a two week book chapter – a.k.a. down the writing burrow

I’ve just written a book chapter in two weeks. This is a long time for me, and it was hard work.

I’m usually someone who plans their writing quite carefully. I begin with an abstract and then flesh it out by adding bullet points. I don’t do pomodoros, or any other form of speed writing. I know this strategy really helps a lot of people, but it doesn’t suit me. I don’t have trouble generating text and that’s in part because I’m an experienced writer and I’m also not precious about words.

Sometimes I start more loosely. This was the case here.

A chapter is a more flexible genre than a journal article. I like writing chapters for this reason. However, this chapter was based on a conference paper I’d written a long time ago. There was already an abstract which went in when the book proposal was submitted. But it was now sadly out of date. I’d fretted over the prospect of writing something I didn’t think was particularly relevant and had missed the due date for first submissions. Fortunately, the book’s editors gave me a bit more time to submit (thanks Jane, Scott and Richard) and I had partially formulated a new argument which still addressed the book’s focus.

I could also see that working on this new material could help me get my head around an aspect of the single authored book I’m currently preparing. The book won’t repeat what’s in the chapter, but the chapter allows me to deal with some new literatures and some ‘factual’ detail about the state of things in England at present. I’m collecting media clips for the book project, and it just happened that two very pertinent pieces were published last week, just as I was preparing myself for the chapter. These  provided a neat introduction.

So how did my two week chapter go? Well, bear in mind that I roughly knew the argument I wanted to make and I’d read a fair bit of the literature. So the time went like this.

Day One:

The Introduction. This was about 700 words and included my two media clips. It also set out the shape of the chapter. I developed headings for the rest of the paper. I read about twelve new papers and put them into endnote. I bullet pointed what was to go into the next section. This took about three hours.

Day Two – Four:

The current context. This was about 2000 words and required me to put together material from government reports, blogs and scholarly literatures. Each day, at the end of writing text, I spent time bulleting the points for the next section and cutting and pasting in a couple of quotations. However, I also did additional readin, searching around the journals and on my book shelf. I keep adding and refining the bullet points for the writing ahead.

Day Five- Ten:

The major argument. As I already had quite a bit of the material in bullets this should  have been simple but it wasn’t.  It was another slowish 3500 words or so. And it was a hard think. I spent two whole mornings just going through journal articles and re-reading bits from books. This writing was in three sections and I wrote each section in one sitting. I also spent time bulleting after I’d finished writing.

Day Eleven and Twelve:

The concluding sections. This required a small new move in the argument and it was about another 1000 words. I then spent a fair but of time fiddling around with getting the right indicative references. So it was another long couple of days writing.

Then it was revision. And revision. And revision. Another two days.

At the end of these two weeks I had a full draft which I have sent off to the Editors.

Now why I have I bothered to tell you this? Well I want to suggest that writing in big long chunks of time is not always A Bad Thing. It isn’t the only way to write, of course. It doesn’t suit the people who struggle to crank out text. And not everyone has lots of mornings that they can put into writing. (I do have that luxury, although my mornings aren’t always consecutive. I lucked out this time.) And some people do prefer to work on multiple writing projects at once. I don’t. I like to concentrate on one piece at a time.

And I have to say that I don’t always write like this. Sometimes I write papers in short bursts over a much longer period of time. And sometimes it takes me only a day or so to write an entire piece. But I VERY often do an intensive ‘down the writing burrow’, particularly when something is overdue or when I am writing a very long text where the flow of the argument is both important and new.


it’s good to come up for air and find some other writing burrowers to talk to if you’re planning to be down for an extended period

But my two week chapter is A way to write. It’s not The Way. It’s what some people would call binge writing – a term that I dislike a lot.

It can of course be really counter-productive to believe that you have to sit down and write a lot at once if you don’t know how to do that. You inevitably up sitting looking at the blank screen feeling inadequate. And developing a daily writing habit is a very good antidote to that particular problem. But that doesn’t mean that writing intensively is always bad for you. It’s perfectly possible to write a lot in a few days or a couple of weeks and emerge unscathed.

I want to shout actually, quite loudly, that there is NO The Way to write. Rather, we all learn ways to write that help us get done what we need to do. If we don’t, we fail. As I am old, and have been writing for a long time as well as teaching people how to write, I have a range of writing strategies to draw on.  These change. I don’t always do the same thing. But I do write most days. Some of this is blogging, some is papers and books, sometimes notes.

So I ‘write short’ regularly. But I also write long.

It’s the binary thinking and perjorative language that’s the problem. Snacking good, binging bad. Oh please. Get over it. Some of us WRITE SHORT and WRITE LONG. This is not the same as snacking and binging.

My writing strategies are contingent – they depend on how much time I have and what the task is. I have a repertoire of strategies. This seems to me to be the most productive way to think about academic writing. It’s having an #acwri repertoire that matters.

Becoming an academic writer is always about learning how to get the writing done – and perhaps being helped to learn if you find the actual process of writing difficult. You can learn from how other people write, and from being coached, taught and mentored. Working with someone else is often very helpful and can shift you from a habit that is very unproductive and self-defeating  to something almost miraculously generative of words.

But once you have got a strategy that works for you, this is not the end. You can still learn more. Always more strategies. You can always learn more about writing. And without unhelpful either-or thinking.



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on (re)building institutional writing cultures

What goes on in a university? What would the brother from another planet think if they came to visit one today? They’d see teaching in term time. There’d be some visible signs of research, particularly in labs. But walking around today’s campuses could well suggest that what we academics do is attend meetings, meetings and more meetings.

Universities are big places, rambling and shambling, often developed over a very long time; buildings are usually put up as needed, rather than planned ahead. Despite any external architectural innovation, most of our buildings have teaching rooms and long corridors of closed doors. Behind each door is a solitary scholar beavering away – unless of course they are in a meeting. (I’m ignoring those open-space call centre style offices latterly popular with university managers.)

Our closed-door universities originally developed out of, and in parallel with, religious practices. The first Western universities were very often established by the church, and the shift from monastic cell to academic office isn’t hard to see. But very few of the religious precursors of the modern university were grounded solely in practices of individual and isolated meditations and profound silences. Those precious illuminated manuscripts now resplendent in our archives were generally produced in very social settings. And even if the cell was the site of production rather than a shared (and supervised) workroom, all of the artists knew that they were contributing to a worthy common endeavour.


These days most of us do our writing at home. The collective endeavour we contribute to is our discipline, and knowledge more generally. But this knowledge production is now governed by various kinds of audits rather than an immediate steely supervisory eye. It’s not how much of the page did we cover before nightfall, but rather – How many of this and that did we produce this year? How does what we did this auditing period fit into the prevailing excellence/quality framework and rubric? Are these publications the right ones? Are they/we good enough?

What gets lost in this kind of individualised and competitive environment, I wonder….

When asked about his writing practices, the linguist-turned-multimodal-design scholar Gunther Kress said:

I couldn’t think of writing separately from a whole much wider social environment. So what helped me in writing was moving through a place, specifically the University of East Anglia, a long time ago, where other people were writing, so it was a normal thing to do, it wasn’t unusual…But then, specifically, having friends and colleagues with whom I was working who had confidence in the kinds of things I was thinking, and therefore having the confidence to put those things, which otherwise had been private and unusual and maybe strange and certainly not to be paraded in public, putting them down on paper as in publishing. It’s that, it was about confidence in the community that allowed me then the confidence that people get from feedback, from people who I thought much of, who were friends and colleagues. That allowed me to take bearings… It was that really. So it’s not writing as a mechanical or separate or decontextualised task or process.(Carnell et al., 2008 pp 130-131)

Kress suggests that working in a writing-oriented organizational culture was a crucial prior condition for his writing. He stresses the role of others in creating the conditions necessary for gaining confidence as a writer. He echoes, perhaps, a scholarly/religious order which was social and communally supportive; the ethos was of shared commitment and mutual endeavour.

There’s still a role for collective others in our individual and collaborative writing… But. And it’s a big but. But. An organisational culture supportive of writing can’t be built through audit alone. A transactional performance reward policy – do this and you get this – works for some people but not everyone. And, while online communities dedicated to writing can be wonderful, they aren’t really a substitute for the kind of shared institutional environment that Kress describes.

What’s more, a writing culture can’t be sidelined, left as the sole responsibility of a development unit dedicated to training and professional development. Writing is core to our disciplines and therefore surely ought to be at the very heart of our everyday university lives. Developing supportive writing cultures certainly requires leadership, but it also depends on the agency, initiative, choice and buy-in of communities of scholars. So we too have a part to play in (re) building a writing oriented scholarly culture for today. Not a monastic scriptorium, but something different…. 

Some universities are much better at building writing cultures than others, and perhaps we need to know more about what they do. And yes, the ways in which workload is managed and staff employed and contracted are certainly part of the bigger picture of institutional writing support. 

I’d like to think we can develop a shared view of what can still happen in audit-driven environments. Could we, online, document interesting institutional practices we can take back to our own institutions? 

What does your department or school or faculty do to create a social and supportive writing culture? What could other more emaciated writing cultures learn from you?

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I’m writing – but how much detail is enough?

Details, details. More, or less? 

Doctoral researchers may get feedback from supervisors or reviewers about writing less detail – too much here, be more concise – or conversely more, unpack this or more information needed here. Both types of comment mean you haven’t got the detail and length right. So how do you know when enough detail is enough? And how long is just right?

Writing at the appropriate depth and length is an important scholarly discipline. I mean discipline in both senses here – writing to the right word length and at the appropriate level of detail is an important part of what we do as scholars. And it does mean we must self-consciously manage what we write.

Achieving the right length and depth in any piece of writing is not a matter of rules, but of intention, format, convention and expectations. Understanding how these come together will allow you to write to the right depth and length. 

I’ll just say that again. It’s not about rules. It’s about judgment.

 I’m going to take each of those things – format, conventions, expectations and intentions – and briefly note some of the key issues involved.


There is clearly a trade-off between length and depth. The shorter the piece of writing, the less detail you can provide. But that doesn’t mean that your analysis and major points change when you move from long to short.

Think about this as a bit like looking at a portrait of someone – when you stand up close you can see a lot of detail, but as you move further away, the more the key features stand out. By the time you are standing a fair distance away, you can only see the outline of the face and the features. But the nose is the nose is the nose, regardless of whether you are up close or far away. Or perhaps as in the picture below, you can see that you don’t need the detail to see a bird, and if you know birds, to see it as a pigeon.


This is how it is with writing. You might write the key moves of your argument as three sentences in a paragraph, as three paragraphs, or as three long sections. The focus of each of your three sentences in the one paragraph shapes the ‘topic sentence’ of each paragraph and the heading and opening and closing paragraph of each section. But they are basically still the same thing. Like the bird. Or a nose on the face of a portrait. 

You don’t change your argument just because you write short or long. It’s detail that is added, nuance, and evidence. Adding detail to your basic argument moves, thus making them longer, is the logic of working from an abstract, a Tiny Text, when writing a paper or thesis.


 Whether we are writing a journal article, a conference abstract or paper, or a thesis we generally work with an explicit word limit. The word limit is usually a range, up to and around a particular number of words.

So the word limit on a thesis might be 80 to 100 thousand words. The range is explicit. You get to choose how many words within range. A journal article might be up to 6000 words. But that doesn’t mean you have to write exactly 6000 words. The convention is something around 6000 – so 5,600 to about 6,300 or so would usually be acceptable.

You can see from this example that a word limit is not an exact rule, but rather is something like  – don’t write too much less than this and don’t write too much more. Too much less and we will think that you haven’t got enough to say. Too much over and we’ll think that you don’t know how to write things concisely. (Writing too much or too little for a journal article also create problems with publishers’ page limits.)  But there can be some variation. It’s always wise to check the length of papers in the journal you are submitting to, so do try to ascertain the range of flex you have within the set word limits.


Expectations are often derived from conventions. A journal reviewer will expect to see a particular length of section about research design for example. They will expect a certain proportion of the paper devoted to discussion and conclusion. Their expectations are specific to the conventions of the particular journal and to the discipline.

Reviewers often address questions of detail. They generally won’t tell the writer how many words they have to make up or cut out, but they might say something like the conclusion is truncated or there is insufficient discussion of… or the paper glosses over… Or conversely, there is a very detailed report of x which could be presented in a table or some other form… or the balance between literature review and results seems somewhat out of kilter. These type of comments are clues that the writer has misjudged the tradeoff between depth and length.

Particular kinds of readers also have specific expectations. Some scientific and technical journal readers and reviewers expect that the writer will demonstrate technical expertise – they expect sufficient detail about this aspect of the research. A history reader might expect to see particular attention paid to sources.  Other readers might expect more elaboration of evidence or more literature work. These expectations are not necessarily about word length but rather about the nature, focus, and emphasis of detailed material that is provided.


Despite format, conventions and expectations, you also have some say in how much detail, nuance, evidence and elaboration you provide, and about what.

If you think the conventions of the journal are somewhat restrictive you may want to challenge them. So, if your readers expect cursory details about your methods, but you think that is a weakness in the field, you may want to provide what you think is the depth i.e. detail that you think that readers/writers ought to aspire to. If you think that readers of a particular journal always encounter the same literatures, then you may want to deliberately pay more attention to the diverse resources you draw on, in order to make this point. And this may take more words and require more depth than is usually the case.

However, bear in mind that reviewers are likely to adhere to conventions and so the way that you chose to exercise your intentions may need some explanation.

So back to the beginning. Deciding how many words and how much detail is not about following rules. It would be easy if it was. You could just learn them and do it.

Alas. It’s about judgment. 

Understanding the ways in which format, conventions, and expectations come together around length and depth is about learning the mores of your particular scholarly community. This is often opaque. It takes time. You often find out how much detail is appropriate when you break the conventions and expectations and are told, no matter how politely, that you have either waffled on too much or have been too cryptic.

And it’s also about exercising your power as author, working out what is required and then deciding what you want to do about it. You can choose to bend the format and the conventions, but be careful where you do this and in whose company. Some readers and reviewers are more tolerant of, or even excited by, this than others.

Your supervisors obviously are one source of help. See those feedback comments as long term helpful advice about the hidden conventions and expectations. But getting a more experienced writer to read through what you have written before you finalise your paper is also helpful. Researching a journal or a set of conference abstracts is similarly worthwhile. 

And simply understanding that depth and length are in an ambiguous relationship and need to be thought about can also be of some use. Well that’s my hope!





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reasons to write

I’ve been dipping in and out of a rather pleasurable book about writing. Most people read books about writing for utilitarian reasons – to find a new technique, to see something that might inform their own work, to seek explanations for particular conventions. And so on. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these kinds of informative writing books – I write them myself so I’m quite glad people want to read them. And I buy and read other people’s informative writing books so that I can add to what I know, and perhaps challenge some of the ways I think about things.

But I do read books about writing for the sheer pleasure of it. Some I buy for no other reason than I like to be provoked, tantalised, intrigued, or amused by someone’s writing about writing. I’m currently finishing off a book about writing by Mark Edmundson. It’s called Why write? A master class on writing and why it matters. He’s an English Professor at the University of Virginia.

Now I want to tell you that I bought this book, it wasn’t sent to me to review.  Cold hard credit card currency was shelled out. In fact, no publishers ever send me books about writing, which is interesting as they could potentially reach a lot more people here than those book reviews in pay walled journals – but there you go. Not bitter. Their lack of interest leaves me poorer, but pure in intent. It means I am not obligated to say anything and I only write about the books that I think are interesting. But I digress. Let me get back to Edmundson.

Edmundson proposes twenty-nine reasons to write. Each has a short chapter in which he explains and elaborates the reason, making connections with other writers and their writing as he goes. He also offers personal anecdotes and a bit of down-home wisdom expressed in a highly accessible and distinctive manner.

His writing style I hear you ask? Can the man who writes about writing actually write? The Edmundson voice? A sample taken from early on in the book…

.. the writer needs a way to go from what I call (borrowing from Keats) habitual self to some other state.

There’s nothing wrong with habitual self. It’s a state we need to inhabit most of the time, unless we’re saints or warriors or artists who never stop creating. (Picasso seems to have come as close as any mortal ever has, and even he needed to pause for some food and more than occasional fornication.) Habitual self drives the car and gets bodies, including its own, to various places at agreed on times, it gathers the groceries and chops them and marinates them (although of course cooking is truly an art, and maybe habitual self does not always cook the dish.) It pays bills, and takes care of kids and parents and schmoozes at the post office. It takes the obligations related to death and taxes with some degree of seriousness.

5856708903_294549a95a_b.jpgBut habitual self cannot write to save its life. Habitual self is good for a grocery list, a laundry list, a note to the mechanic, or a note of thanks for the spotted birthday tie or the fruit-scented candle. But habitual self cannot write. It is worldly, pragmatic, geared towards the fulfilment of desires, and fundamentally boring – at least to others. The base, habitual self is the Darwinian side of us that wants to survive and thrive and procreate. When habitual self wants to read, it reads Grisham: when it wants to write, it sounds like a machine. It sounds the way your computer would sound if it had a voice of its own.

I think sitting down to write is about getting loose from habitual self. If you’re going to tap into what is the most creative inside you, you’ve got to find a way to outwit the pressures of the ordinary. Think of habitual self as a barrier that blocks you from getting where you most want to go as a writer. It’s not that massive wall that most of us have to smash through to get ourselves going the first time and make ourselves able to say we’ve begun as writers. It’s a smaller, less imposing but still potent version of that wall, and it rises up to some degree every day.

There are two ways to deal with that wall I think. You can go over it and you can go under it.

Edmundson argues that going over the wall usually requires lots of caffeine (or an alternative stimulant) and a sweaty, exhausting macho effort. He argues instead for going under the wall. This necessitates a process of slowing down, engaging in rituals in order to reach a more dream-like, associative state of mind. Listening to music, meditating, going for a run… all of these kinds of strategies help writers get underneath the habitual self, Edmundson says.

So that’s the how-to about writing.  But why does Edmundson suggest writers go to all this bother?  Well, here’s some of his twenty-nine reasons.

To catch a dream. To have written. To get the girl/get the guy. To make some money. To get even. To strengthen the mind. To grow. To fail. To change the world. To get reviewed. To learn to be alone. To stay sane. To see what happens next. To find beauty and truth. To stop revising. To get better as you get older.  To have the last word.


Now, while some of the writing might be a little, well, North American for some readers, I did find Edmundson’s list of reasons to write particularly challenging. I wondered what kind of equivalent list might be on offer for academic writing.

Why do academics write these days, other than to get reviewed and audited?  What makes us sit at the desk for hours at a time? Are we now completely driven by a kind of habitual academic self, accustomed to publish each year in order to avoid censure? Or do we still retain some of those over and under the wall reasons – to find beauty and truth? to get even? to change the world?

Why do you write? Do you have twenty nine reasons or just one or two?


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brought to you by the letter ‘S’



The word speculate has bad press. It is usually equated with guessing, making things up. Not good. However, to speculate can also mean to theorise, hypothesise, surmise, make a supposition.

Speculation needs a bit of a helping hand IMHO. This is my attempt at recuperating it. Speculation in research doesn’t mean guessing but rather means asking What if… What if….

Traditionally, much research began with some form of speculation that was then tested out – that is, the research had a hypothesis. A hypothesis is really just a What if that is stated as a positive. And this kind of hypothesising What if isn’t plucked out of thin air. It’s based on previous work, the researcher’s or other people’s, which suggests that potentially, possibly, maybe, this looks interesting…

These days, hypothesis-led research is only one of a number of ways to design a research project. Interpretive and ‘blue skies’ research traditions for example, are typically open-ended and do not have a hypothesis at the start which steers the investigation and results. They may have a more tentative beginning – one that actually looks more like a suppositional What if.

But What ifs don’t stop once the purpose of research is decided. There is an important role for speculation in other stages of research, no matter its tradition or design. Speculation is very helpful in research, as long as we are aware that we are considering what might be possible. As long as we are asking What if.. What if…

For example:

  • when we begin to think beyond the aim of a research project, it is often helpful to speculate about alternative questions we might ask – have we really got the best one(s)? We might also What if… in relation to where we might base the study, how long it might be, who might be involved, the tools we might use… What if I do this? What if I use this? Speculating helps us move out of our usual default position, to canvass other possibilities, and to be more daring in our ambitions.
  • when we read a disparate set of materials, we might speculate about whether they can be brought together in some way. We don’t actually know whether it will make sense until we try to do it. But before putting hand to mouse it is useful to spend some time thinking about how the putting together might be done. What if I could…? What if I put this with that?
  • when we have a great swadge of data and we are feeling a bit (or a lot) overwhelmed by it, we might speculate about ways in which we might tackle it. What possible strategies are there to reign it in, force the unseemly mass of stuff into order? What if I tried…? What if I grouped this and this…?
  • when we have an emerging analysis and we can see trends starting to firm up, it is often useful to begin to think about ways in which these might be interpreted and explained. What theoretical resources might we draw on in order to make sense of what we can almost glimpse? What if I worked with the idea that …. ? What if I argued …? What if this means that…?

We can help our practices of speculation along.

We can for instance begin to talk through our ideas to ourselves (but be aware this can be seen as a somewhat eccentric habit)  – or talk with others. There are also a variety of written processes we can use to support speculation – brainstorming and mind maps for example suit some people. Others are more drawn to writing – blog posts, memos, random notes, journaling.

The most important thing is that we understand it’s OK to speculate. In fact, it’s more than OK. Interesting research really does depend on us being able to ask What if? What if? When we come up with possible answers to our What ifs, we have something to work with and against. And one or more – or possibly none – of our What ifs will be borne out through the rest of the research process.

Speculation is essential for imaginative and creative research. Creativity – possibility thinking as the late Anna Craft dubbed it – is not a matter of technique; it can be prompted by tools and strategies and it is made tangible by our  expertise. So a repertoire of prompts and strategies that assist creative research thinking is helpful. One such prompt is the invitation to speculate using the question What if…. What if…?

Via Speculate so to speak, as the picture above suggests.

Photocredit: Dani Montero

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voice and thinkingwriting

You have probably heard, or read, that writing is thinking.


But what does writing is thinking really mean? Anything? Nothing? Well, it doesn’t mean that you have to write in order to think, because of course you can think without writing. We think without writing all the time. So if it’s not that, what is it?

Thinking is writing is usually offered as a counter to the idea that writing is a mechanical skill. A technical and straightforward process. You’ve done your research. You’ve analysed the results. You don’t have to think any more. Now, you just write. You simply get the stuff down because you already know what it is.


Writing always involves further thought.  And putting our ideas into words can really help us to think deeply – to formulate argument, marshal supporting evidence in the right order and in a convincing way, and talk with and to the relevant literatures.

One way to see the inseparability of writing and thinking in academic work is to look at how authorial ‘voice’ is constructed in text. Now I’ve written a bit about voice before, but I”ll briefly recap.

  • Voice isn’t about whether you write in the first person. or not. You are in the text whether you write as an I, or you don’t. You’re in the text in your evaluative comments. One obvious marker of the author’s presence is their use of evaluative and interpretive language – this clearly shows, on balance, it seems that – phrases which indicate that critical and interpretive thinking has gone on. Note that these phrases also show the thinking process in and as the text, inseparable companions.
  • Voice is also produced through your word choice, your use of metaphor, simile, anecdote and syntax. Again thinking produces – and can be seen in – the text as ‘voice’. And
  • voice is also in the way that you use meta-commentary – this is where you explain your writing, and why it is the way it is, to the reader (this includes but is not confined to the signposting that you do)

But there are other ways for thinking-writing to produce an authorial voice.

One of the key ways in which academics insert their thinking into the written text is through the naming and framing they use. Look at eminent social scientists – for instance, ‘liquid modernity’ (Zygmunt Bauman) and ‘risk society’ (Ulrich Beck). While very few of us can invent a term that becomes as well-known as these, many of us do something not dissimilar –   that is, we apply a little imagination and creativity to the ways in which we write about our research results.

You probably know, in your field, some people that you like to read because they offer an interesting angle, an innovative analysis, a different approach to an issue – and they show this in a compelling turn of phrase or unusual categorisation which encapsulates their insight. They write with a distinctive voice produced in part through their analysis.

The title of books and journal articles is often a place to look for author voice. Sometimes titles are plodding affairs. But they can be imaginative, amusing, provocative. Academic imagination is made concrete through thinkingwriting, and the unified and creative process of thinkingwriting produces a distinctive presence in the text, usually called the author’s voice.

An example? Of course. One of the most cited papers in my own field of education is called “The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity” (Ball, 2003). Authorial voice appears in the description ‘the terrors of performativity’ and in an unusual angle, the teacher’s soul.  (Educational sociologists don’t usually write about teachers’ souls.) But this title wasn’t plucked out of thin air. It’s the result of a complex analysis; it encapsulates the argument that is made in the paper. It is also inventive and attention-getting in the context of what is a more common writing voice in my field – somewhat detached, a little duller, less memorable. Voice =thinkingwriting.

It’s important not to confuse a substantive instance of thinkingwriting with simply coming up with a new name for something that isn’t very interesting, or something that isn’t at all new or original. We can all probably think of academic sub-fields where the major scholarly task seems to be coming up with new names for the same old thing (yes, I’m thinking of you educational leadership). The problem here is that the thinking part of thinkingwriting  isn’t up to much.

Well yes. The reverse also holds. It’s quite possible to have inventive writing and dull thinking, and imaginative, original thinking and dull writing. Oh, and dull thinking and dull writing, but we don’t want to go there.

Combining interesting thinking with writing which has some flair is optimum. It’s that combination of thinkingwriting which produces a particularly recognisable and distinctive authorial voice – one which also speaks with authority. As well, it’s a voice that people want to read. One that people will seek out, refer to, and enjoy.

Think write. Thinkwrite – and imagine.

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managing the #phd- keep a reading journal

Reading is integral to research. Everyone says that, and it’s true. It’s also true that you need to find ways to read, note and keep track of all that reading. This is in part a question of tools and strategies. But tools and strategies are necessary but not sufficient. 

You need to make sense of your reading. This is not just so that you can write short reports for your supervisor and then a literature review. Making sense of the reading is about understanding scholarly conversations – what they are, who is involved, the debates, tensions, silences, assumptions and holes. Making sense of the reading is finding the pleasure in scholarship. 


One of the things that can help you in making sense of your reading is a reading journal. A reading journal is not so much a place to keep track of what you’ve read. It’s not a data base. Nor is it a place where you keep the key points that arise from each piece of reading. A reading journal is not a set of summaries. A reading journal is a place to keep track of what you are thinking about what you’ve read.

It’s a place where you can write what that the readings have prompted or provoked.

It’s a place to record questions that you may have about arguments or evidence.

It’s a place to explore ideas, both sensible and off the wall.

It’s a place to speculate about how the readings might come together.

It’s a place to store possible ways to connect the reading to your research.

It’s a place to record key quotations that resonate strongly with you.

It’s a place where you can write about the things you don’t understand and the things you want to know more about.

It’s a place to contain the curiosities, excitement, anxieties that the reading provokes.

It’s a place to argue with the authors of the texts you’ve read.

It’s place to see what you can add to the ideas already in the scholarly archive.

A reading journal is about your responses. It’s a way of supporting you to develop response-ability. It’s an aide-memoire and a practice of reflection.

A reading journal can be a digital document, or folder or written by hand in a carefully chosen notebook. Or whatever. No rules. No prescribed formats. What suits you. If your reading journal is digital, it can be hyperlinked to your references or reference library. But it doesn’t have to be. The reading journal is not about being efficient. It’s about thinking. The reading journal might collect together highlighted notes that you make on some pieces. But  it ain’t necessarily so – it’s not a database. I know I’ve said that already, but it’s important. A reading journal is an open text. 

Think of a reading journal as a writer’s resource book. As a place to experiment with interpreting ideas. As a place to develop your own writer’s voice. A place where you get to decide which and how other writers enter. A place that is not overrun by established researchers. 

A reading journal foregrounds your moments of engagement with scholarly thinking. A reading journal can be an important path for being and becoming researcher. Researchers are never the finished article – we are always learning. The PhD simply begins this process.  And writing about, from and with our reading is a key to growing our scholarship and ourselves as scholar.  

Read it, journal it.

(With thanks to Chris who reminded me recently about the benefits of reading journals.)

Photocredit: Bea Mahon. Sketchbook-011

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