“Vigorous writing is concise.” — William Strunk, Jr.
Life as a PhD student is always exciting and full of inspiration. Recently I attended a conference at Beijing Normal University to present my study to many of the honourable scholars and the fellow colleagues and PhD classmates. Usually in paper presentations we have only 20 minutes – very limited time for elaborate research studies – so keeping things “to the point” and “engaging” is key.
During my second year of study, my classmates and I organised the 5th PolySystemic Language and Education Symposium together in February 2015. The Symposium was a great experience to us not only because of all the skills of organising an event acquired during the course of organising it, but also the valuable insights from the speakers into education of language, about language and through language. One of the speakers, also our supervisor, gave us PhD students a very exciting challenge: summarise your research in 25 words. Here is my version:
Multiple case studies for critical writing strategies in academic writing by postgraduate Applied Linguistics students during their one-year full-time study through systemic functional linguistics (25 words)
I finished the whole line in 8.55 seconds. Not bad, right?
The point of this challenge is to make sure we are quick enough to tell anyone about our research: assuming that we speak at a rate of three words per second, a 25-word summary takes around eight to nine seconds. By “quick” I mean quick engagement – people lose interest quickly – if you respond to questions concisely, you get to the point quicker and are more likely to impress people with your readiness. By “anyone” I mean any random person you encounter who wants to know what you are doing, perhaps at a cocktail party for example. So you have to make your summary intelligible, informative and interesting:
Intelligible: use the most layperson words if you can. Not everyone understands the jargons in your field. In my case for instance, I cannot further simplify “systemic functional linguistics” so I will have to keep it and let people ask. I choose “writing” over “discourse” otherwise I would have to start from talking about Bakhtin and Vygotsky for six hours before getting to my point. Although terms like “multiple case studies”, “critical writing” and “Applied Linguistics” are technical, I can still keep it because they can be inferred through commonsense.
Informative: make sure the 6Ws are in your summary. Put them in nouns and pack them into a huge noun. Let’s examine my summary closely:
Look at how all these ideas are linked with prepositions. Each phrase provides the information (circumstance) that describe my research in more detail: for to give reasons, in to draw where my research is, by to indicate who are involved in the field and the focus, during to tell about the period of time, and through to further explain how I interpret my data. Some disciplines may not have certain elements such as participants or research period, so we have to make our own decisions.
To make an informative yet short summary, my advice is using as few verbs as you can. The more verbs you use, the more sentences you have to make to carry all these meanings; that means you are using more words, thus failing the challenge. But I do not mean you should only use prepositional phrases: through in the last phrase was once adopting, the word I used to construct a participle clause. There are different ways you can do it, as long as you make it into 25-words. In my summary, there is only one verb, the linking verb “is”, connecting the topic (my research) to the big noun group of new information (multiple case studies…) that I wish to provide in just one sentence. The formula here is “Topic IS New Information” – grammatically simpler yet with more information, contrary to the common belief that “the more to say, the more informative”.
Interesting: rehearse this summary as your repertoire to impress new friends (only when they ask about your research). Having to recite this 25-word poly-syllabic tongue twister is already one fascinating job to do. Also, every noun you utter in your summary entails a lot more to tell (again, only when they ask about it). Take a deep breath, finish your repertoire, stop for a few second and see your listen in awe. If they say, “Great, impressive” and that’s it, change topic or ask about what s/he does; but at this point, you have made your shortest presentation ever, and the impression will last.
Of course all the tips above are flexible, depending on your audiences and purposes. For example, if I am talking to my supervisor, I would most likely use more technical terms that we both understand. Also, this 25-word summary can be applied to other topics as a great dialogue opener, but only you are able to “unpack” all the nouns you have crammed in the sentence!
From this 25-word summary challenge, we can argue that one of the important strategies for summary writing is converting experience or actions into nouns, or “nominalisation” if we put it more technically. Of course, when we are allowed to write longer summaries, we can still strike a balance between using verbs or nominalisation to make our texts more readable. Below are some possible topics you can try to convey your ideas within 25 words. Share your summaries with me!
25-word Summary Challenge Topics
- My research study is…
- My current job is…
- My smart phone is…
- [Location] is…
- My major is…
- Anything else you can think of
To conclude, remember to keep your summary intelligible, informative and interesting. As the quote at the beginning asserts, you need to keep practising to produce concise writing, and to excel!