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.

A link between writing book reviews and writing your literature review

Last year I published two book reviews. In my country’s higher education system, I get no ‘brownie points’ for writing these, as they accrue no status or subsidy in terms of being ‘proper research’. I know, as a journal editor, that it is notoriously difficult for many journals to fill their book review sections, because producing good book reviews is time consuming, and in many research-incentive systems around the world, they don’t really count as being an activity that ‘pays you back’ as much as journal articles, book chapters or books do. Yet, I think they are a useful and important activity for postgraduate students to consider engaging in.

Firstly, you get a free book. Considering how little funding postgraduate students tend to have for research materials like expensive, pristine hard cover books, a free book is a very cool thing to get your hands on. If you choose to review titles that are connected to your research (and you really should not be doing otherwise), you will have free access to the latest research in your field, and you will be able to join a conversation through that review with the author, and others in the field.

Which brings me to my second reason why I think writing book reviews is a good PhD-related practice: you have an opportunity to make a small argument in relation to the book, and introduce yourself as a scholar in the field. Ideally, a book review is not a precis of the book you have just read. The worst kind of book review takes the reader chapter by chapter through the book, and tells them more or less what they can find by looking at the Table of Contents, and skimming the book themselves. The better book reviews, the ones that add a critical voice to the process of reviewing, identify the central argument of the book, locate that argument within the broader field, and consider the significance of what the author has said, who the book would be relevant for, and why.

Writing this kind of critical book review is a useful activity for scholars working on finding their own voice within the research conversation that want to join, which is a lengthy process that involves reading, commenting on and reviewing a small mountain of published research in your field of study. Learning how to write a critical book review would teach you how to better identify an argument made by an author, consider the ways in which they have convinced you of the veracity of the argument (or not), and what kind of contribution they have made to research in your field. You would have to locate your own point of view on the argument, and express this through the review, not seeking to criticise, but rather to critique, and offer readers of your review insight into why the research in the book matters. Thus, learning to write critical book reviews could really help you to develop a more critical literature review – one that goes beyond summarising and synthesising, comparing and contrasting, and rather shows your command of the selected research you have read and connected, and how it all relates to the study you are engaged in.

I certainly have found writing book reviews a useful exercise for honing my thinking, and for teaching myself to express my ideas more succinctly and clearly. Most journals prefer reviews that are no longer than about 800 words, so you need to learn to make your points directly, concisely and clearly so as to say everything you need to say about the book within the word limit. I have also found them helpful for teaching myself how to get to the point more directly: what is the main argument? Why is this a significant argument? What is the main evidence the authors uses to make this argument? Are there any areas that are fuzzy, underdeveloped or that point to further research? Who could benefit from reading this book? By following this basic set of questions, and making notes as a I read that I then develop into a draft that starts with the argument of the book, and where it fits into its field of scholarship. I can then refine the review to be as clear and concise as possible.

I believe all PhD and early postdoc scholars could benefit from writing book reviews – free books, ongoing opportunities to improve your ability to write succinctly and offer useful critique of texts in your field, and a way of getting your name and an idea or two you have out into the wider world as you work on the more ‘valuable’ publications, like those book chapters, articles and books.

 

Endnote: most journals have review editors. If you are keen to review a book, write to the review editor with your brief proposal of which book you’d like to review and why you think the journal would be a good home for the review – have a careful look at the aims and scope of the journal, and tailor your proposal accordingly. If they accept, they’ll give you a deadline and have the publisher send you the book. There are various versions of this, so make sure you find out exactly what the review requirements and deadlines are before you get reading and writing. Good luck!

What if my thesis is not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written?

I’m starting this post with a confession: I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but I wanted to. I got things wrong in my thesis, and I didn’t really push myself as hard as I could have in the analysis of my data. While I am proud of what I achieved, and (mostly) believe the positive praise I received from my three expert examiners, I am mostly convinced that I took it a little too easy on myself and could have produced an even better piece of work had I taken more time, or read more, or written more drafts or tried harder.

I didn’t write the Most Awesome Thesis Ever. And I really wanted to. I wanted it to be the best thesis my examiners had ever read. I wanted them to tell me it should be a book, and that they had sent it to a colleague at Oxford University Press, who would be in touch to fall all over me with heaps of praise and a book contract. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, is I graduated. On a sunny, happy day in April with my mum, husband, kids and friends watching me and cheering me on. I received well-deserved praise from my examiners, and I made my supervisor proud.  I earned a title I finally feel comfortable with. I gained a great deal from the whole process. But, I have no book contract, no ‘this is the best thing I have ever read’ comments, no awards and accolades.

Image from lexisnexis.com

Image from lexisnexis.com

When I started out, I told everyone that I would be happy to get minor revisions and mostly complimentary comments, and that the aim was really to do the work, earn the degree, and progress in my academic career, rather than to write The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. It was kind of true. But what was also true, and something I kept to myself, was that I really did want to write the other thesis – the Most Awesome one. I really wanted to be the very best. I was a top student at school, winning academic prizes and striving to get top marks. This drive was tempered in my undergraduate years and during my early postgraduate study, when I realised I was a much smaller fish in a much bigger pond. It was hard to be good but not the best, but I got used to it for the most part. Between my MA and PhD I took a 5-year break, so starting my PhD in 2010 I felt a little older and wiser than I had been but, oddly, this must-be-top-in-class-or-nothing-counts-for-anything drive returned.

This drive worked for and against me in certain ways. Doing a PhD part-time when you have a full-time life and job is really difficult, and most days reading, writing and thinking about the doctorate just feels like a bridge too far when your kids have school stuff on, your partner wants time with you, and there are work deadlines looming. Having the ‘I must be the best or I will be nothing’ drive can push you on when you feel you just can’t push yourself. That drive did keep me going when things got tough and I wanted to just stop and have a really long nap.

But, on the flipside having the ‘best or bust’ mentality made it hard for me to celebrate positive feedback because I focused on all the negatives and things I had missed or gotten wrong. This mentality makes it hard for me to celebrate small successes and see these as big gains, because I want all my writing and work to be the Best Ever. I don’t really want to just be okay, or even good. I want to be awesome, and I want other people to think I am too. So, I can get really bogged down in feeling like ‘my work is crap, actually, and so why should I even bother because no one will even read this paper, much less cite it?’

Is this silly? Perhaps. Am I alone here? Nope. I think anyone who has been really good at something in some part of their lives has come to like the recognition and validation that comes with being really good, or even the best. Not being really good or the best becomes harder to live with, because it means perhaps less recognition, less validation from those external people and sources. It means having to find more of that within yourself, and that self-belief is not always easy to offer yourself on a sustained basis. It helps to have others telling you that you are actually awesome, and good, and more than okay, right? But it also helps if you know that they are speaking the truth (or some version of truth) and not just being nice to you. In order to take on the recognition and validation and use it to drive you forward, you need to believe that you are actually smart, and capable, because then the praise makes sense. If you have people praising you but you really believe everything you write is crap, the praise falls on deaf ears.

Underneath all the focus on the criticism instead of the praise, and the writing paralysis that I struggle against, I do really think my work is at the very least okay, and some of it is good. Some of it might even be better than that. My thesis is good. It’s not The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written, but the colleagues who have read it liked it, and found it helpful. That’s pretty awesome. I have a PhD, achieved through my own hard work. That’s also pretty cool. I am writing papers, and when they have been revised and polished, they will be published. Again, a win.

Image from egosquared.com.au

Image from egosquared.com.au

Being the best ever, I have realised, is a) not possible, and b) not actually a very good thing, because it’s too much pressure in the end. I’d rather work my way, paper by paper, towards better writing and more refined thinking, rather than start out with the best thing ever and then decline from there while killing myself to maintain that unrealistic standard. This is how I look at it anyway.

The PhD is a part of the foundation on which you build your scholarly career; it’s not the career in a nutshell. If you try to turn it into everything about you as a scholar that is good and worthy of validation, you may never actually be able to write it. You’ll paralyse yourself with the fear that it won’t be The Most Awesome Thesis Ever Written. But chances are it’ll be a good thesis. I think the thing is to really try to realise and remember that good in the world of doctoral study is actually enough, and that the goal is to lay a strong foundation for further work, rather than to encapsulate your whole academic self and career in one PhD thesis.

Why are revisions so difficult? or Why is this *@#$ paper not finished!

It may seem, from the title of this post, that this will be an angry post, ranting about revisions and papers that are not done even though you want to be done with them. That is only partly true. There will also be insightful musings on why revisions are just so damn hard to do, and why so many of us put them off, sometimes for too long. I am writing this as pre-revisions therapy of sorts, and my hope is that it will spur me forward (and help some of you to do the same).

I have been talking, for a while now, about a paper I wrote and sent off to a journal at the beginning of the year. After four long months of waiting, the reports came in, and although one was very kind and advised only ‘minor revisions’ the other two had more serious concerns, and asked for much more substantial revisions. I was encouraged to send it back, in a much-changed form. There were some mean and snarky comments in-amongst the helpful and thoughtful advice and suggestions, and these really hurt my feelings. Quite a lot, actually. I am still smarting a little (but then I do tend to take feedback, even the good kind, way too personally). So, the first obstacle to my actually doing the revisions is what Kate Chanock has called emotional static; my hurt feelings and the emotional exhaustion I am anticipating in going back into this paper are interfering with my ability to think more rationally and intellectually about how much stronger the paper will be once I have worked through the more useful and thoughtful comments. I have always battled with this, especially the emotional exhaustion bit. During my PhD when I would get feedback from my supervisor, which was always helpful and never mean, I would open the email, download the file, and then ignore it, too fearful of the further work they would require of me. This is my emotional static, and it really gets in the way of progress in my writing at times.

But, I would eventually get over it enough to open the file, read the feedback, and realise that: a) it actually wasn’t as bad as it had become in my head; and b) the comments were mostly pointing me towards refined thinking and writing that would make the chapter that much more coherent, persuasive and clear. There certainly is some pleasure to be found in refining a piece of work to the point that you do feel more confident sending it out into the wide world for readers to (hopefully) enjoy and be interested in. But, this is also the second obstacle in my revision ‘process’ or procrastinatory mess, more accurately. I don’t feel very confident about these ideas. I believe, mostly, in what I research and write about, but I know that there is opposition to these ideas, and the theory I use, within some of the research and practice communities I am part of. So, I anticipate vociferous criticism and critique, and objections to my claims that I am not sure I will be able to defend. And then I feel squashed and doubtful, and overly anxious, and I haven’t even finished the paper or sent it out to a journal yet! It seems really silly when I write it out like this. But, I suspect I am not alone in this. My challenge, in overcoming this obstacle, is to take my own advice: I need to encourage myself, and believe that I do have something of value to offer through my research. My ideas may well be challenged, but I can actually defend them if I understand that I am not trying to ‘draw a map as big as the country’* but am rather just trying to make connected, smaller arguments that will contribute to thinking about one part of a very complex puzzle in education research. This is useful advice, I think, especially during a PhD when you know you have to just make one argument in the thesis but you really feel like 3 or 4 would be safer, just to cover all your bases and in case someone else gets in there first. One paper/one thesis: one major claim or argument (although obviously a thesis will make this argument in a much more detailed and complex way, given the word limit and purpose differences.)

Finally, my third obstacle is fear. I am afraid that, even after I do all this work (and these revisions will likely be a lot of work) the journal will still reject the paper, and this is quite a high-stakes paper for me as I need to have it accepted to count towards renewing my fellowship for 2016. I really, really don’t want to have to go back to a full-time ‘deskjob’ yet, and so the fear that they will still reject it and I will have to start again and won’t be able to count this and so won’t have my fellowship renewed is proving to be a deceptively big obstacle. I tell myself I really need to just get it done, but then I fill all my time with a hundred other things I just have to do right now or else. I did this during my PhD with chapter and draft thesis revisions too. And deadlines loom and I still carry on creating a procrastinating mess, rather than progress. I honestly cannot tell you why I do this, or how I eventually shame, goad or encourage myself into sitting down and just doing what needs to be done until it’s done. But I do – I have to, I suppose. This is, after all, the career I have chosen, and I totally get that the only person who can get this done is actually me. (No elves coming to help me in the night, sadly).

Part of the point of writing this post before I do these revisions is to get this all out there, for myself, and reflect on what is standing in my way at the moment. And part of the point is also to push myself over these obstacles, even if I feel like I am faking the confidence and lack of fear for the moment. If you are stuck in a similar spot, something like this might help you too – your obstacles may be different, but working out what they are and what resources you have to hurdle them and keep going may give you the encouraging push you need.

*with thanks to Karl Maton for this phrase, and advice.

Making time to write

This is my 41st post on this blog, and I was thinking recently about how different keeping the blog up to date is now compared to when I started last year. When I started I had so many ideas and I had posts scheduled for a few weeks; I was just churning them out. Recently I missed a week because I lost track of time and forgot to write a post. I have also been super-busy at work, and have been struggling to find the time to write – not just the blog but other things, like papers for journals. To be honest, I am getting way too little writing done and my excuse is that I just don’t have the time. It was an excuse I used a lot during my PhD when the writing would get pushed further and further into the background of my days and weeks, neglected for many more urgent work and personal tasks and demands.

But, here’s the thing. To say that I do not have time to write (or did not) is not completely true. I have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish several blogposts and at least a draft of my paper. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.

When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.

Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many PhD students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many may also struggle because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to writing a PhD. I was certainly way too ambitious with my writing time early on, and often still am, believing I can get  more done than is actually possible. Working out the difference between the physical time you have and the writing time you need is important for making progress and not being really mean to yourself when it seems like you are not making any.

You see, I do know, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done – maybe read a paper or two and make some notes, or draft the introduction. But too many times I have taken my physical hour and written a to-do list of writing tasks worth 4 or 5 hours of writing time and tried to cram it in because my actual hours for writing are few at the moment (most of the time, really). It doesn’t work, of course, because I am distracted, or I am going too slowly through a new concept or section of reading, or for many other reasons. So I get frustrated, and I berate myself for going too slowly, or for not working hard enough or for being distracted. Then I start to resent the writing and its intrusion on my time and headspace and this is just a recipe for disaster. I end up wishing I could just find more time to write, because if I could all would be well.

This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.

A final point: I was advised, often, during my PhD to write every day. I didn’t. I just couldn’t. I tried a few tricks, like my research journal and an online writing site called 750words.com. These helped a lot, and for short stretches like a week or two I could write every day. The more I did this the easier it got, but inevitably the also-working-and-parenting thing would get in the way of making time for my PhD every day and I would lapse into once or twice a week, and a few times even less than that. Being mean to myself did not help. It just made me hate my PhD and wish I could quit. I had to try hard to be kind to myself, and to give myself a break every now and then. This kindness is important to making progress, I think, and to staying on good terms with your PhD.

It would be great to write every day, but you don’t always have the time to make for that – physical or headspace/writing time. However, I would advise making time regularly, whatever that looks like for you, and putting it into your diary as a meeting with your writing. Go to that meeting and be present as you would for any other meeting.  Making time to write and think is often also about making time for yourself, and making your own needs and time as, if not more, valuable than the time of those who want you or need you during your writing time. It’s OK to put yourself and your research first, and the more you do that, the easier it gets to make the time to write. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and take my own advice. I have a paper waiting to be written…