what talking can do for academic writing

My co-writer and good friend Barbara is coming next week and we will have another little orgy of book writing. Only five days, but this will be enough for us to get a second section of our doctoral researcher writing book roughed out and in messy first draft.

Our method of writing is all about the talk. We talk as much as we write. We talk a lot about the topic we are working on. We talk first of all to clarify our ideas – I guess this serves the same purpose as free-writing, but it’s infinitely more enjoyable. We often make terrible jokes, ramble around, and tell each other tangential stories about our current writing/teaching/everyday lives. But during these conversations we generally come up with some key ideas. We talk our way into the angle that we want to take. And by the time we have talked for an hour or so, we will have worked out a metaphor or a heuristic of some kind that will help make the idea clear. This is a talk-as-ideas-clarification process.

Very often, while we are engaged in one of these talk-as-ideas-clarification conversations it becomes obvious that we need to start recording. So either one or both of us will reach for a pen and paper, or one of us will sit down at the keyboard and begin to make random notes. This initial writing then becomes the basic material on which we work.

Our next stage is another kind of talk. Much more focused. This is talking-as-writing, where we have a conversation to jointly compose the text. This is more like dictating, but it’s a bit more spontaneous, and there are often breaks in the actual talk-as-writing for more of the talk-as-ideas-clarification. Sometimes during this stage, we have to pause and reach for a reference book or paper to make sure that we have accurately communicated a concept or strategy.

Using both of these kinds of talk allows us to write about four thousand words a day, sometimes less, sometimes more if we are on a roll. The text that we produce is rough and often has to be ruthlessly pruned. It will always have little gaps in it where we know we have to go back and do a bit more thinking or researching. However, this talked text has a kind of energy that is hard to duplicate using any other method.

Peter Elbow, best known as the freewriting advocate, has written a big fat book about talking and writing – Vernacular eloquence. What speech can bring to writing. (You don’t need to buy it unless you’re really keen on books about writing. Get your library to get a copy.) I’ll probably post about this book a bit in the next little while because I think it’s pretty useful. Elbow doesn’t argue that talking substitutes for any kind of writing – talking isn’t writing – but he does suggest that there are things about talking that are pretty helpful to try to translate into, and move into, writing. Talking and writing is a political point for him too – see Elbow make this point himself.

In one part of the big fat book, Elbow states that “unplanned spoken language is good for pith, gists, and nutshells” (p 90). By this he means that talking can help us to, as the common sayings suggest, “Spit it out. Hit the nail on the head” (p 91). Acknowledging that it’s also possible to ramble around while talking, he nevertheless advocates talking as a deliberate and deliberative way of unpacking the muddle in your head – making complex ideas more accessible and separating out the detail from the major points. He calls this “talking writing” rather than “writing writing”.

Now this talking–as-ideas-clarification is what the Three Minute Thesis does. It’s also the point of the lift exercise – can you explain your thesis to another person in the time it takes you to go down five floors in a lift? And of course, the talk-think connection is what’s at the heart of the kind of dialogue that goes in in supervision, where the supervisor asks questions in order to get the doctoral researcher to clarify and state simply what they mean. It’s not about a right answer, but verbal prompting to help DRs sort out what they think. It’s also why we all generally need to rehearse before giving a conference presentation – talking about, rather than reading an edited version of our paper helps us pare things down to the most important points.

So Elbow’s “pith, gist and nutshells” talk is clearly what Barbara and I do. Our conversation, particularly the talk-as-ideas-clarification is precisely to get to the “nail on the head” moment. We talk until we find the point we are trying to make, expressed in language that is pretty straightforward and unambiguous. Then, when we turn to talk-as-writing, we try to maintain some of the rough energy from our initial conversation as well as its focus and clarity.

I’m interested to think about how doctoral researchers, who generally write in isolation, might use talk as means of thinking through analysis and chapters. Talking might be a good accompaniment, or alternative, to freewriting and mindmapping as a means of working out some bottom line points that they want to make. What do you think? How do you use talk to write?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in ideas clarification, nutshell, talking, talking writing, writing writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to what talking can do for academic writing

  1. Hannah Tweed says:

    This sounds very familiar. My circle of fellow PhD students/sufferers/survivors have found that talking through problematic parts of chapters and papers is far more productive than trying to write without external input when we’re struggling. There’s something about someone else being able to ask basic questions (Why do you need this section? What do you want it to do? How is this connected to the rest of your argument?) in a non-confrontational (and usually reciprocal) environment that makes subsequent editing and writing much easier, and reminds you of what engages you in your project. It also helps that our group spans the gamut of PhD and post-PhD experience, and a range of arts related specialities, so we end up eschewing (or clarifying) jargon and picking up new critical sources as part of the process. The importance of finding people to bounce ideas off in the early stages of PhD is now one of my pet sales pitches to new students.


  2. Sue Gollifer says:

    I recently spent two days away with colleagues, which we had intended as a writing retreat. We were all aware that we had been working and writing in isolation and decided that we needed a boost to get us out of a place which I call, ´going round in a circle and not finding a way to move beyond its circumference´. We all have very different projects, and yet just the process of hearing yourself speak and explain what you had been writing or had been thinking about writing, acted as a catalyst to move forward. I was very aware of the sound of my own voice, systematically trying to make sense of my data and pursue a logical argument around a theme. it was extremely helpful, but it is also not as simple as opening your mouth and speaking. There has to be trust, and also a genuine interest in supporting each other to move forward, as well as finding an appropriate and creative environment away from the institution. There also has to be a follow up, in that you have to then use what came out of the talk sessions. What we did reminded me of the tutorials that I had as an undergraduate student at Newcastle University. As doctoral researchers, ee do not do enough of this, and presenting at a seminar or a conference is no substitute for being in a smaller group with the purpose of moving each other forward to move beyond the circumference!


  3. Caroline Edmonds says:

    I agree with “spitting it out”. When writing something tricky, I mind map using a very informal tone, which allows me just to get everything in my head out, and then I can start re-organising it and re-writing it in a more eloquent way.


  4. As I like to participate in these talks, and tell a joke too.
    Sometimes it is very difficult to find someone to comment on what I am writing, especially interested in the same topic.
    I read all your posts, all very interesting and useful in my PhD career.
    I share them many times in my blog (ravellom.blogspot.com) or my Facebook or linkedin.


  5. Amy Mortimer says:

    Whilst grappling with my first stage of data analysis, I found myself talking out aloud, in desperate attempt to avoid the silence that made me feel like I didn’t know anything. After babbling away for about 5 minutes I hit the record button on my digital voice recorder, told myself I had an audience and continued to explore my thoughts and join the dots. This helped even though I didn’t get a reply (!). Talking is far easier than writing, even when you don’t get the opportunity to share your words. Being a part time PhD student and not having a base at the university I struggle to share my thoughts with fellow students. Until the next gathering of minds, which is of course much more valuable, the digital voice recorder helps to keep the silences at bay.


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  8. Julia says:

    I think it’s particularly helpful to me when seeing the ‘big picture’ before I am able to dissect its parts. I can be quite happy answering questions on a topic I’ve studied, yet lack the confidence to write about it. Talking with others and hearing the sort of questions they raise usually helps me see their insider/outsider perspective and identify, on that basis, critical points through which to weave my argument/explanation from start to finish (as strange as it may sound, I am not always able to see these things for myself!). Talking also helps sort relevant from irrelevant information and structure writing in a way that should appear coherent to the reader. Talking talks back and I’ve truly struggled not having that in my current program of studies.


  9. Not sure if this is the correct way to make a blog request Patter, but might you do a post on writing a phd research proposal please?


  10. Everything here resonates with me, but I am left wondering at what point does the “shut up and write” stage begin … Thinking back to a previous post on whether thinking precedes and / or continues through writing, I am left wondering what the cut-off point is for me: when is talking enough and at what point do we just ‘shut-up’ and start writing? When the thought has fully crystallised? Or when it is still half-baked, to allow the writing to give the thought its final shape? I also think that talk-to-write differs depending on the shared motives/interests of the writers.


    • pat thomson says:

      Because we are are cowriting, we sometimes do initial revisions separately but then talk again. We do editing together by Skype. So it’s all talk. Very little shutting up!! Very different if not co writing and not all co writing is like this.


      • Pat, your writing process sounds like a blast! This post reads as a tribute to the joy of co-authorship–and of friendship. I practice “talking-as-ideas-clarification” (and to a lesser extent “talking-as-writing”) all the time, but my practice has a very different dynamic than yours because I’m a writing consultant rather than a co-author. For the people I work with, the “shut up and write” happens naturally in between our sessions. I work with clients in arbitrary one-hour increments, usually 1-2 weeks apart in time. The client will typically draft something in preparation for the session, and after the session, the client has a new, specific mini-goal in mind. Clients tell me that this imposed structure–talking with me, say, one hour every Tuesday–helps them to make steady, incremental progress. The scope and trajectory of the project can change, but at least measurable progress and re-assessment will happen once a week. Thanks for this post! It’s fascinating for me to see how talking operates in a co-author relationship.


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  13. Thanks so much for the post Pat. It’s made me realise that maybe I need to be more strategic in the way I use talk – particularly with my supervisors. My meetings have felt more like mainly (increasingly stress-inducing) check-ins to see if I’m ‘on schedule’, when perhaps I should (and could!) use them to explore and test ideas (that’s not to say it hasn’t happened before, but it’s almost been accidental).


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  15. Barbara says:

    Thanks very much Pat. A number of my colleagues and I have been working through the use of talk in our Participatory Culture Lab–we have been experimenting with meeting twice monthly and talking about what we are working on. This spring a number of us were preparing to attend conferences and parts of our meetings were a run-through of the presentations. I can see what you mentioned–that we definitely do need these spaces of talking and writing to sort out our thoughts with others who have similar interests. Keep up the good writing! A number of us at McGill University read your blog regularly!!


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