threshold concepts in academic writing

Please note, I write my blog on weekends. It is not part of my workload, nor in my job description. I support the #USS strike.

Many of you probably know what the term a ‘threshold concept’ means. My understanding of a threshold concept is that it’s a transformative idea located in a discipline.

1176_855_855.jpgJan Meyer and Ray Land developed the notion of the threshold concept. They use the metaphor of a conceptual gateway – passing through the gate means that things that seemed previously mysterious, nonsensical and incomprehensible become clear. So understanding a threshold concept is like going through the gate. Once you ’get it’, once you grasp the threshold concept, the way you understand what you are doing, and why, changes for good. You just see and understand things differently. You can’t easily unlearn a threshold concept.

A threshold concept is something that is held in common by a disciplinary community. A threshold concept brings apparently disparate disciplinary ideas and arguments together, and it therefore creates the space in which you can work. The threshold concept provides a language and a history of ideas, but also offers possibilities for building new knowledges.

A threshold concept is not the same as a core concept or foundational idea. Let me give you an example. A foundational concept in writing might be that of rhetoric – the persuasive, informative and artful forms that speech and writing can take. However, knowing the principles and rules of rhetoric doesn’t help a writer to understand what they are doing. It is the understanding that writing is both social and rhetorical that makes a difference to the ways in which we approach writing. Once we understand that our writing communicates with people across time and space, and that we want them to respond in particular ways to our texts, once we connect purpose with audience, we can make authoring decisions about what rhetoric we use. And how.

When I run writing workshops I emphasise seven threshold concepts:

  1. academic writing is always written for a specific reader
  2. academic writing does ‘work’ – for instance it can persuade, excite, reassure the reader
  3. academic writing always refers to other academic texts, it is intertextual
  4. academic writing is not neutral, but social. It is produced in specific disciplinary, cultural, social and political relations and flows
  5. academic writing is the way we produce and communicate academic knowledges – we ‘join the conversation’ through writing.
  6. academic writing is a key way in which academic identities and reputations are formed (and audited) – writing is text work/identity work
  7. academic writing is complex. A text goes through several iterations; drafting and revising are integral to academic writing practice.

You can see from these magnificent seven that focusing on academic writing threshold concepts moves away from advice – teaching academic writing isn’t about a set of tips or techniques or skills but understandings about what writing us and does. You can also see that threshold concepts help us to understand what academic conventions and genres are expected – we can also then ask why this is so.

cover_article_2062_en_US.jpgBut my seven  threshold concepts are not all that there are. No. There are, according to writing scholars, thirty five. I’m well short. And my version collapses some rather important nuances and differences together. Well, that’s according the authors of Naming what we know. Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies.( open access online)

 The authors are North American writing scholars of varying seniority. They got together to sort out what they thought were the most important threshold concepts in their field. The result is five meta-concepts:

  • Writing is an activity and a subject of study
  • Writing speaks to situations through recognisable forms
  • Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies
  • All writers have more to learn
  • Writing is (also always) a cognitive activity.

Each of the meta-concepts is explained through four to six related ideas.

So for example, the meta concept Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies, offers an explanation of the overall idea, and then a further five points:

  • Writing is linked to identity
  • Writer’s histories, processes and identities vary
  • Writing is informed by prior experience
  • Disciplinary and professional identities are constructed through writing
  • Writing provides a representation of ideologies and identities.

The very first short section, about identity, makes a couple of big claims. The writer. Kevin Roozen, argues that “The act of writing then, is not so much about using a particular set of skills as it is about becoming a particular kind of person, about developing a sense of who we are.” Roozen explains that through writing, we come to be socialised as members of particular academic disciplines, we write ourselves into being a social scientist, a mathematician, a historian. We display this identity through our writing, perhaps challenging as well as claiming allegiance with the beliefs, interests, values and knowledge traditions of the specific disciplinary community.

Roozen argues that understanding text work /identity work (Barbara and my phrasing of this threshold concept) “foregrounds the need to approach writing not simply as a means of learning and using a set of skills, but rather as a means of engaging with the possibilities for selfhood available in a given community”. He suggests that the difficulties that some people have with academic writing may not be to do with poor literacy, but rather be about how much they see themselves as part of the academic community in general and/or the disciplinary community in particular. If you don’t feel part of the gang, then you are likely to have difficulty with performing as one. ( Yes. A very important point. Everyone who teaches postgraduates needs to understand this. A poorly written text maybe a sign of someone who doesn’t yet see themselves as ‘one of us’.)

Each section of the book addresses the implications of the threshold concept for general teaching and learning as well as for the writing classroom. So, for instance, Roozen suggests that on the back of understanding that writing is linked to identity, that an academic curriculum should be structured so that learners develop a sense of what it means to become a member of an academic discipline. He adds that assessment ought also to address learner’s identity work.

The book is obviously of interest to people who work with writing in under-and postgraduate contexts. But it is written for more general higher education audiences too. My suspicion is that it would be a very good addition to courses for people new to university teaching and for doctoral writing programmes. I’m certainly planning to use it in my next writing course.

See also:

ESRC project reports for threshold concepts study.

Resources on threshold concepts

Posted in academic writing, identity, scholarly identity, text work/identity work, threshold concept | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

PhD stuck points

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There are some points in the PhD process where the going gets pretty tough. Stuck points, where it’s hard work. Where it’s difficult to move on.

Now don’t get me wrong. These points don’t cause grief to everyone. I’m not talking about something that is inevitable. But there are points where a lot of people do find themselves slowed down, where what seemed to be making-pretty-good-progress-through-the-doctorate comes to an abrupt and unwelcome halt.

And it’s often a going-round-in-circles halt. A what-am-I-doing-this PhD-for halt. A maybe-I-can’t-do–this halt. A confidence-sapping halt where you just can’t seem to make headway, despite all of the things you try.

The good news is that PhD stuck points are generally only a temporary change of pace,  even if they seem interminable at the time. That’s because these are points where really serious thinking time, and a lot of playing around with possibilities, are needed.

So what are these points? Well, they can be one or all of these:

  • Sorting out the research question or hypothesis. Getting the right wording in the question.

Finding your way to be sufficiently focused but still clear that you don’t know the answer yet; open but not so open that you have to write pages and pages of definitions and boundary setting; careful to avoid contentious terms that get you into shedloads of trouble – this is hard. You often don’t get the research question right in one, two or even three goes. The research question needs a lot of work.

  • Sorting out the research design.

It can be tricky to match the amount and kind of data you need to your methods, within a suitable methodological frame. The implications of choosing this group over that. The possibilities of doing something here or there. The benefits of this process versus another potentially interesting approach. These decisions take time to work through.

Because you will have to justify these choices to the examiner there is no getting out of thinking these design issues through. You can’t fake your way through it. And it’s important to get the design right, as it is the foundation of everything that you do from now on. You can do the PhD with not reading everything at the start – but you can’t just muddle through a poorly designed project.

  • Tacking the analysis.

It’s pretty easy to feel completely snowed under by the mountains of data that you have amassed. And it’s daunting when you realise that it’s down to you to make the decisions about what to do. That it’s sometimes a bit arbitrary about where you start.

No matter how rigorous the analytic tool that you choose to use, there is a point where interpretation kicks in. Interpreting means you putting your head on the block. You have make the best and most defensible decision that you can about analysis, but decide you must.

  • Wrestling your (mostly analysed) material into a thesis structure.

Even if you follow the default IMRaD formula, there are still decisions to make about what to include and exclude, what to put where, how much detail is needed and about what. But if you are working with a thesis structure that responds to the moves of the argument, then this point really does take all of your imagination, as well as some hard graft.

Of course, there can be other points in the PhD where you are stymied. You may have ethical difficulties. Or perhaps something has not gone as expected and your careful plans need to be remade. But these stuck points are less predictable, they don’t happen to loads of people, and they usually have more to do with serendipity than poor planning. (Unless of course you did plan poorly –  that will be because you were too worried about being stuck, and moved on too quickly from (1) the question and (2) the design.)

But hang on, Let’s reframe the idea of stuck.

Perhaps these are not actually points where you are stuck. Stuck points aren’t necessarily the same as being bogged down, as going nowhere and just spinning your wheels – even if that’s how it might feel.  Let’s think of these as the places where you need to change gear, to adopt different processes.

Perhaps you need to stop worrying about the clock and take the time that is needed. Perhaps these are the places/times where you need to be like the little train that could, and move as much or little as you can, remaining confident that you will get there if you stick at it.

I think I can, I think I can.

I want to reassure you that stuck points in the PhD process are, well, simply hard. But possible. They just require you to take the time and head space to sort out.

Knowing this can help you to avoid the slough of despair. It can stop you from the counter-productive exercise of berating yourself for being stupid.

The stuck points are where you do key bits of thinking and deciding. They are where you make progress. They aren’t to be rushed. If you understand this, then you are better prepared – and you can even see the hazards coming up. They don’t take you by surprise.

You have time to think about the kinds of strategies that you need to adopt to deal with each decision, each puzzle. You are better able to be kind to yourself while you work out what to do, and where to go with your research.

Image credit: Greg Siminoff. Flickr Commons.

Posted in academic writing, data analysis, PhD, research design, research question, structure, stuck points, style and structure, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

get the picture? how not to use images in the thesis

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Thinking of using images in your thesis? Good idea. And easy to do with everything now being digital.

I love an image. I enjoy a photograph. I like a good diagram. I’m happy pouring over a graph or table. But not always. And I’m not alone.

Key thesis readers, the examiners, are not always thrilled when graphics appear in a thesis. They are less than pleased when thesis illustrations, as they are sometimes called, are poorly judged additions.

Here’s some examples of thesis images that don’t work:

  • the photo is pretty but adds nothing. The reader could get what they need to know just from text. The examiner wonders if the image is there simply to make the page look better, or perhaps has been inserted in the mistaken notion that the image adds some kind of veracity to the words.
  • the photo contains lots of clues for analysis but these are not taken up in the accompanying writing. The analysis of data proceeds as if the image is a window on reality but not worthy of critical attention. The examiner wonders how they are meant to interpret the visual.
  • photos, tables, graphs and diagrams are used to support minor planks in the argument. But why? The reader notices images. Making an image suggests that space has been given over to the image because the point it makes or supports – it illustrates – is significant for the argument. The examiner can’t make sense of a visual supporting a relatively slight point when what seem to be key questions go unaccompanied.
  • the diagram, table or graph does not make sense. While a diagram, table or graph should always be contextualised in a thesis text, (the convention is: figure 1 shows, table 2 demonstrates… ) it should also be its own little self-contained nugget of information. The image that accompanies this text for example can be read and partially understood just as it is. But  it would benefit from some further analysis… and an associated point,
  • the diagram is free-floating. The words don’t show what point the diagram will amplify or explain. The examiner wonders what it’s about. Unlike the image that accompanies this blog post, thesis images always need to be anchored in the sea of words. Having the examiner search for the connection isn’t good.
  • the diagram is so complicated it takes the reader a long time to work out what it means. It obviously meant a lot to the researcher who made it, but it’s not obvious to anyone else. The examiner is mystified. That’s probably because
  • the diagram is poorly designed. There are too many labels. The examiner doesn’t understand what the labels refer to as they bear little relationship to what’s going on with the text. The arrows that are mean to show relationships are a thick tangle and the reader can’t work out which relationships are most important and which less so. Or maybe…
  • the diagram is so idiosyncratic that it takes the researcher two pages of words to explain. If it’s that individual, then the diagram isn’t doing its job. The examiner ought to be able to follow a diagram with minimal additional support.
  • the principles underpinning the use of shapes is unclear – the circles and boxes in the diagram seem to refer to incommensurable things. The examiner can’t figure out what design principles guided the development of the image.
  • the caption doesn’t summarise the major point that the examiner is to take from the image, diagram, table or graph. A good caption captures context and the key message the examiner is to remember.
  • the table or graph is too detailed. A table or graph isn’t an exhaustive display of every single bit of data possible. It is a careful selection which makes a key point. Lengthy and detailed information, say systematic recordings of an event or experiment, need to go into the Appendix where the examiner-reader can get at them. An examiner doesn’t want to be made to stop reading to check and/or make sense of loads of detail mid chapter – they like to choose when and how to pursue the micro information.
  • a table, with its patterns and rows of numbers, is used to show a trend, rather than a graph – the examiner quickly sees a trend from a graphic line.
  • the images are dodgy. Low grade clip art is used to create poor quality images and diagrams. The photographs are grainy and poorly cropped. The examiner is left wondering why the writer used such amateurish material in their thesis. What did they think their examiner would conclude from a poor choice of image?

So that’s a list of image glitches to avoid.

The good news is of course that if you avoid these mistakes, a well chosen and produced image, graph, table or diagram can be a very helpful aide to the examiner.

 

Some of this material is adapted from Evans, Gruba and Zobel (2011) How to write a better thesis. Pp 154-160.

Image credit: Pedro Brito, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, diagram, graph, illustration, image, photography, table, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

why is academic writing so hard

Academic writing is a complex business. And it’s that complexity that makes it tricky.

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When you sit down to write a thesis, book or paper you start off with:

  • material that comes from a well designed project
  • a defensible analysis and possibly, depending on discipline, a cogent theoretical explanation
  • a good grip on the relevant literatures in order to situate the work and designate the contribution.

To get ready to write you need:

  • well organised kit – files, bibliographic data bases, primary materials, transcripts and so on
  • the right kind of gear at hand – a good computer, pens and paper, online access
  • a place conducive to writing – this varies from person to person but noise, privacy or social are important considerations
  • a manageable time slot – whether short or long, you need to be able to focus on the task

And then to the actual writing. You have to have:

  • something to say – you need to know the point you want to make
  • a clear picture of your readers – this is so you can connect what you want to say to their interests and prior understandings
  • enough confidence to express in words your authority as an expert on the topic
  • a view about what you want to happen as a result of the writing being read by your readers.

As if that’s not enough, you can’t do without:

  • understandings of the particular writing form – its genre, conventions and disciplinary framings
  • the secretarial stuff – you need to know how to write a sentence, paragraph, headings, handle meta-commentary and so on
  • a sound strategy that you use to create the first draft – outlines, tiny texts, pomodoros, whatever works for you
  • a diagnostic toolkit – a set of strategies that help you to sort out any drafting blocks and problems, and to undertake the revision and then editing

Whew. But wait, there’s even more. It helps if you:

  • are a student of academic writing and are steadily building your criteria about what ‘good’ academic writing means for you. These criteria are what you use to guide your revision and editing.
  • understand how to use language to convey a sense of who you are as a scholar – your writing voice – any piece of writing is an opportunity to improve your own artisanal writing practice.

Yes, academic writing really is all of those things and a bit more besides…. well, like the identity work involved in writing, just for starters.

But it is this totality, all these things combined, that makes up an academic writing practice.

It’s no wonder that it’s hard to find the perfect bit of writing advice. Most writing advice addresses some of the above but not the lot. That doesn’t make partial advice wrong – it’s just not complete. Learning more about academic writing and finding the right help is always a matter of piecing together bits and pieces from various sources about all of the different aspects of writing.

And it’s no wonder that what can seem to be a bit trivial – the lack of the right writing gear for instance, or half organised reference material or a fuzzy idea of what a journal actually wants – can make writing and finishing a paper really difficult. Most of the above list, if not all, do need to be in place and working together if the writing is to go smoothly and, yes, do its job.

This academic writing business isn’t simple or straightforward. It’s complicated.

So we ought not to beat ourselves up if we find it hard sometimes. It is.

Image credit: Isabelle Gallino, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, practice | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

leave a good last impression – the thesis conclusion

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Writing the conclusion to the thesis is hard. It’s often done badly. And it’s something that doctoral researchers often get asked to do more work on. Not at all what they/you need.

Writing a conclusion is important. The conclusion is that last thing that the examiner reads before they write their report, and it can shape their attitude to the entire thesis.

If the researcher in the conclusion seems unsure, dodges saying what they’ve actually achieved, then the examiner writes their report thinking that the research is incomplete. They decide that the purpose of the viva is to find out if the researcher knows what they are talking about. Are they really doctoral material or still being prepared? Is the thesis a work in progress or a completed text?

AARHGH. You’d rather this not be the case. You’d rather the examiner approach their report and your viva thinking you are already a doctor, and the viva is about exploring the topic and the research.  Yes, you really do need to make a good last impression.

But a moment to recap. A thesis conclusion generally:

  • restates the question
  • provides a succinct summary of the answer(s) and how this was produced ( I did this and my analysis showed 1, 2, 3 and I argue that this… ). The writer usually acknowledges the particularity of the research here too (sometimes called limitations.)
  • shows how the research contributes to the literatures (the contribution of the research is a, b, c)
  • discusses the implications (the results could lead to further research on, changes in policy/practice such as.. ). The implications arise logically from the particularity of the study and its results – they point to questions the study opens up, what the results says to current thinking about and acting on the topic.

Sounds simple. Straightforward. If so, why do people find writing the conclusion so hard?

Well, sometimes people have simply run out of words by the time they reach the end. They haven’t allowed enough space to say what needs to be said last. Writing the conclusion then means going back and creating space for more text – and they aren’t prepared to do that. They write something that fits the word count, not something that does the job. So, key action 1 – ALLOW FOR THE WORDS AT THE END. 

And sometimes people have run out of time. They’ve spent every moment getting the results together and they thought that the conclusion would be easy and take no time at all. It doesn’t. Conclusions need time and much thinking. So key action two – ALLOW TIME.

That’s because writing the conclusion requires two more key actions:

3. STEP AWAY FROM THE RESEARCH.

Writing a conclusion requires you to have some distance on the thesis. Rather than seeing the details of each chapter, you have to get a grip on the whole. You take a critical evaluative look at what the work that you done adds up to. You assume the standpoint you had when you were imagining what the project would be, why it was important and how it would go. You return to the question of purpose and significance that you had at the start of the project and the thesis. To use a cliché, the conclusion is where you move from being in the middle of the trees – you move far enough away to see the forest.

And getting your head out of the minutiae is not necessarily an easy or quick thing to do. You’ve been stuck inside the particulars for a long time. You’ve been analysing and writing the results and it’s sometimes very hard to move on. You can tell if you’re drowning in details if, when someone asks you what you found in your research, your answer is very lengthy and detailed and not short, snappy and to the point. It’s that short-snappy-and-to-the-point-ness that you need to find in order to write the conclusion.

You might get your concluding head set if you organise a three-minute thesis exercise for yourself and your best research companions. It can help to make a set of powerpoint slides, one for each move in the conclusion.  It can help to have someone ask you the viva question – give me the headlines about your research – and stop you each time you start to drill down too far into the specifics. It can help to practice answering an imaginary examiner who says So What Now What.

Stepping away from the research is necessary but not sufficient. You also need to:

4. TAKE THE POSITION.

Writing a conclusion means that you must assume the position of the expert. That’s not faking it, because at the end of the thesis you know more about your topic than anyone else. You know heaps, in depth, about your very particular research. And you can see that because of how easily you can talk at length about all of the research ins and outs. However, you need to put what’s behind that detailed understanding, that authority, into the writing. This means taking on the persona of someone who is already a doctor, who is seen by others as having the expertise to speak knowledgeably on their topic.

And the examiner can easily see where a doctoral researcher is reluctant to assume the position. The conclusion is truncated and vague. Where a contribution is specified it is either underplayed or over-generalised. There is too much hedging, too much handwringing about what the research didn’t do, too much throat clearing before getting to the crunch.

Doctoral researchers who struggle with taking the (expert) position often haven’t thought about all the ways in which their thesis might make a contribution. They take for granted their literatures work, the ways in which they adapted methods, the particular procedural and/or ethical difficulties they dealt with – they don’t look for potential issues of interest to other researchers. They hesitate to mention that their research raises questions about, or contradicts something, or locates something that no one else has. They don’t own the new-ness of their work.

The tentative doctoral researcher has to step up. And this is where a bit of role play might be in order. Ask your supervisor to show you some theses that have good conclusions. Look at the rhetorical moves that these writers make. Use some sentence skeletons to expose the ways in which these good conclusion writers stage their final, summary argument and their claims. Repeat the three-minute thesis, conversation and powerpoint exercises concentrating on your researcher ‘voice’. Record yourself giving the three minute answer – transcribe it and then edit it. Speed-write your claims in five minutes. Go through the text and see if you can booster it up.

So there you are. Four actions that can help with thesis concluding. Four for a good last and lasting impression.

Allow for the words. Allow for the time it takes. Step away from the research. Take the position.

Other posts relevant to conclusions

What’s a PhD contribution?

How an examiner reads a thesis

Conclusion mise en place

Use meta commentary to specify the contribution

Image credit: Nico Hogg Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, authority in writing, conclusion, distance, thesis | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

a book from blog posts?

Maybe you have been harbouring secret thoughts about getting a book from those blog posts that you’ve been writing. I think about it too, occasionally, as patter is now several books worth of words.

Well, before you take the plunge, it’s worth just thinking about blogging and book writing. What do they have in common? How might they be different? What kind of book do you have in mind?

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Would Vance Packard have blogged if the technology had been available to him?

Some bloggers put together a set of their most popular posts to create quickie ebooks. Such ebooks are downloadable from their website, and are either completely free or sold at very low cost. In blog based publications, the bloggers may have tidied the posts up and ordered them – but in essence what you get is a set of short pieces some of which you may have already read.

But the collection is convenient. It saves you the trouble of searching and hunting through the blog and and ebook is something that you can save on your desktop or ereader and easily refer to. These quickie blog ebooks are generally intended for existing blog readers (and maybe their friends). The established blog reader downloads/buys the ebook, knowing what they will get. And because of that, they are generally happy campers.

These convenience ebooks are of course not the only books that academics want to produce, or that academic readers want to read. You may be wondering whether blog posts can support something other than the quickie convenience ebook.

If you’re thinking about blogging and book-ing, it’s worth spending a bit of time on the differences between your average academic blog, whether in ebook form or not, and the more mainstream academic monograph. Here’s a few key points of difference to start off with.

Your average academic blog Your average academic monograph
A post is its own mini-argument or narrative. It has its own rhetorical integrity. Your average academic book is a big argument or narrative made up of several mini arguments or narratives – moves – arranged in logical order.

There is a strong meta commentary which establishes continuity between each of the moves.

A blog post is usually shortish and focused on one idea. Niceties of argument may be acknowledged but are generally not able to be pursued in any depth or detail. A book chapter is usually 5k words or more. This length means that the writer has the space to deal with ideas in a nuanced way.

While a chapter usually addresses one overall point, it also has sub threads. Sub threads are not finished off in one chapter but carry on, possibly for the entire book.

Book chapters usually explore ideas in detail, offering various interpretations; they outline and deal with debates. Chapters can deal with complexity.

Most blog posts use hyperlinks in order to reference scholarly works but also to make connections with other online materials. Your average academic book, even in digital versions, uses a standard academic referencing system and reference list. These may have hyperlinks, but at present book publishing tends to lag behind the possibilities offered by blogs.
Many blog posts are written in a relatively  informal style. They use a vocabulary which sits somewhere between academese and everyday speech. Sentences tend to an active tense. They are on the shorter side. Blogs often use slang, memes, make more popular culture references and engage in more polemic than would be countenanced by academic book readers. Bloggers often address the reader directly – you. Academic prose tends to use more passive tense, nominalisation and longer sentences, than other forms of writing. Arguably, much of what counts as academic writing does rather more of this than is desirable. The mode of address tends to be more formal, eschews the second person pronoun (you), and uses the first (I, me, we) consciously and carefully. Some academic ‘styles’ forbid anything that might be seen as ‘vernacular’.
Seasoned bloggers tend to have a strong ‘voice’. They build up a blogger identity over time. They talk about themselves in order to make ‘human connections’ with readers. Some academic writers have a strong ‘voice’ and create a textual personal presence. Many however are a muted present in their text.
Blog posts often use images as a way to communicate additional information. Academic book publishers tend to restrict the use of images. Cost, they say.
Most successful bloggers know their readers. Their blog may not have initially been designed with specific people in mind, but over time, bloggers get a strong sense of who they are writing for. Academic book authors do have a sense of who they are writing for, but this is often quite diffuse.
Blogs often reach and help to create a community of interest which is not simply academic. Academic books are generally written for an academic readership, although there are a few academic books which cross over into the ‘popular’.
Blogs tend to be restricted in their design capacities – fonts, columns and so on. However, blogs are able to use moving image, sound, zoom, annotation and so on. These features create specific opportunities for bloggers. The printed page is capable of particular  layouts – the use of breakout boxes, multiple columns, footnotes, typographic variation, use of white space and so on. These design features create specific opportunities for writers.
Blogs are quick to write and can respond immediately to new ideas, events or conversations and debates. Books take a while to get together. While publishers can now print on demand, and the time from manuscript to press can be quite short, it usually isn’t. Books are also intended to have a longish shelf-life and do not date as quickly as something which is immediately responsive.
Blogs are usually free. Academic books cost. How they cost.
Some blogs have a lot of readers. Very few academic monographs sell a lot. (And some sales may now be not only via, but also because of, social media.)

This is not all there is of course. But these few differences do suggest that your average academic reader comes to an academic  book expecting something that is bound by convention and disciplinary traditions – the bottom line is that they think they will find a complex and well evidenced argument or narrative through which they are guided by an authoritative writer. A collection of blog posts won’t do this without quite a bit more  work being done on them.

Blog to book

So what kind of work might be needed to turn the one thing – the blog posts – into another – the book?

Well for starters, making isolated posts coherent and connected. The reader can’t be left to fill in the gaps between posts, these will have to be created.

And allowing for debate and complexity. The reader will probably want to see more nuance at the time they are reading something, rather than in another subsequent post.

Attending to the referencing. The blogger will have to do something with all of those hyperlink.

And how to write.. what kind of authorial voice and style do they want to adopt. Are those truisms, rants and slogans and trite sayings ( yes I confess Im guilty of all of these)  really OK in an academic book? And grammar – oh  grammar, my own experience of working blog posts into a book suggests a lot of attention to the grammatical niceties that I missed as I was cranking out posts. (My customary high speed writing and scanty editing of blog posts is, well, pretty obvious.)

Here’s three ways I think about the relationships between blogs and books.

Blog posts are the raw material that can be further worked on and worked over for a book. Barbara and my most recent book, Detox your writing, was just this. We took some ideas from patter, wrestled with them a lot, and added quite a bit more.

A blog can be a way to work through some ideas than end up in book form. My research blogs  often do just this.

A blog may be a way to extend a book that is already written. That is how this blog started, as a way to do bits and pieces of pedagogical writing that were too fragmented for another book, but which expanded on what was already in the books.

But blogs are not books in waiting

I’m very conscious of the fact that some people think that blogging is an inferior form of academic writing. Put simply and applied to me, this means that this blog is not as important as my academic books or journal articles.  And that I would be better off spending my time writing more books and articles.

I think this is sheer nonsense.

Blogs are their own form of writing. They don’t do the same thing as books. They don’t work the same way. They may be complementary to an academic book or article, but they are different.

A blog is not a place to dump things that didn’t make it into publication. A blog does not have to be a means to a more superior and prestigious monograph end. (This blog does not aspire to be a book even as I worry about it becoming too large for even me to remember what’s on it.)

At their best, blogs are more than useful, they are creative. They are their own little art form. A blog is a blog is a blog. Even academic blogs.

 

Image credit: Penn State. Vance Packard (seated) at a book signing.

 

 

Posted in academic book, academic writing, blog to book, blogging, monograph, research blogging | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

tightening up your sentences – cut the bloat

We all know what bloat is. If something is bloated it is swollen, puffed up, flabby, distended, enlarged. Right now, we probably associate bloat with eating too much over the festive season. But bloat also happens in academic writing.

A lot of academic writing is on the bloated side. You can pick up almost any academic journal and find papers where whole paragraphs are stuffed to the gills with excess phrases and words. Of course, academic writing is not the only kind of writing that suffers from word-inflation. Legal and bureaucratic writing over-indulges in the same wordy overkill as some academic writing.

And when a supervisor or reviewer suggests that academic writing needs to be tightened up, it’s likely that they are actually saying that they’ve noticed a lot of bloat. They’ve met a text that takes up too much space – and much more time than they wanted to spend.

You see, wordy prose puts readers off. Perhaps they simply can’t be bothered to wade through volumes of verbage and so they just give up. But even when they do read on, as supervisors and reviewers must, they find sentences that are blown up to balloon size. Such sentences are very hard to digest.

Over extended sentences need trimming back, deflating, shrinking. They need a good edit. They need to be cut back and cut short. Made sharp and shiny.

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But what does that mean? What does tightening up the writing look like? Well, let me give you an example. Here are two sentences taken from a research report.

While some interviewees felt that YEI procurement processes had worked reasonably well, a notable theme was the length of time taken from launching calls for proposals to the signature of funding agreements. Many interviewees stated that this had significantly impacted on their delivery plans, and some providers mentioned that delays would lead to an underspend due to changes in the local match funding available in the time period concerned. 70 words

These seventy words contain a far bit of bloat. Here is my first prune.

Some interviewees felt that the YEI procurement processes had worked reasonably well. However, many interviewees stated it had taken too long to get from the launch of calls for proposals to funding agreements being signed and this had significantly impacted on their delivery plans. Some providers mentioned that delays meant decreases in local match funding and thus a potential underspend.  60 words

In this first edit, I attempted to clarify the meaning of the two sentences. As in: while some people thought something was OK (sentence one), a lot didn’t and they gave reasons (sentence two).

My second edit streamlined the second sentence reasons further.

Some interviewees felt that the YEI procurement processes had worked reasonably well. However, many were concerned that delays in finalising agreements would not only lead to delayed services for young people but also to decreases in local match funding. Thus  targets would be missed and projects underspent. 47 words

Now, of course I could go on finessing these sentences, perhaps by getting rid of that ‘not only but also’. I could keep pruning and refining, until the prose is trim, taught and terrific. But I’m sure I don’t need to – you get the point. There was a 23 word bloat in the original two sentences which wasn’t too hard to remove.

Here’s another example of tightening up aka eradicating bloat – the original text is from another government research report.

This qualitative fieldwork was carried out with individuals living across England and Scotland in order to obtain the views of research participants in different areas of the UK, as well as those representing a range of different organisations. It is important to point out that the views of the participants were not intended to be representative of wider populations. Nevertheless, the key themes across participants were resoundingly similar, providing a measure of confidence that findings would resonate across the wider population.  81 words

And here’s my first rewrite.

To obtain views from different areas of the UK, qualitative fieldwork was carried out with research participants who represented a range of different organisations in England and Scotland. Participants were not intended to be representative, but the resounding similarity of themes suggest that findings would resonate across the wider population. 49 words.

I changed the first sentence to clarify meaning – the point of the sentence goes at the start. The second and third sentences were combined in order to make clear that ‘this is the case but this is the case too’. A lot of words have been lost in this first edit – 32 in total. A 32 word bloat is quite a lot. And I could keep going on these two sentences, changing the first sentence from passive to active voice in order to produce some variety, and getting rid of the current clumsy read. But I’m sure you get the picture.

In both my examples, I’ve reduced words. A lot. With not much effort. I’ve got rid of at least some bloat and not lost what the writer was trying to say.

Why not give your readers a break too? Exercise your red pen. Remember – a first cut gets rid of bloat, and then the work is to refine the writing. 

Tighten up. No-one misses the bloat!

(And PS. There’s a difference between repetition for ‘voice’ – and bloat! Another post.)

Posted in academic writing, bloat, editing, tightening up | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments