Before I left for Dundee, I applied for a funded place on a Think Write course My Thesis in 10 Steps (https://www.thinkwrite.co.uk/courses/my-thesis-ten-steps-bitesize) through the Doctoral Academy. I was lucky enough to secure a place. I have now completed the course that provided useful tools and ideas for setting about the task of writing a thesis – a significant piece of work of a size most of us have not tackled before.
At the same time, I became aware of a website and on-line course provided by Reedsy, an organisation founded in 2014 providing authors with access to publishing professionals and free educational content. I decided to sign up for the Show Don’t Tell course (https://blog.reedsy.com/show-dont-tell/) also made up of ten sections. Although the course is mainly directed to those penning a novel or other creative work, it seems to me that there is much I can learn from developing my creative skills in the context of producing perhaps a more compelling or better crafted thesis. I worked through both courses together and found it helpful to compare and contrast approaches.
The Show Don’t Tell course starts with a quotation often linked to Anton Chekhov as follows:
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
And this, for me, sums up the key message of the whole course. Showing involves conveying stories and characters through actions, thoughts, and sensory detail rather than a factual account. Showing is about engaging the reader and enabling them to actively participate first-hand through storytelling. The second section introduces the Iceberg Theory originally coined by Ernest Hemingway, which involves the author only revealing a few details, and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions, rather than telling them how they should interpret the words.
The first two sections of My Thesis in 10 Steps also sets the scene by discussing the purpose of a thesis and how to determine success by fulfilling the requirements, deciding on an appropriate structure, and mapping out the story you wish to tell. Only by understanding what is required and who you need to satisfy will the task become focused and deliverable. By reviewing submitted theses across disciplines and institutions you can consider what structures work well and chime with how you might wish to present your work. Step 4 is to visualise your story in a high-level map of the thesis, showing how all the component chapters fit together. Sections 3, 4, 5 and 6 of Show Don’t Tell demonstrate how showing can be achieved in practice through character-revealing dialogue, body language and action.
Section 5 of My Thesis in 10 Steps begins to focus down by encouraging the creation of a strong key message recommending that this should be 12-16 words with one verb or claim and should not be a question. The message should not be the title of the thesis. The process is developed through a Step Tree to establish the message for each chapter and in turn sections within chapters. These maps should be developed over time, and it is recommended that the Step Trees are displayed visually in your work-space so they are ready at hand and accessible for ongoing development. Section 6 discusses how to determine the headings, sub-headings, paragraphs, references, graphs, tables and images for each chapter. Section 7 suggests determining the word limit, number of chapters, average number of words per chapter, average number of words per paragraph, number of main headings and sub-headings and a template is provided to record the detail and story for each paragraph of the thesis.
The last four sections of Show Don’t Tell warn against the use of using ‘feeling’ words and adverbs and to avoid revealing the character’s emotional state through telling, leaving the reader to share the feeling or experience. Section 8 warns against the use of ‘purple prose – that is, over elaborate language and excessive adjectives and adverbs. In the following section, some circumstances when telling might be appropriate are discussed – telling to lay the groundwork – worldbuilding, efficient communication of an idea or enabling a swift change of time or place. And finally, I read a blog on 20 Writing Tips to Become a Better Write. The following is a list of take-home points from both courses:
- Have a plan and refer to it often
- Create a timeline
- Split tasks into daily chunks
- Write now, edit later
- Read work aloud to get a sense of how others will read it
- Take on board feedback
- Kill your darlings
- Keep writing
- Keep your examiners in mind
- Consider using grammar-checking software
- Use high-quality paper
- Consult requirements on margin width, page numbers, running headers and fonts
As with all courses, some ideas and methods chime with our own way of working and others less so. While much of Show Don’t Tell was more directed to aspiring novelists, than someone writing a PhD, using certain techniques and approaches to engage the reader are applicable and taking on board the idea of showing or demonstrating aspects of my practice through imagery is also appropriate. Similarly, I found the suggestion to map out the number of words, chapters, and paragraphs helpful, although I do feel that there must be room for spontaneity and flow in writing practice. I think the right balance can be achieved by getting the words down on paper and then using various tools such as grammar-checking to edit and improve initial drafts.
There are also elements of Show Don’t Tell that I think will be helpful in improving my blog content and the quality of the writing in my field journal. The suggestion from My Thesis in 10 Steps to undertake research to identify potential external examiners, to understand their likes and dislikes and have them in mind as you write the thesis is helpful, although in practice, I am not sure the examiner will be known early enough in the process for this to be possible.
Lots to think about and put into practice. I also plan to read How to Write a Thesis (2002) by Rowena Murray.
Murray, R. (2002). How to Write a Thesis. London, Open University Press.