writing where the energy is

The conventional advice offered to people who have some trouble writing is to engage in “free writing”. Write, usually in timed sessions, whatever comes into your head about a particular topic. Write without stopping. Write perhaps to prompts about a particular aspect of your work. Write without stopping to think, because it is the thinking that gets you into trouble. Shut off your inner editor and just write.

There are many versions and modifications to free writing. One that I like is what is called “Writing without a parachute”. Parachute-free writing, or what Barbara Turner-Vessalago calls free fall writing, is a process designed for creative writers. It has five basic tenets, three of which are easily applicable to academic writing:

1. write what comes up for you – this suggests that you don’t have a plan or prompts, you just write what comes into your mind
2. don’t change anything –this suggests you don’t read back what you are writing until you’re actually done. This doesn’t mean you have to write continually, you can stop to consider what is the most interesting, accurate or persuasive way to write something, but you don’t switch gears and go back to ‘fix’ the text. You keep going.
3. go where the energy is. This suggests that you write about something that grabs you, that you want to write about at that moment.

Number 3, go where the energy is, can be a pretty worrying idea for academic writers. Why, when there is so much that must be written about, and so many deadlines to meet, would you just write about the things that seems most interesting? What’s most interesting probably isn’t the thing that is most pressing, most important, or most relevant.

Parachute free writing suggests that

…following the energy is the very best way to learn how to become absorbed in your writing. What could make more sense, really, than to write about the things that have a charge for you when they come up, as they come up, regardless of what the thinking, reflecting mind has to say about it. … instead of dismissing a subject that has energy when it emerges, you turn toward it.

The point here is that it’s important to experience what it means to become totally immersed in writing, to dive into the process of writing and look up only when you are done – perhaps to discover you have been writing for a long time without knowing it. You’ve been on automatic writing pilot. The process of total absorption is what the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” – the optimal experience of being completely immersed in an activity. A primary school child once gave me, and my research partner Chris, a wonderful description of flow – he said that painting was like being midway between the diving board and the pool. Everything stops and you’re just there, hanging, poised, in the middle.

Writing without a parachute advice- go with the energy – proposes that sometimes the best starting point is to write what you can and what you want to write. This is likely to produce something of use, unlike sitting down to reluctantly write when you may well balk and block writing what you must, or what you secretly want most of all in the world to, write.

Academic writers can certainly benefit from writing something that they have a bit of energy for. I often ask doctoral researchers, as soon as they have finished their field work, to write down all of the things that are buzzing around in their head – these are the things that they have most energy for at that moment. One of the things that often happens is that an idea that has been lurking half-formed takes shape. Insights that they didn’t know they had appear on the page. Once the text is written it can be put away while the analysis goes on and the initial impressions can be tested out. But very often, they find, the first big ideas that are formed through this energy-focused writing turn out to be sustained and important.

And I too find that its good to sometimes write where the energy is. So much academic writing is writing that is required of us – a research report, papers about research that report results to a wider audience, chapters for edited collections about a topic that someone else has designed. Every now and then I just get an idea out of left field that I want to pursue. I don’t always do this, but when I do these idiosyncratic papers often turn out to be quickly written, well formed and they are often better pieces of writing than those that I have more dutifully produced.

Writing with the energy is of course often what bloggers do. But the practice does have wider possibilities.

Writing with the energy is an interesting proposition and one that academic writers might like to play about with. It’s a good addition to your repertoire of strategies to get confident and happy about writing and to maintain and sustain the writing habit.

PS: If you don’t know about flow and Csikszentmihalyi you might be interested in watching him speak about how he became interested in the topic, his life-long research on flow, and the connections between “training’, challenge and flow. It interesting to watch this and make the connections between his theory and the process of learning to be an academic writer.

Posted in academic writing, energy, writing without a parachute | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

accountability and academic writing

Whenever there is a discussion about doctoral or early career writing, one – and generally more – contributions refer to the helpfulness of accountability. People say that there are significant benefits in setting a target, often a word count, for their writing and then holding themselves responsible for reaching it. Such a target might be daily, weekly, or monthly. Very often people refer to public targets – they declare in a public forum such as a writing group, or online, that they will meet a specific word or manuscript target in a given period of time.

The circulation of stories about famous writers who go to their study in the morning and don’t leave until they’ve written 2000 words certainly suggests that writing targets are an unequivocal good. And we can now do so much more than, say, Stephen King who started writing his 2000 words pre Web2. There’s no doubt that developing technologies have added to our capacity to work to public targets. Events such as #acwrimo, where writers set a target for a month, are increasingly popular. Websites like 750 words a day, hashtags which emphasise productivity targets and the pomodoro app all support an accountability approach to writing. By that, I mean an approach where a number suggests that you have either succeeded or failed and/or where performing in public is key.

This is a writing accountability which is both measurable and performative. Did you hit your target or not?


(I couldn’t resist the parochial reference.)

Now don’t get me wrong, I use manuscript targets too. Anyone who followed my posts on the way in which Barbara and I wrote our most recent book will be familiar with the frantic writing we did in order to produce a first draft in a very short space of time. We weren’t working to word counts but rather “ We have to get a chapter written every three days.” Because we live on different sides of the world, we had no option but to write fast when we were together. However it wasn’t the most enjoyable process and we would certainly have rather taken more time than we actually had.

But in reality, most of the time I don’t work to a word count. I do have calendar deadlines when things need to be done. I mostly meet these – but I don’t work to word or page targets in order to do so. As long as I’m writing each day and getting somewhere significant towards completion, I’m happy. Somewhere significant might be a small section on one day and several large chunks of material on another.

I get things done largely because:
– I have a writing routine. I write nearly every morning for around a couple of hours or so (often a lot more) but I don’t count. I write till I’m done
– I like writing. Even when it’s tough going, as it inevitably is sometimes, I still like writing.
When I use targets for myself, it is generally because I’m under extreme pressure. But working to word count or page targets tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I can generally just get things done. Instead of targets I have plans and goals for the semester and year, not daily targets.

I have a regime which blends both extrinsic and intrinsic reasons for writing. I can motivate myself to write and writing has its own pleasures. There is something very rewarding about having an idea and being able to develop it through writing. There is enjoyment in playing with the structure and the rhetoric in order to craft the text to make it the best it can be. There is certainly satisfaction and often delight, in having the writing published and out there in the world. Any externally set deadlines that I have always work together with internal self-motivation and self-discipline.

I do worry about an over-dependence on external target setting and public accountability. This is a worry that I share with Jo Van Every who has also recently posted about her concerns about an overreliance on writing accountability regimes.

As a former, long-time school-teacher I know that there is a problem when students are taught to only to work for stickers, rewards and test and exam results. The end result is that they do not do more than is asked of them. They rely always on the teacher to tell them what to do. They ask how many words they have to write on any given topic, rather than where they can look to find more information. They copy slabs of text out of books simply to meet required word lengths. They do not develop their interests. They do not develop a purposeful knowledge of their own learning practices, which means they cannot analyse their own learning strategies nor invent new ones. They do not have a love of learning.

But, as a teacher I also know that the judicious use of targets, rewards and praise can support students to develop the habits that underpin independent study and writing. It’s not that the use of external targets is wrong. It’s just that if rewards and punishment and targets are all that there is, then there are almost always counter-productive consequences. Targets can be part of a healthy and sustainable learning – and writing – regime, but there are very significant down-sides if they are the overall frame for all of the learning and writing that goes on*.

And it seriously worries me that there is such a neat fit between the performative university which requires measurable outputs with ever increasing frequency and the kinds of writing target regimes that are popular but appear to be self-imposed. Well, there’s a whole sociological analysis I’m not going into now but I’m sure you can see the argument I’d make.

But this all leads me to think that perhaps we need to have some conversations to counter-balance those about the usefulness of accountability to academic writing. Conversations where we share the strategies we use to compose, draft, revise, edit and craft texts. Conversations where we share views about the kinds of academic texts that are good to read, the academic writers that we admire and the kinds of writing that they do. Many many more conversations that are about more than word length and pages ticked off… Conversations that are about the stuff we write not just the quantity and speed.

The problem with extrinsic reward regimes is well established in educational research and some educational researchers believe the reliance on external reward regimes is one of the most significant problems in current school systems. There is debate about how to balance the two.

Posted in academic writing, Alfie Kohn, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, targets | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

what is an “outstanding” publication?

I’ve recently taken part in a couple of discussions about the kinds of papers and books that are highly ranked in quality reviews, reviews like the UK’s REF. Those in the discussions aimed to understand what counts as “outstanding”. This aim wasn’t simply borne from an instrumental interest, getting clear about what to do in order to do better. Some of us were equally interested in sharing more critical perspectives.

You see, in the UK where I’m based, most people feel they have no choice but to be involved in these kinds of audit-oriented discussions. This is largely because there is such a lot riding on the outcomes. Government funding for research – and for doctoral education, student enrolments and reputation – all now appear to be permanently entangled in audit exercises. Understanding this ac-counting game- to use the Bourdieusian metaphor of a game – getting into it, playing in it and with it, perhaps even being able to change it  – is now an inextricable part of UK academics’ work. Many of us do end up on a tightrope of with/against politics in order to do our bit for our institution, at the same time as at least trying to voice our concerns about the need to make the sector fairer for everyone.

So in the interests of understanding the game, which does not signal my approval of it you understand, here are a few thoughts about what in the UK is now known as the 4* publication, those deemed by ‘peer reviewers’ to be the best, to be “outstanding”. The ideas I report here are not just my own, but come from those conversations I mentioned, the ones held in the last few weeks. These comments are also largely social science in orientation, even though my own work straddles the arts and much of it doesn’t get a look in in disciplinary-based audit exercises. That’s another story and another post! So let me get on with “outstanding”…

As a general rule, the “outstanding” publication usually isn’t “outstanding” just because it’s in a highly ranked journal – there are a couple of disciplinary exceptions to this rule, but by and large this is the case in social science. So if the quality judgment is not about the journal it must be about the actual characteristics of the paper or book itself. Well that’s certainly what we are told.

So here’s the rub. Usually, an “outstanding” paper:

  • pushes the field forward – it is work at big scale and/or it has big data and/or big ideas and/or deals with big problems. It is ambitious.
  • is explicit about the significance and the nature of the contribution (empirical, theoretical, challenging long held assumptions etc.)
  • is situated within a deep understanding of international literatures, and the histories and debates within the field
  • is written in a highly authoritative voice, and it is well written
  • may or may not challenge traditions and genres
  • provides convincing evidence and/or argument
  • is potentially of wide interest, could be set as recommended or essential reading in course work
  • may well have had the benefit of very experienced reviewing.

Nothing to it then!! The issue for most of us is of course how to find the time and also, let’s face it, the chutzpah to try to fulfill this kind of brief. But as we often say about the PhD, it’s not a Nobel prize and “outstanding” is actually a normative Bell curve kind of judgment… so it is within the grasp of a (select) number of ‘jobbing academics’.

Saying this of course doesn’t mean that we don’t all feel trapped in some kind of endless performative exercise, like this mouse on a spoon. It’s more the case that the REF game is one that some of us can just about manage and tolerate, as long as the cat goes off for a bit of a nap now and then.


Conversations about “outstanding” are inevitably accompanied by discussions of the centralised process of audit. And these are highly political in nature. For instance:

  • designated peer ‘scholar auditors’ are always a selection from the disciplinary community. They may be more or less conservative in their views. As ‘quality gatekeepers’, they may value some publications, publication outlets and types of research more than others and this will play out in their awarding of ‘ratings’ to the work that they see and read. Even within the same discipline, one panel’s “outstanding” may not be another’s.
  • universities operate very and various selective processes, choosing which work to submit for audit and review. Their decisions are always about managing the tensions between their income and reputation. Many institutions also use audit selection exercises as part of their performance management processes, even if informally.
  • the nature of the audit exercise itself is always a process enmeshed in wider government games – managing national reputation, balancing credibility with efficiency, being seen to operate a credible “hands off” exercise at the same time as operating a system designed to (re)produce hierarchies of institutions.

You’ll notice that I’ve scare-quoted “outstanding” all the way through this post because I want to signal I know the problematic nature of the term. What counts as “outstanding” at any one time is not a fixed and arbitrary “standard”, regardless of how it is judged and measured and by whom, and producing an “outstanding” publication list is not all that there is to academic work.

It’s crucial to note that scholarly work that isn’t “outstanding”- according to these criteria – can still be really important. Healthy disciplines produce a variety of scholarly work, for various purposes and audiences. A small-scale evaluation of a local service mightn’t rate as “outstanding” in the quality audit, and it may not change government policy or be set reading in every first year course in the country (that is, it mightn’t have “impact”), but it might still change the lives of local people. That’s worth doing. A niche project looking at a particular series of films made a long time ago may not push the field forward, but it might be a crucial building block to a growing body of knowledge which eventually becomes significant. That’s also worthy of scholarly time.

In my view it would be a pretty disappointing social science school which skewed its entire effort towards the production of “outstanding” papers. Such a school would be doing a real disservice not only to the discipline, but also to the purposes of scholarship – not to mention the difficulties it would surely create for ‘career progression’ (as difficult as this now is).

Advice to early career scholars, and those trying to make their way through the competition for academic work, often fails to recognise the highly political nature of the ways in which judgments about quality of publications are made. However, it is still useful for early career researchers to consider, within their discipline(s), the more general characteristics of “outstanding” texts and to think about how they might aim to produce some of this kind of work. And they might reasonably expect, if they are employed, to get support from their schools/faculties in this venture; precariously employed scholars inevitably have to look to learned societies as well the sporadic and scattered advice online. I do wonder how much this is the case.

Posted in "outstanding" publication, academic writing, audit regimes, books, journal article | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

making a summary #literatureknowhow

Over the course of the PhD you have to read a lot. After having written an initial literature review, you keep reading and reading throughout your project. And when you’re done with your field or library work, and analysed your data, you begin to write the final text, well a thesis first draft. This is the point at which you often have to go back to the initial literatures that you read. But it was so long ago. Can you remember what that book was about? Not all of it? 


Does this mean that you have to read some of the same things all over again?

Well possibly. But possibly not – not if you made good summaries of the key texts the first time you read them.

Summary is at the very heart of dealing with academic literatures. It is the first step that you take when you want to understand a book or paper in detail – particularly those in your inner library.

A summary text usually does the following:

(1) provides clear and detailed information about your source document.
“Key information” – author, title, date, keywords etc – is usually programmed into bibliographic software such as Endnote, Mendeley and Zotero and it may even be entered automatically if you are working with a text you have ‘imported’. If you’re using other recording methods, you need to make sure you use consistent comprehensive categories to note this information. 
(2) focuses first of all on the purpose of the text – the overall “controlling” idea, the point of the paper or book.

(3) provides the main evidence, or “supporting points” that are presented to make the case for the controlling idea. The paper or book might be written, for example:
• to analyse the causes of something,
• to indicate a position on an issue,
• to offer a new interpretation of a text(s),
• to offer solutions to a problem,
• to pose a problem in a new way,
• to challenge an existing way of understanding things…

A summary is always a retelling of the original. It is in your own words. If you simply repeat snatches from the paper or book, then you are less likely to have understood the paper. Rewriting in your own words is a way of “owning” the point and argument.

The summary is not a list. It is a coherent mini-version of the original, in which you have to show the connections between the “supporting points” and the overall “controlling idea”. It is more important to make these connections than it is to follow the exact structure of the original piece. The summary is not a small identikit of the original.

The summary uses “summary markers” to remind the reader (a future you) that these are not your ideas. So these are generally something like “The writer proposes that.. they suggest.. they offer… they provide.. they maintain.. they conclude.. “

The summary is succinct. It is not a rewriting of the entire piece – you might just as well save yourself the bother if you write pages and pages. A good summary is short and pithy.

Any reader apart from you, or you when you come back to the piece again two years after your initial reading and summary-making, should be able to read the summary and understand the most salient points about, and key features of, the original.

Some key making-a-summary questions to ask when reading a paper or book are:

(1) What is the purpose of this paper/book? Why did the writer write this piece?
a. to analyse the causes of something,
b. to indicate a position on an issue,
c. to offer a new interpretation of a text(s),
d. to offer solutions to a problem,
e. to pose a problem in a new way,
f. to challenge an existing way of understanding things…

So write … “ The writer argues /proposes that”… and make the general purpose  specific to the topic e.g. “The paper examines the increase in domestic violence in England and proposes three primary reasons.

(2) Identify the main evidence, the “supporting points” that are offered. “The writer offers three primary reasons – first, second and third”

(3) Establish the connections between the evidence and the overall argument.

“The writer argues that… because this then that; in addition to a then b and C; not only X but also y and z ; due to a and b; there is this and also that; contrary to x its actually y; as for x, similarly y; for instance; as a result of a then b ….

The answers you provide to these three questions are what  you need to write a short summary.

At this point you might also add any quotations (don’t forget the page numbers) that you think are particularly important, or notes which connect this text to others, or any questions or comments that you have about the paper/book. These are added at the end of the summary so that they cannot be confused two years later with the original piece. They are clearly labelled as comment, link, question etc.

Some of this material is adapted from Bjork, Lennart and Raisenen, Christine (2003) Academic writing. A university writing course. Lund: Studentlitteratur

Posted in literature review, summary | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

don’t be a BAW – Badly-behaved Academic Writer

I was recently asked to talk to doctoral researchers about bad academic behaviour. Not in general, but bad behaviour specifically in relation to writing for publication. I came up with the following list.

The Badly-behaved Academic Writer, or BAW for short –

(1) has a hissy fit (that is, writes a hasty angry email to the editor) when they get their not-as-good-as-they-wanted reviews back from the journal. Oh dear. Tantrums with the journal editor go nowhere and just get the BAW a bad name.

(2) presents a sloppy analysis. The BAW hasn’t checked their sums or their analysis carefully enough. Any reader who either rechecks their original data – or perhaps even the workings in the paper – will find mistakes. A reputational risk.

(3) much worse – tells lies. if the BAW has engaged in deliberate falsification, then it’s seriously serious. The BAW risks being banned from the particular journal and possibly others, having action taken against them by their employing university and suffering irreparable reputational damage. But we do all know that making up your data and results is very naughty, don’t we.

(4) misquotes. The BAW attributes something to the wrong person, or muddles up what was actually said – usually in order to support the point they are trying to make. BAWs sometimes get caught doing this and then have to apologise or make a public correction.

(5) cherry-picks something convenient out of a longer argument, but in so doing, distorts what the original argument was saying. If a reviewer picks this up they may well come to a very negative judgment about all of the BAW’s work.

(6) rips off other people’s work without acknowledgement. Enough said. It’s our old friend plagiarism. Bad, bad BAW – they could get sacked for this.

Sneaky BAWs who, for instance, take something they heard at a conference and incorporate it as their own work may not get caught – but they accrue bad karma and the permanent hatred of the innocent conference presenter and everyone they tell. And you never know how that will end up.

(7) breaks copyright rules – takes other people’s work without permission, where permissions are necessary. This is a potential nightmare if the journal editor doesn’t pick this up. It can lead to legal action, pulped copies etc.

(8) self-plagiarises – takes material that is already published and over which the BAW has no copyright and reuses it. Journal articles are not the place to practice re-mixing skills.

Self-plagiarism is also a problem for journal editors who generally like to have original material in their journal – not a lazy BAW rehash of something that has appeared elsewhere. Self plagiarism is sometimes hard to define so its best to check the journal rules and editor’s policies.

(9) sends the paper off even though they know there are multiple things wrong with it. The BAW “just wants some feedback about where to go next with it”. Reviewers are not supervisors or mentors. The BAW is exploiting the time and goodwill of busy colleagues who review. The BAW owes reviewers – who review out of commitment to the academic community – their best, not second best, work.

(10) sends the paper to several journals at once. See above – this is an unecessary duplication of academic reviewer time, it’s greedy BAW over-consumption of the increasingly scarce resource of academic reviewing.

Having a paper in review in more than one place is also a potential nightmare if the BAW is accepted in more than one journal. Production schedules for journals are at stake.

(11) adds their name as an author to a paper when they haven’t done anything. The general rule of authoring thumb is that you ought to have made some kind of contribution to the project and/or the paper – had the idea for the project/paper, got the funding, done the work, written some of the paper itself. It’s an exploitative BAW who just puts their name on everything regardless.

(12) leaves the names of people who contributed to the paper off the list of authors. This is essentially stealing someone’s work. It’s pretty reprehensible BAW behaviour and there are lots of stories about this happening. It’s not a sackable offence, but maybe it ought to become one.

(13) puts their name first on everything even if they only did a bit of work on the paper. This is a sign of a self-promoting BAW using their power over less senior colleagues.

(14) uses gift authoring. This is when BAW1 asks BAW2 to put their name on a paper even though they haven’t had anything to do with either the project or the paper. BAW 1 is hoping that BAW2 ‘s name will mean that the paper gets allotted to particular reviewers, and/or that it will be enough to get them read, once they get through the reviewing process.

(15) does not acknowledge funding sources. This might simply be neglecting a “thanks to” or a recognition of public funding, but it might also be about transparency, being open about the ways in which the project could be biased.

Now this isn’t a complete list of BAW behaviours, but it’s a start. For more bad practices and more information, because some of these are trickier and fuzzier than this list suggests, here are a few helpful resources:

US Academy of Management FAQs

COPE – Committee on Publication Ethics

Best practice guide on publication ethics from the International Journal of Clinical Practice

The Royal Society publishing policy and ethics

Vancouver Protocol

Benson, Philippa A and Silver, Susan 2013 What editors want: An author’s guide to scientific journal publishing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Melonie Fullick’s analysis of academic fraud and why it happens.

Please do add any other BAW related resources you have found particularly useful in the comments.

Posted in author order, badly behaved academic writers, ethics, plagiarism | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

on “other” academic writing

Academic writing is not all introduction, literature, methods, results, discussion. While this is the dominant mode of writing across the social sciences, and in other disciplines too, it is not all that there is. IMRAD, and the variations on it, is certainly the academic writing structure and style that is most recognised and rewarded, but there are other approaches to academic writing out there.

Doctoral researchers wishing to get away from this pre-dominant form of academic writing need to find supervisors and examiners who are knowledgeable about # acwri alternatives and prepared to help and support them write against the grain. They also need to become very knowledgeable themselves about the range of non-standard writing approaches open to them. It is still the case that, particularly in the social sciences, doctoral researchers choosing a different mode of academic writing generally have to explain why they have made a particular textual choice and how it allows them to do something that conventional academic genres and styles do not. Doctoral researchers using alternative forms thus still need to know how the norm works, and what it does and doesn’t do.

Readers of this blog might think that I am completely wedded to IMRAD and the usual forms of academic writing. That’s actually not the case. But I do think everyone needs to know what the main writing game is. However, in my own academic writing I do play about with other forms. My PhD used transcript poems, fiction and narrative photography as interleaves in a thesis structured around themes that emerged from my data analysis; I wanted to present two ways of coming at my topic. I’ve subsequently used a fair bit of visual material in my academic writing, as well as writing a number of multi-voiced texts. These often incorporate autobiographical with more sociological material. I like to write book chapters because editors often allow more latitude with the writing and that’s generally where I play with style and structure.

And of course, I’m an ethnographer. This is a research tradition where there’s an emphasis on writing, where the researcher is expected to be highly reflexive about the ways in which participants are represented. There’s an expectation that the writer ethnographer will think about the crafting of their text so they can help the reader to appreciate and understand the lives and ways of life of those in their research. While this is most generally understood as the production of ‘rich description’ it is also, these days, just as likely to be about creative non-fiction – and sometimes also fiction.

It seems that writing in non-standard forms means that a researcher often has to meet two burdens of proof – they must assure the reader that the material on which their writing is based is thoroughly and ethically generated, and they must also produce an aesthetically pleasing text. Social science doctoral researchers using non standard forms generally have to do all the usual things – review the literatures, justify methods and provide an audit trail, show the data and analysis, make a convincing argument about the contribution to knowledge – as well as produce an interesting piece of writing – or film, images, theatre. This is of course not dissimilar to requirements for the practice based PhD. The difference is that the social science researcher is working on a non-normative text, the binary other to IMRAD – they are the “not IMRAD” researcher-writers.

It is now possible to point to a range of people and resources in this “not IMRAD” category. The annual Qualitative Inquiry journal and conference, Patricia Leavy’s social science fiction series for Sense Books and Routledge’s innovative ethnography series, research methods writings published by Left Coast Press, reflective writings by Harry Wolcott, Bud Goodall, and Laurel Richardson, online resources from Kip Jones and academic diary… I could go on. There’s a lot out there now for those interested in alternative genres and texts and mine was a very selective list – but these are some places to start if you are interested.

These “other” ways of writing are still a minority interest in the social sciences. Most doctoral researchers don’t find them in their mandatory training programmes, at least in the UK. They only come across writing the academic otherwise if a staff member puts a text their way, or if they accidentally stumble across a conference presentation or a text-book. When there are workshops for doctoral researchers about academic writing – and there’s still not that many – they generally focus on presenting the IMRAD norm, rather than its other. And audit regimes of course nearly always reward and reinforce the most conventional academic genres and texts.

Rachel Toor talks about the benefits of peer support for writers. I can imagine the creation of a community which functions like a creative writing workshop but with “not IMRAD” social science in the conversational mix. I suppose these groups do exist in some places. But for those who don’t have access to such face to face groups, I suspect that there is still room for some of these “not IMRAD” communities to develop online.

But maybe things are shifting just a bit. For example, Helen Kara’s latest book on Creative Research Methods breaks the binary between the conventional social science approach and its other(s),  as does much of the work that has gone on via the AHRC funded Connected Communities progamme. Small signs perhaps, but ones that suggest that it may be possible at some stage in the future to talk more inclusively about academic writing and its very many different forms.

Posted in academic writing, ILMRaD, IMRAD | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

the call back – journal know-how

Good comedians are masters of the call back. A call back is where the comedian tells a joke late in the set which recalls a joke told earlier on. The audience experiences a sense of familiarity. It’s as if they are part of an ongoing conversation. They are ‘in the know’ because they heard about the topic earlier. The comedian has layered one joke on top of another.

Sometimes the comedian carries a running reference across several shows. If you can bear the four letter words and other rude bits, then here’s a collection of Eddie Izzard’s Jeff jokes. They’re dedicated to his brother – yes, he’s called Jeff. Anyone who follows Izzard can expect a Jeff joke at some point in his routine. Izzard uses Jeff as his call back.

When the call back is the very last joke told in the set, the audience get a sense of having come full circle. There is a pleasing symmetry to their experience – hearing, at the very end, a reference to the beginning of the comedic sequence creates a sense of neat closure.

The same sense of connection needs to be made in the standard journal article.

The opening gambit of the average journal article not only connects with and interests the reader, but creates the warrant for the paper. It sets out a problem, question, puzzle, issue of pressing concern, problematic understanding, debate or gap in knowledge and puts it in a broad context. The introduction then goes on to say why it is important that the problem, question, puzzle etc. is addressed. The text next focuses down, saying what this particular paper will do – often in fact as “This paper will… “ – and it states how the paper will address the topic.

In this sequence, the introduction creates a readerly expectation that by the end of the paper the reader will not only know about something specific, but that this specific something will speak to the bigger problem, question, puzzle, issue of pressing concern, problematic understanding, debate or gap in knowledge.

And so to the call back. At the end of the paper, in the conclusion, the paper comes full circle back to the problem, puzzle, issue of pressing concern, problematic understanding, debate or gap in knowledge. The initial rationale for the paper is re-called. And this call back creates the structure for, and positions the writer to answer, the So What, Now What and Who Cares answer.  The call back creates the statement of contribution. 

The idea of the call back as the framing for a journal article can be very helpful as it focuses the writer’s attention on the need to attend to the links between the start and end of the paper, to construct a connection, to produce some symmetry. 

The call back also works for the thesis where the Introduction and Conclusion have to relate strongly to each other with the former establishing the warrant for the study and the latter arguing how the challenge set up at the outset has been met, and why it matters.

Call back. A handy idea. Those comedians are onto something.

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