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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Postgraduate Diary: Counting Words

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Joy of joys, and season's greetings, it is essay marking time again. Actually, I do quite enjoy it - there's something pleasingly hubristic in questioning students' ideas and pointing out their syntactical bloopers, and students do, on the whole, seem genuinely grateful to have some feedback from which they can learn. The tedium comes when I find myself saying certain things over again.

One of the most common problems in first year students is that they think they have to cover every aspect of a literary work. Not only do they want to talk about racism in Heart of Darkness, but they also want to bring in feminism, Conrad's representation of place, frame narration, capitalism and, in fact, pretty much anything else that has ever been said that they have found remotely interesting and that now springs in the mind and that must be poured out on to the page.

So what I find myself doing is pointing out the paradox. This is that if an essay has one really intelligent and elegantly expressed argument, a reader is unlikely to bother about what has been left out; they will never be aware of all the ideas that once floated around in the mind, but that did not make it to the page. Not being telepathic (else why would we need essays?) they can only read what they have in front of them. On the other hand, any reader will be bewildered by a range of different ideas, each worthy of study in their own right, but hanging badly together in an over-long essay.

But why, then, do I fail to practise what I preach. For here I find myself, with just two weeks to go before my thesis is due to be handed in, over the word limit. Way over. Like high altitude sickness over. A few days ago, it was at 105 000 excluding footnotes, and 118 000 including footnotes. The limit is 100 000 including footnotes. So here I am editing like mad. So far, in two days, I have excised just 2300 words. My supervisor does not think it necessary to take the drastic step of cutting out a whole 10 000 word chapter, though I do have one that could slip out without too much fuss. Surely, she says, I can cut it down significantly without too much trouble.

Joke. I find myself shaving a bit here and sanding a rough sentence there, rather than taking the axe to it. It is all very depressing, to find the product of a morning's work is 200 words saved. So now I am not at 118 000, but at 117 800. A 200 word cut from a 2000 word essay might just turn a floppy, overloaded piece into a tightly-wrought argument. In the case of a book length thesis, however, the phrase tips and (large) icebergs float in my mind.

The trouble is, I am too close to the thesis, having lived with it for the past three years, and I do not perceive it in the same way as a naïve reader - that is, the examiner - would do. My supervisor cannot really help; she is also too familiar with it. So how do I follow the lesson that I give to my students, step outside the writing for a moment, and conceptualise it from the point of view of a reader? It seems impossible to come to it afresh, as if I had never read it before, and conceptualise it as its arguments evolve in a linear fashion. I know how it all hangs together, how beginnings meet with ends, and so any argument early in the essay that might seem odd to a new reader, seems legitimate and logical to me. I guess this is why word limits are valuable, if frustrating. They force one to really look at writing, ideas and arguments, all slippery and qualitative things, from a hard-nosed, quantitative point of view. So I have my spreadsheet, and slowly, incrementally, the words get chipped away from the monolith of my prose.

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Posted by Alistair at 12:16 pm

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