Print Friendly

Geography, as a disciplinary field, admits graduate students from different backgrounds with the goal of making them part of a profession that is uniquely situated for grappling with major challenges of the globalized world. Whether studying the pillars of Physical Geography themes, Human Geography concerns, or Geographical Technique abilities, graduate students are here to write their way to graduation. To succeed in the profession, most geographers who follow the Sauerian admonition of “Know Thy Word” point to usage of the written text. I argue that it is not enough to know the word, but to use it correctly! Not everyone is Jared Diamond (ecologist) or Charles Mann (journalist), but everyone can be a facile and persuasive writer of Geography. And, by the power of their keyboard, even becoming honorary geographers.

Most students often write without a road map. In geography, manuscripts shall be treated as a product of intellectual exploration, inquiry and effective communication that follows a meticulous, thoughtful plan for achievement, with a compass at hand. Science writing is no different, particularly with professional journals and scholarly books, because the peer review process ensures that poor papers will not get printed. The “publish or perish” paradigm of American academia, hence, secures that audiences, experts and others, will determine the fate of the geographer. Professionalism, thus, is partially gauged by the impact factor of the outlet, so the author should start focusing on the target journal to get acquitted with its guidelines, recent published collections, format and overall thematic emphasis. Parish (1981) warned that “the style required for research papers is not the same as the style you learned in your writing classes.” You must acquire the ability to express both unambiguously and succinctly, as well as to avoid expressive evocation, complexity, imagery and symbolism. Exhibit your expository style rather than your literary or colloquial one. At any rate, consider the WWW model—What, Where and Why— to sketch ideas to make your geography writing a doddle, not a nightmare (SEAI 2013).

As subject-dependent, geographical research methods are not universal. Analytical tools, methodological protocols, and subject matter are linked vertically amongst the three pillars of geography, but not horizontally. Conversely, writing skills are universal and assignment-independent. Peter Hoffer (2013) advises: to write well, just use your MACE! The acronym for Muse, Artist, Craftsman, and Editor describe four ethereals that shall rest on your shoulders while writing. Let’s get to know them better, following Hoffer:

The MUSE inspires us. She is our creative imagination reified. She brings us ideas, concepts, metaphors, and connections. She runs wild, swirling about us as our ideas flit about when we are gathering our materials and about to write. We need the Muse to guide us as we get down our first impressions, lines of attack, and conclusions. The Muse does not worry about the precise order of these, much less how we express them. Nor should we —not at first. Instead, as we progress in our research, we must let her guide us. The Muse tells us: Do not wait until all the inputs are in —keep on jotting down your insights.

The ARTIST exhibits better control of words than the Muse. The Artist in us demands order, shape, placement, and process. She loves to outline, arranging and rearranging our arguments and our evidence until the pattern satisfies us. The Artist knows that written geography cannot be more than two-dimensional (words going left to right on a line or top to down on a page) while Geography itself is four- dimensional (time, space, and the scalar of historicity, added to the linear narrative). But the Artist also knows how to fabricate a virtual third or fourth dimension. She tells us how and when to interweave analysis and digression.

The Muse and the Artist respect each other well, for the Artist is willing to accommodate a new insight or inspiration somewhere in the organization of the paper; in turn, the Muse recognizes the artist’s need to find some kind of aesthetics, and keeps that evolving pattern in mind as she inspires new ideas.

The CRAFTSMAN is more disciplined than both of them, for the he worries about the finished product. Every Craftsman is known by the professional caliber of his work, just as every graduate student is graded on prose quality. The Craftsman is patient; he drafts a paper according to the artist’s design, then, revises. The best Craftsman is willing to lay aside a paper and return to it, adding new material, cutting away waste. He polishes, trims, and rounds. He routinely produces more than four drafts of a single paper. Moreover, unlike the Muse and the Artist, the Craftsman is happy to have criticism of drafts. His temperament allows him to incorporate constructive comments and rewrite sections that do not work for others. After all, he knows (as the Muse and the Artist sometimes forget) that he is writing for an audience, and ultimately it is that audience’s response that measures the quality of the work transpired. He will perfect the map, the photo, or the line graph that the Artist selected to illustrate the Muse’s hints.

The EDITOR is the last ethereal to check in. Of course, she is always there: chiding the Muse for flights of irrelevant fancy; telling the Artist to tighten the outline to fit the topic; watching every step the Craftsman takes to insure that the reader will understand his meaning. The Editor is the spell checker, grammarian, and style manual. She will brook no shortcuts or technical errors. Every footnote and bibliographical entry must be in correct form as she is detail-oriented. Every quotation must be perfect. The Editor is the superego of the paper, allowing no plagiarism and demanding that every source be cited. Editors, as busybodies, must be repeatedly cautioned to wait their turn with a paper. But, we must listen to the Editor’s admonition: to keep very careful notes; to put page numbers on the index cards, or Xeroxes, or laptop entries, or sticky notes; and to turn every close paraphrase into an exact quotation, lest we slip. Even when the Muse is talking to us and we are writing down an idea at white hot speed, we need to be sure that if such idea originated in one of our secondary sources, we jot down its origin precisely. She will even take the Craftsman’s illustration and check for caption accuracy, date, legend, scale, and halftones. Sometimes the Editor cuts the infograph and includes a table instead.

Hoffer (2013) is quick to point out that MACE is not really as linear as suggested. Although papers usually go through the stages of idea, outline, draft, manuscript and galley proof, in that order, a good writer will always be willing to loop back to earlier stages of the process for emend if needed. Geographers shall insist in having their hard work of proposal development, fund raising, and field performance, rewarded with a publication as recognition of their superb effort with the study. However, either not preparing a paper for publication in the target language of fieldwork regions, or not writing towards an audience that will barely read an output in a scientific journal, often neglects international outreach. There is nothing wrong with publishing in magazines, newspapers, film scripts, television screenplays, or coffee-table books. That your message is getting across diverse constituencies matters, including your peers in the scientific circle you self-adhere when you write a paper. Be literary when you need to be outside the halls of academia, but be scientific with your peers.

One should always be proud of one’s writing; but successful writers do not have overblown egos. They must be willing to go back to the beginning if a paper does not work. In the end, the quality of the manuscript will percolate the sieves of the process; whether a chapter of the Thesis or a section of the Dissertation, most geography graduate students aspire to have a paper published in a journal. The paper will shine when published, knowing that the Muse keeps flirting, the Artist keeps creating, the Craftsman keeps polishing and the Editor keeps emending what will become new writing opportunities, for yet another paper… The more you write, the merrier!

Fausto O. Sarmiento
Professor of Geography
University of Georgia

DOI: 10.14433/2013.0022


Hoffer, P. 2013. A mace for graduate students (0r how to write a paper). Printed handout for History Students, University of Georgia. Athens.

Parish, S. 1981. The Student’s Practical Guide: Writing Term Papers for Anthropology (and Related Subjects). Electronic version.

SEAI. 2013. How to write a geography essay. URL: