Writing – writing the same topic seven different ways

I’m not doing very much primary source research at the moment. Instead, I’m caught up in a round of presentations of various kinds, and the work that I’m doing on my PhD proposal (along with some background research on assignments I have due). I’m okay with this, mostly because I know that soon I’ll get back to the happy state of working with primary sources (I’m due to dive into the archives in a couple of weeks, in fact). But I want to seize this moment to discuss writing.

Since March 2014, the last 18 months, I have written up the same piece of research in seven different ways. I wrote it originally as my undergraduate dissertation, with an abstract, of course. Six months later, I rewrote it as a journal article. That was rejected, and after some painful review, I began to understand where I’d gone wrong, and I rewrote it, six months later, and submitted it to another journal. To my delight, this was accepted, and after revisions, will be published next January. In October, I presented a short talk on my research to the general public. In November, yesterday, in fact, I delivered a conference paper based on it, to my peers and superiors. In a few weeks, I shall be delivering an extended version of that to a local history society, at their AGM. A few days after that, I shall deliver a second, slightly edited round of the general public talk. I have been asked to do at least two more public talks to larger audiences as well, over the next year and a bit.

While I am very happy that my research, and presenting style is such a hit, I’m not writing this in a congratulatory sense (well, maybe a little bit. Can you blame me?). Rather, what I want to explore is the ways in which these pieces of writing are so different from each other, despite all being on the same subject, and how I have deliberately adjusted each bit of writing to match the audience expectations, knowledge, and also the demands of the piece.

Undergrad dissertation

I think, looking back, I would have structured this differently. I think my key research aims were unclear, and this shows in the final conclusion. I was so intent, in many ways, of disproving the historians that had said something about my research subject, that I began to take it almost personally, and the final result suffered for that. We had to do a draft chapter the February before and I chose what I thought was my strongest chapter; looking back now, I think it was actually my weakest.

What’s more relevant, however, is the audience for my dissertation, and the intent with which I was writing. The audience was the markers, my intent to get a good grade. Arguing my case, although a part of the grading, came a poor second. The structure was different; more ‘report’ in format, with a contents page, cover page, and a bibliography – not items that you get in other forms of writing. I think, too, it being the first ‘longer’ piece of work I’d done, I found it difficult to cope with the idea of maintaining a focus throughout – made more difficult by muddied, unclear research questions.

First journal article

In retrospect, I know where I went wrong with this – and it certainly didn’t help that I was trying to buy, and move house while writing the article! I hugely underestimated the importance of the differences between the dissertation and the article as writing forms, but also did not allow for creating an article specifically for THAT journal. At the same time, however, I can see that my confidence was improving. Not just because I knew the material well by that point, but also because I’d had my results back from my dissertation with some glowing remarks, and graduated. In retrospect it feels like a false confidence, given how I got my feet knocked out from underneath me (and it was a good thing, in the long run – the confidence I have now feels surer, on more stable foundations). But what is the difference between dissertation and article? Apart from stylistic differences (the article usually does not contain a contents page or a bibliography), the article is also sometimes shorter. In this case there was the loss of around 2,000 words and I really struggled with cutting the material down from the 10,000 of my dissertation. I thought that this was all I had to do, and, word loss apart, what I submitted as an article was largely similar to what I had submitted six months prior. After all, if it was good enough for the academics at uni, surely it would be good enough for the journal editor?

The key thing about the article is that it has a completely different audience to your dissertation. With the dissertation, you have markers who have got to read the entire thing to give you a grade, no matter how painful it is to them. With the article, this is not the case. Here, you learn your craft as a writer. For an article to succeed in a journal, it has to grab the attention of the reader, and hold onto it. It has to have clarity, to make points not just clearly but obviously. Forget subtlety in an article. To borrow the vernacular, ‘aint nobody got time fer dat’!. Academics reading articles don’t have the time or the wherewithal to burrow through your paper to find the subtle points. Make them, clearly and boldly. Sell your article. Place at the very beginning, what your article will be about. Identify the gap in the historiography, identify the sources you’re using, identify the methodology, in clear, unambiguous language. Also, don’t try to achieve too much within an article. Regardless of your feelings on ‘salami slicing‘, you, as the writer, also have to accept that you can only achieve so much within the space of a journal article. The word count alone will see to that. Pick your topic, develop the specific question that you will address in the article (and state it, remember, unambiguous writing), and then stick to it, come hell or high water. If you find that there is a spin-off question that you cannot properly or reasonably address within the space of the article without negatively affecting the rest of the work, then shelve it – make a note of it, and write it up for another article at a later stage.

Second Journal Article

In between writing the first and the second, I’d done a lot of research. Not just into the topic of my article, but also into the craft of journal article writing. There’s tons of really good advice out there, in academic related blogs like The Thesis Whisperer, Patter, and PhD Talk… some of them are specifically discipline-related, others are more generic. There’s a list in the sidebar of some of the ones I look at regularly. There are books available – amazon or your university library. Your adviser will have thoughts as well. The one thing I found that was immensely useful was the admonition to draft the article with the journal in mind. On the one level, it sounds completely obvious… I mean, there’s absolutely no point in writing an article on History and submitting it to a journal on Cardiac Medicine, right? It’s more than that though. The article I wrote and submitted first time around, on a superficial level, appeared suitable for the journal. I was writing on a part of local history to do with an area in the Midlands, and this journal dealt with local history in the Midlands. So far, so good. But what I hadn’t done was to go and read back copies of the journal. It’s important to critically read and analyse through the previous editions, restricting yourself to the last few years. As you read, bear in mind questions such as: what is the overall style of the journal? [example: do they prefer articles that have subheadings, or to be one piece throughout?] What is the overall emphasis of the journal? [example: are they more interested in methodology, the philosophy of the subject, or the doings of the subject?] how do they handle footnotes and references? Yes, the writer’s guide (that most good journal editors will produce and make available) will tell you some of this, but your own critical analysis will serve you far better. Who is the audience of the journal? And once you’ve done this, you’re ready to write, and write FOR the journal, pleasing not just the editor and the reviewer, but the journal readers.

This time around, I did this. I spent a few hours in the university library, reading through back copies. In the event it served me really well anyway as I got some useful additional references for not just an article but an assignment that was due just before I was going to write the article. Bonus! But this time around, having all this additional analytical conclusions about what the journal was after, meant that I wrote the article in a completely different way.

In my first attempt, I’d taken a narrative tack. I explained my idea, that this had happened, and this, that, and because of this, I felt that this was the conclusion. Although it was all correct, what I wrote, it also wasn’t quite analytical enough, and I knew from my reading (and the writer’s guide) that this would not be enough for the second journal. The writer’s guide for that journal specifically said what they were – and were not – interested in publishing. Having this information in my mind, I thought substantially about my work, how I had worked, and realised that I had used an uncommon technique in my dissertation. Researching a topic where there were no primary sources, because they had been destroyed, forced me to use alternatives; and my journal article was essentially about that methodology, the pitfalls and the benefits, and how I thought someone else could benefit from that. Did I also explain all my work, all the information that had been in the original article? Of course I did. I was able to use a different medium – explaining the methodology – to get across the message that I really wanted to deliver – the history – and in the process, got me what I actually REALLY wanted, a publishing credit, and as a bonus, winning a prize that the journal offered.

Conference Paper

Shortly after I’d written the second journal article, my adviser told me I needed to deliver a conference paper. He pulled out a call for papers notification and told me to apply for that. I went away, did my research, wrote an abstract, and several weeks later, got the nod. With this particular type of conference, a postgrad conference, the idea is that Masters or PhD students take the opportunity to practice delivering papers at conferences to audience of their peers/superiors, and taking questions, thinking on their feet. They are also meant to be areas where students can sound out their ideas, develop them, receive comments, thoughts, questions on their ideas which they can then use to draft into a journal article (okay, I did it the wrong way round!). I had been to a PG conference before, at my uni, six months prior, so I was fairly confident about the format. The papers are 20 minutes in length, which, at a speaking speed of around 100-125 words per minute, means a paper of around 2,000-2,500 words. Everything I said before about limiting a subject for a journal article especially applies here. Pick a topic, keep it very very brief. Consider what makes it unique. Not being studied before is a good one, but rare. What do YOU bring to it? With this kind of writing (and yes, it is writing, despite it being speaking as you have to write it beforehand), you can use first person case, which you can’t elsewhere. That’s a benefit. Use it. ‘I set out to explore…’, instead of the formal (and cumbersome) equivalent ‘this research sets out to explore…’ makes for a better, smoother, and more personable paper. Humour is another element that you can use here – but use with care. Some of the best academic speakers I’ve heard have had a wonderful dry, acerbic wit that made their lectures/papers stimulating and memorable. Humour is best thought of as a tool to help to connect with your audience, but it’s not the reason you’re there – you’re not a standup. Make sure, too, that your humour is appropriate – unless your paper is about, for example, manure, then fecal-related jokes are a bit of a no-no, for example. On the other hand, the concluding session at the conference I spoke at discussed researching the limiting of family sizes in in the past, which led to discussion on the discovery of an ancient condom in a rubbish pit at a castle, and how prophylactics were developed in ages past! The main thing to remember is not to try to squeeze too much in, don’t speak too fast, and don’t hold back with subtle points – as with the journal article, unambiguity is your friend.

General Public Talk

In between being informed of the success of my abstract for the conference, and the date itself, (four months or so) I was also told that the article I had submitted to the second journal had been sucessful, and was  invited to deliver a talk at a county history society’s AGM (two weeks after the conference). At this point I freely admit that I was feeling rather panicky (imposter syndrome kicking in) and struggling with finances (so bad, I thought I might have to quit my studies). Thankfully I was able to get some funding to allow me to see out the final year of my MA studies, and when talking to someone, explaining how I was struggling with having to speak for quite some length of time, they offered to organise a small talk for me to do, on the same subject, in front of a friendly audience composed of people I knew, but of members of the general public rather than academics.

With this, I found the most difficult part was pitch. Aiming the talk at a point where it was complex enough to satisfy the more intelligent, well-read person in the audience, while not making it so that it went over the head of everyone else! Not aiming it so low that I inadvertently ended up being patronising was another worry. In the event, I wrote it out and sent it to the friend who organised the talk (who is not an academic) and asked their advice. Luckily, I got it about right. Humour is your friend here too – particularly if it is topical. Part of my talk referred to the need for one of the main characters to get reinforcements from Wales, because the Welsh were seen as being good fighters back then. Fortunately this talk was delivered on the day that the Welsh crashed out of the 2015 Rugby World Cup… I couldn’t resist leaning on my lectern and saying, in a confidential aside, ‘Now, at this point I was going to say something about him needing the Welsh because they were good fighters but after this afternoon… perhaps not.’ It got the biggest laugh of the night, although the next time I deliver it, I will have to pitch it differently because … well. I can’t rely on the Welsh to conveniently lose every time I speak, can I? (Although, it must be said, the bribes from the Welsh teams not to talk on certain days would come in very useful…!!)

The other thing I had to bear in mind was background info. With academics, a certain amount of assumption of prior knowledge is safe; judging that level of prior knowledge is part of learning the academic writer’s craft. For my conference paper and journal articles, I could assume that the reader would know that in mentioning ‘Mary’ and ‘Sixteenth Century England’, that I was referring to Mary I. In a general public talk, this kind of assumption can be dangerous, and giving context to your subject is crucial. I had to explain not just the principal characters but also the background politics, the reasons why people were acting in certain ways. On the plus side, writing this for the general public as opposed to academics, really helped me to question my own assumptions and this came in useful when I re-drafted my conference paper, although I still assumed that the academics at the conference knew who Mary I was, I did not assume that they all knew why people were acting in certain ways and this helped to give my paper a much greater clarity.

The post-talk questions, too, are completely different. If anything, after getting the question ‘when were carrier pigeons first used?’ after a talk that dealt with a sixteenth century rebellion, to which I could only say ‘you know, I have no idea!! Why do you want to know?’ … and the resulting positive reaction to that, really showed me beyond any doubt that there’s actually nothing wrong, at all, in any situation in saying – ‘you know what, I don’t know. It’s a great question. Can I get back to you?’. See the questions as an opportunity to learn, rather than as something to be endured, and it changes your entire mindset.

[I should add, the questioner wanted to know because part of my talk discussed the potential timing of how long it took news to get to London after the battle… which I had answered via way of a man on a horse. Hence, carrier pigeons. It was a good question! We ended up googling on a smartphone to answer it – since the Ancient Greeks.]

Hour-long talk to a county history society

I have yet to do this talk, but I have written it. This is the longest of my talks – the general public talk was split into two, which I used to develop a lovely cliff-hanger – and it is being given to people who know the geographical area, and my topic, well. Some are academics themselves, others are people who research local history in their own time. Due to the length and the pitch – speaking to people who know my field – I have incorporated elements from the second article that I wrote, the successful one, about the methodology, and I hope that this will be successful. I won’t know until the day, of course, but I do have substantially more words to play with – around 7,500 words, which makes for a more complex talk altogether.

There’s a lot more that can be written in the area of public speaking but there are resources available for that, and I have no desire to repeat them here. What is important, and what I set out to write this article for, is the difference between the different pieces. That difference can essentially be boiled down to one word: AUDIENCE. Successful writing, in this sense, is about knowing your audience and writing to meet it – to meet their expectations, knowledge levels, and needs. The history society talk, for example, although long and allowing for complex ideas to be introduced and discussed, just as they were in the successful journal article, needs to be different because of the sheer fact that it is being delivered verbally, rather than read. I could not simply stand up and read out my journal article – I’d have them all snoring before five minutes was out, if I hadn’t already lost them due to over complex sentences. A speech uses shorter, more succinct sentences. You get to the point quickly in each sentence, not relying on your audience to retain the memory of the name you referred to 15 words ago. The language is different – more informal, it can be more humourous, you can get right down and explain your ideas with an intimacy that is difficult to do in a journal article, or any academic level writing. Writing a book, a monograph, will be a completely different beast still – divided into chapters, with an overriding question or topic, subdivided into elements or related topics.

When I first got to university, my first assignment was to complete an annotated bibliography. Facebook reminded me that, four years ago, I got 78% for that assignment. We had to divide the various works accordingly: monograph, edited chapter, journal article, and so on. I think, looking back, it would have been really useful, if, for our own notes, we’d been told to think about those differences, not just in terms of critically analysing the text (who, what, why, how, etc.) but also thinking about the audience, the purpose, the style, and the methodology. What were the differences between them, and could we imagine writing them all ourselves, experiencing those differences on a gut level – the kind of experience I’ve been through in the last eighteen months.

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