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A thesis has shape as a tree has shape: Imperial Gardens, legitimacy and editing

This is a reflection on the form of a writing genre and what that means. I started thinking about it about a year ago, on a holiday in Japan. These musings start with gardens and poetry–two of my passions–but, as always on this blog, quickly move to academic issues. Here I compare two forms of doctoral thesis: the IMRAD (or Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) structure which is typical for experiment-based research, and the traditional Humanities ‘Big book’ thesis. 

We walked through the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo–the most beautifully manicured trees, the softest grass. I loved the way every tree had clearly been carefully trimmed, but in a way that respected their individual shape and growth.

It made me think of Ezra Pound, who was using Japanese literature in the early 20th century (he’s the reason you wrote haiku in primary school) to develop an idea of free verse. He said that writing can have form ‘as a tree has form‘–organic and and yet structured, and pared back to the essentials.

The other option, according to Pound, is to have form as water poured into a vase has form, fitting your content to a predetermined, symmetrical, rigid shape.

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The Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo. The grass was the softest I’ve ever touched.

When I move this idea from poetry to academic prose, we might call these two forms IMRAD and The Big Book. 

IMRAD is a vase form–you know what should be in the article or thesis before you even start, and good writing fits the expected content seamlessly, flowing perfectly into the shape. But if you are trying to fill the vase with rocks instead of sand, you may have to spend a lot of time trying to get it to fit, or you might break the vase. 

The Big Book is a tree form. You really only know what shape it will be as it grows. High winds, drought, frost, spring all the aspects of your doctoral journey impact how the tree ends up. Some trees respond easily to a light prune (like the upright pencil ginkgo), others will come out gnarled–but that’s okay. One of the things that I loved best about the Japanese Imperial gardens were whole avenues and groves of parallel-planted, carefully trimmed, asymmetric trees, with knobbly, twisted, delicate branches. 

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This tree was in the Imperial Palace Gardens in Kyoto. 

Neither form is accidental, loose, unstructured or messy. There are no dead limbs, no galls or rot, no branches too heavy for the tree. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of knowing what you are doing, to prune something back this much without butchering it. You don’t have to fit in a foursquare box to be scientific, tidy or rigorous. 

But you need to know what your project is, and what culture it belongs to. For example, The Palace of Versailles in France demonstrates its power and beauty with miles of symmetrical box hedging, which is clipped square, spelling out a larger pattern among the fine grey gravel. The Japanese Imperial Garden demonstrates its power and beauty with carefully cared for trees on the softest long grass. Green Park around Buckingham Palace in England demonstrates its power and beauty with frequently mown grass, ancient oaks, and masses of flower beds. What matters is less the box hedging, herbaceous borders, or grass length–what matters is the effort, attention to detail, consistency across the grounds, the size of the thing and the fact they’ve been keeping this up for centuries.  But they also make sense in their cultural contexts–local people visiting the gardens know how to ‘read’ the space and see how much expertise and effort you have put in.

A thesis or an article doesn’t gain its legitimacy through being in IMRAD style (though if someone is expecting a ‘Versailles style garden’ it might be smart to design one!)–it gains its legitimacy through the sustained and extended evidence of knowledge, care and effort shown in the planning, choosing, writing and pruning of the work. 

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Mostly I wrote this as a reaction to some supervisors and examiners who think that IMRAD theses are more ‘scientific’ or ‘rigorous’ when actually it is just a writing form–often useful, culturally recognisable, but not in itself conferring intellectual value. I hope it helps you think about what form is right for your thesis.

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