By Cally Guerin
One of the pleasures of writing a blog is that it has encouraged me to keep an eye on the wonderful work on research writing that other bloggers also publish. Some of my favourites are Patter, ThesisWhisperer and Explorations of Style. I use these informative sites on a regular basis to refresh my own approach to writing workshops and supervision. Here I want to reflect on some blogs I’ve read in recent weeks that remind us of the important links between argument and voice, particularly in relation to signposting the direction of the argument.
Pat Thomson warns doctoral candidates about the dangers of boring writing in ‘Don’t send your thesis examiner to sleep’. She advises doctoral writers to be wary of over-signposting: Don’t become too repetitive in announcing what will be done and what has just been done. I agree that this can be utterly off-putting. I once proofread a thesis that told me so many times what I had just read before it allowed me to find out what was coming next that I completely lost track of the actual content.
Patter also encourages doctoral writers to get some life into the writing, rather than being ‘Kind of impersonal and distanced. Professional. Stuffy. Lacking in personality.’ In other words, think about creating a lively voice in the writing. I really like this. As a supervisor and as an academic editor, I prefer not to intervene too much: I think it’s important to preserve the individual style of a writer. But remember – one person’s charmingly quirky can be another’s irritatingly obscure or self-conscious. It’s about striking the right balance and it can be very useful to get a few different people to read sections of your work to see if they find the voice appropriate.
Also in relation to voice, Inger Mewburn in the ThesisWhisper posted ‘The zombie thesis’, referring to those theses that ‘can walk and talk, but aren’t really alive’. That is, theses can meet all the rules and regulations, can include all the elements that check the boxes, but still fail to engage the reader and communicate the excitement of the research. This lack of life is sometimes caused by the overall argument being lost in amongst a whole lot of detail. The post recommends the very effective practice of going back to basics and revisiting the outline of individual chapters and sections. From my perspective, it’s even better practice to encourage students to focus closely on the planning of outlines right from the beginning, so that the central argument is kept alive throughout the writing process. This in turn can free up the author to present opinions confidently, and thus bring the whole thesis to life.
The issue of signposting sufficiently without overdoing it was also canvassed by Rachael Cayley in Explorations of Style in a recent reblogging of a post from her archives. This post reminds us about how to create useful transitions while avoiding the boring repetition mentioned in Patter. There are some really good ideas here for linking between sentences, but I was particularly interested in the advice regarding transitions between sections—this seems to be the hardest part for novice writers to get right.
Achieving the right the balance between showing how the sections relate to each other without overstating the obvious is not easy. It helps enormously if the argument is clearly structured, so that each step seems inevitable as it moves in a straight direction towards the concluding statement. Headings derived from the original outline of the chapter/section are helpful, but I also like the suggestion from Explorations of Style to read through a piece of writing without referring to the headings in order to ensure that the sense is not too dependent on the headings to guide the argument—we need both headings and textual signposts to find our way through the text.
Do you have any further suggestions about how to find the right balance in presenting the argument clearly in one’s own voice? How can we keep the writing interesting, but make sure that there is enough signposting to let the reader know what’s going on?