Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Some writing got wrought, and I am now right on track

In the little moments I filch from writing, I have been reading how to write a literature review. I have also been reading about how to just write. Here is what I have learned:

My paragraph construction is awry. I didn't know about not starting a sentence with 'however' or that 'nonetheless' is acceptable but means something else? I have only been less than fluent in English for half a century. And am still tortured by it. Time to throw all my toys out of the cot and say 'I don't care'. This is a blog for goodness sake! And I can start a sentence with 'and' if i want to. On the other hand, in my thesis I had better behave and apply some grammatical correctness. Nevertheless, I regret not paying more attention in my English classes as teaching myself grammar is difficult. Subsequently, I have so much unlearning to do.

My thanks to Monash University for establishing an excellent website on writing. Those of us that get into a University and progress to PhD without having learned enough about writing are appreciative.

And my friends wonder about how come 6 hours can be absorbed in progressing one paragraph....

Today I approached the task with stealth, and have, at least, been entertained.

Doing a google search for boring literature reviews I discovered a cute paper on how to write boring scientific papers.
To summarise: hell is rereading one's own work. Hell is also multi-layered and reading student PhD submissions could well be the purgatory that one deserves for inflicting such unapproachable writing on to an undeserving world.
The characteristics that make so much scientific writing unbearably boring, resulting in a top-10 list of recommendations for writing consistently boring publications.

* Avoid focus
* Avoid originality and personality
* Write long contributions
* Remove implications and speculations
* Leave out illustrations
* Omit necessary steps of reasoning
* Use many abbreviations and terms
* Suppress humor and flowery language
* Degrade biology to statistics
* Quote numerous papers for trivial statements

In the Annals of improbable research, I found this gem on How to write a PhD dissertation. The abstract tells me:
In this paper we demonstrate that writing a Ph.D. dissertation can have
many benefits. Not only do you obtain extensive typesetting experience,
but afterwards you can have your frequent-flyer literature addressed to
"Dr. Your Name."

The notes regarding Chapter 2 left me smiling:
There comes a time in the life of every graduate student when she or he realizes that another two years of graduate school cannot be endured. Even though a year spent writing your thesis will be filled with frustration and angst, it will end up being worth it in order to escape school forever.
Remember the following phrase: "No one will ever read your thesis.'' You'll hear this phrase a number of times as you finish up, and it's vitally important that you believe it to be true. The phrase is important because without it you would be tempted to work on your thesis until everything is perfect, and you would never finish.
Say "It's good enough for the thesis" to yourself several times a day. Tell yourself that you'll correct all the mistakes when you turn the various chapters into independent scientific papers, even though this won't happen (see Schulman 1996a and references therein).

I loved Schulman's approach of citing himself frequently, and hope he goes ego surfing and finds that others cite him also. Tracing a few of Schulman's references, I found myself reading the Ig Noble awards for research. My favourite was by David Sims in Organizational Studies, titled You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations
This one helped me to realise the task of academic writing is not so hard. Despite not being successful in my last grant application, I am not a failure. I now have further research that needs to be given voice...I could write a Narrative exploration into the phenomenology of soul destruction in academia...

Having been a little more grounded in the reality with the insight that polishing a gem that's never going to be seen is a waste of a life, and wanting my own life back, I am now ready to write. I will, on the advice of my supervisor, save my other considerations for publishing in my post doc life.


  1. Lovely post Ailsa. You're not alone in this wrestling match with self to transfer the thinking we do in our heads into a written text that may or may not ever be read!!

    It's easy to become defensive in the face of expectations of others, like the examiners and those within the discourses we are writing to, as these invisible voices do take on mythic proportions at times. But I think it's our own expectations that are at the heart of this struggle.

    The struggle to write is understandable when we remind ourselves that we're not simply transcribing, the very act of writing is an act of thinking out loud. For me, it is the ultimate sense making activity.

    Because of this, the struggle for me is not reserved for the final writing stage of the thesis (where you are just now) but has been with me since the beginning. I wrote a blog post about this upon reflection of my confirmation (http://leadershipliteracies.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/research-design-and-fugues/).

    One thing that helps me when I get too close to it all, is to remember the wise words from a Winter School some time ago. It was either Brian or Andy who reminded us that "It's not about being interesting, it's all about being interested!!"

    Put another way (thanks Viv McWaters) sometimes in order to write we just need to "put down our clever and pick up our ordinary".

  2. That's some beautiful advice :)
    thankyou, ailsa