Getting the beginning right – saying complicated things in simple terms

I’m now getting back into writing my new book. I have been stuck for some time. I appreciate how this happens to doctoral students. I have written some substantial parts but feel that I can’t go any further until I revisit what the whole book is about. I have a proposal; but it isn’t enough. I am now therefore going back to the beginning to get the early statements on the first few pages right. This will set up the rest of the book and help me to know how to frame what comes in all the other chapters. I can now do this with knowledge of some of the things that come later. 

Immediately though, I begin to learn more about why people find literature review so difficult – and why, in a recent thesis I examined it was impossible to work out what the whole thing was about when the person who wrote it thought it was fine. The result wasn’t good! 

The problem is that there’s so much stuff!! So much clutter!! For me, I’ve got this cumbersome ‘grammar of culture’ that I’ve developed – a complicated theoretical framework that’s very hard to describe in a small space. The book is supposed to be applying it; so it has to be there. I could try and simplify it; but then I’d be committing the sin of creating a simplistic explanation that will promote easy answers for ever more. This does not though mean not in simple terms.

So what I’m trying to do is to get the basics of the storyline down first. This means simple sentences that follow logically on from each other. I can put in brackets in the middle of sentences ‘[insert reference]’. This means that I don’t let the references and the theoretical terminology drive the story, but the other way round. The simple sentences some first. Regarding my theory, I try and stand back from it and try and work out what I want to do with it. It’s a tool that I want to use. I need to work out how I’m going to use it – what it’s useful for – and try and write that down, again in very simple terms. 

The book does already have an inherent storyline. Like many doctoral theses, this develops from personal experience of something that you need to get to the bottom of. Therefore, the whole reason why I need to get the basic concepts sorted out in simple terms right at the beginning is because it’s the beginning of what I need to do to get to the bottom of things. 

When I say ‘simple terms’, it doesn’t mean that it should be simplistic. Indeed, the reason why there should be a whole book on this topic is that there is something too complicated to deal with in a shorter piece of writing. But because the topic is complicated doesn’t mean that the mode of writing has to be complicated. 

The trick therefore is to write about complicated things in simple terms – and to say, in simple terms, that they are complicated. I guess sentences like: 

This is not a straightforward matter. Trying to sort out what this means is what I shall be doing throughout the book

So, if I can’t quite work out how I’m going to use the theory, I can actually come out and say that. So, with my grammar of culture, I need to say something like:

It is a conceptual device that shows [insert]. Here I therefore intend to use it to [insert]. Its purpose is to try to make sense of [insert]. But how exactly this will work out will become clear as the book develops.

Well – at least something like that.

And writing this blog certainly helps. At least I’ve got something out.

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