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By Susan Carter

Here’s a speculation: too much writerly focus on discipline convention sometimes muffles the value of the argument and the authorial voice. I’m prompted by three separate experiences. Two were wrapped around giving feedback on writing.

Bert’s a longstanding personal friend who is also currently a doctoral student: we worked together decades ago before university became a part of our lives and were surprised to find each other both locked into academia. Because I know Bert well, I know that he is passionate about inclusive teaching, and I could see that his authentic concern with getting at-risk students safely through their first year at university would have been the foundation for his PhD topic. Yet he was struggling with writing, stuck, getting hammered a bit by his supervisors, and I became an informal mentor.

What I noticed straight way as I read his chapter draft was that he avoided making statements about his own belief: there was no sense of a live author with a set of pedagogical values evident in his discussion section. In Education, there needed to be, and even more so in this case. As a friend, I felt indignant that Bert’s commitment to what he saw as academic style (objective, muted in tone) was betraying who he was, the caring teacher–and one also, at this point in time, a caring teacher under pressure to wrap up his PhD.

Then another colleague who is in the early stages of her doctorate showed me two sections of her writing. One was written on the basis of an initial review of literature. The other was written on the basis of her own ideas. The ideas-prompted one was much more logical in its flow, more animated and convincing, with a stronger sense that she was an experienced trustworthy author.

Comparison made me wonder whether maybe it is sounder to begin from the spark of ideas and feed literature references into the prose than it is to privilege the literature as the starting point.

I suspect that most experienced academic writers follow this practice, and it may be a point of difference between experienced research writers and those who are new to the task, new to the extensive literature search and daunted by academic conventions. Of course, initially candidates need to read extensively to check there is a gap in knowledge to be filled, and to tentatively write about what they read, but once writing starts in earnest, I believe that prose driven by ideas is usually stronger.

When candidates step up to research writing at a higher level than they have experienced before, it can seem daunting trying to meet discipline conventions and reader expectations. But, certainly in some disciplines, a good legend above the desk might be ‘Trust yourself: Your research value lies more in your ability to think and connect than in your ability to hobble prose to academic conventions.’

There is also the issue of getting the balance of emphasis just right. The third thing prompting this post was an article in a recent Listener on good communication. It gave examples of workplace behaviour that would require people to initiate difficult conversations, and then compared three approaches to demonstrate good and bad practice.

Essentially, the speaker needed to broach a conflict of interests; the skilled initiator should aim to avoid an angry argument, and nor should they be so polite that they fail to state their concern effectively. In the Listener article, the children’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears provided the analogy for approaches that, like Goldilock’s experience of the three bears’ different beds, were too hard, too soft and just right. Some statements were too harsh, some were too gentle, so ineffective, and then there was the carefully worded just right version.

I think often doctoral writing manoeuvres through the same challenges with saying things exactly right for the amount of emphasis that will neither antagonise a reader because too strongly stated, nor be so hedged as to fail to make a contribution.

Sometimes writing is less clear when it strives to capture academic language, for example, when the passive voice is striven to be maintained, clarity may be lost–I’m spoofing the passive here to demonstrate. I’m not sure what to suggest in such cases, and wonder if others have practical ways of talking students through to where they find their own voice, and capture the right emphasis on their own ideas.

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