- Writing and Presenting Research
George Orwell1 asked, not unreasonably, when criticizing what he saw as a 'racket,' 'If these people [who offer mail order courses in popular authorship] really know how to make money out of writing, why aren't they just doing it instead of peddling their secret at 5/- a time?' Today, there is still ample readily available 'help' for the prospective author, who can choose from similar courses, plus seminars and conferences, Web sites, magazines, and a wealth of 'how to write' books, all at a price. It appears that, for some authors at least, a better living is still available by combining this sort of instruction with their writing per se.
Pity, then, the poor old academic author. We all of us have to write to justify our existence as researchers in some form or other, yet we also make time to comment on the submissions of others, whether reviewing and editing the research papers of our peers or correcting the written work of those academic 'beginners,' undergraduate and graduate students. In so doing, we provide similar services to the mail-order writing bureaus, but for free. Thus, it makes a lot of sense for the experienced and talented academic author to write a 'how to' volume for the inexperienced, for many reasons, although attempting to raise the standard of papers that we receive to review is certainly a worthy goal. Unlike the 'racket' recognized by Orwell, it is an honourable facet of our endeavours. I began reading such volumes when I was a graduate student and continue to collect them, with a particular interest in those shedding light on academic writing for the natural scientist (I am a geologist). Even though I am now many years past the graduate-student stage, these guides are still of interest, continue to provide me with new ideas, and represent a source of reference for my own students.
Do these 'self help for academic writers' books really help? Well, they've certainly helped to educate me, although as my experience has grown, each new volume has provided a diminishing return. Until now. As a natural scientist, I guess I'd always presumed [End Page 179] (or been indoctrinated?) that there was one methodology for presenting research results. Not so, says Angela Thody, author of Writing and Presenting Research. Although her viewpoint is from the humanities, I am certain that some of her messages and methodologies can and should be extended to other disciplines. Delivery varies through a continuum from orthodox to strongly unorthodox, not just in theory but even in the varied styles of writing used.
Writing and Presenting Research (WPR) is well produced, highly readable, and full of relevant, sometimes provocative information and ideas for the writing (and speaking) academic. The text is acrobatic, in places changing style in mid-chapter to illustrate, for example, the differences in style of presentation between a popular magazine and a textbook (66), and thus encouraging thought in different ways through reading alone. There is much good sense throughout WPR; chapters such as 'Principles for Selecting Appropriate Writing and Presentation Styles' would repay reading by any graduate student. Not all chapters will be of use to all readers/authors; for example, Thody is not just concerned with quantitative information but also demonstrates how qualitative and narrative data can be presented to best convey their meaning. Thody is a master of the telling, sometimes vitriolic, quotation: 'the one message that seems to emanate from some manuscripts is that the author is desperate to publish something' (51)! The author's reviews at the end of each chapter are brief, pithy, even combative, and tell it like it is. The bibliography includes numerous references that I've highlighted for my future reading. The index appears to be adequate.
The first chapter, 'Conventions or Alternatives?,' was an eye opener for me. There are two styles of presenting research in print: either 'make life easier for our referees by writing a clear, concise paper, that is...