Last week I happened across a facebook post which went a little like this. “My supervisor has just told me my literature chapter was slow and tortuous. What do I do?”
This feedback is a pretty clear example of a supervisor knowing there is a problem with the writing but (a) not actually saying what writing that was ‘right” would look like, and (b) not offering any strategies for the writer to use. The PhD researcher probably had no idea what they were aiming for, nor any idea how to get there. I’m guessing they not only felt bad because what they’d done was deemed inadequate, but also pretty worried about the fact that they didn’t have a clue about what to do to rectify the situation.
Now I haven’t seen the piece of problematic writing, and I can only hazard a guess at what the problem might be. But the question of slow-ness is one which intrigues me as it’s something that is often leveled at academic writing. So here are a few thoughts about “slow and tortuous”.
We don’t tend to discuss pace a lot in academic writing, but there is quite a bit of discussion of pace in the creative writing field. Creative writers worry about what pace actually is and how to vary it. They focus, for example, on:
- the amount of time spent on aspects of the narrative – action may be speeded up via shorter sections in order to create a climax, and then slowed down, by adding in more detail, in order to create suspense
- varying sentence length so that readers maintain interest in what they are reading. The maxim here is slow = long sentence, fast = short sentence.
– controlling the amount of “showing and telling”. Showing is when the event is revealed through, say, action and speech. So a writer doesn’t tell the reader Fred is sad, they show this through what Fred says and does, or through people’s responses to him. Showing allows the reader to imagine what is happening, and what it means, rather than having it all spelled out for them. Telling is when the interpretation provided for the reader leaves virtually nothing to chance. Telling makes for a dull read, if the read is fiction.
Now, academic writers generally don’t have to worry about plotting narrative climaxes, but there is some mileage in thinking about sentence length. The length of words, sentences and paragraphs all add to a readers’ sense of fastness or slowness – long=slow, short=fast. And too much of either one of these can leave the reader feeling either that they are going through the text at breakneck speed, or they are on a rather long walk up a hill in a headwind. One of the reasons that some people find scholars such as Bourdieu “hard to read” is that he writes very long sentences, with lots of clauses – but this was a deliberate strategy on his part because he wanted to make the reader stop and think about what he was saying, not race through it. So you may decide, like Bourdieu, that slow=good. The important thing is that slow and fast in sentence length are a conscious decision. You get to decide. However, it’s probably the case that, in a thesis, you don’t want to slow the examiner down too much. It’s a good idea to ask your supervisor for some examples of good academic writing, and to select some yourself, and have a look to see how these authors handle sentence length.
But my hunch is that the problem being referred to as a “slow and tortuous” literature chapter was related to the question of telling and showing rather than simply sentence length.
Show and tell mean different things in academic writing from creative writing – in academic writing showing is displaying the material, telling is offering an analysis. Showing is integral to academic writing, because it is producing “the data” for perusal. But, unlike creative writing, telling is also important and desirable in academic writing. In academic writing we don’t want the examiner/supervisor to imagine what we mean when we show them data, quotations or the things that we’ve read. We want to offer an explanation – we want to tell them what it means and why it’s important.
My guess is that in the “slow and tortuous” literature chapter there was far too much showing of everything that had been read, and not enough telling. Too much time spent on outlining what particular authors said and/or too much time spent on definitional questions or minute variations on the same thing. And there probably wasn’t enough telling through the use of summary statements, tables and meta-commentary and meta-analysis.
Let me try to exemplify this.
Say you are writing about academic writing. You might want to say something at the start about the concept. So you take three books which have different views on academic writing and then you write three paragraphs which go something like this:
Book 1 says academic writing is….
Book 2 says academic writing is …
Book 3 says academic writing is….
You’ve shown the examiner/reader the differences between the definitions. So they know that there are different ideas about academic writing but they don’t know which of these you think is better, or which one you are working with or why. They have to use their imagination. And they’ve spent the best part of a page finding this out. And they still need to be told more.
Telling the examiner means showing less of your reading, and offering more analysis. So you might write something like:
There are different definitions of academic writing. It is understood for example as (a)….. (book 1), (b) …. ( book 2) and (3) … ( book 3). While (a) does this and (b) does that, (c) is more comprehensive because it takes account of…
This #acwri shift from showing to telling that I’ve illustrated here is one that moves from a list-like discussion of texts, to an analysis which foregrounds the actual concept that you are concerned with AND which offers some evaluation of what’s on offer. And that’s what most supervisors/examiners want to see in a literature chapter.
Of course, there is always a balance of showing and telling in any academic writing. Showing is “evidence”. But, if there is too much showing then the reader feels like they are stuck in a never-ending set of examples which they can’t find their way out of. The trick is to balance the telling with enough showing to make it clear that you have read the books that you’re talking about – and not more. Don’t get bogged down in endless show.
Balancing showing and telling varies the pace. And this variation, this balance, this combination of show and tell, means that the reader doesn’t feel like the reading is either slow or tortuous. A win. The maxim for academic writing therefore is show AND tell, not one or the other.