to let the argument come through. (University 811 Writing tip: If you’re struggling to get a piece published, you may want to consider the focus of your piece and then apply an outline approach.)


The Knights of the Round Table never fully get together in BBC’s Merlin as Arthur and titular character Merlin takes the places of the knights on their adventures. The show is clichéd in terms of production: dialogues, background music, costume, and even lighting. Not only are there violins playing when Guinevere and Arthur kiss, but there is a ray of sunlight breaking through between them[i]. But by abiding in these clichéd conventions, the writers are able to transform all the major and minor plot lines of the Arthurian legend to a point where they are barely recognizable, and still remain a quintessential Arthurian story. Merlin often ignores much of the canon. The character of Merlin is not depicted as a wizened old man, but as a young adult, the same age as Prince Arthur, and furthermore, he must hide his magical powers and take the role of Arthur’s manservant. In many of the Arthurian stories up to this point only those of noble blood can be a knight. But the British television show Merlin challenges this doctrine. Lancelot does not descend from nobility. And even Guinevere is simply the daughter of a blacksmith and the maid of Lady Morgana. It is interesting that in these feminist Arthurian novels, though the novelists argue for gender and religious equality, they still abide by a class system. While Guinevere’s right to rule usually came from matriarchal power and Morgana descended from a long lineage of priestesses, this still indicates the aristocratic right to power. While in Merlin, Arthur is also still the son of a king, more emphasis is placed on secondary characters, specifically the title character of the show – Merlin.

Although Arthur is initially depicted as an arrogant, spoiled, rich boy, through his friendship with Merlin and his love for Guinevere he slowly begins to appreciate the value of the people of the other classes. His transformation is in keeping with a conception of courtly love. As Larry D. Benson suggests in Malory’s Morte Darthur (1976), what distinguishes courtly love from other love is the concept that: “love is not only virtuous in itself but is the very source and cause of all the other virtues, that indeed one cannot be virtuous unless he is a lover”[ii]. Merlin and Guinevere’s influence inspires Arthur to show kindness to the lower class, which in turns inspires incredible loyalty in his knights (as they often emerge from among this class):

GWEN. You claim titles don’t matter to you, but you behave like a prince and expect me to wait on you like a servant. Saying it means nothing if your actions betray you. […]

ARTHUR. You’re right. You have me invited me into your home and I have behaved appallingly. […]

GWEN. Because I thought you’d shown some humility. You had done something kind for me even though I’m just a servant. A good king should respect his people no matter who they are. [iii]

The resulting code of Arthur’s knighthood is established around these perimeters. When King Uther refuses to let Arthur rescue Guinevere when she is kidnapped as she is only a mere servant, Arthur’s determination to rescue Guinevere further marks a redefinition of the knight’s code. The knight must “always put the service of ladies foremost”[iv]. However, “a lady,” in Malory’s time, would only indicate a woman of noble birth. Merlin challenges the class structure, and expands this perimeter to include service all women, children, and people in need of aid. A knight, then, is not one of noble blood, but one who demonstrates this characteristic of nobleness.

              In Merlin, Arthur replaces the other knights in undertaking quests, as well as taking on other motifs associated with Lancelot. He is briefly betrothed to Princess Elena[v], a figure who is paired with Lancelot (and was made by famous by Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, circa 1842). Arthur also rescues Guinevere several times (and at least thrice from kidnapping) when it is usually Lancelot that plays Guinevere’s rescuer. It should be noted though that, like its feminist predecessors, Guinevere in Merlin unfortunately still needs to be rescued. Arthur additionally takes on the “knight of the cart” motif and the “fair unknown” motif – motifs traditionally associated with Lancelot. In “The Sword in the Stone”, “the knight of the cart” motif serves as a mechanics that forces Arthur to consider the state of his kingdom and wonder if Tristan’s hatred of his kingship is warranted: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I don’t deserve to be king”[vi]. Arthur’s arrogance is transformed into a temporarily humility, as he considers his own qualities as a king. Similarly, when Arthur adopts the “fair unknown” motif in an earlier episode, it serves to confirm that he is a good knight (and therefore, worthy enough to be the King of Camelot one day): “I fear that people respect me because of my title. […] When I’m competing as William, my title doesn’t matter, nobody gives me any special treatment. So when I win this tournament, if I win this tournament, it will be because I deserve it. Not because I am Prince Arthur”[vii]. Arthur demonstrates a belief in a meritocratic conception of kingship, where his right to lead is not determined from noble blood or divine right.

In contrast, Lancelot’s decisions in Merlin are still fueled by a desire to serve Guinevere, returning to the outdated model of courtly love which is found in Chrétien and Malory. While he is identified as the “bravest and most noble of them all”[viii], and though he demonstrates all the aspects of chivalry, Lancelot is too submissive and humble to be accepted as a strong hero. Lancelot willingly embraces his death (smiling with his arms spread in acceptance and welcome as he walks towards his death) solely because Guinevere asks him to “look after [Arthur]. Bring him home”[ix] and thus he dies in Arthur’s place. Lancelot’s action and speech mocks the notion of equality. “Ever since I was a child,” Lancelot says when we are introduced to him, “I’ve dreamed of coming here. It’s my life’s ambition to join the knights of Camelot. I know what you’re thinking. I expect too much. After all, who am I? They have their pick of the best and bravest in the land”[x]. His deference is disturbing because, through the character of Merlin, the audience is well aware of how the nobility, and especially King Uther, treat the servant class. Though in other Arthurian stories the adultery brought about the destruction of the court, we see in Merlin that Arthur is able to persevere past their betrayal. The Lancelot-Guinevere storyline serves only to mark Arthur’s fortitude and compassion, and further distinguish the qualities of nobleness that should be found in a knight.


[i] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[ii] Benson, Malory’s Morte Darthur, 297-298

[iii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2, my transcription throughout

[iv] Malory, 47 and 53

[v] Merlin, “The Changeling” 3.6

[vi] Merlin, “The Sword in the Stone, Part 2” 4.12

[vii] Merlin,“The Once And Future Queen” 2.2

[viii] Merlin,“The Darkest Hour, Part 2” 4.2

[ix] Merlin, “The Darkest Hour, Part 1” 4.1

[x]  Merlin, “Lancelot” 1.5

The Fulcrum of Chaos… Version 11

Well my commitment to blog everyday is starting to falter, so I dug deep into my vault of unfinished stories for today’s post. I stopped writing fiction … 15 years ago? and have only started to dabble in it again with a few flash fictions in the last 2 years. At that time (i.e when I started writing again), I tried to pick up the pieces of where I left off, but I couldn’t make head or tails of all the different versions in my old hard drive. So I stuck an arbitrary title on all the pieces (this one is titled with the supremely unoriginal “Prophecy”) and labelled each of the drafts with a word count. I have no idea which draft I wrote first or why I have 11 of them. I suspect that the stories are slightly different in each – enough that I couldn’t just continue writing in the same document, as I likely re-structured and rewrote everything. Take a look:

Screenshot of my Fiction folder

If you’re baffled why one version would have 40,000 words while another has 400, you’re not alone. Amusingly, the one I picked today WAS titled with the incredibly suitable “The Fulcrum of Chaos.” I picked a draft at random for today as I couldn’t bring myself to open up all 11 drafts at this point. I’m reminded of a tangle of wires or strings that I know needs to be untangled, but I’m going to let them sit in the box, put away neatly in my closet, pretending everything is neat and orderly. The following is the first page of a 30 page document. It’s essentially unaltered (although I couldn’t bring myself to let the grammar mistakes stand. The copy-editor in me cringes that I didn’t know the difference between things like ‘then’ and ‘than.’). In any case, enjoy! …..?


From the Chronicles of the Mages’ Guild

Prologue

She heard screaming. The smell of burnt flesh. She froze in horror, looking down at the girl writhing in pain on the ground. Amber flames licked across the other girl’s skin, torching her hair. She reached a hand out toward her when the screaming cut off abruptly. Her senses were screaming at her to run. To flee.

Dropping her bag, she sprinted in the direct of the closet tree, looking for cover. The grass went up in flames behind her. She didn’t look. Kept running, dashing across the street towards the protection of the forest. She should’ve run the other way. Towards more people. But it was dark out, made darker by the new moon. There would be few people still on campus. No one to hear her scream. And whoever was after her didn’t care about harming others.

She tripped, her high heels catching on a tree root as she muttered to herself. Her breath left her in a rush as she went down hard, her knees scraping where her skirt rode up. Scrambling up, she abandoned her heels, running over the hard dirt of the path barefoot. Should she leave the path? Where would she hide? Adrenaline gave her speed, but fear robbed her of breath. She could feel her heart pounding, her chest tight. Pain exploded in her head, and she fell screaming to the floor. She wasn’t on fire. Where was the pain coming from? She couldn’t see! She patted the earth, trying to find her missing eyeglasses while she chocked for air.

Her attacker was on top of her instantly. She couldn’t see him. Her. Was it even human? Her vision was greying at the edges. The figure before her a shadow. She gasped in a breath before his fingers clawed around her throat.

Damned if she’d go without a fight! Drawing in the last of her energy, she focused on her hand, punching him in the stomach. She could smell the now familiar scent of burnt flesh, and he screamed in pain. He reared back, giving her enough space to knee him between the legs. Outraged, he drew up a knife, lashing out with a scream of rage. Searing heat speared through her chest. Her eyes blurred in pain. Movement flickered before her. A wolf. There was a wolf standing by the tree.

Then all she knew was darkness.

The University 811: Using Outlines for Proposals and Redraftin

As I talked about in yesterday’s post, if you’re about to engage in a large project (such as a dissertation), outlines can be incredibly useful. You might already have an outline, although you might not consider it as one. If you’ve started thinking about your work in sections or chapters, you’ve technically started drafting an outline. The longer or bigger the project, the more outline drafts you will have, before you even start the project itself. I’m about to start my next big research project (a book) and I am currently on my 10th draft of the outline. As your outline might need to be reviewed and approved by another person before you even start (maybe your supervisor or the college/department that you’re applying to), you will have to revise your outline according to their feedback. That doesn’t mean you can’t move away from your outline later. Instead, your outline shows that you have some grasp of what you intend to do and can start your project immediately. You won’t be wasting crucial time trying to figure out first steps. In my case, my outline needs to be approved by the editors/publishers who are looking at my book proposal as well as the funding body for the fellowship I’m applying for. If you’re asking people to invest time and/or money into you, then you need to demonstrate that you can follow their guidance in order to create a strong product.

Draft 10 of the outline of my next book presented in outline view from Scrivener

But outlines aren’t only useful at the start of a project. If you’re engaged in a larger project, it can also be incredibly useful while revising your work. If you’ve ever received feedback that “your ideas are good, but your presentation needs re-structuring,” that means you need an outline; the person reviewing your work couldn’t follow the logical order of your thoughts. In this case, sit down with a new sheet of paper or a new document and go through your existing project. Identify the major point of each section without including any details. Just the key ideas, written up in short, simple sentences or phrases. If you have sections, then this can be just the key idea of each section, or maybe 3-4 ideas in each section. (I’m just throwing around numbers here; it depends entirely on the size of your project.)

In any case, the key ideas that you’ve extracted is your new outline. Looking at your new outline, make sure that every point leads the next logical point. Are there areas where you jump from one point to a completely different point without any connection? Are there ideas that you should move up front, in order to understand the rest of your project better? Honestly, I think almost every single editor, reviewer, or supervisor that has looked at my work had told me at some point “this needs to be moved up higher, Chuckie!” as I seem to write back to front. So it’s perfectly okay if your work needs a major overhaul. Keep in mind that, while it’s impossible to move EVERY single idea up to the front, you should gesture or foreshadow them; make a statement like “defined below,” or “see section x” or “we will come back to this in our discussion of x”. As well, your introduction or abstract (and every project regardless of the field should have one) should have a mini-outline, where you identify what you will be doing. Finally, make sure you’ve addressed all your objectives for each section and that this comes across in your new outline. If it’s not obvious from your outline of key pints and is instead buried in the details, then you might need to put more work into addressing your objectives.

If you’re getting close to submitting your dissertation – or are post-submission and are now preparing for publication, you might want to consider an outline taken at a paragraph level. Each paragraph should start with a sentence that introduces the topic of that paragraph. Ideally, if you look at just your first sentence of each paragraph, you should be able to identify if your thoughts are following a logical order. (See my example below.) Again, Scrivener is fantastic for this. You can split up the document paragraph by paragraph easily using the highlighted selection (the first sentence) with each split.

Screenshot of Scrivener

You can then go to outline view and drag and drop the paragraphs around if they seem out of place. A simple compile function will reintegrate all the paragraphs back into one document. (You should then go through and make sure that if you moved paragraphs, you’ve smoothed any awkward transitions.) Here in the example below, I’ve taken apart the introduction of my draft for chapter 5. Right away, I could see that a point is missing, that I’ve made a jump or buried a point that should be presented as its own paragraph/topic. I’ll go back and re-examine those paragraphs to see if I should split a large paragraph into two or if I need another new paragraph entirely. The objective of this exercise is by taking the first sentence of each paragraph, I’ve formed a mini-paragraph, one that’s comprehensible even without extraneous detail.

Outline of Draft Chapter 5 (i.e. just the first sentence of each paragraph)

Of course, there are other ways to ensure that your project follows a logical format. You don’t have to go to the sentence/paragraph-level that I have done. And if you have any tips or advice for how to (re)-structure your work, please do share! I’d love to hear more ideas for how you restructure and revise later stages of work.

Next time, we’ll continue this blog series with a discussion of study tips. Until then, take care!

The University 411: On the Use and Abuse of Outlines

As I promised in yesterday’s blog, today we’re talking outlines, and how to use them effectively. While sitting down and writing one sentence and then the next may seem a logical approach to tackling a project, processing information doesn’t always follow a linear trajectory. As we discussed with concept mapping, your brain might be jumping all over the place with ideas. So if you’re staring at a blank page and you’re not sure where to start, OR if you have a completed draft but you’re not sure if your work is coherent and logical to follow, you may want to consider creating an outline.

If you’re staring at a blank page, try concept or mind mapping first. It’s okay if your map is chaotic and all over the place. We’ll look at this as draft 1 of mapping. From there, take out a different coloured pen and number your map, or if you’re using an app, move the bubbles around. Identify the major concepts or ideas and identify a linear order. Identify your key components and sub-components in a 1, 2, 3 format. These should be simple statements that you can then expand or add details to. And voila! You no longer have a blank page. You have an outline that you can build off of.

Note that some instructors might require you to have an outline. If you’re submitting a science paper, you might have to use a specific format: introduction, hypothesis, methodology, data, analysis, conclusion. Technically, this format is an outline. If you’re in the humanities, your instructor might require you to submit a similar outline as an assignment before preparing a larger research project. However, unless it’s required by your instructor or you’re about to engage in a larger project (which we’ll discuss tomorrow), an outline isn’t strictly necessary. You haven’t failed or done something wrong because you haven’t used an outline. An outline should be used as an aid if you’re stuck – something to get you to the next step – and not something to focus on and worry about. So don’t stress if your outline isn’t neat and tidy, or if you end up moving away from it altogether. You don’t need to stick to your outline like you’ve taken a blood oath. You can revise your outline as you need to or ignore it completely if the ideas are just flowing out of you and looking at your outline will halt that process. Return to it if you get stuck again.

A handwritten outline of one of my job applications. Outlines are useful everywhere.

Although most people consider using outlines at the start of a project, it can also be useful at later stages. You should review your initial outline to make sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial point. As well, you can also make a new outline to confirm that your thoughts and ideas follow a logical process. Sit down with your project and identify the key points in each section or paragraph. Write this down on a separate sheet of paper. This is your new outline. Take a good look at it and see if, without needing any extra details, someone can follow your outline in a logical progression. If you’ve identified your objectives and audience before you started the project, go back to these and make sure your outline addresses all of these points (or sit down and identify your objectives now and make sure you’re tackled them all). You can also ask a friend or study group to look over the outline. (This approach cuts down work for your friends if they only have to look at a page or two instead of the entire project.)

If you discover with your new outline that your ideas are hard to follow, it’s okay to swamp around ideas and move them until they fall into place. This is completely fine and normal. Re-drafting is good because you’re making your work better. It’s not a failure if you need to restructure your work. Tomorrow we’ll continue our discussion of using outlines for the re-drafting process, focusing on students who need to create a large piece of work (such as a dissertation). Until then, take care of yourselves.

The University 411: Tackling the Blank Page by Identifying Your Objective

Earlier this week we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, taking some time to clarify your objectives might be one way to address this issue (concept or mind mapping might be another, which we talk about here). What are you hoping to accomplish with your project? If your instructor gave you prompts (a selection of questions or ideas to chose from) then look carefully at the word choices and phrasing. Whether or not you’ve been provided with prompts, you may want to consider any of the following as either components of your project or the main focus.

For instance, prompts like “identify” or “define” require succinct and concrete answers. Don’t waffle. However, unless you’re in an exam situation or answering short questions in an assignment, it’s unlikely that prompts like “define” will be the main focus question for a larger project. But you may need to consider it as a central objective in the beginning stages of your project. Similarly, prompts like “outline” and “summarise” require you to focus on the main points and not on little details. Like “identify” and “define”, it might be useful to consider it as a central objective at the beginning of your project.

A prompt like “illustrates” requires specific examples. This may require and/or inform further “analysis,” where you take your raw data and form a narrative, looking how the data interconnects and drawing conclusions. Likewise, prompts such as “evaluate” or “assess” also requires analysis of data, but here you are required to take a position and make an informed judgment. Don’t forget to consider strengths and weaknesses of your position. Show awareness that you’ve considered counter-arguments and gaps and offer rebuttals and explanations. If this is a large project, you may need to identify and define your limitations, scope, or perimeters, i.e identify for your audience the specifics variables you are examining (in humanities this might mean a specific text or artist), and acknowledge what your study must leave out (the gaps).

While we’re on the topic, don’t forget to identify your audiences. Your instructor might ask you to address a specific audience; for example, the assignment might be to write a blog piece or design a pamphlet geared at a general audience. But if the audience isn’t defined then you can assume that your assignment will be primarily looked at by your instructor. That said, I recommend taking an approach where your classmates are the primary audience. This will allow you to gauge how much information and background knowledge you need to supply. For example, if you’re taking a class on biology and your project is on a specific organism, you likely won’t have to go back to the basics of defining the taxonomic ranks of kindom, phylum, class, order etc in order to identify and situate your chosen species within these ranks. By centering your peers as the primary audience, you can make some assumptions on what your audience might already know. While this can certainly include a brief review of the concepts discussed in class, it should not be a regurgitation of the entire lesson plan.

While I’ve thrown around a number of terms and prompts, there are a great many out there that I have skipped over. I hesitate from trying to list them all as I’m guaranteed to miss some. As well, I’ve limited my discussion of these terms as I am using them only as examples. There may be more nuances to how to approach the assignment depending on how the prompt or instructions are phrased. So if you’re struggling to get started, dissecting the question or assignment instructions may be a good place to start.

A couple of final notes: as I’ve said in earlier posts, if you’re unsure what’s required, don’t hesitate to ask the instructor – either in class or in office hours. If after you dissect the assignment and/or do some concept or mind mapping and you’re still struggling to get started, make an appointment with your instructor or drop in during office hours. If you can, email them in advance and briefly outline your struggles. This will allow them time to prep and consider the best way to help you.

DON’T put off asking for help until the burden of anxiety builds up to unbearable levels. Trying to fix the problem early will allow you more time to actually work on the fix. As well, the longer you put off asking for help, the harder it is to ask. However, I want to emphasise that it’s NEVER too late to ask for help if your struggling with an assignment or with understanding a concept. Instructors that want to see students succeed will find ways for you to make-up work if they are aware of your anxieties. Your undergraduate or postgraduate coordinator is also a good person to talk to. Hopefully this blog series will help anyone struggling to navigate university. But if anxiety is a major concern, as I talked about here don’t forget to take advantage of resources that may be available to you.

Tomorrow we talk about outlines. Until then, good luck, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.

The University 411: Tackling The Blank Page with Concept Mapping

Yesterday we discussed how the first step to tackling problems of the blank page is to identify the root of what’s causing it. If you’ve determined that the problem is because you have loads of ideas but are not sure what to focus on, or if you have no ideas at all, concept mapping (and its various iterations) might be a way to tackle the problem (identifying your objective is another). Go through all of your notes with a separate sheet of paper, and write down your main ideas, observations, and supporting points. You’re not re-writing notes here (as I recommended in an earlier post regarding note-taking); instead you’re reorganising your notes in a visual manner to establish connections and relationships.

Note that your bullet journal will work just fine for this activity. But, if you find yourself needing a larger canvas, hit up a noffice supply store and see if you can find some cheap easel/chart pads of paper. There are also apps and software out there that do the same (and you may already have some if you explore the features of your Office or iWork programmes). But DON’T waste time trying to find the perfect programme instead of sitting down to do your assignment. It’s a perfect procrastination tool and you don’t need the distraction right now. Instead, if you really want a software or app, make a note to yourself to find one when you’ve set aside time specifically for that chore. I use the Scrapple Software myself (from the same creators as Scrivener) as I tend to drag and move my concepts bubbles around, which a digital format facilitates better than handwritten. But I also rely on good old pen and paper (my bullet journal) for my smaller assignments or if I want to think through ideas as they occur to me instead of when I’ve scheduled time to work on a specific project.

You may already be familiar with concept mapping via its sibling mind mapping. To be honest, I use the terms interchangeably myself, but there are differences between the two and if you’re looking for an app to help you with your mapping, knowing the difference might help. Mind map focuses on one idea or concept as it’s central point, with other concepts radiating from it. If you’ve ever fiddled with graphic settings while preparing a presentation, you’re probably familiar with mind maps. While there are a number of types, I feel that, generally, they can be divided into two categories: radial display and linear display.

Radial Model
Linear Model

As you can see in the examples, while the radial model has a the central concept in the middle, with associated ideas organised around it, the linear model is hierarchical, with one point leading to the next. The linear model is probably better if you need to figure out how to structure a paper (i.e which idea to introduce first, and then second, and third). However, my mind refuses to think in a linear way and tends to jump around from idea to idea like a puppy. So I often start with radial models, and then turn them into linear models when I get to an outline stage (which we’ll discuss later).

Concept mapping differs from mind mapping in that you have several concepts instead of one focused concept. Where the bubbles in mind map usually have a 1 to 1 connection (one shape connecting to another shape in a one-directional/hierarchical way), concept mapping have lines and relationships all over the place, connecting together in multiple ways and in multiple directions. As you can see from my example below, this method is less organised than a mind map, but is extremely useful in collecting your thoughts. It’s my first step in beginning to impose some sense of order on the chaos in my mind.

Chuckie’s Concept Map for a Chapter on Performance/Performativity in Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind

If you’re struggling to get started on a project, concept mapping and mind Mapping are useful ways to set your mind the task of mulling over ideas. Don’t feel that you need to go straight from mapping to drafting your project. If it does inspire and excite you enough to start right away, then great! But it’s also perfectly fine to mull it over and sleep on it in order to come back to it with fresh eyes tomorrow. In fact, I recommend starting to think about your project as soon as the instructor releases the assignment details. Do NOT wait until the week of (or the day before!) to consider what your project is going to be on. Your brain needs time to incorporate all the concepts you’re learning and process it, before you can produce an acceptable piece for assessment. So grab your bullet journal and start jotting down ideas as soon as they come to you!