title: tiny texts - small is powerful
I work a lot with tiny texts. Abstracts. Storyboards. Story threads. Lines of argument.
Tiny texts are my academic writing tool of choice. If I had to abandon all the other writing strategies I have in my repertoire, this is The One I would keep. It’s my Desert Island academic writing Swiss Army knife.
Tiny they might be, but little texts do a lot of heavy lifting for academic writing.
Now you might call these tiny texts – summaries. And indeed they are. They are little mini-me versions of a text that will become bigger. But they are not notes. Not notes. They are instead, at their heart, a way of capturing extended thinking.
Now, what do I mean by notes? And why is a tiny text better than a note? Well, let me explain through a hypothetical example. Below is a typical set of writing notes for a social science methods chapter in a thesis. The notes suggest a structure, an order of events, and perhaps something of the content.
Familar eh. These are categories of content for a methods chapter. They are the sections and even the headings you might use. And of course, each one of these bullet points could lead to an expanded set of bullets listing what is to be covered in that section.
Now compare the notes approach to a tiny text.
Tiny text version
My research, an ethnographic examination of the experience of staff-patient relations in a privatising hospital, took a feminist perspective in which the everyday experience of participants is prioritised. Institutional ethnography (Smith) allows actual experience to be both documented, interrogated and used as the basis for an analysis of power-saturated social relations.
I worked as a volunteer in a hospital over a period of twelve months, making observations, conducting interviews with nursing staff and patients. I also amassed and analysed case records and organisational documents; these were transcribed and anonymised.
I used critical discourse analysis to analyse field notes and transcripts and this allows for generalisation beyond the specific institution.
Because of the potential for harm to individuals arising from patient complaints about hospital procedures, I have written a semi-fictionalised portrait (Lawrence Lightfoot) of patient and nurse experience from the analysed data. The portrait brings the lived social relations of the hospital to life and this complements the more conventional discussion arising from the discourse analysis.
Now, writing a tiny text takes a lot more time than simply jotting down a set of notes. But the time taken is in thinking. It’s thinking about what actually needs to go into the chapter and what the chapter will say, specifically, about your work. And this is time that is saved when you get to drafting, going hand to mouse.
The tiny text (above) elaborates what you have to say about your positionality and how it led logically to a particular methodological choice. You know you will report on your voluntary work and how it supported you data generation. You know that, despite keeping to the usual ethical rules, you will write about confidentiality and how you have resolved ethical difficulties through choosing to use a semi-fictionalised portrait – and you know where and how in the chapter you are going to say that.
Also note that the tiny text is written in the first person. Even if the chapter reverts to a more conventional narrative, the “I” positions you to write about what you did and why, rather than produce an impersonal and unnecessary essay about methodological procedures. (That’s one of the dangers of a notes approach.)
There are four big pluses for the tiny text
A final advantage for doctoral researchers is that taking a tiny text into supervision allows you to discuss what you will actually write in your chapter in concrete, not abstract, terms. You arrive with some thoughts already sorted, not simply with a set of vague headings that could be written in any number of different ways.
Ah yes, a tiny text. Try one out next time you have to write something. See what a tiny text can do for you. You don’t have to abandon notes altogether – you can use notes as a checklist just to make sure you have covered the mandatory stuff.
But you get the picture now I’m sure. Don’t say what you are going to write. Write it, but write it small. Sort out the moves. Get the stuff in order.
You know, less is more and all that.