• Editing with colour
  • Thesis Into a Book? Possible, But Not So Simple
  • That Christmas in Bangladesh
  • The Value Added of Writing Teachers
  • A Short Note About Article Conclusions
  • Artistic Variation
  • Real Vocabulary Help
  • Concluding an Introduction
  • Five Sentences
  • The wheel fell off my Ngram wagon

Editing with colour

In February, I presented my work on editing with colour at the Writing Research Across Borders III conference, at Paris Nanterre. People who have studied with me  in the last few years will recognise this approach, which I started developing in 2010 and had reached its present form by 2012. This is a way writers can gain insight into the way their text is read and visualised by others, something critical to text revision but often hard to grasp.  It takes some effort to learn, but the rewards are more than worth the effort — plus it can actually be fun. Have a look. Many of the slides are self-explanatory. This was written in keynote (a Mac programme) so I’ve saved it here as a PDF and you can view it as a slideshow

On Slideshare:  

Or on this website:  Using Colour


Thesis Into a book? Possible, But Not So Simple

A broader audience needs a broader focus

A dissertation is normally very narrowly focussed on a small part of a phenomenon, as a way to take an in-depth look at something. It zooms in, to look at a particular situation in depth. The methodology might have its own chapter. The literature study is as complete as the author can make it. Often, it’s only near the end of the thesis that the author can make references to a wider focus.

In a book, though, this wider focus is usually more important throughout the chapters. This means both deleting some detail, and (because your new readers will be less specialised) adding more orientation, more context. You can’t get around this, because a dissertation is written for a narrow audience of specialists and a book for a broader audience who will be less familiar with the subject.

Overhaul the structure

A book tells a story. They do this to attract readers. Dissertations simply are not written to do this. They don’t need to, because the main readers (supervisor, committee) are paid and appointed.  This makes them unique, as the last piece of someone’s writing that people will be paid to read (something that happens throughout a school career). This may be one of the reasons underneath the old saying: write a dissertation, and then never write that way again. That’s no joke. After you have your PhD in hand, attracting readers becomes immensely important, and this is actually true for both journal articles and for books. A piece of writing with ideas, one that shows how things are linked together, will be more interesting than a dry list of facts or bullet points.

The signposts for the story’s plot will be subtle to invisible… although a structure will be there.

A dissertation will often have a very visible superstructure. That is, there will be sections, subsections, and sub-subsections, all with their own headings (or subheadings, or sub-subheadings); chapters will often begin with a summary of what will be found in them, and end with a summary of what was just read. This gives dissertations a bit of the look of the Pompidou Centre in Paris – a building with all of the normal insides (ventilation pipes, plumbing, etc.) on the outside.

Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 20.59.13

Another way to see all of this signposting is as scaffolding, needed while the building (dissertation) was being constructed, and left in to help your (paid) readers find the things they will assess you on very quickly, such as your knowledge of limitations to your study. Unpaid readers are less likely to enjoy the aesthetics.

Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 21.16.33

Of course, when you take the scaffolding away, you need to make sure that your construction doesn’t fall down! This will involve delete some parts and reworking others to make them more subtle. For example, a thesis will often have quite a lot of repetition, and that can be deleted: if something is discussed in two or three sections, leave it only in the best (usually the first) place, and not in the others. Some of this repetition happens in summaries, so delete most of these, and include only those you feel are vital.

Reduce the number of quotations

In social science, a thesis can have quite a few direct quotations, which are then discussed and contextualised. But once you lose those readers who are paid to read your work, the number of quotations drops dramatically. This is actually especially true for journal articles (which usually summarise and give a citation instead — except in fields like Law, where exact wordings matter). Quotations in books also will serve a different purpose — they often provide “colour” and accessibility to attract readers — and this different purpose means they will be different types of quotations as well.

You can reduce the number of quotations in a few ways. One is to delete those that aren’t essential to the plot and the new, broader focus. Another is to abridge the ones that are left. Shorten them to show just the relevant parts. This will often make a display quotation (the ones that are indented) into a quotation short enough (under 2 or 3 lines) to incorporate into the text. The third and most important way is to summarise them (with the relevant citation in a note or between parentheses).

 … make fewer lists

 Of course, there are exceptions: we have all seen books entirely composed of lists. But if you have included them in your dissertation, delete the nonessential ones, and rework the rest to make them part of the text

 … and fewer tables

Again, look at the tables as a set of separate pieces in the book, and delete the nonessential ones. If the purpose of the table can be put into a sentence in the text, do that. Simplify any essential tables, so that they show only the most important  information, and in the best possible way. You can always refer interested readers to the thesis.

…and fewer notes

Footnotes will often be converted into endnotes, but more importantly, there will be many fewer. Delete any footnotes that are nonessential, then convert them to endnotes. You can either have a single list at the back, or break this list up by chapter.

… and a shorter (or no) literature review 

One of the purposes of a literature review in a thesis is to prove that the author was a good student and read extensively. In a thesis, that means finding a place for many overlapping sources, some much more important that others. In a book, though, it’s assumed (until proven otherwise) that the  author is an expert, and can tell readers what is most worth reading (very different, then, from a thesis).

It might be worth deleting references in two stages. First,  delete the least relevant literature. Then delete any borderline literature.

… and almost no methodology

OK, maybe not all, and not every time: If the method is really an essential to the story’s plot, if it is the story, then you’ll have to include it. But always make your methodology no more detailed than you feel is absolutely necessary.

Use a personal, direct tone

The impersonal tone that is very acceptable in most dissertations and (although to a lesser extent) in academic articles, tends not to sell books, so publishers aren’t in love with it. Try to develop a more personal, direct, tone. For example, instead of writing:

‘As a background to the fieldwork, discussions were held with a number of officials from the local government in Kathmandu, using a semi-structured set of pre-determined questions as guidelines for the discussion; all discussions took place between 7 July and 15 August 2008’


Local officials told us that… [followed by what you learned]


[assuming the mayor was one of the people you interviewed] The mayor said… [followed by the relevant part of the mayor’s interview, which you are weaving into a story in which you demonstrate, rather than tell, what you found]

 or even

I discovered …

 You get the idea. A personal, direct tone will also mean getting some distance from the mannered, discursive style of writing that thesis writing seems to encourage (see the example above).

Make it flow

Flow is something you should only think about once you have the basic structure of the book and can begin rewriting. As you are rewriting, use ‘the writer’s camera’, keeping in mind that your new audience has not only a different se of things they know, but also a different set of reasons for reading. The writer’s camera is a way for you to look at your text from a reader’s perspective. It will show you the closest versions you can get of how your readers are visualising what you are telling them.

Delete academese

I don’t mean the relatively few technical words that identify you as an expert in your field (although it’s best if most of these go, too). OK, if you’re writing about GDP, you’d both interrupt the flow of your text and look silly if you had to say ‘the total market value of goods and services produced by workers and capital within a nation’s borders’ every time, as if you didn’t know the term at all. However, there are words out there which cross into all or most fields, and are just used to make a text impersonal, to make it ‘sound academic’. The remedy is not necessarily to go completely informal, but to look for straightforward ways to say things. Sentences with “respectively”, for example, can be rephrased (assuming you still need them).

This post only hits a few main points that distinguish a PhD thesis from a book, but it should give you a start, and lead you to other changes you’ll want to make.


That Christmas in Bangladesh

The expectations and experience we have are always part of the way we understand a text, and actually, this is also true about the evidence we gather in the course of everyday life. We will simply try to interpret what we are getting in terms of the expectations we have of that text (or input).

For example, I was on a plane from London to Tanzania a few years ago, seated next an elderly gentleman. He told me about his first plane trip. His daughter (he pronounced this “daww tah”) was with the VSO (the UK version of the Peace Corps) and that when she first joined VSO she was sent to Bangladesh. He said he’d join her at Christmas, bought his ticket, got on the plane… so far so good, since this was his first big trip. But the plane headed south. He could see that, and he wondered about it, but he knew about Great Circle Routes so he wasn’t so bothered. A while later, he could see the Sahara and he was a bit more concerned, but then he comforted himself with the thought that maybe the circle was a really BIG circle, given that there was a war in the Middle East. He went back to his book until he heard a pilot announcement that made him realise he was looking at the West African coast! He felt foolish asking a member of the flight crew where the plane was going, but even more foolish when he heard he had bought a ticket to Dakar, Senegal and not Dhaka, Bangladesh!

And there it is. Without clear signposting for readers about where you are taking them, they will use their own hopes and expectations instead, missing some of your argument entirely and misunderstanding the rest, as they struggle to see themselves going to Bangladesh while you always knew that you were taking them to Senegal!


The Value Added of Writing Teachers

This afternoon, I have been thinking about a student who said she wants to write fluently, but that she does not enjoy writing. She’s one of many. The problem is, as with every other skill from dancing to horseback riding to playing chess, in order to excel we must practice a lot, and in order to practice a lot, we really need to like practising it: the process needs to bring pleasure, not just the goal.  This issue is discussed at length by Peter Elbow (writing well requires enjoying the process of writing) and Robert Boice (enjoying writing decreases procrastination and, for academics, increases productivity).  I’m sitting here thinking: How do I get her onto that initial upward loop? How can I help her enjoy writing?
This, I believe, is where a fair amount of writing teaching goes sour. Being judged and graded is not high on anyone’s list. Spending hours over a text and having it returned covered in red also doesn’t feel good. Vocabulary practice isn’t the answer either (though I did just locate a brilliant website that I recommend for vocabulary building as a separate goal). Furthermore, while there probably are a few people who like learning how to talk like a grammarian, not only do most people not enjoy it, but it also doesn’t improve one’s writing. Personally, I dislike sorting anything into grammatical categories and cannot force myself to care in the abstract whether something is pluperfect or not; I want to see how it operates in the discourse. However, as a writing teacher, I love looking at the way structure changes meaning. I am also interested in the process of writing.
      This fit rather well at first in my graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, where the English department was headed at the time by Donald Murray,  an amazing writing teacher who set the tone for us. However, as I said at the time, the writing process didn’t really describe the process of writing a villanelle or, for that matter, a research article.
      Since then, I have worked outside any English/Linguistics faculty and indeed for the most part outside native-English-speaking countries for more than two and a half decades. I also spent a considerable period mixing teaching with editing scholarly books and dissertations, editing for international journals, and editing for academic authors. Teaching internationally and outside an English department has meant that my students have been grouped not by language ability but by discipline.  In one class, they can range from native English speakers to people who have somehow managed to take the TEOFL on their best-ever day and are struggling to cope with graduate work in a foreign language.  In the same room.  Clearly, we weren’t going to focus on grammar or vocabulary.
      I have had to find the value-added of writing instruction that would apply right across the spectrum of abilities, giving both the native speakers and the lost-at-seas something they could understand and use.  More or less at the same time, I brought genre models and insights from my linguistic training (especially about reading) into my classes.  
      Genre knowledge is one way. Genre includes the idea that generic templates are expected by readers, that these change with need and over time, and that writers need to know the underlying patterns expected by their readers and have good reasons if these were ignored or altered. Genre templates have been identified for proposals of different parts, for newspaper articles, for book reviews, for books of different sorts, for research articles and their sections. Each is terrifically flexible, and I think of them in much the way someone teaching perspective or colour combining in a drawing and painting course might; that is, these are conventions that should be known by practitioners.
      The other important thing to add to my process-based education has been using linguistic knowledge about how people read to edit draft text. The strategy I now teach for revising text, for example, concentrates on the parts of sentences that readers use to guide them. For many years I thought this approach was unique to me, and was stunned to discover in 2010 that George Gopen teaches something remarkably similar (though there are clear differences).
     This type of editing can be carried out effectively by my students at both ends of the scale. Native speakers are often shocked, then intrigued by its possibilities. The lost-at-sea still need a final editor, but that editor no longer needs the author to stand behind and explain the intention of every paragraph, because these writers can now communicate their intentions.  This is power. And success. And control.
     What’s not to like?
     Which brings me back to the initial thought – if writing teachers taught people to write using genre expectations and then to edit their own work to the current level of their English ability, writers would succeed more, they’d enjoy the process more, and they’d become better writers. 

A short note about article conclusions

With a few of my classes this year, I have been looking at the strategies writers use in the conclusions of published articles. The published papers we took as a sample sometimes had separate concluding sections, and sometimes incorporated these into the previous section, although it was not really possible to see any difference between the two in content or strategy, beyond presence or absence of a section heading.

One started with assumptions and a description of the problem that had been addressed. Another used a time structure: summarising the past, how this is changing, and how the findings show the important factors in that change. The overwhelming majority began with a very brief summary of the most important findings – not a complete rehash of the findings, but a quick run through the high points. Most were very brief and selective, though a couple provided more extensive summaries and examples from the paper.

The next part of the conclusion was more variable. Several explained how the paper fit into a larger, ongoing process (either a research process or in the actual case being researched). A few more summarised the limitations of the work (all of which had been mentioned earlier in the papers at the relevant spots). One discussed why addressing the limitations could not supply enough data to change the findings, and so ended with the implications of the findings. Several mentioned implications, either practical or for ongoing research. One that ended with long-term implications first discussed short-term implications. Similarly, one pointed out that although they had not found what they were looking for, the result was real and would change their research in particular ways.

The conclusion almost always included a sales pitch for the research. This could be its uniqueness, why it was special, its implications, or its practical value as a solution. For a few papers, the ending described what the authors saw as the logical next step to be researched. Our small sample (about 30 published papers) seemed to group around three broad scenarios, each with several variations.

Could any one of the three serve as a satisfactory ‘landing point’ for the paper you are now writing?

one option:

restatement of the problem & its importance

past to present of problem

brief summary of most important findings

more extensive summaries of implications of each result, in terms of this history, with examples & assumptions

A second option

summary research question and process

how this fits into a larger, ongoing process

summary of limitations (all  mentioned earlier)

why limitations did not change researcher’s mind

overall implications of results

immediate implications

Yet another option

Sales pitch for the research, its uniqueness


Practical value

Next step


Artistic Variation

Someone has recently asked about why scientific texts often have rigid formats. This is especially the case with experimental articles in exact and life science, and I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts about this.

Those formats are, however, often less rigid than people think, even in journals that say they carefully follow the IMRD structure (e.g. “results only in the results section”). In a known structure, the different sections really exist as help for readers. Readers can pick up a research article and know roughly where to look for the things they want. This fits well with the multitude of reading strategies we develop — people skip around, and even omit sections, in order to focus on the information they need from a particular scientific text. Violating their expectations might be acceptable — but only if the payoff is much more valuable and will be recognised as such by readers. This excludes artistic variation for its own sake.

If you want a simple test of how structure accommodates readers, try removing the paragraph breaks and section headings in your text, give it to someone else, and see how far they get before they get angry — they will tell you how readability declines. As readers, we lean on text structures, and as writers, we use these structures to scaffold complex ideas. The more complex the message, the more familiar its structure should be, to give readers a handhold. Alway striving to be more reader-friendly: not simpler, but more helpful.

As an aside, let me say I *am* seeing more and more structural variation in scientific articles, not only shifting sections around (such as putting Materials and Methods at the end) but using the internet to expand and amplify text. These amplifications include Graphical Abstracts, online Supplementary Information (more detailed methodology sections, interesting but peripheral information, videos of results or apparatus or situations, and so on). Again these are meant to assist reading, not as a way to show every last thing a writer has discovered.


REAL vocabulary help

If, as you read online, you need to stop and look up words, here is a site you should definitely try:  It lets you load any web page, then automatically links to a dictionary, meaning every word has a clickable link to its definition, and even to a recording of how to say it.  The site also keeps track of works you click on, letting you create word lists and a flash card game using your personal wordlist.

So far, I have seen that the definitions are good (of course I have not looked at all of them!) and that it is even possible to click on a word in the definition itself.

This is a link to a demonstration of how Lingro works:

One downside not mentioned in that demo is: in the copy of a website loaded in Lingro, not all of the links will work. I have kept a version of the real website open in another tab, so that if I want to click on a link that doesn’t work in Lingro, I can do it there and then copy the http address and go back to Lingro and add it there. I think that’s not inconvenient, considering the advantages of using the programme.


Concluding an Introduction

This paper ends with a conclusion.

I never know how to take this. Does this writer usually hide the conclusion into the middle of the paper somehow? Does he or she actually think readers do not know this? Is a sentence being added to reach some minimum number of words? 

To be fair, I do have a idea of why people do it. Some people have been taught in school to end the introduction to a school assignment with a glorified table of contents, and this pattern is passed thoughtlessly along, with no sense of whether it should be part of non-school, professional writing. Thus we read: Section One introduces the study. Section Two explores the literature on this issue. Section Three describes the case, including both the history of the area and the current problem. Sections Four, Five and Six present analysis and discuss the findings in terms of what has previously been reported. Section Seven indicates conclusions and makes suggestions both regarding both implementation and further study.

The trouble is, this paragraph could be inserted almost word-for-word into almost any paper. What does it actually tell us? Where’s the new knowledge?
Here’s a mixed form, combining structural information with actual content. It’s far from finished, but at least it tells readers a few things that are specific to this paper: 

Section One introduces the study. Section Two focus on the various assumptions – often implicit – underlying each proposition. Section Three draws evidence from existing literature on Asia to show that while there are some merits to most of the claims, there are often even more compelling limitations, theoretical as well as practical. In sections Four, Five and Six, our analysis suggests that health policy reforms in many Asian countries are guided by assumptions whose implications and limitations are not fully understood. Finally, as the conclusion points out, this leads to the adoption of measures that are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. Policy makers would therefore do well to follow the usual caveat emptor when working with fashionable ideas.

Even better, one can just focus on the ideas, as at the end of the Introduction. A nice example would be the final introductory paragraph in Wu and Ramesh (2009) ‘Health Care Reforms in Developing Asia: Propositions and Realities’ Development and Change 40(3):533:

This analysis is not intended as a comprehensive empirical testing of the propositions, however, as that would require more extensive and nuanced data than are currently available. Instead, we focus on the various assumptions – often implicit – underlying each proposition, and draw evidence from existing literature on Asia to show that while there are some merits to most of the claims, there are often even more compelling limitations, theoretical as well as practical. Our analysis suggests that health policy reforms in many Asian countries are guided by assumptions whose implications and limitations are not fully understood, leading to the adoption of measures that are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. Policy makers would therefore do well to follow the usual caveat emptor when working with fashionable ideas.

I picked this at random from a journal on my desk. It’s not the only way to conclude an introduction, just a refreshing one and, as it happens, the first one I looked at. Here’s another, from C Lund (2009) Recategorizing ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ Property in Ghana, Development and Change 40(1):132):

This article offers a general account of conflicts and the recategorization of resources in the property system of small-scale irrigation. The logics of the different stake-holders and their positioning are examined, and the ways in which different levels of public policy have provided opportunities for such changes are discussed. Thereafter, a case study allows up to examine the details of a particular controversy, demonstrating the social and political powers involved in the recategorization of property. It demonstrates litigants’ vain search for a powerful, legitimate institution to endorse claims as rights. First, however, some context is required.

For me, the interesting thing about both of these is that they refer very peripherally to the generic structure, which they assume readers will know. 

If you find yourself writing something like ‘the paper starts with an introduction… and ends with a conclusion’ you might want to consider this a first draft. Rather than just cutting it entirely because it adds nothing new, use it as a framework on which to present your work. Then, if you find you are still focusing on the sections of the paper more than you’d like (Section One introduces the study. Section Two focus on the various assumptions – often implicit – underlying each proposition.) make a third draft that avoids the words ‘section’ or ‘part’ or any of synonyms, and go straight toward your information: This article offers a general account of conflicts and the recategorization of resources in the property system of small-scale irrigation. The logics of the different stake-holders and their positioning are…

There are other ways to end an introduction, of course, and many variations – in the same way that a limited number of notes can be used to play many tunes – but the most frequent way is to show readers where you plan to take them: create clear and reasonable expectations about what you are going to show. Use the structure, but write with your information.

Five Sentences

Some of the differences between the five sentences below may seem subtle at first, since they all refer to the same event:
1. Community leaders challenged the official report.
2. The leaders in the community challenged the official report.
3. The official report was challenged by community leaders
4. Challenges to the official report were made by community leaders.
5. The challenge to the official report was led by community leaders.

All five sentences are grammatically correct, and all of them are short. The first two are ‘active’; the last three are passive. Based on what you know about language, which is the best version?

I argue that none is ‘better’ than the other, because what’s ‘best’ depends on what the author wants to put on camera. The one that is best will be the one that best fits the camera angle that can link together the aspects needed for the author’s version of the story. Here are 5 short contexts, showing that each of the five sentences can be the ‘best choice’, depending on who or what is ‘on camera’:

1a. The reaction within the community was mixed. Community leaders challenged the official report. Teachers welcomed it, as did parents. However, childless families in the neighbourhood were generally not in favour. [‘was mixed’ at the end of the first sentence signals a list showing that mix ]

2a. The leaders in the community challenged the official report. They were unable to rally their usual constituencies in opposition, however, since reactions among their constituents were more mixed. [‘the leaders’ are the link, and the link is on camera.]

3a. After years of study, the county administration released its final opinion, but it did not find general acceptance. The official report was challenged by community leaders. An alternative report was produced that considered the effects the new road pattern would have on local school traffic and businesses. [the lack of acceptance introduced a list, with report/report as the link ]

4a. Challenges to the official report were made by community leaders. Local shopkeepers objected to the reduced traffic flow by their shops, potentially discouraging customers. Others felt that streamlining traffic by the school to make drop-off easier discouraged walking in the area [the ‘challenges’ introduces a list]

5a. It is unlikely that the recommendations will now be implemented, given widespread opposition. The challenge to the official report was led by community leaders. It was taken up, though, by most residents and local businesses. [‘the challenge’ is the link. The second ‘it’ means ‘the challenge’. This first ‘it’ has no imagery, which can sometimes be useful – here the lack of imagery gives more stress to the word‘unlikely’.]

The grammatical subject of the main clause is ‘on camera’ and makes the link to the sentences before and after, forming the organizing logic of the paragraph.

Readers usually look at the grammatical subjects (not the topics) of sentences to carry them from one sentence to the next. They also, in some cases (cause/effect, local chains, starting a list), use a link from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next (as long as the link isn’t a vague association).

Think of the main part of a sentence as [agent][action][goal] with the agent on camera, and the goal generally the new information the writer wants the readers to understand. The agent will therefore not be something completely new, although the goal might.

The more complex the sentence, the more important it becomes that the main purpose of the sentence is in the main clause, and easily seen by readers. Structures like this are much more important than sentence length. Think about this when revising a draft, not when you are writing for the first time. In your first draft, spend more effort trying to figure out WHAT you want to say. How to communicate this to others is best left for a second step.

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The Wheel fell off my NGram Viewer

As people who have taken a course with me know, I use the Google NGram Viewer ( to check current, published usage. This can answer questions such as whether to use Foucaultian or Foucauldian. I was demonstrating this the other day and looked at “can not” and “cannot”. Cannot, I was saying, is the preferred form. Well, in turns out that my favourite Google toy cannot see this because of the “way it processes” words. I wonder who did that. Meanwhile, regular Google or Duck Duck Go show dictionaries and writer’s advice sites that all agree “cannot” is the common form. The two-word version essentially has only two uses, in sentences like “No, you can not have an A for a course you didn’t attend” (“you can NOT have”) and “you can not only have your cake, but eat it”, where “not” is really part of the next phrase. I know that nothing is perfect and this is more like having a single wrong thread in a vast carpet. But it feels more like having a wheel fall off a favourite pull toy.


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