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MONTHLY BLOG 60, WRITING THROUGH A BIG RESEARCH PROJECT, NOT WRITING UP

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

My heart sinks when I hear someone declare gaily: ‘I’ve done all the research; now all I have to do is write it up’.1 So what’s so wrong with that? It sounds so straightforward. First research, then sit down and write. Then, bingo, big party with lots of happy friends and relieved research supervisor.

But undertaking a big project in the Humanities or Social Sciences doesn’t and shouldn’t work like that.2 So my heart sinks on behalf of any researcher who declares ‘All I have to do is write it up’, because he or she has been wasting a lot of time, under the impression that they have been working hard. Far from being close to the end of a big project, they have hardly begun.

Why so? There are both practical and intellectual reasons for ‘writing through’ a big research project, rather than ‘writing up’ at the end. For a start, stringing words and paragraphs together to construct a book-length study takes a lot of time. The exercise entails ordering a miscellany of thoughts into a satisfactory sequence, marshalling a huge amount of documented detail to expound the sustained argument, and then punching home a set of original conclusions. It’s an arduous art, not an automatic procedure.
2015-12 No1 Hogarth's distressed_poet

Hogarth’s Distrest Poet (1741) expresses the agonies of composition, as he sits in a poky garret, poor and dishevelled, with abandoned drafts at his feet.

Writing and research in the Humanities and Social Sciences should thus proceed in tandem. These tasks between them provide the necessary legs which enable a project to advance. No supervised researcher should be without a target deadline for a forthcoming report or interim paper, which collectively function as prototype chapters. That rule applies from the onset, starting with a written review of the research questions, or bibliographical overview, or primary source search – or however the project is launched. Without ‘writing through’, researchers do not really appreciate what they have found or what they are arguing. Certainly there will be much redrafting and revision, as the research progresses. That’s all part of the process.

But grappling with ideas to turn them into a sustained account in written words is not just a medium for communication. It’s a mechanism for cogitation itself. Just as spoken language crystallises instinctive feelings into expressed thoughts, so the process of turning thoughts into written form advances, clarifies and extends their meaning to form a considered analysis. A book can say much more than a speech, because it’s longer and more complexly structured than even the longest speech. Writing through continually means thinking through properly.

Incidentally, what about prose style? The answer is: suit yourself. Match your personality. Obviously, suit the subject-matter too. Snappy dictums are good value. I enjoy them myself. They punch an argument home. But non-stop bullet-points are wearing. Ideas are unduly compressed. Readers can be stunned. The big argument goes missing. Writing short sentences is fun. Brevity challenges the mind. I could go on. And on. One gets a second wind. But content is also required. Otherwise, vacuity is revealed. And exhaustion threatens. So arguments need building. One point after another. There may be an exception. Sometimes they prove the rule. Sometimes, however, not. It depends upon the evidence. Everything needs evaluation. Points are sometimes obvious. Yet there’s room for subtlety. Don’t succumb to the obvious. Meanings multiply. Take your time. Think things through. Test arguments against data. There’s always a rival case. But what’s the final conclusion? Surely, it’s clear enough. Think kindly of your readers. Employ authorial diversity. Meaning what exactly? [162 words in 39 sentences, none longer than five words]

Alternatively, the full and unmitigated case for long, intricate, sinuous, thoughtful yet controlled sentences, winding their way gracefully and inexorably across vast tracts of crisp, white paper can be made not only in terms of academic pretentiousness – always the last resort of the petty-minded – but also in terms of intellectual expansiveness and mental ‘stretch’, with a capacity to reflect and inflect even the most subtle nuances of thought, although it should certainly be remembered that, without some authorial control or indeed domination in the form of a final full-stop, the impatient reader – eager to follow the by-ways yet equally anxious to seize the cardinal point – can find a numbing, not to say crushing, sense of boredom beginning to overtake the responsive mind, as it struggles to remember the opening gambit, let alone the many intermediate staging posts, as the overall argument staggers and reels towards what I can only describe, with some difficulty, as the ultimate conclusion or final verdict: The End! [162 words in one sentence, also fun to write].3

In other words, my stylistic advice is to vary the mix of sentence lengths. A combination of an Ernest-Hemingway-style brevity with an Edward Gibbonian luxuriance allows points to be fully developed, but also summarised pithily.

Thus, in order to develop a sustained case within a major research project, my organisational advice is to ‘write through’ throughout. That’s the only real way to germinate, sustain, develop, understand innerly and simultaneously communicate a big overarching picture, complete with supporting arguments and data. Oh, and my final point? Let’s banish the dreadful phrase ‘writing up’. It means bodging.
2015-12 No2 Writing

A snappy dictum from the American journalist and writer William Zinsser (1922-2015).

1 This BLOG is a companion-piece to PJC BLOG/59, ‘Supervising a Big Research Project to Finish Well and on Time: Three Framework Rules’ (Nov. 2015). Also relevant is PJC BLOG/34 ‘Coping with Writer’s Block’ (Oct. 2013).

2 In the Sciences, the model is somewhat different, according to the differential weight given to experimental research processes/outcomes and to written output.

3 My puny effort barely registers in the smallest foothills of lengthy sentences in the English language, one celebrated example being Molly Bloom’s soliloquy as finale to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), reportedly in a sentence of over 4,000 words.

4 Hemingway is commonly cited as the maestro of pithiness. Yet the playwright Samuel Beckett also shares the honours in the brevity stakes, writing in sharp contradistinction to his friend and fellow-Irishman James Joyce.

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PJC WEBSITE REVIEW/4 – THE LIFE OF STUFF (1993) BY SIMON DONALD

Review by: Penelope J. Corfield after viewing with Tony Belton

On Wednesday 10 April 2013

At: Theatre 503 at the Latchmere, 503 Latchmere Road SW11 3BW

Directed by: Paul Robinson

Cast: Ben Adams; Claire Dargo; Pamela Dwyer; Gregory Finnegan; Cameron Jack; Paula Masterton; Rhys Owen; Owen Whitelaw

Pretty amazing stuff – with a live snake. Brilliantly acted by eight unknown actors. If you want to see impressive impersonations of drunken, drug-driven, crazed, baffled, lascivious, Glaswegian underworld figures, changing from swagger to menace to terror, then view this production. The snake also does its part very well. Launching the opening scene, it writhes and flickers its tongue – without killing anyone in cast or audience. (It seemed to be a handsome but harmless grass-snake). No doubt it represents the wicked but attractive power of Temptation and Forbidden Knowledge, as in the Garden of Eden.
review003In this case, the scenes are all set in one Glasgow tenement. And the cast speak throughout in a no-holds-barred plebeian Glaswegian accent, which adds verisimilitude but which completely baffled an American sitting close to us in the audience. All well and good. Much of the action was symbolic and it was possible to trace the fast-shifting patterns of power and submission from the actors’ magnificently visceral body-language.

So what was the message from this portentous, weird, alarming, depressing, macabre, and intermittently very funny drama? Here it’s much more difficult to respond. All the characters are either loathsomely weak or incoherently dopey or manipulative or manic or violently unpleasant or combining elements of all these traits. The drama offers no false hopes. It ends with universal destruction. The message is unrelentingly downbeat, negative, even nihilistic. So we can conclude: don’t get high on drink and drugs, especially in the company of Glaswegian criminals; don’t double-cross your pals; and remember that the ultimate recourse to violence means that ultimately the most violent will win – before losing in the general holocaust.

These negative messages, however, seem a bit trite and obvious, at the end of an intensive, absorbing two-hour performance. Is there more to it? Does the element of comedy alleviate the gloom? Some does. One put-upon character, who has been deprived of most of his clothes, remarks that it’s difficult to act the hard guy when only scantily dressed: ‘You can’t batter somebody in your underpants’. The audience laughs but also understands the truth of this axiom. People deprived of their socially acceptable carapace are rendered powerless through their own awareness of their self-erosion.

Another funny moment comes when a bottle of scotch is adulterated with human piss. We get a flash of the actor’s willy to understand that this manoeuvre is ‘for real’. A detained innocent, wearing only his underpants, has few options. But he can at least cock a snook, rather literally, at his tormentor. Some comedy then follows, as different characters pick up the bottle and almost drink the piss, before finally the baddie does so. The joke then becomes slightly lost as the violence escalates. But another moral would be: don’t drink from a proffered bottle of scotch unless you are sure of its provenance.

Is that it then? So what? The message still seems a bit too elusive and negative for such impassioned acting. There is also more than a touch of cliché in setting this drama in the badlands of Glasgow. Is the distinctive Glaswegian accent in itself supposed to signal a menacing sub-culture, with its own rules?

Perhaps there is a further clue in the play’s title? It’s called The Life of Stuff. That phrase obviously plays on the reversal of ‘The Stuff of Life’. By looking at the downside of ‘normality’, the playwright Simon Donald promises to probe more deeply. We are to be offered a glimpse of ‘real life’, with a truth-telling message. People who are high on drinks or drugs or violence are deluding themselves. Life’s ‘stuff’ without a valid meaning constitutes betrayal. It leads to delusion, derangement, futility, serious crime and the incrimination of others, culminating only in destruction and death.

Consequently, worthwhile ‘stuff’ needs a serious purpose. There’s a sort of innocent puritanism (albeit without any trace of religious theology) emerging from this play. The Biblical connotations of the snake may suggest some sort of moral message. Nonetheless – aspiring playwrights please note – plays that are unremittingly bleak, no matter how brilliantly acted, can be so negative that the audience are left with blank depression rather than enlightenment.

Ok, so how about, among sad playwrights, Samuel Beckett? Harold Pinter? Even, amidst the scintillating laughter, Chekhov? They all demonstrate that it’s a hard art to present despair as a form of enlightenment. This play doesn’t surmount the difficulty. The audience admired but boggled. At the end, the Glasgow tenement is blown up and the audience is too. But go and see the play for yourself. It’s not often that you get to view a live snake, a trouser snake (in Private Eye parlance) and a dazzling set of performances conveying the apparent exuberance but, in reality, the utter stupidity of getting high on drinks, drugs, sexual opportunism, gangland drug-dealing, and violence. ‘Stuff’, to make a life worthwhile, needs clear minds, independent moral judgement, and fair dealing between fellow humans. Amen to that.

Illustration: Grass snake closeup, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 2010, from M.D. Parr’s photostream, www.flickr.com, downloaded 29/4/2013.

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