Do you like to write? I do. Dusty bookshelves and corners of the internet are littered with my old blog posts and half-finished journals. I was a teenage bookworm who would happily spend hours wriggling through the twists of fiction, poetry, and travel memoirs.
When I started my PhD, I made the acquaintance of academic writing. This acquaintance clearly had a lot to say for itself – in fact, it was obscenely knowledgeable on any topic you could imagine. But sometimes I found its company dull. While it had many brilliant stories, sometimes it seemed to be deliberately and perversely boring. Steven Pinker writes creatively on the common downfalls of academic writing here.
It’s a common belief among PhD students, particularly in science, that academic writing should be hard work – painful both to read and write. A fortnight ago, I attended a workshop that challenged this belief. The two writers hosting “Finding Your Voice As An Academic Writer” aimed to teach 20 disillusioned students to add juice and spice to our words.
My favourite lesson was on turning points. We have all encountered the “twist” of a good novel. In this lesson, we were challenged to rewrite our thesis based on nine twists, or turning points during our projects where an event led to change or growth. We wrote each event out on a sticky note, and were encouraged to play with the notes to build different narratives. The twists of a science PhD may differ from a novel’s: perhaps an experiment worked successfully for the first time, perhaps you made an unexpected intellectual link between your work and another subject. Structuring your writing by turning point makes it interesting to read because each twist drives the “plot” of your thesis.
Part of me wonders if it is really acceptable to apply a trick of fiction to an academic work. But why not? The conditions for getting a PhD are highly variable depending on your institution, supervisors, and examiners. While I don’t advocate using this approach to writing your thesis before checking your circumstances, I would recommend it both as an exercise to refresh your writing and as a method to identify the key plot twists in your story. And in this time of enforced homework, an opportunity to mess around with paper and pen on the floor is always welcome!
So, if you want to try your hand at the exercise:
- Grab some coloured pens and either a stack of Post-its or a large piece of paper and scissors;
- Think of a series of events during your project that revealed something unexpected or inspired new thought;
- Write each down on a Post-it or piece of the large paper;
- Mess around to create new stories;
- That’s it!
You can find my long-form response to the exercise here.
I think my thesis has a rich story that particularly suits the “turning points treatment”. However, talking with my friends has revealed interesting twists in their stories, too – from identifying an unknown element in a sample of meteorite to finding strange peaks on Raman spectra of diamond. Often, we underplay these events because we’re too close to the source. Sharing your research struggles, then, is a good parallel practice for this exercise!