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).

pexels-photo-127053

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.

pulling ideas together

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.

question mark

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.

magic-cube-cube-puzzle-play-54101

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.

Seeing feedback and peer review as a gift rather than a curse

I have been in the fortunate position of sending off five papers recently that I have been working on for the last several months – a mix of single and co-authored work. The upside is that I have lots to report to my postdoc funders and I have learned even more about writing for publication; the downside is that I am going to be receiving a flurry of feedback on these papers within quite a short space of time, and will have to ingest, consider and respond to this feedback like a grown-up. This part I am feeling apprehensive about.

thewritingcampus.comFeedback, as many of us know, is not easy to receive and hear, even when it is positive. Feedback means more thinking, more reading, more writing; in short, feedback almost always points to more work. Most of the time, when you are finished with a paper or a chapter and you send it off you just would like to be done with it. You have other writing to be getting on with and other things to be doing. Yet, the paper or chapter will come back, with comments, suggestions, criticism and critique (although hopefully more of the latter). You, as the writer (on your own or with co-authors), will need to read all the comments and suggestions, probably a few times, note your responses, and then go back into that paper or chapter you would like to be done with and make changes, revise parts of it, do a little more reading, perhaps revisit data analysis, edit long sentences (if you’re me!). It can feel overwhelming, even when the overall thrust of the feedback is positive and the journal wants to publish your work, or your supervisor thinks you are almost there.

Cally Guerin has written about learning to see feedback on your writing as a ‘gift’ – as something that can enrich your thinking and writing, rather than take away from it. I like this idea – about giving and receiving feedback. I try, whenever I see the email in my inbox indicating that an editor has reached a decision on a manuscript I have submitted, or a critical friend has read and commented on my work, to remember this: that they are trying to give me a gift. They are offering me another opportunity to think about and revise my work to make it stronger, clearer and more persuasive and convincing to readers.  Even if the decision is to reject this version of my paper, the peer reviewers are not trying to break me down and make me feel terrible about my writing. Rather, they are offering me their insight as readers who would be interested in reading my paper, and perhaps using it in their own research. They are offering me a way of seeing my own work through their eyes, and comments and suggestions that can help me to clarify vagaries, shorten long sentences, bring out my contribution more firmly and so on.

I know that not all supervisors or peer reviewers use their powers for good: there is much feedback students and writers receive that is criticism, and is hurtful, unkind and unhelpful. But, as a journal editor of a few years’ standing, and a writer who is becoming braver at sending my work out to journals that is now receiving feedback, I can say that most peer reviewers really do want to help you develop your ideas and make your paper even better. Most peer reviewers do see their role as giving writers feedback that is a gift, rather than a curse. I spoke to a colleague recently, for example, who has reviewed many articles and supervised many students, and always asks himself: ‘Is the writing ready to publish/move on from? If yes, is there anything that can be improved further, and if no, why not and how could this writer get there?’ If supervisors and peer reviewers worked with a version of these questions, and I believe many do, they would certainly be offering writers new ways to re-read and revise their own work.

www.crossfitlondon.ca The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

http://www.crossfitlondon.ca
The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper

For me, the challenge is always confronting myself, my own fears, insecurities and beliefs about myself as a researcher and writer. Even when reviewers are positive, I hone in on the negative. I read reviews with fear and trepidation, always prepared for them to say the worst about my writing. I am invariably surprised – even papers that have been rejected have garnered some positive praise, and following the reviewers’ advice tends to build my research up, makes my papers better, and makes me prouder of them and myself. So, I am learning to believe that I have something to say that is of value; that I can make a contribution to my field that people will want to read. It is an ongoing battle, but what I have learned is this: the more you ask for feedback, from the right kinds of people – people who are your readers and would be interested in your work – and the more you work with that feedback to see the strengths and flaws in your writing and develop it further, the easier it gets. Like the Little Engine that could, the more you think you can and try on that basis, the more you can actually accomplish. The writing gets a little less difficult and onerous the more you write, and the feedback gets a little less scary the more you read it, engage with it, and accept it as a gift that will ultimately make you a better writer.

Getting the feedback you need

Feedback. It’s a prickly issue for writers. We both want it and fear it. It makes us nervous, fearful, tired, annoyed, cheered – sometimes all of these things in one essay/paper/chapter. One of the most helpful things I learned during my PhD was how to ask for feedback – the feedback I needed. This post addresses asking for the feedback you need, even if it isn’t always the feedback you want.

Feedback we need is not always feedback we want, in the sense that often we don’t want to do another tough round of revisions and rewriting and more thinking, because we want to move on to the next thing, or because we are tired, or because the PhD is only one of many things demanding our time and attention. But, more often than not, we need to do this work, and so we need feedback that helps us to achieve this. I am not sure it is possible to always have your needs and wants be the same when it comes to feedback, but the more you go into the scary space of asking for provocative, thoughtful and critical feedback and work with it to have it feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking, the more you want to get that kind of feedback.

It is so important to work out what kind of feedback you really need and to look for it. PhD students cannot simply wait for the right kinds of feedback to find them, and for supervisors to know what kinds of feedback they are looking for at different points in the process. My supervisor encouraged me to be very directive about what kind of feedback I wanted. I am aware that many supervisors will not do that expressly (or otherwise) but rather than just sending writing and asking broadly what they think, why not suggest to your supervisor when you send them your writing that they focus on specific things, like the coherence of your text, or whether it addresses the research questions, or whether you have read the right kinds of sources for a particular argument you are making. As a new supervisor myself, I think it would be helpful if my student helped me navigate her thinking and writing like this. Supervisors are busy too, and you are often not their only student or task – giving them polite but clear requests for particular kinds of help could well be helpful for them as well as for you.

Asking for specific feedback requires being quite conscious of what you are writing, what you have been thinking about and also struggling with, and what you might need in order to keep moving forward. Making ‘meta-notes’ as you write, either in writing or just in your head, is quite helpful when it comes to then sending that email or having that conversation. These are some of my ‘meta-notes’ on the kinds of feedback I thought I needed on just three stages of my process. This may be helpful if you are battling to put what you need/want from your supervisor into words, and can hopefully help you generate other questions of your own:

Early stages – pre-proposal reading and chunks of writing: ‘Are my research questions valid? Am I addressing them with what I am reading and thinking about? Is this just one PhD or have I got too much here? How could I edit this down if I am trying to do three PhDs in one? What else could/should I be reading?’ 

Proposal writing process: ‘Are my research questions clear, and viable? Is the focus and rationale for this research clear to the reader? Does my proposed conceptual framework hang together and make sense? Does it ‘match’ my research questions. unit of analysis and focus? Is the literature review section where I explain the field I am contributing to well-constructed – can you see the gap my research speaks into? Do my methods seems reasonable; is there a methodology rather than just a list of data and methods of generating it? Are there any glaring errors, like missing references and typos I need to correct?’

Chapter 1 – literature review/conceptual framework: ‘Is this just a collection of things I’ve read or can you hear my voice? How can I make my own stance and voice clearer here? Have I read the field accurately – are there any gaps I need to fill in my reading? Have I explained the way I am using the theory to create a framework for the study clearly – do you see what I am doing and why I have chosen this theoretical framework? Does it connect with my research questions? Are there gaps and where? How would you suggest that I try to address the gaps and revise this chapter?

The worst thing as a writer is sending something to a reader, like a PhD student to a supervisor, and wanting them to really think about your argument and advise you on how to make it stronger or better substantiated, and then getting back a list of typos and grammatical errors you could have corrected yourself just before you are ready to submit the work. It’s frustrating and demoralising, and worse for a student, you can end up stuck and unable to keep writing and thinking as productively as you need to. To get the feedback you need is to see that what you need may be tough to hear, and to act on, but will move you forward if you can engage with it constructively. Seeing feedback in this way will help you to pose the questions to your critical friends and supervisor that ask for particular readings of your work that then result in you receiving more critical, provocative and helpful feedback that really does feed forward into your further writing, reading and thinking.

The feedback you get should be constructive and encouraging even as it critiques, questions and provokes more thinking, and it’s terrible when this is not the case. As I have said before in this blogspace, not all supervisors use their powers for good – many do not perhaps think to put themselves into their students’ shoes, and do not think about what their feedback sounds like, or how useful it is from a student’s perspective. Students getting destructive, unhelpful feedback from their supervisors may need to think about other avenues for getting supplementary help with their writing and thinking, like Chapter Swap online, a PhD writing group or a critical friend or two. There is help out there – but you may have to be brave and resourceful to find it if you are not getting enough of it closer to ‘home’. Good luck!

Deciphering your supervisor’s feedback

This is supposed to be a somewhat lighthearted post, rather than a serious exposition on feedback.

cybergogue.blogspot.com

cybergogue.blogspot.com

I was chatting to some friends and fellow PhD travellers recently about how we make sense of our supervisors’ feedback – what we read into some of the ways in which they phrase comments and questions that give us clues on how to respond in the most appropriate ways. It was a funny conversation, and we all ended up laughing quite a lot at our own accounts of how we do this. But it did get me thinking about how we – how students – respond to feedback that we are given on our writing, not just emotionally but also in terms of how we read from the feedback a set of guidelines for our revisions, or read into the feedback the tone of our supervisor’s (or examiner’s/reviewer’s) responses to our writing.

My supervisor – and I both liked and disliked this at various points and for a range of reasons – never told me what to write or think. She prompted, questioned, suggested, challenged – but she never instructed. There are times when you just want to be told what to write so that you know you are writing the right things (although there really is a lot of subjective judgement about what is ‘right’ and that should not necessarily be for someone other than you to ultimately decide). But most of the time you really do want to be guided with your writing and thinking rather than instructed. You want the work to be your own, and even though it’s bloody hard work most of the time, you really want to do the thinking work that comes with the writing and revising and rewriting.

But in order to do the most productive kinds of writing and thinking that will indeed take you on a journey of intellectual and personal growth and learning (and help you produce a PhD dissertation), you need not only to have that guidance that creates space for you to think, write, revise and grow, you need also to know what to do with that guidance, much of which comes in the form of feedback whether written or verbal. I worked out, over time, a way of making sense of what my supervisor was suggesting or prompting me to think about and do – and figuring out what my own response should be. I think that this working out will be different for each student, of course, but this is an important thing to spend some time thinking about, as part of the process of becoming a more conscious writer.

For instance, I worked out that when she started a comment with ‘I wonder if…’ this meant that I could think about it myself, and arrive at my own conclusion about whether or not to include what followed in my chapter. If she said ‘This is my own personal preference…’ I didn’t really have to think too hard and could probably note her comment and move on if it didn’t match my personal preferences. If she said ‘You may want to…’ then I probably did want to (and actually should) do what she suggested. She also gave other more directive kinds of comments like ‘Include a few references here’ and ‘Check for consistency with this’ and I duly did so. Working out this ‘code’ was helpful for me in terms of reading into the feedback her responses to my writing and whether she felt I was going well or not, and also reading from her feedback some clear guidelines and pointers for my own revisions.

What is your supervisor’s code and how does working it out help you to work on your writing and revisions?

 

Critical friends

I work in the field of staff and also student academic development with a particular focus on writing. I run a Writing Centre and we are often out and about telling students that all writers need editors and readers; that all writers need help with their writing and that asking for help doesn’t mean you can’t write or that there is something wrong with you. Stephen North wrote in 1984 that:  ‘Nearly everyone who writes likes – and needs – to talk about his or her writing, preferably to someone who will really listen, who knows how to listen, and knows how to talk about writing too’ (439-440). In other words, everyone who writes needs critical friends with whom they can share their writing and from whom they can get helpful feedback, at one or more points in their writing process. Critical friends are an essential part of a PhD student’s writing process.

There are some obvious ones, like supervisors (although sadly not always the case) and fellow students if you’re in a writing circle or group. There are also perhaps less obvious ones like partners, friends and colleagues who you may approach at certain points to discuss an idea, or a particular reading you are struggling with or have found enlightening. I would advocate for having a diverse group of critical friends who can listen to you in different ways and read your work in different ways too. This way you get a range of feedback, and have to consider different kinds of readers and how your text comes across to them. In my case I had my supervisor, who was a challenging critical reader and critic, but also very supportive. I had my husband, who only read part of my draft, but did a lot of listening and giving of verbal feedback. I had fellow students and friends who were at different points in their own PhD journeys, both in front of and behind where I was, many who were using similar theoretical tools or subjects of inquiry and could thus offer me both empathetic support and useful critique. Finally I joined a listerv-group online and a related Facebook group, connecting with other scholars around the world who were using the same conceptual tools I was and although I was too scared to post that often and share my often-shaky ideas, I learnt a lot from reading the posts of others and from my albeit limited engagement. So this is one example. Not everyone will have these resources, but everyone should have some of these resources to call on and use.

What happens, though, if your supervisor is not your No 1 critical friend; if they cannot and do not help you with your writing, thinking and reading in the ways you need them too? What happens if you are not part of a physical group of PhD students working in your area, and are rather on your own, studying part-time at a distance from your university? Where will you find your critical friends? The supervisor issue is a big one, and one many students very sadly have to deal with. Not all supervisors know how to use supervision as an opportunity to model the kinds of research behaviour PhD students need to adopt in their fields, and while they may be good researchers they are not necessarily good writing-respondents or tutors. If you are unable or unwilling to find a new supervisor who can assist you with your writing more ably, you could consider a co-supervisor who has a different approach and who will offer that additional support. If you cannot do this, then you will need to get a bit creative. Are you on social media? Post something and send it into cyber-space – ‘PhD student looking for critical friends to read and comment on writing. Happy to reciprocate in kind’. Hashtag it: #phdsupport; #phdwritinghelp and so on.  There may well be others in your shoes looking for help too. There are also online groups like Chapter Swap where you can sign up and connect with other postgrad students in your field, and swop chapters and papers to give one another feedback ans advice.

There are also other choices, like asking a spouse or partner to listen to you and give you their own feedback on what they hear and whether it makes sense to them. There are for many of us also work colleagues/friends who may be able to at least have a coffee and chat about ideas we are working on, or the reading we are doing. All this talk and conversation and connection really does help, if only just to give you a space in which to say something you are thinking about out loud so that you can hear it and see how it feels and sounds. Just that act of talking my ideas aloud often helped me to see connections or gaps without anyone else jumping in to do so.

I think the important thing when you work with your critical friends, wherever you find them and whoever they are to you, is to be really clear about what you need their help with. What are you asking them to read and why? What are you taking through and what do you need from them? If you are not able to ask for the help you need, you may not get it, and what you may rather get is a lot of less helpful comments that will take a while to sift through and may induce panic, doubt or a case of going-off-the-path-for-a-while. So, if you are going this route, and I think all PhD students should, think carefully about what you are working on and what kinds of listening or reading you want your critical friends to do and what you’d like them to offer you as feedback on your work-in-progress. Ask clearly and ye shall likely receive helpful feedback, be vague and ye shall likely be frustrated and confused :-). But regardless, reach out. Critical friends are out there; you are not in this alone.

North, S. 1984. The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-446.