The up in writing

Last week I moaned about the unintended side effects of the term imposter syndrome. Maybe I’m just feeling generally a bit browned off because I also caught myself this week revisiting old irrits about the term “writing up”. It’s nostalgic niggle time.

I was thinking about the fun Barbara Kamler and I used to have with “writing up” in our workshops. To be fair, we used to have fun with most things. Soup. Shoes. Jewellery. But especially with “writing up”.

Writing up – why up? we used to say. Why not down? Writing down, isn’t that what we do? Getting it down on paper, getting down and dirty with all the words, getting down before we rise up again? How about writing around? Lots of us experience that, we go around and around and around (short break for singing) until we giddily land somewhere. Or how about writing into, many of us have to write ourselves into that final text. We start off tentative, knowing some bits and not others, and then get into it, stuck in rather than stuck.

So why writing up?

Well of course, we had to acknowledge writing up is the term used to describe a stage in research, and particularly the doctorate. I’m writing up says I’m in the later stage of the work, I’m now constructing The Big Book, I’m not out and about, I’m at my desk and I’m scribbling away. Congratulate me I’ve reached the writing up stage, the end is nigh. ( Yes it is. Hooray. Keep going. You can do it. ). Bear with me if I’m like the proverbial bear with the sore head, I’m writing up (Yes, writing can do that to you. Us too. After all, 100k words is no mean feat.)

But, we said, often in chorus, that’s fine as long as it doesn’t mean that we give the impression, we believe, we tell ourselves, that writing only comes at the end of the research and the end of the doctorate. We actually write all the way through the research and doctoral process, or at least it’s better if we do. Yes, there’s something particular and challenging about producing the thesis at the end – but is that best captured in the word up? Or writing up? 

And, we’d say putting on serious faces, the term writing up can also be interpreted as meaning that we have actually finished with the thinking work … all we need to do now is write it up. The research is done, dusted, lay down misere. No worries, right?  Only putting the words on paper to go. That interpretation really trivialises the very hard work involved in creating text.

And perhaps the thinking is not actually all completed. Of course there are some bits of the thesis that are – we know what we did, for instance and writing about our methods and process can be a matter of crafting the well-known. And there may be other bits of the thesis that we feel pretty secure about. But most of the time, despite our best planning, abstract, tiny texts, storyboards, mind-maps and accumulation files, there’s still some thinking work left to do. And then some. Writing up doesn’t mean all of the thinking work is over. Writing a thesis is often thinking with and through the writing. Writing with. Writing in the middle. Writing through. Writing beyond.

Well, hardly surprising that Barbara and my clownish performances didn’t lead to change. After all, we never came up with a term good enough to replace “writing up”. Even putting our objections on paper in our first book (2006) didn’t make a dent in its popularity. B and P weak, writing up strong. Our categorical failure was/is because the term does do very helpful work when used as a fairly clear stage of the research.

Ah, but the term still niggles. I twitch when I hear it. I even occasionally find myself starting to use it and then pull myself up short. However, the term writing up is simply ubiquitous and widely understood. It’s part of the scholarly lexicon. Well, OK then. I give up. I hear you and I understand what you are saying. But don’t expect me to utter these words. I may put up with it, but you’ll never get me to like “writing up”.

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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4 Responses to The up in writing

  1. Anne Byrne says:

    ‘…thinking with and through the writing’. That’s the process. Thank you for this Pat. Figuring through the really hard, tough theoretical kaleidoscope of material is off putting and can lead to fierce prevarication (as I know). But I have to be at my desk and writing and thinking and reading for anything to happen. Anybody have advice on how to write a book chapter based on previous publications without boring myself and everybody else in three weeks?


    • pat thomson says:

      The way I try to deal with this is to change the format, so anecdotes, new way of presenting data, different structure. So trying to find something structural that will keep me interested.


  2. Sara Cotterall says:

    Thanks for your rant on “writing up” Pat. Most enjoyable. I have been a card-carrying member of the anti “writing up” (AWU?) cult ever since I first read your and Barbara Kamler’s book all those years ago. Of course we are not finished with thinking when we are in the final writing stages of the thesis. Equally, we have probably been writing notes, summaries, questions, reflections and what I call “fragments” of other texts that may or may not survive for years by the time this stage comes about. And I suspect I am not alone. It’s just that the others – those who use this term – are more numerous than us, and perhaps less imaginative in the way they refer to what is going on at that exciting, frustrating, exhausting stage of the marathon.

    Ngā mihi – Sara


  3. Sara Cotterall says:

    Hi Anne – I’m wondering why you would agree to write a book chapter based on previous publications? Hasn’t it all been said already?



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