Having offered a number of workshops over the years on writing for publication (one written up as ‘Prime and Predigest’), it was a real treat for me to be on the receiving end of a 2 day course on academic writing. John Paley’s main goal was to raise our awareness of the techniques we use subconsciously to make sense of what we read so we can make a conscious effort to apply them when writing.
None of the participants were novices with the written word. As editor of Speech & Language Therapy in Practice, I supported therapists who were writing articles for the first time. I also encouraged academics to use an accessible style that included explicit implications for practice. The collaborative nature of the editing process helped me improve my own writing as I played with paragraphs and sentence construction in an effort to make life easier for the reader. While books and articles about writing for publication also helped, feedback from readers about what worked for them was particularly instructive.
John’s course, however, has introduced me to a new level of “staying in control” of written work. As someone who is easily distracted when one thought sparks another, I particularly appreciated his strategies for staying focused. His suggested four stage framework is recursive, meaning that each level is embedded within the next:
- There is a central claim
- This claim is justified and elaborated by supporting material
- This material is given a particular structure
- This structure is illuminated by the use of cohesive devices.
I was especially intrigued by this attention to cohesive devices - such as paragraphs, repetition and signposting – which prime the reader to see how ideas connect and separate. I have learnt that subtlety with signposting is not helpful when a complex argument is being developed; words such as ‘first’, ‘next’ and ‘finally’ indicate to and remind the reader “where they are on the map”.
John developed this idea of structure further by drawing on Swales and Feak’s model for Creating A Research Space. ‘CARS’ assists writers to narrow arguments progressively at every stage (paragraph, section, chapter, whole) by setting out the territory, establishing a niche within it and then occupying the niche. This process helps the writer to be single-minded in setting the boundaries for their project, while letting go of other important and interesting angles, or leaving them for another day.
With that in mind, I will sign off with a final thought. When people find communication difficult, speech and language therapists spend time demonstrating how it can be made more accessible. In a similar way, practising therapists do not always find academic writing accessible. Yet John Paley’s course demonstrates that writers can help, not by reducing the complexity of the argument, but by paying closer attention to the way it is scaffolded.
Speech & Language Therapy in Practice editor Avril Nicoll attended John Paley’s 2 day course as part of her studies on the MRes (Health) at the University of Stirling.