By Cally Guerin
Over the years I’ve noticed that doctoral writers sometimes come to their work with unhelpful ideas about what makes for good academic writing. Today I’d like to bust a few of those myths so that researchers can produce the kind of writing that is required, without going down the paths that waste time or obscure the central messages of the writing.
- Nothing new in the Conclusion
One of the misconceptions that disrupts good thesis writing is the idea that there must be nothing new in the Conclusion. Actually, a thesis conclusion must contain much more than just a summary of the work that has been undertaken during the project (we’ve posted on this previously – here and here and here). Most thesis conclusions are expected to include a statement regarding possible future directions for research that builds on the author’s project – this is obviously new and doesn’t repeat what has already been stated in the thesis. At a more subtle level, the Conclusion should present a synthesis of all the findings and their overall meaning; again, this is new work that has not been mentioned earlier (we need to wait until all the findings have been presented in previous chapters before we can draw these conclusions from the research). So, while the Conclusion must speak to what has gone before, it doesn’t simply repeat what’s already been said.
- The exhaustive literature review
Some doctoral writers feel that a literature review must summarise all the existing research on their topic, fearing that they may leave out some crucial publication if they don’t provide an exhaustive bibliography. Rather than demonstrating mastery over the field, though, attempts to record every possible tiny item the author has ever encountered can result in failure to critically evaluate what is relevant and what is irrelevant. It is the doctoral writer’s job to create a version of that field of research that leads to their project; other readers already know what is out there in the literature, so they don’t need to have it explained to them. What they do need to know is that there is a scholarly context for the new project. And it is also a mistake to think that the literature review is written and completed at the beginning of the project. The literature review must be reworked after the research has been conducted to match where this project ended up – which may be quite a long way from where the researcher had imagined it in the early stages of setting up the project. Patter offers some great advice on the types and purposes of literature reviews here.
- Accurate chronology of research
Sometimes researchers believe that they must present the research in exactly the order the events happened. Obviously, the account does need to bear a truthful relation to the project, but it must also have a narrative logic of its own. If delays in the progress mean that other work needs to be done while waiting for something else to happen (e.g., for access to data to be approved, or a second round of participant recruitment if the first set of interviews was too small). The narrative of the thesis needs to make sense in its own terms as an accurate representation of the research. Pay attention to the narrative logic of the final thesis document (see this post, for example).
- The end of the paragraph foreshadows the next point
One of the most persistent and – to my mind at least – damaging myth about academic writing is the idea that the last sentence of the paragraph must foreshadow what comes next. While this may occasionally be appropriate, for example, at the end of an Introduction or to transition to a new section of writing, it must be executed with a deft touch. Sometimes this is presented as a rhetorical question that projects forward to the next point in the argument (e.g., ‘What are the reasons for this apparently inexplicable behaviour?’). But for most paragraphs in the main body of the text, repetition of what is about to appear in a moment is not only unnecessary, but downright boring. A well-planned structure with accurate topic sentences will ensure that the reader is perfectly capable of seeing how the material is linked together. Yet some doctoral writers are resistant to believing that they really don’t need to tell us what we are about to read and then immediately tell us what we are reading. One way of testing this is to take a passage of academic text that seems to be written well and see how the author transitions between paragraphs.
- Academic writing requires complex sentences and long words
In attempting to sound intellectual and academic, some doctoral writers mistakenly believe they need to use long, convoluted sentences saturated with big words. In reality, the focus in English needs to be on clear communication of complex ideas. If anything, over-nominalisation and very long noun phrases can be hard to follow (see Helen Sword on zombie nouns; convoluted sentences with many clauses and subclauses can lead to confusion and grammatical errors. Instead of impressing readers with a display of cleverness, this can result in readers simply losing interest in the writer’s message. Dense writing has its place and some disciplines value this more than others, but for most doctoral theses, the key messages need to be clearly articulated so that readers cannot possibly misunderstand the author’s contribution to knowledge.
Are there other persistent misconceptions that you see amongst doctoral writers? Let’s debunk the myths once and for all.