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By Susan Carter

Being unable to see the woods for the trees is a metaphor that is sometimes applied to thesis writing for when close attention to detail (the trees) causes an author to lose oversight of the purpose and shape of the whole thesis (the woods). Thesis writers sometimes mention that they pin their research question, or their overall argument, above their desk as a pointer reminding them that when they are focusing on detail, writing should always be within the framework of the big picture.

For a two-hour doctoral writers’ workshop, I drew on the woods and trees metaphor to encourage both an overview of the big picture and attention to detail.

The doctoral writers were mostly in their second year of study, but with two in their first year. At our institution, the first year is spent producing a full thesis proposal of around 8,000—10,000 words, along with a substantial piece of writing that is often an early literature review.

In the workshop, first, on large sheets of paper, doctoral students drew a diagram of their thesis or full thesis proposal. They were asked to see the exercise as a geographical one and draw their thesis as the woods or forest. The overview aimed for accuracy about the size and density of the chapters or sections.

As the drawing took place over about 15 minutes, we noted that the shape of a thesis might differ from others in the workshop; this was to be expected given the different research designs. Candidates were able to talk about whether their woods covered gently rolling slopes, steep terrain, or a mixture of both. Covered pasture or gentle slopes referred to sections that were easier to write, or already written. We extended the metaphor to talk about unrevised writing that was like clumps of gorse or blackberries—prickly, so that you put off going back into it.

There was speculation about what could have been done differently, and whether supervisors should have been firmer in steering them away from paths that proved not to be as fruitful as hoped. That raised talk about responsibility, about the benefits of taking risks to follow your own interests, and about how much is learned along the way. Such talk is potentially troubling: it’s a scary balancing act sometimes for supervisors to concede to a students’ own interests without letting them wander too far in an ultimately unproductive direction.

Then we moved to question what the trees were like that made up these woods. One woman said she’d probably been spending a bit too long on one huge tree, the giant of her woods. She recognised that she needed to attend to the rest of the trees that supported that giant. There was the usual good natured joking of this group: some had clumps of trees that were still just seedlings, and there was recognition that some trees did not fit perfectly into the topography–they’d need extra care and maintenance. Most who attended found this exercise a helpful reminder of the bigger project that they are managing. The metaphor provided a fresh view of the thesis structure, what they had finished and what still needed doing.

Then we turned to review of writing at sentence level, with the goal of learning more about how to give good peer review. This time, two writing samples submitted in advance were dealt with up on the screen, where the group could pick up typos—two cases of misused semicolons were replaced with colons—and lack of clarity or unscholarly expression. We agreed that it is easy for sweeping, unreferenced assumptions to appear unacademic. Bias showed like the lean of trees bent by wind. And we dug around for more rigorous ways to express the thought without leaving the author open to the charge of naivety.

Verb tenses provided the reminder that action completed in the past always takes past tense, while what is always true takes the present simple, and then there is the fictional present that can be applied to what is thought or said, as in ‘This chapter establishes that…’.

At the end of the session, we agreed that it was quite fun playing in the woods and trees metaphor, and shifting from a proprietal overview of the whole terrain to attention to twigs and leaves.

I tend to expect that metaphors always help to lighten academic work—leave me a comment if you have a different metaphor that forms the basis of a doctoral writing workshop.