Recently I have entered solidly into the marathon of writing up my thesis. Now I know that you are supposed to be doing this all the way through your PhD and yes, I have been writing the whole time. But for me, if I don’t take a big run at it and do it in one logical progression, I just can’t make it make sense. So I have loads of one two and three page word documents scattered across my ‘Thesis’ folder (a title that has inspired a small frisson of terror in me, ever since I named it), none of which connect to each other in any meaningful way!
However, since I sat myself down and said:
‘Now you are going to do this Hazel, no more procrastinating, no more waiting for data, this is the time to write and make your argument!’
I have been writing in a much more logical way, and my arguments are coming together nicely (or so I in my little writing cave of a mind think). The good thing about that is that all the ideas that I have had for papers over the last year are making a great deal more sense to me now, I can draw the threads of my arguments more confidently from my thesis writing and I feel good about writing these papers. The bad thing is that I have never written a purely acadmeic paper – I’ve been blogging.
When it comes to writing short, logical, pieces that make a case for one particular thing, the area in which I have most experience over the last year is – here. The blogs that I have written and planned over the last two years have been my most reliable source of written output during the entire last phase of my PhD, and they are written extremely differently to a paper. I write colloquially, with slang terms and I often leap from idea to idea in the way that my brain does (yes, I’m a bit of a scatterbrain – ok a LOT of a scatterbrain).
This format of writing really doesn’t mesh well with writing papers. It doesn’t seem to impact my thesis too much as I know that I am going to be writing and re-writing that until next year, but for papers I seem to get stymied in my informal writing style!
This problem reflects the issue of writing in an academic language. Academic language is what you are taught (with varying degrees of success) to write with at University as an undergraduate. In the physical sciences its most obvious expression is writing in the third person (which reflects the notion that the scientist is supposed to be completely objective about their work), but it is used in all areas of academic life – in subtle and complicated ways. In fact, the success of your use of academic language and methods of thought is one of the things which mark you out as an expert in your field, as explored in a recent paper by Dressen-Hammouda (2008) on disciplinary identity and genre mastery. So if you are attempting to write a paper to expand the boundaries of your science (whatever it might be), you need to use the right textual cues and knowledge frames. This basically means you have to know the academic language (with all the implied meaning not obvious to an outsider) you need to use to make yourself credible to your peers and you need to know how to link concepts together in the same way that another person versed in your science would do so.
But this is completly the opposite of the style used for writing for a blog (or any form of science communication to a non-expert audience for that matter). In a blog you try to make yourself relatable, understandable and sympathetic. You want people to see you as a person and not a machine of science, and you want people who are not a part of your little community to feel comfortable coming in and talking about your subject with you.
How do you balance these two competing needs? As a science communication researcher I value the method of easy communication that blogging needs, but I also need to contribute to my field. As a possible solution I am trying something new. At the end of a day of writing towards one of my chapters I am writing a page of one of my papers. I hope that this will allow the transfer of language across from the papers I have read to the papers I am writing.
To all you bloggers out there, do you have any tips for switching between your academic and internet ‘voice’?
Very interesting post – I just started blogging so got the academic writing bit done first. I find that for blogging I write more personal (the posts so far) than my papers or thesis. I also wrote in different environments – for academic writing (the nitty gritty bits) I write in a group once a week away from the office and with a structure to follow. For my blog posts so far I wrote when I felt like it – here a bit there a bit and then edited it. Having different writing environments seems to affect or help my style. Good luck with the thesis write up – I can only recommend finding or starting a writing group or at least getting a writing buddy – helped my thesis writing a lot!
Very interesting post Hazel!
I guess I never wrote about my research much when I was blogging. I would write about all the other things that interest me (science communication, outreach, academia and other areas of Earth science) and the parts of my research which would never make it into a paper (field work adventures, conferece journals, visits to other institutions), but which where intrinsic to the success of my PhD.
That meant it was easy to find my two writing voices, because the subject matter was so distinct anyway.
I also have to be honest, once I got into the bulk of my thesis writing (like yourself, wrote throughout my PhD, but only really tackled ‘The Thesis’ in the last 10 months or so), I found that I had little motivation to write anything else. I guess the thesis sapped all my inspiration and left litte room for any other thoughts or musings!
I like the idea of a writing group and wish I had looked for one whilst I finished up (or even started my own), nothing like a little peer pressure to spur you on!
Happy thesis writing! :)!
This is a great question, and one I’ve thought about too. I would make two suggestions. First, writing blog posts – or ANY writing – is good training for more writing, of any kind. Sure, you have to time-manage; but I think writing practice from blogging can only help paper-writing. Second, I’ve become convinced that we should “switch styles” less than we do. Our academic voices do not have to be as tedious as people often suggest they should be. (The passive voice is a great example, actually; in most fields we’re moving away from insistence on it, which is fantastic). I even wrote a paper about this, and then blogged about it (appropriately enough). The blog post is here (http://wp.me/p5x2kS-2Q) and it links to the paper if you’re interested.
I ended up using blogging as a brainstorming exercise. I didn’t blog a whole lot about my research during the last phase of my thesis-writing, but when I did it was about things I was musing over and needed to organize my thoughts on. Writing things out on the blog is a great way to make sure that your thesis writing doesn’t get bogged down in detail and fancy language, and that you’re telling a coherent story about your work. It’s sort of the reverse of the elevator speech; the blogging is starting with the generalized and condensed description, and then you can build the thesis writing off of that.