five days five quotes challenge – #3

So far so good with the quotations then. This one may seem bit different  at first – but then maybe you are starting to see a bit of a theme in my choices...

First sentences are promissory notes. Whether they foreshadow plot, sketch in character, establish mood, or jump-start arguments, the road ahead of them stretches invitingly and all things are, at least for the moment, possible. Last sentences are more contained in their possibilities. They can sum up, refuse to sum up, change the subject, leave you satisfied, leave you wanting more, put everything into perspective, or explode perspectives. They do have one advantage: they become the heirs of the interest that is generated by everything that precedes them; they don’t have to start the engine, all they have to do is shut it down. This means they often come across as elegiac: the reader is leaving something he or she has grown fond of, and will therefore be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the author’s parting statement.

Stanley Fish (2011) How to write a sentence and how to read one. New York: Harper Collins p. 119-120

I always get a kick out of seeing this manuscript in the British Library treasures room. But ‘Dear reader’ isn’t, as many think, the last sentence at all, but the first of the last.


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five days five quotes challenge – #2

This week I’m posting a favourite writing related quotation each day. Today’s quotation is about the importance of planning. 

I plan. I’m a planner. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but it really is quite important – planning makes life easier and makes something as ridiculously large as a novel possible. We could just swim off into one without planning, of course we could – we could just stick our arms into wood-chippers, or paint ourselves with molten lead – there’s no end to the ludicrous and self-harming things we, as human beings, could get up to. But, honestly, really truly, novels provide all the ludicrous self-harm anyone could reasonably need. (In addition to all of the good bits.) Set out on a novel without adequate planning and I will bet you considerable sums, perhaps even of money, that you will then fall into a massive chasm, heaving with all of the difficulties associated with not planning. A novel is a new world, peopled and furnished with the never-were, and perhaps the never-could-be. Something as beautifully monumental as that, as founded on thin air and bloody magic, will need preparation. I wasn’t kidding about the three years I spend – on and off – fumbling about with settings, finding out about characters, stumbling over lumps of plot and, in every sense of the word, planning. Sorry to nag on about this, but I have, over the last couple of decades, met innumerable people whose novels didn’t make it, because they didn’t plan. At a certain level the logic is pretty simple; it’s very hard to tell someone a good story unless you know what the story is – hence, planning.

A. L. Kennedy (2014) On writing London: Vintage Books p. 96

Substitute monograph or thesis for novel. Read again. While we may not agree with never-were and never-could-be as what we do, academic work does involve considerable imagination and is a kind of world-making. And this takes planning. Planning, namely thinking and writing bits and pieces, is an integral part of an academic practice. 


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five days five quotes challenge – #1

I’ve set myself a little challenge this week – to find five quotations about writing. Not just any quote, but ones that I love. And then because finding isn’t enough, I will post the quote each day. This first quotation speaks to how it feels (to me) to work on a big text, whether it’s a thesis or a book. 

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You much visit it everyday and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”

Annie Dillard (1990) The Writing Life. New York: Harper Perennial p 52.

Perhaps this is the end point.


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academic writing – no one best way

My approach to writing about and teaching academic writing is underpinned by some key principles. One of them is this – no one best way. Or I can alternatively express this as one size does not fit all.


Let me explain.

Not all of the writing that is done in the academy is the same. Different disciplines have different conventions. A piece of science writing can be very different from philosophy for instance. Psychology writing is likely to be very different to that done in history. But of course sometimes they look remarkably similar, depending on the subject matter and the audience.

But what you write when doing academic writing also changes –the texts are different. You might have to produce a report, a journal article, a book, or a press release. These different text types are often written for different audiences. Each of these readerships and forms of writing have their own conventions and possibilities. So academic writers need to know what’s involved in producing a range of texts.

But academic conventions can be pushed, even broken. You can write about the very same topic in the same discipline for the same readership in very different ways, being more or less challenging of the conventions. Understanding the unwritten rules of academic writing also means you can choose when, where and how to do something else.

So this all suggests that an academic writer needs to not only be familiar with the conventions of academic writing done in their discipline, but also with the variety of texts and the various ways in which these might be written.

But there are also different strategies for getting the writing done – for the process of writing itself. Take the various tasks of: actually sitting down to write; generating ideas, argument and text; dealing with stuck points; revising, editing and proofreading for example. There are many different strategies for dealing with each of these.

And not all strategies work for everyone. The writing habit that one writer has won’t suit another. And the same writer may find that things that work in one situation don’t work in another. Writing different kinds of texts may require different strategies. Some weeks you may find yourself writing with ease, and at other times not. Sometimes the text that you have to write just seems harder and to take longer. You may well need to try out various approaches in order to get at the writing and finish it off.

So this suggests that an academic writer needs to not only be familiar with the various parts of the writing process, but also have a range of strategies that they can call on.

And of course you can change how you write as well as what you write. You may be a writer who needs a deadline. However, you can change this, if you choose, to become a regular writer. Or you may have been a regular writer who now finds this almost impossible – you have young children and must now learn to produce text in fits and starts, stolen moments and the occasional long immersive stretch. You may become ill and find you need to radically change the ways in which you have worked. Or you may find that you can write papers using one approach, and thesis/books in another. You need to have a set of strategies you can call on to cope with changing circumstances and demands.

Getting on top of academic writing means building a repertoire of strategies for physically getting the writing done, diagnosing problems, and producing a range of texts. While you will have some preferred strategies which work for you most of the time, there will almost inevitably be occasions when you have to try other things, to modify what you do, to improvise.

We can learn a lot of academic writing strategies these days from other writers – there is a huge amount of information in books and online. Some of it is offered as the one best way. But of course, it isn’t. But even if something is offered as The Way doesn’t mean that it’s not useful. It is A Way. Seeing what other people do is helpful because it allows you to acquire another potential strategy you can adopt and adapt for your personal writing repertoire.

However, it’s important to remember that there isn’t necessarily anything wrong if the strategy that you read about doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t make it wrong. It doesn’t make you wrong either. It just means it’s not something for you, or it’s not for you now, or for the writing you are currently doing.

Writing. There is no one best way. One size doesn’t fit all writers, all disciplines, all texts, all readers, all purposes and all times. Academic writing requires building a personal repertoire of strategies.

Building a repertoire of academic writing strategies means being writing-conscious. It means thinking about the learning involved and the ways in which this learning can be achieved. And building a writing repertoire means thinking about academic writing as a practice that you are in charge of.


Photo credit:  _G2.


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five ways to structure a literature review

You’ve read. And read. And read. You’ve noted. And noted. And how. You’ve written summaries and memos. You’ve made groupings and mind-maps of the reading. But you’re still a bit away from actually writing about the literatures. You’re still not sure how to wrestle all of that material into a compliant text. You know the purposes of the literature review. But that doesn’t tell you what structure will work for your particular project.

Before you put pen to paper – or hand to mouse – it might help you to now think about the ways in which literature chapters, if you decide to have one, are most often structured. You can then see if one of the usual ways will work for you.

So here’s a set of five possibilities.


  • A chronology

As the name suggests, this is an historical map of the field. In writing historically, your intention is to show how your research either adds logically to what has gone before, or to show how your research challenges a taken for granted assumption in the field, or how it advances a particular body of work in the field. In doing this kind of temporal mapping, you need to highlight the key texts, groups and categories that your work is building on and/or speaking to. Even though a chronology is  linear, you need to also trace threads and associations through your chosen timeline.


  • Major themes

You might choose to just focus on mapping the current themes or topics in the field Your intention here is to show how your research connects to, uses and adds/speaks to contemporary themes/topics. You structure the thematic review through either an examination of the kinds of questions that have been asked and the topics that have been studied, or a look at the key concepts and categories that have been developed and used, or even a look at methodological and methods that are used.


  • The canon/classic studies

This can be standalone, a variation on either (1) or (2) or may also appear as a subsection of either of them. Your intention in a canonic review is to show how your research fits with the studies that can’t be ignored. This kind of literatures review is always heavily evaluative and comparative, so you usually need to set out some explicit criteria, drawn from your research question, that allows you discuss specific texts in some detail. You need to make a very clear connection with your study. One of the metaphors used for this kind of literature work is a tree, where the ‘trunk’ of the discipline is its classic studies.


  • The  wheel

Research very often draws on more than one body of literatures. These might be from different disciplines or be literatures that have been used to address very different topics. Your intention in the wheel-like review is to show that the originality of your research stems from the ways in which you’ve brought together areas that are usually kept apart. This bringing together is clearly elaborated in the discussion of literatures, where each formerly separate chunk is discussed in relation to your research interest. You need to draw out the key contributions of each corpus of literatures and their relevance to your research. You also need to show very clearly the ways in which the various spokes work together- you must show how the various spokes relate to and support the centre of the wheel – this is where your research is situated.


  • The pyramid

A pyramid literature review places your research in its context. Your intention is to show how your research interest is shaped and framed by other events/practices/people/policies etc. The literature review can be organised to start from the tip – what there is written about your specific topic already – and then move out and down through relevant contextualising literatures. More commonly, the pyramid is inverted, and the review begins with the wider context, honing in ever closer to your topic. The concluding tip section of the inverted pyramid review is what is written about your particular topic. By then you have indicated all of the potential issues and insights you will need to bring to your study.

There are of course variations on these  five structures and various ways to combine them. You will ‘bespoke’ your literature review to fit your topic. However, if you are at a stuck point with structure it can help to simply brainstorm how you would organise your material in some or all of these ways.

It is crucial to remember that the literature review is not a summary, a description or a list! Because the literature review is always an argument about why your research is the way that it is, some play with structure will help you to think through which set of moves allow you to make the most persuasive case.

See also other posts on work with literatures.

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writing to be read aloud

Many years ago I spent a pleasant mid morning sitting in the sun being read to. The occasion was a writers’ festival in my home town of Adelaide, Australia and the reader was Louis de Bernières. He’d just completed his novella Red Dog (now a movie) and wanted to try it out on a real audience. When he announced that he was just going to read, and not talk and engage with the audience – the usual genre at these kinds of events – there was a collective frown. de Bernières was going to break the unwritten rules and we were going to be cheated.

Of course, nothing of the sort happened. de Bernières is an accomplished reader, the Red Dog stories were funny and elegantly written and the audience was highly engaged for an hour.


Adelaide Writers’ Week

Whenever I think about reading aloud I remember this particular event, as it so encapsulated the sheer pleasure of being able to listen, really listen, to words put together in ways that inform, stimulate and please. Reading aloud, and the telling of stories, brings people together, creates a magic that suspends everyday life, and has the power to make all else fade into the background. Of course, the reader has to be highly skilled, and the text well-crafted in order to achieve this kind of effect.

I wonder occasionally if this experience says anything to academic writing and presentation. What does it take to create such engrossed attention by simply reading words on a page?

We’ve all seen bad academic reading aloud.  And on more than one occasion. The conference paper presentation where the writer simply puts their paper up in front of their face and proceeds to plod through section after section of it. The key note who puts up slide after slide and then recites each one to us.

It’s tempting to think that the solution to the badly read paper is that we academics should never read aloud. But there are plenty of reasons to do so – we might be nervous and need a written text in order to make sure that we don’t go off piste. We might be giving a long and high stakes key note and we want to make sure that what we say is well planned and able to withstand videoing and re-listening to. We might just be giving a regular lecture and want to make sure we cover a given set of points and material. We might believe that we can’t speak off the cuff.   Reading from a paper is justifiable in all of these circumstances.

And it’s equally tempting to suggest that the problem is the reader. The reader just can’t read. They can’t put light, shadow and emphasis into the text. They should be more entertaining. I don’t want to get into this. I figure that we can all read aloud well enough – I’m sure we could all benefit from some practice, but that’s not really the major problem. The key issue is actually the text we are reading.

Academic writing isn’t like that of  Louis de Bernières. We aren’t writing fiction.We  write argument, interpret texts and statistics, present data, refer to other scholarly work. And this kind of academic writing just doesn’t work in the same way when it is read aloud to an audience as when we read it to ourselves. That’s because writing something intended to be read aloud is not necessarily the same as writing something to be read silently. This is particularly true of academic writing which usually has lots of conventions, abstractions and formalisms that just sound truly terrible when they are read out loud.

Brian Massumi recently noted this, saying of his writing and speaking:

I think a lot about how I address the reader. I want to make the reading in some way enjoyable, however difficult it might get in places. I try to lead the reader in and move the reading forward with a rhythm that recalls the rhythms of speech (using techniques like alternation in the length of sentences, or between words of latin and anglo-saxon etymology, or between technical words and everyday expressions, tones of high seriousness and asides verging on silliness, etc). The essays aren’t made to be read out loud, but as I write I need to be able hear the language as if it were to be spoken. In other words, I talk to myself as I write, but on the understanding with myself that the result is very much a written product and is not speech, even if it carries certain echoes of its rhythms. Even though I talk to myself through my writing, it is very hard for me to deliver my essays as talks. To feel comfortable presenting them orally, I have to recompose them for speech (as opposed to writing them with certain properties of speech).

Ah. Writing a paper in order that it can be spoken. Re-writing the meant-to-be-silently-read text so that it can be spoken. That’s the step that the people who do those dreadful paper readings at conferences don’t get.

A written academic paper is almost always not the same as the paper that has been written specifically for reading aloud. The paper to be read aloud is likely to be less formal and have less commentary than a journal article. It might offer different kinds of signposting than a conventional academic journal article (although there might still be a bit of “Today Im going to cover a, b, c… I’ve said this so far”). The paper to be read aloud might foreground examples and stories and bring them into conversation with analysis in a much more casual way than a published paper. There might be a lot less citation, with mention only of the key scholars whose ideas are used or challenged.

Red Dog FTI cvr.inddYou see, the writer of the paper to be read has to think about the audience. How to keep them engaged? How to manage the staging of ideas and examples so that they keep listening and thinking? How to persuade and convince them while also keeping them interested?

We ought not to expect academic writing to be as entertaining as Lois de Bernières and Red Dog. Not possible. Not sensible. Why even think about it? We are not ‘entertainers’. But if we do want to nuance the reading aloud, then  some of the things that performers think about might be helpful. We don’t have to be an entertainer to learn from their practice. We can ask – How to manage the actual talking? Where to pause? How to ensure that there are shades of emphasis, rhythms and rises and falls in the narrative? These questions are helpful because we can write these things into the text if we imagine ourselves speaking as we write.

We can surely go some way towards making the papers we read aloud more interesting. We can certainly get away from the dull drone and the syntax that is awful to the ear. This doesn’t mean throwing a few jokes into the same old same old paper, but considering how writing meant to be listened to differs from writing intended to be read silently.

To sum up then – a first step in making our spoken presentations more interesting is to think not simply about readers for academic writing, but also about listeners for our talks. A second step is to write the paper to be read aloud, if that is what is required, and another version for publication.


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boostering your introduction and conclusion

Academic writing is known for its use of qualifiers – usually words which tone down the claims that are made. We academics know it is impossible/incredibly difficult to establish a generalisable result though research, and our writing signals this difficulty through the use of words like – may, suggest, indicate, could, might, seem, suspect, infer. And because we know that there is relationship between the methods we use and our results we often signal the limitations of our research through words such as partially, approximately, quite, generally.

Hedges – for this is what these kinds of toning-down qualifying words are called – are a necessary part of scholarly work and writing. They signal that we know that the work we have done is good, but it’s not all that there is to see, say and do on our topic. 

But too much qualification makes a writer sound very tentative. Too many hedges altogether in one place can make academic writing difficult to read. Getting to the point is like chewing cotton wool. Too many hedges can also leave the reader with a well-why-did-I-bother-with-this-then feeling.

However, there are qualifiers that work in the opposite way to hedging. Rather than tone down claims, these words are called Boosters because, well, they add a sense of certainty and importance to our writing. Boosters include will, show, find, determine, confirm, know, clearly, particularly, it is clear that, the fact that, establish, demonstrate, conclude. Other terms such as evidence, striking effect, the importance of, of most importance, of particular interest also help to emphasise significance.

4263146300_908e7d5fc3_bLinguists who study academic writing (for example, Ken Hyland) say that boosters are most often used in the introductory and concluding sections of papers, theses and books. This is because the introduction and conclusion are where the writer wants to influence the reader. When a writer wants to signal, at the very outset, the worth of what the reader is about to encounter, a booster is used. A booster or two strengthens the warrant for the paper. Boosters can promote the novelty, value and importance of the research and writing too. And boosters are the academic writer’s way of emphasising that there is a strong relationship between the results they have presented and the interpretation and claims they make.

Boosters are a linguistic means of presenting the newsworthiness of research. They are intended to persuade. Boosters say – you can trust this, this is good stuff, this matters. Take this conclusion as an example. It comes from an evaluation of the National Writing Project’s College Ready Writing Program for teachers and students – an intervention designed to improve the writing of school students before they enter university/college.

This evaluation of teacher professional development is one of the largest and most rigorous to find evidence of an impact on student academic outcomes. It
 found that CRWP affected student outcomes on a particularly complex task—writing an argument supported by reasoning and developed through the use of evidence from source material. This type of argument writing has been identified as critical to college and career readiness and is central to new academic standards for English language arts and literacy. Given that the evaluation found consistent implementation in more than 20 districts across10 states, the findings SUGGEST that CRWP CAN BE effective in diverse settings.

You can see from the words I have underlined that the evaluators are using boosters to make strong claims about the relationship between the intervention and the outcomes – they assert that their results matter because their research was large and rigorous and it found evidence about something complex  critical and central. The reader is positioned by  this boosterism  to understand the significance of the study. However, after all this boostering, the writers then make a ‘suggestion’ (I’ve put this in capitals). The programme ‘can be’ effective – this is not a definitive claim by any stretch of the imagination. But even though the writers hedge their final So What, their ‘suggestion’ for action has been made very persuasive by their previous use of boosters.

Boosters are a kind of rhetorical assertiveness. They signal ‘Look at what I’ve done and how important it is’. For this very reason, it is sometimes difficult for doctoral researchers to use boosters, perhaps because they feel anything like the expert that is implied in writing compelling reasons to, sufficient evidence for, it is crucial to. Occasionally, doctoral and early career researchers can inappropriately use boosters, making over claims for the work that they have done. But mostly, conclusions in theses and early papers in particular suffer from too much hedging.

It is helpful for doctoral and early career researchers to find out the ways in which hedges and boosters are used in their discipline – and to read some papers specifically looking to see how qualifying is done. Understanding how these linguistic tactics work means that they can then become an explicit resource in an academic writing toolkit.

Why not try playing with hedges and boosters? It is useful to make checking the introduction and conclusion for the use of hedges and boosters a regular part of your revision strategy. Looking for the way in which you have used  hedges and boosters allows you to focus specifically on the level of authority you are assuming through your writing. It allows you to check whether you have your discipline-appropriate level of caution and assertion. You can see whether rationale for the research, the results and claims work together in a convincing way.

And understanding that hedges and boosters are used in introductions and conclusions can help you to ‘whistle a happy tune’ – that is, to write as if you are feeling more confident than you actually are. When you use the right mix of linguistic strategies you can write as if you are the expert in your field, even if you don’t feel like it. When you get the hedges and boosters working together, they tell your reader that you are a credible and trustworthy researcher who knows what they are talking about.


Read more in this post on writing with authority.

Photo credit: John Train, FlickrCommons

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