what is author ‘voice’?

Patter is on annual leave and is posting pre-prepared writings snatched from elsewhere.


The term ‘voice’ is not as straightforward as it might first appear. Commonly used in relation to a number of art forms, it is highly ambiguous and slippery.

Peter Elbow, the veteran writing researcher, argues that the notion of a writing ‘voice’ can be used variously –

  • to describe the sense that readers have of hearing the words on the page as they are reading them  – audible voice;
  • the way in which the audible voice is more or less full of character- dramatic voice;
  • the way in which a distinctive authorial style can be recognised by its deployment of language, syntax, speech, metaphor and so on  – distinctive voice;
  • the degree of confidence and expertise that the writer asserts  – authoritative voice (Elbow, 1994).

Elbow also points to voice as a ‘presence’ in writing. ‘Presence’ is a much more murky idea, he contends, because it assumes that the writing is a sincere and authentic representation of the writer. As Elbow puts it, writing

 … can never fully express or articulate a whole person. A person is usually too complex and has too many facets, parts, roles, voices, identities (Elbow, 1994, p. 12).

 The very idea that a writer’s text is a manifestation of a person’s artistic vision, intention and voice is deeply problematic, according to Elbow. In fact, he suggests, the notion of mimesis – the duplication of the real by a text – the very idea of authentic voice embodies, actually opens the door to its other. ‘Authentic’ presence also thus allows for irony, fiction, lying and games and other forms of poly-vocality and disjointedness in texts.

Rather than seeing writing as having a singular or homogenous ‘voice’ Elbow argues, in tune with much contemporary literary theory, writing should be understood as a place where writers ‘try out’ parts of the self, where they experiment and play (see also Elbow, 2012).


Elbow, P. (1994). What do we mean when we talk about voice in writing? In K. Yancey (Ed.), Voices on voice. Perspectives, definition, inquiry (pp. 1-35). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Elbow, P. (2012). Vernacular eloquence. What speech can bring to writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

See other posts on writing voice:

voice and thinkingwriting

academic writing voice and voices in your head

thesis to book – finding your  voice

thesis to book – changing your voice

voice and the craft of academic writing

a musing on voice


Image: MR 38

Patter is on annual leave and this post is extracted from the introductory section of THOMSON, PAT, 2016. Artist ‘voice’ in inter-cultural contexts and practices. In: BURNARD, PAM, MACKINLEY, LIZ and POWELL, KIMBERLEY, eds., The Routledge International Handbook of Inter-Cultural Arts Research Routledge.







Posted in academic writing voice, Peter Elbow, voice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

‘the PhD experience’

Patter is currently on two weeks annual leave. (Faint sounds of cheering.) So the next four posts are reprints of some other writing that might be of interest to Patter readers. This is the foreword I wrote to a new anthology of Australian doctoral researcher stories – Postgraduate study in Australia: surviving and succeeding. It’s edited by Chris McMaster, Caterina McMaster, Ben Whitburn and Inger Mewburn.  If you enjoy reading about other people’s experiences of the PhD then this book will interest you. 

 The Hungarian social scientist Michael Polanyi wrote a great deal that was relevant to the ways in which learning occurs. Polanyi argued that all knowledge production was an act of creation which was profoundly about the person, their commitments and passions. He proposed that much of what is often understood as systematic, ‘objective’ and the product of logical reasoning, was actually enmeshed in informed hunches, dreams and intuitions based in ‘tacit’ knowledge (Polanyi, 1958/1998; 1966). His argument could certainly apply to the ways in which doctoral research knowledge is produced. However, it also applies to the process of doing the PhD itself. When undertaking a PhD, candidates not only learn the ‘stuff’ of their dissertation, they also learn about the actual process of doing the doctorate.

51YzPzsn6+L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg The experience of doing a doctorate can remain as tacit knowledge, a profound experience which, although unexamined, is nevertheless a basis for future and further action. Think for instance of the eponymous supervisor who appears to have little basis for their supervision practice other than they ‘know’ that ‘this works’ – they are basing their actions in ‘tacit knowledge’ of experience, their own, and subsequent experiences with doctoral candidates. But tacit knowledge can also become more explicit.

In my field – educational research – we value experience as a basis for action, but argue that learning from experience is considerably enhanced if learners systematically reflect on their experiences in order to develop ‘meta-learning’ principles – that is if they can distill their experiences into more abstracted forms and language that allows their learning to become ‘visible’. Critical reflection also allows taken-for-grated assumptions to be interrogated. Once reflections are made into talk and text they become meta-learnings able to be communicated to others. They can also be brought into conversation with similar ‘processed’ experiences and with relevant research.

This is an anthology of the personal stories of doctoral researchers who have reflected on their experiences, and developed some principles, conclusions and narratives from them. Their narratives serve a dual purpose Firstly, they continue the process of making sense of experience for each writer, because every time we reflect critically and write about our own experiences they make more sense to us. But secondly, the narratives provide a resource that other doctoral researchers and supervisors can use to inform their own critical reflections and arising actions.

Taken together, these narratives add to the available understandings of the doctoral experience. While there is a steadily growing corpus of published research about the doctorate, less of this is in the form of first-person accounts. There is some of course, but much more exists as blogs and storified twitter chats. This curated volume adds a further set of ‘processed’ first person accounts to our collective knowledge.

But this is primarily a book of resources gifted to the reader to use when and as they are apt. Of course, not all of the narratives on offer will be of immediate use. There is no one best way to do a PhD and there are no right answers. These are but one set of doctoral researchers. The stories don’t say everything. Yet there is remarkable value in hearing directly from those who are involved, now, in postgraduate study or who have recently completed their doctorates. Having a range of others’ analysed experiences on which to draw allows each reader to build up their own repertoire of studying, researching and writing strategies. Even if some narratives are not apparently helpful straight away, they may well be at some future date.

One of the most obvious ways in which this book will be useful is that it addresses the sense of isolation that appears to be part and parcel of the PhD. Doctorates in most disciplines are somewhat lonely. Even those who work in laboratory teams are, I suspect, ultimately still subject to the kind of all-down-to-me sense that comes from engaging in a long-term project which will be externally examined, and upon which considerable hopes are pinned. Even though success in the doctorate doesn’t guarantee employment, fame and fortune, there is a sense of personal achievement and identity tied up in completing a sustained piece of research, a study which makes ‘your contribution’.

This does not mean of that completion is an individual affair. An ecology of supervision, disciplinary organisation and university support make it possible for all of us to achieve that sense of satisfaction that comes with writing the words Dr. in front of your name. These days, that ecology now includes online support, different kinds of face-to-face social groups and advice books. This DIY ‘outstitutional’ provision is very important for increasing numbers of doctoral researchers; it can very usefully supplement and complement what is on offer within institutional contexts. Doctoral researchers have probably always helped each other but now have an additional resource at their disposal – “You have this problem? Oh I was just reading the other day…”, reaching for one of the stories in this book.

Some doctoral readers will become supervisors either in higher education or as industry partners. This little book may well come in handy then too, as a way of expanding and adding to the tacit and explicit knowledges of the supervisor.  And for those of us who completed our doctorates some time ago, this collection will serve to update us, and remind us that the world is changing, and the doctorate is not as it once was.

As much as an anthology, this book can also be thought of as an archive, compiled at a particular time and place. As such, it provides a snapshot of the doctorate and doctoral experience(s) which will be of wider and potentially more long-term interest. As someone who researches doctoral and research education, I was certainly itching to start to generate some themes across the contributions. Indeed, this might be something I still do at some idle moment!

I commend and recommend the collection to you and hope you enjoy dipping in and out of it as much as I did.



Polanyi, M. (1958/1998). Personal knowledge. Towards a post critical philosophy. London: Routledge.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The tacit dimension. Garden City, N Y: Doubleday.


Posted in "doctoral student", doctoral education, doctoral experience, doctoral researcher, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

a part-time and distance PhD

This is a guest post from Dr Justin Field. Well nearly Dr – just graduation to go and it’ll all be finalised. Justin shares his experience of doing a part-time and distance PhD. 

Earlier this month, I submitted my PhD in Organisational Behaviour and Human Resource Management at the University of New England Business School.  I did my PhD part-time, while I worked full-time in the IT sector, and I did my PhD through distance, so my project had a few challenges along the way.  I live in Sydney but the university and my supervisors were in Armidale (about 600 km away).  It took me three years and 12 days to complete my PhD (from 2014 to 2017)—the normal timeframe is 6 years.  Here’s how.

I focused on my motivation.  Every doctoral researcher has a unique motivation to start and then finish the PhD.  We assume that PhDs want academic careers but more than half of PhDs don’t follow academic careers.  My motivation was simply to have the title of Doctor and to wear the scarlet gown and the velvet bonnet at graduation.  To help me through the sticky times, I found blog posts from recent graduations at UNE, showing photos of newly minted PhDs in their gowns and bonnets.  If I felt low or dispirited, I had a look at those photos, to renew my motivation.  I shared my PhD goals with my supervisors, wanting them to understand where I was coming from, so they would know where they could help me.

3371789859_57084c99b3_z.jpgI sprinted from day 1.  Working full-time meant that my PhD was always going to be squashed into time outside paid work:  nights, weekends, holiday time.  But I knew that I wanted to complete it quickly, so I tried to be efficient with my time.  I also tried to remove friction where I found it—like getting stuck on endless searches for literature, or rewriting/tinkering with my Results chapters. You have to sense when to stop or when to move on.  Don’t let tedious university admin procedures derail you either—my experience was that you just need to do it and get through it.

I took a break when I needed it.  I had a period at work when I was rolling out a new IT system.  It was always going to be a hectic time, with almost no room for PhD work.  So, I took a leave of absence for two months.  I focused on the work project and didn’t have the stress of worrying about data analysis and writing up.  If your PhD is making you go crazy, I would urge you to take a break, as I did.

I looked after my health and wellbeing.  I found it all too easy to be welded to my chair, staring at the computer for hours.  But I tried to make time for my health and wellbeing.  Regular exercise was, I believe, one of the keys to maintaining sanity and keeping a good pace, during my PhD.  I took the dog for long walks and I swam many laps in the local pool.  Those moments away from the computer gave my mind room to reflect on my work, putting together new connections intuitively.

I built relationships virtually.  Being at a distance from the university meant most of my interactions were virtual.  I used telephone calls to introduce myself to people I’d not met before, then used email to follow up.  I avoided having email as my only communication tool.  I visited the university about twice a year during my PhD.  During those times, I always scheduled lengthy meetings with my supervisors, typically to deal with big issues or thorny problems, like what to include or exclude in my thesis.

I picked supervisors that matched my style.  There are heaps of sob stories from doctoral researchers about unsupportive or mean supervisors.  I was lucky—I had supportive supervisors, and crucially, my style matched their expectations.  In a meeting last month, they said I wasn’t ‘needy’, which made for a good match between us.  Now, looking back, that’s the key to success with supervisors.  I did not need or want a cuddly, hand-holding supervisor, nor did I need daily directives.  I thrived on autonomy and used my sense of confidence to forge ahead by myself, seeking an occasional helping hand when I needed it.

I built my research skills.  I used qualitative thematic analysis methods in my study.  I didn’t have those skills when I started my PhD, so I made sure I took courses and webinars to boost my capability.  The university offered a data analysis course; later I headed to Berlin to attend the user conference for my data analysis software, MAXQDA.  There I took several workshops and made connections, opening my eyes to the extended and sophisticated possibilities offered by the tool.  My investment was valuable—later in my project I used the tools to build my discussion and conclusion chapter, something I would not have thought about doing without insights from training.

I honed my writing skills.  In Australia, the PhD is examined purely on the thesis.  So, this piece of writing is the only output that matters.  At the start of writing up, I scoured both Patter and The Thesis Whisperer for book recommendations and I ordered them all from the UNE library.  I found plenty of conflicting advice (annoying!) but also good advice about the genre of academic writing and what superior writing looks like.  The more I practised, the better I got!  Now I know that high quality writing comes from revising and editing drafts.  Reading good academic writing is another key.  On reflection, developing my writing skills made a significant, positive difference to the quality of my thesis and improved my relationship with my supervisors.

I used my corporate project management skills.  Being in the corporate sector, I applied typical meeting management skills to my PhD.  Simple things like:  agreeing a monthly meeting schedule in advance, so the dates were booked in the diary; sending an agenda about three days before the meeting; keeping recordings of meetings; and crucially, sending sufficiently detailed meeting notes within 24 hours.  These things are boring but essential to help the project steam along.  There were times when I forgot exactly what was agreed and who had to take action after the meeting, so meeting notes helped me and my supervisors with that.  I set deadlines for myself and for my supervisors, especially for thesis reviews.  Those timelines were essential communication devices, to make it through a long project without tears.

Feedback is a gift.  I learnt this mantra at work on a long-forgotten training course.  I applied it to my PhD, every time I sent off my work for review.  Every piece of feedback is a gift, whether that feedback is negative, constructive or positive.  I judiciously ignored extremely harsh or needlessly arrogant feedback.  Some feedback is harder to take than others.  My personal tactic was to avoid getting caught up in the emotion of the feedback.  If I felt unhappy, I gave myself 24 hours, took a walk, punched a pillow and then came back.  My aim was to find the nugget or kernel of truth within each piece of feedback, then decide what to do.

I celebrated the positive.  I found it much too easy to get caught up in negativity, with plenty of ‘fix this’-type feedback during my PhD.  To counter that, I paid attention to when people said I was doing things right.  I used to, when typing meeting notes, write down all the positive keywords that my supervisors said on a sheet of paper next to my keyboard.  That way, I could glance back at it and remind myself about the good stuff that I was doing.  This was powerful for me, sustaining my motivation, especially when things were seemingly tough.

Finally, I gave back.  I made a point of helping others during my PhD.  It’s good to offer assistance, but I learnt something every time I helped someone.  I did several reference calls for the university, with students who were thinking about the PhD or the MPhil.  And I helped other doctoral researchers who struggled with setting up their research projects and with MAXQDA.  Helping turned out to be a good way of building my network for the longer term.

Get in touch with me at justin.c.field@gmail.com.

Posted in part time PhD, PhD by distance | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

self-citation by proxy


Meet Dr Oozing-Confidence. He knows his work is important. Very important. Superior even. He gets very miffed when he reads anything that is on his topic, or connected with it, that doesn’t recognise his contributions and their significance. He is always keen to point these ignoramuses to the key texts in the field – his.


And now meet Dr Veryveryanxious. Dr Veryveryanxious is concerned that no one is citing him. He wants to make sure that his hard won publications get talked about. This is in part because he thinks his stuff is good and probably important – and he is mystified why it doesn’t get cited more. But he has also recently become concerned about the ways in which his peers keep quoting their citations and H Index at him. He is more than a bit worried that at some point his employer might notice that he is one of those people whose journal articles hardly seem to ever be featured in most downloaded or most read. Because of this, he is always looking for ways to point people to his work.

But don’t feel sorry for either of these two.  Both Dr Veryveryanxious and Dr Oozing-Confidence have found a neat way to ensure that other people know about their work. And it is a very cunning strategy. Because not only do other people get to hear about their work, but they also have to find it, and then read it, and then deal with it.

How? Well, it’s simple really.  They insert references to their work into a blind peer review.

I’m sure you know how this goes.

The author might benefit from reading… all my own work. This is a good paper but would be enhanced by addressing concerns raised by … all my own work. The paper seems inadequately grounded in the extant literatures; the writer particularly needs to read… all my own work. I found the omission of … all my own work… surprising. If the writer had read… all my own work… then they would have known that…

 Faced with this kind of all my own work recommendation, the writer-under-review has little option but to find the references, read them and work out whether they are indeed relevant to their argument. And even if they aren’t, they still have to tell The Editor in their letter of response why they haven’t included them in the final revised text.

But there will be a recorded hit on the journal website(s). RESULT.

Perhaps the writer-under-review will cite a paper as the line of least resistance to the peer review comments. The I may as well put it in as that’s what they seem to want response. RESULT.

And even if the writer doesn’t follow the reviewer’s advice – and why should they if it doesn’t actually make sense – they have now read the recommended papers and they might refer to them in the future. RESULT.

The thing is of course that writers can generally pick a review by Dr Veryveryanxious and Dr Oozing-Confidence. They know that they are being told to cite them and only them. They also understand that this is self-citation by proxy. When all that is offered by way of other recommended reading is a single author, and all my own work it not only raises suspicions but often hackles as well.

Now there is a real dilemma here for reviewers who actually do have work that is relevant to a paper they are reviewing and want to let the writer know, without seeming to be either one of the above self-obsessed academic types. How to do this without seeming to be entirely egotistical, bragging or self-promoting?  If it ‘s not wrong or inappropriate for a reviewer to tell people about their own relevant work, and if it’s really only a problem for the writer when it’s an all my own work response, then what do you do?

The answer is relatively straightforward. Don’t just offer yourself. Offer a selection of further readings, including a pointer to the piece of your work that is pertinent.

Reviewers who offer a menu of possibilities – not just all my own work but that of other scholars too – are actually giving the writer an entrée into the parts of the academic conversation that they might not have yet come across. They offer a number of possibilities that would enhance the paper, add to the argument, modify it, provide more helpful evidence. They offer the conversation, the context, the debate, not just a single position within it. As long as the particular reviewer’s work is situated in the relevant conversation, then it is doing a scholarly service. And it will also meet the unwritten rules of good scholarly etiquette.

You see, peer reviewing is not a monologue. It’s always a dialogue with the paper writer, and with others the field as well. One of the things that good reviewers look for is how the paper is situated in the field – not how it relates to my work alone. Peer reviewing is a place where we have to be mindful of our context, and our behaviour, and our peers, and the work of all of us together. Self-citation by stealth isn’t OK.

But Dr Veryveryanxious is just too nervous to stop and think about his scholarly purposes or his manners. Dr Oozing Confidence, still seeking the scholarly equivalent of world domination by sundown, doesn’t even notice they exist.

Don’t be like them. Good scholarly conduct. Good scholarly etiquette. Not all my own work. It’s the conversation that really counts.

Posted in conversation, journal article, peer review, self-citation | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

citing yourself  – in the text

Writing about your own work is sometimes tricky. There are ‘secretarial’ text issues involved in using your own work.


I’ll talk here about how you refer to yourself and the work, and the vexed question of self-plagiarism.

  • writing your work into the text

The advice on self citation often suggests that you refer to yourself by your surname. So in my case I’d be writing along and then say Thomson (date) showed that…. According to Thomson (date)….  Previous work on this topic includes x (date), y (date) and Thomson (date)…. This move separates yourself and pervious work out from what you are currently writing.

This is not wrong. it is often done. But if, like me, you find this way of talking about yourself a bit odd, then there are two other options. The first is to use ‘I’. In previous work I have… My earlier study on… This study builds on my project on… Now there’s nothing wrong with this and I’d certainly rather write and read this than a lot of the author’s surname in the text. A personal preference.

The second option is to move the citation to the brackets and forget writing about the author in the main body of the text. So … Previous work on x (Thomson date) suggests that… This study takes as its starting point the following… blah blah blah (Thomson, date). This text actually focuses the discussion on the substantive point, rather than on who wrote it. I have just read an entire book where the author refers to their own substantive work like this. And it worked just fine for me, as a reader.

But it may be that some combination of I and brackets works best for whatever you are writing. It’s up to you to think about what you like to read and your disciplinary conventions, as much as your writing fancies.

The most unnatural way IMHO to write about yourself in the text is as a third person – the researcher’s previous work on this, as the researcher has argued in an earlier paper… This is a highly-stylised version what someone thinks is proper in academic writing. It’s as well to consider who else talks about themselves in the third person and where – the answer is hardly anyone, anywhere, anytime. If you want to write in ways that a reader will find ‘natural’ and not overly distancing and overly formal, then you might might to exorcise this kind of researcher self in your text.

And of course, as noted last week, too much author surname and personal pronoun ‘I’ can read as if it’s all about you, only you, and not about the general body of work in the field. And Im afraid that putting yourself, and only you and no one else, in the brackets reads like this too.

  • self-plagiarism

I’ve written about this before and every time a handful or people write crossly to me saying that this is a ridiculous notion. That may be true but it is now actually part of copyright law in many countries. So like it or not, we are generally stuck with a ruling that says we have to treat our own material in the same way as everyone else’s and quote ourselves.

The shift to rules around self-plagiarism does stop people reusing large slabs of text, unchanged, from one paper to the next. Each paper is a new contribution, not a cut and paste.

But yes, there are some cases when we do want to use exactly the same words from one text to another– describing the methods used in a large research project from which several papers have been drawn is one, as are details of location in an ethnographic study. Most of us don’t worry about the self plagiarise rule in these circumstances.

Sometimes people don’t bother with this rule. I’ve recently read a book where a very famous scholar used a definitional statement – extensively quoted by other people –  which originally appeared in one of his refereed journal articles. It was such a well-known sentence that it leapt off the page at me. However, the writer didn’t self-cite.  And I don’t blame him for this minor technical infringement. I can imagine him thinking that the wording was actually hard to better so why try to do so…

But technically… In general, we do legally now need to ‘quote’ our own writing. This almost inevitably places us in the situation of having to explain why we are quoting ourselves – so back to number one above.

And if you know the rules about self plagiarism you can then make your own decision about whether to follow them religiously. Just be aware the journals are increasingly using plagiarism software… and these algorithms will pick up self-cite as well as any other form of duplication.


Posted in self promotion, self-citation, self-plagiarism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

citing yourself – how much is too much?

Should you cite yourself? Ever? Never? Sometimes, and if sometimes, when? And how much? When does sometimes become just too much altogether?

There are mixed views on self-citation.

Some people think that it’s quite unseemly to cite yourself at all – it’s nothing but ruthless self-promotion and bragging. And of course, there are people who do appear to cite nobody much but themselves.

People who cite themselves when there is a lot of work on the same topic – even when there are seminal papers that you’d really expect to see named –  either don’t know the seminal papers or perhaps just think that theirs is better. A prolific self citer can easily be read as “No one has done anything worth a damn in this space, just me, me, me”. For this reason, academic-writing-help-sites commonly advise you to cite yourself sparingly so you don’t give the impression that you think yours is the only work on the topic that matters.

I’m sure we can all think of people who do have the self -cite habit. Concerns about bragging and self-promotion are not without foundation. A serial self-citer really does operate as if academic publication is one long selfie.


But… there are times when it is perfectly sensible to cite yourself. And it’s better to  understand the reasons why you might do this than struggle with vague and unspecified notions of ‘lightly self-cite’.

There’s an often- unwritten general scholarly rule that you need to cite your previous work when you want to show how a current paper/project builds on what you’ve done before.

Given that most of us do have research agendas where we try to build up a body of understanding about something, it’s only logical that we show the steps we took. The practice of self-citation is one which makes connections with prior publications clear to readers. It’s an important way of making obvious what this work adds to what we’ve done before. This is building a contribution.

For instance, it is very sensible for someone doing a PhD by publication to want to cite their previous work. The whole point of the PhD by publication is to build a linked set of papers around a research question. After the papers, the doctoral researcher is required to write a separate document – an exegesis or kappa – where they argue how the papers together constitute an answer to their overarching question. However, it’s desirable that  some connections are created within the papers themselves, as they are being written and published. The connections are not just left till the end. And often, one paper in the PhD by publication is ‘foundational’ in that it makes a case or establishes a set of understandings on which other papers are built. Even if the PhD papers are published in different journals, they can still be connected and made coherent through self-citation.

And the same process applies to more experienced researchers who are building a body of work. For example, I have over a long period of time  – yes, now I’m self citing –  been playing around with a particular social theory (Bourdieu) to see what his thinking tools can do as methodology. I’ve written some refereed papers and a book on the topic. Each of the publications stands alone, but together they are an ongoing project which explores the limits and potentials of a Bourdieusian methodological take on large and small scale social issues. It makes sense for me to refer, in any new Bourdieu papers, to this longer-term agenda –  and to build on what I have established previously.

It’s always worth looking at the work of very experienced scholars to see how they do this.

I’ve just been reviewing a book written by someone who is very eminent in my field. He – well, it is a he – is widely regarded as a leading international scholar. He’s done empirical work which is ground breaking, he’s been the first to detail particularly important global educational phenomena. He’s also done innovative theoretical work in the field and some which is methodological. Countless doctoral researchers use his work, and really, anyone who writes in my field of education from a social science perspective has to cite him. Got the picture?

The book I’ve been looking at is a big picture view of education. Now, this researcher has truck-loads of his own publications to cite, and he does refer to some which pretty well everyone in the field would also cite. But he doesn’t use the book as the place to mention each and every paper and book he’s ever written. And he cites lots of other people’s work  in order to create the substantive evidence base he needs for the argument he is making, as well as to situate his work in the wider field. His book is a helpful example of how much self-citation is enough – there is sufficient to show contribution and agenda, to build on prior work. But there is not so much that it raises reader hackles, or suspicions about ego, manipulation of H indices and other self-serving strategies.

Reading books written by significant scholars in your field, to check for their practices of self citation, can help you to test out where you think the line on self-citation is drawn.

There’s a further question about self-citation too, which is how you actually accomplish it in the text, and I’ll talk some about that in the very next post.

Photo: Cliff Baise, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic selfie, self-citation | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

use a vignette – #wakeupreader

Most readers, even academic ones, like a bit of a story. And a vignette is just a bit of a story, a condensed version. A vignette is brief, evocative and descriptive. It provides information about key points of an event or interaction. It illustrates a particular point. 

A vignette is intended to provoke a response. It might be written in a way intended to elicit feelings. It might be designed to start a line of thought or an argument. It might be meant to challenge values or belief.

Vignettes are often used as a qualitative research method. And they are used in academic writing too.

Helen Sword suggests that one of the characteristics of ‘good’ academic writing is that writers offer stories and examples. Readers can see what the writer is getting at – they combine an abstracted discussion with an example from everyday life. The example animates and grounds the idea/theory. And a vignette is ONE way to do this.

So where and how are vignettes used?

Vignettes are used in the introductions to published academic papers to get readers interested in what is to come. They are sometimes used as a means of presenting data so that context and/or themes/qualities/factors/variables/events/discourses can be drawn out. (What the actual ‘bits’ coming together are called depends on your research paradigm and methodology). A vignette can be used as a way to establish a norm with which other experiences or views can be compared. And vignettes are often used as ‘cases’ in philosophical, medical and legal writings to explore dilemmas and issues. Vignettes also appear as possible ‘scenarios’ in ‘think pieces’.

So, a vignette is a form of research-based writing which can be put to multiple writing uses. A vignette can multi- task with the best academic writing tools.  And the fact the vignette has multiple uses – all of them designed to stimulate the reader – suggests that this unassuming little narrative can be a very helpful addition to a #wakeupreader writing tool kit.

So, it could be helpful to consider whether something you are writing would benefit from a vignette – either in the introduction, or where you report your research data. Or if you don’t have an immediate use for a vignette, you might humour me and just think for a moment about vignettes, and how you could use them in some future writing venture. 

A vignette is often called a ‘slice of life’ or a ‘snapshot’. That is because of its diminutive stature. A research vignette is often only a couple of hundred words. Yes, that small.  A vignette doesn’t try to do too much. The etymological origin of vignette is a decorative design of vine leaves – so keep that image in mind. You can’t get too much onto a single page with illuminated vine borders!


Book of Hours. Dunedin Public Library collection.

Writing a vignette is a creative practice. It is not a mechanical process. It is not reporting.  It offers a place in a more conventional academic writing genre, such as a journal article, where you can show a bit of flair and style.

A vignette requires careful crafting and you may well have to have to write several versions before you are happy. And it’s often helpful to do some preparation before you start writing. 

Some questions to consider when writing a vignette are:

  • What do you want the reader to do? …. (feel/think/be interrupted or challenged)
  • What information do they need to have? What must be in your vignette? Consider the who, what, when, where, why, how of the vignette. What are the bare minimum elements you need to include – context, people, sayings, description?
  • What words are going to be useful to you in making those elements spring to life for the reader? You might like to create some kind of cluster word map to bring the key terms together around the who, what, when, where, why and how.
  • How long is the vignette going to be? One paragraph? Two, or three?

Writing a vignette is an activity well suited to short periods of intense writing. You can produce a few variations on your vignette theme with a few thirty minute pomodoros. Then it is simply a matter of revising and tinkering with it over time, until it consolidates into something you can test out on others. (But of course that’s not mandatory! You can write a vignette in whatever way suits your personal writing routine. ) Blogging is also a good way to practice writing vignettes – you will see a lot of bloggers use vignettes as a way to begin a post and to ‘suck readers in’.

You might just want to look at papers in your discipline, or related areas, search out texts that feature vignettes. Look at how they are written, their length, their style, their author ‘voice’. What can you learn from them? Will you write your vignette like this, or differently?

Play around with the vignette.  See what works for you – and most importantly, what works for your reader and their level of engagement and interest. 




Posted in #wakeupreader, creative writing, introduction, narrative, Uncategorized, vignette | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments