Academic writing: saying what you really mean

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This morning I picked up this quote from a blog post Thirteen Ways of Looking at Ted Hughes by Anthony Wilson.

Teachers’ words should not be ‘How to write’ but ‘How to try to say what you really mean’ – which is part of the search for self-knowledge and perhaps, in one form or another, grace.

Ted Hughes (2008). Poetry in the Making, p.12

The quote caught my attention because recently I have come across a number of academic articles where the author/s undoubtedly know the conventions of writing but don’t seem to know how to say what they really mean. Although the peer review process is often criticised, in my experience it can help authors to become clearer in saying what they really mean. On a couple of occasions I, with my collaborators, have had to completely rewrite an article in response to reviewers comments, even to the point of changing the title, before the paper could be published. It is really nice to get a review which says ‘no changes required’, but this has only happened to me once!

Why can it be so difficult for intelligent academics to say what they really mean? Putting aside the possibility that the author has simply not spent enough time engaging with and reading around relevant and associated ideas, two possible reasons immediately come to mind.

  1. Research is by its nature messy and emergent, so ideas are emerging and dynamic. They don’t come fully formed, but grow and develop with the on-going process of the research. It is often difficult to know when to stop the research, stop the reading, stop the data collection, stop the analysis and discussion with colleagues and just get on with the writing. Perhaps there are times when we don’t make the correct judgement about this time to stop and begin the writing.
  2. We often end up wallowing in data and find we have far too much for the 6000 word paper (or less, but rarely much more) we want to submit. It may be that the data analysis suggests more than one line of argument and you’ve spent so long on the research process that it’s hard to let go of some ideas, the result being a paper that loses focus; the author then can’t or doesn’t say what s/he really means.

Etienne Wenger has said that meaning occurs through an on-going process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language and that reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. (See Meaning is the driver of learning)

For authors of academic articles there is a tension between negotiation of meaning and reification. As Wenger says ‘Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete’ – so perhaps it is not surprising that we find it difficult to say/write what we really mean, because meaning is always up for negotiation.

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