can you cut and paste early text into your thesis?

Well of course you can. The question is, should you?

You wrote large chunks of text when you first started your doctorate. These writings were most likely to do with literatures, methodologies and research design, and the warrant for your research. Now, as you begin the process of writing the thesis text its very tempting to think you can make a huge gain by simply transferring that big heap of beginning text into the thesis. Highlight, copy, and you’re quids in.

But my answer to the question about whether you should do this not a yes. It’s a maybe, but leaning towards no. That’s disappointing for you if you were counting on the bank of words you’d prepared earlier.if you thought these pages were ready to go, if you reasoned you’d got a bit of the thesis already written. And you may be right. Equally, you may be terribly wrong.

Let me explain by talking about the literatures and then come back to other textual chunks at the end.

Why is it that your initial literature work may need quite a bit of rewriting? Well, here’s five reasons.

  • When you wrote your initial literatures text, you situated your study in the field to create your warrant and potential contribution, and established the work that you thought you would use during the research. Your argument was about what you were going to do and why. But now that you have finished the research your argument is now about what literatures helped you to construct the study, what literatures you used in analysis and theorisation and what literatures your work actually contributes to. And this argument and the associated literatures may well not be the same as when you started because:
  • You’ve subsequently found additional literatures that became important in the study, perhaps they were helpful in analysing and theorising your data. These literatures may have been around when you started but you just hadn’t found them. Or you didn’t know you’d need them. You may have landed on a new theoretical resource for example, or discovered a whole new and exciting line of scholarship and thinking. So all that now needs to get put into your existing literatures writing. And this may not, indeed is highly likely not to be, a simple matter of finding a spot in the original text and inserting the new. It is more likely that the new literatures change the way that you structure and argue throughout the relevant text (chapter or pieces of chapters).
  • There’s been new stuff published. And while it’s tempting to think that all you have to do is to add this in, what has been recently published may knock your initial framing out of shape. There may be work that you’ve come across that offers a more useful framing. There may be contradictory material that makes you rethink how you have understood relevant literatures. There may be more work like yours, but not identical, that means you have to rethink how you make your case. So any recent material may mean you have to reframe and restructure some or all of what you wrote. (Of course it may not, but you need to check)
  • You didn’t use all of the literatures you initially included and wrote about. What needs to be in the thesis literatures writing is the material that matters – the stuff that helped you design your study, make sense of your material and situate your contribution. If it turned out that some literatures weren’t important and you got by without them then leaving them in doesn’t make a lot of sense. Except you may need to note, if you are doing a field mapping, that they exist. So you have to get rid of what is superfluous, even if it hurts to remove text.

And very importantly,

  • The researcher who wrote the initial proposal is not the same researcher who is writing the final thesis text. The thesis writer has learnt a lot about their topic in the last two, three years. By the time you get to writing the thesis you are pretty close to being The Expert in your particular topic. And you need to write as an expert even if you don’t feel it. This is a very different authoring position than the more tentative and diffident beginner-researcher who started out. In the thesis you need to be evaluative, appreciative but critical, take an authoritative “hands on hips” stance – stand back to talk with confidence about your own and other’s work. So the entire “voice” of your early literatures writing may need to change, a lot.

Many of these five points apply to other sections of text that were written early. While your initial rationale for the study may well still hold, there may be additional contextual reasons why it is important. New statistical information, new policy agendas, new advances in the field. Your work contributes not only to knowledge (may have changed) but also social challenges (may be more urgent or reordered in priority), policy (may have changed) or professional concerns ( may be different). These have to be taken account of, and picked up again in the conclusion where you specify the implications of your work.

And your research design may also have shifted. What you initially thought about doing ( pandemic gah) changed. What you initially imagined to be a good design turned out not to be a great idea when you started actually getting into it – so you redesigned. What you thought was a good method wasn’t practical. What you thought was a good analytic approach turned about to be too orthodox and you came up with something much more interesting. Therefore you might well have to explain changes in your initial design. And thus means the literatures you draw on to talk about the research you actually did have to be included – and any old unused bits excised. That’s because your methodology and methods writing needs to be about the research that you actually did – that’s what the examiners are going to be presented with – not the research that you intended to do.

And ditto in both of the warrant and methods instances to the writer being a different researcher that the one who started out. Present you is much more knowledgeable than past you. So you see there are good reasons to pause before simply cutting and pasting in what you wrote some time ago. It may not be as relevant as it was. It is also unlikely to be the text of the same researcher/writer as you are now.

Tempting as it is to simply dump all of those early words in, do take some time to consider whether this really is the best move. While you may want to put your old text into a document as a kind of holding place, you do this knowing that those beginning words are something that you need to come back to with fresh eyes. And more of that next post.

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Posted in academic writing, old text, rewriting, thesis | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

developing a research agenda

So you’re thinking about how to develop a research agenda after your doctorate. This is often difficult to do. You’ve been down and dirty with the same question (and with all of the material you generated) for quite some time. And now you not only have to work on publishing from doctoral work, but also develop new work.

It’s often easy to see a next step from the doctorate. However you probably need to do more than this. Why? Well… You might be applying for postdoctoral funding – this almost always involves developing a longer term agenda and imagining a larger contribution. Or you might be applying for a permanent position. In either case, you have to put yourself in the position of a future senior scholar you, a you who is looking back at the significant work that you’ve done on topic x or topic y to get where you are now. Not easy when you’ve only just started to feel like someone with authority and expertise.

So the trick involved in developing a research agenda is to see how the stuff of the doctorate and the next step are the beginnings of a bigger and long term set of projects – all of which add up to you doing something quite substantial, about something important. And something you care about.

Developing your research agenda always involves making choices. For a start there’s usually several options flowing from the doctorate and the next step. Deciding between them may not be easy. So you might want to hang on to a couple of possible pathways and agendas for a bit to see how jobs, funding and collaborations pan out.

There’s no need to panic though. Developing an agenda is usually not an overnight process. But you can get help. You can get a lot from some sustained conversations with other people.

Fortunately a lot of universities do have good mentoring schemes where you can have just such agenda developing conversations. But talking with someone else is not dependent on institutions. If your institution doesn’t have a mentoring process, or you are between institutions as much as in them, then you can still have “what is my agenda” conversations with your mates. Your agenda has to make sense to you, but it does also help if you can explain it. And talking really helps.

Of course whatever agenda you decide on isn’t fixed in stone. Plans change as the world changes and new opportunities or difficulties arise. And as you learn. What you think is your agenda at the end of the doctorate might change, and change a lot. But it is helpful to have something in your head, and preferably on paper, that you can use now to steer your decision making.

But I want to surface something research agenda related that gets discussed less frequently. It’s something that affects my research agenda that I don’t talk about much. I know other people also find it important. And it’s time to fess up.

I always have at least two research projects on the go. Both of them are about school education. But one of them is always about something that I am in a rage about. The other is always something that is a counter balance, something positive and pleasurable. 

I came to my yin yang agenda in part because I found just doing either/or unsatisfactory. If I only focused on the joyful, than I was ignoring all of the unjust and awful things that really needed attention. If I was just focused on the terrible and rage-inducing then I was ignoring all of the things that showed that there were people doing great things and that there are alternatives. I needed/wanted to work with, and show both.

But there was/is also a personal side to my yin yang research agenda. Just focusing on injustices leaves me with a mix of anger, sadness, frustration and powerlessness. I need the balance of more positive projects so that I don’t get emotionally overwhelmed by the enormity of the issues I research. Having a balance is my way of creating a sustainable research career – one which I know is purposeful, but one where I’m not left feeling like a wrung-out rag at the end of a visit or some data analysis.

Now I know that you won’t feel the same as me, and I’m not writing this because I think that you too have to have a yin yang agenda. My point is that it is important to not only think about the stuff you want to research but also you. Research agendas are also about you, the researcher. They are always personal, human. Research is not just about career. Research is not just about contribution. It is also about what is do-able and what is sustainable. What is doable and sustainable for you, given who you are and what you need to do for you.

So when you are considering how you will move on from the doctorate, do give some thought to what you need to not only start your research agenda, but also keep it going. What kind of agenda will allow you to feel emotionally/mentally in good space? What do you need from the work itself to sustain energy, interest and intellectual risk-taking? Is anything likely to be draining rather than sustaining? If so, what can you build in to guard against this? Does your agenda need to be tweaked so that it doesn’t exhaust you, bore you to tears or make you so sad and/or angry it spills out into other parts of your life?

But perhaps this is not yet clear to you. That’s fine. Or it may not even, or ever, be an issue for you. But do just bear this post in mind in case it is.

It’s great to develop a challenging and exciting research agenda. Just make sure that there is an escape from research topic induced blues if you need it.

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Posted in research, research agenda, research decisions | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

getting to grips with PSA – Pre Submission Angst

Not everyone feels the same way about getting their thesis done.

Some people can’t wait to submit. They are sick of it. They’re over it. The sooner they can get the text to something that their supervisor says is OK, it’s going in. Click send. But those references, and the missing page numbers from quotations and the typos that mysteriously multiply between proof reads… GAH. Just let it end. Begone damn thesis.

Then there are some people who just can’t let go. The research and then the thesis has consumed life for so long you’d think it’s over, but there is still so much more to do. So much that could be done. That should be done. Just let me do a bit more on this bit. There is this bit of literature which might make a real difference to the way I understand things. Just a bit longer I promise.

And finally, there are those who have what I call PSA. Pre Submission Angst. PSA can strike you at any time but it is often most acute during the final drafts of the doctoral text.

PSA goes like this. I’ve spent all this time doing this research, reading the literature and analysing the stuff. I’ve been working away at the writing, in fact I’ve got a full draft. But even though my supervisors are pretty happy and tell me it’s nearly ready, I don’t believe that. I can’t accept that what I’ve done is any good. I read what I’ve written and it just seems so obvious. I can’t see that I have done anything. Trying to claim a contribution is almost impossible. I’ve spent all this time and have come up with nothing. The examiners will see right through me.

Maybe that sounds familiar to some of you. If so, here’s a few things to remember. The key things about PSA are really these:

You are not being silly.

The PhD is high stakes. It’s cost you money and time, it’s been a significant part of your life. So its really perfectly rational to fret about whether the work is going to be good enough. PSA is not a silly response to the important judgments to be made about your work.

Understand that this is not just you, but a shared experience. Believe it.

It’s true. Lots of people get PSA. Why? Well it’s not hard to understand. By the end of the thesis, you’ve forgotten how far you’ve come. What you had to learn along the way to get to this point. Those leaps in understanding that you made now seem minuscule. Once you know the new thing, it just becomes part of your thinking and you use it as the foundation to get to the next thing. Unless you’ve kept a journal in which you’ve documented all of these shifts – and if you have one and PSA it’s a good idea to take a bit of time to read through it – you often have to stop and consciously recreate the effort it took to get where you are now.

Know that what you are worrying about may actually be an asset 

If you have the feeling that this research is all No Shi*t Sherlock, you’re probably at that stage where you can talk with confidence about what you’ve done. That’s good. Much better than being unable to say what your research is about. And if in fact you have largely confirmed something that is already out there and you’ve done it at a different time, than that’s generally all OK too. The doctorate is as much about showing you know how to do research and present it well as it is about coming up with something startling. But the odds are that you have done and thought something just a bit different – or maybe a lot different. And you just can’t see it because you are now so close to it and so deeply in it that you’ve temporarily lost sight of what you’ve achieved so far. Trust the process. Trust yourself.

And importantly … Don’t stay anxious for too long if you can help it. Don’t let PSA bring you to a grinding halt.

You can take charge of your PSA. Show it who is boss.

PSA is talked about on the socials a lot. And the advice that comes back is usually sensible. Trust your supervisors. The thesis only has to be good enough, not earth shattering. Take a little break. Go for a walk. Do something else – write a blog post, a conference paper, develop your publication plan, do the abstract and the table of contents, find someone to talk to about your research and see what they find informative and interesting, do a three minute thesis presentation.

Above all don’t despair. Get together with some colleagues who are in the same boat, or better still, people who have recently become Doctors. Collegial support and cake and a good laugh are part of getting the PSA under control.

You can do it.

Photo by Franz Hajak on Unsplash

Posted in completing, handing in, Pre Submission Angst, stuck points | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

writing on the fly

New year, new me. Well probably not. But 2023 me has been in a new place, working away from home and from the office. And I’ve been reflecting on what I want and need in order to write.

I’m quite well set up for mobile work. The house where I am staying – yes the view the view – has good internet access almost all the time. I have a couple of mini devices – tablet and MacBook – with me, and they speak unobtrusively and easily to each other. Every file I have is in three different cloud storages. My bibliographic software and library are online. Access to journals online all OK. And I have enough ebooks to keep me going for the time I’m away. My partner understands I still need to work and can’t go out to party every morning. So everything ought to go swimmingly.

Alas. I have discovered something I couldn’t bring with me. I discovered I am addicted to a big screen. While I can put up with a little screen for a little while, I’ve become fed up with it pretty quickly. Both the MacBook and tablet are too tiny. I often find myself squinting at them. Their little screens just don’t hold enough. It’s tortuous toggling between several open windows. Yes I can cut and paste from my tablet to my book, but its really not the same as having it all there in front of me. It really does just takes longer to do pretty basic things like write and search in parallel.

It’s not just the screen. My chair isn’t great either. I have to get up much more often to make sure I don’t get too sore. I couldn’t bring my super comfy chair with me.

Being away from my usual work situation does have a down side.

So perhaps this is why I’ve been reading about mobile work, and what Gray and colleagues call “corollory work” – the unseen work you have to do in order to do the work you are expected to do. Their book “Made to work” focuses on three groups of workers – in the finance sector, the IT industry and academia. Gray et al’s interest is in understanding the tangle of humans, artefacts and processes in mobile work. And so they pay careful attention to exactly the things I am concerned about at present – the kit you work with, where you work, and how you make all of that work.

Gray and collegquges suggest that those of us engaged in knowledge work of various kinds invariably become “reflexive” about all of the stuff we do to get the work done. So it’s no surprise that I’m thinking about my situation. And no surprise that I understand that the concern I have with my screen and chair are not just mine, but fit into a much bigger picture – one where doing the work to make the work work is inevitable.

I’ve done the corollary work. And I’ve resolved one of my issues – the tiny screen. As I am parked in one place for a while, I have been able to acquire a monitor which I can now connect with my MacBook. I’m just about to set it up and I am really looking forward to no longer looking down at a tiny screen. The screen will be at eye height, the font will be bigger, and there will be at least two windows open so I can drag and drop at any time. Yippee.

I realise that this doesn’t make me a very good mobile worker. I already knew I didn’t like working in cafes and I thought it was because of the noise. Yes, I know a lot of you love this – I see you in cafes all the time, with your coffee and laptops open, typing and scrolling away. It’s just not for me. But I do also know that I can actually work through noise and not be too distracted. Noise is not the problem. I now realise the real issue – I have tiny screen aversion. Working away from the big screen is my problem. Give me a big screen and I’m happy. If there’s a café which offers temporary access to big screens I’m there.

But the implication is that I’m more than a bit limited in where I can work. Office writing is possible although there are generally other work things that get in the way. Home is good for writing. Actually home is great. Home is best. Because I don’t have children at home and have a discrete home office – the privilege which comes from being old, and permanently waged – I can happily write most days at home with my big screen. Timetable permitting of course.

However, it’s taken quite some degree of corollary work to get close to home now that I’m away. But today I have the screen, yay. Although the corollary work isn’t finished, the chair is still an issue.

2023 me has come to a realisation. I’m a good worker from home. WFH all OK. I’m not so good at mobile. And as it’s not really possible to drag around a big screen with me all the time, let alone a chair, I have to just accept that there is a limit to the amount of desk work I can do on the fly.

Posted in corollary work, mobile work | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

on alt writing

I was recently asked why I didn’t write more about other forms of writing. Why I so often wrote and blogged about the “gold standard”. Did I not think other ways of writing were important? Well yes I do, but this post is by way of a bit of an explanation.

Academic writing is a changing. Or so some say. The evidence produced for this claim is the plethora of new genres of writing that academics now do. 

It’s not just peer reviewed papers and scholarly monographs, edited  collections and encyclopaedia entries any more. We now routinely see poetry, plays, short stories, novels, novellas, comics, posters, films, TV programmes, posters. And art installations, exhibitions and performances. We also have op-ed pieces, blog posts, zines, podcasts, websites, essays, long magazine articles, columns and articles for particular publics in their publications. Oh and of course press releases, policy briefings, you tube clips and texts for the various socials. 

I love this variety. And I do play in some of these places myself. But there is a down side to all of this textual innovation.

You see most of us are expected to be over a fair few of these new forms. Pretty exhausting if you’re a new scholar to get on top of all of these textual possibilities. But it’s also exciting to think that you might turn your hand to something other than the bog standard paper. So how to reconcile the challenge and the drain.

The problem is that the bog standard paper is still expected in most (but not all) disciplines, and particularly in places where there are audits of “outputs” as well as institutional emphases on citations as both measures of individual academic “productivity”, and also faculty/school status and institutional reputation. Most academics in most disciplines, in most faculties, and in most locations still have to turn out some of your basic default academic publications. And then they get to play afterwards.

It’s doubly or triply tricky if you’re precarious. Selection panels will be impressed by blogging and podcasting, but most still also want the standard fare. The REF-able as its called here in the UK, after the name of the national university audit programme, the Research Excellence Framework. Emerging academics are expected to show they can and already do have publications that can be submitted for this ranking ritual.

But all of us also have to do enough of the new stuff to contribute to the institutional profile as well as establish ourselves as good institutional players (yes, read this as the push to become an exemplary new neoliberal academic hell bent on furthering career and reputation by churning out texts and grant applications). We do the orthodox and the new, the trad and the boundary pushing. There really is little choice but to take on some of the alt. It does count for getting jobs And it counts in getting promoted. And the alt might well turn out to be the most pleasurable part of the work. So we can – should?- certainly engage with it.

However we ought not, IMHO, to think that the academic publishing ground is going to shift away from the bog standard text any time very soon. As long as the current emphasis on producing auditable texts continues, and there are league tables of institutions and individual academics ranked by H index, then the default peer reviewed journal and scholarly monograph will prevail. Even if big publishers were to take a hit because of open access, other larger policy changes would need to happen to make all our more obviously creative work count more. 

That’s not a reason for not experimenting, for developing skills in alt forms of writing, for engaging in the socials, for writing for popular outlets. It is simply to say that we ought not to make too big a claim for the imminent transformation of the academic reading, writing and publishing economy. And that therefore most of us will need to continue to hone our writing in the default genres.

Having said that, I will take a turn to the less auditable text next year, even if just for a bit. Alt texts to kick the year off.

Patter is now taking a tiny bit of leave and will return in the new year. I wish you and yours all the best for the festive season. 

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Posted in alt texts | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

does the find-a-journal beta service work?

You may have noticed that a big journal publisher is offering to help you find the right journal for your paper. It’s got a beta version of a “journal suggester” as part of its “how to publish your research” web advice. The process looks pretty straightforward. You simply paste your abstract in a box, press a button, and the magic behind the screen offers you a suggested short-list of journals.

I decided to try the service out. And this is the result. The answer to whether it works is … Sort of.

I tried two different texts. The first was a lengthy abstract for a chapter about a national arts programme offered to young people. The other was the first two paragraphs of a report about research with school leaders.

In both instances I was offered seven journal suggestions. In the arts abstract, only two of the journals were in my own field of education. The others were in several different fields and included two I had never heard of (in tourism!!! and cultural studies). Neither of the education journals were the first recommendation (second and fifth) with the fifth being the one that I thought was most suitable for the argument I wanted to make.The school leader paragraphs returned three journals in education, the first being my least favoured and the fifth the most likely in my view (the other one was fourth).

So the magic suggestions and my own judgment about where would be the best place to put each publication were along the same lines, but also with significant differences. Both times what came up first in the suggestions wasn’t really a great fit. Well, that’s my view.

So did the magic know better than me about which journals were better? Not likely. I know the journals in my own field well and regularly work with doctoral and early career researchers about where they might publish. (Check my home page if you want to see whether I’ve got any street cred in publishing.) I back myself – I reckon my judgment is better than the beta service by a country mile.

But this find-a-journal service is not meant for people like me. It is meant for people who really don’t know their field well. And therein lies a problem or two.

Publishing a paper is not really best done as writing the paper and then finding the best journal fit. You can do it this way of course. People do. But really it’s better to work out who you want to know about your research – who is the reader – and then find the journals that your desired reader reads. Is this hard to do? Not really.

How do you find where your desired readers are? Well you could use a list like the one generated by the publisher magic, or you could simply look at the journals you already use and quote the most. These are the journal communities you are already in, and these are the readers who are already talking about your topic. Your most quoted journals are read by the people most likely to be interested in your work. If you’ve not written and published a lot, your top references are your quick-win suggested journal list.

And once you have found your readers and a target journal, then you need to work out how to speak specifically to those readers. You need to offer them something that they will be interested in, something that they don’t already know.

But let’s imagine you’ve selected a journal that was magically suggested to you by the publisher. Who only looks at their journals btw. And their journals may not be the best one for your contribution. But I digress.

The generic abstract that you inserted into their text box in the journal finder service probably isn’t good enough. It needs to be rewritten to be specific to your chosen journal and readership. Even journals that are ostensibly the same – as were the three leadership journals suggested to me by the magic beta box – are actually fairly different in their orientation, literatures used and general expectations of theory, method etc. You get to understand these differences when you look at the actual journal, not just the key words that appear in mission statements.

So. To sum up. Using the magic cut and paste suggestion box may not get you the best fit for your work. You will certainly need to do more research on the actual journal to make sure that you are submitting something that will make it past the editor’s desk.

But there is another issue here. Imagine that you decide to choose a journal that is out of your field. One you don’t quote. One you don’t know. One where you have no idea of the history of the journal conversations, the general literatures used. While readers of this out-of -your-field journal might be interested in your topic, you are going to have quite a job to make your paper fit with their expectations of how a paper goes.

I have spoken with a couple of highly experienced researcher authors in my own field who have published in disciplinary journals that aren’t ours. Both had “interesting experiences” they said – in other words they had to do a lot of hard work writing the initial draft but then also a lot more work when dealing with reviewer comments. Reviewers said things that were entirely unexpected. These were not Reviewer 2 but were speaking in disciplinary terms unfamiliar to the experienced education writers. The educational researchers were trying to get into a new conversation they didn’t really know a lot about. One author told me that he would not try this again, it was so difficult.

Of course, if you are already doing interdisciplinary work then border crossing may not be such an issue. But if you are tempted to choose something outside your usual field, it might be a very difficult ask and task. So beware the temptation to try the new journal out of your field just because it was suggested to you.

So to sum up. Again and properly. At this stage, this kind of find-a-journal service is of limited use. I think it could be easily made more effective if the author was asked what field they were in as well as posting their abstract. The magic could then put the field journals first and then offer a couple of additional out-of-field suggestions just for interest.

But it would be even more helpful if beta users were reminded that once they had made a choice from the suggested journals, they still need to do some work themselves. That the find -a-journal service is a beginning not an end point. That a bit of algorithm that reads key words and phrases can’t actually interpret and make judgments about what readers of the journals are actually interested in, what conversations they’ve had, what they expect to see quoted and used and what debates they are having. Having a warning on the service would help shield novice writers from a lot of unnecessary work and heartache.

So my verdict on the find-a-journal service? At this beta stage, use with care. Crap detectors at the ready. 

And big important multinational publisher – how about asking for field as well as text, and providing a few more directions for users. And make sure there is a clear statement of limitations about what this kind of service can and can’t do.

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Posted in choosing the right journal, journal | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

academic writing knowhow – setting the scene

That first sentence. Your first thought. An opening gambit. Setting the scene. Attracting the reader. Aaargh. Starting a new piece of writing can be daunting. It’s no wonder that so many writers worry about how to begin.

But academic writers are comparatively lucky when it comes to starting off. Unlike fiction writers who must pull a brilliant beginning from the void, academic writers have something to fall back on. An established genre which they can use, if they wish.

What is this “established genre” I hear you ask? Well. Many academic texts begin with some contextual scene-setting. Papers, books, proposals often start with context. Then, once the scene is set, the writer goes on to say exactly what this particular text will be about.

Contextual scene setting can be comparatively slight in word terms, but a few sentences can do a lot of work. Scene-setting accomplishes five key things.

  1. It locates the paper/book/proposal in a field of study, an area of concern, a policy context, a professional practice, a geographical location, a moment in time. One or a combination of these things. And in doing this locational work the opener also

2. establishes the potential significance of the paper. The context makes the case that the paper will say something about an important matter. Nothing trivial here. There is good reason to take this paper seriously. The opener may also suggest that the text will be timely, something that people are already talking and concerned about. And once the significance is pointed out, then

3. the reader knows that the paper to come is something they should read. It also helps if the opener is inviting and well written so that

4. the reader think that this will be a paper they will enjoy. The reader wants to open the door, go thought the archway, fall down the rabbit hole. And very usefully

5. laying out the context at the start of the text allows you to go back to it at the very end of the paper, when you are discussing the implications of the work you’ve written about. Now you know this, what does that mean for this context? What should happen now, who might do what, given the results and this argument?

And of course these five points strongly suggest that in order to set the scene so that it speaks to a reader, you have start with an idea of who you are writing to, and what they will be concerned about. And just a little tip. Writing multiple openers for different readers is always an interesting way to decide which reader, which angle you are going to take in your text and which journal you will target.

So what does scene-setting look like? Well, here’s three examples. Let’s start with a one sentence opener from an abstract.

Lack of student engagement in online learning is reported as the major challenge contributing to poor academic performance and completion rates. 

This sentence establishes the context – online learning – and an associated practice problem – lack of student engagement. While the opener doesn’t specifically refer to the pandemic, it has been published at a time when many more of us have been involved in online learning and encountered the engagement challenge. And so we can anticipate, predict, that the next sentence is going to say that the paper addresses the problem that has been identified – the aforesaid lack of interest and enthusiasm. Yes, maybe you would write this context differently, but this is from a published paper – the opener has done its job.

Here’s a somewhat longer starter for ten taken from the published paper, not its abstract.

In April of 2020, the British government was accused on mislabelling the Sars-CoV-2 virus as the ‘great leveller”, harming the rich and poor alike (Milner, 2020). However, mounting evidence shows that the pandemic strikes more deeply at groups with pre-existing social disadvantages, impacting most severely people in precarious jobs and poorer communities ( Kristal and Taylsh, 2020; Plumper and Neumayer, 2020, Qian and Fan, 2020). 

This scene setting is geographical – the UK – and temporal – it addresses the pandemic – and takes a sociological framing – differential effects on different social groups. But the paper could be about anything. However, it is in a higher education journal so readers could predict something like this next sentence…

We ask whether this differential impact was replicated  within higher education. 

The reader now knows, after four sentences, what they are about to read and why it is important. 

Here’s another brief example from another published paper.

Although literature suggests that boredom and its associated negative outcomes should be avoided in higher education ( Feldges & Pieczenko, 2020) avoiding boredom may, it seems, be altogether impossible. Despite efforts to rid students of boredom, research reports high prevalence among higher education students (Dugan et al, 2019; Pekrun et al 2020; Sharp et al, 2020). 

This opener establishes another common problem in higher education – it could be called lack of engagement or lack of participation, but this paper focuses on boredom. Because the word boredom sounds a little like the feedback that comes in student course evaluations, readers may be very keen to read on. And readers of this journal, another higher education publication, won’t be surprised to read the next sentence which says what the paper is about.

A different strategy to dealing with boredom may thus be required. 

The reader is now very tempted to read on, lured by the promise of learning something new. And potentially useful.

Now, sometimes – in fact quite often – opening scene-setting goes on for a bit longer than these examples. I chose these because they were short and suitable for a blog post. The scene setting opener may extend to one, two, three paragraphs. But there is a limit to how much you can put in an introduction. If establishing the context goes on for too long, the reader may wonder what on earth the actual paper is about. Yes, but why am I reading all this? Focus dammit, they may start to think. It is important to move on from the opening scene to tell the reader about the actual paper to come.

The writer may have to add something more a little later in the paper about context. Or immediately. For example in the paper about boredom, the very next section after the intro explains and expands on how boredom is often understood, and how it will be understood and discussed in this paper.

So context. So setting the scene. If you are about to start a new bit of writing, one of the more straightforward things you can do is to write something about the context. And if you also think about how you might come back to the context at the end, this will help you orient the argument you will make in between the intro and outro.

I’m not suggesting that writing the scene setter is necessarily easy or quick. But it is a known process. It’s a default commencing, something that you can do to get started. Scene setting is not the only way to start a paper and you may choose to go back to your first draft and do something else, or kick off your writing in another way altogether.

But writing the scene- setter first does get you going. You no longer have a blank screen in front of you. You have a direction, and you can more confidently write the next sentences about what your text is going to do, and how it will address the context you’ve established. 

And yes, I’m sure some of you picked up that locate is the first move in writing a Tiny Text.

Photo by mohammad takhsh on Unsplash

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the end of AcWriMo – now what?

It’s the end of the officially designated month of academic writing. I must confess to being a bit dissatisfied with what I’ve done. I do seem to have written a lot. But it’s been more like – some of this and a bit of that and a couple of completions. Writing these texts took up huge amounts of time. But the end result is that there’s not been anything I can look back on with huge amounts of satisfaction. I can’t really say that this was the month that I made major advances in or on… In almost every way AcWriMo was a month like all others.

While I did do more reading about writing, just so I could write a couple of blog posts, not much else changed. At the end of the month I find myself with a chapter still incomplete, a major report that needs huge amounts of work, and a lot of bits and pieces that require my undivided attention. Those three ideas for papers remain tantalisingly out of reach. That potential book proposal stays unwritten.

Mostly I can live with the undone things, although not finishing the report is causing me some grief. Being sanguine about multiple and very partial successes comes from knowing that this is the usual state of affairs. The scholarly norm is having not one but a set of writings on the go. It’s rare in academia to be in a situation where you write serially, completing one textual task before going onto the next one. No, the reality is that there are always some texts being finalised, some underway and some standing in line.

The PhD is really a preparation for living with multiple texts. Writing the big book thesis always involves working on several chapters at once. Even if you are focusing majorly on one, there are always things to think about related to the drafts that you have done. Does this bit go here in this new chapter or should it be in another ? If I write this here, will I need to go back to this bit I thought I had finished and change some things there? If I say this now, then I have to remember when I write the next bit I’ll need to do…

Learning to juggle various bits and pieces of writing is hard. But juggle is the name of the writing game. And its important that the juggle, keeping all those writing tasks on the go doesn’t keep you awake at night. You have to find ways to manage the continued movement of finishing, starting and leaving at the same time.

Some people manage the juggle via lists. Im a bit of a list maker myself and I do find that having things written down helps to keep tasks in line, keeps them from acting up in order to get immediate attention, to rudely change their position in the queue. There are various apps that help with lists and various forms of journals. Lists and apps are simply ways of setting up a bit of a brain addition, an external cognitive support which leaves more of the writing-mind focussed on the task immediately in front of us.

Perhaps the last task for this month then is to make a list of what remains to be done. Find an app. Consider. What textual tasks do you see before you ? What order should they go in ? Which is really the most pressing ? What do you most want to do straight away and what can you leave without causing havoc with larger timelines?

And of course, while list making and sorting out what gets done when, it’s also absolutely necessary not to beat yourself up for all of the things you havent done. To forgive yourself for the things you wanted to write but didnt get around to. To make peace with the fact that this month you did what you could, when you could, and that is just fine.

And yes, thats me too, list making and being kind to myself about all the not yet done things.

Photo by Isabel Maria Guner-Velasco on Unsplash

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revising drafts – #AcWriMo

In the spirit of #AcWriMo here is another book that you might find interesting and helpful – this week it’s Verlyn Klinkinborg’s (2012) Several short sentences about writing.

Klinkinborg writes a book-length prose poem about authoring. His goal is to unpick writing myths and orthodox wisdoms – he takes on writing blocks, genius and inspiration, topic sentences and the (non)usefulness of outlines (ouch). While Klinkinborg is not writing for academics, much of what he says is highly relevant to us – but ahem, perhaps outlines are still useful in academic writing where we have to carefully accumulate ‘stuff’ in order to make our argument. But put that gripe aside.

I particularly like what Klinkinborg has to say about revising. You may well be up for revising during #AcWriMo – you have to do something with all the text you’ve generated. Klinkinborg’s advice is pertinent to drafts but also to the kind of brain dump text that you generate during timed writing, if that is your thing.

Klinkinborg offers a middle road between ditching large numbers of words because you think they are all terrible, and holding onto every single word as if they were forged from precious metal. He cautions about being too ruthless, getting rid of things too quickly. He says

“It’s true that the simplest revision is deletion. 

But there’s often a fine sentence lurking within a bad sentence,

A better sentence hiding under a good sentence.”

Klinkinborg would have you look at sections of text where there is some kind of good idea going on, but the words aren’t great. He suggests you spend a bit of time working on some sentences and paragraphs to see what is worth preserving.

 “Work word by word until you discover it.

But, he warns, attending to sentences and paragraphs is more than shuffling the words around and around, or doing a bit of cut and paste. As he puts it

“Don’t try to fix an existing sentence with minimal effort,

Without reimagining it,

You can almost never fix a sentence – 

Or find the better sentence within it –

Using only the words it already contains. 

If they were the right words already, the sentence wouldn’t need fixing. “

Klinkinborg advocates a readiness to alter what is on the page or screen, combined with persistence and imagination. This means you play with the words, trying out new combinations of old and new. Lots of writers don’t get this, he says. They

“… sit staring at a flawed sentence as if it were a Rubik’s cube.,

Trying to shift the same words round and round until they find the solution.”

Klinkinborg is quite insistent about the need for thinking anew about drafty text. You have to be prepared to work at it, he says, to reimagine it.

“Take note of this point: it will save you a lot of frustration.

This applies to paragraphs too. 

You may not be able to fix the paragraph using only the sentences it already contains. “

But Mr. K also wants to provide some reassurance to any readers who may be getting very anxious about the possibility of working on a sentence for days on end. That’s we scholarly folk for sure. Writing in pressured and performative times does mean that we generally don’t have time to do the kind of careful sentence by sentence work Klinkinborg argues for. So it’s helpful that he advises,

“Look for improvement where-ever you find it,

And build on every improvement

But don’t look for too much improvement all at once. 

Finding a flaw is an improvement. So is discarding an unnecessary word or using a stronger verb.

 Writing even one clear, balanced , rhythmic sentence is an accomplishment. 

It prepares the way for more good sentences.

It teaches you how you respond, inwardly, to a successful sentence of your own making.”

A Klinkinborg maxim for doing the best you can in the available time and in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Thankyou.

Small writing improvements count. And what you learn from making small changes sets you up for the next revising task.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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Are long sentences always bad? #AcWriMo

Academic writing is often characterised as a load of long sentences packed full of complex ideas. It’s not surprising then that you often read and hear advice that says you can help readers make sense of your text by making your sentences shorter. On the face of it, this seems straightforward and sensible. But it may not be. I’ve been doing some reading which questions the short sentence advice.

This week, and following my own urging to use #AcWriMo to do some regenerative work, see previous post, I’ve gone back to one of my favorite writing books, Joe Moran’s (2019) First you write a sentence. The elements of reading, writing … and life. Moran’s syntactical exploration is my preferred combination of literary nerdiness and practical application. And the book is written beautifully as you’d expect. (Yes, you’d be cross if it wasn’t. Well, I would be.) Many of Moran’s sentences about sentences are both eminently quotable and also useful.

Moran has a number of key principles about writing sentences – for instance, they should be speech-like but not be written exactly like talk. He says

“Sentences should be as much like speech as you can make them–so long as you remember that they are nothing like speech. Writing needs to retain the loose shapes of talk, its rhythmic curves and breathing pauses, but overlay them with the tighter shapes of writing.”(p. 90)

Moran advocates writing plainly, not trying to sound too-clever-by-half. Easier said than done, perhaps. Wanting to sound academic is a common problem for new academic writers who are still working out what a scholarly text is and does. They try too hard to sound “classy” as Howard Becker puts it. Moran uses a different term to describe the problem but has an equally useful take.

“So much uncongenial writing comes from the fear of boring others with the obvious. Scared of sounding banal, we muddy our prose and it ends up sounding muddy and banal. The best way to unkink a twisted train of thought or to massage a misshapen piece of logic is simply to say what you have seen and let the reader join the dots.” (p. 100)

So of course Moran has something helpful to say on the question of complexity and sentence length, building on from his suggestion to focus first on meaning and clarity. His key point is that sentence length is a servant to clarity. Sentence length matters because making ideas accessible to the reader matters.

According to Moran, when explanations and argument need to be persuasive and credible, this sometimes does mean making sentences brief.

“When the ideas are complex, it is … crucial not to saddle the reader with long words and phrases, so he (sic) can expend his mental energy on the ideas. The sentences of ‘difficult’ writers like Nietzsche, Kafka and Beckett are often as short and clear as those in Mr. Men books. They may be hard to fathom but they are seldom hard to read. No evidence exists, however comforting its discovery might be for those of us who find it difficult to be easy, that difficulty in writing is a mark of profundity. More likely, long sentences are just overgrown graveyards where unconvincing arguments are conveniently buried.” (p 130) 

But focusing on the short sentence as the only way to achieve clarity and accessibility may well be a mistake. If the goal is to help the reader get to grips with the “stuff’ being written about, Moran says, it may be that making things clear requires long sentences.

“Long sentences have their uses. They can be more concise than a string of simple ones, because having a subject and main verb for each thought wastes words. And sometimes long sentences are useful for the opposite reason: not to save words but to expand them, to stretch out a thought so the reader can keep up as you think it through. ‘To know that simplifying may often mean expanding,’ Flesch wrote” (p. 130)

Moran’s argument nicely refocuses discussion about sentence length IMHO. The priority is what the writer is trying to get across. If the substantive content is complex and difficult, the writer has to think first about what the reader needs. Then and only then do they consider how sentence length might help. Or hinder. So the writer not only considers short sentences and cutting words that add little to the overall meaning, but also adding words –

“By expanding complex ideas into long, loose sentences, you mimic the stretched-out thinking-aloudness of speech. Cutting out long, derived words, such as nominalizations, often means using more words in their place–but it can make the writing feel less squashed. The slow train of thought needs plenty of track. This way of making a long sentence clearer sounds counterintuitive: make the sentence even longer by using more words. But the extra words help because they mark the start of phrases, so they break the sentence up into readable little chunks.” (p. 132)

Decisions about syntax are important, Moran says. But it is also important, he suggests, to craft your text not only for meaning and accessibility but also so it reads and sounds as if a human being has written it.

“Being sparing with words does not mean being miserly with them. Words are there to be spent. Even a seemingly redundant word can add a euphonious beat, or give the reader time to think, or parcel out the sense better, or just make the sentence seem as if it comes from a real, human voice.” (p. 132)

So there you go. Sometimes long sentences OK, they are just what the reader needs.

And if you’re not sure where to find a refreshing book for #AcWriMo then do get this one out of the library and give it a whirl. I’m sure you’ll find something in Moran’s work that gives you a new angle on the academic writing you’ve yet to do.

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