mapping a text

I love a good map. I’m not talking about the satnav you have in your car, or its predecessor the street directory. Nor am I talking about the underground map I occasionally have to consult when I’m down in London. No, I’m talking about the kind of map you make yourself, a map of something that’s important to you.

But I’m not talking about your standard mind-mapping map, or spider mapping labels and connecting lines. Perhaps it is an emotional map, or a map of relationships, or a map of an intellectual territory.

And I’m thinking about how to adapt this kind of personal mapping for use in academic writing.

I often think about my current book project in map terms. There’s a number of sites on my book map, primarily obstacles! You might recognise

  • the plains of procrastination
  • the temple of possibilities
  • the quicksands of additional reading
  • the vale of complete confusion
  • the peaks of abandoned drafts
  • the  mounds of good intentions
  • the thicket of competing deadlines
  • the pond of insight
  • the wells of sustained writing

And so on. Add your own contours.

Well it’s quite cathartic really isn’t it to get that all out in the open.

I imagine making these topographic  features into some kind of physical map like this one – The Geographical Guide to a Woman’s Heart Emphasizing Points of Interest to the Romantic Traveler: illustration by Jo Lowrey for McCall’ s Magazine, 1960.


I imagine I could substitute a book shape for the heart, and then just start carving out the relative territories.

A states-of-writing map – like this illustration – could have its uses in a shared discussion about writing. Writing a book, a thesis, a journal article in particular. None of these texts are straightforward. Most writers can benefit from sharing some of the common highs, lows and ways we‘ve found to get a piece of writing done. And maps might help the conversation.

But I’m even more interested in whether there’s any mileage in thinking about the book or thesis text itself as a map. What if my book was a map? What if your thesis was a map?

If we think about a thesis or a book sustaining an argument throughout, then it ought to be possible to map each of the major moves, each logical step presented as a landmark. It surely ought to be possible to draw such a map. A map like that of a national park. Or a grand estate.

So, perhaps you’d need a visitor centre at the start which explains what kind of country (text) you are about to enter and what’s special about it. You’d be given a sense of the experience you’re about to have. There’d be pointers to different stages of the track you are to follow.

And maybe you’d need an interpretation board just as you set out. Something that tells you about the history of the area, how it got to be the way that it is, the things you need to understand before you set out.  

There’d have to be some safety instructions too which tell you about the ways in which the park was made and therefore why it’s safe for you to trust the path, lookouts and signposts. All this, and you’d be happily oriented to the textual journey to come.

You get the idea.

I’m interested in how visualising via mapping might help to specify the most important features of a thesis or book. How focusing on the major landmarks might help cut through distracting detail. So you can see the forest for the trees. Yes, mapping might help sort out what is sometimes called the the red thread of the thesis.

Of course, I’ve had a go myself. I decided to try to map my book.

It’s a work in progress my map. I’ve started by drawing the major landmarks first on small sheets of paper . My plan is to then stick them on my map, and then go on to name the other surrounding features of the landscape.

This exercise has already forced me to think again about the main points to go in each chapter, and the order of chapters.

I’ll just show you the first two major landmarks on my book map. Excuse my rough and ready sketching but the point here is not about looking polished. Here are my first and second chapters, they are the scene-setting context and the methods. You can see that each landmark is a little graphic, the kind you might also see on – and as – a signpost. They are a kind of visual tiny text perhaps.

Start my book journey here.


chapter one


chapter two

 So mapping… What do you think? Any mileage in this idea? (Sorry lots of bad puns possible around maps.)

I’d be really interested in seeing any mapping experiments you might make as a way to sort out a text.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.



  • FOI is a Freedom of Information request.
  • Jo Lowrey map is from the Kellogg Museum collection
Posted in academic writing, argument, book writing, mapping, thesis | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

counting down to #thesis completion


Many PhDers are under pressure to complete their research and thesis within set time frames.

In the UK where I work, studentships are generally only for three years with a fourth unpaid year of ‘thesis pending’. This roughly equates to: the first year getting ready for the research, doing courses, and literature and design work; the second year being the field work and some analysis: and concluding analysis and producing the thesis in year three.

So if you’re in the UK, it’s helpful to have this kind of shape in your head. But it’s actually much better to try to sort out the reading, researching and writing timing in more detail. And it’s good to do this no matter where you are or how long you’ve officially got to finish.

That’s because another reason for focusing on the finish line is that there is nothing worse than having only a few bits and bobs written and suddenly realising that you aren’t going to get done before your money, commitment, enthusiasm and energy runs out.  Well, of course, there are many worse things than this, but this is up there with bad.

And realistically, most of us can only do the doctorate for so long before we get tired of it. But I see too many PhDers doing four really risky things, things which potentially jeopardise completion:

  1. they underestimate how much time it takes to analyse data, and
  2. they underestimate how much time it can take to produce a good text, and
  3. they haven’t factored in how long it might take their supervisor to read whole drafts, as opposed to chapters and
  4. they actually haven’t worked out in detail how long they – as opposed to anybody else – will take to analyse and write.

It’s really good to try to sort out the time it will take to complete relatively early. Don’t leave it till late in the piece. This might take a conversation with your supervisor. And this is a conversation you might need to revisit. Regularly.

So, completing in a timely way. I reckon it’s really helpful to count backwards from the time of submission. You start with the actual date where you “hand in” and work out what you need to do to get there.

And in this post, I’m going to offer you a bit of help in working backwards.

Here’s a set of things you might need to think about, starting from the triumphant very end and then working backwards. Do remember that the things on my list won’t be exactly on yours. You need to sort out what goes in your very particular individual list: this is just an example to help you think about what could happen. So rewrite my list to suit your research and writing strategies.

  • Finessing the text – fixing up the layout, proofreading, finding missing references, last minute grammatical check
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads draft with examiner’s headset looking for omissions, things that need clarification or extension, missing references that the examiner will expect to see, consistency in reference list style, thesis abstract
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads draft looking for relatively small textual issues – small restructurings, additional readings, some reformatting, rewriting some sections, authoritative voice
  • Corrections from supervisor
  • Supervisor reads for major issues such as argument flow, structural glitches, additional sections needed, theorisations, claims, chapters that need major rewrites
  • Hand in whole first draft
  • Corrections to chunks, smoothing over the whole text, signposting, getting rid of repetition, moving things around, getting reference list together, contents page, revising thesis abstract, sort out appendices, illustrations and figures.
  • Supervisor sees discussion and conclusion, the last of the individual pieces
  • Write discussion and conclusion – 20 – 25k words
  • Corrections to introduction
  • Supervisor reads introduction
  • Write introduction – 8-12 k words
  • Revisit abstract.
  • Corrections to second results chapter
  • Supervisor reads second results chapter
  • Write second results chapter 10-12 k words
  • Corrections to first results chapter
  • Supervisor reads first results chapter
  • Write first results chapter 10-12 k words
  • Revisit storyboard and abstract
  • Corrections to literatures chapter
  • Supervisor reads literatures chapter
  • Write literatures chapter – 12 k words
  • Update your literatures
  • Corrections to methods chapter
  • Supervisor reads methods chapter
  • Write methods chapter – 10 -12k words
  • Update your methods literatures
  • Write the thesis abstract
  • READY TO WRITE. Storyboard and write tiny texts for each chapter, sort out your written chunks and support materials into chapters
  • Supervisor reads results “chunks”as they are written
  • Analysis and writing “chunks” of results – add on a couple more months here than you think it will actually take
  • FINISH FIELD WORK – and you have been doing some preliminary analysis during this time

Now put dates against all of these items again starting from your target hand in date. Put the year, month, day and date against each and every one.

Once you’ve done that, go back and be honest with yourself.

  • How long does it really take you to write 12 k words?
  • Have you organised this so that you will actually be onto the next writing task while your supervisor is reading?
  • Have you built in any down time? Do you think you might need and deserve a break at any point in this schedule? Where are the holiday seasons? Parenting and caring?
  • Are there conferences you need to put in here? Or courses?
  • Have you thought about where writing retreats and thesis boot camp might be helpful?
  • Can you schedule in shut-up-and-write sessions with colleagues to help break the back of initial chapter writing?
  • Have you accounted for how long it realistically takes your supervisor to read and respond?  When might they be away?
  • Is there anything that might disrupt this schedule that you might be able to plan contingencies for?
  •  Is your space and technology going to last this distance? Do you need to plan for changeover?

Once you have finished thinking and charting you may be surprised by how close you already are to having to do analysis and writing. But you can now calendar your target dates, perhaps incorporating them into your diary or making a big timeline to pin on your office wall. And/or you might draw yourself a Gantt chart (play with this Gantt chart app to see if this approach works for you).

And don’t forget. Plans do go astray. We have lives, loves and bodies that call us to do to other things. So having a bit of slack in the schedule is helpful. But it is important to revise your timelines when they slip so that you always have a realistic idea of what is ahead.

And do remember this is just A version of how to complete. It is not THE version. My point here is simply not to leave completion to chance – work out what you need to do, when, and plan to make that happen.


Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash


Posted in academic writing, completing, thesis abstract, thesis introduction, thesis revision, time | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

choosing images for slideshows


Most of us have to make slideshows at some point – for teaching maybe, or for a conference. We all know that there is a lot of terrible slide practice and we don’t want that to be us.

But there is help out there – you can readily find good advice about how to make effective slides – not too many words, not tiny fonts, watch the colour contrast etc – and I’m not going to repeat any of that here.

Instead, I want to talk about images. No, I’m not going to tell you how to find good images – I use unsplash but there are other free image options out there too.

So if I’m not going to talk about slide composition or where to get images, what is this post about? Well. It’s just a little bit of thinking about how you might choose the images that you put on your slides.

A lot of people think that images are just illustrations and it’s the words that count. Or that images have to have a caption to make any sense. But this is not true. Images can tell a story all by themselves. They don’t need words at all. Images can provoke ideas and emotional and aesthetic responses all on their ownsome.

Image is never simply anything. A picture always brings its own information to the story. An image can say things that words can’t – and vice versa. An image us often a bit slippery, ambiguous. And perhaps because of this, an image can provoke viewer responses in ways that are different from words.

Images work in particular ways when they are combined with words. There are two message systems working at the same time and in the same place. It’s multi-media. So when we combine images with text in slides we have two things to think about. Three if you think about image plus written and spoken words.

So how do you think about the image side of the word and image equation? How can thinking about images help you make good image choices?

Well. My take is that if you have a few helpful thinking tools about anything academic then you are more in charge of what you are trying to do. And I’ve found scholarly work on news media images to be very helpful in thinking about images on slides, and the work that they do.

One of the common scholarly ways of thinking about images and words are through these three categories – three key terms that help us think about the work that images do when they are placed alongside words:

  • Overlap

This is when words and images tell the same story and deal with complementary aspects. The image and words convey different information about the same thing. Sometimes in presentations (and in news reports for instance) what is said even refers to the image – see this here – using a laser pointer in your presentation.

  • Displacement

This is when words and images represent different action components of the same event – so they might show cause and effect for example. So, in a news report you might get the news reader talking about bad weather, while the images show the effects. And in a scholarly presentation you might present context informationin just this way – words about a policy for example, image about its effects.

  • Dichotomy

This is when words and images say different things. Imagine for example a news story about the death of a President which shows images of them performing Presidential duties while the words tell the story of their death. So you might present a text about an exam and an image of a university league table.

Sequences of images also present interesting possibilities. Rather than the narrative residing in one image, the construction of a sequence of images can also be highly informative. Film-makers call this montage. Here, strategies such as detail – zooming in to show something particular – and overview – zooming out to show the wider context – can add important visual information.

Now, I’m not seriously suggesting that in order to make a slide show you need to do a doctorate in social semiotics. No. Life’s too short, unless that is actually your research area.

But I am suggesting that, in understanding some basic image categories, you can better conceptualise the options you have in choosing images. And this means that you can be more in control of your slideshows. You can think about what visual ‘evidence’ you are presenting and how it might work to amplify, extend or verify what you are saying, and how each image will work with the headlines you offer on the slides.

And in thinking about choosing images, you are also thinking about what you most want your audience to do in response to your presentation. You’re focused on how it is that you can achieve this. A talk is always better if you don’t just think about what you want to say, but also how your audience will respond.

Of course, thinking about choice means that you can be more creative too and perhaps have a little fun when getting those slides together. What images can you find that will engage your audience as well as inform them? Is it an overlap, a displacement or a dichotomy?


If you are interested in this kind of media work, then check out Monika Bednarek and Helen Caple’s (2012)  News discourse. Bloomsbury, particularly Chapter Five.  And maybe categorise the image I have used in this post!

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash



Posted in academic writing, image, powerpoint, slideshow | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

tiny texts – small is powerful


I work a lot with tiny texts. Abstracts. Storyboards. Story threads. Lines of argument.

Tiny texts are my academic writing tool of choice. If I had to abandon all the other writing strategies I have in my repertoire, this is The One I would keep. It’s my Desert Island academic writing Swiss Army knife.

Tiny they might be, but little texts do a lot of heavy lifting for academic writing.

Now you might call these tiny texts – summaries. And indeed they are. They are little mini-me versions of a text that will become bigger. But they are not notes. Not notes. They are instead, at their heart, a way of capturing extended thinking.

Now, what do I mean by notes? And why is a tiny text better than a note? Well, let me explain through a hypothetical example. Below is a typical set of writing notes for a social science methods chapter in a thesis. The notes suggest a structure, an order of events, and perhaps something of the content.

Notes version

Methods Chapter

  • Positionality
  • Research Design – institutional ethnography of hospital
  • Ethics
  • Approach to analysis
  • Audit trail – participants, timeline, list of data against question
  • Issues and limitations, confidentiality
  • Portraiture

Familar eh. These are categories of content for a methods chapter. They are the sections and even the headings you might use. And of course, each one of these bullet points could lead to an expanded set of bullets listing what is to be covered in that section.

Now compare the notes approach to a tiny text.

Tiny text version

Methods Chapter

My research, an ethnographic examination of the experience of staff-patient relations in a privatising hospital, took a feminist perspective in which the everyday experience of participants is prioritised. Institutional ethnography  (Smith) allows actual experience to be both documented, interrogated and used as the basis for an analysis of power-saturated social relations.

I worked as a volunteer in a hospital over a period of twelve months, making observations, conducting interviews with nursing staff and patients. I also amassed and analysed case records and organisational documents; these were transcribed and anonymised.

I used critical discourse analysis to analyse field notes and transcripts and this allows for generalisation beyond the specific institution.

Because of the potential for harm to individuals arising from patient complaints about hospital procedures, I have written a semi-fictionalised portrait (Lawrence Lightfoot) of patient and nurse experience from the analysed data. The portrait brings the lived social relations of the hospital to life and this complements the more conventional discussion arising from the discourse analysis.

Now, writing a tiny text takes a lot more time than simply jotting down a set of notes. But the time taken is in thinking. It’s thinking about what actually needs to go into the chapter and what the chapter will say, specifically, about your work. And this is time that is saved when you get to drafting, going hand to mouse.

The tiny text (above) elaborates what you have to say about your positionality and how it led logically to a particular methodological choice. You know you will report on your voluntary work and how it supported you data generation. You know that, despite keeping to the usual ethical rules, you will write about confidentiality and how you have resolved ethical difficulties through choosing to use a semi-fictionalised portrait – and you know where and how in the chapter you are going to say that.

Also note that the tiny text is written in the first person. Even if the chapter reverts to a more conventional narrative, the “I” positions you to write about what you did and why, rather than produce an impersonal and unnecessary essay about methodological procedures. (That’s one of the dangers of a notes approach.)

There are four big pluses for the tiny text

  1. There is a logic to the four tiny text moves – their order make sense. And these moves are the structure of the chapter. Note that there are seven generic bullet points in the notes but only four moves in the tiny text. The tiny text structure follows the logic of the material being presented, it is not a default list of what must be covered. You can write specific and informative headings from each of the four moves, rather than rely on something generic and empty (like the notes). And one more thing. You’re not going to have little chunks of text which don’t really follow on from one another. You have the red thread of argument already built in.
  2. The literature work to be done in the chapter is already apparent. You have two key theorists you are drawing on – Dorothy Smith for institutional ethnography and Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot for portraiture. The rest of the chapter e.g. feminist theory, ethical issues, discourse analysis, will be supported by relevant citations rather than anyone’s work in particular being discussed in any detail.
  3. You are ready to get organised for writing. Knowing the shape of what is to be said allows for a much more efficient pre-writing phase. You can see what materials you need to get together for each of the claims.
  4. And you have a writing plan. A road map. There are four moves in the tiny text and you can write each of the sections in discrete drafting sittings, knowing how they fit together. You won’t have to labour over transitions as the red thread of the chapter has been established in the tiny text.

A final advantage for doctoral researchers is that taking a tiny text into supervision allows you to discuss what you will actually write in your chapter in concrete, not abstract, terms. You arrive with some thoughts already sorted, not simply with a set of vague headings that could be written in any number of different ways.

Ah yes, a tiny text. Try one out next time you have to write something. See what a tiny text can do for you. You don’t have to abandon notes altogether – you can use notes as a checklist just to make sure you have covered the mandatory stuff.

But you get the picture now I’m sure. Don’t say what you are going to write. Write it, but write it small. Sort out the moves. Get the stuff in order.

You know, less is more and all that.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash


Posted in abstracts, academic writing, methods, methods chapter, research methods, thesis, Tiny Text | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

getting ready to write about “the literature”


You’ve all heard that the doctorate is about making an original contribution To the literature. Well, that’s right, although what that means is not nearly as scary as it sounds.

What you may not be told is that doing a PhD is a lot about information management – finding information, cataloguing it, saving it and retrieving it in order to use it.  And one major slab of information that you need, in order to say how you contribute, is “the literature”. Yes think of “the literature” as a bid wadge of information and it’s not quite so scary.

Now, there’s a lot to say about “the literature” – and you might want to check out some of the things that I’ve written before about literatures work, But here I want to focus on using the literatures. And in particular on the kind of preparation you might do to make yourself ready for using. So a particular kind of information work.

I’m focusing here on preparatory writing.

Preparatory writing happens before you write the first draft of the literature review.  I’m assuming that you already have read a lot and entered relevant aspects into some kind of bibliographic software. You will also have made some notes about key points in each text, probably stored in the same software. And you may already have done some mind-mapping about how the various pieces of literature fit together and how they apply to your project. You’ve been managing information.

So, this here post is just another additional information management strategy that might be useful for you when you are thinking about how to organise the literature-related material you have. In particular I’m focused on how to use literatures to present the case for your research.

Today’s information management strategy is in the form of three questions. Your goal is to write an answer to each question. You should write as concisely as possible.  

But you do need to accumulate the relevant texts for each answer before you start writing. It is crucial in this strategy to add in the references to each answer using your citation programme (Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley etc). Or the old time consuming way with cards or lists if you must.

Because you need to accumulate information pre-writing, you may not be able to do this exercise by giving yourself a time limit for each answer. But as you don’t want to spend a huge amount of time on each question, you could use a set of timed writing sprints, Pomodoroes, once you have your information, your references together. Or just write each answer as quickly as you can.

So, what are the three questions? Well, here goes.

  • What studies provide the warrant for your particular project?

In other words, are there any studies which actually say your research is needed? What are they? Why do they say the research is needed?

  • What studies will your research speak to?

Are there studies like yours but which don’t do exactly what yours will do? In other words, is there a gap in a key set of studies around your topic – say which and what is the gap left and why is this important?

Are there other studies which your research might speak back to? What is the ‘problem’ with these studies that yours might address?

  • What studies provide the building blocks for your study?

In other words, what literatures are you using as the basis for defining, boundary-ing, and organizing your key ideas?

Why these particular studies and not others?

There. Not so hard. But look at the benefit.

The answers to these three questions do some important work – first of all, you have now brought together the main texts you are going to write about. They are in one place, not scattered about.

More significantly, the answers to the three questions have positioned you to think about the literatures you have read in relation to your own work.

This ‘personalisation’ equates to the stance that you need in order to write your literature review. Your writing with literatures is all about what is useful to your study and where your work sits in the field. You are not writing a general review of all of the literature.  Your review is always made particular to your study.

This preparatory writing puts you in the right place to write the longer review. It may even form the structure of the literature review, but that’s something to think about once you have this preparation done.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, preparation | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

starting the PhD – learning new vocabulary


Scholarly work often involves learning new words. You know this right? Sometimes it even seems that in order to be considered a scholar you have to speak in words no one else can understand.

Well that’s the stereotype.

But let’s try to unpack this a bit. What words do you need to learn, why and how?

Each discipline has a dedicated terminology

An example. If you study Chemistry then words like composition, structure, properties, behaviour, reactions, bonding and so on are a very basic lingua franca. Most non-chemists have a good chance of understanding what these terms mean, as they have not entirely dissimilar meanings outside of the discipline. But when you get further into Chemistry, say you’re doing a PhD, you’ll possibly be saying things like – electrostatic self-assembly, electron micro probe analysis, enantioselective rhodium-catalysed coupling reaction, supercritical carbon dioxide…

I don’t know what any of these terms mean by the way. But I know that they are associated with research done by my colleagues. And I know that these terms just trip off their tongues and they all understand each other, even if I don’t have a clue what they’re on about. Fortunately, most of them are also able to explain these ideas in plainer language to non-Chemistry types like me. But it’s obviously important if you’re a Chemistry researcher to get on top of this kind of advanced terminology and the various and very specific practices and phenomena that they describe.

And the same goes for every discipline. Whether you’re doing a PhD in English, Politics or Veterinary Science, there will be a whole lot of new words and concepts for you to acquire. They have particular meanings that other people in your discipline understand. You can conduct an ‘insider’ conversation in the scholarly community using this technical disciplinary lingo.

Each research practice also has its own terminology

Researching also has a lot of terms that you don’t use regularly in everyday conversation – like epistemology for example. You don’t bowl up to your seldom-seen aunty and say “What’s your epistemological position?” However, you might very well have a conversation with another PhDer, or your supervisor, where you do talk about epistemology in exactly this way.

And specific types of research use particular words which flag up what they stand for. A “post-positivist” might talk about “validity” to signal their understandings of ‘truth’, and research methods that arrive at ‘truth’. On the other hand, a “post-structurally informed” researcher might use the term “trustworthiness” to talk about the status of the knowledge that they have produced and the process they used. Examiners and colleagues reading a text know where someone stands epistemologically by the specific words that they use.

It’s important to take note of such specific research terms.You need to get on top of them even if you never use them anywhere but in conversation with other academics. They represent our ‘tools of the trade’. During your PhD you’ll need to understand them in order to be able to make choices about which of them to use. You may also need to be able to translate researcher-talk into plain language in order to discuss your work in other contexts. Like with your seldom-seen aunty.

But there’s another kind of word use you also need to get familiar with.

Academic writing also often uses particular kinds of language

Over time, we scholars have developed a collective vocabulary for what we do, a lexicon for our collective ‘rhetorical practices’. We discuss, investigate, categorise, argue, frame, predict and so on. We don’t start and end something, we introduce and conclude. We cite, state and suggest. We often compare and contrast, we further an idea, we infer, deduce, calculate and make an original contribution.

Different disciplines often have their own rhetorical twists too. Some disciplines are fonder of describing and showing for example than illustrating, reporting or arguing. So you will need to get used to reading them and probably using them.

And there’s important news about the wording of academic writing – a lot of academic journals expect you to use this verbiage. Most PhD examiners also expect to read prose which uses this kind of language. They take the use of these terms and syntax as a sign that a PhDer has become part of their scholarly community. So you will probably need to adapt your writing to this kind of lexicon and syntax.

But there are two health warnings about both academic words and their usage.

First, it is important to understand that ‘these more ‘formal’ ways of talking and writing are conventions. So while terms such as frame and infer are common, you’ll see them used quite a bit, it is still possible to write in other ways. However, while you may have a choice about how ‘formally’ you write, there is much less wiggle room about using the generally agreed terminology for the subject matter you are researching or for how you name your research practice and positionality,

Second, some, if not all, of the discipline-based terms that I use without thinking are strongly culturally located. What you can see and say is always limited by the language available to you. So it may be the case that, depending on what you are researching, terms from other languages, places and times are a helpful addition – or counter – to the terms usually used for the kind of scholarly work that you do.(I’m constantly on the lookout for non-English disciplinary terms and expressions and ideas that might push my assumptions and learning.)

Why does word knowledge matter? Well…

Academic work is communication and conversation

Because you will want to tell other people about your work, otherwise why do it, thinking about words and their use is an integral part of your scholarly work. You will want to use your PhD in a range of ways. You’ll work to ‘translate’ from formal academic prose loaded with discipline-specific words into different media and genres for different audiences.

If you don’t want to be stuck for words during a conference presentation, or a talk to the local citizen science group, then continuing to work on words will be part and parcel of what you do as a scholar. It is therefore very helpful to continue to extend your general vocabulary, as well as to deliberately build yourself a solid scholarly lexical repertoire.

So how do you learn new words? No I mean really, how do you consciously set out to extend the words you know and can use appropriately?

Some word-based strategies you might consider

Some people swear by ‘word a day’ apps to build general vocabulary and “cheat sheets” of academic word lists and word banks. I’m much less enthusiastic about these than you might think. Not a fan. However, you may want to check these resources out for yourself.

As an educator, I understand the process of building your own academic dictionary as helpful for owning all the words you want and need. I suggest that it’s useful to:

  • Note down new words that you find in your reading. Build up a word list relevant to your project that you can practice using.
  • Build a glossary of the discipline-specific and research terms relevant to your work. Write their definitions out in your own words – add references if this is helpful. Keep this handy on your desktop.
  • Buy a Thesaurus, or use the Thesaurus online, at times when you find yourself searching for an alternative word.
  • Look for your idiosyncratic lexical tics – words you use too much – and find substitutes.
  • Read good journalism, non-fiction and fiction and analyse the writing. Look for the kinds of language used and the ways in which words are chosen and ordered to support the crafting of ideas.

And you may well find other ways to work with the words you need. Let us all know when you do.

The most important thing is not that you adopt one or several of these word strategies, but that you do take on the task of building specific and necessary vocabulary. Your PhD in part depends on your familiarity with and choices of terms and the academic conventions they embody.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, English language, language, starting the PhD, syntax, vocabulary, word bank | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

deep into writing the thesis? don’t​ forget to yodelayeehoo


It’s the time of the year when writing the thesis gets pretty serious for a lot of PhDers. The endpoint is there in the distance, but there is still so much to do. So many words. So many pages. So much more to sort out.

Is this you?

The timetable to completion is tacked above your desk along with your research questions. It seems clear and do-able. But… but…

Your supervisor is very focused on the text and what needs to happen when. They exercise their red marker a lot, and ask questions that seem to muddy, as much as clarify, your thinking. They count down along with you and sometimes you think that they are just as anxious as you are about when you’ll get done. (They are.)

It’s true. Thesis writing can be a very lonely stage. No-one else can write the text for you. No-one else can sort through the muddle of ideas that still exist around some sections of the work. You can easily feel – and become – very isolated as you shut yourself away to get completely free from distractions.

While your family may be very supportive and do whatever they can to help, they may find it hard to identify with your growing and overwhelming obsession with the text. That waking up in the middle of the night with a thought. That getting up at 4 am because there is no point lying there anymore. The new biscuit and ice cream habit you seem to have developed. The lack of attention to your gym regime.

Seriously. Now is the time to make like the lonely goatherd and yodelayeehoo very loudly. Loud enough for other PhDers to hear.

The friends you made earlier in grad school are now crucial. Often you just need to commiserate – for the life of me I can’t work out what to write in the discussion, do I have a claim at all? – and to celebrate the small victories – I sorted out how to write about the tricky ethical issue, I finally worked out how to finish off this chapter, start this chapter, what to put in the appendix. Yay! Go me.

It’s a good time to reconnect with a scholarly group too – to feel part of a larger cohort. So thesis boot camps and shut up and write sessions now provide a much-needed sense of community as well as a time to write. You are not the only person feeling all on your own. Here, lots of other people are also beavering away.

PhDers at a similar stage can be very helpful to you. Other goatherds high on their own thesis mountains, but not yet at the top, know exactly what you’re going through.

Those things that you feel silly telling your nearest and dearest? You can now say them out loud. Just want to moan and vent? Go ahead, do it together. Want to make a pact to exercise at regular intervals – nothing like a colleague who also spends far too much time seated at the keyboard.

Think seriously about taking the initiative too – perhaps organising regular meetups at the pub or local coffee shop. Meet outside of the university. Make it social. Make it supportive. Whatever works.

Breaking the loneliness of the long-distance thesis writer is important. It not only helps you to finish, but also means you’ll be in MUCH better mental and emotional condition when you do.

Photo by David Marcu on Unsplash



Posted in academic writing, loneliness, thesis | Tagged , , | 3 Comments