Fast and slow: can we manage the pace of academic scholarship?

I am a knitter. I used to mostly knit scarves and blankets made up of squares, and I have a large-ish collection of Outlander-inspired arm warmers. The benefit of knitting these kinds of items is that they knit up quickly. You can make a scarf in a couple of days, and a blanket in a week, depending on the size of the squares. If you use less complex patterns and stitches, you can go even faster because you’re less likely to need to pull out your mistakes and start over (sometimes a few times) before it starts looking like it should. But recently I have challenged myself to start making larger garments – pullovers and cardigans. These take time: several weeks. Not all of the stitches are fancy and complex, but it certainly is not fast fashion. It is a slower form of fashion, which can be both rewarding (and soothing to make) and also frustrating at times when you just want to wear it already and you haven’t even made the sleeves!

I am going to parlay this metaphor into reflections on the pace of academic scholarship, especially my own need at the moment to work out a different approach to managing the external and internal pressures to publish my work even as I am not yet ready to do so. These reflections, and pressures, connect out (or in) to other related issues that are spoken about quite a bit at the moment, here in the UK and around the academic world: work-life balance, mental wellbeing, mental and physical health, and (the lack of) pleasure in research, writing and publishing. In short, I am struggling perhaps more than I ever have to find a balance and advocate for myself. I know I am not alone in this.

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There is huge pressure to publish in academia: “publish or perish” is a well-known maxim in higher education. If you want to get ahead as an academic, you have to do research and you have to publish it, often and preferably in “high impact” publications. Whether these are journals, books or other forms of media usually depends on the field you are working in and where its researchers tend to share the knowledge they make. There have been reformulations of this maxim in attempts to reframe this culture that pushes many academics to the brink, especially those in early career trying to get onto the academic ladder (or hamster wheel) “Publish and flourish” is a well-known counter-maxim, with several books and papers being written about how to grow your productivity as a writer and enjoy doing it (see here and here for examples). I haven’t read any of them, but the titles and blurbs don’t seem to suggest a push back against the neoliberal, audit culture tide that is sweeping across academia, creating a culture in which everything, and everyone, can be measured, weighed, found wanting (or succeeding). The focus is still on productivity and efficacy as a scholar, but perhaps with more of a focus on enjoying the process and finding meaning in it as opposed to seeing it as a box to tick or a chore to do. I wonder, in all this talk of “productivity” and “increasing your outputs” where the talk is about creating a research pace and plan that is personally meaningful and sustainable. Many researchers usually have to find a way to carve out a pace and plan that works within and against this “publish or perish” (or “publish and flourish” as a super-productive researcher) culture, feeling all the while powerless to actually change it.

I have worked for a long time now with postgraduate and early career researchers, helping them turn their thesis research into publishable journal articles and book chapters; helping them to find a place within the ranks of publishing scholars so that they share their important and worthy research, and so that they can start to carve out their space and work out the shape and size they want, or need, it to be. One of the tensions we deal with in our work together is between getting a paper (or papers) out so that there are beans for the university to count, and making a contribution to knowledge that is meaningful/useful/relevant to readers. This doesn’t have to be a tension, of course: you can publish a paper which makes a useful contribution to knowledge – that is the point, after all (right?). But, because of the pressure to publish, often before we even know what knowledge we are contributing or what we want or need it to say and to whom, there is sometimes a real tension between ‘getting a paper out’ and writing something that may take more time and thought and revision than we feel we have.

This is where I feel I am right now: caught in this tension. I have had a productive few years by my own reckoning and in terms of the metrics of the universities that count my research and claim it against government funding. This is largely thanks to rich practice-based work I could reflect on and write about, really rich collaborative work that has resulted in co-writing, and my own PhD and postdoctoral research, which provided quite a bit of material to work with. It is much less challenging to meet the demands of the university you work for to publish, publish, publish when you have material to work with and things to say. But, I am now in an ebb of sorts in my own publishing/knowledge-making work, starting a new research project that is connected to my previous work ontologically, but is engaging with new theories, new methods, new data, and therefore new knowledge entirely. This takes time. It’s not a quick knit. There are new stitches to learn, new patterns, new yarns – the whole shebang.

But, and this is where I feel the tension, I don’t have a 2022 publication on my CV yet. If I don’t get something out this year there will be a gap in my publications list for the first time in several years, and I worry about how that will look. I have to worry about getting onto the radar of those who have to worry about ‘productivity’ and ‘outputs’ at an institutional level, who may then begin to exert pressure on me to ‘get a paper’ (or three) out, which may then be at odds with the time I need to learn, think, write some rubbish, think a bit more, generate and make sense of data, grapple with theory. I’m not ready to write for public consumption, as the unfinished and half-baked words and rejected abstracts attest to. What do I do? I don’t think I can just say ‘Leave me alone, I’m thinking. Come back later’.

And really, very few scholars/researchers can get away with that (usually those who can have big grants and funding, established credibility and enough institutional standing to push away that kind of pressure if they need to). Lower down the ladder, especially in early career (including now doctoral and even Masters levels), those who want an academic career have very little if any room to ask to be left alone, and feel the pressure to publish intensely. But writing a paper when you are not sure yet whether you have anything to say – anything you want to say or can say – is really hard. It takes a long time, and it’s painful; many revisions, critical feedback, rejections. Ironically, it is easier to publish when you’ve done a fair bit of thinking and scribbling, when you’ve got ‘stuff’ to write about. But, this also takes time to accumulate and organise.

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Another apparent push-back to the publish or perish culture and the ‘fast scholarship’ hamster wheel is the ‘slow scholarship’ movement. (You can read the manifesto here, and an excellent critique here). The idea, as I understand it, is to take time to really work out your ideas, to write many drafts, not to be pulled in by the pressures of the publish or perish culture, but to push back against it; to become a more effective scholar by taking your time, by tweeting slowly, blogging slowly, thinking and writing slowly. Slow scholarship seems to have emerged from the slow food movement; I think slow fashion is an offshoot too. But, and this is a big but, this slowness does privilege some and not necessarily many others. Not everyone has all day to shop for local, organic ingredients and prepare slow meals; not everyone can afford pricey yarn and needles and take the time to knit their own clothes in front of Netflix in the evenings; not everyone can afford to have years where they don’t publish anything because they are busy thinking and writing drafts no-one but a few critical friends may see.

Critiques of slow scholarship have pointed out that this is not actually the radical push back it may at first seem to be, because very few researchers can probably pull it off successfully, and many things in their personal lives need to be taken care of or taken away to manage the kind of slow scholarship the manifesto calls for, like child (or elder) care, housework, school runs, and so on. Also, as some critics argue, there is nothing inherently wrong with faster scholarship – in many fields you have to move faster to stay ahead of the curve, to make novel contributions to knowledge, to keep abreast of the pace of knowledge-making. Tweeting and blogging are excellent ways to try out new ideas, to work them out in real time with an engaged audience, to ‘take the pulse’ of your readership.

What we need, I suppose, is a balance – that word again – between scholarship that is meaningful to us and possible for us within the structures we create for life-work-PhD-self, and what is required of us by our universities (and by our fields of research and practice). What can we do to manage the pace at which we create our scholarship – research, writing, speaking, thinking work? What can I do, I am asking myself, to keep the publish-or-else wolves from the door and also create the time to be patient with my emerging ideas and arguments? I don’t want to write a paper just for the sake of having a ‘unit’ or an ‘output. Of course, I might have to, but then perhaps I can work out how to share this labour: collaborate with someone who wants to make a similar argument. That may be both fun and also pragmatic; a way to create something meaningful and create a bean to count or a tick for a box. Maybe. Co-authoring can be a lot of work, but that’s a post for another day. I think right now what is helping me is being aware of this tension and how it is making me approach and feel about my writing. What is helping is giving myself permission to (at least try to) hold the line, for now, and do the work I know I need to do to create the flow that will come after this ebb, where I will have created things to say, knowledge to share, writing to be excited about.

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I know not everyone can do this, at least not in one way; the pressures of early career are significant for many scholars and if you really want an academic career that is not tenuous, precarious, underpaid, undervalued, then the reality is that you do need to get your work out there. Maybe, though, take a step back: think about the work you are doing, where your readers are, what you want to say to them and how, what that all means to *you* and not just or only to your department, faculty or research office. Even if you cannot say no or take time out, you can still, I hope, create a plan for publishing that feels like it fits you, works for you, and enables you to find and express your voice as authentically as possible, at a pace that feels like it will lead, ultimately, to flourishing rather than perishing.

Making my peace with ‘good enough’ writing

*You can also listen to this post as a podcast.

I’m a patchy perfectionist. This basically means that I don’t have the energy to be a perfectionist about everything (just ask Lovely Husband about all the random, tidy piles of clutter on surfaces that should be empty and pristine), but I have a lot of energy to be perfectionist about some things. Like writing. I really struggle to let go of my writing when I am not sure it’s exactly right or amazingly great. For me, my whole life, there has never really been such a thing as ‘good enough’ when it comes to academic work and ‘products’ like papers, dissertations, reports and presentations. It must be the Best Ever or it’s nothing.

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This is, quite obviously now that I write it down, a recipe for immense frustration and quite a lot of stress. Especially when the career I have chosen requires me to write at least two papers every year that can be published, and requires me to carefully and supportively mentor other writers and thinkers through teaching and supervision. I would never place this much pressure on my students; in fact, my advice to them to is become more realistic and pragmatic in their plans and expectations of themselves, because the perfect, Moste Amazingly Goode Paper is a fiction. It does not exist.

What does exist are lots of decent papers, many good ones and a few really fabulous ones, and these measures are not really very objective. Case in point: I once submitted a co-authored paper to a journal based abroad. I was corresponding author, and after revisions had been made, I mistakenly uploaded the revised paper to the wrong part of the submission site (for new papers). I emailed the editor and we sorted it all out (or so we thought) and the paper was published (with minor revisions, which was lovely). But, two months after it appeared in print, we got two more reviews from two different reviewers, recommending rejection. Obviously, the paper had been published and that was a done deal, but what the experience showed me was that I could send any one of my published papers to different reviewers and readers and get quite different, and quite possibly less positive, feedback that I did from the original reviewers and readers.

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So what, then, is ‘good’ or even ‘great’ in a published paper? How do you know when what you have written is good enough to send to a journal, a supervisor or a critical reader whose opinion matters to you? How do you tame the perfectionist who wants it all to be Best Ever, and let go of it? How do you trust the feedback you get and believe the positive comments? I have many thoughts on this, some of them contradictory depending on how loud the perfectionism is and what I am writing and who I am writing for. But I’ll focus on a couple here that seem to be pretty settled across all of these variables. They mainly have to do with my sense of my voice and my writerly self, and my groundedness in the field I am contributing to.

I have published a number of papers and book chapters and have just finished a book that is now in press. So, I have a fairly clear sense now of when my writing sounds and feels like ‘me’ and when it does not. I think of this as my authentic or real writerly voice, and this has been very much a work in progress over the last ten years. I have to mostly play by the rules in terms of layout, style, grammar and so on – I can’t just freeform or stream-of-consciousness my papers or they won’t make any sense – but within those rules I can assert my agency to make sure that I use words, terms, turns of phrase, examples and arguments that sound and feel like me, my scholarly self. This is a big thing for me. It’s really hard for me to be excited about telling people to read my paper if I feel like a fake on the page or if the voice sounds stilted or ‘off’. Sometimes, editors make suggestions that push the writing in that direction which even five years ago I might have just accepted without thinking about it too hard. But now, I really stop and think and try out the suggestion in my voice. If it fits, cool; if it feels like something I would not say or write or like someone else’s voice, I politely disagree and defend my original choice. I don’t always win, but I win often enough that I can (just about) let the losses go.

So, when I get to the stage where the paper or chapter looks and sounds and feels like me on the page, and it’s an argument and a piece of work I am proud of and excited about, that’s a point where I can believe it’s at least a decent paper or chapter. The more you write and send your work out and get feedback, and work with it to become conscious of what you are learning and the effect of that learning on your writing and thinking, the easier it becomes to believe you can written something decent, good even. Practice does not make perfect, but it does improve your feel for your voice and for what readers within the fields for which you are writing will respond positively to and what they will likely critique or challenge.

At that stage, I really then turn my attention to the contribution, and look really carefully at the quality and clarity of the argument. I try to ask myself hard questions about how clear my claims are, how strong the evidence is, how useful the paper is or what kind of contribution it may be able to make. I have a less pressured sense of trying to say Something Really New and Huge with my papers than I used to when I started writing for publication, and try now to find angles that shed a different, new-ish light on topics that my peers and colleagues are talking about and interested in. This means I have a clear conversation to join, and I have something small but valuable to say. This doesn’t always mean a ‘yes’ from journals, but it does make it easier to aim for ‘good enough’ rather than Best Ever.

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Writing is hard enough without all the added pressure of trying to make every paper or dissertation or report or presentation the Best Ever. There are literally thousands of papers published every year and thousands of M and D degrees awarded, by and to scholars who are smart, capable, doing interesting work. If you choose academia as a career you are most likely a small fish in a big pond, unless you are in a very niche field or area of study, perhaps. What this probably means, pragmatically and in defence of your mental and emotional wellbeing and work-life balance, is that your career will be full of writing that is decent and good enough with hopefully high points of great in the mix. This is a long marathon, and looking at your career as a whole rather than paper by paper can help to mitigate any over-stressed perfectionism.

I drew this one 🙂

Realising and accepting this was harder for me when I started publishing than it is now, with a few papers and some pretty mean peer reviews behind me. So, I realise that if you are still trying to publish your first paper or are earlier on in your career this can sound like it is easier than it may feel. It is not easy, and it does depend on how much is invested in the paper or project you are working on. Sometimes, with a paper we are less invested in, it is much easier to accept ‘good enough’ and let go of ‘great’ or ‘amazing’. Other times, this is much harder because so much more of our scholarly selves and time has been invested in the project. I guess it might also depend on the stakes – is a promotion or probation riding on getting a publication in a ‘top’ journal, meaning it probably has to be pretty good or even great? With each paper and project, you may need to work out the stakes involved and also figure out what you can live with and let go of and what you need to hold on to and fight for.

For me, learning to be okay with ‘good enough’ has been – is still – hard. That academic over-achiever is never really satisfied and she still rewrites bits and pieces of early papers that had too many long sentences and too many compromises in her head. I have learned, more or less, what I would regret and rewrite in my head if I let go of it too soon, and what I can live with. This has been a process (ongoing, of course) of being increasingly conscious of what feels and sounds and looks like me on the page and what does not, staying up to date with new research and writing in my field both in peer reviewed journals and the more popular presses, and focusing on what revisions, edits and changes made using feedback from critical friends and reviewers do to my voice and the clarity and impact of what I write.

The more conscious I am of the craft of scholarly writing, and of the mark I want to leave, the easier it is to be okay with the ‘good enough’ papers, because I have realised that they are actually much less awful that I think they are and that no one is harder on me than I am on myself. I need to take my own advice and focus on pacing myself for the longer race I am running, and learn to trust that sometimes ‘okay’ is more than okay and ‘good enough’ is actually pretty great. If I stay as true as I can to my own sense of scholarly self and to my own voice, it’s hard to regret anything I have written, even those long sentences!

Book writing: I wrote a book!

If you have been following this blog for a while, you will know that I have been writing a book. Last night I typed the final full stop on the draft manuscript, and today it’s going off to the series editor and the publisher. The work is not yet done – reviews and changes and proofs and all that are still ahead, but guys, I wrote a book!

It feels amazing and oddly anti climatic, a bit like finishing the PhD thesis. In form, the book and the thesis were a lot less alike than I thought they were going to be, but in process they were quite similar. Much to my dismay, it turns out I have not become any better at time management and planning my writing time than I was 5 years ago. Also, while I am better at shushing the Mean Voice that says my writing sucks, I am still quite angsty about whether I have anything to say that people will want to read. So, I wrote a book but in many ways I am still struggling to be a confident writer.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Reading Helen Sword’s book about how successful academics write, I am struck by the truth that learning to be a writer is not a process with an end. Well, death is an end, I suppose. But, what I mean is that there is no point where you go ‘Yes, I am here! I can now write without any imposter syndrome or struggle or fear that my writing is crap – it will all be smooth sailing from here on!’ I think many students have this weird idea that their supervisors just churn out published research and erudite online pieces without any trouble and that they are the only ones who struggle with writing. There’s a lot of self-blame about writing struggles, and this can be hard to manage and overcome, especially without help.

Maybe there are magical academics who write and write without a single moment of self-doubt or fatigue over revisions or wishing they could just stop and not do this anymore. I have not yet met any, but academia is a big place, so who knows? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have no angst at all about your writing you are probably not doing it fully consciously. By this I mean that all writers, fiction and non-fiction, put themselves into their pages. I write about my research, which I do because it is meaningful to me, part of my identity as a scholar and also as a human. So, when you read my papers and my book(!), you are getting to know me a bit, and what I care about professionally and personally. If I was completely unfazed by any parts of the writing process, I probably wouldn’t be fully connected with it on a personal level, I reckon.

This is probably why I find writing so angsty so often – I’m not writing about something detached from me. If readers and reviewers are really critical, it hurts. If people think my ideas are weak, or wrong, that’s hard to process. If you’ve spent any time writing for publication and sending your work to journals and publishers, you will know that critical feedback is part of the deal. If you have had hurtful feedback already, you will know that it can be hard to come back from in terms of believing in your ideas and continuing to put them out there. I think part of my angst and struggle is often linked to anticipation of criticism. I get ahead of myself and imagine all the disagreement and opposition to my ideas that might be out there before I’ve written it all down, and then I start to doubt myself. I did that far too often with the book, and ended up behind schedule for most of it.

The solution here is to surround yourself with people who genuinely do believe in you. As Lovely Husband said the other day, it (the last bits of the book, in my case) is like climbing Mount Doom, and Frodo could not have done that alone. He needed Sam to help him get there, to keep telling him he could do it. You are Frodo and you need Sams, family, friends and peers who can encourage you, make you tea, share your ideas and offer constructive advice, and keep you going. The trick, when these people tell you that your writing is not crap and that you can do it, is to believe them. You need to pick Sams who you will believe, and whose encouragement and advice will be meaningful to you. I had so many Sams, virtually and in person, and I could not have kept going at points without them. As with my PhD, this part of writing has not changed: you need people with you on this road.

The other solution here is to consciously get out of your own way. I am so good at getting in my own way and getting ahead of myself. I have written the mean reviews for the mean reviewers before I have written a word for them to actually read! I did this a lot during the PhD too, putting feedback into my supervisor’s voice even though I knew that she wouldn’t actually be that mean or that critical and was far more likely to be encouraging even if she thought I should rewrite a whole section, or think harder about my claims. The thing is, you can only write and read and think your way through your project one day, one idea, on sentence at a time. Try to actively bring yourself back when you start freaking out about next month, next year, the next 100 pages. You’ll get there, but you have to go through here first. This has been a huge lesson for me in writing this book.

I think being a more confident writer probably requires a mix of things. I need to keep learning to be conscious of where I am now and where I need to end up with the paper or chapter, but not freaking out and getting ahead of myself so that the writing is tied up in knots before I have started. I need to keep being brave and sharing my writing struggles and my clunky words with my Sams, and try to believe their feedback when it comes, both positive and not. I need to be kind to myself but not let myself off the hook – a little bit of writing and thinking every day is better than nothing; it keeps the ideas from getting away from me and taking on a life of their own.

None of this is new. I have written it all before here, in different words and ways, this just reinforces for me that this writing gig is a lifelong learning process, and that we often have to learn the same lessons over and over in relation to different projects and at different times. I am always going to be learning how to believe in myself and my ideas, and I think doubt is part of the process of becoming a good writer, someone who is conscientious, understands the power of words, and takes this responsibility seriously. But we have to work to keep the doubt in check, so that we can keep writing and working and get the ideas out there for people to agree and disagree with.

Putting your work out there, in any form, is hard. I want everyone to love this book and, like the PhD, I want it to be the best book ever. It won’t be, of course. But, I am so proud of it, and it’s written. It’s a stepping stone to new projects, like the PhD was a stepping stone to this one. This is another thing I am still learning: that every paper, every project is another building block for me, another opportunity for learning, another chance to fail better. This actually helps me – if the PhD or the book is not the only things ever that you will write, you have more chances to do better, to reflect and learn and grow.

I hope some of this helps you to feel less alone, and like you have a Sam here, believing in you and your ability and ideas. Everyone struggles, everyone fails, even the most successful and productive writers you know. Their secret is that they don’t let either the success of the failure define them to the point that they stop learning from the struggles and working out how to keep moving forward. Happy writing, Frodo Baggins. You got this.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.