Writing Workshop – Dr Esther MacCallum Stewart

Writing is hard! It’s a muscle that you need to flex and start using. There are many people who do struggle with writing, and some techniques and approaches can help. The support can come from all the experiences of reading theses. There are some harsh issues- but don’t panic!

Previous PhDs: one of the keys is submitting an original piece of work. And it has to engage with philosophy. You need to think about it in a scholarly context, as well as what you are doing. Sometimes people create amazing artwork- and then just explain it. But you need to think about WHY, and HOW you did it. Engagement with you work in a critical sense is very important- understanding why this matters and who else has done anything about it.

You are writing for three groups of people. The first people are YOU. You also need to convey it to the supervisors, as they are examining your work. The other students are a valuable resource, to help you refine the ability to explain it. The university provides the context for what you are doing- and it’s a very specific style of writing that suits this particular environment. Thinking about your work in ‘clever ways’, is a good way of explaining.

Sometimes papers come in which do explain, but over compensate and explain everything. This is not all that helpful. Go ahead and find out about others in your field and use the ammunition. This marks out your engagement with the wider field, even if you didn’t respect or appreciate the work. But do not be too critical- sometimes you will change opinions, and meet your peers in your field. Be open to all perspectives.

Theoretical approaches: people can worry about this. It is very useful to engage with abstraction- it can help with your own ideas. People can appear to be saying things that are different, – recognise these thoughts as springboards, which can be retranslated. Find books that unfamiliar to you. Sometimes the best way is to cheat and get some condensed material, then look at the original. Be creative with your Wikipedia searches. You do not have to fully adopt some theoretical viewpoints. Big thinkers are good for helping you frame your work.

You should share – there is a reading group – but talk about books you have read. And you can quote one another’s work, and this looks good, it demonstrates that Smartlab is a corpus. Insularity is a big problem. It’s easy to slip into your ‘small world’ but you must resist. Get people to ask you questions, these will help you form it. The questions that you get asked later on (not the session questions), because this shows they want you to develop your thinking, or they are interested, or they are not clear about some part of what you said. Relate it back to your practice. You can exercise your writing, get the balance better between being too complex and too easy.

Clarity in writing is important. Practice is given such prominence in Smartlab that you are very lucky! Use this strength of engaging with theory as it is intended, to boost and bolster your work.

Ethics: if you carry out practice with audience- this could be a very valuable road to explore- and a good philosophical tool. Thinking about the ethical procedures- who are you involving? How do people respond? Why did you pursue this particular route. The University has guidance and forms for those involving users, where ethics must feature. You cannot just do it – the viva will ask about your motivations.

Buzzwords: developing, advancing, explaining, ring fencing. Weave in your theoretical base as you write. It stops you presenting. You are not separating them. They become symbiotic and joined.


Camille: used some anecdotal writing- and brings in dreams. This is one paragraph- a second follow on paragraph could be dream theory. Wants to keep it separate.

Response: Uncertain. Narrative voices can be problematic. Alison, reflexive voice. Helps to bring this technique in to make a judgement on research that wasn’t documented, for instance

Can be hard to act straight on the spot with the advice of the supervisor. They can help break patterns and get you to try new ways of writing.

Taey: it’s about striving for authenticity. To settle on a voice. And you do not undermine the quality of the ideas by settling on specific voice. It’s a challenge to rules: you want to be true to the writing, and sometimes thinking about the formal qualities might be used as a means to avoid settling on writing.

Response: get into the dynamics of thinking about it, make the sense of being unsettled. If you over use the first person, you can communicate the wrong message. Less is more, use with caution.

Kasia: uses dialogues, these conversations took place, this was the outcome (not in first person).

Kate: objectifies the experience, and the performance she is in, which was in first person but is better not described this way.

Ian: theory building/theory creating. You aggregate and mash up. But there is a theory there for most people, and you must be rigorous in finding it

Cathy: in dance, there is a constant theory which is concerned with presence and where the experiences lives when over, less theory ‘ownership’, it is true to you and can be ‘captured’ in writing, but not permanently.

Camille: there is a need to separate from the work.

Cathy: the rules must be the same, the way you treat the thesis and the artwork.

Response: there is a version of you, that has to be more objective, be more theoretical. You cannot keep everything, and you will become distant from the work. You write ‘for a world of PhD readers’, but also explaining something really personal. This sets up some interesting personal challenges. The dilemmas are those of practice based PhD!

Book: Rowena Murray ‘Your Thesis’ (OUP) – a tip from Esther for the group.

General discussion: how to blend in ‘I’ experiences- and the green cross code should apply- to stop, look and listen to what is happening to you. These can be criteria. But you cannot just do this with your own ideas and nothing else- which is where you bring in other theories and practice.

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