writing to be read aloud

Many years ago I spent a pleasant mid morning sitting in the sun being read to. The occasion was a writers’ festival in my home town of Adelaide, Australia and the reader was Louis de Bernières. He’d just completed his novella Red Dog (now a movie) and wanted to try it out on a real audience. When he announced that he was just going to read, and not talk and engage with the audience – the usual genre at these kinds of events – there was a collective frown. de Bernières was going to break the unwritten rules and we were going to be cheated.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. de Bernières is an accomplished reader, the Red Dog stories were funny and elegantly written and the audience was highly engaged for an hour.


Adelaide Writers’ Week

Whenever I think about reading aloud I remember this particular event, as it so encapsulated the sheer pleasure of being able to listen, really listen, to words put together in ways that inform, stimulate and please. Reading aloud, and the telling of stories, brings people together, creates a magic that suspends everyday life, and has the power to make all else fade into the background. Of course, the reader has to be highly skilled, and the text well-crafted in order to achieve this kind of effect.

I wonder occasionally if this experience says anything to academic writing and presentation. What does it take to create such engrossed attention by simply reading words on a page?

We’ve all seen bad academic reading aloud.  And on more than one occasion. The conference paper presentation where the writer simply puts their paper up in front of their face and proceeds to plod through section after section of it. The key note who puts up slide after slide and then recites each one to us.

It’s tempting to think that the solution to the badly read paper is that we academics should never read aloud. But there are plenty of reasons to do so – we might be nervous and need a written text in order to make sure that we don’t go off piste. We might be giving a long and high stakes key note and we want to make sure that what we say is well planned and able to withstand videoing and re-listening to. We might just be giving a regular lecture and want to make sure we cover a given set of points and material. We might believe that we can’t speak off the cuff.   Reading from a paper is justifiable in all of these circumstances.

And it’s equally tempting to suggest that the problem is the reader. The reader just can’t read. They can’t put light, shadow and emphasis into the text. They should be more entertaining. I don’t want to get into this. I figure that we can all read aloud well enough – I’m sure we could all benefit from some practice, but that’s not really the major problem. The key issue is actually the text we are reading.

Academic writing isn’t like that of  Louis de Bernières. We aren’t writing fiction.We  write argument, interpret texts and statistics, present data, refer to other scholarly work. And this kind of academic writing just doesn’t work in the same way when it is read aloud to an audience as when we read it to ourselves. That’s because writing something intended to be read aloud is not necessarily the same as writing something to be read silently. This is particularly true of academic writing which usually has lots of conventions, abstractions and formalisms that just sound truly terrible when they are read out loud.

Brian Massumi recently noted this, saying of his writing and speaking:

I think a lot about how I address the reader. I want to make the reading in some way enjoyable, however difficult it might get in places. I try to lead the reader in and move the reading forward with a rhythm that recalls the rhythms of speech (using techniques like alternation in the length of sentences, or between words of latin and anglo-saxon etymology, or between technical words and everyday expressions, tones of high seriousness and asides verging on silliness, etc). The essays aren’t made to be read out loud, but as I write I need to be able hear the language as if it were to be spoken. In other words, I talk to myself as I write, but on the understanding with myself that the result is very much a written product and is not speech, even if it carries certain echoes of its rhythms. Even though I talk to myself through my writing, it is very hard for me to deliver my essays as talks. To feel comfortable presenting them orally, I have to recompose them for speech (as opposed to writing them with certain properties of speech).

Ah. Writing a paper in order that it can be spoken. Re-writing the meant-to-be-silently-read text so that it can be spoken. That’s the step that the people who do those dreadful paper readings at conferences don’t get.

A written academic paper is almost always not the same as the paper that has been written specifically for reading aloud. The paper to be read aloud is likely to be less formal and have less commentary than a journal article. It might offer different kinds of signposting than a conventional academic journal article (although there might still be a bit of “Today Im going to cover a, b, c… I’ve said this so far”). The paper to be read aloud might foreground examples and stories and bring them into conversation with analysis in a much more casual way than a published paper. There might be a lot less citation, with mention only of the key scholars whose ideas are used or challenged.

Red Dog FTI cvr.inddYou see, the writer of the paper to be read has to think about the audience. How to keep them engaged? How to manage the staging of ideas and examples so that they keep listening and thinking? How to persuade and convince them while also keeping them interested?

We ought not to expect academic writing to be as entertaining as Lois de Bernières and Red Dog. Not possible. Not sensible. Why even think about it? We are not ‘entertainers’. But if we do want to nuance the reading aloud, then  some of the things that performers think about might be helpful. We don’t have to be an entertainer to learn from their practice. We can ask – How to manage the actual talking? Where to pause? How to ensure that there are shades of emphasis, rhythms and rises and falls in the narrative? These questions are helpful because we can write these things into the text if we imagine ourselves speaking as we write.

We can surely go some way towards making the papers we read aloud more interesting. We can certainly get away from the dull drone and the syntax that is awful to the ear. This doesn’t mean throwing a few jokes into the same old same old paper, but considering how writing meant to be listened to differs from writing intended to be read silently.

To sum up then – a first step in making our spoken presentations more interesting is to think not simply about readers for academic writing, but also about listeners for our talks. A second step is to write the paper to be read aloud, if that is what is required, and another version for publication.


Posted in academic writing, Brian Massumi, conference presentation, reading aloud | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

boostering your introduction and conclusion

Academic writing is known for its use of qualifiers – usually words which tone down the claims that are made. We academics know it is impossible/incredibly difficult to establish a generalisable result though research, and our writing signals this difficulty through the use of words like – may, suggest, indicate, could, might, seem, suspect, infer. And because we know that there is relationship between the methods we use and our results we often signal the limitations of our research through words such as partially, approximately, quite, generally.

Hedges – for this is what these kinds of toning-down qualifying words are called – are a necessary part of scholarly work and writing. They signal that we know that the work we have done is good, but it’s not all that there is to see, say and do on our topic. 

But too much qualification makes a writer sound very tentative. Too many hedges altogether in one place can make academic writing difficult to read. Getting to the point is like chewing cotton wool. Too many hedges can also leave the reader with a well-why-did-I-bother-with-this-then feeling.

However, there are qualifiers that work in the opposite way to hedging. Rather than tone down claims, these words are called Boosters because, well, they add a sense of certainty and importance to our writing. Boosters include will, show, find, determine, confirm, know, clearly, particularly, it is clear that, the fact that, establish, demonstrate, conclude. Other terms such as evidence, striking effect, the importance of, of most importance, of particular interest also help to emphasise significance.

4263146300_908e7d5fc3_bLinguists who study academic writing (for example, Ken Hyland) say that boosters are most often used in the introductory and concluding sections of papers, theses and books. This is because the introduction and conclusion are where the writer wants to influence the reader. When a writer wants to signal, at the very outset, the worth of what the reader is about to encounter, a booster is used. A booster or two strengthens the warrant for the paper. Boosters can promote the novelty, value and importance of the research and writing too. And boosters are the academic writer’s way of emphasising that there is a strong relationship between the results they have presented and the interpretation and claims they make.

Boosters are a linguistic means of presenting the newsworthiness of research. They are intended to persuade. Boosters say – you can trust this, this is good stuff, this matters. Take this conclusion as an example. It comes from an evaluation of the National Writing Project’s College Ready Writing Program for teachers and students – an intervention designed to improve the writing of school students before they enter university/college.

This evaluation of teacher professional development is one of the largest and most rigorous to find evidence of an impact on student academic outcomes. It
 found that CRWP affected student outcomes on a particularly complex task—writing an argument supported by reasoning and developed through the use of evidence from source material. This type of argument writing has been identified as critical to college and career readiness and is central to new academic standards for English language arts and literacy. Given that the evaluation found consistent implementation in more than 20 districts across10 states, the findings SUGGEST that CRWP CAN BE effective in diverse settings.

You can see from the words I have underlined that the evaluators are using boosters to make strong claims about the relationship between the intervention and the outcomes – they assert that their results matter because their research was large and rigorous and it found evidence about something complex  critical and central. The reader is positioned by  this boosterism  to understand the significance of the study. However, after all this boostering, the writers then make a ‘suggestion’ (I’ve put this in capitals). The programme ‘can be’ effective – this is not a definitive claim by any stretch of the imagination. But even though the writers hedge their final So What, their ‘suggestion’ for action has been made very persuasive by their previous use of boosters.

Boosters are a kind of rhetorical assertiveness. They signal ‘Look at what I’ve done and how important it is’. For this very reason, it is sometimes difficult for doctoral researchers to use boosters, perhaps because they feel anything like the expert that is implied in writing compelling reasons to, sufficient evidence for, it is crucial to. Occasionally, doctoral and early career researchers can inappropriately use boosters, making over claims for the work that they have done. But mostly, conclusions in theses and early papers in particular suffer from too much hedging.

It is helpful for doctoral and early career researchers to find out the ways in which hedges and boosters are used in their discipline – and to read some papers specifically looking to see how qualifying is done. Understanding how these linguistic tactics work means that they can then become an explicit resource in an academic writing toolkit.

Why not try playing with hedges and boosters? It is useful to make checking the introduction and conclusion for the use of hedges and boosters a regular part of your revision strategy. Looking for the way in which you have used  hedges and boosters allows you to focus specifically on the level of authority you are assuming through your writing. It allows you to check whether you have your discipline-appropriate level of caution and assertion. You can see whether rationale for the research, the results and claims work together in a convincing way.

And understanding that hedges and boosters are used in introductions and conclusions can help you to ‘whistle a happy tune’ – that is, to write as if you are feeling more confident than you actually are. When you use the right mix of linguistic strategies you can write as if you are the expert in your field, even if you don’t feel like it. When you get the hedges and boosters working together, they tell your reader that you are a credible and trustworthy researcher who knows what they are talking about.


Read more in this post on writing with authority.

Photo credit: John Train, FlickrCommons

Posted in authority in writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

thesis to journal article – five things to remember

Once you have winkled the topic of your paper out of its thesis shell, you need to select the journal that you want to publish in. And once you’ve made that decision, you need to remember these five things as you start to think about the process of reshaping the material.

  1. You are writing for a new reader

The reader is no longer an examiner who was looking for evidence that you knew how to ‘do’ research and that your research made a credible contribution to your field.  The journal reader expects a paper about something that will interest them, that will connect with what they already know, that  is believable, well constructed and tightly argued. Their expectations mean that you now need to tailor make the material from your thesis into something different.

Photo: Bill Benzon, flickrcommons

Photo: Bill Benzon, flickrcommons

2. You have to write a new rationale

You have to construct the particular case for this particular slice of your thesis. The warrant won’t be the same as you produced for your research at the outset, nor will it be exactly the same as the rationale you wrote at the beginning of the thesis text. The case for the paper must be made particular to the subject matter at hand, and to the interests of the particular journal community. Why do these readers need to read about this topic, now? How does it connect to their ongoing conversations, understandings, debates and interests? How can you signal the rationale in an engaging introduction that hooks this specific journal reader in, and makes them want to read on?

3. You have to select relevant literatures to support this paper

The literature review you did for your thesis was designed to situate your bigger project, to show the texts you were drawing on, and pinpoint where your contribution would fit.  You read an awful lot during your research and you had lots of words to play with in the thesis. But you now have to choose which literatures are most appropriate for the new paper. You  must present them so that they signal that you know the field, and most importantly, that you are on top of the literatures germane to your newly focused material. You’ll need to write a short and relevant literatures section which anchors the paper into the ongoing conversation in the journal. So you may even need to do a little additional reading.

2985192607_b475ba4604_b4.  You have to construct the argument/narrative for this material

The kinds of words that you should have in your mind here are remix, redesign and reconstruct. You are bringing together existing material in a new form. You are net working with raw material but not are you simply transplanting. You are reworking. What you write in this new paper may well not be the argument that you made in your thesis. You need to think about what is important about this slice of thesis material and how you can stage, sequence and evidence it so that the reader becomes persuaded of its plausibility and importance. You may well have to write some new ‘bits’ in order to make the thesis pieces hang together. A little, or even a lot, of your new paper will be almost unrecognisable from its original rhetorical form – although the substance may remain. However, you don’t want a pastiche. You want to write something that hangs together, that is demonstrably a well-crafted and deliberate reworking of your selected thesis material. So you need to particularly focus on getting the moves right and the flow and transitions smooth.

5. Your claims to significance must fit this material and this new rationale

The introductory rationale for the paper and the conclusion always work together. They ask and answer a question, put forward a proposition and then resolve it, offer a problematisation and then a way forward. The conclusion to the paper from the thesis thus can’t be the same as that in the Big Book. The paper conclusion must focus on what this argument and evidence means for whom, where and why . It should tell the reader what should/could happen as a result of this new understanding. The end of the paper is written with the journal readers at the forefront of your mind and refers, again, to the kinds of knowledge, interests, debates that they think are important.

Thinking through these five things –  perhaps even jotting down some thoughts about them, free writing about them in a Pomodoro/ShutUpAndWrite – can be very helpful. Your  careful thoughts about the five points will orient you to writing either an outline or a Tiny Text abstract. This text will then steer your rewriting, reworking, reshaping, reconstucting, redesigning. Call it what you will. I like remixing.

You might also find it helpful to check out some other patter posts on writing journal articles. Check the curated collection on wakelet.

Posted in journal, journal article, journal publication, reader, thesis to papers | 1 Comment

the lazy reviewer costs us all

This is a guest post from Dr Julie Rowlands. Julie’s research applies a critical sociology of education perspective to academic governance, higher education systems, academic work and organisational change. The book of her PhD is on its way – Academic Governance in Contemporary Universities: Perspectives from Anglophone Nations (2017 Springer). She has also recently coedited Practice Theory and Education (Routledge, 2017), with colleagues Juli Lynch, Trevor Gale and Andrew Skourdoumbis.

Like most early career researchers, I review for a number of academic journals. In my experience it is par for the course that as soon as you start submitting papers of your own one or more of the journals will ask you to review papers submitted by others. This is part of the gift exchange which functions within the academy—it is central to the collegial nature of the profession.

Photo: Joseph Mosbaugh, Flickr Commons

Photo: Joseph Mosbaugh, Flickr Commons

The general principle of the gift exchange is that more senior colleagues mentor junior colleagues and so the next generation of teachers and researchers is nurtured and supported. However, the gift exchange not only involves the support of junior academics by professors because it is also reflected in the everyday things that academics routinely do for each other. I’ll give you an example.  Last year I applied for academic study leave (also known as outside study program or sabbatical) to travel abroad for a research project. Colleagues who had been granted leave the year before lent me their applications to use as a guide and they also read and commented on my draft submission. This year, I have done the same for two colleagues who are applying in this current round. The same thing applies when we read and comment on each other’s draft manuscripts.

In fact, the academy only functions because of the gift exchange. This is what is happening when we review book proposals and book manuscripts for a publisher, when we review grant applications for a funding agency and when we review abstracts or papers for an academic conference. Our participation in the gift exchange supports the academic work of our colleagues and, in the spirit of ‘what goes around comes around’, means that when we submit our papers/proposals/abstracts, they will be reviewed by others with expertise in the field. Contributing to this gift exchange is part of our collective responsibility to the profession—a responsibility that is much broader than the particular university we may be associated with at the time and broader, even, than the discipline within which we teach and/or research. It isn’t always convenient to do these things but most of us do them, most of the time.

When I first started reviewing for journals I found it incredibly difficult and there didn’t seem to be a lot of written guidance around at that time. I primarily relied upon the reviews of my own manuscripts as a template and this was pretty limited because I hadn’t published much at that point. Since then, resources on how to review journal articles have become more widely available (including through Patter) and I have found these tremendously helpful.

A senior colleague who edits a prestigious journal also advised me to write reviews with the aim of providing support and guidance to the writer – and not with sole purpose of deconstructing his or her manuscript. ‘Imagine that this is a review of one of your papers’, he said. ‘What would you want to see in that review and what would be helpful to you in revising your work?’

Through practice and persistence I think I have got better at reviewing and I now try to provide three-quarters-of-a-page to a page of constructive feedback structured around the key matters we all want to see addressed in a good journal article. These are things like: How clearly is the warrant expressed? How thorough is the relevant literature reviewed? Is the paper written for an international audience (assuming it is for an international journal)? How clear is the argument? And so on. I try hard to focus on big-picture issues and not get too bogged down in every last detail. Even if I am recommending that the paper be rejected, I aim to provide guidance on how the paper can be improved with a view to it being resubmitted elsewhere.

No-one, especially the authors, wants to see their hard academic work go to waste and I am mindful that in some instances this might be the very first paper the authors have submitted. Naturally, writing reviews this way is time consuming. It typically takes about three hours or so and maybe longer if I need to re-read the article a number of times, which I often do.

Amongst the journals I review for are several that return copies of the blind reviews to the reviewers when a decision on the manuscript is forwarded to the author. Basically, you get your own review back plus that of the other reviewer, together with a decision and some commentary from the editor. This practice is incredibly helpful when you are new to reviewing because one of the things we early career academics worry about is whether our review will be wildly different from what the other reviewer might say and thus show up our inexperience or lack of knowledge.

But in the past twelve months I have had two experiences where it is clear to me that the second reviewer has said practically nothing. That is, they have submitted a review that is only one or two lines long and that basically says the paper is rubbish, or something to that effect. The first time this happened I was shocked; the second time I was annoyed. Imagine being on the receiving end of such a review? It chiefly says that the paper was so poor it was not worth engaging with and while this might be how the reviewer felt in the heat of the moment, it was incumbent upon them to give it some space, calm down and be more constructive.

Photo: Erokism. Flickr Commons

Photo: Erokism. Flickr Commons

Beginning academics who submit their work for review in good faith deserve better than this and these reviewers must themselves have been beginning academics once. As the other reviewer I also felt a bit ripped off—that I had spent many hours doing what I thought was necessary to produce a helpful review while the other person had clearly invested next to no time at all. It wasn’t even clear that these reviewers had actually read the papers to be reviewed—or had read them thoroughly. It also inconveniences the journal editors who in most cases are forced find a third reviewer at short notice because these one or two liners are not really reviews at all.

The gift exchange upon which academia depends works on the basis that colleagues will make a fair and reasonable contribution given the resources they have available at the time. Thankfully, this is mostly what happens. But not always.

What are your experiences of the gift exchange within academia?

Posted in academic gift exchange, journal article, Julie Rowlands, reviewing | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

thesis to journal article -where’s the paper?

The thesis is done. Now you are expected to write some papers from your PhD. You may of course be able to write a book  from your PhD – but not everyone can or does. Everyone does however have some papers that they can write from a monograph thesis. And those who have done a thesis by papers may indeed still have some more to write.

You have to get your head out of thesis land and into the world of the journal. That sounds simple until you come to do it. I’ll just turn Chapter 7 into a paper…. and then it doesn’t work. Many people find that they get stuck at the point where they have to decide what papers can be written from the thesis, and where the papers sit in the pre-existing writing…

Some bad news. Reality.

One of the first things to accept is that a monograph thesis doesn’t straightforwardly translate into papers. It’s tempting to think that there is an easy transfer across from the big text, a quick rewrite of a few bits and hey presto, there’s a paper.  You can get one article out of the literatures chapter, one from methods, and one each from your data chapters.

But darn it, that’s often not the case. You are probably going to have to do some rewriting – in fact, most likely quite a lot of rewriting.  The truth is that there’s generally not that much cut and paste involved in getting publications from your thesis.

accept it - there's still more rewriting and revision top come.

accept it – there’s still more rewriting and revision to come.

There’s no way around it. The text you wrote to get through an exam may well not be the same text that you need for post-thesis publication. Here’s why.

Your literatures chapter, if you have one, was written to support the argument of your thesis, and what you gave in hand may not be significant enough to warrant a journal paper. Writing a literatures based paper is hard – start with these posts on literatures papers here and here for a fuller explanation.

Your methods chapter was also written about your whole project. Now, you may have developed a particular method which is “new”, not only for your research, but for the wider research community. Fantastic. You have a paper. Half your luck. Most people are not in this position. What most people have read and written about methodology and methods will need more work in order to make it ready for a journal.

For example, if your research was  case studies and you want to write about case studies for a journal, then you will have to ensure that you have something new to add to this particular methodological field, already well established. What does your way of tackling case studies have to offer that isn’t already well discussed?

Another example. If you had difficulty getting into your chosen research site and you want to write about it, then you will need to know all of the literatures that address “access” and think about what you have to add to them. This will not be the same as your thesis account where you simply had to report the difficulties you had and how you overcame them. Now you need to put this difficulty into the context of a wider field.

And so on.

So you may not in reality have a literatures paper or a methodological paper at all. It’s a real trap to assume that you do. You can spend an awful lot of time trying to make a literature or methods paper happen and get nothing but a bunch of rejections.

So where are the papers? Well, it’s certainly not the whole shebang, the full 80 to 100k words. As everyone will tell you, it’s pretty difficult to cram an entire thesis into one paper. The million dollar trick is to work out how to break up the text that you spent so long putting together. 

But it’s very hard for me to write about getting papers from a thesis in general terms, as every thesis is specific.  To be really helpful, I need to address a particular case. And then everyone else would be left out… However, I can say something in general terms. 

I reckon that there are at least five places to start to look for possible papers in your thesis:

  1. The key moves that you have made towards the overall contribution of the research – this is not the same as the overall contribution of your thesis but the steps that you established in order to build the case for a contribution. Its helpful to try to write these as a kind of list:
  • My thesis argues that a.
  • The evidence for this is b, c and d.

Potential papers may well be the b, c and d. And these may or may not equate to results chapters. The point is to think about which of b, c, and d equate to something that is new, something that people will be interested in reading about.

2. Points of disagreement with the established literatures. Where do your results challenge or question what is currently the state of the art in your field? You can make a list of these differences, and each may well be a paper.

3. Novel conjunctions – did you bring together different disciplinary knowledges, methods or social theories in a novel way? if you did this, then there is a potential one or two papers where you demonstrate and argue the benefit of this innovative marriage. (Insights from geography and literature?- one paper for each discipline… )

4. The inevitable offcuts. Was there some data that you just couldn’t fit into the thesis but was nevertheless interesting? Many a fine paper has come from thesis leftovers – those things that in the end weren’t germane to the argument, but nevertheless form a neat little set of “stuff” which isn’t yet much discussed in the field. The cutting room floor paper is often an easy one to write.

5. New angles on the thesis material. When you decided on a way of arguing your case through the thesis you may have been aware of another possible way (or ways) to approach the data, or a piece of it. There was another analytic approach, another theory you might have used. You may be now able to take (a subset) of your data and re-read it using this different analytic approach or a different social theory. Or you may be able to bring a smaller set of texts together in order to offer different, more in depth, but nevertheless complementary insights to those that already exist in the thesis.

Where are the papers? It always helps to try to brainstorm your options. It’s good to talk them over with someone. Find a mentor or writing friend and set a time to discuss the possibilities. If this person knows the field that you’re in, they may well have some additional ideas to offer, things that you haven’t yet thought of.

And it’s certainly appropriate to ask your PhD examiner at the end of your viva – or by polite email afterwards – for their ideas on what you might publish. And supervisors should always be up for a publication-from-the-thesis conversation both pre and post completion.

And in the next post I’ll talk some more about some of the things to consider once you have found the topic for your first paper.


Photo credit: Kellyswritinghouse, Flickrcommons.

Posted in Big Book, journal article, thesis to papers | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

taking stock – you in your chosen field

It’s often helpful to stand back and have a think – a think about your scholarly work and your scholarly ‘self’. How do you sit in relation to the conversations in your field?

Sometimes of course you may be asked to think on this. But quite often, taking stock of where you are is something that can be helpful for you – it’s a useful reflective moment, a pause in the usual routine.

To help you to think about locating yourself and your work in your chosen field, you might like to try this little writing exercise…


Timing can be important in taking stock. Don’t do it when you’re frantic or if you’re feeling crappy about your work. It’s good to think about your place in the field and your contribution over summer. Think before you get too tied up in teaching and administration.

But there are also key career times when it is beneficial to engage in some stocktaking:

  • when you finish your PhD and are thinking about publication
  • as you are planning your next year’s work
  • if you are thinking about applying for funding for a post doc or project funding
  • in preparation for a conversation with a mentor
  • before you fill in your performance plan for the year (you can make it meaningful for you).


A writing exercise – Where are you in relation to the conversations in your field?

Answer the following questions in as much detail as you can.

  • What are the key conferences in your field? Do you attend them? Have you presented at them? Have you presented with leading figures in the field? What might you do to become more visible and active in these key sites of conversation?
  • What are the key journals in your field? Do you read them regularly? Have you reviewed for them? Have you published in them? Have you talked to the Editor? How might you become more active in these journal community/ies?
  • What are the key debates in your field? Where do you stand on them? What reading have you done in relation to them? Does your research address any of them? Which? Have you made this research public? Where and to whom? What might you do next in order to get more say in a key debate in the field?
  • Are there any current hot topics in your field? Do you want to get into this discussion and if so what do you need to do? Or do you already have something to say – if so what, and where should this be spoken/published?

You might also think about the key partners and users of research in your field, who you are already connected with, and what you might do to make more, meaningful connections. What challenges and needs might your research help them to address?

Photo credit : Chris Devvers

Photo credit : Chris Devvers


It’s possible to do the above exercise in multiple ways.

You could set yourself a timed writing exercise using short time periods – say twenty minutes – for each of (1) – (4). This could be something you do in a ‘shut up and write’ session. You might want to begin with little mind maps for each of the questions, or you could use a bulleted list or a powerpoint to organise your thoughts. Or you could just write in one sitting, writing and thinking till the task is done. Or you might have a cumulative piece of writing which you do over a week or so. You choose what works for you.

You can turn this thinking/writing into a plan of some kind so you don’t lose it, and you can make it into a strategic action plan if its helpful to set yourself targets and deadlines. You can revisit your plan during the year as things change. But don’t make any subsequent  form of organisation you choose into some kind of sacrosanct object – the point here is the thinking that you do to inform your actions, and the fact that you regularly take stock.

You might also like to have a discussion about what you’ve written with an academic friend or mentor. It’s always helpful to get another perspective on your field and on your work. Someone else may see potential in things that you don’t. Talking things aloud can also help you to see for yourself the next steps you want to take, and perhaps your longer term directions. As part of a discussion, you might also ask your colleague to talk about where they are in relation to the field, so that you can see how they assess a body of work, a field and their existing and potential contributions. Hearing other people do the same exercise that you’ve done can be very helpful.


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beware the shoehorn – #researchfunding

For the last five years, I’ve directed a research development centre for the Arts and Social Sciences. I’ve just finished that job and am thinking about what I’ve learnt. This is one of the things that I’ve worried about.

The dictionary tells me that the verb ‘to shoehorn’ means to force something into an inadequate space. It’s a verb which is derived from an actual shoehorn, a device used to help you get your heel into a tight fitting shoe or boot. Like – well, you know the story of Cinderella. Her happy-ever-after depended on a slipper fitting her foot exactly and no one else’s – all her rivals had to be shoehorned into her fairy-made bespoke footwear.

Now what’s all this talk of shoehorning got to do with research bids, I hear you ask. Well, shoehorning is what some people try to do with their research bids. And its usually a sure-fire recipe for lack of success. Let me explain why.

These days, certainly in the northern hemisphere, a lot of research funding is subject to particular research calls. A funder declares a particular topic or theme and asks for research bids in response. It might be the EU or a charity or a government funded agency. So, for example, the Research Councils in the UK currently have a call for bids which respond to the theme ‘building resilience’.

The call is described in this way – As part of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the UK research councils are taking a leadership role in generating interdisciplinary research and communities which can address the issue of ‘Building Resilience’.

The call is elaborated further to signal exactly what the funder is interested in.

Building resilience rests on the ability to take a holistic approach which encompasses environmental knowledge, socio-economics, infrastructure, governance, and the history and culture of a community or region that is affected. It will require new inter-disciplinary research and recognition of the importance of engaging with local actors to understand what knowledge is required and how it can be implemented to design solutions that help all parts of society. The call is open to proposals addressing resilience to natural and man-made environmental hazards in a range of developing world contexts. The focus is on how to build resilience in relation to both sudden and slow-onset environmental hazards (eg land-degradation, deforestation, drought, hurricanes, climate change) taking into account the intersections and relationships with other contexts such as conflict and fragility, poverty and famine, urbanisation, economics and health / disease risks.

These paragraphs are fairly typical of a themed call. The text outlines a BIG social problem – how people adjust to environmental hazards and disasters. It then sets out some parameters for the research – it must be located in a particular place and work with local partners; it must be interdisciplinary. Some of the disciplines that might be involved are flagged up – geography, politics, economics, history, health, perhaps archeology, languages, psychology, sociology or education. But there is also a lot of scope for researchers to shape their own project, arguing why their specific focus is significant, and why their approach is appropriate.  Overall, researchers must argue why the aspect of the call they’ve chosen to address is the most crucial, the most credible, and the most fundable.


For researchers who already work on this agenda, this kind of call is a god send. There is a good match between what they do and what is wanted. These researchers already know the field(s) intimately, they understand the theoretical and methodological debates, frontiers, and challenges. They know the literatures. Indeed, they may well have a project they have really wanted to do forever, if only there were a big enough pot of money available. They know other people who they can work with. These are researchers who are well positioned to put together a bid. The funding shoe fits.

Then there are researchers who can see how their research might contribute significantly to a bid in the area of the call. They might get together, or be encouraged by their institution(s) to come together with others, to develop a bid. A new team, usually with support of mentoring, time and perhaps someone to do some literature work and/or writing, can devise a project and work plan. This new project not only fits the call, but draws on the extensive track records of a community of scholars who may not have worked together before. In the particular call from RCUK, this may indeed be just what the funders want – they want new research groups to emerge. The researchers come together to make a new foot which the shoe will fit.

The problem comes when a researcher or research team sees the call and decides to try to make their research fit into it. They work in a related area and have an ongoing research agenda. They think they can see a way to bring the two together. But… They don’t design a new project from scratch. They don’t get their heads around the concerns of those making the funding call. They don’t make sure they know the methodological and knowledge issues beyond their existing frame. Instead, they try to push the next logical step for their own research agenda into the framework specified. This researcher/research team does not alter their foot at all – they simply try to shoehorn themselves and their work into the call.

The problem is that shoehorning is usually pretty obvious. A reviewer can see the various mismatches in literature, methods, projects. They can read the multiple ways in which the overall warrant for the research struggles and strains to fit the call. They can see the gaps in the track record. The researcher/research team hasn’t done enough work on the new framing. They’ve simply tried to bend their own work around, write it in a new way, adopt a bit of the call’s language and assert the commonality of their concerns with the theme. And, like Cinderella’s sisters who amputated their heels and toes to try to make the slipper fit, the shoehorning researcher often omits the very aspects of their own research that make it compelling. The end result is a research rationale and research design that is ill-fitting. Shoehorning produces an un-fundable bid.

In times of research funding scarcity, it’s always tempting when the big calls come out to try to do the shoehorning thing. After all, when else are you going to get a crack at some big money that might allow you to make a step change in your research? Better do this now or else there might not be another chance.

But unless there is already a good fit between your research and the call, or unless you are prepared to do the work necessary to meet the call  – often with others –  then simply shoehorning really isn’t a good use of your time. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably a waste of the time you might have spent writing a more modest bid for less prescriptive funding.

The shoehorned research bid is rarely successful. It’s something to avoid. It hurts when you’re writing it, as you have to contort your own concerns, and it hurts when it’s rejected.

My message? Save the shoehorn for the stretchy leather boots.



Posted in research, research agenda, research bid writing, shoehorning research bids | Tagged , , | 2 Comments