Talking about writing (as an academic)

Yesterday, I was asked to give a lecture, in a couple of months’ time, about writing a thesis or journal article. I’ve given this lecture before, although I’ve focussed on preparation, editing, and the expectations when you submit.

It’s strange, even though I have written both a thesis and a journal article before, I couldn’t tell anyone how words get written on a page. It’s the same as trying to tell someone how I talk. How do I know what to say? How to say it well?

I suppose what to say is really the topic and the data/information/knowledge related to that topic. How to say it well is the structure, the logical flow of reasoning, and the clarity of the words used. Critical thinking is part of this process too, as this is the filter with which you convert the data to information. Knowledge comes from a point of view that is built up from many pieces of information. I’ve forgotten where I learnt this categorisation, but it’s a useful way of thinking. Same as asking the 6 ‘w’ questions (what, why, where, when, how, who) to be able to start building up knowledge of a topic before delving into the more complex questions.

There are people who say that writing a thesis versus a journal article versus a grant proposal are very different from each other. I suppose they are, but before looking at the differences, I like to look at the similarities.

All three are (supposed to be) written works of non-fiction. Grant proposals have more leeway, as it talks about the future in the context of current knowledge, and some imagination is required to see where the project outcome will be in several years’ time.

Theses and journal articles are written about the past, whereas grant proposals propose a possible future.

All three build up the human store of data, information and knowledge. Even grant proposals do this, as the authors frame problems and knowledge in novel contexts. That is, the author sees the world in a different light, and can therefore identify the critical steps required to get to the future they propose.

All three works get examined. A thesis gets examined for the novelty of ideas contained within, as well as the displayed academic skill of the candidate. A journal article gets examined for both academic novelty and rigour. A grant proposal gets examined according to the selection criteria.

I draw similarities between the 3 types of writing, but the ultimate purpose of each are greatly different. But to being successful in all three types of writing is part of being a successful academic. It is the clear communication of ideas, and the logical reasoning, that are the essential skills here.

Logic and reasoning has existed for a long time now. It could be considered to be one of the ways of thinking about the world, and to be a foundation for scientific thinking. The scientific method was the revolutionary way of creating new knowledge, and still serves us well today. I wonder if there will be a new paradigm, equally as revolutionary or more so, that will improve our success rates as well as the speed of creating new knowledge?

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3 comments

    • Thanks for the link. It’s true that science can be purely academic at times, and thinking about a clear path to end use is essential, especially when applying to get a project funded. I would say that publishing would serve as a sort of advertisement for the work you can do. For a manuscript by itself is just pieces of paper, unless a person was there to interpret the words and replicate the work. And replication is one of the keys to successful commercialisation of a technology.

      • And that approach has been remarkably successful, transforming our world. For thousands of years, our primary form of transport was the horse, but in less than two hundred years the horse was replaced with cars, trains, airplanes and space rockets. And now we have an entire science laboratory on Mars. Astounding, really, given the short time span… what does the future hold?


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