Iceberg

I use the iceberg metaphor quite a bit when talking about academic writing. “The dignity of the movement of an iceberg,” said Hemingway, “lies in only one eighth of it being above water.” This is generally taken to suggest that we should leave some things unsaid in our writing, but Hemingway was quite clear that it also means we should have a great deal under the surface. The key isn’t just to write less than you know; it is to know more than you write.

For Hemingway, the essential thing was to have the relevant experiences. If you were going to write about war, bullfighting, or love, you should have some experience with war, bullfighting, or love. The dignity of your writing depends on those experiences. But in academic writing, experience is not required in the same way, or, perhaps better, experience is not enough. The essential thing in an academic context is to be knowledgeable about your subject, not merely experienced. That means that the iceberg beneath your writing is somewhat more complex.

Experience does play an important role but in a different way than Hemingway proposed. The part of a research paper or dissertation that is most directly informed by actual or “lived” experience is your methods section, which tells the story of what you did to collect your data and why you did it that way. Writing it is mostly a matter of being honest about how you converted what Thomas Kuhn (following William James) called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of experience into “data” — how you turned the things that are just lying around casually, if you will, into serious, empirical objects ready to be analyzed. This sort of writing isn’t easy, of course, but it’s a place where you can feel your authority (your status as an “author”) most naturally. It’s a good place to find your voice. Just try really explaining how you collected your data and what problems you encountered in doing so. Why do you trust these data? Why should your reader? Tell the story in that spirit — always honestly, of course — and you will give yourself an occasion to improve your writing quite directly. There’s no knowledge problem here. You know what you did.

But you don’t make methodological decisions in a vacuum. You don’t just do whatever you feel like doing. You try to do things in ways your reader will respect, and you get a sense of what your reader demands by reading other writers. This gets us to another portion of the iceberg under the surface of your writing: the scientific literature. This literature doesn’t inform your methods section directly but it does shape the experiences (and decisions) you write about in your methods section. So you will of course cite it as needed even there. The bulk of your references to “the literature”, however, will be found in your theory section (and sometimes an actual literature review) which is where you provide a framework within which the reader is to make sense of your analysis (and, indeed, your methodological decisions). You are setting up your readers’ expectations.

Hopefully, you can sense the balance that I’m trying to suggest here. The mass of your iceberg is centered, under the surface, on the experiences you had collecting your data, which are shaped by your reading of the scientific literature. These three components (literature, experience, data) in turn support, above the surface, your theory, methods, and analysis sections (respectively). Much of the “scientific” or “academic” content of your paper or dissertation is determined by how you do this work and how you write this prose. But that is not all.

You will often have to give your reader background information about the company, country, region, product, industry, or practice that you are studying. Though your reader is a “peer”, and therefore familiar with your theories and methods, there is much about your empirical object that will be new to them. You must tell them what you know and you must do so on the basis of publicly available documents (newspapers and magazines, company reports and press releases, government reports and official statistics) that confirm what you are saying. You want to put your reader in the same confident position to assert these facts that you enjoy.

But scholarly writing, finally, isn’t just based on reading and experience. You have to do a great deal of thinking, reasoning. So does your reader. And this will become apparent especially in the discussion section of your paper, where you make the implications of your results explicit. Here you are not (usually) introducing new sources or new information (and certainly not new data points) to your reader, you are merely noting the (logical) consequences of granting the correctness of what you’ve been arguing so far. These consequences may be practical or theoretical — they may propose changes to the way we do things or the way we see them — but they should always be reasonable. Ideally, the reader should have been able to think of them themselves. You’re just saving them the trouble.

“A writer’s problem does not change,” said Hemingway. “He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.” Like I say, in academic or scholarly writing the problem is slightly different, but the idea of “projection” is an apt one. The reader of a short story has to square the events with their experience of living in the world. The reader of a research paper has to square the results with their knowledge of the facts as they are. The paper has to make the result (a “truth” of sorts) part of the reader’s knowledge by the end of the reading. In your writing, you can only ever show your readers the surface of what you know; it’s what they imagine you have beneath the surface that counts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.