From mystery novel to academic thesis

Or, what I have learnt from academic writing

I had handed in the first chapter of my Masters dissertation and scheduled a meeting with my two supervisors to get their feedback. “Well,” began the first supervisor, “I started reading and couldn’t put it down. Then I remembered that I was reading a Masters, not a mystery novel.”

I looked at her curiously, not quite understanding.

“You see,” put in supervisor number two, “what you need to do is tell us what you are going to be telling us, then tell us about it in detail, then summarise what you just told us.”

“But that’s so boring!” was my immediate response.

Of course, academic writing is not necessarily boring. But it does have specific requirements, intended to communicate its specific purpose. In order to achieve this purpose with my Masters dissertation, I had to practically rearrange my brain and learn to write like a scientist, even if I was never going to be able to properly think like one.

Academic writing requires one to be objective, specific and detailed. For a start. It needs to be very direct, factual, use non-emotive language and should leave no room for the reader to make their own assumptions. You draw the conclusions, you do not leave it up to your reader to interpret things as they go along.

The structure of the information is also important. In some ways, it is just the same as fiction or other creative writing. There needs to be a “story-line” and good flow from the start of one section, all the way through it, and connecting with the next. However, the way the content is structured, as my second supervisor tried to explain to me, should remove all sense of suspense, mystery or anticipation. The writer needs to spell out exactly what is happening, every step of the way.

This is of course, quite different to writing a creative work of fiction.

The downside of having trained my brain to write as an academic, is that now, writing creatively, I find myself explaining things too directly, losing the mystery and interest. On the upside, I will never worry again about the need to rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite some more. I know now that it is unlikely to be perfect the first time. The thing is to just get the ideas down; then come back and write it properly later.

Writing about a process that happens over a longish period, means that what one thinks one knows at the start has become something different a few months later. So what has been already written might no longer be relevant. In my PhD thesis, I restructured and completely rewrote my first three chapters at least three times.

I learnt that it was okay to leave big gaps; they could be filled in later. I even developed a style called “almost”—purple text that meant I’m not quite sure how to say it but it goes something like this. And another style called “red”, which was quite simply red text that stood out for both myself and my supervisors and was a flag meaning please look at this and tell me what to do!

I have already integrated some of these lessons into the writing of my current novel. I had started it years ago when I first returned to South Africa, and I had to go back and change my original ideas about the mechanics of the story. It is set in the present day, and many things about how we live our daily lives now are different to how they were even fifteen years ago.

After the first draft, I realised that the order of the scenes was not right. The lesson I had learned about restructuring meant I had no qualms about reorganising chunks of material, and even jettisoning some parts that didn’t add any value to the story.

There is less purple text though, because now I know that the most of what I have written will be changed, so there is no need to highlight it. The main issue I am currently grappling with is to write less explicitly and more emotively.

I am sure there will be many lessons learned in this reverse journey from academic thesis to contemporary romance. Who knows, one day I might even be brave enough to tackle a real mystery novel!

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