Writing as an imaginary conversation with your reader


It’s the end of #acwrimo!!

Did you take part in Academic Writing Month this year? I certainly did. It was lockdown, so this year we made a big deal of it at ANU. Not to put too fine a point on it, I taught my ass off. You can see some of the workshops I ran on my Workshops page.

This post supports one of the last workshops I ran: How to write a powerful paragraph. I didn’t have enough coffee that morning and made a bit of a hash of explaining some of the concepts. Most of the students were a bit…

So, let’s talk about structure, hopefully without the confusion!

Academic writing is structured at two levels: subheadings and paragraphs. The subheadings in a short article are easy to generate. Here are two basic academic paper structures, which Katherine Firth, Shaun Lehmann and I explained in our book How to fix your academic writing trouble.

A basic science paper structure:

  • Abstract: locate the work in a broader context, focus on the specific problem, anchor in the literature, report what you did, argue for the significance.
  • Introduction: Tell the reader why the work needs to be done in the context of what others have done. It’s a combination of sales pitch and literature review, with an emphasis on the review.
  • Method: What you did so that someone can easily replicate it.
  • Results: Tables and figures with narration – can be broken into different segments to help the reader navigate through the text.
  • Discussion: Where you tell us what the results mean, usually the context of other work that has been done.’
  • Conclusion: Where you return to the significance and suggest other areas of the work that could be explored further.

The humanities make similar moves in papers, but with a different emphasis:

  • Abstract: locate the work in a broader context, focus on the specific problem, anchor in the literature, report what you did, argue for the significance.
  • Introduction: Tell the reader why the work needs to be done in the context of what selected others have done (your selection matters). It’s a combination of sales pitch and literature review, with an emphasis on the sales pitch. Tell the reader what you intend to argue.
  • Methodology: Either what data you collected, how and why or what specific materials or writers/thinkers you are critiquing. What rationale there was for using that approach.
  • Themes: A series of subheadings that break the paper up for the reader into useful ‘idea chunks’. These sections should clearly build a case, or relate to each other in some logical way.
  • Summary analysis: Where you draw together all the themes you have discussed and make a case for the overall argument you set out in the introduction.

A science dissertation might be three or four (or more) versions of this basic paper structure, titled chapters, which are top and tailed with a big introduction at the start and a conclusion at the end.

A humanities dissertation is often this same basic paper structure, but all the sections are much bigger and there’s more themes in the middle. Creative research practice can depart radically from both of these formulas – usually consisting of an exegesis with a bridging essay. But the bridging essay often resembles the humanities form.

Let’s zoom in closer. A subheading has one or more paragraphs under it. The number of paragraphs in each subsection is up to you. I don’t want to be the paragraph police (well, maybe I do), but I like subsections in a dissertation to be no longer than 3 pages. Unless you happen to be my student, feel free to ignore me.

Paragraphs group similar concepts and ideas together.

Each paragraph is step in your overall argument, helping you walk your reader through your propositions in logical order.

It’s easy to say soothing stuff like this, but in practice, you’re probably trying to wrangle paragraphs out of a big old mess of ideas, data, bits of analysis, quotes from other people – and your own critical judgements. Organising this mess into neat paragraphs is like trying to put a jigsaw together without the benefit of a picture on the front of the box. Seasoned academics have their own strategies for dealing with the writing-jigsaw problem. Although calling them ‘strategies’ is probably a bit fancy.

They are more like… hacks.

My favourite academic writing hack is to write the first sentence of as many paragraphs as I can think of, and assemble them as a big list to see if the story makes sense. Then I sort the big pile of writing stuff as dot point lists, under each sentence, where they seem to fit. Then I start writing, free form, under each first sentence, including things from the dot point list as I go.

The sentences at the start of paragraphs come in a variety of flavours.

Paragraphs in the introduction will often start with sentences that summarise the literature or what we already know. Paragraphs in the conclusion will often start with summaries of the arguments you made in the rest of the paper. Paragraphs in the results and discussion/theme sections are trickier, but they tend to start with knowledge claims.

Knowledge claims are assertions that can be supported with very particular kinds of evidence.

Academics are fairly picky about the evidence they will accept so, it’s not a good idea to start a paragraph in the middle of your paper with a statement like:

The sky is blue.

This statement is an assertion, but it is not a defensible knowledge claim. As I look outside the window right now, the sky is kind of grey with patches of blue. So I could modify my sentence:

The sky is blue, except when there are clouds.

Still not a good knowledge claim because it’s so easy to disprove – the sky is sometimes black, at night, or orange, at sunrise and sunset. Do I know the sky is blue, or do I just perceive it as blue? The verb ‘is’ denotes ‘existence’; the verb ‘perceives’ is about how we experience sensory input. In other words, the sky only looks blue – sometimes. There’s a literature on human sensory systems I can draw on to support a claim about perception. Let’s modify the knowledge claim again so it’s more defensible:

For humans, most of the time, the sky appears blue.

Better – it’s a much more tentative claim, but I can offer reasons and evidence to explain why people see the sky as blue. If I can pile up enough of these, a reader should accept my assertion – which is really all you are trying to do in academic writing.

Now for the messy bit: how to arrange a paragraph to support a knowledge claim.

Novice and undergraduate writers are offered a couple of formulas to help compose paragraphs. These are fairly recent pedagogical innovations, so I’ve never used them. My son actually taught me these two when he was in high school:

TEXAS: Topic sentence, example, explanation, analysis, ‘so what’

TEEL: Topic sentence, Explanation, Evidence, and Link

I don’t find these formulas particularly helpful because they tend to produce formulaic, repetitive writing. At an undergraduate level formulaic is fine, but at the PhD level you have to step it up.

My academic writing life was transformed in 2006, early in my PhD, when I saw this handy diagram in the evergreen classic The craft of research: by Booth et. al.

In case you can’t read that image properly, the diagram is a basic ‘kit of parts’ for a paragraph of argumentative writing. There is a ‘chain’ of linked statements at the top:

  1. I claim that…
  2. Because of these reasons…
  3. Which I base on this evidence…

Underpinning this three part chain is a form of writing Booth et.al. call ‘Acknowledgement and response’. Basically, your paragraphs should be peppered with sentences that show you anticipate the reader’s questions, objections, and alternatives to what you are asserting – and have an answer. As Booth et. al. put it:

“… if you plan your argument only around claims, reasons, and evidence, your readers may think your argument is not only thin but, worse, ignorant or dismissive of their views. You must respond to their predictable questions and objections.”*

When you think about it this way, writing a paragraph is really just having an imaginary, one sided conversation with your reader where you ask yourself: what does my reader need to hear to accept what I am saying is true?

If you analyse texts closely, you’ll see really good academic writers often leave out the main argument chain, or jumble up the order – all the time. But they never leave out the imagined conversation with the reader.

It’s easier to see what I mean in practice. Here’s a paragraph from one of my personal favourite papers: ‘It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize: how experienced examiners assess research theses’ by Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley (my link is to researchgate, which is the closest I can give you to open access. Go ahead, read it – I’ll wait).

Here’s everything under the subheading Experienced Examiners Expect the Thesis to Pass on page 376:

Of even more comfort to postgraduate students is the reluctance of examiners to fail a thesis (knowledge claim). From our 30 experienced examiners (who had examined more than 300 theses over the last 10–15 years), there were only 10 reports of a failed thesis (evidence). There are several reasons given for this reluctance (anticipating and addressing the reader’s implicit question: why so few failed theses?). Primarily, it is the  examiners’  realisation  that the thesis  represents three  to four years of effort by a talented student, and that its production  has  been  an  expensive process in terms of resources and other people’s time (answer to the implicit question): ‘If the student is any good and the supervisor any good then  you shouldn’t  fail a  PhD. There  should be  enough  “nous”  around to guide the student in a way that he/she wouldn’t fail’ (Sc/Male/10). (evidence supporting the answer).

Another reason examiners will do everything they possibly can to avoid failing a thesis, or asking for a substantial rewrite (anticipating and addressing the reader’s implicit question: are there other reasons for the low failure rate?), is that they realise that this will require a substantial amount of work for the examiner, the student and often the supervisor (answer to the implicit question): ‘A poor thesis causes me sleepless nights as I know how much work and effort is involved’ (Hum/Female/6). (evidence)

Mullins and Kiley can play fast and loose with the standard components of an argument because, in the methods section, they give enough information to assure their reader that the knowledge claims are valid. When they share results of their survey, they assume the reader is more interested in what the claims mean in practice, not how valid they are. I could quibble about the use of two paragraphs – I would have put all that in one – but that’s just a style thing really.

Try using this analysis technique on a piece of writing you enjoy. It might surprise you how much you can get away with, so long as you treat your reader as a thinking, feeling human being. All writing is a social act. Expert to expert communication, which is the essence of writing at PhD level and above, requires a good imagination and a certain degree of confidence to depart from rigid formulas when necessary.

I hope this short explainer helped you – it helped me to write it. Next time I run that session I will just send people this post, instead of trying to explain it on the run!

I usually take January off Thesis Whisperering, but I will bring you a new year’s post in early 2022, complete with a book version of all the posts from this year as my annual fund raiser for UN Women. For those who celebrate, I hope your Christmas is peaceful and full of good times with friends and family.