Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

pulling ideas together

Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.

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The connections between the act of research and referencing

As an editor, I often read papers and theses with varying degrees of consistent and well-considered referencing. The most recent MA thesis I edited presented the inspiration for this post – many references included in the text and left out of the list (10 pages’ worth), and several easily corrected errors, such as transposing author initials, and mixing up the order of authors’ names in the citations. The particular inspiration, though, was references that had incorrect book titles, missing information, and incorrect details, like year of publication, spelling of authors’ names and dead website links. Taking what was there and plugging into Google Scholar took all of 10 second to find the correct reference. It got me thinking, does sloppy, incorrect or inconsistent referencing say something to readers/examiners/reviewers about your ability to do research? 

I think, yes. Let me explain. Finding a useful text that doesn’t immediately tell you upfront all of the citation details, like the date of publication, or the place of publication (for example a working paper you find online, or a research report) prompts you to do some research to be able to cite the resource properly. You can’t just provide whatever you know and hope that the reader will be able to find the resource too. Remember, a reference list is more than an account of what you have read; it is a reading list for your readers, so that they can delve deeper into the research if they are interested, or need to look beyond your paper for further reading.

To provide your readers, then, with a useful and complete reference list, you need to do some research. In most cases this literally means going to Google Scholar, and typing in what you do have:

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Press ‘search’ and you end up with a list of sources:

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You could then, if it is available to you, click on the link to the right [PDF] to find the paper (usually a free version), like this from the author’s university repository:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 17.55.51This also contains the citation for both in text (Archer, 2010) and the reference list. But, if all you need is a citation, in one of the accepted formats, you can click underneath the reference on either ‘Cite’ or the quotation mark (in the newest version of Chrome):

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This will give you the screen below:

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You can then very easily copy and paste, and edit if needed, into your text.

This is the easy version of doing a bit of research to find ALL the information you need to consistently and completely include a reference in your text.

Sometime, though, Google Scholar is not entirely helpful. You type in the information you have and end up with incomplete citations, like this one:

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Although this has most of the details, it is missing a place of publication. Thus, you would need to do a bit more research and plug this into Google to find out where SUNY Press is located. This reveals with a few clicks that the Press is located in Albany, New York. This detail can now be added to the reference to complete it.

But it can get more complicated, like referencing working papers or legal statutes, or research reports. What you need to do here, is work with Google, Google Scholar, and other people’s reference lists (who have also cited the paper etc you are using), and find the information you need, and then reorganise it into your chosen citation format.

Example:

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This may become a version of this: Republic of South Africa. 2006. Children’s Act, 2005 (No. 38 of 2005), Government Gazette, 492(28944), 19 June 2006.

Or this:

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which may become a version of this: Piper, N. 2007. Enhancing the migration experience: Gendering political advocacy and migrant labour in Southeast and East Asia. IDRC Working Papers on Women’s Rights and Citizenship, No. 1, February. Online at: https://www.idrc.ca/sites/default/files/sp/Documents%20EN/WRC-WP2-Piper-Migration.pdf [accessed 15 November 2017].

Most of this information is on the cover page, but the URL needed to be copied and pasted from the website.

Or finally this:

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Sometimes, Google Scholar gives you a citation with no hyperlinks to follow. What you can then do is click on ‘Cited by X’ and choose one of the resulting papers that has a full-text link. Scroll down the the reference list, and find the details you need. You can then transpose these into your paper or thesis references, in your chosen citation format.

Part of the problem with references that are incorrect, incomplete or inconsistently presented, perhaps, is the misunderstanding about the technical work the references perform in a paper or thesis. They create, for your readers, a cumulative sense of the credibility of your work – the basis for your claims and arguments – and they provide, as noted above, a clear and complete reading list, which other researchers can use to read further, or more widely in their own research.

Your writing, whether in a thesis or paper, contributes to knowledge in your field, and gives other researchers, like you, knowledge and learning to draw into and build on in their own work. How do they do so if you don’t give them the information they need to read what you have read, and move on to other and further reading from there? You don’t just contribute through your argument; you contribute through tracking the resources you used to build and make that argument too.

Take the time to do the research around your referencing carefully, and persistently. This persistence in getting your references right, for editors, reviewers and examiners, reflects well on you as a researcher and writer. It says you can do basic and slightly more complex searching and research, that you care about your work, and that you understand the role of referencing in providing readers with a full account of the sources you have used in building and making your argument.

 

 

 

 

Concluding the thesis

I am co-supervising a PhD student who is handing in her thesis for examination in November. She is currently revising her whole thesis, working towards the conclusion (and finally, the introduction). Conclusions can be tricky things to write – pulling something as big as a PhD dissertation together into a final, clear chapter is not easy. It is both an intellectual and an emotional challenge, as conclusion-writing comes towards the very end of the process, and you are so tired, and probably feeling like there are no more coherent words or sentences in your brain. This post reflects a little on what a thesis conclusion is for, with some thoughts on how to construct one that does justice to your meisterwerk.

pulling ideas together

To begin with, let’s think a bit about what conclusions are for in a piece of written work. In undergraduate studies, students are typically taught that conclusions are summaries. You restate the thesis, or main claim, of your paper, reiterate what each paragraph has said that contributes to that argument, and then bring it all together with a firm final sentence or two that says something about the relevance of the paper, or argument. There should be no new information, just a summing up of what has already been said. Sometimes you are allowed recommendations, depending on the discipline. It makes sense, then, that we progress into postgraduate studies believing that we are writing summaries whenever we conclude (a paper, or a journal article, or a thesis). I have seen many conclusions like this in postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writing. But, unfortunately, at these levels conclusions that merely summarise a paper the reader has just read are not adequate, or suitable. A shift is needed.

As Pat Thomson usefully argues in this post about writing a thesis conclusion, the conclusion to a thesis (or journal article) is not a summary of the whole. The summary part of a thesis conclusion should ideally be quite brief, and used rather as a springboard to the real work of the conclusion: using the preceding writing and research to show how the study has addressed the research questions, and in so doing, how it has made a valid, and useful, contribution to knowledge.

A strong conclusion shows your readers what your research means within the context of the field you have referenced in your ‘literature review’, and how in answering your research questions you have been able to speak back to this body of research in which you have located your own study. It answers your research questions, succinctly and clearly, so that your readers understand the overall claims of your study, the focus of your argument, the basis upon which you have advanced your argument, and the significance, meaning or value of that argument to your (their) field. It discusses – argues – for the place of your research within your field, and the contribution it is making.

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There are a few ways in which you can approach writing such a conclusion (and Pat’s post above is very helpful here). There are also a few guidelines to consider in writing this vital part of your thesis.

To begin with, you do need to bring your reader up to speed with the thesis thus far. Examiners and other readers are unlikely to read your whole PhD in one go, so ending each chapter with a brief summary, and starting the next one with a short section that connects the present chapter to the previous one is a good idea for creating coherent connections between chapters, and is helpful for your readers. Thus, you should begin your conclusion with an overview, or brief summary, of the argument thus far.

Then, consider your research questions: what did you set out to do in this project or study? Your research questions could make useful sub-headings here, at least in a first draft, to help you organise your thoughts. Starting here, you can begin to pull out the answers you have found (in the ‘analysis chapter/s’) so that you can discuss the implications of your findings, their relevance in relation to your overall argument, and the way in which what you have found relates to the body of research to which you have connected your study. No new information: just an analytical discussion of selected aspects of your findings that are useful for answering your research questions, and further consolidating your argument.

Perhaps you have recommendations, on the basis of your findings and their implications for practice, and/or further research. You could include a section on these, discussing a step further the possible implications of your research in relation to your field. Something else that may be relevant to include here could be limitations to the size or scope of your findings: are there any that your readers need to know about, so that they don’t expect your study to have done something other than what it has done? Don’t just list all the things you could have done but didn’t do: think carefully about pertinent limitations that may represent counter-arguments you could defend or mitigate against.

At the end of the end, consider your argument again: what has your thesis claimed and to what end? Try to end your thesis with a paragraph that reiterates not just what your thesis has argued, but WHY this argument has relevance, or import, for your readers. What do you hope the outcome of your research will be? Why are you so passionate about it, and why do you think others should care too? Read a few thesis conclusions to get a sense of different ways of doing this, and check out Pat Thomson’s posts on conclusion writing, too. Then write a draft and share it with your supervisor for feedback.

It’s worth really taking your time and not rushing this chapter, even as it comes at the end when you are tired, and really just want to be done. End on the highest note you can: you owe yourself that much after all your hard work getting there.

Paper writing: opening with a strong abstract, title and keywords

The first thing fellow researchers read when they find your paper are the title and the abstract. They find your paper, often, by typing keywords into a database or search engine that match words in your title, abstract or keyword list. It is thus really important to spend time crafting these aspects of your paper carefully, as time spent getting them right pays dividends in the visibility of your work in keyword searches within your field.

Titles and keywords

To begin with, your paper needs a clear, descriptive and relevant title. Usually you have about 15-20 words for a title (check with the author guidelines of the journal you have targeted), and about 4-6 key words.

A first, useful, rule of thumb is to use all of these words strategically: don’t repeat words you use in the title in the list of keywords, and avoid acronyms, even well-known ones. Use the keywords to highlight elements of your argument or paper not referenced in the title. So, you really have a maximum of about 25-30 words to play with.

To begin with the title, a good starting place is to look at the title of papers you are referencing, and have enjoyed reading. What about the title caught your attention? The better paper titles indicate both what the paper is about, and something of the contribution the paper is making to the field. They are, therefore, relatively descriptive. They should be, really, because titles that are obscure, or only obliquely connected to the content of the paper will put readers off. Further, titles that try to be too catchy or clever may not contain the kinds of words researchers will type into search engines, resulting in your work being too far down the list (be honest, how often do you search past page 4 of Google Scholar?). Your work will be missed, and that would be a great shame considering all the work that went into publishing it.

A useful tool for crafting a title that balances a bit of catchiness with relevance and contribution is the subtitle. For example: ‘When arts meets enterprise: Transdisciplinarity, student identities, and EAP’ or ‘Chloroform fumigation and the release of soil nitrogen: A rapid direct extraction method to measure microbial biomass nitrogen in soil’. The first title marries a bit of fun with a focus on what the paper is about; the second uses the subtitle to indicate a method that the researchers are using to explore the phenomenon mentioned before the colon. Subtitles can also be used to sharpen the focus of your title, to create a limit or boundary to your research, to add additional context, or to expand on the scope of your research (See this article, and this one, for useful advice on title creation).

Use your list of keywords to add to the title: mention, for example, a key methodological tool (e.g. action research, or regression analysis) that researchers might be interested on, or the theory you have used (e.g. constructivism, or social realism), or key thinkers you draw on (e.g. Karl Marx, or John Rawls), and finally on the parts of your field the paper references that the title doesn’t mention (e.g. disability studies, or political theory). This should ensure good visibility for your published paper.

The abstract

The abstract, after the title, is the first thing researchers read of your paper. Often, given the current system of paywalls and needing access to databases or your library’s holding to find the full paper, it is the only thing people can read to decide whether they want to pay for it, or search harder for the free version. So, it is really important to craft a clear, persuasive abstract that makes them want to read more.

Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson helpfully refer to the abstract as ‘the Tiny Text’: all of the relevant parts of your paper have to be in your abstract, in much abbreviated form, i.e. the focus of your paper, the argument it makes, the methodology, the main findings and the significance of those findings for your field. This is a tough ask when you often have only around 150-200 words for the average abstract.

A useful tool I learnt at a workshop from Lucia Thesen, and now use with postgraduate writers in my courses, is ‘the fairytale’. It goes like this, with you taking two sentences or so to complete each line.

  • Once upon a time people thought that…
  • But then I/we thought that…
  • So what I/we did was…
  • And what I/we found was…
  • This may change the way people think about…

This helps you create a gentle, narrative story about your paper, covering the main aspects of the abstract – the area of research you are locating your study within, the gap you have located, the way in which your research was conducted, your major findings, and what contribution your research could make to your field (related to the problem you are responding to).

Then you can recraft this into a more formal abstract, using Pat Thomson’s basic structure as a guide:

• ….. is now a significant issue (in/for).. because…. . ( Expand by up to one sentence if necessary)
• In this paper I focus on …..
• The paper draws on ( I draw on) findings from a study of… which used…… in order to show that….. (expand through additional sentences)
• The paper argues that….
• It concludes (I conclude) by suggesting that…

A useful thing to do is to read carefully the abstracts of the papers you are citing, and critique them against this basic guide: do you understand why this research has been done, and what it aims to achieve? Do you understand how it has been done and what the main findings are? Do you have a sense of what the research contributes to the field? It is interesting, and well-written? If any of these elements are missing, consider how the abstract could have been better written for you, as the reader/researcher. Then apply this reflection to your own abstract. Think about your readers carefully, and what they need to know to understand what your paper is arguing, where this argument fits into the field of research it is concerned with, how the research was conducted and what it found, and why the research matters. (See this article for useful advice on abstracts).

You should start your paper writing process with drafts of your title and abstract, to give you focus and a direction for the paper as a whole. But these drafts should be carefully revised again at the end, when your paper is finalised, to ensure that they are connected, and that the title, abstract and added keywords best reflect your research, and get it noticed, read, and hopefully cited.

Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.