academic writers as readers

Many academic writers are avid readers. That’s because there is a strong connection – not causal, but surely correlated, she says hastily – between reading and writing. Reading and writing are mutually beneficial, they feed each other.

I was thinking about the read-write connection just this morning as I sat reading the books section of the weekend newspaper.

As I slurped down my breakfast smoothie – strawberry, raspberry and banana with yoghurt in case you want to know – I got stuck into the regular column where writers talk about the books that they read. And I realised that we tend not to have these kinds of conversations with academic writers. We don’t ask what academic writers are reading at the moment, the books influenced them most, the book they wish they’d written, the book they are ashamed not to have read, the book they couldn’t finish, the book they always give as a gift.

This omission is perhaps a little odd, as we are always making reference to books – we publicise our own, congratulate our friends on their publications, and recommend and review books in our field. But we tend not to focus on ourselves as readers. We don’t seem to have a forum where we as writer-readers list current must-read academic books or share the new releases to read over summer.

I’m interested in what people read, and I do wonder why we don’t have more writer-reader conversations. But perhaps the questions asked in Saturday’s newspaper – influential books and so on – aren’t the kind that academic writers can readily answer. Or are they? So I decided to have a bit of a play with them to see what my responses would be. And here they are.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve got several things on the go. Academically, I’m half way through Mieke Bal’s (2002) Travelling concepts in the humanities. A rough guide (U of Toronto Press), which is helping me to get somewhere in thinking about inter/trans/multi-disciplinary work. And I’m dipping in and out of Laura Micchiche’s (2017) Acknowledging writing partners (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, OA) which I first bought because it had a chapter on writing with animal companions. With pictures. And graphs! But her book is much more than cats on keyboards and I do like her conclusion that academic writing has an “exuberant vitality” despite its “performative struggles”, and leaves us with a “completion afterglow”. Non academic books? I’m reading Michele Roberts (2020) Negative capability. A diary of surviving (Sandstone Press), her memoir about getting over her publisher rejecting a book manuscript. And for light relief I’ve just started Ajay Chowdury’s (2021) detective novel The Waiter (Vintage) about a failed Kolkata cop who ends up serving in a Brick Lane restaurant.

What academic book influenced me most?

It’s probably Bourdieu’s Distinction. I encountered this tome while I was doing my PhD. It was the first book I’d read that brought together economics, education, work and cultural practices. And Bourdieu is still my go-to to explanation for everyday life/experience, although I’ve flirted with lots of other writers and ideas since then. But if I could name two or three influential books, then I’d have to add Laurel Richardson’s (1997) Fields of Play. Constructing an academic life (Rutgers University Press) about being creative in social science writing, and Ruth Behar’s (1996) The vulnerable observer. Anthropology that breaks your heart (Beacon Press) on ethical self and other care in research.

What academic book do I wish I’d written?

No question, it’s Mike Rose’s (1989) Lives on the boundary. A moving account of the struggles and achievements of America’s underclass. (Penguin) Rose combines three strands: 1. a memoir of his own life, growing up as a poor Italian immigrant in LA and supported by a local parish priest to continue his education, 2. an account of the pedagogical practices at the University of California Writing Centre which he ran, and 3. stories of the first gen uni students who came to the Centre for help. It’s a wonderful example of a complex sociological narrative, beautifully written.

What book am I ashamed not to have read?

Well I have to say, in my field of education, it’s probably anything by Vygotsky. I’ve read lots about him and dipped in and out of some of his work but never really got stuck in. His work doesn’t really resonate with me despite how influential it/he is.

What book couldn’t I finish?

Too many to even name. But one that stands out and nags at me every time I look at my bookshelf is Luhmann’s Risk. I do feel like I ought to get to grips with Luhmann. Even though I have deliberately sought out talks about his work I just find the prose off-putting. Don’t @me please. We all have a Luhmann. We should talk about our Luhmanns more.

What “academic” book do I give as a present?

I often give people the not-really-academic books that have been given to me. So for quite a while it was Chris Kraus’ (2006) I love Dick (Semiotexte) – so good on the experiences of white women of a particular generation (thanks Becky). But my friend Chris recently gave me Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims (2013 Semiotexte), a sociological memoir about class, home and education. Eribon astutely gets to the ambivalences and awkwardnesses of class mobility. Lots of recognition and resonances in there for me. So this is my gift of choice at present. You see the theme here I’m sure!

So there you go. My reader writer responses. How would you answer these questions? Have a go. It’s just a bit of slightly serious fun.

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concluding a paper

Conclusions can be hard. There are a few big traps that conclusion writers can fall into. In order to avoid them, try the following three things.

Deep breath. It’s good to be bold.

The conclusion generally requires bigging up what you’ve done. In a thesis you have to name and claim your original contributions. At the end of a journal article, you have say what readers now know that they didn’t know before they read your paper. So the conclusion summarises the stellar work that you’ve done. You say that you’ve made a pretty convincing case.

So, even if you don’t feel like it, you have to write the conclusion as if you have changed the reader’s mind, at least to some extent. They’ve learnt something by reading what you’ve written. They are less ignorant about your topic, as John Warner puts it. The conclusion is not a place to be bashful. But it’s also not a place to be a braggart. You have to hit just the right assertive tone, adding in enough caveats to show you know you haven’t done everything.

However you have done something. You can’t be timid and spend so much time discussing what you didn’t do that you convince the reader that the paper is unimportant. If you are not feeling much like an expert, writing with sufficient authority might require you to summon up a last bit of chutzpah. Go on, it’s worth it.

Think about moving the reader forward and then bringing them to a satisfactory stop

The conclusion needs some new insights that keep the reader engaged – usually called the So What and Now What  – also known as spelling out the implications for policy, practice, and/or further research. 

But what is this So What and Now What? It can help to think of the So What and Now What as completing the cotton reel structure of the paper. Journal articles typically start with a more general, abstract and/or contextual proposition. The bulk of the paper then moves inwards. But it moves out again at the very end to the general, abstract or contextual proposition you established at the outset.

So, at the end of the paper you may want to suggest that there are at least some answers to the problem you carefully identified and evidenced several thousand words ago. Perhaps there are significant consequences that logically follow from the argument you’ve made. You may want to project your line of argument into the future, hinting at what might come to pass. (You can see what this might look like in the two examples at the end of this post. )

Don’t rush. A truncated, trite, or cliched conclusion won’t do

You may find that you are running out of words by the time you get to the end of the paper. The temptation is just use the words you’ve got left. A mistake. The problem with fitting the conclusion to the remaining inadequate word count is that you may telegraph the important work that the conclusion has to do – you don’t make the case for contribution, nor do you offer any answers, consequences and projections. Coming to an abrupt stop and failing to address key concluding issues will leave the reader dissatisfied. My rough guide to managing conclusions holds that it’s better to go over the word count and then cut back overall as part of the revision process.

Trite and cliched conclusions are another story. I must confess that this is my particular weakness. I find it difficult to think of last sentences that aren’t the academic equivalent of “They all lived happily ever after”. Or perhaps something akin to Chicken Little’s pronouncement “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” I have no easy remedies for glibness other than to say it’s probably helpful to know if you have an issue. I know the tendency to cliched is something I have to work on through several drafts. And so I do.

A strategy to try: Analysing conclusions

It’s helpful to have a look at how papers in your discipline conclude. Conclusions can vary depending on the purpose and nature of the paper as well as the field. And remember, there is no one best right way to write a conclusion, and you do see conclusions and discussions that don’t conform to the more usual pattern.

So, doing a little analysis of conclusions can very useful for seeing different ways to manage the process of finishing off. I’ve got a couple of examples from social science papers that show how an analysis can reveal conclusion moves and their rhetorical staging.

When you analyse conclusions the point is not to take the phrases used and apply them in your own work. No, the point is to see the argument moves and the ways that the author introduces points and elaborates. The argument moves are composed to persuade, written so that readers understand why what they have just read is important – readers should take note, remember and use.

Examples of conclusion analysis:

Paper One Conclusio(Politics, reporting on a new empirical data set)

  1. Connection with literatures

The approach taken in this article builds on some of the conceptual ideas of ( short outline of theory). 

2. Summary of results and Claim for contribution

Our findings provide important further evidence for the idea that … (summary of results and discussion which connect with the theory).

3. So What and Now What

Our article also points towards areas in need of further exploration – most obviously… (implications for research) 

The evidence here suggests that ( a bit more summary of results and discussion)  …Consequently it would be a mistake to assume that …  ( pointing out how not to interpret the results, a neat and assertive way to talk about what are often called limitations)

If… then… yet (Establishing a trend, and projecting possible social changes and what the results of this paper might have to suggest) 

The public response to ( current events) .. demonstrates that… But the policy response to .. is.. Yet … ( extrapolation from results of what might result if public policy continues in this direction).

Paper Two Discussion and Conclusion ( Sociology, arguing that the field needs to adopt a perspective from another discipline in order to tackle a topic of ongoing significant concern)

  1. Connection with literatures 

While existing literatures have mentioned ( topic) in the form of.. and highlighted… 

2. Summary of results and Claim for contribution

We have shown here that…. ( outline of the key ideas that make up a “new perspective”) This perspective can add… 

3. So What and Now What

Adopting this perspective could for example ( what might be added to the literature if further research is done using the ideas in the paper)

These ( ideas developed in this paper)  could help us go further in understanding… (everyday problem) These…  are likely to be … 

Further empirical work could use (ideas developed in the paper) outlined here to… For example…. ( outlines a current pressing policy problem)

Drawing on ( ideas outlined in the paper) … adds further.. ( outlines policy area lacking evidence) 

( Ideas in the paper)…. could also further develop .. The example of the ..( outlines a practice problem)  illustrates this possibility… ( shows how ideas developed in the paper might be applied to the problem)

The ( another problem but this time in research) is also worthy of further inquiry. Adopting (the ideas outlined in this paper) could… 

Additional posts about conclusions

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Structuring and sequencing chunks of writing

Writers think about structure, a lot. They don’t necessarily tell that to their readers. That’s because writers often want their readers to focus on what’s been written, rather than how it’s been organised. But yes, there are loads of texts where writers play with structures and want the reader to notice. But even then they don’t always tell the reader what they are doing. They show, rather than tell all.

However, academic writers are in the business of explaining what they/we do. We generally signpost what we’re going to say, as well as the order in which we will present our information and argument. Unlike the novelist, we often give away our end point at the very beginning. No surprise twist for us. But we may still do some structuring of our text that we don’t make explicit.

Yet here’s the thing. Even when we haven’t pointed out what structure we are using to organise our “stuff’, what it is and why it’s the way it is, academic readers often “feel” the presence of structure. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that readers notice the absence of structures, and/or when we shift the logics of one structure to another mid-stream, without saying anything.

Academic writers have a load of common structures to call on to sequence and order material and ideas. These common modes of organisation can be used in small bite sized morsels, for tables and graphs and paragraphs, as well as in larger chunks of writing about literatures, methods and results.

It really is helpful to understand the most common ways to structure academic writing. When we know what the options are, we can consciously choose the way we want our readers to encounter our material and to engage with the case we are making. So academic writers are, like any other writers, choosers. Choosers from a range of possible structures.

Here are some of the most common structures used in academic writing:

Pyramid structure related to specificity

  • Abstract to concrete, and concrete to abstract
  • General to specific, and specific to general
  • Wider context (big picture) to specific local instance, and the reverse, specific to general

Pyramid structure related to complexity

  • Simple to complex (not so often the reverse, but never say never)
  • Easy to difficult (not so often the reverse)

Linear structure related to scale, number and size

  • Few to many, or many to few
  • Lowest to highest, or highest to lowest
  • Small to big, or big to small
  • Wide to narrow, or narrow to wide

Linear structure related to familiarity

  • Known to unknown (rarely unknown to known)
  • Open-ended to fixed, or fixed to open-ended

Linear structure related to chronology

  • Newest to oldest, or oldest to newest

Structure related to function

  • Compare and contrast
  • Point and counter point
  • Call and response
  • Evidence and interpretation

This is not an exhaustive list mind you. Just the structures you’ll see a lot.

These structures may also be combined. The text may not be a simple this to that. It is more a case of this to that, and then back to this again. For instance, a very common way to think about a paragraph is to see it as beginning with a sentence about something quite general, then it moves to specifics than moves back out again to something more general. The last general paragraph sentence leads onto the next paragraph general opener. This cotton reel structure will be and feel familiar to readers. A lot of academic articles work the same way, with the introduction beginning out wide with context/background then narrowing to specifics. The conclusion moves back out again.

Understanding structure matters. Knowing your structural options can help you when you want to knock some shape into those pages of brain dump you produced during a timed rewriting session. And one of the things to look for when revising is the consistency of structures. If, for example, your tables are a mix of high to low and low to high, this is likely to be confusing for the reader. If the axes on graphs are ordered inconsistently, it’s harder for readers to easily grasp the information because they are constantly adjusting to how it is presented. Getting to grips with structure means keeping your reader in mind.

You can build your understandings of structure by looking for the ways in which other academic writers have structured their text. When you see a table for instance, ask yourself – How has this table been structured? Is this the only way the information might have been presented? What are the advantages of this structure? What are the downsides? Is there a better alternative? When you recognise a structure, let’s say a chronological discussion of events, ask yourself – What is the advantage of a timeline approach? What might it make more difficult to establish? (A chronology tends to be descriptive, so look for the presence or absence of argument).

A caveat before I’m done. If we are thinking about how to structure a thesis or a set of results chapters we might use themes or the moves in an argument as the basis of the sequencing and chunkings of stuff. There are a range of narrative structures that can be adapted for academic purposes too. We can also organise big book writing around artefacts and/or specific texts. However, chances are that within the broader structural decisions about text, there will still be a load of other, smaller choices to be made about how to order and present discrete pieces of information.

Structuring academic writing is not about applying a template or a format, but is about writerly choices. Even if your writing is framed by conventions and genres, there are always choices to be made. Keeping your reader in mind is a key to making good structural decisions.

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the thesis discussion – making the move work

This post comes back again at the discussion “chapter”. It seems you can never say too much about this tricky bit of the thesis.

A caveat before I start. This post is written from a social science perspective and offers a fairly orthodox view of what a thesis has to do. I think it has applicability in other disciplines – but do read this from your particular perspective. I’m not attempting a one size fits all explanation here. If that’s OK with you, read on.

The key to the discussion, whether it is a chapter or not, is understanding its place in the logic of the thesis argument. It’s the nearly final step in a chain of moves. And the discussion leads up to the big claims for contribution and significance.

The most common way to stage an argument in the thesis goes something like this:

  1. Here is a puzzle/problem/question worth asking. If we know more about this puzzle/problem/question then something significant (policy, practice, more research) can happen.
  2. Here is what we already know about the puzzle/problem/question. I’ve used this existing knowledge (literatures) to help: my thinking and approach; my research design; make sense of my results; and establish where my scholarly contribution will be.
  3. Here is how I designed and did the research in order to come up with an “answer”.
  4. Here’s the one/two/three clusters of results.
  5. Missing step
  6. Now here’s my (summarised) “answer” to the puzzle/problem/question I posed at the start. On the back of this answer, here’s what I claim as my contribution(s) to the field. Yes I didn’t do everything, but I did do something important. Because we now know my answer, and we didn’t before I did the research, then here are some possible actions that might arise in policy/practice/research/scholarship.

The missing step in these argument moves is the discussion (a chapter or section of the last chapter). Number 5’s job is to get you from your clusters of analysed results to the “answer” to your original problem/puzzle/question, and your big claim of now knowing something more than when you started. (Even if that knowing is tentative and only part of what you might want or need to know.)

Before I go on, I need to say that an argument move is not always a discrete chapter. Very often, and depending on the discipline, the thesis structure won’t conform precisely to these argument moves. What to say doesn’t equate exactly to how it is organised and said. But these moves generally exist in a thesis, even if they are structured differently, and/or written in a different style than conventional social science or scientific prose.

Now that second caveat is out of the way, let’s go back to the missing step. You are paused at the point where you have your one/two/three clusters of analysed results. You’ve done 4, so what’s 5?

Well, move number 5 is where you say what the one/two/three results clusters add up to. When you look at all of these results together, when you take a step back, what do they make as a new combination? What is their aggregated, net message/meaning?

Being able to say what your results add up to doesn’t mean repeating each of the analysed results clusters. You’ve already done that. Don’t do it all over again. You have a+b+c, so what is the = ?? ( It’s probably an x) In a thesis, the discussion sum is always greater than the results parts. Bringing the analysed results together means that you can/must say more than you already have. You need to move your argument on. You need to show that a+b+c=x.

How do you start thinking about this? Bringing the analysed results together and moving the argument forwards also means going back to your problem/puzzle/question. So ask yourself, if the analysed results together make some kind of answer or response to my initial problem/puzzle/question, what is it? What is x?

Depending on your discipline and research design your final discussion, your x, might take a lot of additional work e.g.:

  • an explanation of why the results are as they are: you might use a theoretical or conceptual framing
  • a cross-case analysis, or key points arising from a set of design experiments, action research cycles etc
  • development of a heuristic, or a new or modified conceptual frame, or a set of underpinning principles etc

This additional work might actually be a large and separate chunk of writing, it might be a very substantive bit of work.

And then, what next? Well, if you want to claim that a+b+c=x is a contribution, you need to get back into conversation with the relevant literatures. What does a+b+c=x say about/to the existing body of research? ( That’s the literatures you discussed earlier.) Then, what do you have to say that is different and interesting? What is your new news? ( Hint – it may well not be entirely the same as your x, as x may have some components that are already in the literatures.)

If you do this – establish a+b+c=x and put it in conversation with the existing literatures- you’ve filled in the missing piece in the overall thesis argument. You’ll have made the discussion move.

So the thesis moves become these:  

  1. Here is a puzzle/problem/question worth asking. If we know more about this puzzle/problem/question then something significant (policy, practice, more research, scholarship) can happen.
  2. Here is what we already know about the puzzle/problem/question. I’ve used this to help: structure my thinking; my research design, make sense of my results and establish where my scholarly contribution will be.
  3. Here is how I designed and did the research to come up with some kind of answer.
  4. Here’s the one/two/three clusters of results.
  5. Here’s x, what these results add up to, and here’s my new news for the field.
  6. The x is my “answer” to the puzzle/problem/question. The new news is what I claim as the contribution(s) to the field. Yes I didn’t do everything. But I did do something important. Because we now know this new news, and we didn’t before I did the research, then there are some possible actions to be taken (policy/practice/research/scholarship).

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revising – nine steps for making meaning

In 1973 the late Donald Murray published an essay in The Writer in which he argues that writing begins when the first draft is completed. From then on, he says, the writer revises, reads and changes their words, closing in on the meaning they are trying to make. Revision isnt a virtuous act, Murray states, it is simply an integral part of the writer’s practice. No more, no less. You write, you revise.

The writer – or the maker as Murray calls them – has to learn to read their own work critically, but not so critically that it paralyses them. They must be able to read in order to cut away the meaning-less and get nearer to what they want to say.

Revising for meaning cannot simply depend, Murray asserts, on the feedback of others. Other people do not necessarily know what the writer is trying to say. Readers’ comments may point the writer in a direction that they don’t want to take. The writer may even be unaware of the going-off-course effect because they are not yet sure themselves where their writing is going. Writers need to be their own best critical readers. Murray suggests an order of critical reading for meaning-making revision work. While his advice on ordered reading is directed towards fiction and non-fiction writers, it is also salient for academic writing.

When I first read Murray’s essay, a long time ago now, I was pleasantly surprised to see his reading order laid out, as it is pretty well what I do in my own revision. It is also the order I use for reading multiple drafts of doctoral chapters and theses (although I am now thinking about Murray’s comments about writers not relying too heavily on the feedback of others.)

In case you dont know Murray’s work, I’ve adapted his critical reading order list here. I not only like his list, but I also like that he says that makers don’t always do these steps in a neat linear fashion. Experienced writers combine some of these steps.

The idea of this Murray revision strategy is to use these nine steps as questions to guide your reading of your own draft text.

1. Information

Does the text contain enough information? Murray argues that all readers need to find accurate and interesting information in a text. Academic readers probably expect more information and more of information than other readers, they want to find analysis. They also want references to other literatures and to data sets to ensure that they can trust the information provided. If there isn’t enough ‘stuff’, an academic text will have no foundation and can easily be blown over, just like the three little pigs’ house of straw.

2. Meaning

Writing must convey something of significance. Each piece of information in a text provided leads the reader towards a meaning worth making, Murray says. Academic readers expect a novel and worthwhile contribution from their reading. So writers need to ask whether their text has a real point to make.

3. Audience

Successful texts connect with their readers. Academic texts are no exception to this “rule”. Does the text have a sense of the likely academic reader? Are there sufficient signs and signposts which will help the reader to connect with the text and to follow its meaning making moves?

4. Form/genre

While academic writing genres are often predetermined, it is always worth querying, for example, whether you have chosen the right one. Is the text in a form suited to both the audience and your purpose? Is what you are trying to make a blog post really a paper, and vice versa?

5. Structure

Academic writing is most often an argument. Ask then, is the reader taken logically through the text to the end point? Is each move in the argument backed by the appropriate amount and kind of information? Are all of the moves in the right order? In the order that readers expect and that is part of the genre? Perhaps this is the time in the revising process, Murray suggests, where the writer needs to construct an outline (sometimes called a reverse outline) in order to reveal and check the “hidden spine” of the text, the logic of its construction.

6. Development

Each section of the text now needs separate attention. Does each section have enough of the right information for the reader to be able to follow the moves of the argument? Does the reader have enough guidance to understand what this particular section does, and its place in the overall text? What needs more work?

7. Dimension

While working on developing each section, the writer also needs to keep an eye on the whole.  One section must not get so developed that it grows more substantive in length or information than is warranted by its contribution to the whole. Is the text balanced?

8. Voice

The writer works on making sure that the text is written with authority, that their critical, evaluative, individual stamp is marked on the text. Does the text feel and sound like it’s you as the writer?

9. Craft

The writer/maker now, Murray suggests, moves closer and closer to the text. “Each sentence, each line, each clause, each phrase, each word, each mark of punctuation, each section of white space between the type has to contribute to the clarification of meaning”, he says. Every change has to be checked, he suggests, to ensure that it adds to the meaning – not detract or obscure. Murray sees this as an enjoyable stage of revising – new meanings appear unexpectedly, as writers “rub words against each other” and as the potential multiple meanings of individual words come into play.

I like Murray’s emphasis on the importance of crafting.

The maker’s eye moves back and forth from word to phrase to sentence to paragraph to sentence to phrase to word. The maker’s eye sees the need for variety and balance, for a firmer structure, for a more appropriate form. It peers into the interior of the paragraph, looking for coherence, unity, and emphasis, which make meaning clear.

I am not sure I always do enough to point the PhDers I work with towards the pleasures of word-crafting. I am sure that I stress the necessity of revising and the inevitability of multiple versions of a text. Perhaps making the notion of making as explicit as Murray does might help to indicate the enjoyable aspects of revision. But regardless of whether I – or we –  can reach enjoyment in revising, I reckon that Murray’s order of reading steps are still very helpful for both doctoral writers and their supervisors. 

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required, desirable and delightful elements of academic writing

This is the time of year that I run writing workshops and courses. And because I’m preoccupied with teaching, I’m also thinking about new and different strategies for authoring and revision. Authoring and revision strategies are inter-related – heuristics used for authoring can often be converted for revision purposes and vice versa.

I sometimes find inspiration for teaching in surprising places. Like the design literatures. This post features a modification of a tool used by designers to prioritise the features and attributes of an artefact and to assess potential user satisfaction. Meet the Kano Analysis.

Kano Analysis is a tool designers use instead of, or as well as, a cost-benefit analysis. I was initially interested in KA because one of its concerns is delight. Designers assess an artefact not simply on essentials such as durability, utility and ease of use, but also on whether it somehow pleases/excites the potential user.

Now I know there is a real intellectual problem in thinking about an academic text as a product, and using terms like usability and customer satisfaction. Nevertheless, I think there is some mileage in adapting the Kano Analysis for academic writing, not least for its unexpected emphasis on delight and its prioritising of the reader. It also assumes the designer-writer has agency, they make deliberate authoring choices.

So to my beginning play with Kano Analysis… the KA works with five key criteria around (1) required elements, (2) desirable elements, (3) neutral elements, (4) anti-features and (5) exciters. The first three seem really helpful for authoring and all of them in revision. Here, I’ve worked with four of the KA criteria – I’ve left out neutral. My workshop idea is to pose a big question about each of the KA elements and then have workshop participants to fill in the details themselves.

But I think the KA could work for DIY too. In the working that follows, I’ve taken the thesis/dissertation as the example. But you could use any other genre from refereed paper to blog post. I hope you can see how this adapted Kano Analysis might be used in a workshop situation or as a self-guided process. It might also be the basis of a conversation in a writing group or with your supervisor.

  1. Required elements

Big Question: What elements does the thesis have to have?

A thesis needs a defined focus, clear question(s) or hypothesis, sound knowledge of scholarly and other relevant literatures, a robust research design, evidence that the research has been conducted thoroughly and ethically, a clear argument and organisation, a clean text with accurate referencing, and an explicit contribution. 

The examiner looks to these required elements to make the decision about whether the thesis is “doctorate worthy”. If the thesis has these required elements the odds are in favour of the writer having only minor or tiny corrections to make. Perhaps even none. Major corrections usually signifies that one or more of these required elements is missing or dealt with in a cursory way. 

These required elements are not the same as the thesis structure, nor are they a style or mode of presentation. There are various ways to structure and write a thesis to incorporate the required elements. But some disciplines and examiners may see a particular thesis structure as required, and if this is so, you need to add that to the above list together with any other disciplinary necessities.

2.Desirable elements

Big question: What desirable attributes will lead the examiner to evaluate the thesis more favourably?

Now this is where things get interesting. A desirable thesis attribute in my discipline is likely to be different from yours. And examiners will differ too within disciplines. However, I’m guessing that the vast majority of examiners desire/want the thesis to be a ‘good read’ – that is, they want the thesis to be elegantly written, not simply technically correct. I also like the thesis to tell me something about the researcher, not simply via a personal narrative, but also in the ways in which they show understanding: this goes to the ways in which the thesis writer expresses their interpretations, what is sometimes called “voice”. And isn’t this a good conversation to be having about the thesis? Getting beyond the required to what’s additionally desirable.

Having desirable on top of required elements doesn’t necessarily get the thesis writer into the no corrections category, but it can certainly favourably dispose the examiner in that direction. However, a well written thesis which doesn’t have the required elements will share the same fate as its less well written thesis counterpart.

3. Anti-features

Big question: What thesis attributes will examiners perceive negatively? 

Pretty well all examiners complain about poorly presented texts. Academics are used to reading reasonably error-free texts, and examiners will be distracted and annoyed by mistakes on every page, a muddled reference list, inconsistent referencing style or incorrect citations. Most examiners are also irritated if they get lost in the text, particularly if they are reading it over several sittings. Economical signposting helps the examiner know where they are, but you might alternatively take a more creative approach. I also get annoyed when I have to frequently skip backwards and forwards between an appendix and chapters, and I am distracted by too much important information in footnotes or endnotes.

Disciplinary differences are important in relation to anti-features and often relate to the ways in which data is presented. And there are other things that put particular examiners off. My discipline expects that the researcher will write about their connection to the research and subsequent implications for research conduct. However I get bothered by a lot of “I” writing if the “I” is not the major research focus. I also hate to get a thesis which frequently repeats itself, and where there is a lot of essay-like writing, particularly about literatures and methodology. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

It is helpful to consider anti-features when writing, but it’s particularly helpful when revising.

The next and final KA element is not compulsory. It’s delight. You don’t have to have exciting elements in the thesis. The very thought of having to delight will worry some people. Don’t read on if this is you. But for those who are not put off by the idea of delight, then..

4. Exciters

Big question: What surprising elements of the thesis will delight the examiner?

I rarely hear this question asked. It is an even more interesting proposition than thinking about desirable elements. I haven’t seen delight given a lot of space in academic writing literatures or writing advice. I haven’t done this myself, largely because I think that it is important to focus on the bottom line of required elements and anti-features. However, exciting the examiner might be, well, exciting to consider.

There will certainly be disciplinary and examiner differences in answers to questions about delight. An examiner might well be exhilarated by the thesis that produces insights that are novel and innovative (but not the Nobel prize), and/or where the thesis writer has shown creativity in their analysis and/or has played with the thesis structure and/or has used multiple media in the final text in engaging ways. None of these of course are a substitute for required elements. No examiner is keen on style over substance. But substance plus style? Yippee.

The theses that get through without corrections are generally exciting in some way. They offer the examiner something that is compelling, truly captures them. But many theses with minor corrections also have something for examiners to get enthusiastic and energised about. Examiners are not too hard to interest. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many theses do delight their examiners!

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after the viva/defence – then what?

There is no return to normal. There is no going back to what there was before. You have to find new ways of going on. I could be talking about the pandemic here. Yes indeed. But I’m not. I’m actually talking about life post thesis.  

I wrote something a long time ago about the post PhD slump. It’s a real thing. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it is very common. The initial elation of finally reaching your doctoral goal is followed by an almighty anti-climax. Oh no. This is not what you expected.

Working out how to deal with the thesis shaped hole in your life takes time. I recently re-found some helpful writing about post thesis life and I thought it was worth passing on. It comes from Maria Piantanida and Noreen Garman‘s book The qualitative dissertation: a guide for students and faculty (2008). Piantanida and Garman describe the entire PhD process as “cycles of deliberation”. And they see the period following the viva/defence as a distinct cycle, which has its own specific issues and work. They list the challenges of finding the way forward post PhD as:

  1. Rebalancing personal life. Getting the research and the dissertation done and dusted will have caused “unrecognised realignments … in relationships, responsibilities, priorities and the structuring of daily and weekly routines” they say. The person who finishes the thesis is not the same as the person who started. Not only older, and probably poorer, they are also likely to be somewhat unsettled. But the people who have offered long -term support now want things to change. So it is important, Piantanida and Garman suggest, to spend during time reflecting on what incremental adjustments were made to everyday life, to think about what is possible and desirable going forward, and to negotiate with those closest to you. This is, they write, “One of life’s rare opportunities to deliberately assess and rebalance one’s priorities, interests and needs.
  2. Coping with career changes. Many people hope that a doctorate will allow them to change their jobs and/or locations. For those people who gave up permanent work in order to do the doctorate or who are looking for their first “real job”, doctorate in hand, this is an anxious time. Precarity rules both inside and outside the academy, and it may take quite a while to land a position. It is important to find a support group – they can help you cope with job-search disequilibrium as well as provide helpful advice and even mentoring.( Social media is now a good place to find such groups.) 
  3. Coping with the perceptions of others. Some people do a doctorate while in permanent work. They are often surprised by the response of their co-workers to their completion – some may not recognise the doctorate as a significant achievement, others may change their patterns of interaction in response to someone they now view as an “expert”. Friends and family members, while proud, may also have ambivalent attitudes to interactions with you as doctor. Confronting such attitudes often needs delicate but assertive handling.
  4. Dealing with institutional relationships. Piantanida and Garman discuss this institutional as part of dealing with the perceptions of others. I have listed it here as a separate issue, as I know the question of whether to call yourself Dr – changing social media, bank accounts and the like – is often vexed. Scholars do not agree on whether, when and how we ought to use our academic titles if at all; this tends to be an individual decision. However when the Dr is sometimes ignored it may signal a gendered, raced response – witness the “discussion” about the current FLOTUS’ academic title. Again, an assertive response is required.
  5. Internalising a new identity as scholar/doctor. The journey from student to authoritative scholar does not stop at doctoral graduation – it generally does not stop at all but is rolled into post PhD life, where-ever and whatever that is. Piantanida and Garman suggest that completing a doctorate can be transformative, but claiming the identity of scholar may require refocussing a research agenda, developing a publication plan, and finding new contexts and groups to support reflection, deliberation and development. This all takes time. The newly doctored need to be prepared for “slogging around in new experiential puddles” while their new sense of self and direction becomes clear.

But these five post viva/defence consequences can all be anticipated and planned for, and the rewards make visible and celebrated. I would add that universities generally might do much more to help their graduated doctoral researchers. I’ve written before about doctoral after-care and I could say more. But that’s another blog post. In the meantime, I’ll just say that if you are nearing the end of the doctorate, or are indeed in the post viva/defence cycle, I hope that Piantanida and Granma’s five point list makes sense to you, and lets you know that feelings of disorientation, and it all being a bit of a let down at the end, are common. After all, there are potential good things in sight.

According to Piantanida and Garman, the doctorate is “rich with possibilities – the possibility of discovering one’s own scholarly self, the possibility of adding one’s own voice to evolving research and the possibility of forging one’s own unique legacy through scholarly deliberation.” The period immediately after the viva/defence has been done is a potentially important time for moving these possibilities forward.


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making your writing authoritative – a citation revision strategy

Readers expect academic writers to know what they are talking about. We meet that expectation by grounding our writing in good scholarship – and making it sound authoritative.

Authoritative. You can see the words author and authority contained within authoritative – and this is no accident as the threesome have the same origins. An authority is a knowledgeable person or source whose word is trustworthy, reliable, dependable, valid, sound, well-founded. An author is the one who writes confidently about what they know.

You may also see in this family of words the verb to authorise, to recognise expertise in some way. And of course the adjective authoritarian, and this points to the ways in which authors can overstep the mark – they dictate to readers rather than gently lead. I don’t want to digress into wordplay here, but it is helpful to see that an authoritative writer leads and guides the reader. They are also an authority, and they have authority which readers recognise.

One of the most prominent ways that authority is signalled in an academic text is via citation. The ways in which we deal with other people’s words and works demonstrates the degree to which we assert our command of the literatures and show that our reading and interpretations are sound and believable.

There are two dominant ways in which citations appear in academic writing.

  • One way to begin writing a paper is to use a ‘tiny text’ ( Kamler and Thomson 2014) 
  • Kamler and Thomson (2014) advocate the use of a ‘tiny text’ as a way to begin writing a paper. 

The first of these citation approaches – One way to begin writing a paper is to use a ‘tiny text’ (Kamler and Thomson 2014) – is very much managed by the author. The author is telling you what is important about K and T’s work. The author’s interpretation is paramount. In offering their synthesis of their reading of Kamler and Thomson, the author has not only signalled their agreement with K and T, but also incorporated the message into their own line of argument. We might think of this as citation(1)=writer steers.

The second of these citation approaches – Kamler and Thomson (2014) advocate the use of a ‘tiny text’ as a way to begin writing a paper– reports what K and T have said. It is not clear to the reader whether the writer agrees with K and T. The writer is standing back, they are informing but not guiding the reader to think anything in particular about K and T. We might think of this as citation(2)=writer reports.

The first of these citation approaches, steering, communicates an authoritative approach to the literatures. The second reporting does not. The difference is important. When supervisors say in their feedback, “Where are you in the text?” they usually mean that one of the problems you need to address is citation – you need to get more of citation(1)=writer steers.

Here is an example which shows what happens when you shift from citation(2)=writer reports to citation(1)=writer steers.

Example: Citation(2)=writer reports is dominant

While the idea of a public good has its roots in classical philosophy, its definition and operationalisation has largely become the stuff of economics. Neubauer (2008) argues that Smith and Hume are generally signposted as significant figures in the discursive shift from public good to public goods. According to McIntyre, public good was, post Enlightenment, no longer taken by governing bodies as an abstract moral concept but as concrete ‘stuff’ which could be empirically investigated, measured and quantified. Hacking notes that from the 1850s onwards, nation-state governments were increasingly preoccupied with not only determining what public goods should be provided, but also with specialist statistical calculations about ‘the public’ and its economic, physical, social and cultural conditions. 

Example: Citation(1) =writer steers is dominant

While the idea of a public good has its roots in classical philosophy, its definition and operationalisation has largely become the stuff of economics. Smith and Hume are generally signposted as significant figures in the discursive shift from public good to public goods (Neubauer, 2008). Post Enlightenment, public good was no longer taken by governing bodies as an abstract moral concept but as concrete ‘stuff’ which could be empirically investigated, measured and quantified (McIntyre 1984). From the 1850s onwards, nation-state governments were increasingly preoccupied with not only determining what public goods should be provided, but also with specialist statistical calculations about ‘the public’ and its economic, physical, social and cultural conditions (Hacking (1999). 

I hope you can see that the citation(1)=writer steers paragraph reads more easily as the writers of cited works don’t get in the way. It reads more authoritatively than the citation(2)=writer reports. Now multiply that paragraph by a lot, by several pages, and you start to see that a text which is dominated by the subservient citation(2)=writer reports will read less persuasively than a text which has a more balanced citation mix.

Of course I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to use the second style of citation, reporting. It’s A-OK. The trick to citation and authority is all about balance. If an academic text does nothing but reporting, that’s the second approach to citation, you get the laundry list. He said he said she said… The laundry list reader doesn’t know what to make of the serial summaries. However, if there is a balanced approach to citations, then the reader sees that the author is not simply parroting, listing selected summaries. The reader understands where the author is coming from and where they are going.

Typically, in a dedicated literatures chapter which uses the inverted pyramid structure – it starts with a broader examination of themes in the literature and works through to literatures that are most germane to the research being presented – the balance of citation approaches changes. When the writer is writing more generally about the field and major themes, then citation(1)=writer steers dominates. However, when the writer gets to the texts that are most important for their own work that follows, there is a much greater use of citation(2)=writer reports. The authors of the literatures most significant to the author’s own work do get to feature in the text. But even here, where they are named and their work reported, there is still likely to be an overall strong interpretative steer as writers explain what it is about particular scholar and their work that is important to their own endeavours.

One simple revision strategy then is to look at citation approaches and to see how choices between steering and reporting might affect the authority of the writing.

  • What is the ratio of citation (1)=writer steers to citation 2)=writer reports?
  • Is the balance of citation approaches appropriate to the work of the text – is this a more general interpretation or are the citations highly sigificant and specific to the work at hand?
  • Are all of those citation(2)=writer reports necessary?
  • How many of them can be changed to citation (1)=writer steers without losing meaning?
  • Does changing from citation (2)=writer reports to citation (1)=writer steers make the text read more easily (flow) and read authoritatively?

It is also important to check whether there are knock on changes – do you need to add more introductory and concluding sentences to paragraphs? This sometimes happens when you shift citation approaches, and you will see in the example given earlier that the paragraph doesn’t start with a he or she said.

Citations are not all that matters in authoring, but they can make quite a difference to how your reader sees your writing.

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writing a journal article – identifying “the two paper problem”

If you’re writing a journal article, you need write it so that you make one big point. Right? One unavoidable, spelled out, take home message. There may be nuancing of the point, of course. But there’s basically just the one. Any more than one big point and your article is not only difficult to write, but also to read.

Now, there are a load of planning strategies you can use to help sort out the point of your paper. Like the Tiny Text. But sometimes, even if you’ve used all the tried and tested approaches, you may still find yourself in a sticky place. Your argument just takes too many steps. You eventually get to the point, but it seems a very elongated and unnecessarily complicated process. There is a load of foundational work you have to establish at the start before you can get into the meat of the paper. So much preliminary stuff that it’s almost impossible to meet the word length.

But maybe this is not you. If you are not a planner, but someone who sculpts a text from a tangled mass of free writing, you may still find yourself in the same messy situation. You know the point you want to make, and the various pieces of the argument do fit together, but the whole thing just seems very unwieldy. The text is unduly complex. Not pleasing.

You may also find yourself in the long paper twisty argument situation if you are writing from a PhD. You’ve spent so long putting the pieces together it seems almost impossible to un-assemble them. The papers don’t fall neatly out of the chapters and what you want to write just seems very difficult to sort out.

If you ever find yourself in this frustratingly stuck and stuck-together situation, as I have been recently, it’s always worth taking a deep breath and asking yourself if you actually have not one paper but two. Two. Asking this question is difficult, as it potentially means dumping a lot of what you’ve already done, and starting again.

But don’t be deterred. It’s all good. Let me tell you about my paper writing problem to explain what I mean by two papers in one. And why it’s OK to ask if you have a two paper problem.

I recently began writing a paper. I had a mass of stuff to work with. We’d analysed transcripts from a very large number of focus groups and sorted the material into large-ish themes and supporting sub-themes. And I could see that these themes spoke to a current interdisciplinary scholarly concern. I could also see that they could say even more if they were subject to further theoretical work. So I had A = themes, X = interdisciplinary scholarly concern, and Y = theory. It was a possible paper.

However I saw that the analysis also spoke to Z = current education (my field) policy. Why not,I thought, put all of this together!

So I tried to construct an argument which said X is a current interdisciplinary scholarly concern and Z is current education policy. These seem to be much the same thing. But our research says A theorised through Y (the point). A through Y (the point) not only suggests that X and Z are different, but that both X ( interdisciplinary scholarly concern) and Z (current education policy) leave a bit to be desired.

Now I am sure that you can see, as I spell this out, that this is just way too much to put in a paper. It’s too complicated. It might in fact be the basis of a book if I added few more strands. It’s certainly not a simple paper.

But could I see that at first? No. I’m no different than any other academic writer in thinking through what and how to write a paper. I stayed mired in the morass I had created, bogged down for some weeks. I could absolutely see how the overall complex argument might go, but I just couldn’t make it work. Every day I did a bit on the unsatisfactory paper trying to whip it into shape. Multiple versions. Multiple days. No luck. Gah.

Eventually, after a few days away from it, I took my own advice and asked myself whether this was actually two papers, one about X ( interdisciplinary scholarly concern) and the other about Z (policy). The answer was yes. I could indeed prise X and Z apart. Although they had been conjoined in my thinking, it was possible to break them apart. Once X and Z were separated, I could see the shape and structure of two much clearer papers.

And then I had a choice. As I couldn’t use the analysis twice, which paper did I really want to write? One for an interdisciplinary audience? Or one for my own field? Which was more important? What might add most to current thinking? Who did I really want to read the paper? In the end, the paper is about Z (education policy). I want people in my field to have this paper – and I hope it might add to the conversations about policy Z.

I was sad to see X (interdisciplinary scholarly concern) go. I’ve wanted to write something about X for a long time. But I could also see how this little dream had got in the way of writing something better, punchier, and tighter, about Z.

The paper is now much simpler. The argument moves are clear – We currently have policy Z. The research says A through Y. And A- Y suggests Z is misleading at best. Of course there’s some theoretical explanation, literatures work and research design details in there too, but in essence this paper is only a three big move argument with one big point to make about one big target. I haven’t finished this paper yet, but it’s clear it’s going to work.

So the point of this post is simply to say that if you find yourself, as I did, with a pretty complicated set of argument moves, juggling several bodies of literature and more than one big idea, it might be worth taking the risk and asking yourself:

What if this was more than one paper?

 Are there two papers here, or even more?

And if there are two ( or more) papers, what might they be?

Which one do I really want to write?

Who do I really want to read this?

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ghosts in the text

Pentimento is the term used to describe the traces of an earlier work glimpsed through layers of paint on a canvas. Marks from the previous composition bleed through the newer surface, a reminder of what went before, a sign of the artist’s corrections and/or new thoughts. The presence of brushstrokes, images and/or forms intended to be hidden is a reminder of the artistic processes that led to the final work.

Paintings are not the only type of text where previous versions re-emerge, bleed through, haunt the present. Pentimento happens in writing too. A version of writings past appears in a new text – this often happens when we are revising. When we cut and paste from one text into another, or rewrite and restructure using bits of what went before, we can carry forward vestiges of the previous version(s). And this can be a problem.

Take the case of radically revising a paper. You are writing a first draft. But while you are writing you discover that your initial argument isn’t working. By the time you finish the draft you’ve worked out what the paper is really about. You know that you have to go back to restructure it. There are a couple of places in the results section where you really like what you have written so you want to keep those bits. You also really can’t bear to go back and do the literatures again. So you don’t rewrite the literature section, nor the methods which have, of course, been written specifically for version one of the paper. So you rewrite the introduction to fit your first draft conclusion and play about a bit with the order of the results and the headings. This second draft, the revised paper consists of a new section, as well as sections that are rewritten, tweaked and/or transferred over. 

Now, this second draft runs a real risk of bringing over too many phantoms from your first text. And your readers may not see the traces of the previous paper as clearly as an X Ray shows previous versions of an art work, but they can usually point to something in a text where there is is a mis-step, a something out of place, a jolt rather than flow in the text, a shift or turn where none was needed. Pentimento.

The presence of previous text, pentimenti, is more of a problem in the thesis. A thesis takes a long time to write, and it is almost inevitable that some chapters are written way ahead of others. Writing through in one go is an important part of revising. One of the goals of revision is to smooth out and eliminate the places where the narrative arc falters, where the continuity of the argument drops away, or goes down a side tunnel. And some of the real danger spots in the thesis are when entire slabs of text are taken from versions written not months, but years earlier. This tends to happens most with text devoted to literature work.

There are two reasons why taking text about literature from a much earlier time – most likely the proposal – might be problematic:

  1. The literatures work you did for the proposal is not the same as the literatures work you need for the thesis, although there is overlap. At the outset of the doctorate, you were looking for literatures that would help you see where your research might make a contribution as well as literatures that would help you to conceptualise and design your research project. But at the end of the project you know your results and you now know exactly what literatures they refer to, build on, speak back to. So you may need ot jettison a lot or some of what you started out with. You also know which literatures helped you to make sense of your analysis. You have also kept up with the literatures and there has been more published since your initial extensive work. The thesis text you have to write to help the examiner understand the chapters to come will therefore not be the same as the text you wrote for your proposal. It may need ot be radically different. Simply inserting a few new bits will not be enough to make the new argument you write when you know your research results. What’s more…
  2. The scholar who first wrote about the literatures is not the same as the scholar who is completing their thesis. Over the course of your PhD programme you have become more expert, more evaluative, more authoritative. Writing the thesis is still forming you as a scholar, but you are starting from a very different place you were in some years before. Your new thesis text is both making and representing your doctorateness, not your readiness to embark on a doctorate. Cutting and pasting from your initial proposal brings the spectre of your former doctoral self into the dissertation. And the eery presence of an earlier writer is one which is often very obvious to examiner readers (it always is to me) – the early PhDer is generally much more tentative, writes assignment style rather than scholarly argument, and is much less present in the text than the completing nearly PhD. You don’t want your former self to be examined, it’s the current nearly and ready to be Dr that you want the examiners to encounter.

Potentially adverse risks of the carry-over traces – or writing pentimento – apply equally to the task of publishing from the PhD. Cutting and pasting from the PhD thesis into papers, or more commonly, to the book of the PhD is potentially a problem. The PhD is written for a particular audience, the text must meet examiner expectations. Academic book readers have different expectations of a book or paper; this is why the advice about converting theses into books and papers is to think about them as new text, as rewrites for a different audience. Writing from the PhD is not just a matter of making a few cuts and a lot of cut and paste. Ask any publisher, and they will tell you that they really dont want to see the PhD in the book that comes from it. Although I can imagine a book which is a deliberate conversation between the early PhDer and the completed PhD, the general rule of academic writing thumb is – Try not to let your present and unwary readers be spooked by the apparition of your PhDer past.

Of course I’m not saying don’t cut and paste. I’m not saying you can’t write into an pd over an existing text. We all do. It’s just about being aware of the potential for hauntings. Do keep pentimento in mind – it is a helpful concept to guide revising.

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