theory fright – part one

sam-rudkin-millichamp-619630-unsplash.jpgLots of doctoral researchers worry about the Th word, Theory. When said aloud, you can often hear the capital T. It must be important. Theory.

And perhaps because of the capital T, the question “What’s your theoretical framework?” can reduce doctoral researchers to a state of near panic.

Now, theory is a term which often gets mixed up with another scary word – concept. Sometimes people use them interchangeably. Or they bracket the two together in a way that suggests there is a difference – as in “What’s your conceptual or theoretical framework?” – but then don’t explain what the difference is.  Nor do they say whether it’s better to have a theoretical or a conceptual framework!

Doctoral researchers frequently worry that they don’t yet have what’s required – Theory and/or framework – or they worry that they don’t have a good enough grasp of the theory or framework they have. They are concerned that they will be found out, found wanting. Or they worry that they have made the wrong theoretical choice and someone will notice.

If you worry about Theory, strap yourself in now, because we’re going to talk about theory for the rest of this post. And the next one.

You see, the first thing in countering theory fright is to understand what a theory is.

A theory is just a way of explaining, of saying how things relate to each other, why they are the way that they are, and how they relate to other things.

Explaining, that’s not so terrifying. Most of us use theories all the time in our everyday lives as we make sense of the world. And we use concepts too. Let me take a pretty prosaic example – a seat belt.

As we all know, a seat belt is a couple of straps. They fasten around your body to stop you lurching forward when the car stops suddenly.  The term seat belt is a kind of shorthand; we can generally say seat belt to someone without having to explain what it is.

Now a seat belt is also a concept – it was something a designer dreamt up and was probably even initially called ‘a new concept’ in car safety.

But if you wanted to explain how a seat belt actually worked, you’d draw on some theory. You might say for example that your body keeps going forward even after the car has stopped. And you could make this statement more Theory-like by referring to something more general and abstract like, say, the work energy principle and conservation laws. These two theories draw on and link together multiple concepts – work, energy, power and conservation.

Here’s another example – textwork/identitywork. This term is something Barbara and I literally cobbled together to save us having to consistently explain one of our key ideas about academic writing. We used textwork/identitywork in our books as shorthand to stand for the idea that scholars form a scholarly ‘identity’ – who they are and what they stand for – through their writing. So textwork/identitywork is a concept.

But when we wanted to explain the concept, to say how and why it is that writing is a way of forming an identity, and how and why writing is framed and limited, then we had to turn to theory. More than one theory as it happens. We had to bring theories together in ways that made sense of our textwork/identitywork concept. We had to draw on theory about identity, and theory about text.

And if you were to go back through our books – and I’m not suggesting that you do – but you would see that, while we consistently use the idea of textwork/identitywork, we have different ways of theorising it. In fact we’ve used three different theories in three different books to explain the one concept.

Now, before you say that we were just indecisive, let me say in our defence that we used different theories to highlight different aspects of the concept textwork/identitywork. If we were talking to doctoral researchers about why academic writing was the way it was, doctoral researchers who weren’t familiar with social science, we often used ‘communities of practice’. The theory of communities of practice draws attention to what people do and who they are within discipline communities. Sometimes we used the idea of discourse to connect writers and writing with questions of subjectivity, power and knowledge. But if we wanted to emphasise the capacity of the writer to make decisions about their writing, we chose to talk about identity theory which focuses on the writer, text and audience. Depending on who we were talking to, and what we were trying to do, we drew on different theoretical resources.

Theory. Horses for courses.

And just to make things even more complicated, it’s important to recognise that not all theory is the same. Theories are of different orders, and they have different status.

Let’s go back to the seat belt.


Let’s say that the theory that explained the seatbelt was the work energy principle; this is a ‘little’ theory which is part of a much bigger theoretical framework. This ‘little’ theory is generally agreed by the scholarly scientific community as the best explanation possible for particular, observable phenomena – bodies continuing forward after the car stops.

And it is an explanation, a theory, that hasn’t yet been replaced by a better one. ( I’m anticipating that someone is going to tell me in the comments of the debates about Newtonian physics, and that’d be all good because it would support the notion that theories aren’t writ in stone, they can change. Theories are plausible explanations that we accept at the moment.)

But when we get to very complex phenomena, where bigger and more ambitious explanations are needed, theories are often highly contested. There is no agreement about the best approach. People think of examples that don’t fit the theory. Theoretical explanations are, we might say, partial.

So if we were to examine a theory about the nature of reality – string theory for instance – we would find an explanation which doesn’t cover all circumstances and isn’t accepted as being good enough. String theory is still being worked on, worked over and worked out – and may at some point be abandoned altogether for simply not having enough explanatory capacity.

And in social science and the humanities, theory is generally of this less agreed kind – it is contested and partial. That’s because people and social life are complex. And because of this complexity, scholars have invented a variety of theories to explain social phenomena, to explain the world. Different disciplines can have very different takes on the same thing. So, it’s not at all unusual to find, in the social sciences and humanities, theories being subject to debate, development and change.

And because a theory used in research might be one of the many possible, doctoral researchers usually have to discuss their approach to theory, and write about theoretical debates, in their thesis. They may even, as Barbara and I did, use more than one theory at a time, or choose a partial theory despite its limitations.

The important thing is not to see theory as Theory – something mysterious, something arcane, beyond the understanding of most people.

A theory is just a particular explanation with a history and loads of applications. Theory is simply the best we can do with the data we have in hand.

It is of course important to think about what you are trying to explain and why it is important to explain. What difference does it make to your research and your claim to a knowledge contribution to have a good theory to offer?

And on that question, I’ll leave off till the next post.

Photo 1 by Sam Rudkin-Millichamp; Photo 2  by rawpixel, both on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, concept, explanation, theory, theory chapter | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

getting to grips with ‘the paragraph’


I was recently asked how I felt about paragraphs. “Well you know, all the feels” I might have replied. But I didn’t, largely because I don’t usually think about the paragraph. The question made me wonder whether I take the paragraph for granted.

Paragraphs sit way below my consciousness a lot of the time. But paragraph awareness rises to the surface when I am reading something where the writer doesn’t appear know what the paragraph is. I pay attention to paragraphs when I expect to see them and they aren’t there. I notice their absence rather than their presence.

A caveat. I don’t expect to see a paragraph if I am reading a text intended to break the conventional academic prose mould. Something that is written evocatively, or as a montage or as prose poetry or as a stream of consciousness. It would be silly to expect deliberately ‘artful’ prose to follow the same conventions as your ‘standard’ academic English. Nor do I expect to see paragraphs of a uniform length. Paragraphs can be of varying lengths, even, on occasions, single sentences.

But I am always jolted when I see a page – or more – of academic writing that isn’t broken up somehow. Broken up into, yes, paragraphs.

So what is it about the mega-paragraph that alarms me?

Well, it’s not simply that it’s easier for the reader -me – to engage with the writer’s ideas if the prose is subdivided.  That’s certainly true. But I also get concerned because I have come to associate the monster paragraph, particularly in academic writing, with a muddle of ideas.

As a frequent reader of theses and academic papers, I understand that an over-inflated paragraph isn’t usually the result of a writing problem. It’s not that writers don’t know the basic principles of composition. That they haven’t a clue what a paragraph is. Well, yes, occasionally that might be the case. But more often than not, the swollen and distended paragraph comes from a writer who doesn’t quite know what they are trying to say.

The elongated paragraph very often signals a writer not yet able to choreograph the development of an overall idea. We might say that lengthy paragraph writers have a thinking-writing – not a technical-writing – problem.

Puffed up paragraph writers have got all of their stuff together, but they don’t yet know which of the bits they’ve accumulated are more important than others. They don’t yet know what order the bits should come in. They can’t construct the steps which lead the reader through their argument. They have no red thread, as my Nordic colleagues would say.

And it’s each one of the steps which should constitute each one of the paragraphs. Every separate paragraph is a move towards the overall idea.

The most common way to think about the paragraphs used in academic argument is to see them as made up of three elements:

  • A sentence at or near the beginning which presents the step in the argument. This is often called a topic sentence because it states what the paragraph is about – its ‘topic’.
  • A set of sentences which explain, evidence and qualify the topic. As the very orthodox  Strunk and White put it, He (sic) may make the meaning of the topic sentence clearer by restating it in other forms, by defining its terms, by denying the converse, by giving illustrations or specific instances; he may establish it by proofs; or he may develop it by showing its implications and consequences. In a long paragraph, he may carry out several of these processes.
  • A final sentence which re-emphasises the topic in some way, often through a consequence, and which leads on to the next step.

Now, if you google ‘paragraph’, you’ll find lots of different mnemonics for these three elements, all of them designed to help writers with the conventional academic paragraph. I quite like the acronym MEAL – I’ve found it helpful for anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ the paragraph:

  • Main idea: A sentence which introduces the concrete claim made in the paragraph
  • Evidence: Support for the claim made as the main idea
  • Analysis: Explanation and evaluation of the evidence for the claim
  • Link back/Lead out: Conclusion of the idea and preparation for the next step

But, as I said, there’s lots of ways to talk about paragraphs, and you need to find the one that makes most sense for you. And I’ll repeat the caveat here too – not all types of academic writing use this kind of paragraphing – it is a very ‘English’, read white Western, way of thinking about academic argumentation.

However, paragraphing is important for many of us. Academic readers expect to see them. So that makes them something to consider. But for me, the first point of knowing about paragraphing is not about mnemonics, but about the writing.  You see, we writers can use our understandings of the paragraph to help refine both our drafting and revising.

Because the paragraph is a lens through which to manage the thinking-writing, the development of ideas, it can be very helpful to:

  • Use topic sentences to plan a section of writing

Rather than simply writing a bullet point list of the ‘stuff’ you are doing to write about, use topic sentences as your outline. This may mean that you have to generate a bullet list first, and then turn it into topic sentences. And in turn, this may mean that you have to do some re-ordering. And you may find yourself sub-dividing some bullet points into smaller points and sentences. Hooray. It is at the very point where you subdivide a bullet point that you lessen the risk of writing giant, muddled, page long paragraphs your reader can’t make head nor tail of. And once you have the topic sentence of each paragraph sorted, you can then write your paragraphs according to the MEAL moves – or not.

  • Use topic sentences to revise your draft

List the topic sentences that you have already written in your draft. The start of each paragraph. Once you’ve got them listed you can see whether they are in the right order and/or whether any steps are missing. Do the topic sentences in themselves make a coherent and logical argument? What needs to be done to make the steps in the argument work? This process is sometimes called making a reverse outline.

Just in case you do find yourself writing pages of stuff without any paragraphs, you might like to try these two strategies to see if they help. Stop and topic sentence. Or read through and extract the topic sentences as a check.

Do that and readers like me won’t be aware of your paragraphs when they read your revised writing.

Photo by Wim Arys on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, argument, drafting, outline, outline by sentences, Outline move, paragraph, revision, revision strategy, topic sentence | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

revising with a reader in mind – ten questions


Academics write for different kinds of readers. We are often accused of writing only for each other, but this is no longer true. Many of us now write for many different kinds of readers – or audiences, as they are sometimes called.

But you know, even when we do write for each other, we are not all the same. Different academic readers have different expectations, experiences, interests and disciplinary traditions. And while all academic readers will be looking to see that your writing is well evidenced and argued, they may also approach your writing differently. An examiner, a reviewer of a niche journal, a more general interdisciplinary audience interested in the book of your thesis, or readers of an academic blog may each be looking for slightly different things from your writing.

So, when revising your first draft, one of the key thing to consider is – your reader.

You probably wrote the first draft largely for yourself. You had to get the ideas out onto the page and in roughly the right order. You made decisions about structure and perhaps style.  You put in the kinds of examples and supporting literatures that were to hand and which seemed most relevant at the time.

But now, now it’s revision time – time to re-read your first draft thinking about your reader.

Imagine that reader. Are they your supervisor? An examiner? A journal reviewer? A book publisher you hope will sign you on? Before you even start re-reading your work, it might be good to make a list of the things you think your particular reader will expect to see. Use this list as a ‘critical lens’ for re- reading your work.

Now, you don’t have to make up your re-reading list entirely on your own. I can offer a bit of help about some of the kinds of things you need to look at. Here’s a start – some general pointers that most academic readers look for in more formal texts – theses, papers, scholarly books and chapters.

These pointers are of two kinds. Two because there are two things that academic readers generally notice – what the writing is about, and how the text is written. So it’s important that when you read-like-your-reader you look for both of these things.

So here’s my list of ten points to check out for your reader.

Reading for your reader – the substantive content

(1) Purpose

  • Do you make it clear to the reader right at the start why they should want to read your writing? ( see warrant)
  • Have you an explicit statement about what you are writing about and why it matters?
  • Does your title state what the writing is about? ( see title)

(2) Point

  • Do you have a clear point that you want the reader to understand? Is this signalled in the title?
  • Do you set up the introduction so that the reader knows the point is to be explored and argued in the writing to come?
  • Do you succinctly summarise – crunch – the point at the end of the text?

(3) Comprehension

  • Do you provide enough information about the context for the reader to understand your argument?
  • Do you provide explanations about any key words and code words that you have used?

(4) Credibility

  • Have you provided enough evidence for your reader to trust your argument?
  • Have you anticipated multiple perspectives? Have you thought about the kinds of objections or counter arguments your reader might make?
  • Will your reader see how you have located yourself in the field?
  • Do your citations signal that you are familiar with the field and its concerns? Do they suggest that you are narrowly or well read?
  • Do your citations match your aims –  for example, are you wrtiting for an international audience and only citing from your location? Are  you writing about social justice and citing only white men with the same cultural positioning?

(5) Connection

  • Does the topic you are discussing connect with your reader’s interests?
  • How do you signal this in your introduction, discussion, examples, citations?

(6) Authority

  • Will the reader find you in the text?
  • Will they see the stand you have taken and argued for? (See hedges)

Reading for your reader- the text you have presented

(7) Map

  • Do you provide a map for the reader so that they know what is coming up? Most academic readers in English language traditions expect to see signposts to the organisation of a paper or chapter or book right at the start.
  • Does the paper have a clearly recognisable structure? ( see IMRAD and its others)

(8) Guidance

  • Do you provide enough guidelines for the reader throughout the text?
  • Do your headings and subheadings work to show the reader what they are about to encounter?
  • Do you need to restate where you are up to at any point (where, how often) and anticipate what is coming up?

(9) Tone

  • Are you using the level of formality the reader expects? Have you been too casual? Have you used lists and questions appropriately?
  • Are there any points where you have been sarcastic or humorous  – and will your reader get the joke? Are you at the right level of seriousness?

(10) Readability

  • Do you have too many long sentences with lots of clauses and modifications? Or very short sentences? Remember that sentence variety helps your reader to stay awake.
  • Is there a lot of passive voice and very complex language (nominalisation? )
  • Do your paragraphs each address one idea?
  • Do reader fall down a crevice between some paragraphs? (Look at transitions and the argument’s red thread. Try a reverse outline to pinpoint the problem)

And there it is. A starting list of ten things an academic reader might look for in your text.

There are more than this ten – take a deep breath – because of course, you do need to particularise this list so that it suits the specific reader that you are writing for. But it’s worth taking the time to go through the list thoroughly. You may have to read your draft several times. And don’t worry if you do, re-reading your draft from several angles is A Good Thing to do.

However, the time put in now, the time spent anticipating your reader, will mean that your actual reader, when they get your revised text, will be able to spend time enjoying what you have to say.

So now let’s get ready. Sharpen that pencil, print out your draft – and revise for your reader.

Photo by Tim Wright on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, audience, reader, readership, revision, revision strategy, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

from description to analysis – a revision strategy


PhDers are often told by their supervisors that their work needs to move from description to analysis. But what does this mean?  Have you just wasted your time doing all that describing? Well, in short, no.

The good news is that most analysis, whether it is of numbers, words or images, starts with description. You have to write long, in words, what you think you actually have in hand and what you now know.

Description is usually concerned with what some people call “facts and figures” – this is possibly not the most helpful term. Let me try another approach. Description is usually concerned with your data and particular information you’ve selected – information that’s necessary to develop an answer to your research question.

And the description of your selected data/information could be about:

  • what happened, when and to who/what;
  • what something looks or feels like;
  • a series of events;
  • an explanation about how something was or might be done;
  • a summary of a text;
  • a list of something (components, options, methods, theories etc)
  • a timeline;
  • a set of themes or key words;
  • a sketch of important details…

Description of these kinds of data allows you to become clear about what ‘stuff’  you have.  It’s a necessary, but not sufficient, step.  Now you just need to take another one in the process of making sense. Analysis moves on and away from your description.

Here’s a tip that might help you to do that. Imagine your analytic self taking a step back, metaphorically putting on an evaluative hat, and looking again at the description you’ve written to see what can be made of it. Your analytic self picks out the larger shapes in the landscape, moves beyond the detail. ( As per the image at the top of this post.)

In order to find bigger patterns, your analytic self approaches your description with a question – or two or more – in mind.

And, where do these questions come from? Well, you may need to go back to your research aims and objectives, or to your reading, in order to help you work out what you want to know from your description. But I can offer a bit of help.

Common analytic questions include:

  • Who is this person? What makes them the way they are? How have they got to be life this? Why do they do what they do?
  • How does this text work? What is communicated through word, number and image?
  • What claims are made in this text?
  • What reasons and evidence are provided in this text? Are they plausible? Trustworthy? Current? Decontextualised? (etc)
  • What are the key elements of this process? (without these it won’t work)
  • What sequence of events lead to this outcome?
  • What caused this to happen? What was most important and what was of secondary importance?
  • What larger patterns are in this description of data?
  • What is most significant here?
  • How do things (in the description) compare with each other? What seems to be most important about the differences/commonalities?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in this/of this?
  • What does this add up to?

You can see that these questions go to bigger and more abstract ideas – core qualities, principles, underpinning processes, causality, key characteristics, evaluation. It’s these larger abstracted patterns that we produce through analysis.

Now, I’ve made that sound simple. But of course it’s not.

Description often feels like a pretty low risk activity. You’re summarising what’s already there. But analysis is jumping into the unknown. No-one has analysed precisely the same set of descriptive data as you. And it’s down to you to make sense of it. Yes, it’s all yours to sort out from here on in.

Asking analytic questions means that your analytic self has to be brave, let go of the certainty of description and make your own judgments. Obviously you can be guided in those judgments by your reading, and discussion with your supervisor. And if you work in a team, then your team is likely to do some analysis together and check out each other’s interpretations.

But ultimately it is you – your analytic self – who moves away from the safety of the descriptive known and moves into a new knowledge territory. You have to decide what you can draw out of your description.

And then it’s revision.

You’ve got your first draft. It took you ages and it’s great that you’ve done it. But you know its not enough. You now want to find any troublesome descriptive places before your reader/supervisor.

Your revising self needs to look for all the spots where you have described something: what happened when and to who/what; what something looks or feels like; a series of events; an explanation about how something was or might be done; a summary of a text; a list of something ( components, options, methods, theories etc); a timeline; a set of themes or key words; a set of important details… Ah, deja vu. it’s the same list as before. But there’s a point to repeating myself .

Ask yourself now, when you see one of these descriptions in your draft, whether it’s OK or not. Is this a place where some further analysis would be helpful.

Ask yourself – Do I need to do more work on this before I go on to offer an explanation? Is this description sufficient for me to answer my research question fully? Are there big patterns here? Principles? Causes? Qualities? Processes? Evaluative judgments? What can I do to this description to get to the point where I can make claims about my results? Should I leave my description in and add analysis, as in ethnography, or change the description to analysis – what would help the reader most?

And if the answer is I can do more, I need to do more? Well, when the time is right, switch from revising self into analytic self and move on….

Photo by Droneflyer Nick on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, analysis, crappy first draft, data analysis, description, empirical analysis, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

revising a thesis chapter


You’ve written a first draft of your chapter. Hooray! That’s an achievement. You can’t get anywhere without a first draft. Pat yourself on the back. And then…

Step away from the desk. Take a break. Leave your draft and do something else. Then come back with a different head set.

This is the time to be tough-minded.

Now is the time to mobilise your internal critic and ask some hard questions of your (crappy first) draft.

Yes, you will find some obvious little mistakes when you read through the draft, but this is not the time to get down and dirty with the finer points of editing. You are not proof reading. You need to attend to the big picture first.

It’s often useful to approach a text with something in mind, to have a question or a set of questions you can ask of it. And with a first draft text you do intend to find something quite particular from your reading. You are looking to see how the draft can be improved. You want to see whether the text hangs together, if everything is in the right place, where you need to do some more work, what you might need to change.

So here’s a beginning set of questions that might be helpful when you approach your draft, questions specifically for the reading-the-first-draft-of-the-chapter stage.


  • What was your intention in writing this chapter? Did you make this clear at the outset? Will the reader be able to understand why they are about to read all of the words that are coming? Is there an explicit statement about what the chapter is going to do? Does this follow on logically from the chapter that came before?


  • Is the chapter located in a wider scholarly conversation? Does the chapter seem to say no-one has ever researched in this area, or spoken about this topic before? Not all chapters have to refer out to other scholarly work – but do check at this early point if it ought to, or if it would benefit from connecting with other scholars’ work.


Within the thesis as a whole:

  • Does the reader have sufficient background information to make sense of what is in this chapter? Does the chapter need to refer back to something that has happened before or offer succinct summary? Where? How often – and is it too much for the reader to keep flicking back and forth?

Within the chapter:

  • Does the chapter offer clear steps leading to a logical conclusion? Are there places where it seems that things are out of place or don’t fit? Are there any places where you as a reader seem to fall down a hole? Are there any places where you are reading the same thing twice – or over and over again? If you answer yes to any of these, you have a structural issue and need to go on to examine it in more detail perhaps using a form of reverse outline.
  • Are there any places where you need to offer more definitions or explanation? (Look for code words.)
  • Does your conclusion match the purpose you stated at the start of the chapter? If not, what needs to change – your purpose or the chapter? If it’s the chapter, don’t despair, just think about what needs to go or be put in? At this point, you might go back to storyboarding to sort out where the problems of content and argument actually sit. You may have to move things around between chapters, or add/subtract content.


  • Will a reader see you as an authoritative researcher? Are you leading the reader through the text? How are you using meta-commentary to stage your argument? Do you leave a lot/too much up to the reader to conclude for themselves?


  • Is the evidence you have presented persuasive? What might strengthen it? Have you highlighted the most important and strongest reasons/evidence you offer? Have you considered counter arguments at all? Should you? Are any of the reasons/evidence you offer weak – could they be made stronger?
  • Do you think the case you make in the chapter is plausible and reasoned? ( If you don’t, there’s no way the reader will.)


  • Is the text well organised and easy to follow? Have you made enough use of headings and subheadings? Could you use tables, graphs or diagrams to advantage to emphasise a key point or summarise data? Is there too much of the tables, graphs or diagrams?
  • How are quotes, if any, used? Are they explained or is it left up to the reader to interpret them?
  • Could your introduction be made more interesting? Does it really capture a reader’s interest?
  • Is the conclusion sufficiently strongly focused? Does it ‘crunch ‘ the case you have made – or is it a summary that is too long and will give the reader deja vu? Does the conclusion anticipate where the next chapter will go?

Enough already. That’s a start on questions for first draft chapter revisions. You may have more to add and that’s fab.

But it’s probably useful and good to know that the questions above are much the way that your supervisor will approach your draft – or ought to. They’ll look for the big picture first of all.  Editing typos and grammar is always secondary to getting the big stuff sorted out.

Image credit:

What do you mean: Jon Tyson on Unsplash; Why:  Ken Treloar on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, chapter, crappy first draft, revision, revision strategy, thesis, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

check for ‘code words’ – revising your writing


It is not uncommon for doctoral writers to get supervisor feedback saying they need to unpack an idea. But what does this unpack really mean – and how does a writer get in a situation where they have something that needs to be unpacked?

Well. Let me start with the last question first of all. How do we end up needing to unpack? Yes we, because it’s not just doctoral writers who get in this situation.

When we write we often begin with a half formed thought. That thought becomes an idea when we either speak it aloud or put it into words through writing. We take the idea for a walk, if you like, by putting it into spoken or written language.

And when we write our idea for the first time, say in a free writing session or as a note or a jotting, we write it for ourselves. Even if is in a first draft, we are the people who will read it. Then we work on it, process it some more.

When we are our own reader, when we write for ourselves, we often use a personal short-hand. In writing our new idea we refer to other ideas that we have developed earlier and/or to debates, other texts that we’ve read. Sometimes this early writing for ourselves uses words that we take for granted. This shorthanding is efficient, according to writing scholar Linda Flowers, because after all, it is the new idea we are working on, not old ones.

But when we switch to writing for others, we often carry these bits of short-hand over into the new text – the writing we are now doing for other readers. We forget that we have to explain terms that we understand well. We assume that because we know these words, others will also understand them, and the ways in which we use them. We are writing in way that we find natural and familiar – but others aren’t so lucky.

Linda Flower and John Hayes talk about writing shorthand terms as the use of ‘code words’. They say that we think in ‘rich bits and codes’ which all ‘need to be pushed from thought to language’. And then made clear to others.

Code words are by definition known to the writer. Code words are often idiosyncratic, their meanings can’t be easily guessed and/or they refer to an idea which could be interpreted in many different ways.  Code words stand in for complex ideas, positions taken on key debates, and/or synthesis of ideas from other writers.

It is very often our code words that need to be unpacked. Most of us are of course aware that we need to define key terms, but key terms may not be the same as code words. Code words are slippery little so and sos and can easily slip past us.

Code words need to be translated. Readers do not, cannot, know what is in the writer’s head.  But they don’t need the writer to produce an encyclopaedia entry for an explanation, the reader needs just enough to get the drift of what the writer means.

Flower and Hayes suggest some strategies for finding code words. I’ve paraphrased their strategies and made them more my own – but you know, cite here. Adapted from Flowers and Hayes (1977, yes an oldie but still helpful).

So, find code words by:

  • Asking a trusted friend to read your draft and point out the words that seem to be important but are not explained
  • Pretending you are an editor reading your text for the first time and highlight words that seem to encapsulate an important concept or signal a move in an argument. Then look to see how many of these words are actually explained.
  • Reading the paper aloud to see if any words jump out as being inadequately explained. Is there a point where the paper doesn’t seem to flow? Perhaps the problem is the use of one or more code words.
  • Highlighting any key words in your writing that seem to you to be the key to unlocking an idea. Then look to see if there is an adequate justification for its/their use. Are there adequate references out to other texts and/or a logical sequence of explanatory steps?

Flower and Hayes also offer three strategies to unpack code words. They suggest :

  • mind mapping helps to tease out the various elements of the code word. After completion, the mind map can be sorted into a writing outline.
  • writing a paper which shows how how the writer developed their understanding of the term.  Rather than a paper, I’d suggest that a tiny text or powerpoint slide or an outline might be enough.
  • going to a trusted friend, and ‘teaching’ them a way to understand your code word.

And there you are.

Code words. One possible interpretation of what ‘unpacking’ might mean.

Flower, L. S. and Hayes, J.R. ( 1977) Problem-Solving Strategies and the Writing Process College English, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 449-461.

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me, myself and I


Sherry Turkle wrote the words – Who am we – in 1996. She described how one person and their various persona were distributed across multiple platforms.  She talked about ‘distributed’ knowing and knowledge production.

Hold onto that idea of distribution. It’s not just applicable to the digital.

Raphael Samuel, the British historian, began one of his books by describing all of the people who had contributed to the work that was attributed to him as author – in particular, the librarians and archivists whose careful conservation, categorisation and stewardship made his work possible. He was able to formally recognise very few of these people as they were not actually known to him. He could not name them, although he could name some of their institutions. As well as librarians and archivists, Samuels also acknowledged: the countless conversations that had contributed to his thinking, various secretarial services he had drawn on, and the work that went on in his university and union which created the conditions in which he was able to work.

Samuel wanted to make a point about authorship. It’s always more than one. None of us writes alone. We are always part of a distributed system of authoring. That system is geographically spread, and happens now, but also happened in the past.

However, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences, the notion of single authorship dominates, followed by first authorship. Someone who has written primarily in teams, like a science writer, and never written as a first author, may well be regarded with some suspicion by arts, humanities and social science selection and promotion panels. What role did they have on the team? Surely if they were a leading thinker they would write by themselves? They would be seen as first among equals? If we appoint/promote them are they actually up to the job?

I am also often struck by the singleton requirements of the academy when I’m reviewing bids. People who are applying for projects in which they have to work collaboratively usually present themselves as stellar lone rangers. They have apparently conducted outstanding research largely unaided. They have earned impressive citations and various forms of star rankings and prizes all on their lonesome – even when their publication and research project lists show them as parts of teams and sometimes as second, third etc authors.

Yes. I absolutely know that this fabrication of the individualist author/researcher is not the fault of the people writing the bids – it is expected that they write like this. Being outstanding leading and solo is what is necessary to get through institutional hoops and to haul in the money, to get the accolade, to get the job.

But it is bizarre isn’t it? On the one hand, a research bid is judged on its collective potential and the principal investigator on their team work and management capability.  On the other hand, each member of the team must present themselves through a highly individualistic narrative. Occasionally very big grant applicants are expected to show that team members have a history of working together, that this is not a new configuration thrown together for a particular call. But even then, there are the cvs. All those individual stories highlighting the sole and first authored.

And in those bids, the unsung work of technicians, librarians, archivists, institutional workers and so on, never get a look in. The various mentors, internal reviewers, and grant support staff that have made the bid possible are invisible.  Samuel’s and Turkle’s sensibility about the distributed nature of academic labour – and its institutional and wider social constraints and framings – is rarely seen.

Some people have taken a stand against this culture of me-first. Think of the various collectives that write/have written as The xxx Collective, The xxx Group, The xxx Workshop(1), and authors who write as an assumed, singular identity (2). But these examples are comparatively few in number and most of those I can think of belong to another time. A time when getting a job, getting a raise, getting promotion, getting a book contract, getting research funding was less important, and less cut throat.

I do wonder what it might take to undermine the cult of ruthless academic individualism to recognise the connections, co-constructions and conversations that make our work possible. To give distributed systems of knowing and knowledge making their due.

If I was in charge. If I was in charge, heaven help us. But, if I was. Well, I think I’d start on a bit of rethinking about those solo cvs, bid track records and university home pages

(1) See for example The History Workshop and the work of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies

(2) See for example feminist geographer/s J.K. Gibson-Graham

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