your academic writing is “slow” – some thoughts on pace

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.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, literature review and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to your academic writing is “slow” – some thoughts on pace

  1. Thanks for this post, it’s very useful to have an explanation of what exactly might be meant by slow. Could you please consider writing a post on chapter introductions? Everything I’ve handed in so far (for the thesis and for a book chapter for an edited volume) except for my lit review, ironically, has been “slow to get going, but fine when you hit your stride”. Thing is, I’m not sure where it starts being ok, or how I should be beginning! Is it simply style or should I be footnoting/culling more? I appreciate you can’t advise without seeing work, but a general guide on how to begin would be most appreciated!

  2. Kathy E says:

    Great read & fabulous timing as I begin revisions on my lit review chapter. Many of these examples remind me of my feedback. My original draft was all tell, round two was over corrected to to much show. Hoping for better balance in round three.

  3. Shubhashnee Subryan says:

    You are indeed a wonderful teacher, Pat. Your step-by-step explanation is very helpful for those of us who are struggling with academic writing. Thanks!!

  4. random7830 says:

    Once again you’ve given me a EUREKA moment. I knew my methodology chapter was plodding and tedious but I didn’t know why, and didn’t know how to change it. Telling vs showing, is a very accessible way of thinking about how to tell my story without boring the reader (examiner) witless.. I would be in absolute despair if I didn’t have your blog to help me out of the mire.Look forward to more.

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  6. VioletSky says:

    Thank you SO much for this. I am doing my draft research proposal and my Supervisor told me (in response to my lit review) “You know how to write a literature review. That is all you need to do”. I find this less than helpful. He writes very short and verging on abrupt/terse emails (he is lovely in person) and I know he is very busy but given that I am on the opposite side of the country to him, I can’t pop in for a five minute clarification chat so I have been stressing out about how to improve the (short) lit review for my proposal. I think your post will help me work through that. Thanks again!

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  8. Chris says:

    Excellent post. Great examples. Would love to hear more about ‘telling’ through the summary statement, tables, and the meta-commentary. Thanks!

  9. This is so important, thank you – for me, it is a reminder to factor in time for my writing to ‘settle’ so i can read it from a distance before sending it off to anyone for dissection! Not easy to allow for that time, though ….

  10. ghostgumtree says:

    Very helpful, thank you so much for giving clear examples of how to write and edit with pace in mind. Thank you especially for the active strategies suggested.

  11. Robin says:

    Wonderful Pat. I’m going to flick this to some of my RHD students who produce work that looks like a shopping list, so and so says, so and so says etc.
    This is exactly what I have been trying to explain.

  12. Janvi says:

    Excellent post! I often get feedback in harsher words, if I don’t get my “voice” right. However, it is a difficult road to really “rectify” the approach from merely “telling” to “showing through analysis”. Your words are soothing and clear, it comes from a place that really understands the worries of early career researchers. Thank you for presenting the faltering ways of academic writers and providing strong examples.

  13. Claire K says:

    Reblogged this on oncirculation and commented:
    Brilliant piece on the importance of pace and explanation in academic writing. Well worth a read!

  14. Kay says:

    This is so helpful, thank you! I wonder about a deliberately phased approach to academic writing; that is, perhaps it’s a necessary part of idea/concept development to first write out your ‘shopping list’ version, and then circle around with some tentative analysis – actually I think it’s also synthesis, which I find much harder – and then go over it again with some polishing to refine word choice, pace, etc. So, rather than make students feel as if they’ve gotten everything wrong in the first two phases, why not encourage these steps as a way to develop ideas and thinking/writing skills? Denting morale on the first pass is a great way to slow down the writing process and bring thinking to a halt (speaking from experience). But it’s possible that many supervisors really have no idea how to explain the writing process, nor have they spent time thinking about how their own thinking and writing develops.

    • pat thomson says:

      I agree and I think I do say something in another post about writing summaries as the necessary first step, just not the last one. It’s tricky with blogs as the bits tend to be all over the place. Easier in a book to get all this in one place!!

  15. rglw says:

    Thanks for this post–it is so useful for teaching formal writing at any stage (and especially for grad students). I wish I had read your thoughts years ago because this is an issue I sometimes struggle with in my own writing. Fabulous as always! Hoping your book writing has gone well this week!

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  18. Monica says:

    Hi Pat,

    I’m a newcommer to your blog but have found it to be one of the most useful supports for my writing and wished I had stumbled upon it earlier!

    Related to the generating the literature review, I have found it difficult to balance what goes in the introduction and what goes in the conclusion/implications sections of journal articles. I have an implicit sense of how to separate the two and that how you talk about prior literature differs dramatically before and after you present data and methods, but would love for you to talk about view the differences between these two parts of a publication.

    Thanks again for your thoughtfulness and support for so many academic writers out there!

  19. Comfort Anyanwu says:

    Hi Pat,
    Thank you so much. Am new to the system, about to start writing my chapter one. Show and Tell is easy to understand. I ‘ve been worried so much on how to improve my writing. This will definitely help.

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