You’ll often hear that academic writing is entering a conversation. A journal article for example is an entry into an asynchronous conversation that has already been going on in the journal – or perhaps ought to have been going on – about a particular topic. Articles take turns in discussing the topic, each one referring back to other papers to make sure that the reader understands the ongoing and cumulative nature of the discussion.
It’s helpful to think that a paper or chapter or book is also entering a conversation in its own right. And that’s a conversation with the reader. And just as in the paper by paper conversation, the writer has to make connections with what has gone before. (Apologies to all of the conversation analysts out there reading this – I am about to simplify and gloss over complexities.)
People who study conversations understand them as social – conversation is a way to share experiences and expand our thinking by “hooking up” with others. Conversations are cooperative. Both parties contribute and take turns, working with a set of largely unwritten ‘rules’.
And one of the important conversation rules is about both parties making a commitment to converse. Each party assumes a right to participate and a responsibility to listen and stay involved. It’s rude to start a conversation and then dominate it, without being given permission in some way. It\s rude to walk away in the middle of a conversation without making an excuse.
But there are different rules for different kinds of conversations, So It’s rude to interrogate people in an ordinary conversation but perfectly OK in an interview. It’s maybe OK to walk away from a crowd where one person is holding the floor, telling a very long story which is perhaps asking too much from listeners. That’s because usually speakers can’t assume they have a right to an audience, they can usually only speak for so long before they are interrupted, perhaps asked to get to the point. In a presentation speakers can go on for longer, but not indefinitely.
These turn taking, time and space occupying rules are not actually about politeness, although when the rules are broken it may seem as if politeness and rudeness are all that matters. The unwritten rules of conversation provide us with a way to share our experiences, interpretations, evaluations. This allows us to know more, as well as to build social connections, bonds, alliances and togetherness.
So it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see that a single piece of academic writing may function in the same way. When you are writing a text you are speaking to the reader. You are asking the reader to give up some of their time to pay attention to what you are going to say. You’re about to hold the floor and you want them to hang around and take note.
Some conversation analysts suggest that the first moves in a conversation are a form of coalition building. A coalition is simply a term which describes an alliance where there is some kind of shared interest. Perhaps very temporary and short lived – perhaps longer, as in the case of political parties who form coalitions in order to govern. In conversation, coalitions tend to be temporary. The speaker establishes an area of mutual interest with the listener. The speaker establishes what it is that both parties could potentially get from talking together.
Now I think the notion of coalition building is helpful when we think about academic writing and particularly the beginning of a piece of academic writing. As we start any form of academic writing, we ask the reader to block out time. We create a launch pad for the text. We propose a topic of conversation, and we indicate how we intend to guide the reader/listener for the next little while we hold the floor. But we also promise it will be worth the readers’ while to stop what they are doing because we have a shared interest in the topic.
Writers form a temporary coalition around a topic by
- recalling the ways in which the community has already been engaged with it (referring back to papers already written in the field and in the particular journal id we are writing for a journal), and
- establishing the need for the conversation to continue – because we haven’t yet talked about all that matters and/or because the current context means we need to keep talking and progressing our shared understandings
- promising not to be boring but rather, be information and trustworthy.
When the writer spells out the conversation in advance like this, the reader has a choice to commit or not. If they commit to reading past the introduction, they temporarily hand over control of the conversation to the writer.
And then follows writer responsibilities – responsibilities which are related not so much to the genre of the conversation, but are about keeping the promise made at the start of the writing. The coalition needs to be maintained. Not just established.
At the start of the writing the writer offers to talk about something significant and something social – the writing will add to the existing conversation and build the social knowing and connections that are part of disciplinary communities. The subsequent conversation has to deliver – the text must be an argument based firmly in experience, evidence, interpretation, theorising etc. And the reader must recognise that this is what is happening.
Because coalitions can be easily broken – the reader puts the text away because it is not delivering on its promises – it is crucial for the writer to keep the conversation on track throughout. Not to bore the pants off the reader. Not to go off on a tangent and lose the thread. Not to assume too much or too little.
I reckon that thinking about a coalition between the writer and reader might be helpful. The idea of a coalition between reader and writer focuses you as writer on the reader and their interests as well as the interests of the disciplinary community. Because conversation is social. And our communities are our disciplines and our problems and theories. So as a writer focused don coalition building and sustaining you have to think about prior knowledge, purposes and expectations. You have to think about connecting, and writing with clarity and cohesion.
But there’s a bit more to the conversation and coalition idea that can be helpful to we academic writers.
If you start looking out for conversation rules, you’ll see some of them are not so hidden. People asking you to listen for example rather than just assuming you will – that reminds me of a time when… People signalling its OK for the speaker to keep going – “uh huh”, “What happened?”. It’s quite useful when you spot a rule of conversation to think about whether – and if so how – there is a parallel in academic writing.
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