good academic writing – what’s your list?

I asked people in one of my Australian writing workshops to tell me what they thought was essential in good academic writing. The purpose of the activity was to generate criteria that participants could use to steer their own writing. The list was not meant to be an evaluative rubric, something that could be used to assess distance from the ideal. No, the list was an expression of aspirations.

So here is the list that the workshop participants produced – with just a bit of editing from me.

The text is written clearly – complex ideas are explained and difficult terms are defined – the content is accessible to the reader. Even when concepts and theories are obscure, complex or difficult, they are not overcomplicated, but made comprehensible.

The text is well organized – it is clearly structured so that you know where you are in the argument.

The text is credible because the writer does what they say they are going to do. The writer explains and justifies their interpretation.

The author makes their position known but also recognizes and deals fairly with other people’s ideas, interpretations and views.

The text is generous – it offers readers different meaning making possibilities.

The text is stimulating – there is an invitation to get into dialogue – you have an argument going on in your head when you read it.

The writing is uncluttered, elegant and clean. The words are enjoyable, beautiful, powerful, not parsimonious. There is humour and playfulness. The writing affects you, the text does more than transmit knowledge. The text may be metaphorical, allegorical or it may ground you in everyday practice. Either can be a rewarding read.

The effort you make in reading the text is worthwhile – there is something to be learnt.

The text takes you to other writing – it leads you to other texts and writers

You forget you are reading.


How does this list differ from the usual academic writing that you read? What would you add to this list? Are there any things here that you don’t want from academic writing?

And would your list help you to think about how to revise your drafts? Would it give you something to aim for?





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ask not how but why – musings on ‘the interview’


I was reading some interview transcripts the other day. They were fairly unstructured conversations; the interviewer had some set topics to cover, but not necessarily any set wording. I happened to be looking for the connections between the type of question asked and the response. 

I saw that the longest answers, and the ones with the most helpful information, came from questions that started something like this:

  • Can you tell me about…
  • Can you tell me how…
  • How much do you…
  • What can you remember about…
  • What do you think has been most important in…
  • How did this happen …
  • What kind of…
  • What about…

These probing queries came after the conversation had got going. They seemed to work like interested, approving nudges which encouraged the person being interviewed to keep talking.

And there were also some invitational questions like:

  •  We’re really interested in….
  • We’d like to know about….

In these transcripts both kinds of questions produced useful information. The answers were interesting too, and lent themselves to a number of analytic approaches, from narrative to discourse analysis.

As I read further through the transcripts, I thought about other angles that could have been taken by the interviewer, perhaps something like

  • Can you trace …. back to the start….
  • Can you walk me through the process you used to…
  • Can you take me through what happened …

These questions share the same characteristics as the others – they ask ‘the interviewee’ to talk about concrete events, in ways that don’t put them on the spot.

Howard Becker wrote once that it is better to ask someone a how question than a why. Why questions tend to make people defensive, he says. They either tell us what they think is right, or something that will fob us off, or what they think we expect to hear. How questions on the other hand, invite people to talk about process. Becker argues that most social scientists want to know the answer to the how question rather than to the why. He says that it’s useful to know how people come to do something and to get a narrative account of a sequence of events. Knowing process, he says, allows researchers to see patterns in people’s behaviour. And how answers also do often provide a rationale, or at least clues to it.

Of course, sometimes you do want to get people to respond to a why question. I did see some of this in the transcripts I was looking at. The questions there were of this ilk…

  • What do you think about the idea of…
  • How would you respond to the view that…
  • Some people might argue … what do you think?

So these weren’t questions that asked people to justify their actions so much as respond to a hypothetical situation, to give their opinion in relation to something distanced from them.

I was also struck by the way in which asking process and open-opinion-giving questions was a kind of interviewer mind-set. Well, that’s how it seemed from the transcripts. And that’s important. It seems to me that getting good information from people takes a kind of embodied understanding about what kinds of question starters are helpful. It’s what Becker calls a “polite but disinterested curiosity” which gives people leeway to tell you about things that you may not have thought of. The transcripts I looked at had been conducted by an interviewer ( not me) who obviously had this kind of internal ‘process compass’.

In an unstructured interview, the interviewer doesn’t have time to think about the kind of question that they will ask, they simply begin a conversation and then offer prompts. Making sure that you ask questions that will get information, and keep the flow of the conversation going, is quite an art. I was looking at transcripts produced by someone who had this kind of internalised research craft. 

I hope that all of you who are writing interview schedules have lots of time to practice questions that are invitational and open. Doing so means that you will be able to focus on listening and responding, rather than worrying about coverage and phrasing.

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writing an academic ransom note

I’m in Australia at present. Inevitably I’m running some writing workshops. Inevitably I’m playing with some new strategies. I really do like to try out new things to see how they work, what they might do. And one of the new things on this trip was the ransom note.

Now I’m sure that you all know what a ransom note is. It’s a short letter of demand. I have your cat. If you want it back you need to pay me a lot of money. Don’t tell anyone or I’ll send your cat to Antarctica. Or words to that effect.

Ransom notes are stereotypically manufactured from letters cut randomly from newspapers. Pre computer, the cut and paste method avoided a typewriter or printer ‘signature’ being identified. That’s outdated tech now – but we still generally associate a ransom note with something made from mismatching, miscellaneous letters. But no need for the newspapers if you can’t be bothered… there are now free software programmes – see here and here – which randomize letters to produce fake ransom notes.  And that’s what I’ve been using in my workshops.

I’ve used ransom notes in two different ways:

(1) in a boot camp dedicated to writing part of a thesis.

The instruction I gave to participants was Sum up what you’ve found in your research in one sentence. Don’t make it too long. Just think about the most important thing you have to say. 

Now, writing just one sentence summing up the point to be made in the thesis, or in a chapter, can be very hard. People did find it difficult to move away from I’m trying to, I want to write about, I am exploring… and actually produce a definitive statement. But of course, that was the point of the exercise.

Moving away from the tentative and/or the detail to the big take-home message is crucial. It’s a shift which makes the thesis work. Once you have the overall point you want to make, you can organize your material into a coherent argument. The ransom note with the definite point to be made can act as a signpost for the writing to come. Once you know where you are heading, you can plot your journey.


before you fall for the next Instagram food fad read about the health benefit of sorghum

I was very interested to see that it was the scientists in my first workshop who seemed to find this exercise easy. Perhaps because they’d had a thesis/hypothesis to start with, something they wanted to prove/disprove, something they wanted to test out, they found it easier to say where they stood at the end of their research.

The people who found it hard were those who wanted to sit on the fence, thinking that this kind of exercise removed the nuance that is important. It doesn’t of course. There is a difference between a nuanced argument which still goes somewhere and writing which just waffles all over the place. Pulling out the basic message is actually a great anchor for a highly nuanced piece of writing. Knowing the overall direction ensures that you don’t leave the reader wandering around and around, wading through point after point and getting nowhere.

(2) As a way to find authorial ‘voice’.

In a workshop for people writing a journal article from their thesis, the instruction was Write one sentence which sums up the major message of the thesis. Write it as directly as you can to the person or people that you most wish would read your research results. You can even use four letter words if you feel so inclined. 

People in the ‘voice’ workshop seemed to find this exercise easier to do than those writing about their major thesis point. Most people in the workshop could imagine themselves talking to a policymaker, practitioner or perhaps even another researcher. They could hear the kind of thing that they would say, if only they could.


The point of this exercise was to find the energy and the passion about the research and its results. Once that’s in play, it’s easier to write with that energy and commitment.

Writing the talking-back-to ransom note positions you at the start to think about communicating your message. It supports writing something other than anaesthetised prose. You see, writing with authority – with voice – are as much about how you act as how you actually feel. Even if you feel a bit shy about your research results, you can still write from a position of authority – you act textually to signify confidence in what you want to say. The ransom note is one strategy to support that identity move.

But I have to be honest.

These two short exercises haven’t worked equally well for everyone. They did however seem to have been helpful for some people. They appeared to me to be particularly confronting for participants who were feeling tentative about their research results. Perhaps the exercises helped them to see that at least some of the writing problems that they were experiencing were to do either with lack of clarity or feeling tentative. Well, that’s my hope.

Perhaps you might want to try the ransom note sometime to see what it does for you and whether it can help crunch the point and/or position the writing.

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pack ratting – a common or garden field work practice

Pack rats are nest builders. They use plant material such as branches, twigs, sticks, and other available debris. Getting into everything from attics to car engines, stealing their ‘treasures’, damaging electrical wiring, and creating general noisy havoc can easily cause them to become a nuisance. A peculiar characteristic is that if they find something they want, they will drop what they are currently carrying, for example a piece of cactus, and “trade” it for the new item. They are particularly fond of shiny objects. (Wikipedia)


Lots of researchers turn into pack rats when they are doing their field work. They collect everything they can lay their hands on, just in case in comes in handy. Even if the “stuff” doesn’t have an apparent connection to their immediate research interests, it might do at some point in the future. You never know. You could be very sorry when you get down to analysis and find out you don’t have the very thing you are looking for.

Trust me, I know about pack ratting. I have been a field work pack rat and the huge stack of archive boxes in my office are testament to my practices of accumulation.

Some years ago some colleagues and I did a project on change in schools. We went into our forty carefully selected institutions, and picked up everything we could lay our hands on. We took hundreds of photos. We made copies of every school document available. We printed out webpages, and we persuaded people to give us material about every single thing they had done for the last few years. We gathered unto us brochures, media clippings, prospectus, publications, reports.  We amassed a mass of stuff. On top of our collections,  we also had field notes and interviews.

At the end of the project we sorted through the materials, got rid of duplicates and packed a very large archive box for each of the forty schools. That was just the hard copy stuff – we also had extensive digital materials.

I am still not sure how much of this material we actually used. Certainly we used some of it and we worked with it, in depth. But not all of it. How could we in the time we had?

I went back to one of the boxes recently just to see what we had. A lot of it was surplus to requirements, even at the time. A couple of items that we hadn’t particularly worked with, but had kept because they were interesting, were still interesting. They were indeed worthy of the side analysis we had imagined at the time. A lot of the stuff however, wasn’t of much value and I couldn’t see that it would ever be so.

But we had collected it. Just in case. We had pack ratted.

I’ve come to understand that during field work you often accumulate an archive of materials. However, this is always an excess. And whats more, it is not even yet data. Even if we call it data, it isn’t yet data.

Data is created when you actually sit down, back in the office, away from the everyday busyness of field work, to work out what you have that will actually help you answer your research question(s). The research data you use is absolutely not the same as that archive of potential data. In a very real sense, the researcher creates the data from the archive of stuff they put together.

As you sort and sift through the field work archive asking – of every item – what it might contribute to your particular research question, you are actually deciding what is the data for your particular study. This is a helpful exercise in itself, because it forces you to focus not only on the question, but also on what you need in order to construct some kind of answer.

Of course, when you come across something that looks like it might make a good side project, then it is worth putting away for safe-keeping. But the rest? Well you could keep it in boxes for ten years or so, as I have, or you could make a cull at the time, keeping your archive of material only until the project is finished.

But then you never know what might come in handy…

If you think that way, you may be a latent or actual pack rat, in which case you will just accumulate and accumulate, seeking new shiny things on each and every field work trip.

And then you will end up with an office that looks just like mine!

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from PhD to book – or – on not writing under anaesthetic

Often dissertations sound like prose under general anaesthetic, working hard to separate the writer out from what he or she has written.

That’s a quote from William Germano, writing in From dissertation to book.

Wellcome image collection

Wellcome image collection

Germano’s metaphor points to a tendency for the thesis to be written in flat and distant prose. This is in part because, as Germano explains, the thesis is as much a record of other people’s ideas as your own. You see, your job in the thesis is to supplement or challenge the existing knowledge in the field with your own research results, analysis and insights. However, the very task of going through the process of the thesis – setting up the problem you are researching, seeing where it fits, and then accounting for the research you conducted – can have a very deadening effect on the writing.

Germano contrasts the deadened thesis to the book. The book,he argues, must be written from your point of view first. Your argument is supplemented by the work of others. He argues that in order to wake up an anaesthetised thesis you have to not simply revise, but transform the prose. Conservative approaches to thesis revision – like cutting and pasting whole chapters holus bolus from the thesis into the book –  leave the book, he says, “moving jerkily like a poorly projected silent film”.

The problems with the standard dissertation writing voice are pretty well known. Lots of citations which not only visually disrupt the page but also create obstacles for the reader. Too much signposting which signals intention, rather than actually doing the stuff. Overuse of passive voice. Long sequences of very long sentences stuffed full of subordinate clauses. Huge numbers of multi-syllabled abstract nouns – zombie nouns as Helen Sword calls them.

Germano adds to this list “an unseemly pompousness or willed lifelessness – as if being a professional scholar means showing as little expression as possible…. “Here’s another one of those Germano metaphors… Bad dissertation writing inevitably reminds me of the sort of play in which young actors in gray wigs and heavy makeup play characters forty years older. The problem, Germano says, is that the dissertation replicates an “inert prose style that sounds very much like the inert prose style of thousands of dissertations that have gone before.”

This kind of writing won’t please a book publisher, Germano says. And he ought to know, because he was one for a very long time. He was Director of Publishing at Routledge before going into the academy.

Germano’s solutions are not as novel as his metaphors. The antidotes to comatose prose are well discussed in the writing advice literatures. Germano suggests that transforming dissertation prose means getting rid of the omniscient narrator, removing unnecessary and hefty footnotes, writing shorter sentences and writing more in the active voice. Germano advises attending to the content of headings and subheadings, making them not only catchy but also related to the overall meaning of the writing they herald. He also suggests removing colons and semi-colons in order to pay attention to pauses and pacing, as well as examining the choice of words to achieve greater clarity.

So Germano is a serious fan of revision. As am I.  Lots of revision. As Germano puts it, “..writing and revision are the paired beats of a scholar’s life.”

The entire From dissertation to book can be seen as a very extended argument for transformative revision. It is also a good example of the kind of prose that Germano advocates – snappy, lively and to the point. It is therefore a good read, and a relatively quick one. It’s one I’d recommend to everyone trying to turn their thesis into a scholarly book.


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writing friends

This is guest post by Ninna Meier and Charlotte Wegener, both Associate Professors at Aalborg University, in the Department of Sociology and Social Work and the Department of Communication respectively. They have been co-authors and writing friends since their doctoral studies. 

We are writing-friends. We are also ‘just’ friends who like each other very much. But our friendship evolved through writing and we never spend time together without talking about writing, coming up with new writing projects and things we want to pursue through writing. We’ve been writing-friends since we wrote a paper together during our doctoral studies: here we explored experiences with writing in a time of our academic life where scholarly insecurity and identity formation was central. We spent endless hours during our doctoral studies reading each other’s text bits, paper drafts, reviewer comments, paper revisions and, eventually, each other’s attempts to finish it all in one coherent dissertation. We drank vast amounts of coffee talking about research life, life in general, and writing in particular. We partied, cried, laughed and worked hard – always, the drive to know and write qualitatively better was there. Now, our writing relationship is different and yet the drive is still there, as a third party in the friendship that, whatever we do, draw energy from.

We have heard many doctoral students share stories about loneliness and how feelings of relentless time pressure are preventing them from reaching out to fellow students and build writing-relationships. We share our story to point out that reaching out is not a waste of time.

5615282651_96a2332424_b.jpgOver the last year, we have been writing pieces of experimental and personal text to each other in a file called The Secret Book. We write everything that comes to our mind; the only rule is no censoring. We have written about death, divorce, dreams and a range of more obviously research-related things, but as a red thread running through it all, we explore writing as a way of thinking, sensing and being in the world as researchers and as human beings. We investigated and expanded our capacity for thinking and writing, the range of our words and as time went by, we realized that we had created something new. We have called it Open Writing. For a while, we talked about this work as living a quiet life ‘under the radar’, but over time it turned out to be central to what we do. We have also renamed the file and it is now The Open Book: an integrated part of our work. Here is a brief look into ‘The Open Book’:

Charlotte: 15/8 2016, kl 13.40: Entitled For your trip home: “I woke up to your text message about Hartmut Rosa’s notion of resonance assisted by your words: new book from the acceleration philosopher. Acceleration. Indeed, this summer has provided space-time themes to delve into, explore, talk about and write about. Before setting out to write an account, I increasingly experience that material is floating in front of me, and that I must turn it into the fabric of a text. I sense threads of space-time material today; Rosa’s idea of resonance, your latest account of your childhood garden, our trip earlier this summer to a remote island to revisit my grandparents’ house and the way it was all work and non-work. Jeff Buckley’s eminent voice reinterpreting the title song from the 1987 movie Bagdad Café while I, armed with an evaporator, remove layers and layers of wallpaper in the room formerly known as my kitchen. Buckley’s version of ‘Calling you’ is so cool, vulnerable, stripped. His voice is whining, trapped and yearning freedom –

A hot dry wind blows right through me.
The baby’s crying and I can’t sleep,
but we both know a change is coming,
coming closer sweet release.

It is a live version recorded in 1993, four years before he drowned in the Mississippi River, intense, gorgeous and wildly talented. He was/is/should have been my age. It is an intimate concert recorded one afternoon and later turned into a cult album. I wish I had been there that afternoon and yet, each time I hear the songs and remove one more layer of wallpaper (1980-red and then 1970-brown) I am in that café that afternoon, just a tiny part of me. I am also in the history of this room, which is now transmuting into a 21th century white, streamlined kitchen from where my future meals, parties and passionate conversations are going to flow. It has been the container of everyday family life, teenager pre-parties, mess, music and grownup love and lost love. I am in the cinema, 22 years old and watching Bagdad Café with my friends; I am the sleepless mother of a crying baby; I am your friend reading Rosa, sensing the threads of the text I am writing to you today. We know a change is coming, but we never know what it will bring. Rosa talks about tree time-levels; the temporality of everyday-life, the temporality of a lifetime (biographical time), and the temporality of one’s epoch (historical time). What about the future? We know a change is coming, but we never know what it will bring. Every move we make, every decision we take or refuse to take, make futures possible and impossible, we hurt someone, please someone else, strive to avoid pain and fail. Coincidence strikes, willpower and stubbornness force events through. Still, we imagine that this will lead to that, we construe coherent narratives about everyday-life, about our biography and about past and present epochs, maybe even future epochs. When narratives break down and this doesn’t lead to that, we say that we have lost our sense of meaning. That life makes no sense. Just like my GPS said during our trip: ‘Roads change all the time’. All the time? Laughing wildly, we imagined the road networks like the Hogwarts staircases going randomly up and down, ending nowhere, somewhere and anywhere. What Rosa proposes is that when we experience resonance, we do not seek meaning – or maybe we just experience meaning without concerns. It is a beautiful idea. He says that we need stable axes of resonance and that these axes allow for singular moments of resonance. That is what we are pursuing in our writing, we are creating an axis of resonance and we want to share it to amplify resonance in the world. I don’t even need to ask why Buckley’s piece resonates with me. It is simply because we have an axis of resonance from which a moment of resonance it allowed. Now this moment has turned into a text and made the axis even stronger.”

Ninna: 15/8 2016 15.52: Entitled Will you hold my dreams? “I have been away for one week and I have missed writing with you. I have ignored it. I have dreamt about houses, streets, growing vegetables (potatoes), living on remote islands, taming horses, caring for babies that were not mine, attending a party, singing in an abandoned warehouse, stealing a bike and getting caught by police, and planting tulips. I don’t know what they all mean, those dreams, but your beautiful and poetic text made me remember them and made me remember that most of all, I have dreamt in feelings! Feelings of loneliness, fear, determination, freedom, hope, love. Sometimes the actions fade and the feelings remain. My hope is that sharing this brief bit with you will leave a thread in the text I can pick up when I come home! I can’t wait, it feeds like parts of me are already in your kitchen, laughing, stripping off wallpaper, listening to music. Perhaps this is what resonance is like? It makes you feel connected in time and space, feeling quantum entangled with things and people?”

Our writing friendship makes us investigate what we are capable of when we face our fear and don’t run away, when we peel off layers of ego and write, raw, un-censored. Writing is a path to freedom: we address the monsters hiding inside us, call them out of dark corners and onto the pages where they mutate into words, sentences, and paragraphs; things we actually like.

Writing with no clear direction, no target journal, or no thoughts about publication is not a waste of time. If the text is good enough, eventually it will find an outlet. If not, these kinds of writing make us better writers, more sensitive researchers, and in our case happier human beings. We only need to get out of the way of the flow of words and see what happens. Writing is not necessarily a lonely endeavour. We can reach out, be courageous, and kind – and a writing friendship may evolve.

You can follow Open Writing on Twitter.


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why tinker with your text?

After the messy first draft. After the revision where you’ve checked the order of the paragraphs and the headings to make sure the sequence of material is what you want. After the revision where you finessed the sentences, got rid of word repetitions, attended to a few slips of grammar, removed excess passive voice, excised the unnecessary nouny passages. And after the proof reading. You’re done. You’re done.

Well yes, maybe you are. But many writers keep at it after the proof reading. They then tinker with their text.

5616707205_81eda2473b_bOne dictionary definition of tinkering has it as  improving, adjusting and rearranging. So seeing what particular structure and organisation of material works best. Pausing to sort out the syntax further. Dwelling on the choice of terms.

Textual tinkering is word play and experimentation for a purpose – trying things out to see what small changes might do. This kind of tinkering is more akin to an artistic process, and it is this meaning that fits with the creative text work I am most interested in.

I tinker a lot with my blog posts, if I have time. They are, after all, just short pieces of quickly read text and there isn’t a lot to play around with, and maybe not a lot of point. But I often read and re-read an apparently completed post, changing a phrase here, a word there. Just seeing what works better, you know.

When I tinker with blog posts I am particularly interested in making the text more readable. I am interested in clarity. But I am always looking for ways to express an idea so to make the post have more ‘voice’. This might mean adding some alliteration, repetition, metaphor. It might mean varying sentence length. It might mean playing around with word choice.

I tinker with books and book chapters too. Most publishers send you more than one copy of the proofs and so you have the opportunity to read through the text that you sent off. This can feel never-ending, but it does give you an opportunity to make small tweaks to the text, as well as deal with typos, layout and grammar. And a second time back is one last chance to attend to judicious word choice and pleasing sentence construction.

With a chapter or journal article, you often don’t have to press send the moment you finish. You can wait a bit and let the paper sit – and then tinker. You also get a chance to tinker as part of the journal or chapter revision process. Doing revisions can be about more than attending to what reviewers have asked you to do. It can also be an opportunity to make stylistic changes.

Why tinker at all? Well. Tinkering is where the craft of writing really kicks in. It’s where you take the time to work with and work on the text until it works, works as well as you can make it. Until it works for the reader as well as it can.

Under pressure to publish, it is a perhaps a luxury to take time to tinker. Tinkering could be seen as procrastination. And sometimes I dare say it is. Tinkering could be seen as a futile and counter-productive quest for perfection. And I dare say it might be, and often is. It is the temptation to try to be perfect which compels those who give writing advice to say “Just send it off, don’t keep playing with it”.

But tinkering with text can also be seen as a move which refuses. Tinkering refuses speed as a measure of writing success, refuses the number of papers submitted as a sign of productivity. Tinkering says yes, let me get my paper out, but only when I am satisfied enough with it.

Tinkering says that the post, paper, chapter or book will go in when, and only when, you and it are good and ready. When, that is, the prose is as polished as you want it to be. When the reader you are writing for can slip into the argument without falling down linguistic cracks or tripping over klutzy sentences. When they are struck by the felicitous phrase, by the memorable term, by the telling argument.

Finessing a text to this degree takes time  – and a very well-honed practice of tinkering. Tinker on, I say. Tinker to tailor..

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