There are good reasons for writing alongside the thesis. Besides contributing to the work (see first post) and your cv, there are authoring benefits. These include:
- the chance to learn more about academic writing
- the opportunity to develop a scholarly writing identity and voice
I’m going to talk about each of these separately, although they clearly overlap.
Learning more about academic writing
If you are writing a Big Book thesis, then you have to get to know that form of academic writing because you want to “pass”. However, there are many other forms of writing that academics do. You might want to learn about them – and help your thesis at the same time.
Write a conference paper perhaps. Not just academics attend conferences, but we certainly do. So knowing how to write a conference paper won’t be a waste of time. Well, more than just a paper.
Going to a conference means that you have to write a proposal, usually an abstract written to a predetermined formula. Your abstract is tailored for the particular scholarly community that hosts and attends your chosen conference – and the subset of community members who referee abstracts, the bids for conference participation. You may, as part of the proposal process, also have to write a plain language summary for the conference programme. Once your proposal is accepted you then need to produce the paper, anticipating the audience you’d like (and can reasonably expect) to attend. You’ll also need to prepare a presentation, usually a slideshow, and perhaps a handout. Or instead of a paper there may be a poster.
Conference texts not only take different forms, but also ask different things of you as a writer. Each follows their own particular writing conventions – even though they are making the same argument, using exactly the same data and analysis. See how many ways you can present the same argument!
Writing a journal article (perhaps from the conference paper) means learning even more writing practices. First of all, you need to carefully choose your journal and research it to make sure that you understand the kinds of readers – referees and ultimately the wider journal community – that you are writing for. You’ll need to understand the ongoing conversation that you are entering. You’ll need to adhere to the genre and writing conventions expected in the journal.
And you’ll get a different kind of feedback from reviewers than you are used to – feedback that is usually not as pedagogically oriented as the comments you get from your supervisor. But while reviewer responses can be confronting, the experience does allow you to understand the kinds of critical interchanges that happen in scholarly communities and the language through which critique is given.
You can see from these two examples that there is much more to academic writing than the Big Book thesis, where you write particularly for your supervisors and then examiners. But when you write more widely you encounter other readers, other conversations and conventions.
And the more you understand the variety, framings and hidden rules about academic writing, the better positioned you are to make informed choices about what you want to write – and how. Which segues neatly into:
Developing a scholarly writing identity and voice
For many doctoral researchers, the thesis is the first opportunity to step away from essays and to establish themselves as an authority. As the expert in their particular topic.
This authority doesn’t come straight away to most people. The struggle to find the way to write academically can often be read on the page in sentences that are too long and contain too many large abstract words jammed together. A less confident academic writer often cites and quotes a lot more than a more authoritative scholar too.
But good news. Simply writing more and more often – particularly if it is in more relaxed genres like op-ed pieces, professional publications and blogs – can be an extremely helpful way to get more used to the process of putting yourself and your ideas out there. And that plays out as you write your thesis. You stop writing tentatively.
What’s more, writing outside the thesis may also provide an opportunity for you to experiment with different styles of writing. How much description is possible? Where, how and how much can you use what participants say? Is it possible to use images and multi-media and to write more artistically? How inventive can you be with the ways in which you summarise and categorise? Is it OK to vary the structure of an argument? Is it better for you to write a lot in the first person, or not? These are the kinds of questions that you can find some beginning answers to through different kinds of writing.
Conferences, for instance, are often really good places to try out new approaches to writing. You can ask for and get feedback, you can see your audience reaction to your controlled textual experiment. Book chapters are often much less convention-bound than journals and you can do more with the structure as well as the style of the text.
While none of the text trials that you make may end up in the thesis – although they very well might – trying things out requires you to become more explicit about the writing choices that you make. Choosing helps you to develop voice and authority.
In focusing on the type of text you are producing and its possible variations, you not only become more accustomed to writing per se. You also think of yourself as a writer, making conscious choices about how you want to present yourself and your work. You make decisions about – and through – the crafting of your writing. You can be this kind of writer and scholar – or that. Your attention shifts – you go from fretting about your writing to focusing on finding the most satisfying ways to say what you want how you want.
So when you get that conference information, call for papers or invitation to write a book chapter comes along, it’s helpful to ask yourself:
- Will this writing help me to understand more about academic writing? Does the invitation mean I will write for new readers, enter new conversations and use new conventions?
- Will this writing help me to build my scholarly identity and voice? What opportunities are there here for trying out new writing possibilities? What new writing choices does this option open up for me as an author?
And if the answers are affirmative, maybe this is an academic writing opportunity to take up.
But of course, all of this writing-more-than-one-thing-at-the-same-time has to be managed. So in the third and last part of this mini-series, next week I’ll talk a bit about time and tools.