Monthly Archives: July 2015

Last day of the student workshops


We are at the end of an intense week of postgraduate student workshops.  We’ve spent the week closeted together for long hours and I’m sure everyone is looking forward to a break now. I have had the most wonderful time getting to know all the participants and their research projects.  Everyone was very responsive and keen to do everything I asked of them.

It seems impossible that this project is over already after all the months of planning.  The staff at the UJ Postgraduate Centre were superb and they really looked after me.  This has been such a fabulous opportunity and for that I need to thank the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship program.

For the participants – I will still post material on the blog so keep looking.

I’m off on two weeks’ leave now – I’ll be spending time with my family and then off for a quick trip to the Kruger National Park for some R &R.


Free writing


Academic writing is demanding. It is easier to think brilliant ideas than to write them – especially in an academic way. Constructing a paper or chapter is difficult. One way to develop fluency in writing is to use writing in other ways, for example, to extend thinking or to create ideas. In other words, think through writing.

Writing to extend our thinking

Writing is a way of knowing. Most of us were taught to write only once we have something to say. But writing is a dynamic creative process linked to thinking and formulating ideas. “I write because I want to find something out,” says Richardson (2000:924), “I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it”. Keep a notebook, journal or even a file on your desktop to write down your thinking.

Writing to create ideas

When we write from in an uncritical freely associative state, we write to discover. Writing without criticism is focused on the message and is often lively and metaphorical. We find we want to write. Writing with our internal editor’s critical eye picking out errors makes writing a heavy, negative and grueling experience. At first, it is tough to let go of that critical voice.


Free-writing is a key technique to get your writing to become fluent and easy to do. The basic principle is that you set a timer and write quickly for a set amount of time (10 mins), without referring to sources, or censoring your thinking (Elbow, 1973). Do not cross out words, correct punctuation or grammar because that indicates your internal editor is still casting a critical eye. You suspend judgement during free-writing. You write to see what you think. No-one will read these pieces of writing but you. Once you have a collection of free-writes, you can gather them into a draft to revise.

Free-writing to generate ideas: Free-write to find out what you know about a topic or an article you’ve read. These are not notes but thoughts. You may want to begin with a vague idea and see where the writing takes you.

Directed free-writing: When you want to write a section of a paper. Free-write it first then revise and add in sources and quotes. Begin with what you know and then build in the references and authorities.

(Source: Badenhorst: Researchj Writing)


Richardson, L. (2000). Writing: A method of inquiry. Handbook of Qualitative Research. N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks, Sage: 923-948.

Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. London: Oxford University Press.

You might want to watch these videos:

End of UJ staff workshop


I always have a range of emotions as an intense workshop comes to an end.  For a week, we’ve been closeted together and before you know it, it seems like we’ve known each other for a long, long time.  Then the workshop ends and I’m left with the sharp realisation that I won’t be seeing anyone from this group tomorrow.

I feel extremely privileged to have spent the time with these participants.  I’ve enjoyed hearing about their experiences and their journeys.  We’ve laughed a lot – which I always enjoy.  And we have hashed and rehashed their research projects until I’m sure they are dreaming about them!

UJ staff group – all the best with research.  I have no doubt you will be successful.


Harris’s moves – 4


Taking an approach

The final genre move, according to Harris (2006), is when the writer takes an approach, which is fundamental to intellectual writing. This can be done through adopting the approach of another author or developing your own thinking in relation to another author. Taking an approach means taking a stand on your argument. What Harris means here is that you do not focus on ideas from an author but rather on the author’s whole intellectual contribution. Harris (2006) identifies the mechanisms as:

  • Acknowledging influences – this is showing how an influential author(s) has affected your own thinking and has led to your different approach.
  • Turning an approach in on itself – using the questions an author asks to question him/her yourself. This is an appreciative/skeptical way of viewing a source text/author.
  • Reflexivity – is the critical self-awareness of one’s own assumptions and an understanding in relation to an author. Where the new approach you have taken is different but where you have looked at all sides, weighed up options and evidence and well as one’s own biases and then moved to a new approach or idea.

The binding

Harris (2006) also mentions the glue that holds all these moves together which is known as metatext. You might have also seen this mentioned as signposts or transitions. These are the sentences that show your reader what moves you are using and when in the paper. Phrases like: In the first section of the paper, I will discuss…; The purpose of this section is to…; While the literature is broad and complex, I would like to focus on three key authors/issues that are relevant to this discussion/my argument…”

“I’ve argued throughout this book that the goal of academic writing is to form your own position on a subject in response to what others have said about it” (Harris, 2006, p. 95).

Look closely at the academic articles you read to see the pattern.

  • How does the article begin?
  • How is it organized? Does it have specific headings or sections?
  • Can you see Harris’ moves?
  • How are citations used – to put forward a claim, to refute it?
  • How does the article conclude


In the following extract – an introduction to a journal article (Huckin, 2002, p. 347) – you can see all these moves being made in one paragraph.

“‘The greatest triumphs of propaganda have been accomplished, not by doing something, but by refraining from doing. Great is truth, but greater still, from a practical standpoint, is silence about truth. By simply not mentioning certain subjects, . . . propagandists have influenced opinion much more effectively than they could have done by the most eloquent denunciations, the most compelling of logical rebuttals.’ These comments by Aldous Huxley in his 1946 foreword to Brave New World underscore the power of silence to affect communication. Traditionally, discourse analysts have tended to ignore such silences, preferring instead to focus on the words, phrases, clauses and other linguistic elements that constitute the surface of text and talk. Brown and Yule’s (1983) definition of discourse analysis is illustrative: ‘We examine how humans use language to communicate and, in particular, how addressers construct linguistic messages for addressees and how addressees work on linguistic messages in order to interpret them’ (1983: ix, emphasis added). Yet any practicing discourse analyst will readily acknowledge that communication involves more than just the linguistic markers used to encode it – that often what is not said or written can be as important, if not more so, than what is. As Stuart Hall (1985) has noted, ‘Positively marked terms “signify” because of their position in relation to what is absent, unmarked, the unspoken, the unsayable. Meaning is relational within an ideological system of presences and absences’. If we define textual silence as ‘the omission of some piece of information that is pertinent to the topic at hand,’ it can be divided into five broad categories as follows: speech–act silences are those that have illocutionary force by virtue of being so interpretable by a reader/listener using Gricean, Leechian or other pragmatic principles; presuppositional silences are those that serve communicative efficiency by not stating what the speaker/writer apparently assumes to be common knowledge; discreet silences are those that avoid stating sensitive information; genre based silences are those that are governed by genre conventions; and manipulative silences are those that deliberately conceal relevant information from the reader/listener. The first two of these types occur mainly on the sentence or utterance level, whereas the last three are broader in their scope of application, ranging up to entire texts.

After briefly surveying these five types, this article will focus on manipulative silence, in particular the kinds of manipulative silence that are commonplace in the print media. This topic to date has received little attention from discourse analysts and linguists – a neglect that, in my view, can be attributed to the fact that manipulative silence is the least linguistically constrained and therefore most difficult type of silence to identify and analyze. This article presents a systematic method for addressing the problem, and includes a case study on the discourse of homelessness by way of illustration.

Thick description


Thick description is a way of writing that includes not only describing and observation (usually of human behaviour) but also the context in which that behaviour occurs. The term ‘thick description’ was made famous by anthropologist Clifford Geertz who wrote in this style as a way of capturing his brand of ethnography in the 1970s. Since then, ‘thick description’ has gradually taken hold in the social sciences, and today, it has become the way of writing qualitatively.

Geertz borrowed the term from philosopher Gilbert Ryle and added meaning to it. In “Thick description”: Towards and interpretive theory of culture (1973) Geertz stated:

“From one point of view, that of the textbook, doing ethnography is establishing rapport, selecting informants, transcribing texts, taking genealogies, mapping fields, keeping a diary, and so on. But it is not these things, techniques and received procedures that define the enterprise. What defines it is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to borrow a notion from Gilbert Ryle, ‘thick description’”(Geertz, 1973:6; Ponterotto, 2006: 539).

Geertz believed that the reader of anthropological writing needed to interpret the credibility of the author’s interpretation and he/she could only do this if the observations and context were fully described.

How can we describe thickly?

‘Thick description’ goes beyond surface appearances to include the context, detail, emotion, and webs of social relationships. It presents the significance of an observation, event or behaviour. Thick description includes voices, feelings, actions and meanings (Ponterotto, 2006).

The example most commonly used to explain ‘Thick description’ comes from Ryle. He argued that if someone winks at us without a context, we don’t know what it means. We can report on the wink (thin description). But if we provide a context we will know if the person is attracted to us, or that s/he is trying to communicate secretly, or that s/he has something in his/her eye. As the context changes, the meaning of the wink changes. ‘Thick description’ explains the context of practices and discourses in a society.

What goes into ‘thick description’?

Denzin (1989) outlines the features of ‘thick description’. For each observation, event or behaviour, ‘thick description’ captures the following details:

  • Biographical (who?)
  • Historical (what led to this?)
  • Situational (context)
  • Relational (what’s happening?)
  • Interactional (what are the meanings and relationships?)

‘Thick description’ allows the reader to ‘see’ the lives of respondents because of the way the text is written.

Another way of describing thickly

Bloom’s taxonomy is another way of describing thickly in qualitative writing.

Provide information which gives the reader knowledge, and then explain so that the reader can comprehend. Give examples so that the reader can she how this information has been applied. Then pull it all apart to analyse it for the reader, put it back together with interpretation, insight and new knowledge through synthesis. Finally, step back and evaluate your interpretation.

In short: describe, explain, give examples, interpret, make sense of your interpretation and then explain to the reader why this is (or isn’t) a worthy interpretation.


Denzin, N.K. (1989) Interpretive interactionism. Newbury Park: Sage

Geertz, C. (1973) The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Ponterotto, J.G. (2006) Brief note on the origins, evolution and meaning of the qualitative research concept ‘thick description’, The Qualitative Report 11(3), 538-54

Harris’ moves – 2 and 3


Harris (2006) suggests that there are four genre ‘moves’ in academic writing:

  • coming to terms
  • forwarding
  • countering
  • taking an approach

In the previous blog post, I discussed Move 1: coming to terms.  In this blog, I’ll show you Moves 2 and 3:  Forwarding and Countering.


Once academic writers are familiar with the substance of the topic at hand, they then move into a process of forwarding. Harris (2006) argues that asymmetrical conversations happen in academic writing. Academics do not write to the people they are writing about, they write to fellow readers. Forwarding is the process of recirculating, repurposing or recontextualising meaning from texts. The mechanisms for this are:

  • Illustrating – using other texts as examples to explain your point (anecdotes, data, scenarios).
  • Authorising – when you use an author to support your thinking, this is the “quick appeal to another writer as a voice of authority” (Harris, 2006, p. 44).
  • Borrowing – drawing on terms or ideas from other writers to explain your point. Here you use other texts by borrowing a term or idea to relate to your own argument.
  • Extending – when you put your own meaning on an idea drawn from another text to advance your own argument. Extending a text can be difficult. You feel you may not feel confident about extending on an authority’s ideas but this is what makes the writing your own.


The next move is countering or arguing against a text or author. This is a critical part of academic writing. It’s not enough to understand the topic and to extend on others’ ideas, academic writing always includes counter arguments. Counter arguments, however, are often not the opposite side of the debate, as Harris, 2006, p. 56) suggests: “countering looks at other views and texts not as wrong but as partial – in the sense of being both interested and incomplete” (emphasis in original). In other words, you will not need to refute an author’s argument but rather add to the conversation or perhaps take it in a new direction. The mechanisms for this are:

  • Arguing the other side – since all academic writing is centered on argument, this would mean taking another side to the one the writer is putting forward. It may even be a counter argument in this author’s own writing. This would require a justification of why the other side of the argument is worthy.
  • Uncovering or explicitly surfacing values – all writers write from a point of view or perspective which is value-laden. Some writers explicitly state their framework or theoretical stance but others do not. What is “unmarked or unquestioned” (Harris, 2006, p. 63) in the text? This is not easy to do and sometimes can only be done by comparing one reading to another.
  • Dissenting with concepts, authors, texts or issues. Harris (2006, p. 64) explains that dissenting often involves working out where there is agreement first: “There is a kind of template for many academic essays in which a writer says something like this: Until now, writers on this subject have disagreed on points a, b, and c. However, underlying this disagreement, there is a consensus of views on point d. In this essay, I will show why point d is wrong” (emphasis in original). In Education and other professional contexts, dissension can also come from experience in practice and it is especially powerful if you can provide published evidence to back up your experience. A further way of exploring dissension is to use two authors from different perspectives to show the differences between them and either align your own argument with one author or take the conversation in a different direction (Harris, 2006). Although Harris (2006) does not add this to his list, you can also pose questions as a way of dissenting.

In the next blog post, I’ll talk about Harris’ last move: Taking an approach.


Harris, J. (2006). Rewriting: How to do things with texts. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Harris’ moves – 1


Harris (2006) suggests that there are four genre ‘moves’ in academic writing:

  • coming to terms
  • forwarding
  • countering
  • taking an approach.

Coming to terms

The first  move coming to terms refers to the process of reading, getting to know content, concepts and issues. When you come to terms in writing, you restate the work of another writer. The mechanisms for achieving this are: summarising, paraphrasing, quoting and writing descriptions. In making notes about a reading, you would be looking for the writer’s purpose (what they intended to do in the text), the writer’s main argument, the evidence provided for the claim and how this relates to your own argument. One misunderstanding about academic readings is that we all read and receive the same message when we can really all interpret the same article quite differently. Academic writing is often about explaining how you read a paper and what you interpret from it. Your notes need to explain what you understand from the source text, what your interpretation is and how it relates to your argument in your own writing (Harris, 2006).

Harris (2006, p. 24) argues:

“academics seldom write in an all-or-nothing mode, trying to convince readers to take one side or the other of an argument. Instead their work assumes that any perspective on an issue (and there are often more than two) will have moments of insight and blindness. A frame offers a view but also brackets something out. A point of view highlights certain aspects and obscures others. And so, in dealing with other writers, your aim should be less to prove them right or wrong, correct or mistaken, than to assess both the uses and limits of their work. That is to say, academic writing rarely involves a simple taking of sides, an attack on or a defense of set positions, but rather centers on a weighing of options, a sorting through of possibilities.”

Practical Activity

One strategy to use is to summarise a text in a paragraph, then to write another paragraph on why you think it is important and relevant to your research. Then do the same for another text on the same topic. After that, compare the two texts: what similarities are there, what differences? What sense can you make of the topic from comparing these two texts? Then add another reading into the mix and follow the same process. In this way, you begin sorting and grouping ideas and arguments.


  • Block quotes – are long quotes longer than 40 words to make a point
  • In text quotes – are part of your sentence and you incorporate the words of another author to emphasize a point.
  • Scare quotes – are quotation marks around a single word and usually indicate sarcasm or problematizing the term. For example, if I use ‘problem’, I’m indicating that I’m questioning the use of the word as it was used.

The next move is forwarding – see the next blog post.

Learning the dance steps in academic/research writing


The people who conduct research on academic writing refer to consistent patterns in writing as ‘genre moves’.  These are really like steps in a dance.  Everyone does them in a particular order and that forms the pattern.  Joseph Harris (2006) wrote a book called ‘Rewriting: How to do things with texts’ where he outlines four common moves/steps in academic writing. To me, just knowing that there are patterns or moves helps me to see what I’m doing in my writing.  It gives me an element of control.  The four moves are

  • forwarding
  • countering
  • coming to terms
  • taking an approach

Over the next four blog posts, I’ll take you through his four moves, step by step.  While these moves are not always the same in every piece of writing (unlike dance steps in a set dance), they will help you to analyse your own writing and to see if you are stuck in one move.  Harris’ moves are widely known and there is a fair amount of literature on them if you are interested in researching this further.

Harris, J. (2006). Rewriting: How to do things with texts. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Becoming a productive writer workshop – UJ


Today I started the first of the workshops sponsored by the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program at the University of Johannesburg. The group was responsive and engaged and I could see that what I had to say resonated with them.  One of the topics covered was dealing with reviewer’s comments and how to cope with rejections from journals. In these discussions there is often the perception that the relationship is one way where the writer has little recourse or power.  Of course this is true.  But on my way home after the workshop I thought that perhaps if we saw the review process as one of dialogue, (rather than gate-keeping) then this might shift our perceptions and affect what we take from the review.

The dialogue is not only in what the reviewers say but in reading between the lines as well.  Why is the reviewer saying my research is too tightly focused?  What does he/she mean by this?  Where can I see that in my paper? What can I change? Staller (2013) argues that when two reviewers give different perhaps conflicting comments that this can be seen as a positive result because it leads the writer to reassess, to ask questions, to make meaning clearer and to ultimately write a better paper.

Staller (2013) suggests that in her field reviewers on the whole don’t like to reject papers.  They prefer to give the writer the opportunity to rework the paper and often ask for major revisions.  While editors would prefer a decision to reject because they want to get on with the job of publishing the journal.  She outlines a list of times a rejection is necessary:

  • When the paper is out side the scope of the journal
  • When it offers nothing new to existing conversations
  • When the underlying project is seriously flawed in its conceptualisation that it can’t be fixed
  • When it needs so many revisions that it will be an entirely new paper
  • When it is so muddled that even revisions won’t fix it.

While seeing these results as part of a dialogue may be difficult, it is helpful to focus on the dialogue rather than the rejection.

As I said several times today, publishing academic articles is like fishing.  You have to send off articles ( put your line in the water), get rejected (pull up an empty line), rewrite (put more bait on), and send it off again (drop the line in) – until you get published.  Paying attention to reviewer’s comments is one way to speed up this process.

There’s no doubt about it, it’s a painful process.  My way of dealing with negative reviewer comments is to rant and rave first, (there may even be some name-calling), I always reject everything they say, I often throw the comments in the bin, sometimes forcefully and I’m pretty grumpy for a while.  Then once the initial reaction is over, I take out the crumpled papers from the bin and see if I can make changes – this I do reluctantly.  Then when I start working through the changes, I start saying ‘Ok, maybe they have a point here’ and finally at the end, I’m thanking the reviewers for their wonderful insights.

I hope this provides you with something to think about the next time you recieve a negative reviewers letter…


Satller, K. (2013). Writing and reading peer reviews. Qualitative Social Work, 12, 715-721.