required, desirable and delightful elements of academic writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Required elements

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

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

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

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

2.Desirable elements

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

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

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

3. Anti-features

Big question: What thesis attributes will examiners perceive negatively? 

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

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

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

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

4. Exciters

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

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

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

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

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Posted in examiner, Kano Analysis, revision, thesis | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

after the viva/defence – then what?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Posted in after-care, identity, post-PhD slump, scholarly identity, viva | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

making your writing authoritative – a citation revision strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Example: Citation(2)=writer reports is dominant

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

Example: Citation(1) =writer steers is dominant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in authority in writing, citation, citations, laundry list, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if this was more than one paper?

 Are there two papers here, or even more?

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

Which one do I really want to write?

Who do I really want to read this?

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ghosts in the text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ten playful viva preparation activities

Finished the thesis? Loud cheers. Now to get ready for the viva, or defence as it is called in some places. There’s a lot of great advice about how to prepare for the viva – check out Nathan Ryder’s Viva Survivors blog podcast and workshops, VITAE’s resource pages and Eva Lantsoght’s PhD talk series on PhD vivas around the world.

My particular interest in the viva is the work you have to do to get yourself into the “expert” frame of mind. You’ve had to write the thesis as if you were already doctored and the world’s greatest authority on your particular bit of research. Now, in the viva, you have to act and talk like one too. You have to BE expert, even if you don’t feel like one, when you have The Conversation With The Examiners.

The most common way to shift into and inhabit the body of the expert is to do a mock viva. Other more “performance” oriented opportunities to speak with authority often happen through three minute thesis competitions and public presentations.

But I think there are probably some entertaining ways to get into the viva frame of mind and body. So I’ve started to generate a few ideas. These are by no means a complete list and if they seem simply silly to you then just ignore this post. I’m writing here for people who might like to indulge in a bit of lighthearted, but possibly serious, play. Something that interrupts the ongoing feelings of anxiety and/or unease and/or uncertainty. Here goes.

  1. Write a love letter to your Doctor self, listing all of the expert doctoral qualities and competencies they have. Write a break up letter to your student self, saying why you lived with them for so long, and explaining why it’s now time to leave them behind.
  2. Imagine that the key implication of your research has actually been implemented. Write the short new item that reports what has happened, the research on which it was based, and why this is important.
  3. Turn your thesis into a picture – draw or collage it. Imagine that this is now a postcard. Choose three people to send your postcard to – write a message on the back of the postcard telling them why they need to take notice.
  4. Sample five to ten key sentences from your thesis to make a poem which tells the story of your research.
  5. Create a shoebox museum in which small objects tell the story of how your research was designed and carried out. Alternatively, make a shoebox museum of your journey from doctoral researcher to The Doctor.
  6. Make a selfie of yourself as doctoral researcher. Now take a selfie of The Doctor (yes yes before the viva, not after, but you can do that too).
  7. Write a very bossy memo to the examiners telling them what to look for in your thesis.
  8. Make a small monument to a tricky moment in your research. Look it in the eye. Write a brief curatorial sign which explains.
  9. Make the record cover of your research. Write its signature tune.
  10. Design the party you would love to have to celebrate becoming The Doctor. What is its theme? Will there be a song? A new ritual? Costumes? Special food? A new dance? A wonderful game? Pilot your design when the viva is over. Or before 🙂

If you have more playful ideas for viva preparation do add them in the comments.

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

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a very neat hack to avoid repetition and duplication

Do you repeat yourself? Most of us do. It’s not unusual.

Repetitive writing takes many forms – several sentences that say the same thing using different words, a word or phrase used over and over, paragraphs and sentences that have identical beginnings, one point made multiple times using different examples.

But repetition is not necessarily a problem. Purposeful repetition can be a stylistic choice. Rhetorical theory for example lists anaphora – the repetition of a word of phrase at the beginning of a sentence or clause used to create dramatic emphasis and affect. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which poetic reiteration built up a picture of a possible future, a socially just United States. There’s also episeuxis – the serial repetition of word, usually within the same sentence – as in Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education.”

Repetition can also be integral to a professional practice. Teachers for example deliberately repeat themselves. Saying the same thing in different ways is a pedagogic strategy which gives students varied ways into a topic, gives options for understanding a concept or process. Inclusive teaching practices rely on multiple illustrations and explanations. And restatement is an approach often taken in pedagogic blogs like this one – I often say the same thing a few times in different ways, in case my first explanation doesn’t make things clear.

But repetition can also be a problem. Readers and listeners get bored and switch off when hearing or reading what rapidly becomes the same old same old. They may even get irritated if it takes them a while to find the point amid the verbiage. Writers are thus always advised to revise by checking for unintended repetition. Cutting out the déjà vu effect is part of becoming concise – making the point as simply and effectively as possible.

So to revision. You may be aware of some of the places in your writing where you repeat yourself. I often repeat someone’s name at the start of every paragraph when writing references. Dr X does this. Dr X is, Dr X worked for me and… Because I know I do this, I can check my first draft for this particular problem. And another of my first draft problems, I often use superfluous sentence beginnings – It is clear that, it is worth noting that… and I know to look for these false starts during the revision process.

Checking sentence and paragraph beginnings can quickly locate some repetitions. However, it’s not always so easy. Searching for repetition can be tricky. Part of the problem is that we often use what are called “crutch” words – single words, phrases or clauses that are habitual. We use “crutch words” in drafting because they help us get the ideas down. Because they are so familiar, we often miss them when we come to revise.

Checking by reading aloud for “so, but, therefore, thus, nevertheless, however, on the one hand, not only but also” may pick up places where you need to get rewriting. You can also print out your text, using a highlighter every time you find a sneaky “crutch”. You might alternatively use the search function in Word. Searching is particularly helpful when checking for repeated common research terminology as well as specific disciplinary terms.

Duplication can be a real issue when composing the meta commentary used in academic writing – we might use the verb “argue” or “investigate” rather too often in a few paragraphs. Sometimes you can pick most of the repetitions hiding in plain sight if you change your font, or put your manuscript into an e-reader rather than read it on your customary screen. 

However – and here is the point of this post – there is a short cut. As the illustrations suggests, one of the very best hacks for finding duplicates and repetitions is to make a word cloud. What a gift it is to put an entire chapter or paper into one of those free platforms that looks for either words or phrases. Almost instantly you can see what terms are used most frequently. If there are any that are a surprise, or are used rather more than you would like, you can then simply use the search function in word to check for each one. Word clouds can save hours of reading and highlighting. Yep, a word cloud can be one of your close revising friends.


See warning in comments about potential problems with “free” websites.

Word cloud made from the first draft of this post.

Posted in concision, duplication, repetition, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

finding time to write

Recently I’ve been focused on goal setting and planning. It’s down to lockdown I think and the need to be realistic about what can be achieved. One of the things I’ve not mentioned is time. In particular, writing time. I like the approach to writing time developed by the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel in his book The clockwork muse: A practical guide to writing theses, dissertations and books.

Zerubavel, who studies time and memory among other things, suggests that before setting writing goals, we should think about time. Fit the goals to the time available rather than struggle to find the time to achieve goals, he says. Zerubavel nominates three kinds of time:

  • Time when you absolutely cannot write
  • Time best suited for writing
  • Time when you might be able to do something writing-related

Zerubavel’s proposition is this: When planning your writing, first of all work out how much time you actually have available. Start with the times you don’t have.

Block out all the slots in your diary when you know you can’t write. This is all of your meetings and appointments. But it also includes time for exercise, walking the dog, having meals, doing housework, getting people off to school/work, supervising homework, talking with loved ones and so on. It also includes the times when you know that you really can’t write a word (for me this is every night, as writing late is guaranteed to produce insomnia.) You also need to include admin time – time spent emailing, marking, preparing for teaching for example.

Once you have blocked out busy time, then you can see how much is actually available for writing and for other writing-related tasks.

The next step is to divide the time that is left between ideal writing times and less good writing times. You probably already know your ideal writing times, morning or evenings are common. It’s not hard to see how much of this best writing time is available in your schedule, and block these slots out. But there is also an opportunity, now you can see your diary, to move from finding available time to making time for your writing.

It is helpful to see how much of your blocked out, already occupied time is actually your best time for writing. Too much? There is an immediate opportunity to see if there is any way you can reschedule any of the things occupying your best writing times. But there is also an opportunity to set up new patterns – trying not to set meetings in your optimum writing times. ( I try to leave the first part of at least three mornings available for writing. And most people I work with now know that I prefer meetings to start around lunch time if it’s at all feasible. Teaching times are harder to arrange as they are involve juggling entire timetables.) When setting a new pattern it is also helpful to ensure that optimum times occur fairly regularly, so that you don’t lose touch with your writing.

Once you have blocked out your writing time and the unable to write time, you will have little pieces of other time scattered throughout the week. This is time that could be used for writing related tasks. It is also time that we often ignore when we are planning for writing. Yet these bits and bobs of time can be very valuable. You can use apparently loose moments for writing-related tasks such as endnoting, organising files, chasing missing or additional references, backing up files, catching up with the latest journals, getting the library to order the books you need.

You may also like to add into this flexi-time a few non-urgent tiny targets, like reconsidering a title, revising the first sentence of the introduction, drawing a diagram and so on, writing a paragraph – and so on.

There are real benefits from using Zerubavel’s time centred approach. For starters, you have optimum writing time reserved in your diary, and anything you get done in open slots is a bonus. It doesn’t matter so much if you are interrupted, or have an urgent email to attend to in these flexi spots, because you still have protected writing time. So the added benefit of using Zerubavel’s trio of time-slots is that if you really do follow your scheduling, you won’t let writing-related tasks eat away your optimum writing time.

And there’s more to gain. By using three kinds of time as the way to approach planning, you will also be able to ensure that you do something related to your writing – either optimum writing or writing-related – just about every day. In other words, you will have found a way to see and use time to help establish a regular writing practice.

Finally, of course, trying to write a big text, a sustained project, really does depend on you finding enough time in your schedule to do all the work required. Zerubavel’s three time slot-driven approach might be just what you need to go the distance.

You may also like:

setting writing goals and targets

writing targets – word count, time spent or chunks?

lockdown writing routines

a first draft in five minutes a day?

Photo by Malvestida Magazine on Unsplash

Posted in research diary, targets, time, tiny targets, writing goals | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

editing your writing – lessons from chefs?

You can pick up helpful ideas from the most unlikely places. Like cooking shows. Yes I watch cooking shows, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. I’m sure I’m not the only one, given their popularity. Sometimes they offer more than new ways with potatoes. Just last week I found myself thinking about the ways in which cooking programme judges use the term “editing”.

You can imagine the context. There is the over-enthusiastic aspiring-restauranteur. “I’m an experimental cook” they say, “I like putting unusual flavours and cuisines together”. “ All the things in the Mystery Box are so wonderful I couldn’t decide which to hero.” Or “ I want to bring all the things I learnt on my travels together on one plate and show you who I really am.” Or perhaps, “ I want to show you all of the techniques I’ve learnt while being here.” These statements are usually made direct to camera with the kind of smile that is intended to disarm and charm, if not reassure, judges and viewers alike.

Sometimes when the resulting dish arrives at the judging table, the judges beam. They gush. “I’ve never had this before”. “ Wow, you’ve done something truly original here” “ I think it’s fantastic.” More often though, the various judicial comments made as the dishes are being prepared are realised – “ It all seems terribly sweet/soft. I think we need a bit of crunch/texture/acid“, or, “I’ve never heard of putting X with Y before. I hope it works out for them.” ( It won’t.) And when the finished plate finally arrives, we all see what the judges were concerned about – smears of puree, puddles of jus and oil, a swamp containing more vegetables than you can count, variously prepared. The culinary equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities.

And what do the judges say then but “ Edit. You need to edit. Less is more.” By which of course they mean, don’t try so hard. Be more consistent. Not so many influences at once. Don’t put everything you like in one dish. Don’t try to be too clever. Get rid of some things. Don’t clutter.

So editing, in the cheffy sense of the word, is about taking control of the impulse to do whatever you think counts as accomplished and prize worthy. Focus instead on respecting the ingredients, creating flavour and a neat presentation. Sound familiar? Maybe because there’s an academic writing equivalent to the over-enthusiastic cooking competitor and their overcrowded plate.

The academic text which needs a good culinary style edit is generally the result of one of three things :

  • The writer is over excited by all of the ideas out there in the literature and wants to include a reference to all of them. This is the academic equivalent of wanting to bring too much to the plate.

This desire is understandable. There is a lot to be enthusiastic about in scholarly writings. However, an academic text works well with only as many ideas as are needed to make the argument, using only the most directly relevant and useful concepts and terms. You see, just like a plate of food, a scholarly narrative which is excessively garnished is distracting rather than engaging. Readers of the heftily embellished text often want to know whether the peripheral ideas are important or not and which. Reviewers may even ask writers to do justice to some of their tangential ideas rather than tell them to edit. But a good edit is what is needed.

  • The writer doesn’t look hard enough at the different traditions from which ideas and terms emerge. Lumping things together is the academic equivalent of clashing flavours. An academic mash-up brings contradictory ideas and terms into a text without recognition of critical differences, with no explanation or justification.

The confused textual offering can often be found in discussions of methodologies and methods and in literature work, where texts from vastly different and often warring traditions appear nestled together like good friends. Contradictory terminology and clashing concepts usually leave the reader confused about the writer’s knowledge base. Readers worry that the writer doesn’t actually know that the melange they have on their plate isn’t working.

  • The writer wants to say and do everything at once. This desire is understandable. The academy does induce an inclination to display – undergraduates and masters students in particular must show coverage and depth as well as the capacity to go off and find more information for themselves. But the rules for successful performance change at doctoral level, and particularly in relation to writing papers and books. Scholars are expected to produce something digestable and refined – a narrative which showcases key points concisely, creatively and clearly.

Now, I don’t want to labour this cooking show metaphor too much. Like all metaphors, it’s limited in its reach. But I do think that editing, in the cooking show sense, has some legs. The utility of the culinary notion of edit is that it draws attention to the need to rein in ambition, to relinquish the half-grasped idea, to control the impulse to do everything in one go. Editing does mean you have to be prepared to pare back. To cut and cut again until the text is reduced to the things that must be there, as opposed to the things could be there. So I’m pretty sure it would be helpful to read a first draft, or even a nearly final draft, with the epicurean type of edit in mind.

Some chef-like questions to ask might be:

What might I need to edit out of this text? Are there too many ideas running in this text? Too many side issues?

Are all of these ideas and references necessary to my major argument? Am I trying to impress rather than inform and explain? Have I used some references and ideas simply because I think it would be good to do so?

Is everything here broadly coherent, working in the same academic traditions? Have I made sure that I’ve not been too heavy handed with the quotations, references and citations? Have I let my major point shine through?

Photo by KS KYUNG on Unsplash

Posted in citations, editing, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

lockdown writing routines – a.k.a a cheer for the humble pear

Most creative writers have their own idiosyncratic set of rituals and routines. Academic writers do too. But at least some of these practices may have had to change during WFH – working from home – during the various lockdowns. While I’ve been acutely aware of changes that lockdown has brought to PhDers I hadn’t thought a lot about what it meant for me. I’ve been aware of fluctuating motivation of course, something a lot of people experience at the best of times – but more so now. But that’s not all that’s been going on for me. As I realised a couple of weeks ago.

I was doing an online shopping order, as we privileged people are able to do. The supermarket site offered me the option of starting with my “regular items”. This seemed to be a sensible suggestion so I went ahead and pre-packed my basket. When I went to edit the contents, I was a little surprised to see pears. So many pears. Now, I don’t think of myself as a fan of pears. It’s not that I actively dislike them, I just don’t think of them as being something that I would choose over other fruits. But apparently I do.

The reason I now buy so many pears every week is down to working from home. I often have online meeting after meeting, jampacked together. As I am sure at least some of you do too. And rather than load up my desk with unhealthy things to snack on, I now seem to always have pears next to my keyboard.

Why pears? My favorite fruit is actually mango – but a mango is entirely unsuitable for desk duty on just about all counts. The pear wins hands down. Why? The pear has attributes. You don’t have to peel pears like oranges or clementines. Pears don’t go brown like apples when you take a quick bite out of them between calls or writing bursts and then put them down for a bit. Nor do they crunch like a good apple, so you can take a surreptitious bite of a pear when everyone in the meeting is focussed on the speaker. Pears don’t create a lot of mess in general, so you can nibble and not end up with a sticky-fingered keyboard. And pears don’t create a lot of waste to deal with afterwards, like bananas. Pears are size-limited so you can’t just keep eating and eating them, like grapes. What’s more, the pear does have a bit of juice, so they are good for those times when you need a bit of liquid, have run out of water, and don’t have a moment to sprint to the tap. Hooray for pears.

As I thought about pears, I realised that other things about my writing routine have changed too. I no longer have writing clothes which I change out of when I go into work. No, I now have something in between writing and work clothes. Respectable on top, but out of sight it’s comfort all the rest of the way down, and like this all day. I only take off the Uggs or Birkies when I actually leave the house. I am, so to speak, dressed for writing at any time.

But this wearing the one thing all day does make for a lack of demarcation between writing times and other forms of work. 

My previous routine was always to write first thing in the morning – that has largely still held true. But working from home means I can add in smaller writing grabs – I now do tiny tasks and meet tiny targets. If I’m sitting at my desk with fifteen minutes “to spare”, I now often fill in with a little bit of something writing related that needs doing. This new writing routine has meant that I tend to plan even more than usual about how to get a piece of writing underway and completed.

Of course, the lack of demarcation between writing at home and work at the office also means that writing has now blurred into other forms of work – emails, feedback, reviewing, analysing, meetings. And this may not be a completely bad thing. It did always seem before as if the office was the “real work” and the writing was something of an add-on. Now the writing is much more integrated into my calendar.

But the danger with WFH is that I just work more without stopping for a break. That’s a problem. While I don’t have to worry about concentration fatigue, as do many people, I do have to manage a chronic back problem. I think I’ve said before that I have an exercise bike in my office. Since lockdown I have taken to reading – or rather being read to – while I cycle. I’m very appreciative of the reading function of ipads which are small enough to prop up in front of me while I pedal away. I don’t really need to see pixelated hills – I’d much rather be following along with Karen. Yes, really, the English (Australian) voice is called Karen. And yippee! I can, it seems, get through a book in about a week of cycling. And the combo of reading and being read to allows me to plod systematically through some rather dense and challenging material. So I’m actually reading more and more serious books. Fuelling my writing and thinking.

I’m also aware of things I haven’t changed. For instance, as I don’t much go for social writing experiences – I prefer a rather solitary and silent location for writing – I haven’t taken advantage of any of the online writing rooms. I still use my desk top layout to signal writing work that is ongoing and the writing which is most urgent. I still keep notebooks in most parts of the house to jot down any brilliant insights I have while away from my desk – well usually more like, Oh no, I’ve forgotten about x. Better make sure to put x in tomorrow.

But how about you? 

People who used to like to write in cafes – what do you now do? 

Do the Shut up and Write online sessions work as well for you as the face to face or do you find them better? 

If you used to write in your work office how has it been shifting to writing at home?

Is your desk organised differently now that you do everything from it? 

Have you managed to find a new routine if you have parenting or caring responsibilities and can’t shut out interruptions and more pressing demands? 

Have you developed any new habits, like buying pears and/or being read to while you exercise? 

What’s changed for you in your writing routines and rituals? Do you think these changes will stay? What do you think you might keep when/if we go back to more familiar work routines?

Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

Posted in lockdown, routine, writing rituals, writing routine | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment