PhD Blog Posts

Your Language Determines Your Audience

I bring you another guest blog post. This one was written by Phil Rosen, and it is precisely what I envisioned when I set out to feature guest bloggers. It is an excellent piece, and more importantly, it teaches me something about writing. I feel compelled to wax-lyrical about this piece, but I shall let it do the work for me.

How your vocabulary can grow or shrink your audience

Despite the fantastical landscapes and stories they craft, writers are people too. And writers, like non-writers, enjoy when others applaud their intelligence and wit.

Writing isn’t done for the compliments, though human vanity takes them into consideration nonetheless. One way to accrue praise as a writer is through language. Language and vocabulary constitute two of many tools for writers; both can be used incisively or haphazardly.

Flexing a broad, cultured vocabulary can be enticing for a writer seeking credibility and status. Sentences strung together with complex, multisyllable words is something that can give off the perception of intelligence or sophistication. Whether or not this is an accurate perception, however, remains questionable.

Anyone that uses the word insalubrious instead of the word unhealthy must be really intelligent—right?

Readers—not writers—make the call here.

It isn’t self-evident that elevated diction makes for better writing. “Better writing,” really, depends on the audience. Whether an audience can read your writing, and whether they do read your writing, depends heavily on the language employed.

    Does the audience understand what the writer is trying to communicate?

Is the story taking a backseat to the language being used?

How many of the words are actually necessary to tell the story clearly?

Language determines the audience. The bigger the words, the smaller the audience. The opposite is true too. Writing that can be understood by a seventh-grader can be understood by a massive audience (e.g. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series).

This rule of thumb isn’t inherently negative. Many popular works are written for academic, higher-educated audiences. Complex language demands an elevated literacy and comprehension level. This type of language is less comprehensible; the audience for it is smaller and refined.

At the same time, outdated, literary words like beseech, effulgent or perchance can muddle a story and suspend the readers’ understanding if they are abused. Rather than following the narrative, the reader may find their nose stuck in a dictionary, playing the role of interpreter rather than audience member.

The message here isn’t to avoid using complex language, but a writer must realize that language can either limit or broaden an audience. An article or book written in simple, colloquial language, has a much larger audience. More people can access and digest it, compared to a more convoluted writing style.

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, one of the great writers of the 20th century, put a different angle to the issue,

    “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not     the other way around.”

Sounding smart — or, trying to sound smart — with words shouldn’t be prioritized over communicating meaning. It can come off pretentious and disingenuous, rather than intelligent. The meaning of a message should precede the word choice. Fixating on a single word or phrase rather than concentrating on the intended message is unfruitful.

Meaning can be lost when it isn’t the primary communication goal. Selecting words that best relay information opens up a story to all readers. Selecting words in an attempt to, instead, relay eruditeness can drown the reader in verbiage, therefore minimizing the audience.

The words you choose to include— or omit— impact who can and will read your writing. Language is what selects our audience; choose wisely.

Living well requires reading well. Check out Phil’s Essential Reading List for books to make you think, feel, and unlock your creativity. 
Phil is a travel writer and editor based in Hong Kong. To see more of his ideas, visit his blog Phil’s Next Stop.

I particularly enjoyed ‘I Write for a Living at 22. Here’s How I Got Here‘. I am fascinated by people who find their calling in life, fascinated and jealous.

Connect with, or stalk, Phil

Running a half-marathon – 73

I am going to be running my first half-marathon tomorrow. Before this year, the farthest I have run is eight miles, and that was six years ago. In training I have run ten miles; I am hoping that the adrenaline of the occasion will carry me to the finish line. It may well be the case that I tell you a tale of cramping up in front of a relatively large crowd next week.

With respect to work this week I have finished running several different experiments which means that next week I can relax a little. I even have a little trip on Wednesday; I am going to a town that has no value other than being close enough to London for easy transport links, but a much lower cost of residence – which is true for most towns the world over including the one I originate from.

I am going on a course for the maintenance of HPLC systems. I decided to sign myself up to this course for personal development. Typically, at least in my university, all the knowledge of how to operate scientific equipment comes from finding someone who knows how to use it and then persuading them to teach you.

There are relatively few opportunities for ‘structured’ training on equipment which I find rather annoying. If you want to become a better communicator, there are hundreds of opportunities for you in academia. If, however, like me, you enjoy learning how things work you have to fend for yourself. I am hoping that because there are relatively few opportunities for gaining this technology specific training, I will be more employable.

From the universities point to view, I do understand why this type of training is less prevalent, and that is because it is all too possible that you pay someone to train and then they never end up using the equipment. Often when you don’t use a new skill, you lose it. If I were in charge of training, I would implement the same policy.

Hopefully, it will be worth the early start!

Unusually, for partaking in such a big challenge tomorrow, I am not that nervous; I am quite confident that I will finish the race, but most of all I am excited to have it over with. I have enjoyed most of the training, but after 10 km it has been a struggle. I think going forward my longest distance will be 10 km it is long enough for a good workout, but not so long that I am hurting the next day.

To those of you that have completed marathons I now have greater respect for you; like Gimli, I am more of a natural sprinter. Back to the weights and shorter distance running for me!

Gimli sprinter

Do you know what you want to do with your life? – 72

Well, for those of you that have been following my recent posts, I have relatively exciting news for you: I remembered to order coffee this week.

I certainly needed the exogenous boost this week as it has been physically exhausting. It was a combination of long days working in the lab and extra training runs. I have added in an additional 5 km a week in my training as I have a half marathon next Sunday.

I have been accustomed to not having any breaks when I am working in the lab. Most of the time I don’t need them as I am only working for a few hours at a time, and then I go home and do some office work. This week, however, I have been running a few experiments at the same time which means I am working all day, and as I do not normally work all day in the lab, I am relatively unfit. This is my guess as to my tiredness; it could be something completely different of course.

I was so tired that last night I did not go out for drinks with my colleagues, I binge watched Ricky Gervais’ new Netflix series ‘Afterlife’. It was definitely worth a watch, and I felt as if there were lots of subplots I was missing – something that might be picked up with a second viewing.

Periodically, whenever I have a study going on – which is six months of the year – I have to go into the lab on a Sunday. I have to do this because the timings on one of my experiments mean I have to evaluate the results 48 hours after I set it up. As one of the days where I take samples is a Friday, I have to go in on a Sunday.

All I have to do is record the results, and it only takes a couple of hours, but It still means I cannot go away for a weekend during these six months. This is something that probably would not happen If I had a regular job; however, the fact that I occasionally have to come in on the weekend is a price I am willing to pay for a relatively free life. Every time I think being a PhD student is tough I remember the days where I worked in a warehouse, and am instantly reminded that my life is far better than it was, and where I could end up if I stop trying.

The reflection on where I could still be, the warehouse, is something that was brought up in a recent phone conversation with an old friend – yes, remember talking to people by voice? He has a 1st class degree from a good university, but is still struggling with that universal problem ‘ what shall I do with my life?’ I am becoming more and more convinced that for most people there is no answer to this question. Most of us drift through life choosing the best path we have available at the time, or at most trying to stack the odds toward a path we might like.

To those lucky few that genuinely know what they want to with there life from a young age and actively pursue it, I am envious. Although, I imagine there are negatives that I cannot see.

Learning the hard way – 71

I have done it again; these words are coming from the mind of an un-caffeinated coffee addict. Once again I have failed to inform my partner, who handles our online shopping delivery, that we are low.

I feel quite absent-minded and uber susceptible to distraction, but I will get through this post even if I have to run to the closest coffee shop.

This week, I had a meeting with one of my funders which is the head of the agronomy section of a major premium retailer here in the UK. As with all things we consider with high importance, they are usually far less of a moment than we had imagined, and this meeting was no exception.

We had lunch in the senior common room, and then I gave a presentation about all of the work I had done over the past year. Contrary to the persona my subconscious had given to this person; they were not a corporate dragon whose sole purpose was to ridicule and take away my funding. They were an ordinary functioning member of society who was a nice, encouraging person like many of us.

So, another week has passed, and it was relatively drama free. It has just occurred to me that I should have hyped up the details of this week’s events for storytelling purposes. But that just wouldn’t be me, I am trying to give a more honest and accurate account of what is happening, plus it is easier to write like this.

I did have one legitimate drama this week. For one part of my experiments, I measure colour changes in crops over time. I do this as it can be useful in assessing disorders with the crop. I do this by taking images and then analysing them with software.

For the first time in my life, I had a drive fail on me. When I went to load my images onto the computer, the images were not on the SD card. This is a disaster as I cant just re-take the images as time is essential with this experiment, so the conditions have changed since imaging. Re-taking the images is not an option.

When I put the card into the computer, I can see that the amount of space available is consistent with the amount of space that there would be given my images were still on there. So I know that they are still on there I just have no way on accessing them.

I ended up on google trying to find a solution. After a few hours, I found a program called photorec, and my mind has been blown. Not only did I recover 80% of the files, but I have also learned a valuable lesson as to how computer memory works.

When you delete something, it is not actually removed…

What actually happens is that it becomes un-allocated and therefore it can be written over by new information, but until this happens all the information is still there. This allows us to recover some files if they are deleted by accident, but if the drive got into the hands of someone with malicious intent, the things we though we had deleted might well be accessible.

I have since learned that to be really secure when you’re getting rid of a data drive you should run a program that writes junk data over the entire drive to ensure the deleted data is no longer accessible. There are many programs that will do this for you with the most recommended being called ‘boot and nuke’ which I quite like the name of.
That was my drama. A potentially catastrophic event, with respect to my experiment, was avoided and I learnt a valuable lesson. I am always wondering why I have to learn things the hard way, but I will be slightly less harsh on myself this time as I am not sure how I could have prevented an SD card failing.

All the best,

See you next week.

Mental resilience through increased stress – week 70

My to-do list is peaking at the moment. I have come to the beginning of what is potentially going to be a couple of unusually busy weeks.

But first, I need to tell you something about my state of being. I had my first ‘proper’ boxing class yesterday afternoon, and I am still feeling the effects of it I think. I am very lethargic today and quite spaced out mentally.

We were partnered up and were practicing the blocking of very light shots to the head; after a hundred or so punches, even with light punches, you still feel a little dizzy. It was very good fun though, so I shall be continuing with it; however, I do not wish for the level to rise more than light punches as I need my brain cells!

I am off to play a round of crazy golf in Oxford shortly; I hope the boxing won’t affect my game!

The primary reason as to my upsurge in busyness is that I have to start a new trial on Monday, which involves me driving to pick up the samples. When I moved to the city in which I currently reside, I got rid of my car as it was an unnecessary expense. So when I do need to travel, I have to organise a hire car, and as organisation is my enemy, it can get quite stressful.

It is not stressful in itself, but when you combine it with having to speak to suppliers etcetera to arrange delivery, the stress adds up. Another added factor is that I don’t know exactly what time my samples will be ready for collection – this adds extra tension as I have a time limit in which I have to return the car. This whole process hinges on several people that are not me which causes more stress than I would like.

I do feel that the more times I have done this, the more relaxed I am becoming about the situation, so there is a kind of progress I suppose.

On Tuesday, I have an even more stressful day as I need to take measurements from the samples all day. At lunchtime, I have my Industrial sponsors coming for a meeting, where we have to discuss the project. It is going okay in my opinion, but it is always nerve-racking having to present to someone that is giving you money! Even though it is an excellent learning opportunity, it is always to difficult to see it like that. What it actually feels like is an interrogation.

So, if I can through the first few days of this week without any dramas I will be much more relaxed! So far, nothing has gone catastrophically wrong with the project. I am aware of the gambler’s fallacy, but I still have that sense that a catastrophic event is due.

In the end, I expect it to be quite a normal week; I expect it will more enjoyable than normal, but all the possibilities of how events could deviate toward the negative are hard to control!

See you on the other side!

Growing pains – my views on growing an audience

I have noticed that a lot of people have been asking for advice on how to grow their blog over the last few weeks. I am not sure why that all of a sudden people seem to be asking me this.

Maybe I have passed a certain threshold of followers that has given me blogging credibility and people now see me as someone who knows what they are doing?

What I think has happened, is that many people have started blogs in January and seen that it is very difficult to actually get anyone to look at your work. So, they have started to do what any practical person would and are trying to gather information as to how to build an audience.

Well, I will address this again, but only briefly as I have addressed it many times. The first thing you need to understand is that after you put up your post on WordPress or any other platform, there will be a brief window of time where it is visible in a public space – e.g. reader. After this, it gets buried by everyone else posting stuff.

If you are writing about stuff that is of general interest, a post about how adjectives work, for example, there is a chance of getting some traffic via a search engine, but it will be tiny. I wrote about nouns once and now if you type ‘thematically meandering’ into google on the first page is that post – I have no idea why.

Presumably, if that post is high on googles rankings you would expect that post to be viewed more than others: it isn’t.

So, you’re not likely to get many people who stumble upon your blog; you’re going to have to go out and get people!

Marketing isn’t a massive Industry by happenstance. Read their work, comment on it, like and share etc. They may do the same for you, and you can grow from there. What I am trying to tell you is that it is a lot of work to build an audience, and you should probably spend a decent portion of your time marketing.

I attended a course once that was part of a scientific program, it had a lady there talking about social media and influencing – so we could better communicate our work. She said you should spend around 10 % of your time on marketing, and after this year of blogging, I tend to agree.

The Utopian dream of writing a blog post with your coffee in the morning, posting it online and having everyone read it and even make money from it is an utter fantasy! And we should all be embarrassed to have even thought like this.

It is no less passive than any other form of employment, and it is a lot of hard work! Sorry to ruin your fantasy, but isn’t that always the way?

Normal programming will resume next week.

Update: I will add useful links here as and when I find them

Go here for all your WordPress search engine optimization needs

A malevolent cuisine

I have come to enjoy the non-writing aspects of blogging just as much as I enjoy learning the craft. Which is why I have decided to feature other writers on my Blog.

The first of which is by Aik Aleksanich who has a masters degree in philosophy and is currently blogging whilst writing his 1st book. The writing is influenced by philosophers such as Cioran, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, as a consequence, the writing is often dark, pessimistic and nihilistic, but importantly, interesting.

A malevolent cuisine

You don’t even know, you have no idea but it’s growing inside you.

Proliferating like cells of cancer – dividing, spreading, making its presence known slowly but surely, just like death.

It feeds off you and your surroundings, not making sense.

The only thing you do is stare at your screen and type away, letting the blue light ruin your sleep, for one more night.

You can feel that you are full but it’s not the breakfast you had this morning. It’s something else filling you up and you can’t point out what.

Everything was calculated, every aspect of your life you had planned out. Like a recipe of a cake.

1 ounce of melted butter, 2 tablespoons of sugar, misunderstood relations and emotions, unpredicted incidents…do not mix – but whisk them well.

And you did everything you should have but the cake did not rise, just like your life did not work out.

You changed. Even physiologically.

You bloated and became full of melancholy that needs to be freed.

Pregnant with things you couldn’t explain, you developed a taste for misfortune and destruction.

The burning sensation of liquor grew on you. Cigarette smoke became the air in your lungs.

Caffeine, lots of caffeine, like it’s a necessity for your rusted heart to start pumping again- with no milk, no sugar- but you were a sweet tooth back then.

Anyway, you write. Not to tell a story or to get laid. Nor to earn money or make a name. You write to stay alive, to empty yourself so you won’t explode like a balloon filled with too much air.

You blame yourself for forgetting.

The smell of someone, you can’t remember, the touch of a skin or the contours of a face.

And writing, like suicide, frees yourself of your own blame.

You write to keep things alive that are fading away.

You write because you can’t do much else.

Visit Aik’s Blog for more writing, or if you’re cooler than me Instagram!

If you would like to do as Aik has go here!