I was recently part of a small discussion on another social media platform where someone reported that their supervisor had said their writing wasn’t sufficiently “measured’. Without seeing the actual work it was pretty hard to understand what the supervisor was concerned about. But everyone in the discussion knew that the term was vague, and therefore unhelpful.
But “your writing is not measured” is not an uncommon supervisor or reviewer comment. I wondered then, as I do whenever I hear it, what “measured” is code for. I could think of five possibilities.
The first. The text in question was not written in the third person, there wasn’t enough passive voice, and not enough multi-syllabled abstract nouns (nominalisations, or zombie nouns as Helen Sword calls them). In other words it didn’t read as ‘academic’. A lot of people think that academic writing has to be this way – passive voice, long sentences etc. Now, this style of writing is heavily criticised – many writing advice texts (Sword, Pinker, Billig) call for writing that is less complicated, that has a mix of short and long sentences, more active voice and far fewer nouny terms. But maybe this supervisor hadn’t read this good advice. Just because this advice is out there doesn’t mean that some supervisors have given up on convoluted and dense as the right way to write.
Following on, the second thought. The text didn’t have the right disciplinary flavour. Some disciplines, writing researchers tell us, are more characterised by personal feelings and value judgments. Writers in philosophy and education, for example, are more likely to express their own opinion than, say, those in engineering or biology. Perhaps this writer hadn’t written to disciplinary norms. Perhaps they hadn’t got the balance of personal feelings quite right. That’s hard and doesn’t always come straight away.
Or, third response, perhaps the writer was still in assignment writing mode and was more certain than is expected at doctoral level. They used too many strong boosters (clearly, definitely, absolutely, no doubt, extremely, obviously) and not enough hedges ( perhaps, somewhat, may, might, to an extent, possibility, almost). Strong boosters close down other possible interpretations, they leave little room for debate. They can make the writer seem overly assured, more sure of what they have to offer, when what is expected is something a little less assertive.
And fourth, maybe the writer just didn’t leave enough pointers in their text to critical thinking – they didn’t have enough references. They didn’t show that they had thought about possible counter-arguments. The supervisor was expecting to see sentences which started – alternatively, at the same time, however, on one hand and on the other, rather than, although, yet, conversely. Or perhaps the writer didn’t make their interpretations clear enough. They didn’t elucidate – in other words, to put it simply, to be precise – or give examples – here, specifically, in this instance, an illustration of this is.
And then finally. Measured. Yes. I recalled that my writing has sometimes been called journalistic. Too much personality, too much voice, too much idiosyncratic metaphor and style. This is of course why I like blogging. I like playing about with syntax – breaking the orthodoxies of the sentence and the paragraph. I enjoy mucking about with words, making up new terms, finding interesting analogies. And this is a choice on my part. I know perfectly well how to write a five sentence paragraph and the standard long academic sentence. I sometimes even write-this-way, particularly when writing for audit purposes (audit-oriented reviewers tend to be not-amused by experimentation). However, even when I’m playing with text, I do still take what I would call a measured stance towards the topic – I generally write to open up discussion rather than close it down. Did the supervisor confuse style with lack of substance, I wondered?
At the end of this chain of thoughts, I wondered about what advice I could offer. Like others in the discussion, I suggested that the writer go back and ask the supervisor to clarify. Ask them to show examples of “measured” prose and talk through its characteristics. I did suggest that the doctoral writer ask about boosters, hedges and critical markers, as well as whether there were enough references.
However, I don’t know what actually happened.
But I’m interested to know if anyone else has had the “not measured” comment about their writing, and if they were able to find out exactly what it meant. It‘s one of those elusive terms that suggest the presence of hidden rules and expectations. And we supervisors, bless us, often recognise a problem related to covert rule- breaking without being able to actually say precisely what the issues are.
And that’s about the lack of formal support for supervisor writing education, not individual inadequacy. Oh, don’t start me on that….