Eight ways to write theory very badly


If you want to be the person who makes their reader sigh and eventually give up when they get to your theoretical ‘bit’, here’s some non-fail writing strategies. Do these and I guarantee your reader will be enervated and/or exasperated:

  1. Don’t explain any of the specific terms you use

Let your reader guess how it is that you understand any of the theoretical terminology you use. Assume that their interpretation will be the same as yours.

2.  Name drop

Make sure you reference truck loads of different theorists. Embroider your text with citations to the widest possible range of people. Don’t explore or use any of them in depth. Paying lip service to multiple theories shows you are widely read, you are up to date, on top of the latest ideas, right?

3. Use loads of secondary material

Assume that the papers that you’ve read about your chosen theorist have it all sewn up. These writers have read the original so why should you bother? It’s always going to be OK to quote the book about x, rather than go to x directly.

4.  Remix the theorist

Assume that the reader – particularly if they are your thesis examiner and have been chosen for their expertise – has no familiarity with the material. Use loads of quotations interspersed with paraphrased sections and summaries of what the theorist writes. Throw in a few titles of their books and/or papers. Put in as many references and page numbers as you can. Don’t worry if the result is almost incomprehensible because it shows that you’ve read the stuff. Ventriloquism is what it’s about, right?

5. Be tough to read

Well, it’s theory. It’s got to be tough, right? And you had a hard time getting on top of it so why give your reader a break? So, write very long sentences which have lots of modifying clauses and phrases – and the occasional comment in between where another nuance is possible even  if not necesssary – and pack those nominalised multi-syllabled words in because the more the better because theory has to be nouny right? – or perhaps you might throw in the odd bracket or two (see what I’m doing here, bet you can hardly remember where I started). Make every sentence the same lengthy length so you produce a sleep-inducing monotony.

6. Don’t link the theory to your work

Assume that you need to show that you understand every possible interpretation of the theory. So write a long essay early on. Don’t tell the reader why and how you’re going to take a particular angle on the theory, don’t say which ideas are more important than others. The reader will work out what you think when you apply the theory to your data later on.

7. Write like the theorist you are using

Choose style over substance. Perhaps the reader will assume you have deep expertise of the theory you are using if you adopt the same syntax and vocabulary as your theorist. Don’t listen to those people who tell you that you generally need to get to the point where you can explain the theory in your own words before you work on authoring niceties.

And there you go.

Do these seven things in your writing and I guarantee that you will send your examiner or reviewer into a fit of extreme pique or a bout of protracted ennui.

But, I hear you say, there are supposed to be eight bad writing habits and there’s only seven here. Well yes, that’s true. So here’s the final one.

8.  Expect to get on top of writing the theory straight away

Assume that the first time you write with the theory is going to be the final time. Don’t use writing to help you get on top of the theory. Assume that if summary and paraphrase aren’t OK in the final writing, then they aren’t a good way to help you to get to grips with the material. Don’t try out several ways to write the theory in your own words. Don’t spend time thinking about where you just have to use a quotation because the author writes their key point way better than you can. And be very impatient with yourself. Despair quickly. Berate yourself for being hopeless at theory if it seems to go slowly. Attribute any uncertainty you have to some kind of (imposter) syndrome rather than understand your uncertainty is simply about learning.

But seriously. Please, if you find yourself using any of these eight strategies, do tell yourself…

Patter was just joshing about writing theory badly. She wasn’t really telling you to do any of these eight things. She really wants you to know and believe that writing with theory doesn’t have to be like wading through thick mud with lead-lined boots.

And. You can do it.