Five Essential Writing Tips from My Supervisors (Organisation)


A fractal recursion created from an infinite number of fractals.

6228d2 (Jock Cooper) / CC BY-NC 3.0

Writing is never easy, especially when you have a specific reader. You know her/his expectations, and you know how to align her/him to your ideas. When it comes to the writing part, however, the progress can be satisfactory one day and disastrous on the other. It feels like running in mud at times. You must write to make every word count, and something is dragging your feet at the same time. You feel groggy, you get distracted, you want to stare at the void for the whole afternoon. On the night before the fortnight consultation, you pull an all-nighter, try to put everything in 10 pages and hope your supervisor approves of your idea.

You can imagine what would happen the next day. It sounds familiar, does it not?

The seven months of training in Sydney have done more than nurturing my theoretical interests and fulfilling my dreams to meet the canons. The training is mainly writing, thanks to my lovely and patient supervisors. My supervisors and colleagues in Hong Kong are highly supportive too. They are all prolific writers; from them I have learnt some great writing tips, which I hope to share with you. The following are what I regard as essential:

  1. Understand ‘the point of telling’. Before writing, I would ask myself a few questions about the text: What is the text about? Is it something technical that I have to ease my way in? Easing the way in is also reader-oriented, especially when I know about the target audience. Do my readers shared the assumed knowledge in the text (e.g. teachers would know better about teaching-learning cycle than the general public)? How am I going to manage the content knowledge and writer-reader relationships through the text structure (e.g. an ‘argumentation’ is structured differently from a ‘story’)? With all these decisions made, I can figure out the purposes and the message in the text, or ‘the point of telling’.
  2. Identify the focus of each chapter, section and paragraph. Knowing what to write is way different from knowing how to write. I can have full of ideas, but if these ideas come in big chunks the message is hard to get across. My supervisors’ tip is ‘pre-planning’ – write down the outline of the whole text, give the points a section heading, and perhaps each paragraph a heading. The heading serves as the ‘focus’ of the paragraph so the paragraph will not contain more than one idea. If there is more than one idea, put it in the next paragraph – avoid writing a 1000-word paragraph, or a ‘wall of text‘. Pre-planning is therefore a strategy to spell out your mind map – putting it on paper is better than only keeping it churning in the brain.
  3. Ease dense concepts out slowly. This is what happens when I try to write a thesis chapter like a tweet. A very dense concept, usually a technical term or a theoretical discussion, pops out of nowhere and off I go to the next point. My supervisors usually stop me there, with some written notes next to the paragraph saying, ‘Let the idea breathe.’ Define the keyword. Elaborate the idea into a few sentences (usually means more verbs to convey concrete experience). ‘Unpack’ the nominalisation. Expanding the discussion makes your text more comprehensive for your readers, even if they share the same technical/ theoretical/ expertise knowledge with you. They would be really glad to have you guide them through the reading path.
  4. Avoid long topic sentences. My ‘favourite’ mistake: because I have so much to tell. I know the opening ‘topic’ sentence tells the ‘point’ of the paragraph, so I have a habit of cramming everything in one long sentence, with a cascade of relative clauses. My students told me the similar: they thought, to ‘look’ academic, sentences have to be long. To mistaken complexity and abstraction with length is common. What makes a sentence complex and abstract is the way meaning is condensed within, for example, technical terms, nominalisation and condensing two or more sentences in one. I have explained it in my post on the shortest presentation to summarise your thesis in 25 words. Again, once you start with a dense (not long) topic sentence, you have to ‘unpack’ it through explanations and examples (refer to point #3).
  5. Work out each paragraph like the whole text. What this means is that a paragraph needs an introduction (topic sentence), the points to be made from the introduction (explanation, exemplification, explication), and a conclusion (consolidating the content and the stance). This structure should recur throughout the text for a clear and meticulous organisation: some paragraphs act as the overarching introduction and summary of the whole text, in each section and paragraph. So a paragraph can be seen as a ‘fractal‘; each fractal has the same textual structure and repeats itself to create a pattern – a text.
My supervisors had more fantastic pieces of advice, but the five ‘tips’ above have been essential in helping me write better – the changes are effective and immediate! Do you have any tips which you find the most useful for writing, e.g. blogs, articles, stories, etc.? Please feel free to share with me! So much for now, have a fantastic week!

(Disclaimer: if my writing is less effective than expected, I am the only one to blame! :P)

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