Story structure 2 – research writing

How is writing research like story? Last post I wrote about Kurt Vonnegut’s man in hole structure and how that might help you think at a very macro level about how to organise your material. This post is also about structure – this time a four part structure I’ve called C3REC.

The C3REC structure is an academic writing version of the creative writing ERCR. 

Well who doesn’t love an impossible acroynym… C3REC is no easier to say than ERCR. But let’s go back to the original ERCR. Put simply ERCR means Exposition, Rising action, Climax and Resolution. 

ERCR goes like this: Exposition is all the stuff you, the reader, needs to know before you start the story proper. Next the Rising Action – that’s where the writer offers you a series of events – this then this then this. And all of the this then this then this builds up to a Climax – a big thing – which then leads on to the Resolution, where everything comes together.

Yes, yes I know a lot of contemporary story telling doesn’t do ERCR. Lots of writers enjoy plunging you into something straight away or they omit a conclusion, leaving you to sort out which of the possible endings you think happened. And the Rising Action can take place in different places, times and be told from various points of view. But you know, for the sake of thinking about academic writing, there are enough stories that still use the ERCR structure to make it worth thinking about for a minute or two.

So how does ERCR translate into academic writing, the C3REC?

Well, the C here is for Context times 3. The first E is for Evidence Rising. The second E is for Extending. The final C is for Crunch.


When you start a piece of academic research writing the reader generally needs to know quite a bit. Just like fiction readers. But academic readers need more. Before they get into your research proper, they need to know three things. Context times 3 is

  1. the topic, but also why its an issue/proble/puzzle worthy of exploration 
  2. where the topic fits in its field, what it builds on, where you see there is a problem or a niche you can address, and what the research will add, and
  3. how the research was designed and done.  

Rising Evidence. 

This is where you present your the bulk of your research – whether its analysis of texts, stuff you’ve counted or stuff you’ve seen or stuff you’ve made happen – it is presented as a series of steps. The results rise, there is a narrative arc – the presentation is going somewhere. Each step builds a case. First there’s this theme or experiment or this case study or this event or this was written, and then comes… and after that which leads onto.. here you add incrementally to what the reader knows, step by logical step.


But building steps is not enough. In research writing, whether it’s a thesis or a peer reviewed paper, you are generally expected to do more than simply present an analysis of results, you need to say something about what all of those cumulative steps mean. You can explain them further. You can connect your evidence with some of what you discussed in Context 2 – what’s in the field.

Sometimes you can combine Rising evidence and Extension in your text, but it’s always helpful to remember both parts, you know that you have to work with both. The point of Extension is that you have to take your research results somewhere.


The crunch is where you sum up what you’ve done. This is a resolution but it’s a particular kind. Here is where you say what all this research adds up to. You make your point. Succintly, and in relation to your original issue/problem/puzzle – Context 1. And then you need to talk about how this is a contribution to the field – going back to Context 2. And finally you look ahead and talk about any things that arise from the story – you have a trailer for a possible new story which started with your research. Your trailer provides some clues as to So What and Now What.

And yes yes I know that C3REC can translate into Introduction, Methods Results and Discussion if you want it to. But it might do more. Unlike IMRAD, C3REC can also support a range of other text types, from thesis by papers/publication to more playful and arts based text types. C3REC is more about the content than the form. How you present the material in each of the four moves in C3REC is less prescribed. 

C3REC might also work as a revision strategy, where you go back to your text and ask if all of the pieces are in place. 

But I know C3REC is not a catchy acronym, and you probably won’t find too many people who know what it is. Don’t worry, they don’t need to. Just keep C3REC to yourself. It’s just a little shorthand between you and me. Our little secret.

And a bit more about story and research writing next week. 

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Story and research writing

You often hear that writing about research is story telling. This is partly right and partly not. Partly not, because a lot of academic writing is better thought of as argument. Argument relies on evidence to make a case for a particular research result. And partly not story, because some research writing is reporting results. Reports rely on a standard order of content. So here then is the question, how is research writing like telling a story?

And one answer to this question is man in hole. Man in hole is an answer which can guide your writing. Man in hole is attributed to the late Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut developed five classic story structures. Now, Vonnegut is not the only person to develop universal story structures. But let’s stick with Vonnegut and his man in hole structure for now.

So if you’ve watched this little video, you’ve probably worked out how you can use the man in hole structure. It can help with two research writing tasks.

1. Research proposal. Outline the problem – man in hole. Say how you are going to get the man out of the hole – research plan.

2. Research report, thesis, book or journal article. Outline the problem – man in hole. Give an answer or a partial answer to the problem and say how you did it – how you got the man of the hole.

Man in hole is clearly a big structure that you can use when you start to think about how to organise your research material. You start with the problem and finish with some kind of answer.

That’s not all you have to think about of course when you’re writing about your research. But that big man in hole narrative structure could give you somewhere to start.

There are other ways to think about narrative and research writing too. There’s more coming up.

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when your writing plan gets stuck

There are load of reasons why planning doesn’t work. Life. Work. Other competing deadlines. Unexpected stuff. But sometimes our plans don’t come to fruition because of what we do. Or rather, what we don’t.

And yes, maybe the problem is that the writing plan wasn’t realistic and needs adjusting. But maybe the problem is more about the writer not doing what they really really want to do. But can’t.

Here are four strategies to try when you get stuck. When you find yourself with a book or thesis or paper that isn’t going to plan. When you just can’t seem to get the writing into any shape.

  • Try distraction. 

Take a break. Go for a walk. Do the dishes. Garden. Have a massage. Reward yourself for what you have done.

Come back another time, not the same day. Leave the writing for a while. Maybe your subconscious will keep working away at the problem. And/or maybe you will come back refreshed and this will be enough for you to pick up the pieces.

More importantly, distracting yourself may disrupt whatever unhappy pattern you have got yourself into. After all, none of us have great days all the time. Academic writers seem less good at acknowledging that you can’t work at your best everyday. Most of my artist friends happily acknowledge that some days in the studio or workshop just aren’t meant for doing anything high stakes.

  • Try playing.

Go back to your data. Try writing the text in a different genre or from a different point of view. Write about what you are meant to be writing about. Shuffle the text around. Draw the paper you want to write. Find five objects on your desk and arrange them to show your writing impasse.

Playing is re-energising. But more importantly, playing is a way to allow yourself to move away from your planned argument, the established order of moves. Instead, you open up possibilities for re-seeing connections, for re-visioning the text.

Academic writers seem less good at playing than many craftspeople I know. A lot of craftspeople take time to deliberately experiment. They set aside days and weeks to try new things out and develop new skills and products.

  • Get support from peers. 

Phone a friend. Joining a writing group or SUAW or organising a writing retreat is one way to carve out writing space. You deliberately put yourself in a very supportive and social environment where everyone’s purpose is to write. Or you can ask a colleague to go for a walk and talk. As you move, you can discuss your writing and what you need to do. Or give your writing to a peer and then have a discussion over coffee.

Talking and free writing offer a way to sort out some ideas before writing them down. But more importantly, writing groups and discussions combine social connections with writing. The loneliness, struggles and frustrations of solitary authorship are removed.  A temporary scholarly community is formed, one in which your efforts are recognised and worked with and on. 

  • Try some coaching.

Coaching focuses on your specific issues and tasks. There are now a number of good academic writing coaches around. Ask about and get a recommendation.

A good coach is a sounding board. They offer a confidential and safe space in which you can discuss your particular challenges. They may give you some strategies, and/or help you to determine a bespoke plan of attack. Regular meetings with a coach offer a mild form of accountability as well as a continued source of acknowledgement, encouragement and support. More importantly, a good coach teaches you strategies you can use now and in the future. Let me explain why that’s a good thing.

We hear a lot in academic writing circles about the inner critic. We all have one, it’s that little voice that tells us what’s wrong with our text. Now, it’s unhelpful to let your inner critic loose too soon in the writing process because it stops you writing anything. You’re too focused on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right and written. (Strategies 1 and 2 above are ways to silence your inner critic from getting too stroppy too soon.) But inner critics come into their own when you come to look at your first draft. It is the inner critic’s eye and hand which gets your writing to the next level.

The inner critic is essential to academic writing as long as you know when to spring them into action.

However, academic writers need more than a good inner critic. Academic writers need an inner coach. Your inner coach helps you get through stuck patches. It encourages you to keep going. It focuses you on goals. It accumulates a little bag full of diagnostic tools and strategies you can try out. It supports you to question your habituated ways of doing things. 

Perhaps we don’t have a high functioning inner coach because we simply haven’t had the opportunity to grow one. And sometimes our inner coach gets a bit stuck too. Whatever the situation, working with a live external coach helps you build your inner coach. And while working with a coach does generally cost money, think of it as investment. Coaching is not necessarily just for now, but also for the writer you will be next year – and beyond.

It’s likely that one of these four strategies will help you unstick your writing plan. But it also may be that the plan was mis-timed or mis-thought. One good thing about plans is that they can be tweaked if they aren’t doing their job.

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Planning and writing

When it comes to writing I’m definitely a planner. I like to show other people how to plan their papers too. 

And the standard caveat before I begin. Of course my way is not the only way. This is A way that works for quite a lot of people most of the time. Or some of the time. It is one strategy to add into your bag of writing tools.

When I am writing for publication I take what is really a project management approach, where I map out the various steps in the writing and diary them. My planning is not about writing every day, although I do do some writing most days. I’m lucky. But like most people the times I have available vary. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes a little. I have to fit writing in with my non negotiables. Even if I prioritise writing, which I do, there is still other stuff to get done.

This is how I plan. I use a Tiny Text which I then expand out to include key “stuff” – chunks of pre-writing, quotations and references, and any relevant bits of data analysis. That leaves me with a pretty coherent outline which already has its argument sorted. However, like planning anything, my initial writing plan may not be the same as the final final piece. That’s OK, because in the actual writing I learn more about what I can say.

My plan always has an approximate word count against each section. And a potential time allocation. I match the word count to the amount of time I think I need for each section – how long I think it will take me to write this number of words, given the complexity of the section. Some sections, like methods, are often quick because I know what I am going to write very well. Other sections like the conclusion might be quite short but take a fair bit of time, even for a first draft. Once I’ve got my word and times estimated and allocated, I can then match my estimated times to the slots I have available in my diary.

Below you can see a planning sequence where I go from a Tiny Text to dividing the paper into sections to allocating a notional word budget. I’ve shown this set of slides before but now I have added time allocations to them.

This gets you to a first draft. You then need to allocate additional time for revising and refining. But this is what I try to show people they can do too, if they choose. Our times would of course vary as our lives and work are different.

And there’s the catch. I am sure that you can already see it. Sometimes my time estimates are wrong. Sometimes a section just takes a lot longer than I think. Sometimes it is quicker too. And sometimes I find when I am some way into my plan that the overall argument is wonky and I really need to go back to the beginning and start over. I didn’t know that at the start.

Now, I am of course pretty long in the tooth and have done a lot of writing. (It’s not my habit to talk about the number of people I’ve worked with and the number of things I’ve written but you can check out my books and other publications if you need evidence that I’ve done my share of academic writing.) The most important thing about this volume and planning is not the quantity, but it’s that I have done enough to have a fair idea of how long things usually take me. I know how many words I can write on a good day and how long it usually takes me to write the more complex sections of a paper.

I have experience I can use in planning. But I still don’t always get it right. But. Yes, but. If you’re a relatively new academic writer then you don’t have experience. Yet. But you will have. Each time you write, you build up understandings about your own writing, how you work with various bits of text, what you struggle with, what often takes longer to get right. And you develop an idea of how long you might take for different aspects of writing.

But understanding isn’t easy – knowing how long it takes you to write a thing is not only tied to what you are writing, but also when, where and how. Writing is never a simple matter of it usually takes an hour for me to write an introduction of 300 words. We are always working with a range an I’ve taken from half an hour to three entire sessions of two hours each to write my introduction.

Understanding the range of the time it might take you to write a section means you can be more realistic about how much time to allow – not the shortest – and more forgiving of yourself if it turns out that this time you are at the longest time and you were optimistic about the time you had initially allocated.

But there’s a further implication here. Being able to allocate time slots to particular parts of a writing task relies on you building up writing understanding based on experience. Each time you write you potentially know more about your own writing practices.

So if you are just starting out on your academic writing career, not coming to the end of it as I am, then it can really help if you start to systematically build up your knowledge about your own writing processes. And this means in part some kind of time-tracking of your writing, and then some periodic reflection on it.

Working out your own range of writing specifics means keeping some kind of log. You don’t have to do this all the time and every time you write. And tracking your time, and associated writing tasks, can be as elaborate or as simple as you like.

There is probably some smart tech that is available to help you track your writing times – if people know of this, do write it in the comments below so we can all learn. If you are a daily or weekly planner person you could keep a running total and log in your journal (whatever it is called or formatted). Or you could simply set up an Excel spread sheet or Word table to help you keep track of the range of times you spend on different writing tasks.

And yes there will be unexpected glitches, institutional and funding issues to deal with – and life – as well as the fact that you aren’t a robot and what you do changes depending on how well or badly things are going for you, the weather, other deadlines etc etc. Plans are based on experience but they aren’t written in stone and they can be changed.

But Writer, know thyself is a pretty good maxim to use as a guide to building up the picture of your own writing habits. And using that experience to make your writing plan.

A final caveat. The example I’ve given is for a pretty standard social science journal article. if you are writing something different you will need to adjust your Tiny Text and sections to fit what you are writing.

I haven’t quite finished with planning yet and there is more on planning and writing next week.

LATE ADDITION I ve been told that is a painless time tracking tool.

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the planning fallacy and the PhD

Planning. We all have to do it to get by. A lot of us hate it. Many of us overdo it. Some of us are serial planners while others make a plan and then sigh as it slips past. 

This post is for the planners who fail and the continual plan-adjusters. Some of the more successful planners might find it of interest, even if it only makes you feel better about your own relative prowess with the plan. It’s the first of a few on planning and this one’s about the PhD.

I guess you know there’s this thing called the planning fallacy. That’s when we make predictions about how much time something is going to take but underestimate the time. Sometimes what we are planning actually takes much longer to do than we thought. Our plan was wildly inaccurate. It gave us a false sense of being organised.

Psychologists say that planners often suffer from an “optimism bias” – we plan as if something is going to take a particular amount of time even though deep down we know that similar tasks have taken longer and/or that we need to leave time for unexpected events and our own wavering energies. And, psychologists tell us, other people have a tendency to have a pessimism bias when they look at our plans. They see all of the possible and probably things that might get in the way of our timeline that we have apparently ignored.

Now the planning fallacy can be a helpful idea for PhDers and those who work with them. Of course, like all ideas you can drive a truck through the ways in which the notion of the planning fallacy was deverloped if you want. But I prefer to think about what might be useful in the idea.

At the core of the planning fallacy proposition is the idea that people make plans on the basis of what they want to happen, rather than on what they know is more likely. Well, that makes sense. Unless you’re Eeyore and simply glad there have been no earthquakes lately, you’re always likely to hope for the best. Aim for the best case.

But what happens if you don’t actually know what is likely? This is the situation that most PhDers find themselves in. They can’t really tell how long it will take to do their data work because they’ve not done anything similar before. The PhD is likely the first time they’ve done a project of this size and complexity. They don’t know how long it is going to take them to analyse the stuff they have generated. They don’t know how long it will take to write a big monograph text or to get three papers published.

Despite not being able to know what doing the PhD actually entails, PhDers are continually asked to prepare and present plans for completion. While plan preparation certainly helps to get across the notion of an end point and a final deadline, what happens in between is a space which is largely imagined. Not based on prior experience.

I am sure that most supervisors do try to make PhDers aware of the amount of time that analysis and writing take. But these individual conversations would really be helped if we supervisors had more detailed resources available which would help fill in the knowledge gap about the time it takes to do and write research.

Perhaps somewhere some universities do have completed PhDers come and talk with starter PhDers about plans. And how their plans were not necessarily what happened. How they would plan differently if they had to do it again knowing what they know at the end. Perhaps somewhere some universities make serial plans from PhDers and/or actual timings available to new starters so that they can see for themselves where the time really does get spent.

Without some resources available to them PhDs making plans are really working in the dark. It is no wonder that optimism prevails. It is also no wonder that PhDers often find themselves running out of time and out of money largely because they had not been able to anticipate how long they would actually need to complete their work.

It does seem to me that universities need to do better in this area. It is not enough to set deadlines and ask for reports and plans. It is good, but not enough, for graduate services to offer workshops in project management. It is good, but not enough, for supervisors to discuss time and to ask PhDers to backwards map their PhDs. It seems to me that it would be VERY helpful if there were more effort directed towards building up understandings about time, and developing some plans and resources that really help PhDers to get to know what time is likely to be required.

This doesn’t mean more of the I-did-my-PhD-in-two-years-and-you-can-too, or I-wrote-my-thesis-in-three-months-and-you-can-too resources. It does mean talking out loud about the different PhD times that people take – it’s a range – and why. Different people have different projects, work in different contexts, have different supports and face different obstacles. But understanding the variety and the continuum of time taken might be part of the process of new PhDers getting more realistic about making plans.

Getting over optimism bias is always a matter of knowing yourself and your particular circumstances. And this might mean PhDers and their supervisors thinking more about scenarios than plans. What’s the best and what’s the just OK scenario for completion of this PhD? What needs to be watched out for as this PhD goes along? What are the signs that the best case scenario is off track? What might be done to move from what appears to be just OK to something more like the best case?

Understanding and taking account of the planning fallacy might be a bit of a first check on over optimism. Knowing the fallacy can be a reminder not to be over optimistic. A little prod to temper your enthusiasm.

PS And apologies to the PhDers I’ve worked with where I haven’t been as clear about this as I am right now. Thinking about the planning fallacy has helped me to learn about and from my past supervision experiences.

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five discussion chapter challenges

In everyday speech, a discussion is usually understood as an in depth treatment of a topic, a way to exchange ideas or a process of talking about something in order to reach a decision. An academic discussion in a thesis or paper has elements of each of these three possibilities – an academic discussion is you

  • working further on your empirical material (in depth) 
  • putting your ideas into conversation with the existing literatures (exchange) and
  • reaching a conclusion ( deciding on your “answers’ to your question or hypothesis).

However by the time PhDers come to the discussion chapter they are often tired. They’ve done a load of work generating and analysing stuff – and they have results. So why do more? Isn’t this enough already? Do you really have to start all over again?

It’s not really surprising that discussion chapters can have one or more of five predictable problems:

  • The results are rehashed and repeated. The results aren’t taken any further. The reader, usually the examiner, has a terrible sense of déjà vu and the feeling that they have been left to do the hard work of further interpretation and theorising and connecting with the literatures.
  • There is a load of new data introduced. The discussion loses focus. Is it a new set of results or a discussion of the results that have already been presented? The reader is confused about what they are reading.
  • The text doesn’t hang together. It wanders around. There is no clear argument or narrative arc. It seems to the reader that the writer has made some attempt to take the results further but has presented them as a list or a brain storm. The reader is left to decide where it is all going. 
  • The interpretation is really shallow. The results are interesting but the writer gives the most obvious and literal interpretation of them. The reader is left unenlightened and once again, must do the hard work of thinking.

Each of these problems has the same end point. The reader concludes that the writer hasn’t mounted much of a discussion at all and that the thesis conclusion and contribution can only be limited by this lack of further thinking. Which indeed it is.

But there’s a further possible problem.

  • The writer takes it too far. The blank spots in the study, and its scale are not considered. The writer reads too much into the results and makes sweeping generalisations. The reader predicts that when they get to claims and implications they will be equally over wrought. 

The discussion chapter is a crucial part of a thesis text. It is where the writer offers further explanation and elaboration. They take the results somewhere – they move the argument along. The text moves back from the immediate research and places it into a broader context – and a key context is the literatures that have already been canvassed earlier in the text. Think of the discussion chapter as moving away from a presentation monologue to being in dialogue with other researchers.

Many discussions are combined with a conclusion or with some aspects of a conclusion. However, there are distinctive aspects of the discussion which require writers to summon up a  last burst of creative energies. 

It’s important not to skimp on the discussion. Your claims for contribution, and your anticipations of where your research could go next depend on the solid foundation you build from your results in the discussion – the depth, exchange and decision written into your text.

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making the case for your research

Explain why your research is worth doing … it might be obvious to you but it’s not necessarily clear to others. But it’s not just you who has to explain. All scholars have to justify why their research topic is important.

You have to create the warrant for your research when you write the proposal for entry to the PhD, when you apply for funding and when you write the thesis. You also have to explain the warrant for a book, a paper and a book chapter.

Now, your justification for doing a particular kind of research is often found in the wider social political cultural context. Or maybe in professional practice. There’s a problem that needs attending to urgently. And you’re just the person to do it.

However, all scholars also have to find where their research fits in, and fits with, existing scholarship. That means getting into the literatures. While you will have had a rationale for your research when you applied for the PhD, there is always more to add after you have immersed yourself in the literatures. And your university will usually make sure that you are able to mount an additional literature based argument for your research by having some kind of mini-exam (paper and viva).

So how do you add this additional literatures based warrant? It’s not uncommon to argue the need for a particular piece of research on the grounds of a gap in the literatures. No-one’s done it before.

I’ve written before about the risks and problems that gap talk can create. To sum these up – There usually isn’t a gap at all, but rather a little niche that you need to carve out for yourself. And there might be a very good reason why no one has done this research before – it’s really not at all significant and not worth doing compared to all the things that really do need to be done now. What’s more, gap talk research is incremental and generally isn’t field changing – its a small, contained contribution. Finally, gap talk can be pretty disrespectful to the field, making it sound as if everyone is stupid for not having thought about the topic before.

But if you don’t do gap talk, what can you do?

Here is one strategy for creating a warrant using your reading of the literatures. The strategy was developed by Karen Golden-Biddle and Karen Locke. They talk about three ways of locating your research in the field:

  • Incompleteness.

The field has up to now done this much, said this, shown this, argued this. That is all really important, good and worthwhile. However, there is still more to be done – a, b and c for example. This research is going to do a which is crucial to do now because… This research adds to the existing body of work.

This is a polite and appreciative stance. Humble in that it doesn’t claim to be superior in any way to others in the field. No hubris here. 

  • Inadequacy.

The field has up to now done this much, said this, shown this, argued this. But they could/should have done more about a, b and/or c, given…. This research is going to redress this omission/balance the agenda by….

This is a more direct, assertive and critical stance. Inadequacy is a warrant you might take up if you were concerned with the field overlooking particular points of view, alternative perspectives, different interpretations. The researcher – you – will address oversights, introducing new theory or new sources.

  • Incommensurability.

The field has up to now done this much, said this, shown this, argued this. This is incommensurable with… other researchers could/should have done more about a, b and/or c, given…. Failing to address a, b or c amounts to ( something very wrong, bad ). This research will offer a better alternative approach by…

Incommensurability is a much more antagonistic approach, it passes judgment on the field for its ongoing failures to deal with something very important. The researcher is not only being provocative, but is also going to remedy the wrong-doing they have identified. Researchers who want to take the field somewhere else very often have to argue a version of incommensurability. The field has not been up to the task and really needs to take a hard look at itself and do something very different.

I like Gold-Biddle and Locke’s three categories because they force you to take a stand one way or another. You can’t hide behind an undefined gap and dodge saying what you think the field has done. Using one of the three categories means that you are obliged to say what kind of problem there is in the field and what you will do about it. And if you want to be critical of the field, you have two ways to go about it, one much more likely to raise hackles than the other.

Of course, you don’t need to use these categories at all. Or per se. But they are very handy thinking aides. You can use the three categories to help you think through the way you construct the warrant for your study. As you work on developing your research warrant, ask yourself

Am I saying that my research is needed because the field is incomplete, inadequate or incommensurable? 

Much better than simply saying there’s a gap. 

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useless ideas

Frida Kahlo diary-sketchbook

Sometimes I read a something that resonates. It doesn’t necessarily have an immediate application. The something is not useful. It just speaks to me. And I want to write out the useless reading-thing. As a quote. So I don’t lose it. So it will sit there as a reading-thing that seems to possibly be worth doing some more thinking about. Maybe.

I’m sure you do this too. In fact, we urge doctoral researchers to develop a noting-things-down habit. Even if the reason for choosing the quite or thought is not immediately obvious.

Academics are not alone in writing down apparently not useful but perhaps interesting fragments. Lots of people and professions do the writing-the-reading-thing down. Writing about reading not as organised notes that fit in a predetermined template or a set of questions. Simply making a note of something. A note by itself, of itself, for itself.

So I hear you ask, who else writes down stuff that is not apparently useful? Well. For a start, artists often jot down quotations as well as making doodles, squiggles, random images and notes of ideas. You just have to look at a collection of artists’ books to see how they notice and then record what they notice. Who knows what these idle and purposeful noticing notes might turn into? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they are just part of a process of observing, listening, tuning in. Maybe some of these scribbles are a long percolation of a something. Something that emerges but doesn’t necessarily have a straight line back to the original, although you might be able to find the traces if you look hard and long.

It’s interesting that we don’t give researchers’ notebooks the same status as artists’ books. Our academic notebooks – analogue or digital – aren’t a defined genre. Even where there might be a genre-like text, as in ethnographic field notes or experimental records, we generally don’t share them around. We don’t see these texts as part of a creative practice of thinking, in the way we see artists’ books as integral to artists’ practice.

Researcher field notes tend to be private, or used primarily for teaching others how-to-do-it. ( Although there are a few published field note texts in the humanities and sciences, usually because their makers were significant). But the occasional blogger does use their posts as a way of recording snippets of thinking, and as a way of thinking in public. Would more of this making notes public be something worth doing? Should we start to make our researcher notebooks more widely available? There’s a research project about researcher notebooks in waiting here too…

Enough of that for now. To the topic. What was the quote that piqued my interest? Just for the record, and for those of you interested in words, you understand. Those of you not interested in words stop now. 

I’ve been reading about experimental encyclopaedia, and alternative word lists. And this is the passage I paused on. The writers are suggesting that it would be ideal if the word list they constructed was read in parallel, rather than one entry after another.

In this word list, or lexicon, words figure not as solid entities but as living things, animated in the break of the gesture of their performance, whether in speech or on the page of writing. Like the characters of a play, every word has a history and a personality of its own, and a story to tell. … our words perpetually strain beyond the limits of their conceptual referents. Words, like worlds, are always in flux. In conversation, they carry on their lives together, as do matters in the world, They touch, and sometimes mix.

The writers wanted a text where words could make contact. But the linear printed page made this impossible. While their text was written for a standard journal, subsequent lexicons and encyclopaedia using hyperlinked cross -tabs (a la Wikipedia) still have the same problem – the distance between words works against serendipitous and more calculated connections. Works against the words and their stories coming together.

The difficulties of linear text are not unknown. Not new. But that wasn’t what caught my attention. What I liked most about the passage I’ve noted down was the idea that words themselves might be active partners in making associations and new meanings – if we writers could only sort out our textual arranging to let them. Like the toys that come alive at night, maybe words even get together and tell new stories without us lifting a finger or being aware of what is happening.

OK – this quote and the idea may be a bit eccentric. Or mundane, depending on your point of view. But if, like me, you are interested in thinking about academic writing and its genres, and how academic writing genres might be different, then this little quote does capture the frustration with current forms. And…

I’m still musing.

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academic writing as conversation

You’ll often hear that academic writing is entering a conversation. A journal article for example is an entry into an asynchronous conversation that has already been going on in the journal – or perhaps ought to have been going on – about a particular topic. Articles take turns in discussing the topic, each one referring back to  other papers to make sure that the reader understands the ongoing and cumulative nature of the discussion.

It’s helpful to think that a paper or chapter or book is also entering a conversation in its own right. And that’s a conversation with the reader. And just as in the paper by paper conversation, the writer has to make connections with what has gone before. (Apologies to all of the conversation analysts out there reading this – I am about to simplify and gloss over complexities.)

People who study conversations understand them as social – conversation is a way to share experiences and expand our thinking by “hooking up” with others. Conversations are cooperative. Both parties contribute and take turns, working with a set of largely unwritten ‘rules’.

And one of the important conversation rules is about both parties making a commitment to converse. Each party assumes a right to participate and a responsibility to listen and stay involved. It’s rude to start a conversation and then dominate it, without being given permission in some way. It\s rude to walk away in the middle of a conversation without making an excuse. 

But there are different rules for different kinds of conversations, So It’s rude to interrogate people in an ordinary conversation but perfectly OK in an interview. It’s maybe OK to walk away from a crowd where one person is holding the floor, telling a very long story which is perhaps asking too much from listeners. That’s because usually speakers can’t assume they have a right to an audience, they can usually only speak for so long before they are interrupted, perhaps asked to get to the point. In a presentation speakers can go on for longer, but not indefinitely. 

These turn taking, time and space occupying rules are not actually about politeness, although when the rules are broken it may seem as if politeness and rudeness are all that matters. The unwritten rules of conversation provide us with a way to share our experiences, interpretations, evaluations. This allows us to know more, as well as to build social connections, bonds, alliances and togetherness. 

So it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see that a single piece of academic writing may function in the same way. When you are writing a text you are speaking to the reader. You are asking the reader to give up some of their time to pay attention to what you are going to say. You’re about to hold the floor and you want them to hang around and take note.

Some conversation analysts suggest that the first moves in a conversation are a form of coalition building.  A coalition is simply a term which describes an alliance where there is some kind of shared interest. Perhaps very temporary and short lived – perhaps longer, as in the case of political parties who form coalitions in order to govern. In conversation, coalitions tend to be temporary. The speaker establishes an area of mutual interest with the listener. The speaker establishes what it is that both parties could potentially get from talking together.

Now I think the notion of coalition building is helpful when we think about academic writing and particularly the beginning of a piece of academic writing. As we start any form of academic writing, we ask the reader to block out time. We create a launch pad for the text. We propose a topic of conversation, and we indicate how we intend to guide the reader/listener for the next little while we hold the floor. But we also promise it will be worth the readers’ while to stop what they are doing because we have a shared interest in the topic. 

Writers form a temporary coalition around a topic by 

  • recalling the ways in which the community has already been engaged with it (referring back to papers already written in the field and in the particular journal id we are writing for a journal), and 
  • establishing the need for the conversation to continue – because we haven’t yet talked about all that matters and/or because the current context means we need to keep talking and progressing our shared understandings
  • promising not to be boring but rather, be information and trustworthy. 

When the writer spells out the conversation in advance like this, the reader has a choice to commit or not. If they commit to reading past the introduction, they temporarily hand over control of the conversation to the writer. 

And then follows writer responsibilities – responsibilities which are related not so much to the genre of the conversation, but are about keeping the promise made at the start of the writing. The coalition needs to be maintained. Not just established.

At the start of the writing the writer offers to talk about something significant and something social – the writing will add to the existing conversation and build the social knowing and connections that are part of disciplinary communities. The subsequent conversation has to deliver – the text must be an argument based firmly in experience, evidence, interpretation, theorising etc. And the reader must recognise that this is what is happening.

Because coalitions can be easily broken – the reader puts the text away because it is not delivering on its promises – it is crucial for the writer to keep the conversation on track throughout. Not to bore the pants off the reader. Not to go off on a tangent and lose the thread. Not to assume too much or too little. 

I reckon that thinking about a coalition between the writer and reader might be helpful. The idea of a coalition between reader and writer focuses you as writer on the reader and their interests as well as the interests of the disciplinary community. Because conversation is social. And our communities are our disciplines and our problems and theories. So as a writer focused don coalition building and sustaining you have to think about prior knowledge, purposes and expectations. You have to think about connecting, and writing with clarity and cohesion. 

But there’s a bit more to the conversation and coalition idea that can be helpful to we academic writers.

If you start looking out for conversation rules, you’ll see some of them are not so hidden. People asking you to listen for example rather than just assuming you will – that reminds me of a time when… People signalling its OK for the speaker to keep going – “uh huh”, “What happened?”. It’s quite useful when you spot a rule of conversation to think about whether – and if so how –  there is a parallel in academic writing. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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AI and all that jazz

So AI is producing academic writing that is pretty believable. The new byline is “written by Chat GBT et al”. What are we to make of this development? Here’s a bit of what I’m fretting about…

Some people think that because AI is detectable and terribly klutzy it isn’t dreadfully worrying. But others argue that while klutzy is the case now, AI (and AI writing) is inevitably going to get better. And much less easy to detect. The implications for assessment, peer review etc are obvious. The solutions not so much. So it’s not so surprising that there’s a lot of conversation about to how to use AI in academic work/writing in ways that are ethical as well as time-saving.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not automatically hostile to AI. I’m not averse to time saving tools. But just because a tool exists doesn’t mean that it needs to be used, or used for everything. So, for me, what AI can write is not the same as what writing AI should be used for.

Perhaps bread is my analogy here. My partner makes the bread in our house. We prefer the taste and texture of his sourdough to machine made bread. And we know what goes into his bread. He makes his bread by hand and not in a bread machine – he uses only a mixer and oven. If we buy bread, and we do occasionally, we buy bread that is made the same way – by hand with only some help from a mixer and oven. I’m inclined to think about AI and academic writing in the same way.

I’m thinking about academic writing as an artisan practice. As craft. As something made by hand, with care. As something that takes time to develop. That doesn’t rise up in a couple of hours. How does AI sit with this view of academic writing?

Well, there are three AI related conversations I’d like to see much more of in my social media feed:

  • Is academic writing is simply a way of getting stuff down and out into the world? (This is the productivity conversation we’ve been having for quite some time.) Is academic writing all, or even mainly, about churning out papers and getting the citations up? Is it all about the product? How complicit are we being with performative institutions and individualised academic work practices if we focus our AI attention largely on speed and output? Or is there something important about the process of thinking and writing that is at stake? What happens if we lose sight of the scholarship in academic writing?
  • Is an academic text simply a mechanical and technical process, following a template, phrase bank or predetermined formula? (This is the conversation about the standardisation of academic writing and the sameness of a lot of academic texts). Is academic writing all about following convention? Is there a place for changing and breaking unwritten rules? How will invention happen in the new writing-plus-AI environment?
  • Where are the places for recognition and valuing of academic writing which bears the marks of human imagination, illogicalities, leaps of association, play and inventiveness? While there has been a loosening up of academic writing genres, these alt forms are still at the margins. And there is arguably a consolidation of dominant forms of academic writing through the proliferation of audit mechanisms. Do we want academic writing to show the heads and hands of its makers? What would that look like?

Oh, there’s such a big lesson in the AI moment for people like me who write a lot about academic writing and research.

It’s always tempting for those who write and teach about writing to focus largely on the standard genres and approaches. That’s partly because that’s what people say they want and need. And dealing with the standard forms is mostly what I do, although not exclusively. And as much as I try to avoid “tips”, “formula” and “templates”, and emphasise instead the interpretation and invention involved in academic writing, and the possible diversity of texts, there’s always the risk that my advice will be read as advocating a one-best-way.

My current dilemma is whether, in proposing strategies for an academic writing and researching repertoire, I still end up going in the same direction as the AI – more of the same in academic writing, rather than heterogeneous ways to communicate and converse. I hope that’s not the case.

But I need to think a lot more about how to respond in the current AI context.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

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