The Writing Experience
A Brief Introduction to Academic Writing
“The elders know
That nothing is more precious in a word
than the shadow it casts.
And words with no shadows to cast
have lost their soul”.
– From Hunt by Ana Blandiana
My name is Niall and I’m the Managing Director at Book Hub Publishing and the Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic which are based in County Galway, Ireland. In my first blog here I am going to write a little about academic dissertation/thesis research. Prior to launching my own business, the fabulously named Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic (ok, maybe the pun doesn’t quite work for everyone), I was a senior lecturer, academic and editor for over fifteen years and have published quite my share of academic research in various fora in several countries. And, most of all, I’ve managed to retain a sense of humour.
Does this mean I know what I am talking about when I publish? Does it mean I am an expert in any field of academic endeavour? Well, truth to be told, like one of those unfortunate lab monkeys in my psychology 101 classes back at University, all it means is that I have learned to understand and negotiate a system. In fact, it is a global system with many of the same rules crossing boundaries and borders. A bridge is a bridge no matter if it is painted red or black or is constructed from wood or iron. The trick is in knowing how to get from A to B with a successful outcome.
Please allow me to digress for a moment by way of illustration. A good friend of mine has a Doctorate for about a decade longer than me and is a highly respected author and speaker in his field. At one stage in his career, he was so well published that he decided, for fun, to submit articles for publication to peer-reviewed journals under the pseudonym, ‘A. Freeman’ instead of his own name and title designation. His work was still uniformly accepted and we agreed it was all about understanding the ‘conventions of expectations’ as opposed to being any particular ‘big name’.
At the upper end of the scale, for every ten people I have met in my career who happily informed me, “I am doing a Doctorate”, experience tells me only one or two of these individuals will probably complete to award stage. And, it’s not that they aren’t intelligent enough as they have already passed a series of complex exams and paper submissions during their undergraduate studies; it’s usually more an issue of what I will term here the 3 postgrad research horrors (1) ‘life getting in the way’, (2) time management and (3) boredom with the research topic or literature. Think about these.
Perhaps the first point worth making is academic writing is a style in itself. Replete with conventions and expectations established over a period of time, one merely has to meet and exceed these if one wishes to score well from any Examination Body. This applies from Diploma to Doctorate and it really is as simple as that. Some disciplines are more ‘wordy’ than others and some prefer more scientific words than colloquial ones, but it’s just a matter of familiarising oneself with the Examination Board’s documentation. And, it’s always a good idea where possible to read several other successful theses in one’s field prior to writing one’s own thesis. You would be amazed at the amount of students I have met in my time who say they are near completion and when asked how many theses have they read in their own area, look back at me with blank expression…Uhmm…..
I often tell my harried thesis clients to imagine they are building a house; a dormer is a Degree, a two story is a Masters and a two story with a nice extension of, say, a sun room is a Doctorate. Each house MUST have a solid foundation or the overall structure (thesis) will be weakened and more subject to collapse (the examining body!) Oh, and it’s useful to have plans of some sort…
The individual rooms are individual chapters. Let’s stay with my house analogy for a moment. One generally expects three rooms in every house; a kitchen, living room and bedroom with, of course, a toilet/bathroom in or off one of these. So, too, with a thesis. An examiner expects an introduction, a literature review, a methods chapter, findings and analysis and some form of conclusions and recommendations in any thesis.
Colleges differ in what they call these, how these are presented and the scoring importance allocated but, as with the individual rooms in the house, there must be a construction plan (layout) and support structures.
A particular point of interest for examiners concerns that dreaded word ‘plagiarism’ and what this actually means as students tend to be so reliant on internet sources these days. A general rule is when one is quoting from, say, a journal article or book one indents the direct quote when it is forty words or more. One may just place inverted commas around a quote with less words and, of course, include the author’s name, year of publication and page number as in (McElwee, 2012: 12). But, students beware. Most Colleges now use anti-plagiarism software such as the much feared ‘turn it in’ or ‘copyscape’ programmes which searches for words, phrases and constructs and gives a full report to the College including line by line per centages. One simply cannot argue with a faceless computer programme.
I suppose the main difficulty for students is in realising the difference between ‘paraphrasing’ and ‘copying’. Most College course schedules or manuals spell out the policy so students should be familiar with this prior to even undertaking a research paper or thesis. To be ignorant of the law is not a valid excuse.
Over the next few blogs, I will look more in-depth at the nuts and bolts of undertaking postgraduate research and getting published in academic journals.
Dr. Niall McElwee is the author/co-author of several academic books including ‘Children At Risk’, ‘Irish Society’, ‘At Risk Children and Youth: Resiliency Explored’, ‘Effective Interventions with Families’, ‘Applied Social Care’, ‘Risk and Resilience’, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and two creative books, ‘Humanitas’ and ‘Oisin’s Journey Home’ in addition to many peer-reviewed papers for various academic journals around the world. He was founding editor of the Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies for ten years. Dr. McElwee established the Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic in 2007.