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.

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too much detail isn’t good for your examiner

It’s 7.00 am. Pat is in the lounge room reading a thesis. She is finding it hard going and wants to go back to bed. Big Brother notices her yawning and summons her to the Diary Room.

” Well, Big Brother it’s like this. There’s just too much evidence. Too much detail. Too many cases. Too many quotations. A laundry list of individual books and papers. It’s like being in a narrow boat going up a hill canal – lock after lock. Stop, start, stop, start. I never seem to get anywhere. I keep getting lost, never mind tired.

Big Brother, you know Walter Benjamin explains this much better than I can. You just have to substitute the word thesis when he says book and you have it. He said:

Principles of the weighty tome, or how to write fat books.

1. The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan.

2. Terms are to be included for conception that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the whole book.

3. Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes.

4. For concepts treated only in their general significance, examples should be given; if, for example machines are mentioned, all the different kinds of machines should be enumerated.

5. Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.

6. Relationships that could be represented graphically must be expounded in words. Instead of being represented in a genealogical tree, for example, all family relationships are to be enumerated and described.

7. A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.

So that’s it really. This thesis is a big fat book just like Benjamin describes. What am I to do?

Big Brother, I need some help here.

What’s that? I have to read another 100 pages before breakfast? Gah. Next thing you’ll say I have to fill out a target for the next day too. I read your mind? Nooooo……

Some days I really can’t be doing with you Big Brother.”

Benjamin, W (1970) One way street in Benjamin, W (1978) Reflections. Essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. pp 61-94.New York: Schocken Books

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deconstruction – a useful analytic tool

The very first post I put on this blog was about deconstruction. I provided a tiny explanation about the very idea. There was a touch of history about linguistics connections and then a passing reference to the politics of deconstruction. Deconstruction could be used as a thinking tool, I suggested, echoing lots of other scholarly work, to critically interrogate categories to reveal the kinds of idea-shaping work that they do.

So, for patter’s third birthday, I’m revisiting and reworking that post.

One useful form of deconstructive analysis is directed to the interrogation of either/or thinking. We either have to have this or that. Deconstructing this kind of binary thinking can be very helpful – especially if the either/or is enshrined in policy or practices which affect actions and everyday lives. In this situation, deconstruction allows us to see what we are rhetorically being positioned to think and to do.

Here’s an example of binary thinking: We often hear, in higher education policy talk, a binary of digital or analogue scholarship. Sometimes we are just offered one option, go digital. Digital is the future, and anyone who does analogue is a hopeless Luddite. I now want to take this digital/analogue example and deconstruct it.

In my original post I offered five moves to deconstruct a binary –

(1) establish the binary – A/not A (in my example the binary is digital/analogue)

(2) see what is common between the two sides of the binary – when is A like not A – and what overarching category might cover both of them – what category would describe both A and not A? (In the digital/analogue binary, both might be understood as modes of learning/teaching/researching)

(3) see what differences exist within each side of the binary – brainstorm all the types of A and not A note how within category differences are covered up by the simple the binary a/not a difference (In my example analogue teaching is a diverse category Including the lecture, tutorial, self-directed research in a library, group work, field trip and so on)

(4) see what sits between the binary opposition that is hidden by focusing on the two extremes – see A/not A as a continuum not a chasm. (in the digital/analogue binary for example, multi-modal teaching can have a variety of online and face-to-face components combined together)

(5) see the binary as a power relationship – see which side is dominant, A or not A. (Might I cynically suggest that in the digital/analogue binary, digital research is more popular with funders than analogue – big data?)

I want now to add to these five deconstructive moves the option of reconstruction. To reconstruct, we use what we have learnt through deconstructing … So we can ask:

(6) What might each side of the binary A/ not A have to offer each other? (In the case of digital scholarship, we might want to ask, what can digital learning/teaching/researching learn from forms of analogue scholarship – and vice versa?)

(7) What is it about the A /not A binary as it is at present that we need to avoid? (I would argue that transmission and direct instruction modes of teaching via the lecture and text book is of limited and specific use – and it is limited regardless of whether the medium is digital or analogue)

Of course, this is not the only way to deconstruct a binary and use its insights for reconstruction. And there are some binaries which do not easily lend themselves to this kind of approach, where the analysis relies more on generating topic-specific questions. But you don’t know this till you try out the five moves to see what they do.

And I do still suggest that these five or seven moves can be remarkably helpful in making a start in unpacking a taken-for-granted or common-sense idea. Try them out and see for yourself.

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the academic cv part two – it’s forward looking

Most people think about their cv as a retrospective document. The cv has to talk about where you’ve been, what you’ve achieved, where and with whom. However, this is not the way that the academic cv is read. All cv readers have an eye firmly on the future and how what’s on the page tallies with a particular job, bid etc. So writing the cv as if it is simply a record of what has happened in your working life up till now is the equivalent of trying to drive a car looking only in the rear vision mirror.

The cv is a post-hoc rationalisation of events. But it is one where you have to talk about what your experience fits you for. To put it another way, it’s vital the cv signals the broad direction in which your teaching, research and writing is going. The reader needs to understand you aren’t randomly wandering around in job-land, but are purposeful, going somewhere. And you need to show the reader that the job you are applying for is a logical next step from where you are now. Even if that’s not the reality, the cv game has it this way.

Establishing ‘fit’ between a future agenda, the job in question and your history is not easy for a lot of early career scholars. These days, you more often than not have to piece together a series of short-term positions, some of which won’t necessarily appear coherent at first sight. (An aside- this is where blogging might help – a blog about a particular topic can signal that you have maintained a particular focus throughout a variety of positions.) It is crucial to do something in the cv proper to convince the reader that there is a logic to what might otherwise appear to be a random set of job choices.

Here are three strategies you can use in a job application to produce a more forward-looking and coherent stance:

– the first is straightforward – it’s through an accompanying letter, if you are able to put one in. A letter of application needs to very clearly establish the connection between the job and your experience, skills and knowledge and your overall ambitions.

– the second strategy is to write a short discursive introduction to the cv. In this short introduction, talk briefly about the long term research and/or teaching agenda that you are pursuing. This very short discursive section must connect your long term agenda with what you’ve learnt from each position you’ve held. If the jobs you’ve had have allowed you to develop a methodological repertoire then say so – In order to develop a comprehensive set of research tools, I have built up a research repertoire of x, y and z. Or if your various positions all used the same methodology you can present projects as applications of the particular methodology in a number of sites and topics – My aim is to build significant expertise in mixed methods studies/narrative studies/archival work; I have to date worked on x projects which… etc. Maybe you have held a number of posts working on a particular topic, but in different disciplinary contexts – Over the last x years I have worked on projects which examined the effects of the current policy agenda in hospitals, offices and schools, using a range of methods (say which) in order to… Maybe you can also talk about about developing interdisciplinary expertise. This discursive introduction will provide a framing for the list of publications and projects that follow; it guides the reader in their evaluation of your suitability for the post and what you might do in it, and get from it.

– the third strategy is to attend to the ways in which the publications and projects are represented. It may be that, as a result of various jobs, or because you’ve got an interdisciplinary focus, you now have publications in apparently disparate journals. Some may also be co-authored publications and/or be scattered across disciplinary areas. There are at least three possibilities to deal with this in the cv:

(1) make sure you anticipate the critical reading in any introductory sections and letters by making the claim early for methodological, theoretical or interdisciplinary coherence across the publications and projects.

(2) a less orthodox approach, but one I’ve seen used to advantage, is to annotate projects and publications. Providing there aren’t a lot of them, add a sentence after each project/publication to indicate the key issue – the content, methodology, argument or knowledge contribution – in such a way that it’s clear there are commonalities between what might otherwise look like a random list.

(3) you can group the publications under headings to show coherence but also to flag up that you work in a couple of areas. (This is actually what I often do with my own list of publications and projects.)

You have to make sure that any discursive work and annotations you write cumulatively builds up a picture of a specific academic agenda and growing expertise. It is this adding and piling up that is the evidence for things going in a particular – and you can make this seem very rational – direction.

And here’s something to be wary of. Early career researchers often put work-in-progress or work-in-review into a general publications list. My hunch is that this is often the attempt to signal something forward looking. But it doesn’t work like this. The prospective list is usually read by the critical cv reader as an attempt to pad the publications out, the writer is trying make their list of achievements look more than it actually is. Personally, I only ever include in my cv any work in press, and any books under contract or special journal issues actually in train. But if you feel you must add in some work in progress then, rather than muddle the future up with the present, my tip is to add a very very short section at the end of the publications sections which flags up only those books, refereed journal articles, special issues and chapters that are in review and under contract/commission. Don’t put stuff in that you’re working on and hope to put in sometime. That really isn’t read kindly.

And of course, because life, work and the future are always in progress, don’t forget to redo any discursive sections and annotations for each position! With cvs, bespoke is always the way to go.

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explaining and justifying the use of theory via a sentence skeleton

I started this blog in early July 2011. To begin with I put up a load of small writing/researching ‘tools’ that I often used in teaching doctoral research methods and academic writing. After three years of blogging I thought I might revisit some of these writing/researching tools during patter’s birthday month, and offer some variations on the original themes. The first of these is the sentence skeleton.

When you want to find out how experienced academics writers do their work, particularly if you are just learning the ropes of academic writing – it is often helpful to literally follow in their trail. Sentences skeletons are one way to do this.

Sentence skeletons can be used to see how academic rhetoric actually works. You literally strip away the flesh – the content of a piece of prose – to show the bones – the non-content related language which carries and supports the flesh. By filling in the blanks with your own content, you get to see how the text is structured. You can try out different academic ‘voices’ using different skeletons to see which feels comfortable. You then get to understand the various syntactical moves that are at work. You can see in the skeleton how academic writers actually establish their authority by making evaluative, comparative and synthesising statements.

The point of the sentence skeleton is not for you to cut and paste filled-in versions into your own work. Rather, it is for you to try out other people’s writing approach to see how it feels and goes. It is a way to understand the rhetorical conventions that are used in academic writing.

You can make your own sentence skeletons from the texts of academic writers that you admire, so that you can see what it is that they do. This way, you can work out how the text leads you to think it is ‘good’ academic writing. You can also use skeletons to look at writing that you think is poor; this helps you to see what some of the pitfalls in academic writing might be. It’s also often useful for supervisors to offer skeletons to doctoral writers who need a little help in getting their rhetorical stance sorted out – and who of us doesn’t need some help at some point or other?

My first sentence skeleton post offered four ways to present a short abstract of the thesis. It is here.

In this post I have produced a skeleton to show how a writer can justify and explain the use of a particular social theory. Even if you never have to write something as succinct as this skeleton about your theoretical choice, this is a helpful exercise to do, as it forces you to think about exactly why you have chosen this particular approach, and how you are actually using the theory in order to make a particular argument. The focus on the use – or the affordances – of a particular theory to a particular problem – is something that people sometimes struggle with.

Here I show the skeleton and then the original with the skeleton in bold. It’s often helpful to see the original so that you know the kind of flesh that is used in between the bones.

Skeleton: Explaining theoretical choice

In this (paper/book/chapter) I draw on the work of (name theorist) to make my argument that ……………………………………. (this your major argument in one or two points).

(Name of theorist)‘s emphasis on ….. is especially useful to my analysis as it allows me to think through ……. (name the major purpose to which the theory is put).

To this end, (name of theorist)’s conceptualisation of (name major aspect of theory) is generative for grasping how (name major application of the theory to the argument you are making).

It is here also that (name of theorist)’s attention to …… (another aspect of the theory) ….…. Is of value for informing (another piece of the argument for which the theory is essential).

Now here’s the original.

Theoretical perspective

In this book we draw on the work of Foucault to make our argument that psychopathology has become instrumental in schools and that schools play an instrumental role in expanding the new psychopathologies of children and young people. Foucault’s emphasis on truth, power and the constitution of the subject (Foucault 1983, 1997a, 2000) is especially useful to our analysis as it allows us to think through the ways in which psychopathology at school is produced and has productive effects. To this end Foucault’s (1982) conceptualisation of power as productive is generative for grasping how schools can indeed be instrumental in a field that, on first glance, appears to be the province of medical and health sciences (especially psychiatry, clinical psychology and psychopharmacology). It is here also that Foucault’s attention to dominant and subjugated knowledges is of value for informing how to understand how dominant knowledges of school disorders such as ADHD, direct attention from those practices that enable psychopathology to sit comfortably in contemporary schooling and educational environments.

(from Harwood, Valerie and Allan, Julie ( 2014) Psychopathology at school. Theorizing mental disorders in education. London: Routledge pp 10-11 )

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