writing course – common problems in the Results/Discussion Section

It’s always as well to know what can go wrong when writing a journal article. And there are multiple areas in any paper to think about. Just because there seem to be fewer conventions for the Results/Discussion section doesn’t mean that there aren’t some common difficulties… Here’s some that often get in the way of a clear argument.

This first duo are the mirror image of each other. They relate to the way in which the balance between description and analysis has been managed:

Too much description and not enough analysis.
Too much description is where the writer spends most of their word budget telling the reader in great detail what the informants said, or what each set of results in the survey were, or how the research cases varied from one another. Minutiae. Repeated variations of the same quotation. Long slabs of narrative. Protracted reporting of field notes. What’s the problem? Well, without any analysis from the writer, the reader is left to make their own interpretation of what this all means, if they can be bothered…

Too little description and too much abstraction.
What’s the problem? The reader is left wondering what the categories and themes refer to. Has the writer just made them up? Plucked them out of the air? It’d be nice to have an example of what these abstractions actually meant. Would it be too much to ask for a bit of evidence to back up these claims?

The next duo refer to the ways in which the description and analysis have been presented. It’s about dividing the text up using headings. Headings and subheadings help the reader to keep track of the argument you are making, and it’s as well to use them judiciously. Too few or too many can be a problem:

Too few headings
The writer may well have got the balance between analysis and description right but it’s hard to tell when all the reader sees is a great undifferentiated slab of prose. It’s difficult to know if this is all one point/theme, or if there actually are separate parts. Reading a featureless prose landscape is rather like driving down a six-lane highway without any road markings. It’s very hard to keep track of where you are. What are the moves in the argument? The reader has to guess.

Too many headings.
If a lack of headings was like travelling along an unmarked road doing the best you can to keep on track, too many headings is like driving over a never-ending set of speed bumps. Too many headings atomise the text. And fragmenting the prose in this way means that the reader is unable to see the way that the pieces fit together. They experience each piece as distinct and disconnected. They can’t work out which bit is the most important now which are the actual moves in the case being made.

The next and final trio relate to genre. The Results/Discussion section is an argument. Therefore its important that the writer realises that:

This is not a report of results. The writer needs to build up the moves that make the argument that fills the gap, addresses the problem, provides a solution to the puzzle that they identified in the Introduction Section. This isn’t likely to be one single thing but a set of points, each of which builds on the one before. The case is established move by move. If the reader is presented with a simple report then they are left with a set of questions – why did this happen? why does it matter? And most importantly, where is this going?

The sequence of the argument moves must be in the right order. The reader needs to be able to follow the logic of the case being presented. If the writer muddles up the order of moves then the reader will not be able to understand what is going on.

They have to connect the discussion to the literatures. The problem/question/puzzle/niche was initially located in the literatures, and so the discussion needs to do this too. Leaving out the connections to the literatures leaves the reader wondering – hasn’t the writer used other peoples work and words? Have they used them and not acknowledge them? Or does the writer think they live in a vacuum? And, most importantly, how can I tell what’s the contribution???

The difficulty with getting the Results/Discussion Section actions just right – not too many, not too few, but just so – is that they call for judgment. How much is too much detail? How many headings are too few? Like a lot of academic writing, the answers to these questions are very frustrating. Well, it depends. You just know…

Getting the balance of description and analysis, and headings and subheadings right is both a matter of opinion and of experience. So it is really important therefore, when writing journal articles, to enlist some other scholarly friends to provide you with some feedback. And it is also helpful –as always – to also read the journal articles in the journal you are targeting to see what’s usually done.

Posted in academic writing, argument, contribution, discussion, headings, results | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

writing course – structuring the Results/Discussion Section

Finally. At last. About time. Today we got to the good/fun/scary bit of writing the journal article. Everything we’ve done on the previous days have been working up to this moment. The introduction, literatures and methods were all about setting up this next piece of writing. Here it is.

This is now the enjoyable part, the vaguely nervous moment …. And here comes the creative energy. This is the bit of the paper no-one else can do, because they haven’t done your research. Here and now, you are the expert. Yes, at last, you get to talk about your research, your results – and you make the argument for your contribution.

There is no right or wrong way to structure this work. However, there are four very common patterns used to structure this Results/Discussion Section, but these are not all there is. There are lots of others as well.

* Pattern One: Results plus Discussion in two discrete parts

* Pattern Two: Results and Discussion are integrated and organized around major points/themes

* Pattern Three: Theoretical framework provides the major organizing points for integrating results and discussion

* Pattern Four: Results and Discussion are integrated in a first part and the second, discrete part provides a theorized re-reading of the first.

So what did the writing group do today?

Pairs looked at a paper from our little collection to see whether writers had used one of these four, or other, patterns. Then it was onto individual work.

In order to sort out which of the four patterns – or alternatives – would work best for their paper, the workshop participants brainstormed some possible outlines. They then talked these through with a partner. After this, they modified their outline in the light of the conversations. They then started to populate their outline – filling in the chunks with bits of descriptive and analytic writing, and supporting data.

A couple of people found it was better to reverse this process, to brainstorm the chunks and then move them around in a few different orders to see what worked best. Some people found that when they started to populate their chunks they just had too much stuff altogether and had to go back and narrow the focus of the paper. Thinking about the possible word count for this section of the paper helped other people to decide on the level of detail they would be able to have. One person worked out that her favorite quotes, the bits she had really thought she was going to work with, actually didn’t fit the outline argument she had made and she then had to go back to the data to find more appropriate pieces.

We could of course have storyboarded or mind mapped as alternative processes to arrive at the structure, and I will suggest these tomorrow to the couple of people who are still a bit stuck.

People worked on this section, the largest part of their paper, all morning, and many continued into the afternoon. Most of the group are now comfortable writing socially and seem to appreciate the additional energy that comes from being in a group that is very focused and working away. One person told me at the end of the day that some participants had decided to organize some social writing together outside of the course. Result!!

I had hoped to go onto conclusions tomorrow, but the course participants really all need another day working on this Results/Discussion Section. But most already have at least a couple of thousand words done overall, and some double that. So each individual paper is well on the way…

In the next post on results/discussions, I’ll talk about common problems that appear in this the most important, exciting, and creative part of the journal article.

Posted in discussion, results, structure | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

writing course – the Methods Section

Methods. Methodology. Being methodical.
All of the above.

The third day of the writing workshop (predictably, since we are following an ILMRaD structure) focused on what goes in the Methods Section of a journal article. And predictably again, the first topic we looked at was “the work” that the Methods Section is meant to do – namely….

The Methods Section establishes a firm foundation for the new research. It assures readers that the research is trustworthy and whatever follows in the research results section has been produced by a competent researcher.

The Methods Section achieves this by:
• Positioning the researcher – showing either explicitly, or through what is written, what the researcher understands about the practice of producing knowledge (this is about the e word, epistemology)
• Situating the research in a specific tradition – making clear the overall methodological framing of the research
• Showing how the researcher understands and has used particular methods – discussing the various tools that have been used, why and how, presenting the case that this particular combination of tools will produce the data necessary to deal with the topic at hand
• Indicating the corpus of data used and how it was analysed – this is necessary for the reader to understand the basis for the results they are about to read
• Providing an audit trail for the reader (who, how many, how long, why these, when)
• Explaining to the reader how any relevant ethical issues have been covered.

I (predictably) stressed that different journals expect different things from a Methods Section, with some expecting not much, but others requiring a lot of explicit detail. “Check the journal you intend to submit to see what’s generally done” – that’s the lesson I wanted to convey here.

Then it was the what-not-to-do information. The most common mistakes that people make in their journal article Methods Section are:

• An indiscriminate trawl of the quantitative qualitative binary, rather than addressing the specific requirements of the research used in the paper
• Too much general discussion about a methodology or methods, and not enough about the particular approach taken, why and how. Too much detail reads like a plodding assignment.
• Not enough specificity about the research tradition – Ethnography? Yes but what version and what does this mean for the conduct of the study?
• Not enough basic detail. This is more common than you might think. The reader doesn’t have a clue about why they should believe a word of what is to come. This is particularly an issue when the reader doesn’t know the design fundamentals, like how many people, why these, what data was used for this paper…

We looked at some journal articles (predictable, we’ve done this every other day too) – we were reading for methods – and we saw surprising variation. Yes, Methods Sections really aren’t written to a formula. We also saw how easy it was for people to leave out key information that we really wanted to know! (And still get published, we noted.)

Finally, I stressed that the Methods Section is usually the part of the journal article where the writer isn’t primarily arguing, but largely reporting on their choices and what they actually did. I also suggested that the writer’s goal in this section wasn’t to produce a riveting read but rather to make sure the reader had text that was concise, clear, economical and communicated all the relevant information – without being boring.

The participants then wrote in two timed sessions, one of 30 minutes and the other of 45. This was long enough for everyone to have pretty well written down most of what needed to be in their Methods Section. Same routine as before – post it to me on the intranet.

Tomorrow however is the Big Writing Day when we work on the actual real new stuff – the research that makes the contribution. Participants have been asked to think overnight about:

• What are the key results you need to show in order to make your case?
• How much evidence (quotes numbers etc ) do you need to show?
• What data will be most convincing?
• How can analysed data be presented economically?
• What are the major sections you might use to organise the results?
• If you are using a theoretical framework how will this be presented and integrated?

Tomorrow will be a much longer day. None of this knock-off-at-lunch-time stuff as we’ve been doing. It’s a 9 – 3.30 bash, writing for most of these hours in timed bursts. Well, there will be time for coffee and lunch of course, but it will be tougher than it’s been up to now.

Posted in methodology, methods | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

writing course: The Literatures

So next to The Literatures. Literatures, a broad term covering anything from the scholarly works to popular texts, social and print media and policy texts. But always including the scholarly materials relevant to the research being reported in the paper.

Who was in the workshop? Everyone!!Everyone came back, except for one person who had a sick child and thus a good excuse, but someone who was sick yesterday joined us from a distance learning centre in the middle of the country.

What happened? The workshop began with a general discussion about The Literatures section. It went like this…

It’s important when writing a journal article to resist the temptation to cut and past something from your research proposal. (Or a finished thesis, but that doesn’t apply to the people in the writing course, as their PhDs are largely by publication). It seems so easy and simple just to lift something from the writing you’ve already done… But this could get you into trouble. That’s because the work that The Literatures do in a journal article is not the same as the work they must do in a research proposal.

In a research proposal the literatures help to establish the need for the research to be conducted. They support and situate the warrant for the study. However, in a journal article the literatures must not only work for research that has actually been done, but also for the specific research that is the focus of the paper. The paper mightn’t be reporting on all of the research – it’s very common for a paper to focus only on a slice of a bigger research project. If this is the case, then the literatures used in the paper are only those that relate to that particular research slice.

In an empirical journal article The Literatures are:

• Always used to show what is already known about your topic and thus to indicate the space/debate/gap/opportunity that you will occupy
• Generally used to indicate what key ideas from the literatures you will be building on
• Possibly used to define terms or key concepts
• Maybe used to outline your theoretical toolkit

Now, a caveat. In a theoretical paper, the literatures are used throughout, as they are in a think piece or a literatures based paper. And methodological papers may include some empirical material and so they may or may not have a specific literatures section.

While it’s good to know what work The Literature is to do, it’s equally good to know how you can get it wrong. The biggest mistakes that people make in The Literatures section in a journal article are:

• Writing out a laundry list which fails to indicate what are the texts most germane to the work, why, and how they are to be used
• Writing that is very descriptive rather than evaluative
• Writing a section that is too long and too detailed (this will probably be read as a cut and paste from a proposal or thesis even if it’s not)
• Leaving out key texts in the field.

(I have quite a line of patter about each of these which I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine!)

We then went on to consider three metaphors for approaching the literatures.

(1) Howard Becker’s notion of literature work as making a table.
You don’t have to make the table from scratch. You don’t start by cutting down the tree. Some things can be brought ready made so you can use them and not have to start from scratch.
Becker’s table metaphor points to the importance of including in The Literatures section the things you are taking from other people’s work – these become the building blocks for your contribution.

(2) Pierre Bayard’s notion of the collective and inner library.
Bayard argues that you have to understand where books are located in the library and in relation to each other. Some of these books are more important to you than others – the inner, as opposed to the collective larger library.
Bayard’s metaphor allows us to see that you have to situate your work in the field generally, but also work specifically with those texts that are most germane to your topic – your work will use the contents of these texts, sit next to them, speak back to them, question them, confirm them…

(3) Barbara and my metaphor of the dinner table, where we suggest that the literatures in the journal article can be thought of as a select dinner party with the guest list composed of people who can’t be left out, and those who are going to be most interesting to talk to. As dinner party host you also control the conversation and of course, you don’t assassinate or poison the guests but conduct any disagreements in a civil manner.
Our metaphor points to the need to be highly selective in the journal article literatures work, for the discussion of the literatures be designed to be highly focused and led by the writer. We also point out the importance of having an appreciative stance to other people’s work.

The workshop participants then looked at the Literatures sections of four published journal articles. We also examined what references were included in the Introduction and what was in The Literatures and the differences between the two. This was helpful as we could see quite a variety in approach even in the small selection we had. But the situating work was being done in each one, even if the papers and sections were structured in different ways.

The participants then had two thirty minute periods to write The Literatures section. They began by making a bit of an outline to get the order of contents right, and then had to write to each part.

Some people discovered that they actually didn’t know all of the texts that they were going to need – so they put in some holding markers that they could come back to when they had chased up what was missing. While these gaps were frustrating it was also helpful to see them because participants then had a clear idea of what they needed to read before the second draft. And two people found that they needed to go back and revisit their Introductions, to move things from one section to another. (This was good!! Writing a first draft is often like this, it involves some rethinking along the way.)

I offered some individual time to people to discuss their particular papers and that is already being helpful, I think, particularly for those people who need to clarify exactly what their specific contribution is going to be.

Tomorrow we look at Methods and everyone not only has to finish off The Literature section and post it to me on the intranet, but also to think about the following questions:

• What is your researcher ‘stance’? What tradition of research are you positioned within?
• What is your methodology?
• What methods did you use?
• What ethical issues did you encounter?
• Where did you do your research with whom, how many, how often… ?
• How was your data analysed?

Write on eh…

Posted in dinner party, Howard Becker, literature review, Pierre Bayard, table metaphor | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

writing course – The Introduction

We’re off!

We started the first writing course session with some personal introductions so that I knew who was in the room, their disciplines and the general drift of the paper that each person wanted to write. About half of the participants were in my own field of education, others in sociology and social anthropology – not too far from my own work. One person was in administration and tourism and I didn’t feel too uncomfortable about working with that field either. So there was nothing right out of my comfort zone. It does help, I find, being a pretty interdisciplinary researcher.

Everyone had written abstracts. Well just about everyone. One person had a paper that had been rejected by a journal and wanted to rewrite it. Several others had drafts. However, today was a new start.

My opening gambit was a look at some key points in writing The Introduction. I was focused of course on a social science journal article.

I began by stressing that the journal article is a cultural artifact, and not all academic traditions write the same way. I wanted everyone to understand that what was on offer in my writing course wasn’t The Way to write a paper, but a culturally specific genre.

(For instance, some European scholarly conventions do not use meta-commentary in the same way as English language journal articles. That is, they don’t spell out before-hand what the paper is about and what the conclusions are. Instead, the writer leads the reader through the argument and reveals the conclusion at the end. TaDa, sounds of applause etc.

And Suresh Canagarajah gives a very telling example of the geopolitics of academic writing. He took his US PhD back to Sri Lanka and delivered a paper in the English/US tradition only to find that his learned audience found it alienating and insulting. They didn’t want to be told what the paper would do before it had been presented.)

As well, I wanted to focus everyone’s attention not only on the need for the paper to have an overall argument and a So What but also that, therefore, each section of the paper needed to do its part. Each of the conventional pieces of a social science journal article has very particular work to do. Each part makes a specific contribution to the whole.

The Introduction for example, has to accomplish three things:

  • create the warrant or mandate for the paper. The Introduction has to establish why the paper has been written, and why what it has to say is important. It has to create the niche in which the paper sits, and thus to anticipate the contribution.
  • entice the reader, interest them, engage them, persuade them that it will be worth them spending part of their day reading what’s to come. Readers make pretty quick judgments about whether a paper is going to be hard work, boring or a really good read. It’s vital to begin in a lively way – as you mean to carry on. However it’s not necessary to get that right straight away – it may be that the killer opening is left to the second or even third draft.
  • introduce the writer. You want to establish yourself right at the outset as someone who has expertise and authority in the field. The writing must be assertive without being arrogant, sufficiently humble without being unassuming. Getting the right tone is crucial at the beginning. The reader wants to know they are in safe hands.

We then looked at the four moves that generally make up The Introduction:

Locate the paper – this means setting up the context of the paper in for example a problem in the field, a difficulty in practice, a debate in the literatures, a problematisation of a taken-for-granted theory or approach, a proposition, a curiosity or puzzle… this establishes the niche/space/gap/issue that the paper will address. People sometimes use a quotation, a narrative or a rhetorical question to begin the Locate work in an attention-getting way.

Focus and Expand – this next move in the introduction spells out what the paper is going to do. It’s often helpful just to write This paper will… or In this paper I/we… it’s important to make this snappy. However, it is generally the case that the Focus of the paper needs to be explained and this can be done by saying more about the way in which the contribution has been generated. So the Expand might be about a particular method or sample. An Expand might offer definitional work to create some boundaries about what is to be done. It might set out what it is going to do that other papers haven’t, just to reinforce the niche that it will fill – without being repetitive of what has been stated in the Locate.

Outline – the various sections of the paper are then mapped out. Empirical results are listed and the argument that is to be made is signaled. This road map to the paper is specific and not waffle or a vague promise. So, for example an Outline would not say something cryptic like The paper provides evidence of the major themes that emerged during analysis – it would actually say what these important themes were. Sometimes the road map is ordered by numbers – This paper consists of four moves – firstly, secondly, thirdly, finally… and the So What is anticipated – as in for example, I argue in conclusion that …

We looked at some introductions in published journal articles to see how these moves were written very differently in different papers, but nevertheless each did the same work. They created the niche, said what the paper would do, and then explained how the paper would proceed. It’s always good to see how different writers do the same work in very diverse ways. This helps you to understand that writing the paper is not a mechanical exercise but is a very creative process.

It was also important for me to put up front that in order to write The Introduction you have to know what the argument is to be, and to have the various pieces of the paper already in your mind. The workshop participants had written abstracts so they did have an idea about the order of their argument and the general structure that they were going to use.

We then did two 30 minute pomodoros – timed writing sessions during which the Locate and then the Focus/Expand and Outline were written. Three paragraphs, one for each move.

Of course, these were messy first drafts and not for general consumption. Participants have therefore posted their work to me on the intranet and I’ll look at them overnight and make some comments using track changes.

The participants also know that in addition to finishing off their first drafts by dinner time, they must think about tomorrow’s questions:

  • What specific concepts or theories will you work with in this paper?
  • What are the building bocks in the literatures that you will use?
  • How does what you are writing sit within the literatures?
  • Who in the field do you position yourself with?

Tomorrow we start writing about The Literatures. Usually this is the section of the paper after The Introduction, although not always. However The Literatures does generally have to be written at some point, so we’ll do it now, and think about whether it is in the right place later.

And to finish this post, a gratuitous snap of the university car park, just to show what we see out of the windows….

IMG_2096

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writing course: preparations

Preparing for a writing workshop is always slightly vexed. This is only the second time I’ve run a course that goes for such a long time – it’s eight days. And this one is different from the first, and I hope I’ve made some useful changes.

As yet, I don’t know the participants. I find out who’s involved in just a couple of hours. I do know that all of them have been working with a colleague at the university to think about abstracts and I know that some of them have written a conference paper. But I actually don’t know what their areas are or what they want to do with their writing.

Thats not quite true. I do know that they are all doing a PhD by publication, so writing a paper during this workshop is important. They want their papers to eventually be published. But they also have supervisors to help them finalise the paper that we begin. And in some cases, the supervisor will be the second author.

It always feels a bit odd to be working with the doctoral researcher on a paper and not the supervisor too. I do worry that what I say won’t be what the supervisor wants or agrees with. And I am generally a bit fearful that what the doctoral researcher eventually produces as a messy first draft won’t be what the supervisor has been expecting. Still, that’s part and parcel of the generic writing workshop, so I just have to live with that. I do often suggest that people try to talk to their supervisor at some point during the eight days though. Just to try and keep us all on the same track…

All of the workshop participants have been asked to come to the workshop having already thought about these questions:

• What is the contribution your paper will make?
• Why is this important?
• What will connect your readers with this topic?
• How will you create the niche for your work?

And because we are going to start the first day working on the introduction, I’ve also asked the participants to think about how they would answer this next question too:

• What do you need to tell the reader about the paper to come?

I’ve also sent them the So What paper that I posted about a few weeks ago, just to get them primed for the hard ‘What’s the point? Who cares?’ conversations that will inevitably happen at some point during the workshop. They also have analyzed data and an idea of what they want to say and I hope, where they want to put it.

I’ve got my first few day’s slides worked out. There are a bunch of papers waiting on the intranet for the times when we ‘read for writing’, and my little tomato timer has survived the terrors of plane travel? So that’s about as prepared as I and they can be.

110928_140921_62774497I’m as ready as I’m going to be. I just have to find my way on the bus to the University of Iceland and not fall over in the snow…

Tomorrow: Writing the introduction.

Posted in writing workshop | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

the pluses and minuses of #acwri self-diagnosis

I don’t write much about my dogs. I have two. They’re fairly elderly now and becoming plagued by ailments that are not really life threatening, but do need attention.

It all began when the older of the two got terribly lethargic. Suddenly, it seemed, she could hardly drag herself out for a walk. One week she was bounding around, the next she stayed curled up in her basket. And did her fur seem to be getting thinner? And was she putting on more and more weight despite the fact we weren’t feeding her any more? “You know,” I said one night to my partner, “ if this dog were a human we’d think she had a thyroid problem.” So, duly concerned, we took her off the vet. And sure enough, there was a thyroid problem.

This little story points to the fact that it IS sensible to watch your pets and what they do. It’s a no brainer to say that it’s good – indeed vital – to watch to see what’s happening. That’s particularly true when the pets are getting on a bit (like their owners).

But it’s also important not to rush to judgment about what’s wrong. You see, Im fallible.  I don’t always get it right.

Another little story. We’ve just had our dogs back at the vet for check-ups because we thought something was wrong with them. Again. They were a bit lethargic (again); one of them had a cough and the other seemed to be drinking a bit too much. Side effects of thyroid medication we reasoned, or perhaps diabetes? Even worse, something ghastly internally? Well, after several expensive blood tests and good general going over it turns out they are just, um, old but perfectly healthy. What’s more, it’s cold and they quite sensibly wanted to sit curled up by the heater and hibernate a bit. (Just like their owners.) I’d assumed they’d both succumbed to illnesses instead of their lassitude being straightforward and pretty commonplace.

IMG_1861

I think these dog stories have something to say to academic writing and academic writers. Just as I watch my dogs, I also watch my academic writing practices. I reckon it’s very good to know about your own writing habits. It’s especially good for people just starting out on an academic career. There’s a bunch of pretty helpful information out there about good writing habits and writing problems enabling you to match what you see yourself doing/not doing with helpful general writing strategies and insights. Reading about academic writing, as well as reading about the nature of the difficulties that you might be having with your writing, can lead you to some very helpful advice, new resources and productive #acwri avenues.

But, just as with me and my dogs, observation and reading about #acwri can make you  unnecessarily anxious. And maybe you’ll leap to a premature diagnosis. Stuck on writing a paper? It must be writer’s block. Having difficulty sorting through the mountain of data? It must be that you’re not capable. Feeling really nervous about giving that paper? Must be a crippling case of imposter syndrome. Finding yourself pausing while writing? Must have a hyperactive inner editor.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that any of these things – writer’s block, being incapable, imposter syndrome, hyperactive inner editors and so on – aren’t real. They are, very. I don’t want to suggest that these things don’t debilitate and prevent some people from getting on with their PhD or with a writing project. They do. They really do. But these things aren’t as widespread nor as crippling as popular media headlines and online discussion about them might suggest.

Let’s face it. Not all writing goes smoothly. Some academic writing takes a long time and is hard. But the problem might not be writer’s block. It might just be that you haven’t yet sorted out what you want to say. It might be that you need to talk the writing over with someone, or do some more reading, or go back to the data or the texts. Self medicating an apparent problem may mean you don’t do what’s actually helpful at that point in time.

Let’s be honest. Having a mountain of data is really terrifying. There is no right answer to how you analyse data even though there are often recommended analytic procedures. It’s very normal at the start of dealing with a pantechnicon of material to feel a considerable degree of trepidation. We all do. It’s not unusual. It’s not because you’re dimwitted that it feels overwhelming.

Let’s say it how it is.  It is very scary standing up and talking in front of a group of people, being asked to speak about something out of your comfort zone, uttering those tricky, theoretical, highly nominalised zombie nouns for the first time in public. Yes, you do feel like a fraud –  but that’s normal. The feelings of being silly and exposed come and go. It’s generally not a life-threatening condition which sticks with you day after day. It’s sporadic, it’s a bit like getting a cold in winter – unpleasant but pretty ordinary. Because you expect it, you aren’t so surprised then it happens –  you can understand what’s going on and even take a few precautions to fend it off.

Let’s get real. Speed writing isn’t the answer to all problems. Quite often you need a good plan or a self-imposed question or a set of stuff you’ve accumulated that you can speed write about.  And you can’t get everything done by speed writing – you have to give the results of speed writing a really good serial revision. And when you are finessing a text, then a good inner editor, your academic writing crap detector, is really invaluable. The problem with an inner editor is not that you have one, it’s just that you need to bring them  into play at the right time.

The risk of self diagnosis lies in the tension between knowing yourself and getting it wrong. It’s clearly good to understand your own writing habits, just as it’s good to watch out for changes in your body. But a rush to self diagnose an #acwri condition isn’t always helpful. You may well get your diagnosis wrong. You may think you have an unusual problem and feel dreadful, when in reality what’s going on is a widely shared experience.

What’s more, talking up writer’s block and speaking-in-public nerves as if they are everyday issues for everyone really, really diminishes and negates the experiences of those researchers who genuinely do experience them. We all find it hard, but that’s not the same as having serious writing problems. I’ve worked with some people who do have absolutely terrible struggles with writing, and trust me, it’s different.

Academic writing is hard for most people. But, if you exercise your writing muscles it gets easier. Words become less precious. It’s not so difficult to sit down each day and write something if you just keep at it. And bad stuff doesn’t have to be permanent. You can get past a crappy presentation when you acknowledge the reality that it’s not always possible to be scintillating. You can get past hesitations in a meeting or saying the wrong thing when you understand that everyone messes up occasionally. You can get to love your tendency to fuss over phrases and words when it helps you to produce an elegant piece at the end of a long process of drafting and revision.

So it’s always a good idea to check out what you think your writing problem is. Don’t hide it away. Talk about it with other people and I’ll bet you find out that the things you fear are your problem alone are actually shared, and common. They are just part and parcel of the scholarly writing process.
We can suffer in silence, pathologise our #acwri difficulties and self- medicate, or talk with others and find out it’s generally not that bad or permanent.

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