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Tim Rutherford-Johnson – Writing outside the Comfort Zone

This week Tim Rutherford-Johnson is looking at writing outside the comfort zone. Tim is an  academic copy-editor and proofreader with a plan to help writers feel more comfortable. (It starts with cake.)

It’s sad but true: even if the central chapters of a PhD thesis – the home of the research itself – are strong, things like the literature review, the introduction, the historical background and the conclusion are often written to a noticeably lower standard. When I’m proofreading, these framing chapters are often where I spend most of my time.

It’s disconcerting to read a piece of work written in two clearly different gears, but I’ve seen it often enough for it to look like a trend. Why should it happen? Cases vary but I think I’ve come up with a few general observations – you may have some different ideas from your own experience.

First, the research chapters are simply where the author feels most comfortable. This is where they know their beans. That kind of confidence shines through and, weirdly, it really is expressed in better spelling and syntax.

Second, this is a different mode of writing – or at least it feels like one. If you’re working in computer engineering, for example, and you’re used to the cool, crisp objectivity of writing up a single design implementation for IEEE Transactions, then preparing a 6,000-word historical overview of artificial intelligence in first-person shooter games can be pretty intimidating.

Third, the research chapters are the part that the author has most personal investment in. This data, these experiments, this archival work is their baby. Of course these are the pages that are going to get the most attention.

All of this is understandable, and my own PhD suffered from similar imbalances. And none of it matters much (perhaps) when the only readers you’re worried about are your two examiners (although on the principle of first impressions, I’d suggest that it still has an effect). But it really does matter when you want to turn your thesis into a book: these framing chapters are what will draw a wide readership, and thus make your proposal attractive to publishers. Your data analysis gives you authority, but only the wider contextualisation makes it interesting to anyone outside the narrowest circle of specialists. To everyone else – and it may hurt to read this – the research chapters are extended footnotes to the genuinely cool stuff.

Here’s an illustration:

Hey: Newtonian mechanics isn’t the full story. Everything we thought we knew about physics was wrong. Time and space are connected. The universe that we thought we knew is expanding at an ever-increasing speed, and might contain crazy things like black holes and neutron stars. (See Chapters 2–5 for some incomprehensibly dense mathematics that explains how I came up with this.)

OK, that’s a cheap gag. But if Einstein had wanted to get a book version of Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper onto the shelves at Blackwell’s, he would want to stuff his introduction and conclusion with as much about the new understanding of reality he was proposing as he could. And if those chapters weren’t as coherently or accurately written as the maths stuff, then the book would have failed.

I don’t know if I have a general solution, but my theory is that researchers often don’t see themselves as writers. Or, rather, don’t recognise themselves as such when they’re working in one mode, and think they have to put on a whole new hat when they switch to the other. Actually, you usually just need one hat, and you’re wearing it half the time without realising.

If you’re starting to prepare your thesis for publication, it’s worth reading it critically to see whether you work in two gears. Most of us aren’t blessed with gorgeous prose styles, but most of us can write: the trick is simply to internalise your subject as well as you possibly can, and then start typing. Keep it simple, give priority to clarity and structure, and stick to what you know. Suddenly you’re back inside your comfort zone and your writing will improve. If your ideas are strong, they will have the best chance of being understood. What’s more, those all-important framing chapters will at last be getting the attention they deserve.

  1. This is a truly great piece of advice and something I had recognised a while ago in my own writing. I’m currently working on trying to appropriately redress the balance.

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