the reading and writing that no-one sees

We write much more than we ever publish.  A lot of unseen writing is about acquiring the knowledge that we need in order to do the writing that will be made public.

We read much more than we cite. A lot of our unseen reading is about acquiring the knowledge that we need in order to do our research, and to do the writing that will be made public.

In his book about writing in the humanities,  Eric Hayot discusses this unseen work of writing and reading. Hayot uses the metaphor of  an iceberg to describe the combination of unseen and seen academic work. Yes, an iceberg. ( You need to  resist Titanic jokes at this point.)

As we know, there is much more ice in the berg under the water than ever shows above it. In order to actually float, only about 10% of an iceberg is visible above the sea level. This is all to do with density and Archimedes and it would be a digression to go into that here and now and I dare say we all learnt about icebergs at school. Which is of course Hayot’s point. We can understand the metaphor of an iceberg because we bring to it a hidden foundation of scientific understanding which we acquired much earlier.

And so it is with academic writing, says Hayot.

Beneath every piece of scholarly work lie years of patient learning and accumulation, as well as torrid months or years of focussed thinking, research and reading. From below the waterline, the labour and investment done in these dark underwater seas sustains the small portion of the work that appears above: a finished article or book. (p. 118)


Hayot suggests that we begin building our scholarly iceberg in school and this continues in our undergraduate years.  However, this is relatively unfocussed knowledge accumulation, and work that we may not even have always been aware of.  It is is during the doctorate that the constructing iceberg comes into focus – or ought to, Hayot suggests.

The thing about the iceberg metaphor is that it does not separate the unseen work of reading and writing from the work that is published; it’s one and the same piece. It is a whole. It is all the work of scholarship.

Hayot argues that all scholars need a general base of scholarship which sustains the various specific projects that they undertake. Then, he says,

…by the time you’re on your dissertation, and for every project beyond that, you will be building, on top of that generalist iceberg, specific fields of knowledge for specific intellectual projects. (p. 118)

So, according to Hayot, much of the reading and the writing we do during the doctorate and beyond is a foundation. The foundation-building reading and writing might for example be concerned with building historical knowledge of the field, learning the scholarly discourse and debates in our broad field of interest and learning about the key texts that have shaped the field. This general understanding of the field and discipline(s)underpins all of the writing that we do. As Hayot puts it,

Practically every sentence of a book, as well as everyone of its paratexts, communicates at some level the iceberg that sustains its claims. (p. 120)

Flickr Commons: Camille Hey

Flickr Commons: Camille Hey

The iceberg metaphor also carries a  warning. It suggests that reading narrowly and writing as little as possible during the doctorate is a mistake. Restricted reading and writing won’t create the broad and stable base that is needed for authoritative writing or for ongoing scholarship.  And writing a dissertation that rests on a flimsy disciplinary foundation will be obvious to the examiner Hayot says.

They iceberg. OK,  the noun is now a verb. To iceberg. So what is to iceberg?  Scholarly writers who iceberg are able to show that the writing that they are doing has a firm basis in wider reading through:

  • judiciously use footnotes to explain the resources that they are drawing on, and choosing only to footnote those things that are necessary to the argument
  • write to show they know what others in the field know – they do not write an essay about everything in the text, choosing only to explain things where they need to establish a definition, their position in a debate and so on. Icebergers do not mistakenly attribute ideas and using terms that are not part of the particular scholarly field or discipline or use secondary sources when they should use the primary.

Put simply, showing how well you understand your discipline(s) and field also shows  your general trustworthiness as a source of knowledge.

Hayot’s notion of the iceberg means that not only doctoral researchers, but also those past the PhD, need to maintain serious and deep reading in their discipline and field. It means looking beyond the texts that are most current and most related to immediate projects. It means that we all need to look to the texts that will help us to not only understand the kinds of scholarship undertaken in our discipline but also how the discipline got to be the way that it is.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, academic writing as iceberg, Eric Hayot, reading and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to the reading and writing that no-one sees

  1. Pingback: Three Blogs that Academics Should be Following | re/search

  2. Pingback: Ten practical things I wish in knew in the first year of my PhD | Archaeology and Egyptology in the 21st century

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