What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm for explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender are social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

pexels-photo-340981

This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.

Fairy castles, ramshackle cottages and writing in the real world

I have this problem: I am not always a huge fan of reality. It’s often far less interesting and well-ordered than the world I can create in my head. For example, it can take 2 years to publish a paper – writing, revising, reviews, more (crushing at times) feedback, more revising, and this goes on and on, paper after paper. It’s tiring, and hard. But, in my head, I write a paper that is erudite and important, and journal editors and reviewers like it a lot, and it gets published within a year, and cited a lot. This sounds silly, right? It is, kind of.

I wrote ages ago about PhD fantasies, and why you should have them. In that post I argue that, while they can be distracting and even perhaps paralysing if you indulge in them too often, and for too long, fantasies can be useful motivation tools. Imagining the eventual future, as a place where we are successful, and have achieved something we are currently struggling with can push us towards that goal.  I think we need fantasy – what I call my ‘fairy castles’ – because fantasies are, at their core, creative acts. I could imagine a fairy castle of writing that goes well, is invigorating and stimulating, and that makes me feel clever, accomplished and productive. In reality, right now, I’m more like in a ramshackle cottage in the woods just trying to get the fire going with damp wood. (I have also been watching too much Once Upon a Time). The reality and the fantasy in my writing life do not align often enough.

fairy castle 2

But, they do align. And I believe that my fairy castle papers -and Book Manuscript, and the New Project I Will Start Planning – are a vital part of creating a reality that will actually be productive, and result in written work that will eventually be published.

The fairy castle and the ramshackle cottage can be part of the same ‘writing realm’ that all writers inhabit. There are always good writing days, where you can concentrate, and make sense, and feel like progress is really being made with the piece you are working on. And there are bad days, where none of the words see  to come out right, or at all. I am starting to really get that these two kinds of days go together – they have to. It can’t all be fairy castles and magical days of erudite brilliance, but by the same token, it can’t all be days of smoky damp fires and frustration. You have to learn from the bad days, to make the good days more frequent, and useful.

The work, to follow the metaphor, is to bring the cottage closer to the castle; to bring it into the walls of the city, like one of those small houses in the shadow of the queen’s castle in medieval time.

fairy castle

I have a plan I am going to try to follow to start inching my writing fantasies and writing reality closer to one another. Firstly, I am going to write down the fantasy in my research journal: finished book chapter by February, and a book proposal and draft chapter by March. Let’s start small, so we don’t crush the whole enterprise at the outset. I am going to outline the steps I need to take to actually get there – how many words, what do I have, what do I need to read, write, do. Then, I am going to stop thinking about it all, and spend an hour a day – two pomodoros – writing. It will be awful at first. I will feel stuck, and frustrated, and cross with myself. The ramshackle cottage will feel like it is falling apart. But, if I keep slogging away at this, the cottage walls will get a bit stronger, maybe the fire will get going at last, and the fantasy of the finished work will start to become more attainable. (And I will probably feel much better about indulging in my binges of Once Upon A Time if I use them as rewards for actually writing, rather than as ways to escape writing!)

The cottage will always be a cottage – it will never turn into the fairy castle up on the hill. I am not sure it should. I think we need the struggles and frustrations to push us across important thresholds in our learning and thinking – about theory, methodology, the nature of our research, the process of actually writing, and so on. The struggles do make the victories that much sweeter, I must say, and they help me to appreciate that this is a real job. Being an active writer and researcher is work, hard work most days, and it is valuable work. To me, and hopefully to others in my field too.

So, my plan for this year is both simple, and really hard: to strive to create a writing realm for myself where the cottage I really live in is closer to the castle I admire, and often wish I lived in, so that they co-exist in a mutually beneficial space, where the fantasy feeds the reality, rather than keeping me from it. Or, where the words become sentences, the sentences become paragraphs, and the paragraphs become my published work.

 

Iterativity in postgraduate writing: making peace with the mess

Lovely husband and I were talking recently about a workshop we both attended on postgraduate study, and our respective conversations with our own postgraduate students about what postgraduate study involves them in, specifically the over-and-over again nature of the reading, writing and thinking. Iterativity, we concluded, is the name of the game at this level, and in post-doctoral academic research; yet, it is an aspect of working at this level that produces much frustration, self-doubt and struggle.

Ernest Hemingway famously said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. He was, certainly in my experience, right. If you look up writing advice on Pinterest, you will find many soundbites to inspire you; for example: ‘First drafts  don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written’, ‘A crappy first draft is worth more than a non-existent one’, and writing first drafts as being like ‘shoveling sand into a box so that later [you] can build sandcastles’.  There is truth in all of these inspirational tips: first drafts are messy things: often incoherent in parts, full of both useful and useless information, lacking a proper focus. But, they are where we start any writing, and the key word here is ‘start’: writing is a non-linear, often chaotic, process, where we learn as we write, and our thinking develops with each round of feedback and revision.

This ‘logic of discovery’ is at odds, though, with the ‘logic of dissemination’ that we display in our finished thesis: the iterative process that produces the thesis is hidden from the view of the reader, as they are presented with our neat, polished, coherent argument. Many postgraduate students start their thesis process believing that these two logics are the same: that you start with Chapter 1, and the process unfolds neatly and logically from there. They become frustrated, then, when this turns out to be a lie:  when the truth is multiple drafts and mistakes, time spent writing paragraphs or pages of writing that have to be deleted when they are no longer relevant, and sometimes unexpected changes to your research questions, theory or methodology as the project evolves. This frustration can breed self-doubt if not carefully managed through supervision: many students believe that the more drafts you have to write, the worse you are as a writer; so many students I have met erroneously believe that the best writers don’t write that many drafts, and don’t make that many mistakes or revisions.

The opposite is the truth. The more successful writers, and postgraduate students, have learned to embrace the chaos and the frustration; they have learned to manage a balance between having a clear research plan and letting that process evolve so that they can still be surprised by what they find, or learn, as they write and work the data. This is a hard thing to do, live in a space where you know probably less than you don’t know, and where you have to be okay with the not-knowing, and move willingly between knowing and not-knowing over and over as your research moves forwards. This requires not just mental fortitude, but emotional resilience.

Researching and writing a thesis feels, at times, as if you are on a many-roaded route, trying to keep your eye on the GPS when it’s giving you more than one possible route and asking you to choose the best one to get you to your destination within minimal traffic and in good time. You may choose one route, and then find halfway you’ve made an error in judgement, and then choose to turnoff, and take a back road back to the main route you were on. There may be unexpected detours that the GPS didn’t know about and so couldn’t warn you of. You may feel like you are going around in circles at some points, and in a lovely, free-flowing straight line at others. A research degree, especially a PhD, represents a long road, with several possible routes to your destination. And it’s not a straight line. You may have to re-drive parts of the route at times, or try out different parts of the route than you expected to. But, if you try to trust the process, and make peace with taking your time and living with a bit of mess and non-linear chaos, you will hopefully get to your destination in one piece, and with a really good understanding of the area you’ve been driving around and around.

In research terms, this means getting more comfortable with the iterative nature of research, writing, and thinking. You cannot expect to write a chapter once, and be done. And you can’t expect to read something once and fully understand it, especially if it’s pivotal to your project, like theory. Writing multiple drafts, making mistakes, including knowledge and reading you don’t need along with that which you do, and making revisions that improve your writing, further your thinking and push your research forward is part and parcel of valuable, challenging postgraduate study that makes you a more capable researcher. Doing worthwhile research that pushes your field forward will require you to have a really firm understanding of that field, and the place your research can occupy within it. This means getting a bit lost sometimes, but having the means (through supervisors, peers, reading) to find your way onto your route again.

Terry Pratchett’s soundbite on first drafts is my favourite: ‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story’. If you see your thesis as a story, evolving as the characters and plot take shape, and as the twists and turns reveal themselves through working with theory, methodology, data and analysis, it can be easier to embrace that uncertainty, and iterative rounds of writing, feedback, revision, and rewriting that push your research, and you as a researcher, forward. You start by telling yourself, and move to telling your supervisors, examiners and finally your wider audience – and you make a contribution that is valued and relevant. It won’t happen in a nice, linear way, but the depth of knowledge you gain, of your field and the research process, will be worth all the ‘driving’ in the end.

Weaving smaller arguments into a larger thesis: the parts and the whole

Making your thesis into an argument that is both persuasive and coherent is probably the biggest challenge in doing a doctorate. Argumentation is a craft, and crafting a well-honed, carefully substantiated argument is difficult work. I have written before in this blog about the ‘golden thread’ that weaves the parts of your thesis together, and creates the argument that is, at the end, what your research is all about. Here I want to write a bit more about this tricky beast that is your argument, and how you create smaller and larger, connected, arguments within a thesis.

From pinterest.com

From pinterest.com

A thesis, as we know, is written in pieces and chunks over quite a lengthy period of time – anywhere from 3 to 8 years on average across South Africa, the UK, Australia, and the US and Canada. Some PhDs are research-only, where all you work on for your candidacy is The Thesis (the UK, Australia and South Africa, generally), and some PhDs include compulsory examinations and coursework before students embark on researching a thesis (the US and Canada). There are other forms of thesis writing too, like the PhD with or by publication, fairly popular in Scandinavian universities alongside the more traditional ‘big book’ theses. There may be other forms as well that I am unaware of, but these seem to generally be the primary ways, at the moment, of producing PhD-level research in higher education. The challenge, in all these forms – some more than others – is creating coherence across chapters, and pulling these chapters together around the central thread that is your overall argument. You could think, in terms of a metaphor, about this overall argument as a kind of pattern, guiding and shaping the weaving and knitting and selecting that goes into crafting a well-designed and written thesis.

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

From waldorfmama.typepad.com

Each chapter, though, has to contain a part of that argument – smaller or sub-arguments: taking my own thesis as one example, you may well need an argument for your research aims and questions, and the gaps in your field that your research is located within (chapter 1); an argument for the concepts you have chosen to create and craft the theoretical framework that will be the lens (theoryology) with which you will view your research problems, methodology and data (chapter 2); an argument for the analytical and methodological framework and tools you will use to generate, organise and analyse your data (chapter 3);an argument defending your selections of only parts of your full data set, and how these have been organised and analysed to answer the research questions (chapters 4 and 5); and finally, an argument for the significance of your research to your audience and your field, and what it all means (chapter 6). These arguments all need to keep in mind the Big Argument that your thesis is making, which should be the answers to your research questions. Carrying on with the weaving/knitting metaphor, you could think of all of these chapters as balls of yarn in different colours – each one necessary to follow the pattern you have created.

One way to keep track of this Big Argument as you are toiling away at individual chapters, pieces and chunks of the thesis over time is to keep it visible. Write it on a piece of card and stick it above your workspace. Type it into the header of each page as your write parts of your thesis, as a running header, so that it is always in front of you). Check in regularly, in a research journal or similar space, so that you can track smaller or larger shifts and refinements of the Big Argument as your writing and thinking evolves and grows over time. It is so important to keep reminding yourself of what you are actually wanting to claim in your thesis, and why you think this argument matters, especially, for example, once you get into your data swamps and immerse yourself in everything your data want to tell you. It is easy, at that point, to get lost in all the interesting, rich data and lose sight of your argument, which will ask to you select only some of that data to substantiate your claims within the word limits you have been given.

Another way to keep track of the argument you are making is to find one or more critical friends with whom you can create a writing group, circle or support space, whether in person or virtually. You can undertake to read one another’s work at intervals, and give one another feedback on whether the arguments you are making in each chapter connect to one another and to the bigger argument; whether the parts are creating a coherent, sensible and persuasive whole (and where they are missing the mark). You can, of course, also ask your supervisor very specifically for this kind of feedback, as it is also their job to ensure that you stay on track and make the most persuasive, coherent, substantiated argument you are capable of making within the time and space allowed to you.

In the end, you want to complete a thesis, in whichever form or system you are working within, that represents what Trafford and Leshem term ‘doctorateness’: it is more than a collection of chapters, or ticks against boxes (theory, check; literature review, check; etc). It is a well-crafted, sensibly structured, persuasive piece of work that shows your capability to do research at this level well, and to make a contribution to the development of knowledge (and perhaps also practice) within your field. It is, in terms of the metaphor, a carefully woven, complete and accurate representation of the pattern you created, in all its brightly coloured glory.

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From pinterest.com


torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

From torontoknitcafe.wordpress.com

 

From chaos to coherence: logic, linearity and lies in thesis construction

I have written before on this blog about how a doctorate is assembled in chunks and pieces, and comes to together slowly, and (in my case) in fits and starts. It is not a linear, clean, neat process – generally the ideas and brainwaves ebb and flow, and we take two steps forward, three back and five sideways as we muddle through the complexities of managing a research project as daunting and significant as a doctorate is. It is chaos – sometimes organised and manageable, sometimes not. It’s kind of thrilling, a lot terrifying, and pretty exhausting.

Image from userexperience.co.nz

Image from userexperience.co.nz

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could reflect some or much of that chaos and two-side-stepping in the final thesis? It would certainly, as a friend of mine suggested to me this week, feel more honest in terms of reflecting the process of messy discovery and diversions and muddling-through that is the PhD process (for many scholars, anyway). As you write your thesis in these chunks and pieces, you are probably writing in the present or future tense, for example. I will be doing this, and I hope I might find that… . But when you write the introduction (often right at the end, after the conclusion, when you’ve finally pinned down what your thesis is about) you write in the past tense – ‘This is what I thought, so this is what I did, and this is what my conclusions will point to… . It is, as my friend stated quite plainly, all lies.

Researching and writing a doctorate is messy, but presenting and crafting a final thesis draft for examiners cannot be; the final product of all your messy, meandering labours has to be linear, logical, coherent and all in the past tense. Your examiners and readers are coming to what you have written after the fact, not as it is happening inside your own head, and they don’t really need to see all the mess. What you have to show them is a neat, linear story that is coherent and sensible, and takes them carefully through each step of your research. Basically you are following (especially in the social sciences) a fairly standard plotline, even if the form your story takes varies across disciplines, faculties and higher education systems.

Once upon a time people thought that… But I thought that maybe… So what I did was… and what I found was… and this will change the way we think about*… .

(Fill in the … with a few sentences describing your project – very handy tool for plotting out a paper or longer writing project, and for crafting an abstract)

The way you work that story out will vary hugely depending on may factors, like the quality of the supervision you receive, your own confidence as a researcher, time and resources, what research has already been published that you can access, and so on. As you discover, for example, what the field is that you are scoping in your literature review, you may read yourself around in circles, working out who the chiefs and tribespeople are, and what they are saying to one another and how it all relates to your thesis. But, when you write this section, you need not to be thinking about this chaos; you need to be thinking about how you are helping your readers understand what they need to know in order to believe that your research questions are plausible and valid, so that they will see exactly why your research does fill a gap and is necessary and important. You write it with this logic of demonstration in mind, rather than with the logic of discovery you employed when reading, selecting, and situating all that literature in relation to your own research questions.

But, as my friend pointed out rather amusingly, this feels like lies – this linear, coherent, polished narrative you craft, create, edit and mangle into being for your readers feels very far from the messy, meandering chaos that lurks behind the scenes of many PhDs – and some take longer to find their way to that final product than others. Creating coherence out of the chaos is a kind of conceit, but it is a necessary one.

Writing and the thinking behind it can be a bit messy and mad, but reading really can’t be because we read what others have written to help us sharpen, expand, clarify and prompt our own thinking (and often writing, too). The writing we produce and send out into the world for readers to engage with must be as clear and coherent as possible, so that the contributions we are making to scholarship in our respective fields will not be lost amongst the chaos. Our ideas (and we must believe this) are valuable, and they need to be read, debated, hopefully agreed with.

PhD story

Click image to enlarge

Ultimately, a linear, coherent and clean story created out of a messy research process can feel like a kind of lie, but it is a necessary lie given the point of all of that research: to share our ideas and to make a valued contribution to the scholarship in our fields of study.

*I learned this in a writing workshop with Prof Lucia Thesen, from the University of Cape Town, in 2011.