Tuesday, 17 November 2015

What's your favourite academic writing text?

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Writing is hard, and academic writing can be a particular kind of hard that can seem insurmountable.

Luckily, publications that help you get the words and structure down for dissertations, papers, books and journal articles are out there by the dozen.

The problem is, they're out there by the dozen.

How do you know which one is going to work for you and the kind of writing work you're trying to do?

This post focuses on precisely that question, and invites you to comment below with your faves. If you comment, you're in the running for a $50 Co-op Bookshop gift voucher!

To be eligible for the comment competition, you must:
  • be a La Trobe University staff member or graduate researcher
  • leave a comment with the following format - [your name] [discipline area] [book/s you recommend] [why you would recommend it/them].
To help you get those recommendation juices flowing, I asked several recent PhD graduates what they would count as their prime sources of academic writing wisdom.

Here's what they said:

Merryn Sherwood submitted her PhD thesis just last month and is currently working as a lecturer in Journalism. She says:
I found two books that were really useful for thesis writing. Howard Becker’s, Writing for Social Scientists and Helen Sword’s, Stylish Academic Writing
It’s not overstating it to say that Becker changed my perspective on thesis writing with his thoughts on drafts. He outlines that the entire undergraduate system is built on submitting work after one draft; it’s how we are trained. This effect was doubled for me, as I’m also a journalist and worked based on the one-draft model. Becker notes that students get quite good at this one-draft model (yep, that’s me!), but come totally unstuck when they have to change to multiple drafts in thesis land (me, again!). Becker helped me understand why I was finding thesis writing difficult, even though I love writing and to come to terms with the fact that multiple drafts and leaving time between them was the only way to actually get it done. 
From Helen Sword, I gained a license to write simply and effectively. 
I also took Amy Poehler’s advice. On writing Yes, Please she said: 'the talking about the thing isn’t the thing, the doing of the thing is the thing.' I went through a stage of trying to plan out each paragraph before I wrote it. This didn’t work for me, but doing huge sessions where I just got words out, did.
Greg Dingle, a La Trobe lecturer in Sport Management, graduated during the October ceremonies. He readily recommends the following, saying that he used them throughout his thesis:
Evans & Gruba (2002). How to write a better thesis (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Vic.: Melbourne University Press. It’s by far the best book about thesis writing I’ve read (and I’ve read a few!). It was recommended by my partner during her Master's and I liked it because it actually explained what a thesis is, and what it is not. I kept coming back to it because unlike other “thesis” texts, it was concise, clear and didn’t get side-tracked into irrelevancies. The chapters are superbly written by two Melbourne University academics with a feel for the difficulty of doing a thesis well, and the many pitfalls that can beset us as we write (e.g. lack of argument, redundancies, subtle shifts, etc.). It covers the basic structure of a thesis and is divided up according to chapters (Introduction, Literature. review, research design, results, discussion and conclusion), that can each be read independently as a guide for the particular chapter you’re working on. 
It also has the clearest discussion of the distinction between “methodology” and “method” – two of the most confused words in academic discourse – that on its own makes the book worth reading. 
I also recommend Carey, D., & Evans, T. (2012). Doctorates Downunder: Keys to Successful Doctoral Study in Australian and Aotearoa New Zealand. Camberwell, Vic.: Australian Council Educational Research. A different structure but it complements Evans & Gruba (2002) nicely. I particularly liked this for the chapter by Kiley & Mullins titled, ‘Opening the black box: how examiners assess your thesis’. This chapter was a gem because it showed me what the examiners were looking for! 
Inger Mewburn’s Thesis Whisperer blog is also definitely worth following, especially for graduate researchers starting out.
Luisa Unda, who submitted her thesis in October, lectures in Accounting. She considers:
Writing a PhD thesis is a very personal process and, while there are no fixed rules on how to write well, I found it useful to explore different strategies for developing and maintaining good academic writing. 
Thesis writing can be seen as a structured process, where chapters are ordered, coherent, organised, and linked. Having an outline of your thesis since the early stages of your PhD and keeping it in mind while you're writing can help to organise ideas more effectively. In a similar way, the use of mapping models is valuable to generate critical thinking from a particular topic. 
In particular, as Murray (2002) in How to write a thesis explains, the rhetorical part of writing integrates with the psychological and social aspects of the process. In my experience, keeping yourself motivated and goal oriented is really critical. 
In this respect, I found the writing SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-scaled, very useful for crafting and self-managing writing outcomes. From the social perspective, there is no doubt that the interaction and discussion with fellow PhD students are a great support for everyone’s writing journey.
So, now it's over to YOU!

What books have you found useful in your academic writing practice so far? Life-changers? Books you would clutch to your chest while you're being evacuated from a sinking ship?

Tell us about them below - remember the comment guidelines above! - and share your recommendations. We're all ears.

6 comments:

  1. John E Pierce, Speech Pathology. The Thesis Whisperer's e-book "How to tame your PhD" admittedly goes beyond just the writing. It's a collection of the best/most popular posts from the blog and is a good whirlwind tour of how to approach writing, thinking, studying during candidature. Because it's in blog form it's in short, easy to digest sections.

    The other is "Authoring a Ph.D.: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation". It is a lot denser with advice on writing than the above book so better to pick and choose the elements to read. But it goes into how to structure sentences, paragraphs (I thought I knew this), chapters, the whole thesis, how to organise your thoughts and review. There are sections of it rewritten in blog form at https://medium.com/@write4research

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  2. Oonagh E Bodin, Gastrointestinal microbiology PhD student. The book I recommend is slightly different, its not a "self-help" book of academic writing but its one that inspired me when I needed a push to push-through and continue my PhD. Giulia Enders "GUT: The inside story of our body's most under-rated organ".

    I stumbled upon this book in the Melbourne airports bookshop as the #1 book of the week, whilst on my way to present my own gut research at a conference in Brisbane! Ender is (also) a PhD student studying microbiology and found there just wasnt enough information out there, for the general public, regarding the organ that is so important to our everyday life! Ender takes you through a journey of discovery in such a way that is enticing for both the general public and the scientific community! To me this book brought together everything that I find intriguing about the gut in a simple manner yet still retained all the science involved! To top it off the final chapter includes pages of references that she used when writing her book (several of which I found were my favourite articles by leading gastrointestinal researchers).

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  3. Pedro Flores Tenorio PhD candidate in Environmental Economics. The book that I recommend is the one of Carey and Evans(2012) cited by Greg, because it gives you a framework to plan and organise your writing and time. However, some of the recommendations of the book , I couldn't followed because of logistic issues. Fortunately. I think that now RED is giving us very good support to implement the good strategies suggested in the book.

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  4. Ingrid Wilson PhD candidate at Judith Lumley Centre. If I had to recommend one writing book - Belcher 'Writing your journal article in 12 weeks' breaks it down and helps with the overwhelm, and forces/encourages you to be realistic. But you could spend your whole thesis time reading books about how to write a thesis. The harsh reality is 'JUST DO IT' (no brand endorsement intended).

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  5. Kirsty Macfarlane - PhD Students in Politics. I've recently gone back to two books by Hugh Kearns & Maria Gardiner which I received last year - 'The Seven Secrets of Highly Successful Research Students' and 'Turbocharge Your Writing - How to Become a Prolific Academic Writer'. These books are short and concise, so they give me a quick dose of 'this is what I should be doing' to keep me on track, without allowing me to procrastinate for too long. Their advice is spot on i.e. 'Be realistic', 'Say no to distractions', and aim for 'Two golden hours', and I find these books interesting and engaging because the authors write in a friendly, conversational tone and weave personal stories into the text.

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  6. [Posted on behalf of Caitlin McDowell]

    Caitlin McDowell in occupational therapy. The book 'On Writing Well' by William Zinssler is helpful for students to improve the clarity of their writing. I heard about it through a fantastic free online course through Stanford university called 'Writing in the Sciences'.

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