Conscious writing

I have been writing parts of this post in my head for a while. This has been an issue I have been thinking about a lot in relation to my writing centre work with the tutors and also with students, as well as in relation to my own ongoing writing. I mentioned a post or two ago that my MA mini-thesis did very little to prepare me for PhD research and writing – not because it was mini, but rather because I was not very conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it. I didn’t get a great deal of guidance and formative feedback during that process. The PhD, therefore, was a BIG step up for me, and for the most part because I needed to fill so many gaps in my research capability and in my research writing. The biggest gap for me was the c0nsciousness gap.

What do I mean by this? Well, two things. The first is beginning to understand what you are actually doing in your research project and, incredibly importantly, why you are doing it. How to then go about achieving the what and why is also important, but as I had already learnt, trying to complete a research project focusing on how rather than more on what and why gets it done, but is not the most conscious or even satisfying process. Understanding what you are doing your research for and about, and also why you are taking the steps you are and where they fit into your overall study is so important because you need to be able to sustain a narrative, not just for your readers and supervisor over 80,000 or more words, but also for yourself. Most PhDs take over 3 years to complete, and are broken up until the last year or so into pieces that don’t start coming together, in the writing anyway, until you start putting your first full draft together. You have drafts of chapters and pieces of the whole and it’s so easy (and probably also par for the course) to get lost. But if you understand, in your own words, what you are doing and why, and how the pieces fit or could fit, then you can keep the narrative going and keep coming back to your path. This makes it more likely that you will finish within a decent timeframe, and also helps reduce the frustration and craziness that are part and parcel of doctoral study. Keeping a research journal and trying to write to and for yourself as often as you can really helps with developing this research narrative, and the consciousness about your own writing and research process.

The second thing is a meta-consciousness about the thinking and writing moves you make. It’s a more focused narrative than the bigger picture one where you are looking at your research project as a whole and its parts. This kind of consciousness is one I developed in a big way over the course of my PhD, and not without formative and challenging feedback from my supervisor. Here I am talking about the choices you make when you write – what words you use, or what terms, and how you actually write your research for your readers and supervisors. For example, rather than simply using modals (might, may, could, should etc) to temper statements because they seem like a useful feature of written English, really understand what the modal is doing to the meaning of your claim or argument. Hedging is a key feature of academic writing, but it needs to be done consciously rather than mechanically for the text to then be coherent and also pleasurable to read. If you use modals incorrectly you can sound too certain and strident when you need to be more cautious and curious, like in your introduction where you are posing rather than answering your questions. I had to work hard on this, and became far more conscious about the choices I was making around my writing. The move from how I was writing before my PhD to how I write now was a little like Neo’s journey in The Matrix – I went from not seeing that there was a whole world beneath the surface of my texts that I needed to understand, to seeing that it was there, to starting to write the code that could reshape and change that world and my writing in a variety of ways. Being so much more conscious of what I am writing and why has given me more control over how I write, and it’s a good feeling. It feels like a much more solid and tangible base to keep building one than the one I had before the PhD started.

Conscious writing involves being able to read your own text as an editor and a writer, asking yourself questions about the choices you have made in terms of words, terms and concepts used and well as structure, organisation and coherence. It means being able to explain not just what you have written about, but also being able to tell the story of why the choices were made and how things were included, excluded and shaped in relation to the overall aims and objectives of your research. It’s a crucial part of the PhD process, and one that, while incredibly challenging and a lot of hard work for a long time, yields such satisfying rewards during and also way beyond the PhD itself. Once you have been inside the Matrix and have learnt to write the code itself, you can’t go back. Why would you even want to?

Finding and expressing your PhD ‘voice’

I’ve been thinking about this issue of voice a great deal lately, partly because I lost my physical voice when I handed in my final final copy and got it back a week later when I woke up on the morning of my graduation. My best friend suggested that it was symbolic – leaving my pre-doctoral voice behind and gaining my new doctoral voice. I like to think she’s right, but we’ll have to wait and see what this new voice sounds like – the symbolic doctoral one, I mean. It still feels a bit croaky to me…

The issue of ‘voice’ – finding one, expressing it, having it sound to others in your field like one that is authentic, authoritative, sufficiently knowledgeable and confident – is a complicated one. It is complicated, not least, because ‘voice’ is a rather vague concept for talking about understanding knowledge, conceptualising ideas, formulating evidence-based arguments on the basis of the knowledge and ideas and expressing these, in writing, in English (often) and in the right genre, tone and register. There’s a lot that goes into this concept of ‘voice’. So, this is justifiably a concept that puzzles and also worries many PhD students and writers. ‘How do I find my voice? How do I express it? How will I know whether it sounds right?’ These are questions I asked myself over and over (and still do).

To start with the first one, finding my voice, I thought about gaining some kind of confidence in ‘owning’ the concepts and theories I was trying to understand and use in my thesis, and taking confidence here to mean ‘voice’. When I started reading I had very little confidence in myself and in my ability to claim the concepts and theories, translate them through understanding them into my own words, and then begin to put them to work in building my theoretical framework. I read some very useful posts by Pat Thomson on literature reviews and working with texts and with the other, stronger voices of the researchers and theorists I was reading. I kept a reading journal and wrote to myself about what I was reading and what I was thinking about all that reading. Slowly, I started to piece together a few paragraphs, and then a larger chunk, and then two chunks joined together, and slowly I started to find a voice. A small one at first, saying ‘I think this might be useful’ and ‘Maybe this makes sense if we think about it like this’ and (very scary) ‘Maybe this theorist is not completely right and we could think about this issue differently’. It got stronger as I went on, but this is a process, and it takes time and is a bit more circular than linear – you may find and lose your voice over and over as you encounter new ideas and research that challenges you to rethink and rethink again.

Expressing your voice – your ideas and your thoughts and your organisation and summarising of the theories in relation to your own study – is also challenging. It ties in with the third question of how to make your voice come out ‘right’ in your writing so that those reading your work – your supervisor and peers and eventually examiners – will say ‘Ah yes, this is PhD level work’. In facilitating a writing workshop for 4th year students at an early point in writing my theory chapter, I taught myself a useful way of trying to express my own voice.

The students were writing literature reviews for a research project, and were battling to get to the point where they were directing and organising the research they had done in relation to their own projects rather than simply writing down everything they thought was important in the research and doing a summarise, synthesis, compare and contrast type of exercise. I was battling too, unable to see beyond the authors’ words to my own and therefore battling to get to a point of directing and guiding the writing and thinking process rather than being guided by it.

I used a trick I learnt from a colleague, who got it from the work of Toulmin, and it is summarised as P E E or Point, Evidence, Explanation. It’s a quite a simple one to use, and it can be adapted and played with as needed, and depending on the level of sophistication required of the writing. You start with the point of the paragraph (understanding that this point stands in relation to the other points you want to be making in this section/chapter and not on its own). This is your voice coming through – it should not be referenced or a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas but rather you, summarising a key idea you have because of what you have read, and that needs to be fully discussed and developed. It may be one sentence or a couple of linked sentences. Then you go into the evidence – why do you make that point or claim? Who supports you in this claim? What have they claimed or said that you can include to strengthen your point? (Here, of course, you reference the work of others). Then you close the paragraph with explanation that connects your point and the evidence in this paragraph to your research or your study, and that also (if you are in the beginning or middle of a section) links it to the next point or idea. This explanation, for the most part, is also you – your voice – coming through to tell us what this knowledge means in relation to the whole picture you are drawing, and what you make of it (and what you’d like us as the readers to make of it too).

You will find your voice as you go on, and it may be very different from the one you started out with, or quite similar. The starting point is important, as PhD students come into this process from very different places. Many of my peers on our programme have worked for years, and have full-time jobs, families and a lot of experience under their belts. Other PhD students I know are in their late 20s, unattached and still working on getting that experience. The point is not to compare your voice (or apparent lack thereof) with others, but to look to your trusted peers and supervisor for guidance in finding, expressing and finally claiming your own doctoral voice. As my supervisor said to me: ‘Trust the process’. 🙂

Using metaphors for thinking and writing your PhD

I read a really interesting article recently by Frances Kelly on using metaphors in thesis writing, and she highlighted to kinds of metaphors: structural and conceptual. As I understand her, a structural metaphor can help you to use an image or an idea to organise and shape your thesis – to lend it an underlying narrative of sorts. A conceptual metaphor can be used as a way of thinking about what your argument and data actually mean, or the shape your methods and methodology are taking. She mentions a common PhD-related metaphor that could possibly be used both structurally and conceptually: the journey. I am sure many of you have heard this metaphor and even used it for your own thinking about your PhD process and what kind of journey is has been or is for you.

I am using a metaphor in my PhD, a structural metaphor that came to me quite early on as I was trying to work coherently with all the layers of theory and conceptualisation that are now mostly contained in chapters 2 and 3. It is the image of an archaeological dig of sorts. I have outlined 6 stages, steps or layers in the process of doing a ‘dig’ and each chapter now aligns with these. I was just using this image and idea in my theory chapter to unpack and fit the parts of theory into a whole, but a friend suggested I try using it for the whole thesis and it has worked well. This metaphor or image has, importantly, helped me to think about what I am doing and need to do at each stage in telling the story of my study, and how the parts fit together to make a whole.

Image from NBC News

Image from NBC News

In my use of this metaphor, I move from choosing the dig site and giving my reasons for the choices, to finding and setting out the right tools for the kind of dig I am doing, and to help me find the things I need to find. I then move on to do the dig with the tools, describing and reflecting on my process of digging, explaining why I did not do certain things and did do others. Then, in my two ‘analysis’ chapters, I go on to show you what I have found in the dig and what I think these artefacts mean in relation to my reasons for doing the study and my chosen framework. I conclude as I explain the significance of the findings within the area in which I chose to dig, and within the field in which I am working. I like this metaphor – I have found that it has helped me to focus and also given me a space to play and be creative while still producing a fairly normal, regulation PhD thesis. 

Like all metaphors, though, there are things it does not do and ways in which it could all fall apart and confuse people who may interpret it differently. So, if you want to try and use either a conceptual or structural metaphor in your own thesis, these would be my top tips:

1. Choose an image or idea that has resonance with your study – either with the field of study, the research questions, the methods you are using or the conceptual framework. It should not just be creative frippery, it should work on a deeper level and tie in clearly with what your study aims to achieve or say.

2. Work out very carefully how you are using the metaphor and for what end. You will need to explain its use very carefully to your reader-examiners so that they cannot misinterpret it, or tell you it makes so sense and to take it out. Try it out on your supervisor or a critical friend and see what they think.

3. Choose something that excites you or makes you feel creative – think about adding images as well as just words to describe the metaphor. A friend of mine used Alice in Wonderland’s journey down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her thesis with beautiful illustrations and it worked really well. Take your readers on your creative journey by pulling the metaphor very clearly into the places it belongs and showing your readers why they need to take it as seriously as you do.

Happy thinking, scribbling and writing, everyone!


Kelly, F. 2011. ‘Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(4): 429-438.

Why (and how) I keep reading and research journals

research journal cover

My reading journal

This post is about reading (and writing), and how I try to keep track of what I read and what I think about it and why I need to include it in my writing.

I went to a Doc week workshop last year at Rhodes on how to keep reading and research journals and why these are useful. It was one of the most ‘lightbulb-going-on’-type workshops I have ever been to, largely because of the reading journal tool. I had been, up until that point, annotating all my readings and highlighting all over them, but stopping and starting as I went to do this highlighting and annotating. I found myself getting to the end of a long book chapter or paper unable to articulate, in my own words, what the author was on about. It was so frustrating because I found that my reading was stilted and my notes were full of exact quotes from the readings rather than summaries in my own words, so I was having trouble writing about it all. I could not think beyond the authors’ words and I was getting nowhere fast with my ‘theory’ chapter and literature review-type sections.

At this workshop the idea of a reading journal was introduced and explained. Essentially the goal is to read the article all the way through without annotating or highlighting or stopping. Then, on a clean MSWord page or notebook page (I like to write mine in pen and pencil in a pretty Moleskine notebook) you write a summary of the article – what stuck out for you, what the main arguments were, how you are linking it to your other reading, what questions you had, what you were not clear about and so on. You can go back and read again and add direct quotes or clarify fuzzy bits but only after you have read the article or chapter and summarised it like this first. What is brilliant about a reading journal kept like this is that you do remember what you have read (even though you think you won’t), the main points are what go into the summary rather than all the points as often happens when you are annotating, and you are writing in your own words so there is less of a writing block caused by being stuck on the author’s words.

I have learnt a few tips to make keeping a reading journal like this a bit easier. Firstly, read when your brain is fresh, otherwise it’s harder to focus and remember the main points and you find yourself having to keep going back to the reading and then you’re copying quotes instead of summarising in your own words. Second, make sure you write the FULL bibliographical reference at the top of the summary – there is nothing worse than having to chase down references later on. Thirdly, keep your journal with you – if you get a few spare minutes and want to read it’s nice to have your book with you (if you keep a hard copy) and to keep these summaries in one place. I have reading journal entries in my book and on my PC and on bits of paper stapled to printed-out articles and it’s a bit hard to keep track of it all. This reading journal has changed the way I read and make notes, and has really helped me to find my own voice as a writer in this PhD and even in papers and other things I am writing.

research journal inside

An example of a writing/drawing page in my research journal

The other journal I keep is more personal and something I also learnt about during this Doc week. It’s my research journal. This is where I scribble ideas for parts of my thesis, ideas for papers I want to write related to my PhD research, notes about my frustrations, triumphs, setbacks, writing process and inklings, and so on. I draw pictures, I write more linear entries, I draw ‘word-pictures’ – it is a creative, personal space where I record my journey, and where the ‘archaeological dig’ that has been my study has unfolded and evolved over the past almost-two years – and is still unfolding. I take it to work with me everyday, and home again. I never know when the muse will strike, and I scribble sometimes on the way to work while my husband drives, or sitting in bed on a Saturday morning, or quickly between meetings at work. This journal has been very useful as a part-confessional diary and part-intellectual work-space. A small tip: if you are going to start one, buy a pretty journal from a bookshop. It’s more inspiring and enjoyable to keep a journal that is lovely to look at than one in a plain A4 book with a brown or black cover. :-).

I highly recommend keeping one of each of these journals – the reading journal for the more ‘academic’ work you are doing, and the research journal for your own personal as well as academic processes and thoughts and ideas. These tools are useful for the PhD journey itself and beyond or outside of it.