Friday 19 August 2016

Book review: Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers

Book: Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers

Authors: Thomson, P & Kamler, B. 

Date: 2016  

Publisher: Routledge

Reviewed by: Puleng Motshoane 

Puleng Motshoane
There is a need to increase the number of doctoral graduates both nationally and internationally (EAU, 2010; CHE, 2009; NRF, 2008; ASSAf, 2010), but the difficulty with writing is holding most researchers back − thus delaying the time to completion. The authors of the book have a fine grasp of what doctoral writing entails and give a practical account of how many myths regarding doctoral writing can be overcome.  

This book came at the appropriate time for me and other doctoral researchers (DR − as referred to the doctoral scholars by the authors) who might be stuck in the writing process. I did not follow the sequence of the book as it is, but I read the chapters as related to where I was in my doctoral journey, as it was not intended to be read in a linear mode. The book is structured in a way of presenting a problem, then a solution that is accompanied with strategies to resolve the problem. 

It is proposed to address a number of common problems that get in the way of writing a compelling thesis. It will appeal to both doctoral researchers and emerging supervisors as they guide the researchers through their writing. The book offers a scholarly detox as a way of interrupting old ways and habits of writing, and welcoming new ideas. The concept of writing as research is a golden thread that runs throughout the book and it is also structured around the different moves. They adopted Richard Schechner’s idea of boxes for writing examples, commentaries, experiences, and advises, which I found helpful. The idea helps the reader to put ideas into perspective. These made the reading interesting as I was always looking forward to reading the commentary or the advice that is given.

Chapter two is about starting the doctoral journey and how difficult it can be. The authors offer reframing ideas to aid the DR with their reflection. These are: making a modest contribution regarding the expectations of the external examiner. Secondly, building a scholarly identity among all other identities you possess. Thirdly, considering writing as a social and cultural practice, which unpacks Fairclough’s three-layer model of discourse. And lastly, entering a scholarly conversation, which is not an easy thing to achieve. The DR is reminded that listening time is over; and that they now need to participate in conversations with other scholars.

The introductory sentence to chapter three (Many DRs dread literature work, the more they read the more confused they get) is accurate as it explains why I read this chapter second last. It is not an easy task to work with the literature review. It is accurate in the sense that I tried to run away from it and now have to come back as my literature review chapter is still in a draft form. I am building it as I go along, as reading does not stop − even after the thesis has been submitted. The importance of having your own books rather than depending on the library has been emphasised as one may need to revisit the books from time to time.

The authors also provide a guide to knowing what to read and what to leave out, which I think comes with experience. This process is not as easy as it sounds, as one would need to read widely in order to make an informed decision on the readings. The aim of reading widely is to find the relevant literature to engage with and to motivate why some of the literature was left out. This is a process that a doctoral researcher has to go through to make a clear decision.  More advice is provided on reading widely and outside your area of interest in order to find something that might relate to your own study. The three metaphors on working with the literature are explored − having lunch with invited guests, the table, and the family tree. I could relate more with the lunch, as I am passionate about hosting.

The time and space for writing are equally important. The authors do acknowledge that some DRs are more privileged than others, but all have to find a way of making it work for themselves − no matter their circumstances. A clear reference is made to different scholars, both academic and fiction writers who made it work, despite the pitfalls they faced. The only shortfall here is that most of the examples are drawn from people who are full-time writers, and not academics or and DRs who are faced with full-time jobs and other life responsibilities.

The benefits of an organised workspace could not be overemphasised. The DR has to be weary of the interruptions that come with emails and social media platforms as well as following one link after the other, instead of dedicating the time to uninterrupted writing. Human interruption is another problem that cannot be ignored but needs to be managed. The shut-up-and-write sessions are one of the strategies for ensuring that the writing does not stop for whatever reason. Productive writing without a referencing system like Mendeley, Endnote, or Refworks can be a futile exercise. In addition to productive writing time, reading strategies have been detailed. The same goes for the scanning of a book to determine whether it is good or not. The blurb of this very book gave me a clear idea of whether it is worth reading, reviewing and having the book in my inner library.

Chapter four is on finding your place within the literature and how the DR can work with the literature. Three strategies are provided to find out what literature is out there. I also read a broad scope of the supervision literature and later I could tease out what was relevant for my study. Then follows the mapping out and grouping the literature into categories according to the arguments to be made in the bigger thesis. Lastly, it is imperative to focus on the text that is most useful to your research topic. I also knew that I needed to read on the area of my research and I ignored everything else that was not directly linked to my topic. I found it interesting to learn that, while all quotations have to be introduced, not all have to be explained.

The prompt that the entire thesis is an argument is presented in chapter five. The five elements of an argument are presented, namely: a claim, reason, warrant, evidence and a response. The authors provide a guide to writing the abstract and advice that it is not a summary, but an argument. However, I find it a bit confusing when they say it is not to be written at the end, but at the same time, it should stipulate what has already been done in the research − which is at the end. They provide a guide on the four moves in abstract writing. The idea is to locate the paper in the context of your research. Secondly, to focus on the research question in order to answer it. Thirdly, report by means of outlining the research and lastly, argue by offering the analysis.

Chapter six contributes to performing your research in an authentic and scholarly way. The need for the DR to present their work at conferences as part of building a scholarly identity is stressed. I agree that we need to talk to others about our research (see Motshoane, 2016 Postgraduate Study in South Africa, forthcoming), but unfortunately this is not always possible − depending on where individuals come from and the kind of peers around them. I guess this would be possible if one is within a department or spends time around other scholars who would be willing to listen and engage. They further give an alternative on how DRs can communicate their studies with a wider audience through blogging. The idea is to find blogs that are related to your topics, like the Thesis Whisperer and Patter in this case and write quest posts for these blogs as a way of getting used to academic writing and getting feedback.

Chapter seven is on data generation and interpretation as well as writing the results which mean that it can be used as a toolkit by the DR as they proceed on their research journeys. The DR is reminded that the interpretation of our data is integral to the thinking and meaning-making that we do. I resonate with the two advises, writing in chunks rather than chapters as well as storyboarding to create the moves. However, the way in which the storyboarding is presented, left me wondering if it means one can only use it if they already have the data, or can it be applied throughout the thesis? The fact that the thesis abstract is not a summary but an argument is highlighted and differentiated from the abstract writing in chapter five.

Chapter eight is about the academic ‘I’. They argue for the agency of the DR by writing in the first person as opposed to the third, and hence I also wrote this review in the first person. They argue that the academic ‘I’ is more relevant in qualitative rather than in quantitative studies. They provide systematic ways of using the academic ‘I’ and extrapolate the difference between the emotional and the academic ‘I’, also warning that the use of the academic ‘I’ is not easy. The authors also stress that the conclusion should be written as ‘I’, because the DRs now have the authority to claim their voices. The recommendation is to start with the question and have an outline of the conclusions chapter long before the chapter is concluded. Another form of advice is to work on the introduction and the glossary throughout the journey rather than leaving it for the last minute.

Chapter nine prepares the DR for what awaits them at the finish line when they think that all that is left is to tidy up the thesis. The authors warn against revising as opposed to editing the first draft. The real revising will take time because of the several iterations that might require radical textual surgery. This is the time when most DRs feel inadequate, discouraged and hopeless at this stage as they always think that they are close to the finish line. We need to remember that just as in any other race, the last lap is the most difficult. The strategies to accomplish the groundwork are, rethinking headings, working with paragraphs, nominalising text and balancing the active and passive voice. The thesis headings need to be specific to guide the reader from the table of contents.

The final chapter is about being the expert scholar, knowing what you talk about and making a strong commitment to your reader. It is about revising and refining what might still be lacking. The strategies put forward to achieve this are: hedging the bets to signal the level of authority and caution; guiding the reader, especially considering the external examiner; being careful with quoting to ensure that the text reads seamlessly; and the importance of proofreading tactics to assist the DR in seeing what they wrote rather than what they think they wrote. This is where the DR can put a stamp of approval on the thesis.

As mentioned earlier, having crossed several conceptual thresholds (McKenna, 2016) aided me in making sense of most of the challenges presented in this book. I battled to make sense of the chapter on writing as I am currently battling with my own writing. This is proof that academic writing is not a walk in the park.  For me and possibly for others who will engage with it later, this book is achieving its intended objective, which is to assist the DRs to find strategies to improve their writing. It helped me to disrupt the old habits and detox my writing as a way of starting with a clean slate. The book came at a time when I needed it most. I would not have made sense of a lot of lessons from the book had I not crossed some conceptual thresholds before.

However, it seems to have been written without the challenges in the South in mind as it is very rare for the doctorate to be completed within three years in the South African context. The authors kept referring in chapter three to a doctorate that is completed in three years, failing to consider those like myself who are mature students (Cloete, Mouton & Sheppard, 2015) with a full-time job and studying part-time at a distance. This is a limitation that they never considered the readership outside their contexts where DRs are young and full-time students.

On the positive side, Foucault’s layers of discourse are unpacked in a simple way. I have come across this before but it never made sense until now. It made me realise that we work through people’s ideas without even realising. This valuable toolkit is grounded on the authors’ extensive experience and scholarship in doctoral education.

Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). 2010. The PhD study: An evidenced based study on how to meet the demands for high-level skills in an emerging economy. Academy of Science in South Africa Consensus Report.
Cloete, N.; Mouton, J. & Sheppard, C. 2015. Doctoral Education in South Africa. Cape Town: African Minds.
Council on Higher Education & Centre for Research on Science and Technology (CHE & CREST). 2009. Postgraduate studies in South Africa: A statistical profile. Pretoria: CHE.
European University Association. 2010. Salzburg II Recommendations: European Universities’ Achievements since 2005 in implementing the Salzburg Principles.
McKenna, S. 2016. Crossing conceptual thresholds in doctoral communities. Innovations in Education and Teaching International.
Motshoane, P. 2016 (forthcoming). The benefits of being part of a project team: a postgraduate student perspective in Frick, L. Motshoane, P. McMaster, C. & Murphy, C. Postgraduate study in South Africa. Stellenbosch: Sun Media. B

National Research Foundation (NRF). 2008. The South African PhD project. [Accessed 23 February 2013]. Available from conference/conference-2008