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.

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.

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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.