blogging about blogging

I’ve noticed that an awful lot of bloggers blog about blogging. Some bloggers who blog about blogging blog about other kinds of academic writing as well. And some bloggers blog about academic writing, but not blogging – but not often. If you blog about one form of writing, you tend to blog about the other. But I have a hunch that more bloggers blog about blogging than blog about the other kinds of academic writing they do. And while I see bloggers taking their blogging about blogging into mainstream academic publications, I don’t see a lot of bloggers publishing more generally about academic writing. There are some of course who do, and I’m one of them.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of blogging about blogging has common themes:

(1) advocacy blogging about blogging – readers are encouraged to think about blogging and given reasons why it is a Good Thing
(2) instructional blogging about blogging – readers are provided with a set of handy hints about how to start and manage a blog
(3) reflective blogging about blogging – writers consider their own blogging habits, be they fast/slow, regular/irregular, diary-like, linked to impact, absolutely unlike other forms of academic writing, career building, testing out of ideas, a way of improving other forms of academic writing and so on …

So what does this blogging about blogging actually mean, I wonder? Well, I suspect that blogging has somehow legitimated, promoted and extended an interest in academic writing.

In 2001, Mike Rose and Karen McClafferty wrote an important paper for a key US educational research journal entitled “A call for the teaching of writing in graduate education”. Rose and McClafferty argued that all graduate students should engage in some formal learning about writing and should be exposed to research about writing. Based on investigations of their own regular ten-week graduate writing workshops at UCLA, they suggested that writing workshops had a number of benefits for doctoral researchers, including:
• an increased sense of agency about the crafting of writing
• a stronger sense of audience
• more understanding of how to make writing accessible within the confines of their discipline
• improved skills as critical readers
• more access to critical peer support, and
• more opportunity to shape a scholarly identity in and through writing.

Since Rose and McClafferty wrote this piece there has been significant growth of exactly the kinds of writing workshops that they envisaged. In addition, many universities now employ writing specialists who work across the disciplines. It is a rare UK and Australian Graduate School which doesn’t now offer some kind of writing based programme for doctoral researchers.

But I think that many of the benefits that Rose and McClafferty attribute to writing workshops may also apply to blogging. Certainly some of the blogging about blogging suggests that bloggers find they have a greater sense of agency and feel they have a more assured voice, write more accessibly, and that they’ve found a greater range of readers. Blogs about blogging suggest that bloggers also find – and frequently point to – new forms of peer support and other academic opportunities generated through their blogging, as opposed to other forms of academic writing. This suggests of course that the act of just writing more may be a Very Good Thing and that writing in public and for a public or two may be even better.

And one more thing. Blogging about blogging, and to a lesser extent blogging about academic writing more generally, has moved writing discussions out of formal classrooms and away from people who are writing specialists. We might say that discussions about academic writing have in part been democratised. Everybody who blogs has some vernacular blog writing expertise since there aren’t yet any blogging ‘experts’, merely people who’ve been doing it longer than others. And there are no gatekeepers who decide who can blog about blogging, simply readers who do or don’t accept what is on offer. Similarly, there are no gatekeepers for who blogs about academic writing. Blogging about blogging is free for all, sometimes a free for all. But all this bloggery seems to be doing something about academic writing that is new, different, and generally positive.

Posted in academic writing, blogging | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

you can’t always write what you want

I seem to spend a lot of time these days writing things that I don’t much like, things that I don’t want to write now, or perhaps ever. This writing feels like a chore, an obligation, a duty, a necessity. What’s more, it doesn’t feel like ‘me’. It seems mechanical and as if I can’t put anything of myself into it.

My list of writing I don’t want to do includes a lot of predictable bureaucratic essentials: reports of projects; reports of activities of the research centre I direct; reports about research activities for audit purposes and reports on student progress. But it also includes some writing which will make a difference for other people and so I must do this even though I don’t enjoy the writing: references; letters of support; reviews of papers, bids and book proposals; assessments of various theses and assignments.

Both of these – bureaucratic essentials and things for other people – are written to fairly conventional formulae. There is an accepted way to begin, proceed and conclude the writing. These are texts written for known readers with predictable expectations and the writing often feels like just filling in the blanks – and indeed there are often pre-formatted blank boxes. Just insert x hundred characters. There is little opportunity for any writer to play with these kinds of frames, to insert themselves into the writing, to write with any kind of creativity. This writing gets done sometimes with gritted teeth and frequently at the last moment.

But there are other forms of writing that I don’t want to do too. There are things that I’ve committed to. These pieces just have to be done and often to a deadline. They can end up being a bit of a struggle, particularly getting a start on them … book chapters I’ve promised to write; journal articles I owe; contracted research reports for funders. Then there are the things I ought to write – papers from research projects to communicate the results to the appropriate audiences; papers that need to be written so that data doesn’t go to waste; books that might make a difference to policy and practice. Things I ought to write hang around in the back of my mind, or on a list of writing to do at some indeterminate time in the future.

By now I’m sure that you can see that most of the writing that I actually do is writing I don’t want to do. This may come as a surprise since I do write a lot. In fact, I write nearly every day. For example, this year I have first authored four book chapters, three refereed journal articles, three research reports and several op-ed pieces as well as co-written about a third of a book. Another book chapter is underway together with a further research report and a slew of conference papers. So not wanting to write doesn’t equate to me not writing at all – although I do confess to having stalled on a book manuscript for far too long.

The only form of writing that I usually – but not always – want to do is this patter blog, and that’s because I can just make it up as I go along, say whatever I want to say and however I decide to say it. It seems to be, in my case anyway, that it’s the requirement to write that inevitably produces initial resistance, a reluctance to face the blank screen, procrastination, attention directed to other more pressing things.

Now the first thing about dealing with the writing I don’t want to do syndrome is to recognize that this is the norm. Moments of aha, of inspiration, of writing what you really want to do (apart from blogging), are rare. It’s only very occasionally that an idea takes hold of me with great force and I have to write immediately. The I must write this now feeling is the exception. The vast majority of writing that I do – and most academic writers and writers of all shapes and forms are in the same boat, I suspect – is in some way a chore, certainly at the start.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with this must get going on the writing. As I was revising this post I noticed Athene Donald writing about her practice of ‘mulling it over’ before she begins to write. She thinks herself into the piece, mentally sorts her thoughts, makes sure she has a starting point when she sits down to compose. And some people do speed writing exercises in order to get the writing going and to find out what they have to say. Many speed-writers make a social occasion of the start-up practice. For them, beginning writing is a bit like going to the gym with a good friend – finding a way together to make sure that you both meet your separate obligations.

But I don’t mull over or speed write. I do something else again. I’m quite self-disciplined about writing and can generally overcome the pesky writing I don’t want to do. (Except in the case of the stalled book and I do think this is a matter of finding a bigger chunk of time.)

Rather like artists who have a studio routine that they use in order to get the ideas flowing, I start the writing I don’t want to do with a set activity, making a list of key points. These are the things that must be said in the piece. Then I add a few sentences to each of the points so that I have something like a series of short paragraphs. At this stage I might cut and paste something into this new document from a research report that I then rewrite. Or I might write a small piece about methods or literature or play with a bit of data analysis, depending on the type of writing I’m doing. Next I tinker with the points and paragraphs to get them in some kind of order. Generally this pre-writing ends up as a long list in the right order. More often than not, if I am writing by myself or first authoring, I also write a short or long abstract – a Tiny Text – and decide on the title.

By this stage I am committed to the piece of writing. I have things to say, I know the order in which they will be said, and I often have an idea of how to bring a bit of authorial voice to the process. And it is when I start to bring my own ‘style’ into the writing that it transforms – it is no longer writing I don’t want to do – it is now something I am writing. The don’t want and don’t like writing have disappeared and I am now in the process, the writing is underway. And because I’ve been through this process a lot, I know once that once I have started writing in this way, the odds are that I’ll finish it.

The question of wanting to write can get in the way of starting to write, but only if you let it. Sometimes, as in the case of bureaucratic writing and writing for other people, it’s the sense of responsibility that gets it going and done. For the vast majority of other academic writing, it’s a matter of finding a technique and a set of tools that will allow you to start, despite any reluctance you feel. The way to get going will differ from person to person – it might be mulling it over, speed writing, or beginning with a simple list or something else. You just have to try things until you find what works for you.

You can’t always write what you want – but as the song goes – if you try sometime, you might just find you get what you need….

Posted in writer's block, writing, writing as work | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

when field work is just pants

Going away on research field-work requires more than selecting and packing specialised kit – various bits of technology, each designed for a particular task. It also needs a very specific kind of domestic organisation. Sorting out what might seem to be the trivial life details before heading off to do research somewhere other than home can actually take quite a bit of thinking time. Well, at least that’s what I find.

Take food for instance. Do you really do need those very special tea bags, or can you do without them for a while? Should you take scroggin* – hearty little bags of nibbles that will keep you going just in case your domicile for the night has inconsiderately closed the kitchen by the time you arrive? Should you take your favorite brand of muesli so you can avoid the kind of breakfast more suited to a day’s hard labour in a salt mine than a few hours conducting interviews? Do you need to book dinner with a friend on at least one night so you’re not left with room service Caesar salad and endless reruns of American crime programmes? These are important considerations. Getting gastronomic decisions wrong can make field-work miserable.

However, it’s not food that keeps me awake before going on field-work. No, it’s laundry. I have a laundry obsession. I can spend days thinking about whether I will take enough underwear to last the distance or wash things out along the way. It’s not that doing laundry in the bathroom would interfere with sorting out the notes and images that I’ve produced during the field-work day. It’s about whether this would be adequate laundry. Will the clothes actually be clean and dry enough? Am I prepared to launder in a sink with an invariably leaking plug using artfully named and impenetrably wrapped non-lathering soap which won’t rinse out? Well maybe. But maybe not.

I could send things out of course. Hotel laundries will launder for you at a cost. But this does assume that the hotel laundry reads the labels on the garments and makes the appropriate decisions about water temperature and drying. You see, sending out laundry is always a risk.

I vividly remember being on an ‘educational trade mission’ (no, I’m not going to explain that) to the Indian subcontinent (no I’m not going to say where). It was quite an extensive trip and I was away so long that either washing in the bathroom sink or sending garments out was inevitable. I couldn’t possibly have carried enough spare clothes to last the trip unless I had, with jaunty postcolonial irony, hired a couple of smallish camels to haul all the cases that would have been necessary. The hotel where our delegation was based was an apparently reputable international chain (no, I’m not going to say which although I probably should) and so I made the decision one morning to send my laundry out. When I came back late that evening it was scrupulously wrapped in plastic and hung in the wardrobe. I had a strong sense of satisfaction. I was all replenished and ready for the next couple of weeks. On ripping open the parcel with smug anticipation I was almost felled by some kind of malodourous petroleum product. I guessed it was a form of dry-cleaning fluid, but certainly not one that I knew. I had dry-cleaned knickers that reeked of something you might find on a garage floor. All of the items, mainly underwear it must be said, were literally un-wearable. They had to be binned. But because I had sent almost all of my smalls out to be laundered, and we were on a very busy programme, I had no time to buy any alternatives. I was reduced to nightly laundering and daily wearing of undergarments that were always damp. Great in a humid climate.

So you can now understand, given this evidence, my enhanced laundry paranoia and my nervousness about handing delicates over to anyone else. While other researchers might fret about the tea bags, or whether to take a little black dress just-in-case, my pre-field-work worrying is always about the desirability and location of the laundry facilities.

My Australian co-researchers know this only too well. When I arrive in their homes they invariably and gently tell me as I enter the front door that they have finished their washing for the week and their machine is available for me to use. And when we are away at conferences or co-writing in an equatorial location somewhere in between the north and south, they know we must have an apartment with a washing machine – and a clothes-horse to hang things on.

So it’s going to come as no surprise to them – and now to you – to know that the very first thing I do when I get back home from field-work is the laundry. The suitcase is literally unpacked into the washing machine. While other people might get home anxious to organise their notes and begin writing out some key points so that they don’t forget anything, I’m sorting piles of clothing into black, coloured and white. Post field-work the thing I most look forward to is seeing clean garments hung out, in carefully coded and thematised groups, on the line.

* scroggin – alternatively known as trail mix and beloved of ramblers, canoeists and other outdoor types.

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kit for the portable academic…

I’m currently doing a week of intense ethnographic research at Tate. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because I get to be a real researcher for more than half a day at a time. Because I live in the middle of the country and Tate is in London, being a real researcher means I have to stay away from home. It’s much too time consuming to come in and out every day. So a Tate ethnography week is always associated with a suitcase – and making sure I pack everything I’m going to need. Once I’m actually researching I don’t have time to rush out and replace anything I’ve left behind because I’d miss what I was there to do. I have to make sure I have everything I might need with me. I have to be a portable researcher.

So what’s in my take-away ethnographic kit?

Well, the first thing I make sure I have is a new notebook. The notebook is THE signature of the ethnographer and so it’s always the absolute first thing to be sorted. This is a Goldilocks exercise. The notebook has to be just the right size – big enough, as I don’t want to run out of pages, and small enough so that there’s not stacks of empty pages at the end of the week and I feel like I’ve killed trees for no reason. I also like each fieldwork notebook to have a different patterned or coloured cover so I can pick them out easily on my bookshelf. After a bit of trial and error I now always use a particular brand which my university bookshop stocks; they’re ones with V and A museum covers just in case anyone is interested!

Then I must have a workable pen. I always seem to have lots of those complimentary biros that everyone and their pet project now gives away, but most of them are pretty fragile. (Cheapskate publicity right? They don’t think about the contradictory effects when they break In two. You heard that RCUK?) So I have to do a bit of pen testing beforehand to make sure I’ve got at least one pen that is robust and that has enough ink to last a week’s scribbling. It also has to be a distinctive external colour so it doesn’t get easily misplaced. I generally have a spare pen too as I inevitably lose the first one. My notorious pen-losing habit, or maybe it’s my pen-borrowing friends, are why I never have a fancy costly pen and always go for the often-dodgy free ones.

I invariably include a reasonable quality point-and-shoot camera with a good zoom lens. Zoom is crucial because it means I can get close to the action without being too intrusive. Of course I also have to have the right camera battery charger and a lead for downloading if I decide I want to examine or use any of the pictures before the week is out. I sometimes bring a flip video camera with me but I’ve learnt that video data is not that useful in this particular project. If push comes to shove I can use the camera I have for short video clips.

I have an audio recorder as well, one with a reasonable quality small external microphone. My current recorder produces better sound quality than the equivalent in most mobile phones and it’s thus much easier on the ear for anyone transcribing. (That also means cheaper transcriptions as I don’t ever have time to transcribe for myself any more. ) I do have a very good – and big – microphone which I use for formal interviews but I don’t do any of these during ethnography weeks so that stays home. I have to have spare batteries for the recorder. This week I have the recorder with me but I haven’t used it. That often happens. The audio recorder is more a just-in-case bit of kit and I’m currently thinking I might start to leave it at home… But then next time I’ll want it and I won’t have it, deep inward breath, so maybe I’ll keep bringing it.

These days I have an iPad with me all the time anyway, regardless of where I am. In ethnography weeks I use it to take some pictures, to tweet and occasionally to blog during the day, particularly if there is a Tate blog on the go, as there is this time. The iPad needs a cord and plug. I also have earplugs for the iPad, as I use it for music on the train and sometimes in the hotel room.

But I do often bring my Mac notebook with me too, on ethnography weeks, so I can type up notes at night. I also use it to manage any other teaching or admin work I have to do, particularly anything which involves downloading big files. I don’t like the iPad keyboard, I’m not alone there I’m sure, although I will use it if I must. Like the audio recorder, the notebook is a bit superfluous and I must confess I haven’t used it at all so far this week. However if anything were to happen to the iPad, bigger deep inward breath, I do have a back-up.

I have a phone supplied by my university which is incompatible with the iPad and notebook (grrr), so it also has a plug. However, this plug fits my Kindle which I have for reading detective novels in bed at night. While I can read on the iPad I do find it a bit big for comfortable in-bed reading… hence an entirely dispensable additional bit of tech.

And because I have to walk to and from Tate I also have to have a small shoulder bag I can use to cart all this gear around. The IPad, camera, notebooks and pens stay in the bag for the entire duration of the time away from home.

I know I could economise on the stuff I have, but at present this is what I do. This is my ethnographer’s kit. I have had even more than this in the past. So, as well as now leaving video recorder and big microphone behind, in recent years I’ve jettisoned portable USB drives in favour of cloud storage so that has reduced the kit a little too. I dare say I really could do with less, but I do feel very well prepared for all eventualities with all of this stuff. I’m confident I can manage what I need to do with these particular appendages, even though of course they do take up a fair bit of room in my suitcase. However the suitcase is not sooooo heavy I can’t manage it on and off the train, although I dare say the hotel room cleaners are a bit bemused by the array of chargers and plugs that greet them when they come in to check the fridge.

Having all this gear means I’m not anxious about breakdowns or missing any opportunities that arise. But I wonder, is there anything I’ve forgotten or that I truly ought to have and haven’t yet thought of? And how does my kit compare with yours? What do you find you can’t do without when doing research away from home?

Posted in Ethnographic kit, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

academic writing voice …. and voices in your head…

I’ve just been to a summer festival. It was a picture perfect weekend. The weather was hot. While it was humid, it wasn’t so sticky that it brought the mosquitoes out. There was no need for wellies, the ground was dry and firm, the grass green, the estuary water warm, the evening breeze cool, the flower beds vibrant with blowsy annuals. It was a quintessentially bucolic summer occasion.

It was of those festivals where there is a mix of events. Some music, some books, some art, some cooking, some theatre. I like to mainly hang out around the spoken word events and break this up occasionally with music. Inevitably I go to listen to writers. They, of course, are there to talk up their latest book. However, they also often talk about writing and the writing process. Their conversations are not usually of the I-write-every-morning-for-two-hours variety. It’s more a case of this-is-what-I-was-thinking-about and I’ve-been-wanting-to-do-something-about-this-for-some-time and I-started-working-on-that-but-then-this-just-demanded-my-attention…

Quite often when I hear people discussing their fiction/non fiction writing it prompts me to think about what of their experiences are common with academic writers and their/our writing. And so it was when, at this festival, I heard Rachel Cooke note in passing the sheer chutzpah it takes to make a mark on the blank screen. A writer often has, she suggested, a distinct combination of egos: large – I have something important to say – and fragile – I am really upset by this mis-reading of my work. The large ego has to dominate the writing, she suggested, in order to actually write a sentence and then fill the blank screen. The fragile ego can’t get in the way.

Now this idea seems to make sense for academic writing too. Many academics find it difficult to start off a new text. They experience the blank screen or page as something very intimidating and off-putting. I wondered, as Cooke made these comments, whether her notion – a fresh piece of writing as a matter of chutzpah – could be helpful for academic writers. What if starting to write is not a question of being adequate or smart, or of writing the perfect sentence, but is just about being brave, having a go, taking a risk, of sending the fragile ego off for a little rest? Is this a more helpful way to approach the next academic writing task? Is it easier to be courageous than feel obliged to be clever?

Occasionally I hear a writer at a festival say something that makes me think about the distinctiveness of academic writing and the very particular challenges it has. I am jolted into considering how academic writing is NOT like fiction/non fiction. At the most recent festival this sudden awareness happened during a session with one my favorite British novelists, Hanif Kureishi. He was asked whether there were young novelists whose writing he liked, and who he read. Indeed, what was he reading now? Kureishi replied that he was reading the writers of his childhood. His list included PG Wodehouse. P G Wodehouse? Bertie Wooster and Jeeves? Yes indeed, that Wodehouse. Kureishi was reading Wodehouse, he said, for the elegant structure and organisation. And he should be so lucky, Kureishi told us, to tell a joke as well as Wodehouse. But it was a problem for a writer to read other people’s books. Kureishi didn’t want to end up with other writers’ voices in his head when he was writing. It might get in the way of his own voice. It was perhaps better to read translations where another writer’s voice was muffled by the translator.

Now this idea of having other writers’ voices in your head really struck me. It wasn’t just that I was surprised that someone like Kureishi would still feel that he had to work at his writing voice, and that he presented voice as a rather vulnerable accomplishment, always in formation, always liable to be overtaken by another that was strong and eloquent, well-modulated. Yes, I was surprised by that. But I also realised at the same moment that academic writers must, because of the very nature of scholarship, always be reading other people’s work. We must always be in conversation with other writers. We must always, using Kureishi’s distinctive formulation, have other writers’ voices in our heads.

So is this, I have been wondering since hearing Kureishi speak, why so many academics struggle with finding their own academic writing voice? We have a cacophony of other authors in our heads and thus find it hard to disentangle our own particular refrain? I’m still mulling over this possibility and Kureishi’s words. I’m also thinking about daily writing as an exercise in working on academic writing voice, of perhaps overpowering those other academic voices. And I’m pondering blogging as practice for developing academic voice and drowning out some of the other voices, even if on a temporary basis …

What do you think? Does the notion of having other voices in your head make sense of something difficult to and for you too?

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thesis to book – finding your author ‘voice’

At the start of a new book, Barbara and I always think about our joint ‘voice’. We decide first of all how we are going to talk about ourselves, and how we are going to address the reader. We find that focusing on this writer-reader relationship is a good beginning, an orientation to all of the writing to come. That’s because it’s not simply a question of choosing a couple of pronouns but thinking about the impressions and relationship that those pronouns create.

The choices for addressing the reader are deceptively simple. Is it ‘you’? Do you want to address the reader directly or not? Most advice books written for doctoral researchers use the second person pronoun. The advice givers speak directly to you – just like this blog. But Barbara and I decided that in our first two books about writing that we would avoid ‘you’, and talk instead about supervisors and doctoral researchers as a group – we hoped that this would give readers the choice of whether to identify with one or the other – or not at all. However, in our current book – a resource book written just for doctoral researchers – we have gone for ‘you’ because we want to create the sense that we are actually in conversation with each and every reader.

The pronoun choices for the writer are also deceptively simple – it’s either I, we or (absent). Of course Barbara and I can talk about ‘we’ when we write, because there’s two of us writing. However, we sometimes get ourselves into a muddle because we lapse into a royal we, a general and communal and unspecific we. And we’re not the only ones who have we trouble.

William Germano’s “From dissertation to book” has a useful little section on what he calls “pronoun trouble”. He has something to say about this ambiguous ‘we’.

“As we have seen”, begins the dissertation, and so I find myself looking around quickly to see who is peering over my shoulder. The imaginary collective reader is a commonplace of collective writing. Thousands of dissertations, as well as scholarly articles and monographs, appeal to the slippery “we”. Is the writer using an intimate “we” – just herself-as-writer and me-as-her-reader? Perhaps her “we” is more crowded, a pack of like-minded scholars of which she is, however modestly, at the vanguard? Or is the “we” meant to write me, too, into this larger scholarly community? I might be flattered that the writer thinks I’m smart enough to join in, but as a reader I don’t much like being told what I think”. (105)

Germano doesn’t like ‘we’. He’s a former publisher now turned academic and it’s not just ‘we’ he takes exception to. He clearly doesn’t like a lot of scholarly writing conventions. He may not be able to take on the whole academic writing community, but he does want to do something helpful in relation to writing academic books. So his advice is to avoid ‘we’. He’s also not that keen on ‘I’, and not because some disciplines avoid it, and some supervisors counsel against it. No, his concern is that too much ‘I’ can become, as he puts it, “wearisome”.

Germano is also quite cognizant of the problem with the (absent) narrator who speaks with great authority from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, refusing to reveal themselves. But he refrains from advocating any particular pronoun use. However, he does suggest that both a self-aware, judicious ‘I’ or a lively (absent) might be OK. Pronouns might be tricky, but they aren’t really the problem, he asserts, addressing his reader directly:

In the best academic writing, the author’s persona is present through the choice of language and the clarity of argument, but not through assertive pronouns. Let your facts or your interpretation speak. (104).

Germano notes that writing as (absent) is often associated with writing in the passive voice. And it is this combination – (absent) plus passive voice – which produces that sense of a dry, even, factual, distanced, impersonal writer…. Anything but lively then… Writing which does not speak to its reader. The reader has no way to connect to the writer because the subject matter is presented in the same monotone as legal and bureaucratic documents. Germano has something witty to say about this too.

…someone who writes in the passive hopes no-one will notice that she’s there. It’s a cozy place to hide. Writing can be like going through customs. “Anything to declare?” asks a flint-eyed customs officer. Most people rely on a cheerful smile and a shake of the head, hoping there won’t be any questions about the extra bottle of wine or the embroidered tablecloth. Most academic writing hopes to slither through customs, too. Instead of a smile, scholarly writers too often depend on the passive, fearful that a direct statement might open them up to equally direct inspection. (113)

Scholars are often encouraged to write inert prose, Germano observes – he doesn’t understand why, but he suspects “the dynamics of academia tolerate only limited individuality, because the training of scholars remains in many ways a guild process…” (106)

One of the things I like most about Germano’s chapter “Making process speak” is his notion that writing the book of the thesis is an opportunity to do the work on writing ‘voice’ and ‘style’ that wasn’t encouraged/required/possible in the dissertation. This should be thought of as a chance to build on the dissertation, a time to, as he says, “find out who your writing self is.” (106)

So rather than think of the minimum amount of revision possible, the idea Germano promotes, and I agree, is to think of the conversion of the thesis to book as a time to hone your writing craft. After all, you know what to say. You made a contribution in the thesis and it was recognized. You were successful. The book is the time to really focus on how the research is communicated to a wider group of readers. And considering the writer-reader relationship is not a bad place to start.

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thesis to book: you may need to change your writing ‘voice’

Unlike thesis examiners, academic book publishers are looking for something that is, above all else, a decent read. A first book is by definition written by an author who isn’t widely known, so publishers will be particularly keen to see if they can write text that a casual browser will be attracted to.

Imagine the scenarios…. the potential reader has stumbled across the book of the thesis online and can easily get at a few pages….. the book of the thesis is on a stand at a conference and a potential reader picks it up… the book reviewer is sent the book of the thesis out of the blue. The publisher worries that a potential book of the thesis reader might want to give up after a few pages, be put off by obscure and difficult writing.

Academic publishers are not silly people. They really do understand that thesis writers often haven’t had a lot of time and support to attend to their narrative ‘voice’. They know that being readable may not have been a priority during the doctorate. And after all, it’s not as if the PhD is alone in being hard to read. It’s quite possible to go out and pick up a published book, written by a terribly smart person, and find writing that is dense and difficult. But the publisher is hoping that one of these dense tomes isn’t going to be the model for the book-of-the-thesis that they are being offered.

So what do publishers want? Well, they often have an aversion to what might be described describe as ‘thesis language’. They understand this to be:

• An over-reliance on citations and references, page after page bristling with brackets. While it is clearly important to back up and acknowledge where your work builds on that of others, it doesn’t mean listing everything you’ve read.

• The over-use of statements of intent – I am now going to – and summary – I have argued that… lots of words are taken up with explaining what is about to come and what just happened. A book reader, as opposed to a thesis examiner, is less likely to be tolerant of a surfeit of signposting.

• An excess of the passive voice. While some passives are necessary, too much creates a kind of stuffy distance. If you always write in the passive then you’ll produce a sort of pseudo-scientific style that many contemporary readers find alienating.

• Sentences are too complex. Sentences are choked with phrases and clauses separated by commas, semi-colons and colons – and/or cobbled together with conjunctions. It’s worse when there are whole paragraphs of these complex sentences strung together one after the other. This can make the reader feel is if they are swallowing cotton wool.

• Too much thingifying, too many nominalisations altogether. When you make lively little words into big abstract things, you not only hide who does what, but you also create what Helen Sword calls zombie nouns. Some nominalization is necessary to sum up the key concepts that you are working with. But you string lots of them together readers can’t work out which is actually key to your argument. You might want to watch this small clip about zombie nouns which explains this in more detail, with examples.

So the first step in finding your book, as opposed to thesis, voice is to get rid of the excesses of thesis style. You can stop doing it now, hurrah. You’re not being examined any more. These writing habits have done their job, they can now rest easy.

And, having talked about what you need to stop, in the next post I’ll look at what you might want to start doing as an alternative to thesis talk.

Posted in Helen Sword, nominalisation, signposts, thesis, thingification | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments