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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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Getting the form and voice of the dissertation right is just as important as getting the content right – indeed, they’re essential to conveying the content.

If you doubt this, remember the ground rules: a dissertation should stand on its own – if the examiner misunderstands it, then that’s the candidate’s problem, not the examiner’s.

The dissertation is widely viewed as the highest form of academic writing, requiring content, precision, substantiation and mastery of context beyond what is normally required in individual published papers. It is a ‘master piece’, 120 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH not in the sense of an ‘ultimate work’, but in the sense of a piece that qualifies an apprentice to be called a master through its demonstration of techniques, skills, form and function. (This is discussed in some detail in our section on cabinet-making – see p. 4.) The red thread At the heart of good presentation is a good ‘plot’ – not in the sense of fiction, but in the sense of a connected sequence of elements, each leading on to the next. The dissertation must have a clear narrative spine. Swedish academics use the image of a ‘red thread’ running through the text (like a red thread woven through plain muslin). The red thread – an appropriate structure, with a clear argument – is an essential ingredient of success. Although this is strongly linked with writing structure, we’ve included it in this chapter on style, since good style includes clarity and demonstrating that you know what’s important and what’s peripheral.

Thomas Green, a Wise Man, talks about this in terms of the ‘Great Overall Scheme of Things’ or ‘GOST’. All of the elements of your dissertation must ultimately fit into the GOST – and work that doesn’t contribute to the GOST should be left out. Thomas’ advice is to ‘Make friends with your GOST’. If you continually reassess your GOST, you’ll be in a good position to make a coherent account of your work.

Style in academic writing again, from a different angle

As we said before, when writing you choose a style that fits the occasion. Style is conveyed through structure, voice, rhetoric, the way evidence is presented, the use of literature, the use of tables and illustrations and so on. The appropriate style for an academic research paper is very different from the appropriate style for a textbook, and both of these are different from the appropriate style for a business report. Learn (by analysing exemplars) how to use different styles, and learn which style is appropriate for what you are trying to achieve. If you’re using the wrong style, then you’re sending out a signal that you don’t understand the ground rules of the area you’re working in, and the reader will wonder what else you don’t understand.

It’s also important to realize that some parts of differences in style are there for very good reasons – for example, the insistence on use of references in formal academic writing, and conventions about reporting experiments. Beware of style guides intended for areas other than your own – what is a good style for a business report is not a good style for a thesis, and vice versa. Similarly, ‘plain English’ is nice in theory, but anyone who advocates it for specialist writing has probably never tried using it this way WRITING STYLE 121 in practice. The best academic writing manages to achieve a pleasant, conversational voice while still providing the necessary clarity, sophistication and precision.

Voice ‘Voice’ is the quality of your writing that suggests what sort of person is writing, with what sort of attitude and for what sort of ‘implicit reader’. Some texts come across as argumentative (with whom is the author arguing?), evangelical (who is the author trying to convert?), apologetic (who is the author trying to appease?), condescending (who is the author underestimating?), arrogant (who is the author dismissing?) and so on – those voices are reflections of the implicit reader the author has in mind.

Clarity, simplicity, authority and honesty are good attributes of voice.

Imprecision, evangelism, defensiveness and arrogance are attributes to avoid.

Find a paper you consider exemplary for presentation and consider what makes it so. See if you can characterize the ‘voice’ and ‘register’ the author’s use.

Who is your audience? What are the conventions in the discipline you’re addressing? What are the standards of reporting? One trick is to identify an intelligent, well-read, non-specialist reader and hold that reader in mind.

It’s easier to avoid some of the more damaging voices if you assume a reader who is capable, open-minded and interested in what you have to say. Can an intelligent, educated generalist understand the gist of your argument, even if the technical content may escape them?

Clarity is extremely important. You are demonstrating in your thesis or paper that you have a detailed understanding of your chosen topic. This is not the same as simplification, or inserting big words. A good paper will use technical terms where appropriate and, if written for a specialist audience, will quite possibly be incomprehensible to a layperson as a result; however, this does not prevent it from being clear to its intended audience. If you don’t understand what you’re trying to say, then you need to go away and try again until you do have a clear understanding; the writing will then be a lot easier.

A technical term can be explained unambiguously so that the other person knows exactly what it means and what it does not mean – that is the whole point of a technical term. A buzzword fails this test. So do a lot of plain English terms.

Be wary of using a thesaurus. If you aren’t familiar with the word which you proudly unearth from the thesaurus, then there’s a good chance that you will use it wrongly and make an idiot of yourself.

Characterizing the appropriate critical voice

The appropriate critical voice is:


• Has a clear, coherent argument

• Avoids digressions

• Pares away unnecessary elements

• Language is ‘lightly formal’ – not too dense, not overly formal, not clouded with jargon but considered, readable

• Key terms are always used with the same meaning

• Examples are helpful and illustrative Honest

• Provides ‘audit trails’ from data to conclusions

• Considers alternative accounts

• Addresses limitations Neutral

• Chooses neutral formulations of questions

• Actively avoids bias in research and presentation

• Avoids emotive language Authoritative

• Adept use of literature

• No weasel or waffle words

• Pre-emptive accountability

• Good coverage

• Terms are used precisely and appropriately Substantiated

• Choices and assumptions are justified and accounted for

• No unsubstantiated claims or assertions

• Distinguishes data from results from discussion from conclusions

–  –  –

So what?

• Articulates implications

• Articulates significance and importance

• Identifies further routes Reading between the lines: some classic examples As we explained in Chapter 8, examiners are highly skilled in reading between the lines of your thesis, and you need to avoid tell-tale and giveaway phrases that say one thing but will be interpreted as saying a quite different thing. Some examples of good, bad and ambivalent writing are given in Table 3.

Table 3 Reading between the lines: some classic examples

–  –  –

Sooner or later, more or less every PhD student hits problems with writing.

Sometimes the problem takes the form of writer’s block – you sit in front of the keyboard, typewriter, paper or whatever, and you simply can’t write anything.

Sometimes it’s an avoidance problem – you find all sorts of reasons for not starting to write. Sometimes it’s a voice problem – you can write words about the topic, but no matter how many times you try, the words don’t come out reading the way you want them to.

If this happens to you, the first thing to remember is that it happens to pretty much everyone else too. Successful researchers and writers are not ones who’ve never encountered these problems; they’ve encountered the problems, and come through. So can you. This chapter is about the process of writing, with particular reference to common problems, but also with reference to things that will help your writing process when things are going well.

If you’re reading this chapter because you’re going through one of these problems, and feeling bleak and low, then one thing worth remembering is the bottom line of writing the thesis: it doesn’t have to be entertaining or elegant;

it just needs to show you have the skills that merit awarding you a PhD. There may some day be researchers who win the Nobel Prize for literature, but it’s highly unlikely to be for what they write as researchers.

Anyway, on to process. This chapter mainly consists of lists and tips, because of the nature of the topic (though we don’t advise you to try that line in your thesis...) 126 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH Writing tricks Removing distractions The shoebox Put your out-takes and extra ideas in a safe place, for later use. Then stop thinking about them while you write your dissertation.

Don’t edit until you have a complete first draft One exquisite paragraph is not much use out of context – better to flesh out a first draft before diverting yourself into a perfectionistic editing loop.

Sharpen your pencils Writers, like tennis players, often develop ‘rituals’ to help them focus on the task at hand. The trick is to put a strict time limit and structure on the ritual, lest it become a distraction in itself. So, for example, sharpen three pencils and sweep the desk clear – then begin.

Getting started Talk to a friend Tell an intelligent friend the ‘story’ of what you’re trying to write. Tape-record what you say, including how you answer your friend’s questions. If you don’t have a friend handy, imagine one, and talk to the tape recorder.

Write it ‘wrong’ A number of ‘tricks’ have to do with moving as quickly as possible away from initial generation and recasting your task as rewriting or editing.

Writing something that’s definitely not what you want will give you something to react against and correct – which is often easier than starting from scratch.

Question–answer Either with a friend, or by yourself, conduct a question–answer sequence, starting with, ‘What’s the message?’ with each question following on from a previous answer and ‘why’ and ‘how’ featuring regularly.

THE PROCESS OF WRITING 127 Amanuensis Get someone else to play ‘amanuensis’ and to write a narrative based on what you tell them. They may do a good job, or they may write something inaccurate; either way, you’ll have something to respond to.

Throw away the first half hour Promise yourself that you’ll throw away whatever you write in the first half hour. That means that you can write garbage, a letter to your mother or a version of what you intend – anything, as long as it’s prose. The idea is just to start composing sentences and paragraphs, without regard to quality. (If it’s good, you can always keep it, but if it’s bad, you promised yourself.) Just start typing Sometimes it helps to start up the ‘subsystems’ separately – for example, to start typing anything just to get seated in the right position with fingers moving, then typing canned text just to get a flow of words from mind to hand, and only then to start composing.

Don’t start at the beginning Skip the introduction and start with the material which is most familiar, or easiest to express. Alternatively, start with the most challenging part.

Extreme writing Set a target, and then sit with a friend and write collaboratively, intensively, for a fixed period.

Surprising yourself Change mode Sometimes just changing the way the writing looks (e.g. type font, formatting) or the kind of writing (e.g. from academic paper to children’s book), or the mode (e.g. visual instead of verbal), or the medium (e.g. paper instead of computer) can make the material look ‘fresh’ or expose something different.

Write the Ladybird version Ladybird is a publisher of children’s books, including early-reader non-fiction. Distil the most fundamental story and write it in very simple language.

128 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH Storyboard, with pictures Follow film-making practice and sketch out a ‘storyboard’ of the narrative, with a frame for each of the key statements, using pictures instead of words.

You can even talk through the narrative, acting out the frames. Hokey, as Buffy might say, but potentially inspiring.

Organizing ideas Index cards Write each of your key points on an index card, then spread them on the floor and sort them using spatial arrangement to indicate grouping, flow or relationship.

Mind maps Use mind-mapping to elicit ideas and relationships. Start with a big enough sheet of paper or with a computer-based tool.

Finding a focus Visit your GOST Remind yourself what your ‘Great Overall Scheme of Things’ is before you dive down into detail.

Find a model Find a paper or chapter that does the sort of thing you’re trying to achieve (e.g. presents a study). Analyse what makes it exemplary for you: what it contains, how it’s organized, what gives it its character. Distil a template from the model, then start filling it in with your own material.

Work backwards Start by thinking where you want to end up: imagine the finished paper, or the finished chapter (you might use a model to help you, see above). Then work backwards from the product, identifying major components, sorting out critical paths to those components and so on, until you find a place to start.

–  –  –

Improving your thinking Invert the question Turn your key ideas inside out, upside down or sideways. If you’re thinking ‘does feminist discourse reduce smoking?’, then consider: ‘does smoking inhibit feminist discourse?’ Read aloud What’s it for?

For each section (or paragraph), write a comment on its role in the document (e.g. this is where I introduce my thesis; this is where I outline the major competing theories; this is where I give a precedent for the method I’ve used).

Look for the traps and pitfalls When you review your draft, consider the sorts of things a reader might criticize (e.g. are your assertions justified? Is the terminology used consistently? Have you presented the limitations in a way that undermines your results? Does your illustration illustrate or obscure?) Keeping going Cookies Give yourself mini-incentives (e.g. line up cookies somewhere nearby, and allow yourself one after each section that you draft; give yourself a play day after a solid week’s writing).

Progress table Set out your section headings in a table and fill in the word count and time as you complete each one. Total the word count at the end of the day.

Obstacles in writing Writing is not a single activity. It is not just ‘writing down’, not just a simple transcription from mind to page. Rather, it is many activities: analysing, elaborating, remembering, synthesizing, mapping, ordering, articulating, clarifying, editing, criticizing, structuring, sense-making – as well as transcribing. With so many cognitive activities interacting, of course it’s complex and demanding. Having the right expectations about it helps to make it less daunting. Having a few disciplines helps to make it manageable.

130 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH For many people, writing is associated with fear. Educators talk about ‘fear of failure’ (anxiety about the consequences of getting it wrong or ‘not being good enough’ becomes an obstacle to engagement and progress) and ‘fear of success’ (anxiety about the consequences – the increased expectations – associated with success becomes an obstacle). It’s important to recognize and face your fears. OK, so it’s scary. But it’s not impossible. The key realization is that any writing is better than no writing.

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