revising a thesis chapter

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You’ve written a first draft of your chapter. Hooray! That’s an achievement. You can’t get anywhere without a first draft. Pat yourself on the back. And then…

Step away from the desk. Take a break. Leave your draft and do something else. Then come back with a different head set.

This is the time to be tough-minded.

Now is the time to mobilise your internal critic and ask some hard questions of your (crappy first) draft.

Yes, you will find some obvious little mistakes when you read through the draft, but this is not the time to get down and dirty with the finer points of editing. You are not proof reading. You need to attend to the big picture first.

It’s often useful to approach a text with something in mind, to have a question or a set of questions you can ask of it. And with a first draft text you do intend to find something quite particular from your reading. You are looking to see how the draft can be improved. You want to see whether the text hangs together, if everything is in the right place, where you need to do some more work, what you might need to change.

So here’s a beginning set of questions that might be helpful when you approach your draft, questions specifically for the reading-the-first-draft-of-the-chapter stage.

Purpose

  • What was your intention in writing this chapter? Did you make this clear at the outset? Will the reader be able to understand why they are about to read all of the words that are coming? Is there a clear statement about what the chapter is going to do? Does this follow on logically from the chapter that came before?

Location

  • Is the chapter located in a wider scholarly conversation? Does the chapter seem to say no-one has ever researched in this area, or spoken about this topic before? Not all chapters haveto refer out to other scholarly work – but do check at this early point if it ought to, or if it would benefit from connecting with other scholars’ work.

Structure

Within the thesis as a whole:

  • Does the reader have sufficient background information to make sense of what is in this chapter? Does the chapter need to refer back to something that has happened before or offer succinct summary? Where? How often – and is it too much for the reader to keep flicking back and forth?

Within the chapter:

  • Does the chapter or paper offer clear steps leading to a logical conclusion? Are there places where it seems that things are out of place or don’t fit? Are there any places where you as a reader seem to fall down a hole? Are there any places where you are reading the same thing twice – or over and over again? If you answer yes to any of these, you have a structural issue and need to go on to examine it in more detail perhaps using a form of reverse outline.
  • Are there any places where you need to offer more definitions or explanation? (Look for code words.)
  • Does your conclusion match the purpose you stated at the start of the chapter? If not, what needs to change – your purpose or the chapter? If it’s the chapter, don’t despair, just think about what needs to go or be put in? At this point, you might go back to storyboarding to sort out where the problems of content and argument actually sit. You may have to move things around between chapters, or add/subtract content.

Positioning

  • Will a reader see you as an authoritative researcher? Are you leading the reader through the text? How are you using meta-commentary to stage your argument? Do you leave a lot/too much up to the reader to conclude for themselves?

Trustworthiness

  • Is the evidence you have presented persuasive? What might strengthen it? Have you highlighted the most important and strongest reasons/evidence you offer? Have you considered counter arguments at all? Should you? Are any of the reasons/evidence you offer weak – could they be made stronger?
  • Do you think the case you make in the chapter is plausible and reasoned? ( If you don’t, there’s no way the reader will.)

ken-treloar-346065-unsplash.jpgReadability

  • Is the text well organised and easy to follow? Have you made enough use of headings and subheadings? Could you use tables, graphs or diagrams to advantage to emphasise a key point or summarise data? Is there too much of the tables, graphs or diagrams?
  • How are quotes, if any, used? Are they explained or is it left up to the reader to interpret them?
  • Could your introduction be made more interesting? Does it really capture a reader’s interest?
  • Is the conclusion sufficiently strongly focused? Does it ‘crunch ‘ the case you have made – or is it a summary that is too long and will give the reader deja vu? Does the conclusion anticipate where the next chapter will go?

Enough already. That’s a start on questions for fiorst draft chapter revisions. You may have more to add and that’s fab.

But it’s probably useful and good to know that the questions above are much the way that your supervisor will approach your draft – or ought to. They’ll look for the big picture first of all.  Editing typos and grammar is always secondary to getting the big stuff sorted out.

Image credit:

What do you mean: Jon Tyson on Unsplash; Why:  Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, chapter, crappy first draft, revision, revision strategy, thesis, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

check for ‘code words’ – revising your writing

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It is not uncommon for doctoral writers to get supervisor feedback saying they need to unpack an idea. But what does this unpack really mean – and how does a writer get in a situation where they have something that needs to be unpacked?

Well. Let me start with the last question first of all. How do we end up needing to unpack? Yes we, because it’s not just doctoral writers who get in this situation.

When we write we often begin with a half formed thought. That thought becomes an idea when we either speak it aloud or put it into words through writing. We take the idea for a walk, if you like, by putting it into spoken or written language.

And when we write our idea for the first time, say in a free writing session or as a note or a jotting, we write it for ourselves. Even if is in a first draft, we are the people who will read it. Then we work on it, process it some more.

When we are our own reader, when we write for ourselves, we often use a personal short-hand. In writing our new idea we refer to other ideas that we have developed earlier and/or to debates, other texts that we’ve read. Sometimes this early writing for ourselves uses words that we take for granted. This shorthanding is efficient, according to writing scholar Linda Flowers, because after all, it is the new idea we are working on, not old ones.

But when we switch to writing for others, we often carry these bits of short-hand over into the new text – the writing we are now doing for other readers. We forget that we have to explain terms that we understand well. We assume that because we know these words, others will also understand them, and the ways in which we use them. We are writing in way that we find natural and familiar – but others aren’t so lucky.

Linda Flower and John Hayes talk about writing shorthand terms as the use of ‘code words’. They say that we think in ‘rich bits and codes’ which all ‘need to be pushed from thought to language’. And then made clear to others.

Code words are by definition known to the writer. Code words are often idiosyncratic, their meanings can’t be easily guessed and/or they refer to an idea which could be interpreted in many different ways.  Code words stand in for complex ideas, positions taken on key debates, and/or synthesis of ideas from other writers.

It is very often our code words that need to be unpacked. Most of us are of course aware that we need to define key terms, but key terms may not be the same as code words. Code words are slippery little so and sos and can easily slip past us.

Code words need to be translated. Readers do not, cannot, know what is in the writer’s head.  But they don’t need the writer to produce an encyclopaedia entry for an explanation, the reader needs just enough to get the drift of what the writer means.

Flower and Hayes suggest some strategies for finding code words. I’ve paraphrased their strategies and made them more my own – but you know, cite here. Adapted from Flowers and Hayes (1977, yes an oldie but still helpful).

So, find code words by:

  • Asking a trusted friend to read your draft and point out the words that seem to be important but are not explained
  • Pretending you are an editor reading your text for the first time and highlight words that seem to encapsulate an important concept or signal a move in an argument. Then look to see how many of these words are actually explained.
  • Reading the paper aloud to see if any words jump out as being inadequately explained. Is there a point where the paper doesn’t seem to flow? Perhaps the problem is the use of one or more code words.
  • Highlighting any key words in your writing that seem to you to be the key to unlocking an idea. Then look to see if there is an adequate justification for its/their use. Are there adequate references out to other texts and/or a logical sequence of explanatory steps?

Flower and Hayes also offer three strategies to unpack code words. They suggest :

  • mind mapping helps to tease out the various elements of the code word. After completion, the mind map can be sorted into a writing outline.
  • writing a paper which shows how how the writer developed their understanding of the term.  Rather than a paper, I’d suggest that a tiny text or powerpoint slide or an outline might be enough.
  • going to a trusted friend, and ‘teaching’ them a way to understand your code word.

And there you are.

Code words. One possible interpretation of what ‘unpacking’ might mean.

Flower, L. S. and Hayes, J.R. ( 1977) Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process College English, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 449-461.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, code words, revision, revision strategy, unpacking | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

me, myself and I

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Sherry Turkle wrote the words – Who am we – in 1996. She described how one person and their various persona were distributed across multiple platforms.  She talked about ‘distributed’ knowing and knowledge production.

Hold onto that idea of distribution. It’s not just applicable to the digital.

Raphael Samuel, the British historian, began one of his books by describing all of the people who had contributed to the work that was attributed to him as author – in particular, the librarians and archivists whose careful conservation, categorisation and stewardship made his work possible. He was able to formally recognise very few of these people as they were not actually known to him. He could not name them, although he could name some of their institutions. As well as librarians and archivists, Samuels also acknowledged: the countless conversations that had contributed to his thinking, various secretarial services he had drawn on, and the work that went on in his university and union which created the conditions in which he was able to work.

Samuel wanted to make a point about authorship. It’s always more than one. None of us writes alone. We are always part of a distributed system of authoring. That system is geographically spread, and happens now, but also happened in the past.

However, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, the notion of single authorship dominates, followed by first authorship. Someone who has written primarily in teams, like a science writer, and never written as a first author, may well be regarded with some suspicion by arts, humanities and social science selection and promotion panels. What role did they have on the team? Surely if they were a leading thinker they would write by themselves? They would be seen as first among equals? If we appoint/promote them are they actually up to the job?

I am also often struck by the singleton requirements of the academy when I’m reviewing bids. People who are applying for projects in which they have to work collaboratively usually present themselves as stellar lone rangers. They have apparently conducted outstanding research largely unaided. They have earned impressive citations and various forms of star rankings and prizes all on their lonesome – even when their publication and research project lists show them as parts of teams and sometimes as second, third etc authors.

Yes. I absolutely know that this fabrication of the individualist author/researcher is not the fault of the people writing the bids – it is expected that they write like this. Being outstanding leading and solo is what is necessary to get through institutional hoops and to haul in the money, to get the accolade, to get the job.

But it is bizarre isn’t it? On the one hand, a research bid is judged on its collective potential and the principal investigator on their team work and management capability.  On the other hand, each member of the team must present themselves through a highly individualistic narrative. Occasionally very big grant applicants are expected to show that team members have a history of working together, that this is not a new configuration thrown together for a particular call. But even then, there are the cvs. All those individual stories highlighting the sole and first authored.

And in those bids, the unsung work of technicians, librarians, archivists, institutional workers and so on, never get a look in. The various mentors, internal reviewers, and grant support staff that have made the bid possible are invisible.  Samuel’s and Turkle’s sensibility about the distributed nature of academic labour – and its institutional and wider social constraints and framings – is rarely seen.

Some people have taken a stand against this culture of me-first. Think of the various collectives that write/have written as The xxx Collective, The xxx Group, The xxx Workshop(1), and authors who write as an assumed, singular identity (2). But these examples are comparatively few in number and most of those I can think of belong to another time. A time when getting a job, getting a raise, getting promotion, getting a book contract, getting research funding was less important, and less cut throat.

I do wonder what it might take to undermine the cult of ruthless academic individualism to recognise the connections, co-constructions and conversations that make our work possible. To give distributed systems of knowing and knowledge making their due.

If I was in charge. If I was in charge, heaven help us. But, if I was. Well, I think I’d start on a bit of rethinking about those solo cvs, bid track records and university home pages

(1) See for example The History Workshop and the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

(2) See for example feminist geographer/s J.K. Gibson-Graham

Photo by Nathalie Gouzée on Unsplash

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parents who study

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Doing a PhD and/or starting an academic career can be a lonely business. But you can get support, some of it through social media. This is a guest blog post by Nicola White and Rebekah Farrell who started their own support group on Facebook. Nicola is a Research Associate in the Division of Psychiatry at UCL, London. Her academic background is in Psychology and she was awarded a PhD in Medical Decision Making at UCL in October 2017. Rebekah is a PhD Candidate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne. Her topic is in the field of multinational corporate accountability and international law. She supports studies as a sessional researcher and lecturer but her background is as a lawyer.

Parents who Study” is a Facebook support group and the brainchild of two mums who were seeking connection and support while completing their PhDs. Despite being on other sides of the world, they were able to connect via social media.

Nicola started to blog her experience shortly after returning to a PhD course after maternity leave. There were a few motivations for this. First, she was keen to get back in to the habit of writing. Of course a blog is slightly different to writing for academia as it doesn’t get peer reviewed, but for Nicola, it was about getting her confidence back in her ability – to know that she could actually do what the course demanded. Secondly, she wanted to connect with other parents. Upon entering the world of Instagram Nicola “met” a wealth of people such as “instamums”, “phd students”, and people who were a bit of both. All provided support. All, unknowingly, helped her through some difficult times.

Rebekah’s circumstance was similar. Returning from maternity leave was a challenge. All of a sudden she found herself trying to meet study deadlines whilst balancing work commitments and still being the mum she wanted to be (or figuring out what that even looked like!) She created an instagram account where, with a big sigh of relief, she met numerous parents all navigating the challenges (whilst also enjoying the delights) of raising children whilst studying. All of a sudden she felt connected to a world of people who were sharing the same experiences. It was enough to keep her progressing through her studies, and even more than that, she felt energised and motivated to do so, just knowing that she wasn’t alone.

The idea behind Parents who Study was for people to connect, to voice their worries and to provide support and advice. It is designed to be a warm, welcoming and friendly forum. Creating the group and inviting members was relatively easy because of Nicola’s already established following on instagram where she had already connected with a large number of mums in academia. From there it was a matter of reaching out to other groups and bloggers to request that they promote the facebook group. Everyone was very supportive in doing so and the numbers continued to grow (over 300 members to date). Diversifying the group was a little more difficult and the membership base would still benefit from more dads who study!

Members of Parents who Study are active in their engagement with the group and discussions span topics including: how to meet deadlines when you have a sick child, how to communicate your needs as a parent with your supervisors, how to create space (and boundaries) for studying, applying for child care funding and student loans, the ins and outs of day care arrangements and how to sit an exam on 3 hours sleep! There are also discussions relevant to all students- publishing during your candidature, writing conference papers and tips for dictation and referencing software. This week some members organised an online “shut up and write” session- a super helpful way of motivating each other to get some words on paper!

If you are a parent who has studied, is currently studying or is thinking about studying feel free to come by and say hello!

Support groups are important. They share information and advice, offer solace and companionship, and above all, help you understand that you are not alone. As well as Parents Who Study, there are other helpful support groups on Facebook, such as:

PhD and Early Career Research Parents

PhD OWLS – Older Wiser Learners

Black Doctoral Network UK

PhD and Early Career Teacher/Researcher Parents

Women in Academia Support Network

PhD – Black Doctoral Network

These are all closed accounts with moderators; there are rules about joining and participating which you can check out before clicking. If you know of other helpful self-help groups on Facebook, do add them in the comments. 

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

 

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the challenges of revision

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Maybe you have decided that the text you are writing doesn’t work. Or perhaps you have had feedback saying that you need to make some substantial changes to something that you thought was OK. Oh oh. It’s revision time.

Revision is not something that most of us look forward to. The prospect of revision can be very daunting. Tiring. Scary. Frustrating. We wrote the text and now we are being told – or we can see for ourselves  – that we have to re-write it. Cue feelings of inadequacy, or feelings of anger, at the thought of doing it all again.

Now, many people take the task of revising pretty minimally. When they get reviewers comments for instance, they say to themselves, what is the least I can get away with? How can I make a few minor tweaks here and there? What tiny modification can I do here, as it’s already my best shot?

Those reluctant-to-revise feelings are not silly, they’re actually pretty rational.

You see, when we write a paper or a book, we have an idea about what the final text might be. We have a view about the argument it will present, the stuff we will bring together to make the case. We might have strong ideas about the literature to be used, We might have imagined the ways in which the headings and subheadings will help the reader. We may already have a killer exemplar, an engaging narrative. This idea might emerge through the writing, or it might be the product of a lot of pre-planning. But we have an idea which is materialised through the writing process.

And then we are asked – or ask ourselves – to do something more to it. Something different than the original plan. We are asked, or ask ourselves, to go back to the beginning and start afresh.

This inevitably equates to more work. That’s because revision is always more than simply editing. Editing is when you tidy up a paper. You attend to transitions, signposting, syntax, grammar, writing tics. But revision means amending fundamental aspects of the original. It’s changing, for instance, any or all of – the structure, the way the evidence is presented, the warrant for the paper and its claim for significance, its explanation of theory or evidence, the literatures used. Gah.

No wonder revision is daunting. None of us likes it much. I don’t like having to do revisions either. But they are part and parcel of the academic writing game. Revisions must be faced.

So it helps, I reckon, to think about revision as being very different from editing. Editing is tinkering with the text. Revision is best understood as re-vision.

Re-vision. Re-think. Re-imagine. It’s mind’s eye work. You hover above the paper and re-visualise its topography. You see it again. You bring a fresh perspective to the task. You re-place your original idea with another. And then re-write.

When you revise, you have an opportunity to re-visit the original idea that you had and think about how else it might be authored. There is never one way to write something. We all make choices about how we organise material, which literatures we use, how we stage the argument. Re-vision means going back over those choices and thinking of another combination. It means re-establishing a view of what the paper or book or chapter might be.

Re-vision generally takes time. Well, you need recovery time first. You need to get over the shock of realising you need to do something more. But then you may have to sit with the text for a while in order to work out what to do with it. And that’s why journals generally give you three months to revise a paper that has been reviewed.

But what do you do with this time?

It’s always worth spending some time contemplating reviewer comments and not rushing to do quick fixes. If this is writing where you have had external feedback (peer review or supervisor) then you may well be in possession of some very good advice to help you re-create your argument. Your reviewers or supervisor may well have put their finger on exactly the thing that you need to focus in on to re-construct your text.

But you probably still need time to work out exactly what to do. To ask yourself – What if I did it this way or that? What would happen if I tried this or that? What about this angle? Why not this example? How about this theoretical point? Maybe this detail would strengthen the case?

Occasionally you may find that reviewers or supervisor give feedback which goes against the grain. It pushes your paper in a direction you don’t want to take. But your critical reviewers may well have seen that there is something awry with your text – it’s just that their suggested changes may not actually be what you need or want to do in order to present your argument. In this case, you need to take time to sort out how the feedback points to a problem that you can re-present in a different way.

Once you have an idea about how to re-work your book, chapter or paper, it’s a very good idea to try to outline your new version. Write a new tiny text. Gather together any new materials. Then, when you have re-conceptualised the paper,  you can go back to the reviewer’s feedback.  Look at what they suggest to match your newly imagined paper against their comments.

After checking, you can then write one of those tables which list reviewer recommendations against changes, or write the letter explaining why you haven’t done what was suggested but something else instead.

So revision. It’s certainly a challenge. But it can be strangely satisfying. I think of it as a kind of re-mixing.

And re-visioning is a process that you can own and make highly productive. Even if it’s not exactly enjoyable, revision can be satisfying. That’s because it‘s about putting your scholarly imagination to work on a scholarly problem – again.

Photo by Andrew Itaga on Unsplash

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writing more than one thing at the same time – part three, managing

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Writing several things at once is often called multi-tasking. This is a term I try to avoid, as it focuses on an action – ‘tasking’. Tasking has two problems – first of all, it doesn’t really highlight the thinking involved in managing multiple academic activities. And the focus on action leads very easily to considering techniques. Like scheduling. And planning.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to scheduling and planning. They are important and it would be silly of me to suggest that they aren’t. But there is more scheduling and planning involved in writing several things at once. There’s a lot of intellectual work.  Multi-writing is equally – and at the same time as tasking – multi-thinking.

Thinking is always involved in academic writing. Writing is a process of making sense and communicating that sense-making. Writing is sorting out and crafting the thinking – honing ideas, sharpening argument. This thinking-writing is tricky at the best of times but becomes even trickier when it involves the production of diverse and concurrent texts.

The good news is that the work of writing-thinking in multiples can be supported through the use of a reflective tool.

A little caveat before I go on. This post is, like the previous two, particularly directed to doctoral researchers who are writing alongside their big book thesis – or the selected papers that will form their thesis. It’s important to understand that PhD by papers, like the big book, needs to be thought of as a thesis, a coherent whole right from the start. Not atomised papers, but an entire text. But that’s another story – suffice it to say that here, when I say thesis, I also mean PhD by papers.

As I’ve suggested, it’s very helpful to write things that are going to support your thesis. Things that assist your argument, test out your analysis, allow you to take a few risks with the writing itself.

And when you are writing these alongside thesis texts, you can also make what I think of as a ‘Running Writing Record’. A Running Writing Record might be a single document, a digital or analogue journal or a sequence of files, with one for each new alongside text. A Running Writing Record is a tool, yes, and one that supports the thinking process.

A thinking reflecting tool – the Running Writing Record

If you understand writing alongside the thesis as connecting – testing out and strengthening – the thesis analysis and argument, then your Running Writing Record is the place to answer the following questions:

  • What ideas from this additional writing are going to be useful for the thesis?
  • What data/ analysis /argument do these ideas appear to work best with?
  • What ideas in the additional writing appear to be interesting but perhaps now best left aside?
  • What more work do I need to do in order to bring these ideas/analysis/argument into the thesis?
  • What other interesting possibilities came to mind while I was writing this additional text?

If you also understand the writing alongside the thesis as supporting the development of authority and voice then your Running Writing Record will contain answers to these questions:

  • How does this genre of writing differ from the thesis?
  • What new things did I have to learn to do in this alongside writing?
  • What writing experiments did I undertake? How ‘successful’ were these and what did I learn from them?
  • What signs are there of my emerging academic writer identity and voice in the additional writing? What are they? Are these useful for the thesis? How might I develop these further?
  • What other kinds of writing might be helpful for me now?

Keeping a Running Writing Record does take some time of course. Not a lot and it is something that can be done in short bursts. A Running Writing Record is a form of reflection amenable to prompted free writing and could therefore easily be done at irregular intervals during and after thesis writing and reading.

There, that’s it. That’s what I have to say about managing writing several things at the same time. Well, perhaps not quite all.

I probably do have to conclude this little series by saying something about time. You’d feel cheated if I didn’t, if I just referred you to Raul Pachego Vega’s everything notebook or Thesis Whisperer’s time-management software reviews. I’m not going to duplicate what they’ve already said – but yes, I do have one little tip of my own. And it’s less of a tool and much more about the mindset that underpins managing your time well.

Keep In Touch

It is very important when managing multiple writing tasks to Keep In Touch with all of them. When you have to focus primarily on one bit of writing, it becomes easy to lose track of where you are with others. The result can be that when you then finish your alongside writing, you return to a thesis that you last saw and thought about a few weeks or days ago.

You might wonder where on earth to start. What were you up to? What were you thinking? It can take some time to remember where you were, to retrace your thesis steps and pick up your trail of activity and thought. You can avoid this time-wasting catching up by avoiding serial writing, producing one thing after another.  You can maintain work on multiple tasks – most experienced academics do and it is possible.

Writing more than one thing at once doesn’t mean devoting equal time to everything. It may simply mean doing a bit of daily reading for a thesis chapter or paper while writing a conference paper. It may mean doing a little bit of data analysis everyday while writing a book chapter. It may mean doing a bit of free writing about potential approaches to your discussion while revising a journal article. Doing something each day keeps you in touch with the thesis. It means you don’t forget where you were up to.

The Keep In Touch approach does, of course, mean that you have to think of each day, week and month as consisting of ongoing strands of activity. There is the reading, analysis and writing for the thesis, and there is reading, analysis and writing for other texts. Sometimes there will just be thesis work, and at other times the thesis work will shrink to make way for the other writing.

And the thesis activities don’t go away. They continue, albeit in smaller time slots. You keep working at the thesis and you always know where you are with it. (And of course there are other regular activities to fit in too, but I’m sure you get what I’m saying here.)

So – to sum up – it’s important to get your KIT strategy together as it is a key to keeping all of the various strands in play. And under control.

And now there it is – my two bits worth on the time and tools questions of writing multiple things at once – keep a Running Record to support reflection about connecting and learning, and developed your Keep in Touch strategy to manage writing more than one thing and the one time.

Image credit: Flickr Commons *hb19 (R.I.P)

Posted in academic writing, academic writing voice, authority in writing, reflection, reflection on learning, time, writing and thinking, writing more then one thing at once, writing regularly | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

writing more than one thing at the same time – part two, authoring

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There are good reasons for writing alongside the thesis. Besides contributing to the work (see first post) and your cv, there are authoring benefits. These include:

  • the chance to learn more about academic writing
  • the opportunity to develop a scholarly writing identity and voice

I’m going to talk about each of these separately, although they clearly overlap.

Learning more about academic writing

If you are writing a Big Book thesis, then you have to get to know that form of academic writing because you want to “pass”. However, there are many other forms of writing that academics do. You might want to learn about them – and help your thesis at the same time.

Write a conference paper perhaps. Not just academics attend conferences, but we certainly do. So knowing how to write a conference paper won’t be a waste of time. Well, more than just a paper.

Going to a conference means that you have to write a proposal, usually an abstract written to a predetermined formula. Your abstract is tailored for the particular scholarly community that hosts and attends your chosen conference – and the subset of community members who referee abstracts, the bids for conference participation. You may, as part of the proposal process, also have to write a plain language summary for the conference programme. Once your proposal is accepted you then need to produce the paper, anticipating the audience you’d like (and can reasonably expect) to attend. You’ll also need to prepare a presentation, usually a slideshow, and perhaps a handout. Or instead of a paper there may be a poster.

Conference texts not only take different forms, but also ask different things of you as a writer. Each follows their own particular writing conventions – even though they are making the same argument, using exactly the same data and analysis. See how many ways you can present the same argument!

Writing a journal article (perhaps from the conference paper) means learning even more writing practices. First of all, you need to carefully choose your journal and research it to make sure that you understand the kinds of readers – referees and ultimately the wider journal community – that you are writing for. You’ll need to understand the ongoing conversation that you are entering. You’ll need to adhere to the genre and writing conventions expected in the journal.

And you’ll get a different kind of feedback from reviewers than you are used to – feedback that is usually not as pedagogically oriented as the comments you get from your supervisor. But while reviewer responses can be confronting, the experience does allow you to understand the kinds of critical interchanges that happen in scholarly communities and the language through which critique is given.

You can see from these two examples that there is much more to academic writing than the Big Book thesis, where you write particularly for your supervisors and then examiners. But when you write more widely you encounter other readers, other conversations and conventions.

And the more you understand the variety, framings and hidden rules about academic writing, the better positioned you are to make informed choices about what you want to write – and how. Which segues neatly into:

 Developing a scholarly writing identity and voice

 For many doctoral researchers, the thesis is the first opportunity to step away from essays and to establish themselves as an authority. As the expert in their particular topic.

This authority doesn’t come straight away to most people. The struggle to find the way to write academically can often be read on the page in sentences that are too long and contain too many large abstract words jammed together. A less confident academic writer often cites and quotes a lot more than a more authoritative scholar too.

But good news. Simply writing more and more often – particularly if it is in more relaxed genres like op-ed pieces, professional publications and blogs – can be an extremely helpful way to get more used to the process of putting yourself and your ideas out there. And that plays out as you write your thesis. You stop writing tentatively.

What’s more, writing outside the thesis may also provide an opportunity for you to experiment with different styles of writing. How much description is possible? Where, how and how much can you use what participants say?  Is it possible to use images and multi-media and to write more artistically? How inventive can you be with the ways in which you summarise and categorise? Is it OK to vary the structure of an argument? Is it better for you to write a lot in the first person, or not? These are the kinds of questions that you can find some beginning answers to through different kinds of writing.

Conferences, for instance, are often really good places to try out new approaches to writing. You can ask for and get feedback, you can see your audience reaction to your controlled textual experiment. Book chapters are often much less convention-bound than journals and you can do more with the structure as well as the style of the text.

While none of the text trials that you make may end up in the thesis – although they very well might – trying things out requires you to become more explicit about the writing choices that you make. Choosing helps you to develop voice and authority.

In focusing on the type of text you are producing and its possible variations, you not only become more accustomed to writing per se. You also think of yourself as a writer, making conscious choices about how you want to present yourself and your work. You make decisions about – and through – the crafting of your writing. You can be this kind of writer and scholar – or that. Your attention shifts – you go from fretting about your writing to focusing on finding the most satisfying ways to say what you want how you want.

So when you get that conference information, call for papers or invitation to write a book chapter comes along, it’s helpful to ask yourself:

  • Will this writing help me to understand more about academic writing? Does the invitation mean I will write for new readers, enter new conversations and use new conventions?
  • Will this writing help me to build my scholarly identity and voice? What opportunities are there here for trying out new writing possibilities? What new writing choices does this option open up for me as an author?

And if the answers are affirmative, maybe this is an academic writing opportunity to take up.

But of course, all of this writing-more-than-one-thing-at-the-same-time has to be managed. So in the third and last part of this mini-series, next week I’ll talk a bit about time and tools.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

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