Monthly Archives: February 2013

Structuring a Thesis Introduction

A few weeks ago, I had a post on writing introductions, in which I discussed the standard three moves of an introduction. This model works very naturally in a short space such as a research proposal or article but can be harder to realize on the bigger canvas of a thesis introduction. Many thesis writers struggle with the need to provide adequate contextualizing detail before being able to give a satisfying account of their problem. Truth be told, this inclination—the feeling that our problem is so complex that any explanation will require extensive background—can be a bit of a graduate student weakness. Understanding that your thesis can be explained in a compressed fashion is often a step forward, if for no other reason than it can give you the wherewithal to answer the inevitable questions about your thesis topic without the stammering and the false starts and the over-reliance on the word ‘complicated’. I suggest that thesis writers take every possible opportunity to articulate their topic under severe space or time constraints. One possibility: look to see if your campus is having a Three Minutes Thesis competition this term; the first round at U of T is being held on March 22.

When I approach a thesis introduction, I start from the assumption that the reader shouldn’t have to wait to hear your guiding problem until they have the full context to that problem. You have to find a way of giving them the big picture before the deep context. Let’s take an imaginary example. You are writing your thesis on the reappearance of thestrals in the 1980s in Mirkwood Forest in the remote country of Archenland after a devastating forest fire caused by mineral extraction in the 1950s.* How are you going to structure an introduction in such a way that your reader doesn’t have to read 10 pages of bewildering and seemingly unconnected background? When a thesis writer attempts to give the full context before elaborating the problem, two things will happen. First, the reader will labour to see the significance of all that they are being told. Second, the reader will, in all likelihood, struggle to find connections between the various aspects of the context. Once you have explained what we need to know about thestrals, you will need to discuss the topography of Mirkwood, the endangered species policy framework in Archenland, the mineral extraction practices commonly used in the 1950s, and the way forest fires affect animal populations. If you haven’t started with your problem—the thing that brings these disparate areas into a meaningful conversation with each other—your introduction will begin with a baffling array of potentially disconnected bits of information.

The simplest solution to this problem is to provide a quick trip through the whole  project in the first few paragraphs, before beginning to contextualize in earnest. I am picturing a thesis introduction that looks something like this:

  1. Introduction to the introduction: The first step will be a short version of the three moves, often in as little as three paragraphs, ending with some sort of transition to the next section where the full context will be provided.
  2. Context: Here the writer can give the full context in a way that flows from what has been said in the opening. The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here.
  3. Restatement of the problem: With this more fulsome treatment of context in mind, the reader is ready to hear a restatement of the problem and significance; this statement will echo what was said in the opening, but will have much more resonance for the reader who now has a deeper understanding of the research context.
  4. Restatement of the response: Similarly, the response can be restated in more meaningful detail for the reader who now has a better understanding of the problem.
  5. Roadmap: Brief indication of how the thesis will proceed.

What do you think about this as a possible structure for a thesis introduction? While I realize that it may sound a little rigid, I think such an approach is warranted here. Using this type of structure can give thesis writers an opportunity to come to a much better understanding of what they are trying to say. In other words, in my experience, thesis writers tend to feel better after reconstructing their introductions along these lines. For some, it may prove a useful way to present their introduction in their final draft; for other, it may just be a useful scaffold, something that they can improve upon once everything is on a surer footing.

Using this structure can help the writer craft an introduction that responds to the needs of the reader, rather than the demands of the material. Typically, the thesis introductions that I see provide an introduction to the topic but not necessarily to the piece of writing. Writers—especially writers in the throes of trying to conceptualize a book length research project—often forget that the audience’s ability to engage with the topic is mediated by the text. Introducing your introduction is one way to meet your key responsibility to guide the reader through the text. The thesis reader’s journey is a long one—why not do what you can to ensure that your reader sets off with the maximal understanding of their destination?

* With apologies to J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Understanding Incoherence

Peter Elbow had a post this week on the OUP blog on why academic communication can so easily become incoherent and why that fact isn’t as bad as it sounds. What I love about this post is its wonderful lack of cynicism about academic writing. Elbow, here as elsewhere in his writing, is looking to expand the way we think about writing, not lay blame. So many harsh things get said about academic writing: it’s dense, jargon-laden, oblivious to audience, and so forth. Those generalizations are true at times, but most of that writing isn’t produced by malefactors deliberately trying to obfuscate with specialized vocabulary and serpentine notions. The first thing I want my students to understand is that they write hard-to-understand prose because they are trying to convey highly sophisticated material. The second is that a failure to craft an audience-friendly text out of that sophisticated material is not an indication of an unwillingness to do so.

Whether you are discussing densely layered theories or explaining complex physical processes, chances are you are labouring to meet the often-opposed goals of clarity and accuracy. I think we all know the somewhat magical feeling when those two goals demand the same thing of us in a single sentence. So often we can see a ‘better’ version of a sentence that would be great except that it would also be wrong. Adding in the detail and nuance to make it right then undermines the clarity that we had hoped to achieve. The way forward isn’t always apparent, but it won’t be found by disparaging either pole or by despairing of the entire project of academic writing.

In fact, Elbow does give us a way forward. He asserts that a great deal of our academic writing difficulty comes from our habit of interrupting ourselves to provide extra evidence, forestall possible objections, or even attack potential detractors. And while the effects of this habit can be deleterious for the reader, Elbow is clear on the value of the underlying state of mind that keeps us alert to digression and dissent. Interestingly, he believes speech—despite the real tendency of academic speech to become incoherent—can help us bridge the gap between our often tentative, ambivalent, overqualified prose and the strong coherent version that our reader is looking for. In his words,

If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong.

Overall, Elbow is offering us an encouraging account of why it is legitimately hard to accomplish the essential goal of clarity in our academic writing. In doing so, he is also offering us inspiration to keeping on trying.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ProfessorIsIn, resources on mental illness in academia. I’ve been haunted by this related article from The New Yorker.

From @StanCarey, writing in the @EmphasisWriting blog, on making 140 characters go further. Try the fun Twitter challenge!

From @evalantsoght, great advice on #acwri for multilingual graduate students.

From @Margin_Notes, data on PhD completion rates and times to completion in Canada.

From @jpschimel, interesting thoughts on what acknowledgement slides do to the end of a presentation.

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on why being obnoxious might actually be helping some people get ahead in academia

From the After Deadline blog at the New York Times, great reminders about the errors spell-check won’t catch.

From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, a helpful distinction between ‘content visuals’ and ‘design visuals’.

From ‏@DrJeremySegrott, a #Storify of the February 7th #Acwri Twitter chat on motivation.

From @UA_magazine, an amusing account of the bureaucratic absurdity of a large institute of higher learning.

From Mark Bauerlein in @Chronicle, thoughts on the implications of teaching writing through personal reflection.

From @ThomsonPat, using a detective metaphor for academic inquiry.

From @grammarphobia, ‘Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong‘.

From @utpjournals, ten rules of writing adapted for #acwri.

From @GradHacker, concrete and helpful tips on surviving your dissertation.

From @GradHacker, a discussion of the ‘digital skills, technology, and tools‘ that ought to be developed in graduate school.

From @ryancordell, reflections on conference tweeting, politeness, and community building.

From the After Deadline blog in the New York Times, helpful advice about using ‘like’.

From the Draft blog in the New York Times, the upside of distraction and the dangers of a monomaniacal approach to writing.

From @ThomsonPat, a list of common flaws in methods sections.

“Shouldn’t I already know how to write?”

The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked the letter writer if I could reprint an edited version of the letter here on the blog. I thought it might be helpful to do so because the letter contains such a common assumption among novice academic writers. Graduate students so often think of writing ability as something they just ought to have. It is crucial to realize that not having those writing skills yet isn’t a mark of inadequacy.

Dear Rachael:

I am a PhD student. I constantly struggle with my professors about the clarity of my writing. I agree that my writing isn’t clear, but I am not sure how to correct this problem. I have no time to really think about the detailed feedback they give me. How do I make that feedback into teachable moments for myself? Fortunately, my university has writing tutors for PhD students, but I am often pressed for time due to deadlines.

I think back to my primary and secondary education and wonder what went wrong.  I have some ideas, but do I really need to take my childhood education into consideration? Writing down what you are thinking is a skill, right? Or are there those who are blessed with an ability to write?

I feel like I am a ‘fraud’ given the way that writing is hampering my progress through my doctorate.  Can you offer any advice?

Here is my response, substantially reworked for the purposes of this post:

Academic writing is absolutely a skill and not one that can be inadvertently picked up along the way. Some people will possess natural talent, of course, but most of us need time and effort to learn how to communicate sophisticated ideas in a manner commensurate with the demands of a given discourse community. I think it is very important to resist the notion that one is a ‘fraud’ for not already being an expert in academic writing; graduate school is precisely the place where people will learn to be academic writers. Expecting yourself to be one already creates an unnecessary burden. Needless to say, I also object to the way that faculty often contribute to this dynamic by talking about writing skill as something that their students ought to already have. Students will begin graduate study with widely divergent writing skills, but none will start where they need to end up. And it is unrealistic to imagine that navigating this trajectory will be effortless. By taking writing seriously—by treating it as an integral part of the scholarly enterprise—we can simultaneously remove the shame of being a so-called ‘bad writer’ and start improving our writing abilities.

So what does the imperative to treat academic writing as a project actually mean in concrete terms? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Accept that feedback on your writing isn’t a referendum on your competence as a scholar. You need to be open to feedback in order to improve. Not working with that feedback—for reasons of either pride or preoccupation—will ultimately be a short-sighted decision.
  • That said, recognize that it’s incredibly common for graduate students to find the comments on their writing oblique and unhelpful. For instance, being told that our writing is unclear gives us almost nothing to go on. As Joseph Williams says, “Neither awkward nor turgid are on the page” (Style, p. 17). In other words, looking for many of the qualities that people identify in your writing can be a fruitless endeavour because those qualities refer to the reader’s experience of your prose. Being told that your writing is unclear can be a necessary first step, but you will need strategies if you are going to make any improvements.
  • Try to learn about those writing strategies from people who are experts in writing. Writing tutors (if you have access to them) can give you the insight into your writing that you may not be getting from other readers. Learning to supplement the crucial feedback you are getting from your professors and supervisors with broader writing support can help you to move towards competency and autonomy in academic writing. 
  • Finally, keep the thesis writing stage firmly in your sights. Whatever writing difficulties are experienced early on, the orientation towards writing will necessarily shift during the full-time thesis writing stage. Keeping that step in mind can help overcome any initial sense that focusing on writing will take up time that ought to be devoted to elsewhere. The good news for some students is that the degree of focus during the thesis writing stage sometimes allows more time to attend to the writing itself. When there are fewer demands to dilute their attention and when writing itself takes up a greater proportion of their time, some graduate students are able to approach writing as an essential element of their work, with a commensurate improvement in their experience of writing.

Overall, banishing pernicious thoughts about what we should ‘already’ know will allow us to move ahead with the development of our academic writing skills. The ubiquity of writing can paradoxically obscure its legitimate importance as an area of study. Just because we do it all the time, doesn’t mean we already know how—and graduate school is the perfect time to embrace the challenge of becoming an academic writer.