Display Work

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I’ve spent the last few years working on a book about graduate writing. That process is now drawing to a close: Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be published in June! Between now and then, I’m going to use this space to share brief excerpts. In addition to my discussion of principles, strategies, and habits for effective academic writing, the book has short ‘asides’ that allowed me to engage with topics outside that main narrative. Over the next four months, I’ll share my favourites of those asides. As always, I’d love to hear what you think!

Book Cover showing title: Thriving as a Graduate Writer

Display Work

A persistent challenge in graduate writing is the demand of what I call ‘display work’: explaining things that the typical reader already knows in order that they will recognize you as a fellow-knower of those things. A certain portion of graduate communication involves relaying information in a manner that is performative rather than purely communicative. This activity is an unusual reconfiguration of normal communication in which you tell people things precisely because they don’t already know them. This performative feature of academic writing can be puzzling and painful to the novice writer. I am frequently asked a version of this question: ‘How much should I say here, when my reader already knows all of this?’ Since this display work is generally obligatory, it’s a good idea to recognize the tension and learn to work with it. During graduate coursework, it can be helpful to think of the audience as someone who has finished the relevant course or program; you won’t have to explain everything, but you will have to cover lots of ground that you may worry will be overly familiar to your actual reader. During thesis writing, the tension becomes more challenging; a thesis is a blend of display work (extensive literature review, expansive methods, comprehensive research results) and the crucial communicative work of conveying your own research contribution. Being aware of the imperatives of both elements of graduate writing can help with establishing the right balance, one that displays your disciplinary competence while also communicating the novelty of your research.


Thriving as a Graduate Writer will be available in early June from the University of Michigan Press. To pre-order your copy, visit the book page. Order online and save 30% with discount code UMS23!

2 responses to “Display Work

  1. Saskia Van Viegen

    This is wonderful news! Looking forward to the book!

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