revision – writing without protection

Academic writers need to let their readers know that they know what they are talking about. But feeling and talking like an expert is not easy – in fact, it’s often the exact opposite of how you think about yourself. So it’s helpful to be able to pick up the places in your writing where your text gives away your secret self-doubt.

Getting rid of self-abasing writing is a revision task. Put another way, moving from a first to a final draft is not simply about making the writing readable but also making the writing more authoritative.

One of the revision strategies you might consider is looking at your sentence beginnings. When we are writing crappy first drafts, lots of us write sentences that start something like:

What is really important is that…

It is crucial to note that…

Many readers will understand this to be…

We should not fail to see that…

It is vital to state that…

The major point here is that…

It is important to add here that…

Notice that ….

It might be argued that this is…

It is easy to ignore that…

I feel that…

These sentence beginnings often come immediately before a key point the writer wants to make. But the reader has to get through some superfluous verbiage before they get to it. And when they reach the point, its impact is dulled.

Of course, roundabout ways to start sentences are not wrong. But too many slow starts in a single text may leave the reader feeling uneasy. They may wonder – Perhaps the writer does not feel comfortable making their case? Perhaps the writer feels they need to have a bit of a warm-up before getting to the point? Perhaps the point is too point-ed for them?

Peter Elbow called the extra beginning words that come before the point protective scaffolding. The job of protective scaffolding is to support the writer get the text written. Protective scaffolding can be, Elbow suggests, a sign that an idea is not yet fully worked out. Yes, the point is too bald as it is and the reader does need some more information. Yes, the text does need to be more firmly stitched into the argument. Yes, the writer needs to remove the scaffolding and write more.

But protective scaffolding can also be there to protect the writer – a sort of textual disguise which takes the force and strength out of their point, says Elbow. Speaking with your hand over your mouth. Umming and aahing before stating the argument. Laughing before saying something terribly serious. Deflecting attention away from the speaker and their words.

Protective scaffolding is often used during drafting, as writers are still working out what they want to say and how to say it. But it may not be something that the writer wants to leave in their final text.

Elbow sees the use of protective scaffolding as a form of self-emasculation; the scaffolding erodes the authority of the writer, prevents the writing being too forceful, takes the punch out of it, deflects potential criticism before any exists. Removing the scaffolding does not necessarily mean that the argument falls down. Rather, the writer and what they stand for is revealed.

So take Elbow’s advice. When you are revising, first of all check where you have protective scaffolding in your sentence beginnings. Highlight them all, then ask yourself:

  • Does the idea that comes after the protective scaffold need more work?

And

  • Is my writing more authoritative and expert-like when I take away the scaffold and confidently state my point?

If the answer is (2) and you do feel like you have left yourself a bit exposed when the scaffold is removed, you still have the choice of adding more weight and evidence to the point. If that evidence is already there, then take a deep breath. Assume the position of authority. You go girl, just take up the persona of the assertive and knowledgeable writer. The reader will never know it feels a bit strange to you. They just read you as an academic writer who knows their stuff.

Adapted from Peter Elbow Writing without teachers. p 193-4

Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Peter Elbow, protective scaffolding, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

running a tweetchat

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During this difficult pandemic period, Anuja Cabraal and I have been hosting a weekly tweetchat on the #VirtuaNotViral hashtag. Now, a “twitter chat” is not a new thing and we are not the only people doing them. However, we’ve got interested in them as a particular type of social media interaction, and I’m using this post to do a bit of basic documentation and thinking in public about them. We are hoping that this might be the start of a paper about the tweetchat as a ‘thing’ (read this as maybe a genre?), so writing this post is also a bit of public accountability.

Here’s a few key points about tweetchats.

Location in time/space

  • Tweetchats use a consistent hashtag which signals their intention/mission/field. Tweetchats are often, but not always, linked to a bespoke twitter account with a clear focus and audience. Our #VirtualNotViral tweetchat focuses on providing support to doctoral and early career researchers and our audience are PhDers and those who work with them.
  • A tweetchat hashtag may alternatively be associated with either a personal or more general twitter account. This is the case for instance with Helen Kara’s #creativemethods tweetchat which she runs from her personal account. The chat topic comes from her ongoing interest in the use of creative methods in research.
  • Tweetchats are also often linked to a blog, website or publication. The chat may be one link in a chain of sites and activities. VirtualNotViral uses a common image across our website and twitter account so that it is possible to identify our “brand” and linked activity at a glance.
  • Twitter chats are generally scheduled at a regular time, day and frequency. They are a formal “event” and thus different from the normal chats that occur informally on twitter all of the time. Chats can be monthly, fortnightly or weekly. They could be daily of course, but this doesn’t seem to be the norm. Tweetchats start and end on time. The chat as predictable and routine helps to establish a community who participate regularly.
  • The down-side of the regular tweetchat is that it is synchronous and thus always excludes some people somewhere. ( Context doesn’t entirely collapse!)
  • Another downside is that you do need to have some kind of following somewhere to get a tweetchat going – but once the chat is happening regularly, then it tends to add to the community that already exists around the network and/or account(s).

Organisation

  • Chat topics are generally advertised on twitter well in advance. Anuja and I use a VirtualNotViral postcard with a consistent design to advertise our chats. We schedule tweeting the card at different times during the week leading up to the chat.
  • Sometimes chat topics aren’t set, but open, and they depend on participants to take the conversation where they want. The open chat is more likely to happen when a tweetchat community is established.
  • Chats tend not to have rules, other than reminding people to use the hashtag whenever a post is made and being civil.
  • People who run tweetchats using their personal accounts often tweet before-hand that their account is likely to be busy for the next hour so that those who don’t want to chat can make a decision about what to do.

Process

A tweetchat run by a single person, let’s call them the MC, generally introduces the chat – and topic if there is one – and asks chat participants to introduce themselves.

  • The MC of the open topic may simply wait for people to respond or begin with a few opening tweets to encourage responses. Their job is then to respond to comments and to keep the chat going by inserting a tweet or two if things seem to have gone silent.
  • The MC of the declared topic chat generally has a set of numbered questions which they introduce one by one. They will usually have these ready on a word document to cut and paste into tweets. The MC responds to each person who introduces themselves, as well as to the answers to questions. They keep track of any responses which haven’t used the hashtag and retweet them with the hashtag attached. They might also retweet some responses to encourage other people not yet following the hashtag to join in. Sometimes they provide a summary of the combined tweets to date. The MC may also decide to provide links to resources relevant to the topic.

Anuja and I run the #VirualNotViral tweetchat in much the same way. We usually have a guest. So there are three of us MCing. In negotiation with the guest, we set the style of the chat – this is either

  • where we ask the guest a couple of questions and then invite chat participants to ask questions and make comments, or
  • the guest asks chat participants a series of questions.

Anuja and my job is to introduce the guest and ask them a couple of preliminary questions. We also ask chat participants to introduce themselves. We take responsibility for responding to introductions, retweeting any replies that don’t have the hashtag and for reminding people of the time and hashtag. We also close off the chat with thanks to the guest and participant as well as advertising the next week’s chat.

We monitor the flow of chat and insert comments and questions if there seems to be a lull. We can, if the guest would like us to, number the questions that come in from chat participants so that the guest can work systematically through a list.

Anuja and I have our introduction and questions prepared on a word doc. on our desktops so we can simply cut and paste into tweets. We encourage our guests to prepare introductory comments too, as well as have some standby comments and resources to hand.

Tweetchats can get a bit fast and furious at times. Participants often start chatting with each other – this is great community building and networking and A Good Thing. But it can be hard for people to follow the threads of conversations. It is important for the MCs to try to create some coherence through numbering, threading, summaries, responses – and not to lose questions.

Anuja and I generally use Tweetdeck, so we can both use our personal accounts as well as both be on the VirtualNotViral twitter account. We are also talk backstage throughout the tweetchat – we use Whatsapp – and we work out which of us is doing what. (This is interesting in itself as Anuja is in  Australia and I am in England – so we are synchronously working across time zones and huge distances for an hour or so every week. ) Usually one of us takes responsibility for talking with the guest and the other responds to chat participants. I tend to think of this as analogous to talkback radio without the time delay – Anuja and I are sat in the outer studio, making sure things run smoothly, stay on track and there isn’t dead air time.

Postchat

There is often a lot of useful information shared during tweetchats, information that is worth keeping. There are various ways to archive chats. Anuja is very good at making twitter moments; we advertise the links in the week following the chat, and put each link on a list on our website – they are here. Other people use sites such as Wakelet to store key tweets from a chat.

So that’s a preliminary account of tweetchatting.

We are keen to get beyond these organisational questions and consider the tweetchat more as a community building exercise. We would also like to understand how the tweetchat is used as part of a more general networked doctoral/supervision support experience.  

If you have any comments to make about your experiences of tweetchats please use the blog or VirtualNotViral twitter account – I moderate comments here so I can weed out spam. In other words, there might be a delay in comments being published, please don’t think there is anything wrong if they don’t appear straight away.

 

#VirtualNotViral tweet chats run every Monday at 9am BST and 6pm AEST.

Posted in academic writing, social media, tweetchat, twitter | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

the ‘later on’ PhD

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It not unusual to think about the PhD as a seamless pathway from undergraduate to Grad School with maybe a Masters in between. But not all PhDers do go straight through. Many work, often for quite a long time, before they begin a doctorate. Some of these ’later-on’ doctorates are also undertaken part-time.

People who do doctorates after a significant period in work may well have come from a profession – think for instance of education, nursing, law, architecture, business, theology, engineering, journalism, art, music, medicine, social work. But there are also  ‘mature age’ (as they are called in some places)  PhDers rubbing shoulders with ‘straight through’ PhDers in other disciplines. And actually in some professional areas, such as my own, Education, it is pretty rare to see ‘straight through’ PhDers at all, even among full-timers. The vast majority of Education PhDers have had experience in the field.

These ‘later-on’ PhDers have, for whatever reason, decided that more study is for them. We don’t seem to have asked the later ons very often why they took on the PhD. But my guess is that a lot of people are strongly motivated to doctoral study for intrinsic reasons – it is something that they have always wanted to do, they haven’t had the time to pursue an idea, a puzzle, a possibility, before now. Some later ons may also be interested in a career change if the opportunity arises. Others may want to stay in their profession but work differently post PhD. A few may need a doctorate in order to get promoted. But what the professional usually wants from their PhD are systematic ways into core scholarly practices in research, and academic writing, rhetoric and argumentation, as well as immersion in the scholarship in their field.

Individual faculties/schools catering for lots of later-ons may recognise the value of their later ons’ work experiences, significant prior, applied knowledges and networks. Such faculties may even have particular ways of acknowledging and building on the later ons’ experiences, particularly in the design of the PhD research projects.

Let’s just pause for a minute to list a few of the things the professional brings. The professional arrives at their PhD with detailed in-depth current experience of practice, and a good idea about the kind of research that will make a difference in their field. They may well have sophisticated skills in argument – a lot of professional work involves making a case for something, gathering evidence, synthesising information, anticipating objections and difficulties. They are likely to be able to talk to a wide range of people, make connections, organise events and work in various teams and collaborations.  Depending on their work, they may have detailed knowledge of policy-making, have a long history of working in partnership with academics, know how to work with media and/or already be deep into some of the scholarly literatures in the field. They may also be risk takers, be independent, well-organised, self-motivated and resilient.

I’d put all of these things in my own audit of pre-PhD professional work knowledges and skills. Before starting a PhD I’d worked for twenty seven years in education as a headteacher and then as a senior civil servant, been involved in policymaking at state and national level, been spokesperson for headteachers as president of a professional association ( talking regularly on radio and tele) and written a lot of professional articles. I knew first hand about the realpolitik of schools and I certainly understood organisations and public policymaking. So I arrived at the PhD with a lot of ‘stuff’ relevant to partnership working, public engagement and impact. And I see similar knowledges, attributes and resources in the PhDers I work with, all but one of them with substantive work experience behind them, and some like me with a whole career’s worth.

The funds of knowledges that the ‘later-on’ PhDer brings are often unrecognised at institutional and policy level, where the model of the straight through persists. Take the current ESRC review of the social science PhD as an important and current example. The ESRC wants to find out if the skills taught in the PhD prepare graduates for careers within and beyond academia and they want to know the best ways to teach those skills. The ESRC intends to talk with PhDers about their experiences of training and employers about what they want from graduates.

This sounds reasonable, until I think about myself as a PhDer. As a senior civil servant, and with oversight of research in my job description, I would likely have been one of the people who was consulted about what we be expected from PhDers employed in our department. But what I was expected to know and thus asked about would have been dependent on timing – if I had already moved into a PhD I would likely be asked about my experiences of training. Not about what I understood of industry/professional work.

It’s important to note that I am not claiming exceptionality here. It’s the reverse. There are loads of later-on PhDs and they are on the increase. UKRI data from 2017 suggested that only 40% of social science PhDs are under 29. And 30% are over 40.  This suggests that at least 30% of social science PhDers are likely to be highly experienced and senior professionals choosing a later-on PhD. These PhDers not only bring a lot of knowledge with them, but by definition already have what employers need, recognise, recruit, promote and pay for.

Later on PhDers are pretty likely to already possess in spades, and do not need training, in what the Rapid Evidence Review undertaken for the ESRC says are needed in the workplace – A number of studies with social science graduates and employers suggest that skills in teamwork, communication, inter-disciplinarity, project management and leadership could be enhanced during doctoral training in order to better equip graduates for a career in the non-academic sector (p. 8).

The Rapid Evidence Review also states that when asked, employers don’t value the PhD as a qualification per se, but rather the skills that PhDers usually have, critical thinking and research skills.  But look at what’s missing here. What do universities value about what work experiences PhDers already have? My hunch is that universities generally don’t even ask about the work experiences of potential PhDers – although this may be the case for some disciplines.

My guess is that graduate schools don’t think a lot about what might be valuable in the professional and industry experiences of later on PhDers. How they might be built on. How they might be shared.  It is as if placements and collaborative schemes are the key to employability and careers. I suspect grad schools worry more about ‘later stage’ PhDers, as they are also called, looking for a career shift into academia. They worry about there being more supply than demand. That is a worry, but it’s not all that there is to be concerned about with the later on PhDer, and their experiences.

I speak to a lot of PhDers who feel as if their previous work history is actually seen as problem, that they are seen as deficient and ‘behind’ compared to ‘straight through’ peers. They fear they may be disadvantaged post PhD because of their age. (See here for one version of this sentiment.)

I am not the only one to see the lack of recognition of the later on PhD as a problem – see  here, here and here)

Failing to differentiate the different backgrounds of the PhD cohort really misses a trick. PhDers of any age are important and all have strengths and specific needs and goals. While they are not perhaps the majority of the overall PhD population, later on PhDers have important life and work experiences and funds of knowledge that they might share. They are a ready-made and on-hand resource. Training programmes might call, if not gleefully fall, on them. Graduate schools might pay their later on PhDers (who usually have mortgages and families to support) to co-design resources and programmes that ‘teach about’  beyond-academia work.

And yes, I know I can tell the ESRC all this. And I will. Maybe I’ll just cheekily send them this blog post. And hope they take note of the key point. The later on PhDer exists and in considerable numbers. They don’t have the same training needs as the straight through PhDer. They also may have different aspirations. What’s more, they should be considered assets, rather than aberrant. Later on PhDers are actually a potential resource for each other and their straight through peers.

 

A prickly post needs a prickly photo, this one by FloorTwelve on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, later on PhD, mature age PhD, part time PhD | Tagged , , , , | 17 Comments

how to start your literature review

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Thinking of starting a doctorate? Already deep into PhDing and worried about the literature work?

Well, when it comes to working with literatures, the old saying that there’s more than one way to skin a cat might be ugly, but it contains an important truth.  There is no one best way to do the literature review.

But don’t despair. The lit review is not entirely unknown territory. There are three well-trodden literature pathways you can consider – a trio of ways to think about how to begin and get stuck into the initial reading, summarising, thematising, categorising, mapping. If you don’t want to invent your own process, then take a look at these.

  • begin with a short list – a set of recommendations about the key texts that you need to read. You need to get a short list from a supervisor, or someone you can trust, maybe someone who is working on the same kind of topic but is a year or so ahead of you. Once you have your list, your job is basically to find the key themes relevant to your work and locate the leads to other relevant texts.

Eventually you will get to the outer reaches of the field and draw the borders you need, but by then you will have a sold grasp of the texts that are most germane to your study.

  • begin with something that already offers an interpretation of the field, its history, key texts, themes and debates. You’ll get a head start from an encyclopaedia, an international handbook, an introductory text, a published literature review, or an idiot’s guide. You might even find a published thesis or research report which is relevant to your study. It’s helpful to understand that an existing review is not necessarily going to include the most relevant literature for your study, but you will likely find some leads to where you need to go to find them. You also need to hold any ready made view of the field up to some scrutiny as you go, as it is one (or a handful of) persons interpretation of the field – not yours. You need to know the field you’re working in, not someone else’s. Or if there’s more than one field, then you may also need to think about overlaps.

One modification of this approach is to get a Masters level reading list (again from someone you can trust) and make your way through it. I did this myself in my own PhD when I worked out I had to know something about geography – I bought a set of Open University text books and self-managed my way through three Masters modules.

  • begin with a big search using google docs or google scholar or an academic search engine. If you are doing a systematic review or a rapid evidence review you would start this way and you’d use academic search engines. If you’re not, and still want to start big, you might also use publishers’ journal websites to get going. The start-big approach benefits from you having pretty good speed-reading, as well as some clear selection criteria. These criteria might be about methods, as in the systematic review. Or you might decide on some specific questions based on your research topic – If I want to do this research, then I need to know about x, y, z, just for starters.

Key to the writ-large approach is the understanding that you are establishing the outer edges of the field, as well as the core texts, at the same time. So there is quite a lot of ongoing sorting to do as you go along, you’re thematising and classifying right from the get-go. Yes, get those postits and markers at the ready.

It’s also a great idea to team up with other people working on a similar topic. You can share references and texts. You can also form a reading group to tackle some of the more difficult texts together.

Writing with literatures? Well that’s another story.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

Posted in academic writing, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, literature themes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

this, they, it, those, these – a revision strategy

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One of my pet peeves is reading sentences which contain an ambiguous pronoun.  The pronoun stands alone, isolated. The lonely goatherd on the hilltop. Sentences that start with, or contain, an unattached this, they, it, those, these seem to expect the reader to just know what the this, they, it, those, and these refer to.

In reality, the singleton pronoun is screaming for some company. Without a noun, what we call the referent – the thing that the this, they, it, those and these refer to – the reader just has to guess what the writer means. The reader has to set up a bit of blind dating to get to the point.

Let me give you an example to clarify what I mean. Sometimes the lonely little pronoun this, they, it, those, these has to do the work of starting off a new sentence. As here:

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This is why it is often hard.

But this what? Doctoral writing? Text work and identity work, patience, persistence or creativity? Some of the above? All of above? Or is it the combination that is important? In which case write:

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits often make it hard for new PhDers.

But hang on, what is it in the new second sentence? Here the solitary pronoun comes in the middle of a sentence, perhaps, as in this case, attempting to set the scene for the sentence or the paragraph to follow.

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits means that new PhDers can have difficulty settling into their new programme. Because of this, supervisors and graduate schools need to provide a range of formal and informal support.

Oh dear, here we go again. What is this in Because of this? Does the writer mean supervisors need to attend to all of the issues listed or to the tricky combination, or both?

Doctoral writing demands text work and identity work, patience, persistence and creativity. This combination of time-limited practice, skills and habits means that new PhDers can have difficulty settling into their new programme. Because new PhDers may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of new tasks and expectations, supervisors and graduate schools need to provide them with a range of formal and informal support.

Not fantastic writing I agree, but as it’s a draft, I get another chance to finesse the syntax.

But hang on a minute. What I’ve actually been forced to do, by getting rid of the ambiguous pronouns, is to get much more specific about what I actually mean. I had to specify what I meant by this, it and this (again). Having to sort out what the pronouns referred to compelled me to clarify that I was concerned about the combination and volume of simultaneous demands made of new PhDs. If I had stuck with the indeterminate pronouns, the reader would have had much less idea of what I was trying to say.

Using ambiguous pronouns is actually kinda sloppy. But sloppiness occurs for different reasons. Readers can interpret a writer’s use of vague pronouns as a lack of care. A reader might assume that if we don’t really spell out what we mean, and we just gesture towards something, that we assume the reader can figure it out for themselves. Not really what we want to communicate. But let’s assume that you are not cavalier about the reader and you really do want them to follow what you say. So think of the ambiguous this, they, it, those, these as a first step towards getting clear.

Writers very often use vague pronouns when they/we are speed writing and/or producing a first draft. The pronouns are a kind of shorthand for the-thought-we-don’t-have-time-to-develop. We are so focused on the big idea we can’t stop to build the finer details of our case. Locating this, they, it, those, these then becomes  important in working further on the text. Looking for the this, they, it, those, these which don’t refer to anything is one of the tasks needed in revision.

If you revise with a printout and a highlighter, then go through your draft text and mark every pronoun without a referent. Ask yourself what is the this, they, it, those, these I am referring to. Chances are you will find yourself not simply doing a proofing task where you correct grammar. Instead, you’ll be involved in refining your thinking – and you’ll be making your argument much more concise.

Watching out for this, they, it, those, these, an apparently small task, can do big work for making your writing clearer, better evidenced and thus more persuasive.

 

Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, grammar, revision, revision strategy, syntax, thesis revision, vagueness | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

“discussion” – it’s about moving forward

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Discussion. It’s a word that immediately comes to mind when we think about communicating research. First we report the results, and then we discuss them. Discussion might be a separate thesis chapter just before the conclusion, or the end of a series of chapters each featuring a different key result, or the discussion might morph into a conclusion (as often happens in a PhD by publication).

Discussion is not a very helpful word. Its vagueness may be why many PhDers find discussion a hard chapter to write.

The word discussion can mean many things – its dictionary definition is often something like “a detailed treatment of a topic in speech or writing”. That actually doesn’t take us any further – what is meant here by treatment? Synonyms for discussion include argument, analysis and consideration. Perhaps these are slightly more helpful.

If you google “How do you write a discussion”, you get a lot of “Don’t be repetitive, Avoid using jargon. Be concise. Follow a logical thought process”, followed by “Identify patterns in the data, discuss whether your results met your expectations or supported your hypothesis, contextualise your findings within previous research and theory, and explain unexpected results and evaluate their significance”. This seems pretty helpful but it may still not be enough.

I’ve been thinking about how to provide additional advice about discussions and – well it’s hard. But I’ve come to think that one step might be to understand the point of discussion. If you get the purpose of academic discussion first of all, then you can begin to think about what needs to be covered.

The discussion is not a summary. There might be some summary involved at the start of a discussion if you are bringing some results or key themes together. But that is only the beginning. The discussion is not déjà vu. It must not simply repeat what has gone before. (See what I did there.)

The discussion has to move your analysis forward. The discussion has to establish what your results add up to. The discussion works from your specific research results to a bigger picture.

So here’s a metaphor that might help a bit. Your research is analogous to building your own car with some existing material and some new pieces. You have to carefully put the old and your new pieces together so that they amount to something substantial and innovative. Your research results establish the new pieces. The research discussion assembles the car, starts the engine and moves forward.

An academic discussion is thus where you do very particular work:

  • You keep hold of your results, but take a big step away. You move from your very specific results to however general you think you can be. You take a more distanced view.
  • As you take the step away, you also pick up the question you posed at the start of the research.
  • Then, you connect your research to the question you posed, as well as what is already out there in the literatures. This might take the form of comparing, contrasting, building on.
  • And you have to put all this together to make an argument that will go somewhere – you (and everyone else) started in one place and now because of your research you have something that not only can move – but is already moving somewhere new.

The idea of moving forward is key to understanding academic discussion.

Moving forward extends what is known. It offers a creative remix in which the known and/or established is combined with the new (your results) to offer something novel – something that can be seen as a contribution to general scholarly understanding about your particular topic. You stretch what is already understood, perhaps countering some of what is taken for granted. You offer a different perspective, a different application, a provocation, a theoretical challenge or insight.

But moving forward is not something that is accomplished in a page or two. Careful construction is needed. And here is where we go back to those dictionary definitions – the discussion is always an argument for a particular construction – your interpretation of all of your results put together, in conversation with the literatures, anticipating objections, acknowledging blank and blind spots.

And discussion is of course not all that matters at the end of your thesis text. The conclusion is where you explain how your new car, well I’ll keep going with this somewhat clumsy metaphor, moves the whole field forward. Your research not only answers your question, but it is a significant contribution. You have moved not only your own thinking, but also that of at least some others in the field, you’ve reached a new destination.

 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, argument, contribution, discussion, research | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

so you want to blog – a blog of my own

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Why would anyone start a blog? It’s a big commitment. A blog can be seen as an “extra”, as a “vanity project” as “not scholarly”, particularly if it doesn’t directly hit a “public engagement” or “impact” target.  It’s so much easier to write for other blogs. So why bother with your own?

Well, I can give you all the obvious reasons. Blogging is a way to develop your ideas, to find like-minded readers, to engage in discussions about issues that matter, to develop a public academic communication practice. In conjunction with other social media platforms, blogging is also a way to build networks.

But the answer to the question why start a blog lies, I think, in the title of this post, an obvious riff on Virginia Woolf’s famous feminist essay, “A room of one’s own”.  Woolf argued that if women were missing from the arts is was because they had neither the financial independence, nor the intellectual, emotional and material space for art-making in their lives. Artists need thinking time and a place to think in.

Thus the analogy to the blog. A space for scholarly work.

The very idea of space for slow contemplation is probably pretty attractive to many of us as we think about how to manage increasingly crisis-driven and precarious lives. Finding room for un-pressured independent work likely appeals to many busy researchers/writers beset by deadlines, escalating expectations and measures of performance. And in lockdown, the notion of a material room of your own surely has particular pull for the very many PhDers who’ve had to retreat to bedrooms in shared houses to try to do any work, or who are sharing the kitchen table with their children as everyone works from home.

While a blog won’t fix all scholarly problems, it can nevertheless offer an affordable little virtual space that is just your own. Where you can write without having to think about what you are expected to say, where the content, style, frequency, pace and focus of what you write is something you can control and own. A blog can be a retreat. A tiny uncluttered oasis. Something that is perhaps just the slightest bit preciousssss (said in best Gollum voice).

And there is something very specific about a scholarly blog I think, something particular about the room that we occupy.

Room to profess

Most people suggest that you start thinking about your own blog by working on the holy trinity of blog agenda, blog target audience, and blog identity. In other words, you have to consider what your blog is about and who you want to read it. Based on your answers, you decide how you will signal message and audience through your blog title, strap-line and design. I’m not disagreeing with this advice. I’m just going to twist it around a bit to connect this with scholarship, and suggest that you think about what academic work you stand for and how your blog will help you explain it.

I equate an academic, as opposed to a personal, blog space with the somewhat old-fashioned idea of professing. To profess something is to affirm its importance – and in the academy professing is acknowledging the value of scholarship – reading, writing, thinking, researching, imagining and reasoning, perhaps within a particular discipline, perhaps within a pedagogical frame. We are called professors because we profess – we stand for a collective community with a shared practice. We also avow the importance of a particular research agenda, our specific contribution to making meaning of and in the world.

So the first issue with a blog of your own relates to the primary question of why – and it’s What am I going to profess in my blog? Is the blog a room of my own where I can address the value of thinking in public? Is it an ongoing engagement with a particular topic? Is it about sharing my ideas and engaging with an asynchronous academic conversation? Am I exploring what I am reading/researching? Am I teaching academic practices that matter? Is my blog about an academic life? Is it about ways of working? Any combination of these? Other things? These professing questions are of course a way of saying that you have to have something to say if you are going to write a blog.

And there’s two important further aspects professing that are important – the scholar and scholarly time.

The scholar

Any piece of academic writing not only shows the world who you are as a scholar, it also makes you a particular kind of scholar. The things you write about, combined with the way you write, who and what you refer to, not only represent your work, they also (continue to) produce you as a scholar. As you write, you also create your scholarly self. So it’s worth thinking about the kind of scholar you want to be and become, as well as what you profess, in your blog.

Of course, you might decide to use a blog to present only part of your work. That’s what I do here, in Patter. I write about – in other words I profess – building a writing and research practice. This is not simply something I do myself but I also research, and teach others to do too. But this is not all that I do. I do have a not-work self and I occasionally let little pieces of that drift into Patter, just as I do in teaching or in a scholarly conversation. But as Patter is not a personal blog but a place to profess, there is not so much of the personal.

Scholarly time

I’ve already suggested that a blog might be a place to do a bit of slow thinking. A slow making of an agenda. Not an unrolling per se, as the blog itself continues to construct the topic as well as the scholar themselves. Thinking about a blog as an ongoing part of scholarship takes a bit of the heat out of the writing – well it does for me. I don’t expect every Patter post to be an outright winner. I know that some posts get read a lot and used, and others are just part of a body of thinking and writing that you come to know if you read the blog regularly. But if you are an occasional Patter reader than there ought to be enough in the post you stumble over, or in nearby posts, to make it worth your while reading again at another time.

Of course you all know that a blog takes time out of your week. Quite a lot. It’s up to you whether you want to commit to posting regularly or not – there’s no rule that says weekly, or daily, or monthly, or sporadically when you feel like it, is better than anything else. I’m rather fond of a routine so I publish weekly and always around the same time of day. But I have an un-evidenced hunch that regular posts get more readers (maybe this is a research project in waiting, feel free, I’m not going to do it or even look to see if it’s been done.) The point is that you get to choose whether how frequently you publish. You do you as the saying goes.

Above all, you don’t want your blog to become another obligation. Another thing to feel guilty about or to feel you’ve failed at. Here’s where  blogging as a room your own comes into its own. If the blog is a pleasurable space that you control, where you can pursue your agenda, where you profess what matters most, then you are less likely to see it as an imposition. Something that just has to get done. Blogging is voluntary and worth doing. Well, that’s my take anyway.

But it’s also OK to stop the blog when it ceases to be a good place to be. You might just have outgrown it, and need another room somewhere else. Some blogs absolutely have a shelf life –

  • the blog that is attached to a time-limited research project ( I have several archived blogs associated with particular funded projects)
  • the blog that is a particular time-boundaried part of a scholarly career – it’s about the PhD or being an early career researcher or having  particular job.

If your blog does have a built-in end point, then you have to give yourself permission to stop when the logical end arrives. You’ve done it. You and blog have reached a parting of the ways. It’s also OK to change the blog  into something else as your need to profess, and to become and be something else, evolves over time.

If you can work your way through these issues and at the end you still want to blog, then it’s time to find out the techie stuff about platforms and domain names and the like. Just google these things – there’s loads of technical advice out there. The tech is easy. What matters is getting the scholarly answer to the why start a blog question.

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I’ve been writing this mini-series and post as Patter turns 9. Appropriate eh. And planned!! This is the 841st post I’ve published here since July 2011. I began with weekly posts and then moved to twice a week. I went back to weekly a few years ago when it started to feel less like a room of my own and much more like my work office.

I get no workload points for my blog, I profess and teach at large on my own time. That’s my choice and you may well not want to do this. I agree that it’s not a great political example for people to follow and one I can only sustain because I am employed, and one of those senior prof people. On the other hand, professing outside of my institution, free of charge, to people who don’t have access to expensive books, militates against the voluntary “additional work”. One of my continued pleasures is seeing patter blog posts translated into a variety of  languages, helping ( I hope) people who have to write in English and get little support to do so.

And of course more people read what I have to say here than  anywhere else. A couple of million blog reads a year stands up pretty well against my H-index. I have been sustained over the years not only by the knowledge that the blog is widely read and used (thankyou all for the feedback), but also by ongoing conversations with other bloggers, you know who you are.  So here’s to all of us blogging on into 2020 and beyond.

 

Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Posted in academic blogging, academic writing, blogging, blogging about blogging, professing, sustaining blogging, time for blogging | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

so you want to blog – writing a blog post

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There’s a lot to think about when writing short. A blog post, a short piece of writing, requires careful consideration, just like a longer text.

But there’s no need to struggle with writing blog posts on your own. There’s quite a lot of blogging advice out there, most of it written by people who have built up a large following and/or have managed to parlay their blog into income. Their advice is directed towards people who want to do what they have done. What they say is almost always based on a here’s-what-I’ve-learnt approach. Nothing wrong with that – but of course what works for one doesn’t always work for another. So successful bloggers’ advice doesn’t necessarily neatly translate into scholarly blogging. But some of it is of course helpful.

Problogger.com stresses the importance of planning, writing for 15 minutes a day, working to a deadline and focusing on the end results.  Advice that any academic writer would find pretty familiar. But their step step guide to how they write a post  and ten tips for blog beginners might be of more interest. MK teacher’s advice on blogging– use the language of the people not the language of experts, use short sentences as much as possible, don’t try to be smarter than your reader, use concrete words and ditch others –  might ruffle a few academic feathers. After all, we are experts.  But you can see what Mr K is trying to get at. Write clearly.

Marketers are also interested in blogging and write blogging advice that has an eye on attracting an audience and persuading them to subscribe and or invest. While academics might feel a little uncomfortable with taking a marketing perspective, it is nevertheless worth seeing what the marketers have to say . For instance The copy that sells has produced a 37 point checklist for writing a killer blog post– a real clickbait title. Their check list includes seeing whether titles of posts give people a reason to read, so writers need to

  • look to see whether the title is specific – the checklist talks about the one main goal of the post (what I called last week, the point)
  • check whether the title involves an emotion such as shock, fear, encouragement, anger, curiosity.

There’s also advice from journalists who apply their own formal education and on-the-job training to blogging. Journalists tend to approach a blog as a particular genre, with basic principles that can be learnt; they know that a blog needs a defined three part narrative structure. School of Journalism‘s top tips suggest that bloggers

  • Begin by calling readers’ attention to something they don’t know or might want to know
  • Offer your own perspective, backed up by information which is linked to, and which you interpret for the reader, and
  • Finish with a call to action.

You can even use a blog template that has exactly this structure.

If you are new to blogging then it does help, I think, to read some of this kind of advice and see what sits well with you. It’s also important to read scholarly blogs and see what kind of writing and format you find most appealing. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that, if you are writing for someone else’s blog, you need to follow whatever rules and style guide they have set for word length, use of illustrations, mode of address and so on. If you are guest posting its likely that the editor will work with you to make sure that your post meets their explicit rules, but also fits their take on writing clearly and engagingly.

And my approach? Well, I’m particularly interested in getting beyond the formulaic approach to posts and thinking instead about how the writer can tell their story in their own manner.

Let me put this another another way. Writing a blog post is not a matter of writing the same way you would a thesis or a journal article. One of the beauties of blogging is that it offers a lot of scope for academic writers who are often restricted in the kinds of writing that they can do. Blogs give us a chance to write more as we want, and the opportunity to develop what we might call a “voice”.

I often use the old – and I do mean old, like Aristotle old – rhetorical triangle (logos, ethos and pathos) to help me think about writing with style and voice. (And actually about most academic writing, but that’s a bigger story). So, my aw-shucks-down-home version of the rhetorical triangle is that readers are likely to be engaged, and persuaded, by a pleasing coming together of:

  • the message – how well the post and its story hangs together and whether the point is of value and of interest
  • the credibility of the writer, established in part by who they are but also by the way they present their message, and
  • appeal, how much a mood and ethos is created in the writing, how well the writer’s values are communicated, how much the audience is offered the opportunity to respond to the explicit message as well as to what’s unwritten.

I find that these more general thinking points are more helpful to me than a checklist. Aristotle’s three interlocked text characteristics remind me to think about getting my point clear through establishing a thread and writing in a way that readers will trust and find useful or interesting. They are also a helpful steer in revising a first draft of a post. Because yes, even a little text needs going over more than once.

Which brings me to my final thought. If you are beginning to blog, than it is helpful to begin to develop your own strategies for evaluating what you are writing and how. So as you are reading and writing in short form, you can become more expert in blogging… And this in turn helps you to become more critical about the other academic writing that you do.

It’s not so tricky to write a blog post – why not give it a go and see where it takes you?

The next and last in this mini-series will look at starting your own blog.

 

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

 

Posted in academic writing, blogging, blogging about blogging, guest post, rhetorical triangle | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

so you want to blog – should I write a guest post?

This mini-series is in response to numerous requests to say more about blogging. Your requests are my blogging agenda. 

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Why blog? Well, there are reasons.

Maybe you’ve heard, or been told, that blogging is a good way to reflect on your research, share your research and/or think in in public. That’s all pretty true. Maybe you have heard, or been told, that a side benefit of blogging is that it improves your academic writing. That’s often the case, but its not automatic, you have to work at any writing be it blog, thesis or journal. Maybe you’ve heard, or been told, that blogging is a good way to find some scholarly friends. That’s half right; you build networks when you do something alongside blogging – you tweet or Instagram alongside a blog.

Bu blogging is a big commitment. So maybe you have decided that you will begin by writing posts for other people’s blogs. This is a pretty shrewd strategy as it gives you the opportunity to try out this very particular kind of writing, and feel what it’s like having your writing open and available on the web. Guest posting also slipstreams on the readers that an existing blog already has – you have a ready-made audience and a potential network to ease into.

So how do you go about writing a guest post? Well here’s a few things to think about.

First of all, find your target blog. You can’t go past the general writing advice which tells you to think about audience and content together. So the most obvious thing about writing a blog post is having something to say and a clear idea of who might be interested in listening to/reading you. This means you need to find your readers. So you need to find a news-paper style blog that has the kind of readers who will be interested in what you have to say. This often isnt immediately obvious, but there may be something on the blogs you’re considering – a mission statement or  strap line -which indicates who are the intended readers. the content ought to tell you if these aren’t available.

Second – work out  the kind of post you are going to write. It helps to think a bit analytically about posts because they aren’t one thing, they are a family of small-ish texts.

  • There’s micro –posts of about 300-400 or so words which offer one point and elaborate it a little, often with hyper-links. Micro-posts are often meant to be read very quickly, but provide food for longer thought.
  • And then there’s the meso post, the version you see most often. Lots of blog posts are somewhere between 700-1300 words long. Something that you can read in a few minutes. They too usually make one point but they can say more about it. – They’ll use hyperlinks. Maybe make a few jokes. Add in a couple of references, diagrams, quotations.
  • And there’s the macro – long form blog posts which can run up to 4000 or so words. Macro posts have a point to make but generally either make a more substantive argument, or they tell a longer story. Macro posts may look like an academic paper with references and diagrammes/illustrations/figures, or like a literary essay, or like a magazine article. Macro posts are shorter than your average journal article and usually more informally written. But they do take more than a few minutes to read.

Sometimes blogs use all of these forms, but it is more common for them to stick to one. so check out what is the norm in the blog you are aiming for.

Thirdly, find out if the blog is interested in your guest post. If you are thinking about writing a guest post then of course you need to contact them– blogs often have an email or a contact form you can use or a named person with an email address. But  before you do this, you need to seriously think about what you are going to offer. What have you got to say that the blog will be interested in?

And the what-you-have-to-say is the key to writing a post. You’ll have noticed that when I was describing the three major post forms, I said each time that they made a point. A message that the writer wanted to convey. All posts of any length and style have a point to make.

And it’s good to communicate the point you want to make when you approach your target blog. Know the point and state the point right at the start.

So let’s get clear about communicating a point – it’s not a description. Let’s say you write to the blog editor –  Would you be interested in a post about my experiences of an online viva? That’s a description of the content, not the point about online vivas that you want to make. The editor may say yes or no to this. They may suggest that you write something and they will have a look. So you write a spec post and they say no, or they say, well maybe if you do these things to it, or well how about another version where you talk about it this way.

Or you might say Would you be interested in a post about my experience of an online viva? I want to tell people that it’s not as scary as some people think and there are some simple techniques you can use to make it work for you. So now the editor has a much better idea of what you want to write. If they aren’t interested they can say so. No time wasted on writing a post simply on spec.  Or the editor might say that would be of interest to us if you do… Or …we already have two posts on that topic and we would really need you to say something different and refer back to these. With any of these responses you have a much clearer steer on how to shape up the post.

So there was the other thing. Fourthly, your post has to be worth publishing. The point you make has to be interesting. It can’t be what everyone has already said. It can’t be well worn or tired.  Above all, it can’t be something that is already on your target blog. Your guest post has to either offer a new angle on a well-known topic or introduce a new topic.

So you’ve got all that covered. Point – check. Angle – check. Length of post – check. Email to blog editor – check. You’re ready to write.

Wait. Before you put hand to mouse you need to understand the style of post that is usually published on your target blog.  its helpful to read the last few posts – or the blog style guides if there is one – looking for the answer to this question:

Fifthly,  check out what kind of posts are usually published.

  • Are the posts intended to offer support? Are they in the form of advice – do they write to “you” and say you should or must do a listicle of things? Or does the writer describe what they do and suggest you might like to try it out? Or does the post feel it a bit like being in someone’s workshop or webinar because there is a combination of problem-description-strategies to try out?
  • Are the posts opinion pieces? How much evidence do they provide and what kind? What kind of persona do the writers take? Detached or passionate? Emotive, funny, outraged or reasoned and dis-passionate?
  • Are the posts reports of experience? Explanations of a useful resource, method or reading? Speculative development of theory? Creative play with an idea?

Then finally have a look at how the posts are written.

  • How present is the writer in the text? Do they write as “I”? Do they tell you a little about themselves or their experiences? Does the story of the experience carry the point?
  • Do the posts have a strong author “voice”? How is this established? How formal is the language? How much everyday language is used? Does the writing sound a lot like a conversation at a local cafe or is it closer to an academic journal? ( How much specialist terminology is used? How long are the sentences? What is the balance of active to passive voice? Use of metaphors and similes? Catchy phrases? )
  • How do posts end – with a call to action? with things that the reader can or should do? with resources?
  • How is supporting information presented  with the post – as references, in visual form, as hyper-links?

Once you have the answer to these questions, you have a much clearer idea of how to approach a blog and then write something that is likely to be published.

You may decide to give up at this point – nah, come on you’ve got this far – or you decide that writing a guest post is for you. Yay!! Now you just need to write it, right?/write it right. Still  a little bit more to think about in the writing …

And that’s the next post in this little mini-series. Writing the guest blog post.

 

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groundhog day in bookland

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YEP. SURE. ANOTHER REVISION COMING UP.

The lockdown has disrupted our lives in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Some changes are big. Some little. One of the little things that has affected me is to do with book publication.

You may have noticed that many academic book publishers are currently selling mostly ebooks. Many of the warehouses that send out academic books have furloughed their staff and/or are not equipped for people to work safely. So no hard copies. If you look at academic publishers’ websites you’ll also see that many are having discounted sales – they would have lowered prices at conferences, but they’re now cancelled, so the reduced prices are now more widely available.

But my concern is not so much with publishers, but with authors.

Some people had their books published right at the start of lockdown. Sadly, it’s all been a bit tricky for those with very new publications. No conferences with book stalls and book launches and cheap wine and heavily fortified orange juice. No opportunities to present the conference papers that provide the opportunity to hold the book up and/or display it on the powerpoint. We’re working at home so no opportunities to put flyers in colleagues’ pigeonholes. And there are only so many times you can put the fact that you’ve got a new book out onto social media.

I really feel for people with new books. It’s always a pleasure to hold a new book in your hands. It is particularly sweet if this is a first book. And it’s just not the same with an ebook. You can’t feel it, smell it, send it to your Mum.

And you really want to celebrate a book. Finishing a book is a big undertaking. Whether it’s a monograph or an edited collection, a book takes a significant bit of your life to get done. So you want an opportunity to mark the completion of the project. It’s here. It’s real. It’s a book. But now it is – and it isn’t. Some people are organising online book launches and this is one way to have a distanced party for the writing achievement.

Other people have had their book publication dates extended. I’m one of those people. My latest book would have been published this week. Not happening. That’s disappointing largely because I had been anticipating a little book celebration of my own at the end of the academic year.

Instead, the book will see the light of day in September. The publisher asked if I was OK with this and I was. I think it’s really sensible. The book is more likely to have some traction if it coincides with academic life moving partly off line.   But because it’s one of those books that addresses current politics and policies the book can’t simply refer to life before lockdown. The text now has to take account of Covid19.

Fortunately it’s not a complete revision. I’m not at all sure I could raise the energy to go back to yet another complete text revision. The publisher asked me to write a new preface which linked the pandemic with the contents of the book. This wasn’t hard. I chose an example from lockdown to make the connections with the already written content and duly sent it in a couple of weeks ago. But alas, while I’d picked an apt example, events have moved on again and I have now had to update the new preface to take account of further changes. Deja vu. Deja vu all over again.

There’ll come a time when I can’t do this updating anymore, and the book just has to go to print. But right now, I feel like I’m stuck in book groundhog day with the text coming back and coming back, even though I want to move on.

I need to move on. That’s in part because I’ve got a co-written book finishing off right now. Fortunately my co-author and I have been able to take account of the pandemic and write it into our text. Much of what we social scientists write from now on won’t be able to ignore the lockdown and the changes it’s brought and the changes that still need to happen. Our timing with this book is not too bad.

But finishing off any book is like finishing off a marathon. There’s always a summoning of the will and a last focused effort to get it to the ( dead)line. A final book effort is about last revisions, textual finessing and then editing and proofing, trying to anticipate where the copy editor might come back to ask for more information.

I’ve discovered I don’t much like having two books on the go at once. I can cope with a book and simultaneous papers and blog posts. But a book requires a particular level of immersion in argument – I tend to think of this as the book taking up a lot of room in my head and heart. Just like a PhD thesis. I like to close one big text off and then move on to the next. I’ve found I don’t have quite enough head-heart room for two nearly finished books at the same time. It’s like running the end of two marathons at once in some kind of weird parallel reality.

But hey ho. Both books will be done by mid-July. One actually being printed and the other starting its six month journey through to printing. So done and done-ish.

And then it’ll  be time to turn to ordinary academic work, providing the pandemic behaves itself and I/we can face up to what the next academic year brings – fewer colleagues, fewer students perhaps, certainly less money… much bigger challenges than my little publishing worries.

 

Photo by James Cullen on Flickr Commons

Posted in academic book, academic writing, book writing, pandemic, revision | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment