Book writing: making space for the ’emerging argument’

Argument. I have written a lot about that over the past few years. If you are a postgraduate student, you have probably heard that word many times, and as a supervisor, you are probably always looking for ways to explain to your students more clearly and effectively ways to make strong arguments. In this post I want to reflect a bit on my book writing, and the argument I am trying to make there, hopefully with some insights into argument creation that will be helpful to those of you meandering through this nebulous labyrinth yourselves.

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The first thing to say, here, is that no academic or scholarly argument has ever been made in one go, or even two gos. It takes several iterations to think through an argument, with several rounds of reading, writing, feedback and refining as part of the process. This can be really frustrating for many scholars and writers: the back and forth doesn’t always feel creative and generative and clever. It can make you feel small, and stupid, and un-knowledgeable. Why can’t I get this right? Why are my readers confused – why is what I am saying not clear? Why is this thing so tough? The thing that seems clear(ish) to you suddenly is weird and wobbly and fragmented on the page.

The thing about argument(ation) in scholarly and research writing is that it is the thing: if you don’t have an argument, you don’t have a publishable paper, or a thesis that will lead to the award of a doctorate. So, it is seriously high stakes. If I don’t have an argument, I don’t have a book. What is more complicated about book and thesis writing is that this argument has to pull through 6, 7, 8 chapters – it is a multifaceted beast.

The book is a bit different to the thesis, I am finding. In the book, each chapter has to have a bit of everything: literature, theory, methodology, data and analysis and conclusions. In the thesis, each chapter has to make part of the larger thesis argument: the literature review makes one part of the argument for where the study fits in the field, and the theory chapter (if you have one) argues for which theoretical framework will best address the research aims and questions, and so on. This is a big ask for a scholar: to create such a multi-layered argument, over several chapters, and hold the golden thread clearly and presently in the readers’ minds.

I read a blog post recently by Pat Thomson, talking about a book she has been writing, and deadlines etc. What stuck out for me was her comments on the structure and organisation of her book argument, and how what she thought she was going to do was not exactly what had emerged from the writing and thinking process she engaged herself in. This is what I am finding now, and what I found during my PhD too: that I had plans for what I was going to say, and do, and write (my PhD proposal, my book proposal), but what I actually said, and claimed and wrote was different. Plans and reality and not the same thing when it comes to making arguments in academic research. What we have to make space for – in our heads and in our timelines – in the emergence of something we haven’t planned for.

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This is not easy. At PhD level especially, I just wanted my thesis to be right, and clear. I was very unsettled by the not-knowing, because up until that point all my previous education has primed me to know. To know what was what – what does this reading say? What are these authors claiming? What is the answer? I got used to knowing, because that was what I had been trained to do. This is a really odd aspect of higher education for me: that actually, as researchers working in the field, post-studying, we spend a lot of time not-knowing. This is our business, really: We don’t know, so we design research projects to find out, and we get much better at moving between the knowing and no-knowing. We learn to be more comfortable in that space. But, we don’t always translate that into the supervision we do, or the teaching. We tend to emphasise knowing: What is your argument? What methods are you using? What is your theory? Students are expected to have clear answers, and if they don’t they worry that something is wrong. It took me a while to learn to be okay with not-knowing, and to become resilient enough to push through that towards knowing.

I am having to keep learning this now, writing this book. The plan in my proposal is changing. That structure – that argument – is not quite working out now that I am writing and trying to allow the ideas to form, and re-form, and shift within and across chapters. The argument is emerging differently. I must be clear, it is not a whole new argument. What I wrote in my proposal and what I am doing are closely connected, but the closer details have shifted in ways I could not have anticipated when I wrote the proposal last year. So, Chapter 3 is now Chapter 5, and there is a new chapter that was not in the proposal, because the emerging book argument demands that. This is not as scary as it was when I was doing the PhD – this emerging of something un-anticipated, and new.

I quite like that my argument is alive: it is a living, growing thing with its own aims and goals. My work as the writer is to give it space to emerge, and make itself heard, and then shape it into a form that is right for my audience, so that they can really hear and appreciate it, and learn from it. This is not necessarily easy. It requires me to hold the ambivalence, to paraphrase a former therapist I saw several years ago. By this she meant holding different, perhaps incommensurate things, together in the same space while the answers worked themselves out, and the way forward became clearer. In writing, for me, this means holding the knowing and not-knowing, the plans and emergence, together, and just writing through it as the argument does take clearer shape, and becomes more solid, and persuasive and fit-for-purpose.

What I am writing through at the moment is a restructuring of the book argument on the macro-scale – moving chapters around and rejigging the overall organisation of the book. On a micro-level, I am reworking a few of the chapters, within this new structure, so that their smaller arguments actually contribute to the larger, reworked argument. This is what I need to be open to: this lack of closure on what the argument of the book, and its chapters, is, and what form that needs to take. I need to actually create, and hold, an open space where that argument can emerge, and take shape, and where I can write my way into, and through it.

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Writing your own paper, or book, or PhD, this is your work too. To not close down, and pre-determine the argument so definitely that you close this ambivalence – this space where new ideas can emerge, and new avenues for the argument can be brought in and explored. Obviously, the road cannot stay wide open indefinitely. At some point you need to shut down all the sparkly ideas off to the side, and all those other roads and paths, and choose your path and stick to it. But, even having chosen this space, this road, this argument, you can still be open to the alive-ness of your argument, and its ability to form itself in not-totally-known ways. This can make the process scary, for sure, but it can also make it more creative and interesting for you as the writer. I am certainly finding that, and it helps draw me into my writing, because I’m keen to find out where this chapter is going to go. Watch this space… 🙂

Book writing: how to really get going (and stay going)

I am writing a book. I have mentioned this before, in a few posts, but it is really happening now. A contract has been signed. A delivery date for the manuscript has been diarised. A book must now be written. Well. But, I am finding that proposing a book, and writing a book, are two different things. How, on earth, do I get properly going?

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I should say that I have actually started writing. I have written a full draft of one of the substantive chapters (i.e., not the Intro or Conclusion). I have more than half of a draft of a second chapter, and detailed holding texts on three more. There are seven chapters in total. So, I have started. But, I don’t really feel like I have gotten properly going and herein lies my current struggle. I have started writing this thing, and yet I am stuck at the moment in terms of moving forward.

I have worked out, for the moment, that what has happened is I have misplaced my overall argument. This is, sadly, not a new experience. It happens with many papers I work on, and I remember it happening during my PhD. I can’t see the thread, right now, as I delve into these chapters. It’s there, but I am struggling to trust it. I get into the chapter, and the chapter’s own argument, and then I tell someone about what I am writing, and they ask me questions, and I think: ‘Oh my god, everything I have is wrong and crap!’, and then I stress eat, and I am stuck.

Now, I have done enough writing, and had enough time with feedback, and revisions, to actually know that most of what I write is not all wrong and crap. It always needs revisions, of course, but I generally am able to make arguments that make sense. So, I can do this, right? [Yes]. But, what I can see from where I sit now, is that this sense of panic, and insecurity, and stuck-ness, is not something that actually goes away the more you write. I think you probably get much better at handling it all the more you write, but you are always going to have to deal with it. Because every argument you make is new, and demanding, and requires a great deal of drafting, and thinking, and reading, and rewriting, and being brave enough to ask for, and deal with, feedback.

Understanding this cognitively, though, and then actually confronting the panic, and fear, and lack of faith in my writing right now are two different things. I can totally rationalise my stuck-ness and slow momentum. But, I still wake up every day and work all day on everything except my book. I have no real insight into why I do this [this is part of the focus of a new research project I want to get going on soon]. But, I hope that acknowledging this struggle is a step towards pushing myself out of this funk and into writing. One pomodoro. Maybe two. Maybe a blocked out morning, with coffee and a sunny patch of my table, and some decent words written down. Setting a deadline with a critical friend that spurs me to have something to send him. These steps are all any of us can do, as writers, to get going, and keep going.

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I think we have to realise the writing – getting going and keeping going, especially on a big project like a thesis or a book – is work for the head and the body and heart. By this, I don’t mean only the physical strength you need to spend hours typing and reading without getting all sorts of aches and pains. I really mean the emotional strength you need to face your fears of not writing anything good, or of the negative feedback you feel sure will come if you hand any of your writing to someone to read, or of not actually even getting the thing finished and letting everyone down. These are all normal fears, for PhD students, researcher, authors of many kinds. We have to work to see them, acknowledge them, and then face them down as we just keep writing, word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, until we can connect head and heart and know that, although it’s always hard work, our writing is okay. Better, even. And that there is an audience out there waiting to read it, who will see that there is an argument, and it makes sense, and is useful, critical, novel.

Back to work, then… More on book writing as I keep going :-).

PhD workout: warming up your writing muscles

So, I am writing a book. I have been sort-of-kind-of writing a book for a long time now. We have an on and off relationship, my book and I. But, a proposal is being reviewed, and the hope is that the feedback will be a green light, so I have to get writing. And soon. But, I am a bit out of practice. I wrote a fair bit last year – 3 book chapters (a few drafts each) as well as part of a paper with colleagues. But this is a different beast altogether – as long and as complex as a PhD thesis. I am finding I am out of shape here.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling. I wrote here and here about moving from one year of PhD or post-doc into the next, after having a break and getting a bit flabby around the writing middle, so to speak. I know, therefore, that I have felt unfit before, and have made myself fitter and gotten the writing work done. But, this is – like actual fitness – hard work and requires a level of emotional and psychic energy that can be hard to find sometimes. I have decided, therefore, that I am going to start with gentle warm-ups, rather than jumping straight into the whole thing (Thank you, Roger Federer :-)).

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The first thing I am doing is starting with something manageable, that I could want to do every day – or at least 4-5 times a week. If I want to do it, and it feels manageable, it is very likely I will actually do it (and enjoy the experience). Instead of doing what I too often do, and writing ‘Chapter 1 draft’ on one day of my calendar, I am writing ‘one pomodoro’ every other day. I can do this. It’s 30 minutes of writing. I can then tick this off, and actually add days as a I go, or keep it every other day and work up to 2 pomodoros at least. If I can do it, I won’t fail, and if I don’t fail, I can keep enjoying this writing time and make it productive. Too often I set myself overly lofty goals, in life and writing, and set myself up to fail rather than succeed. Last week I wrote my first blog post in over 4 months, scheduled this post, and also managed about 1000 words on my book. HUGE success I say. All in these little manageable chunks.

The second thing I am going to do is keep it steady. Rather than having a good week, and thinking I can now escalate to high levels of writing productivity, I am going to keep going at this pace for now. Probably, realistically, this will be the pace for the year, with bursts of higher productivity around deadlines and when I have excess time and energy. As one of my writing students said to me last year: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time’. Apologies to elephant lovers – I am one too – but this is a good metaphor for taking it steady with life and writing. One task, one pomodoro, one idea at a time. This way, things actually do get done as opposed to being menacing, un-ticked-off tasks on your to-do list.

Finally, for now anyway, I am going to get me some writing buddies. Face-to-face if I can, but virtually if not. I am always thinking I should join a Twitter shut-up-and-write group, or create my own writing group. And then work, and kids, and life, and my writing gets pushed down (with me attached) to the bottom of my list. My writing time is also time for me – it’s personal as well as professional. So, I have to actually value it, and myself. As a working mother I am too often too far down my list. And so is my writing. I am hopeful, that with positive peer encouragement, we can collectively make our writing more present each week in the to-do lists, and make appreciable progress on our projects.

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Warming up these tired writing muscles to fuller strength will take some time – what do people say?If it’s too easy you’re not doing it right? Maybe so. I don’t think writing should always be hard, but good writing should take effort and time. Maybe you are in this spot too, coming back to work and PhD and research writing, and working out how to begin your “elephant meal”. Hopefully some of these steps to warming up your writing muscles will help you, too.

If you have other ideas, please share in the comments. All the best for 2019!

On acronyms in academic writing

I am not a huge fan of acronyms. I feel I should start with this disclaimer. I know that they serve a purpose in academic writing, and I do use them. But with caution, and only when needed. I think acronyms are, essentially, un-reader-friendly, and should be used judiciously to create and communicate meaning.

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Let’s start with what is useful about acronyms. Firstly, they can save you space and typing time. If you have a long term you need to use, such as “Southern African Development Community”, and you’ll be writing this several times in your paper or thesis, you can shorten it to SADC. This will reduce your overall word count, and also type 4 letters every time you use it, instead of 4 longer words. 

There are accepted acronyms in every field that you and your colleagues and peers will know and use. Think of CHAT (Cultural Historical Activity Theory) in Education, or RAM (Random Access Memory) in Computer Science, or WRT (with respect to) in Mathematics. To use these accepted, known acronyms is to signal your membership of your academic community of knowledge-making and knowers

However, as a writer I think it is useful to put myself in the position of my readers, and read the text, with the acronyms, as they might. Read this:

SG and SD are realised in terms of their relative strength or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that reveal combinations of stronger and weaker SG and SD together. These codes shift and move over time as SG and SD strengthen and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of SG and SD – where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example – are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following section. It should be noted, here, though, that SG and SD do not necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.

How do you encounter this text as a reader? You can assume, coming from the middle of a paper, that SG and SD have been defined earlier in the paper. Do you find these easy to make sense of?

Confession, this is a draft of a paper I wrote a couple of years ago. This is how I wrote it. But, when I got the reviews back, the reviewers both pointed out that the use of all of these acronyms had an alienating effect on the reader, especially as these refer to theory, which can already be difficult for readers new to it. I therefore rewrote this paragraph (and subsequent similar paragraphs):

Semantic gravity and semantic density are realised in terms of their relative strength or weakness, and brought together these two organising principles create semantic codes that reveal combinations of stronger and weaker semantic gravity and semantic density together. These codes shift and move over time as semantic gravity and semantic density strengthen and weaken in relation to one another. These movements form what LCT terms a ‘semantic wave’, which can be used to map a teaching and learning event, such as a lecture, part of a lecture or a whole series of lectures (see figure 1). Inverse movements of semantic gravity and semantic density – where SG is stronger at the same time as SD is weaker for example – are potentially important for cumulative knowledge building, as we shall see in the following section. It should be noted, here, though, that semantic gravity and semantic density do not necessarily strengthen and weaken inversely (Maton, 2013), although it is these kinds of waves, for the purpose of illustration and brevity, that will be focused on in this paper.

How does it read now? A little easier to follow? I think so. The thing that concerns me about acronyms, even the accepted ones, is that readers don’t always read out the term in full in their heads. Sometimes, they don’t read ‘SADAC’ or ‘semantic gravity’. Sometimes they read ‘ESS-AYE-DEE-CEE’ or ‘ESS-GEE’. And the more they do the latter, the less readerly the text becomes. Your reader can end up feeling alienated from the meanings you are making, and communicating to them. Readers who have to work too hard to make sense of your text, and remember what all the acronyms stand for, are likely not going to enjoy the reading experience.

I have become, through the process of writing and revising this, and a couple of other papers, more aware of the ‘acronymising’ I do in my writing. I have also become more aware of it in my students’ texts, as I read and offer them feedback. And, my observations and writing practice have led me to this advice:

  1. Try to stick only to the accepted, known acronyms, as far as possible in your text. Try not to create acronyms where there don’t need to be any (like SA instead of South Africa, or HE instead of higher education). 
  2. Put yourself in your reader’s head, and read your text aloud. Do the acronyms work, or does it sound odd, or confusing after a while to have as many as you have included? 
  3. Always define the term you are acronymising first – this is basic, but often something writers forget to do, especially when they know their field well. 
  4. I try to create text-by-text guidelines for myself – if I have a long text, like a thesis, I will use the acronyms carefully, and probably redefine them chapter by chapter to remind my reader what they mean. If I have a shorter text, like a paper, I won’t need to do this. I also try not to include too many acronyms, so I choose the ones that will be most useful and necessary in terms of saving words and typing time, and signalling my knowledge of the field 

I hope this advice helps you to consider your use of acronyms, and focus less on making your job as a writer easier, and a little more on making your text reader-friendly, and your meanings accessible and clear.

Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

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Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.