bad research questions

Writing a research question is hard. And it takes time. Often much more time that you might think.

The research question is really important as it underpins your research design. And your  design allows you to find an answer or answers to the question (s) you have posed. And that of course is what matters. You’ve been enrolled on a PhD and/or funded to find the answer(s).


There are different views on what makes a good research question. Alas, there is no universal view about how a question is best worded and how many questions there should be. I’m of the not-too-many-and-keep-it-simple school of thought so you need to read this post with that in mind. But I do have a pretty good idea of what examiners and what research funders look for in a research question – and what they don’t want to see.

It’s often as helpful to find out what not to do in research as what you should do. It never hurts to know what really, really doesn’t work for your examiner or assessor or reviewer. So, here’s four things to do if you want to produce a Very Bad Research Question, one that will raise doubt in, and questions from, your very particular and fussy reader.

  • a bad research question anticipates a simple answer, a yes or no

If you were going do an experiment you very may well word a hypothesis as a yes/no because it’s something you’re testing out. But a research question is different. A research question that can be answered with a yes or no can be very problematic because it focuses on only one option.

Let ‘s take an example.

Does writing advice have any effect?

Well that’s clearly a one word answer – it does or it doesn’t – although of course you would also need to show how you reached the positive/negative outcome. But is that enough? Maybe some writing advice has an influence on some people some of the time. And don’t you need to know why you’ve got a yes/no? So perhaps you could say:

 Does writing advice have any effect? If so what?

But there’s still a problem. If your answer to the first question is no, then you’re a bit stuck. So how about:

What effects does writing advice have?

But hang on, what are we actually looking for?

  • a bad research question uses loaded and /or vague and/or contentious terms

Sad and bad research questions often use loaded terms that then require a truckload of justification and explanation when maybe less tricky terminology might do.

To go back to the example. In the question What effects does writing advice have? There are two terms that are tricky:

Writing advice – What is meant by writing advice? Is it all the same?

We could get more specific here and say What effects does online writing advice have? The question is more defined than before, suggesting that it’s possible to put some boundaries around the research without too much difficulty. In this version you’re only looking at what’s online. However, the question still assumes that all writing advice is the same.

But there’s a second problem – what is meant by the term effects? Does this mean something like the writing advice has to be effective? On what basis would you judge something to be effective? And if it simply means what happens, then… Oh dear. To whom, how often, and what…

So there’s a further problem…

  • a bad research question is fuzzy and unfocused

An unfocused question fails to delineate what, who, when, or how, or a combination of these.

So back to the example What effects does online writing advice have?

Just who do we think ought to be experiencing the effects if we know what they are? Do we actually mean what the readers take from writing advice? How they use it? What they think of it? How they access it? Do we have any particular readers in mind? And do we have any particular writing advice in mind?

Well here’s another go which goes some way to addressing this set of problems. How do beginning doctoral researchers find, understand and use online writing advice?

A group is defined. The vague term effects is unpacked. The question doesn’t anticipate an answer. The question now draws on a conceptual framing – the ways in which writers have agency and interpret and decide what to do – in this case advice, just as they do with any text.

And it’s researchable. Its not hard to imagine the kind of research design that might accompany such a question.

The question is open enough to anticipate no use of online writing advice, as well as different kinds of use. It has anticipated participants and can justify that focus through the literatures – yes there are a lot of literatures out there to suggest that doctoral researchers struggle with academic writing.

But the question still has flaws. It doesn’t talk about people other than doctoral researchers like early career researchers, or supervisors. Should it? Or would that be a different research project?

Maybe we want to add a supplementary question which will help determine what kinds of writing advice is used and when.

But we could make the question much, much more specific.

  • a bad research question ties things down to the nth degree

It’s tempting in the process of getting things in focus to get very specific. The danger here is that you just rule out too many possibilities that might be interesting.

If we said How do first year doctoral researchers in Humanities in one English university find, understand and use online writing advice about their thesis? then perhaps this cuts out too many options.

We’d have to think carefully about the advantages/disadvantages of specifying a discipline, a year and a university. And we’d also have to consider how this research question is located in the literatures about doctoral online thesis writing advice. What does this narrow study add to what is already out there? What is the contribution that such a tightly focused study might offer? Is this enough? Is this a significant contribution? Is it sufficiently ambitious? Is this actually a question worth asking?

Tricky. It’ll take a while and many goes to get the question just so. Not too vague. Not too narrow. Just right.

The jury is probably out about how much detail you need for a research question. But there is less debate among examiners, reviewers and assessors about the problems with lack of focus, vagueness, ambiguity, and closed questions. These are all guaranteed to cause trouble for research design and for the final results that you can offer.

Let me repeat, it’s important to get a research question that is workable – and defensible. A thorough research process and a well written thesis cannot compensate for a bad research question – and the subsequent bad design.

Of course, there’s much more to say about research questions and a lot of books address them. But the four problems listed above give you a bit of a start in thinking not only how you might formulate, but also interrogate your own research question, to see if it is fit for purpose.

And further reading – a book that I like a lot and recommend, is Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2013). Constructing research questions: Doing interesting research. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Image credit: Ken Teegardin. Flickr Commons.

Posted in academic writing, research design, research question | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

writing the thesis – the theoretical framework


Please note that I write my blog on weekends. It is not part of my workload or job description. I support the #USSstrike and “teach out” online. 

Not every thesis has a section or chapter devoted to a theoretical framework. But a lot do. (It’s the Ph in PhD after all.) And these ‘theory chapters’ can be very tricky to write – and are often tricky for the examiner to read.

Before starting to write your theory section/chapter it can be good to think about what the examiner wants to see.

The examiners have likely been appointed because they know, and possibly use, the same theoretical framing as you. And this means that you have to assume that they don’t need a basic introduction or a run-through of every possible thing there is to say about the theory. The examiner doesn’t want a general essay, the kind of here’s-the-lot that you wrote for doctoral course-work (or even your masters’ degree).

The purpose of the theory section/chapter in the doctoral thesis is to set the examiner up to make sense of what you’ve done and what you claim to have ‘found’. The examiner therefore expects – and needs – to see something particular to your work. Something that isn’t so general it could apply to any project anywhere, anytime. Something that is bespoke to what they are about to encounter.

The examiner wants to know:

  • How you understand your chosen theory – there are usually multiple ways that theories are interpreted. Which have you opted for and why? What are the advantages of the approach you have taken?
  • Why you’ve chosen this approach – what is it about this particular framing that gives you a way to conceive and design your project, and/or that gives your results real explanatory heft?
  • That you know the ways in which the theory is already used in the field. Who else has used this approach in ways similar to you? What can you build on from their work? Or perhaps, how does your use of this theory differ from the way it is usually put to work?
  • How you have used the theory – how and where have you brought the theory into conversation with your research? Are some aspects of the theory more important than others to your research? Which and why?
  • What are the potential down-sides to using this theory and approach – what doesn’t it do? What have you done about these potential problems?

And if you have brought two or more theoretical approaches together in your research, then you need to provide the answers to these questions for them both/all. But you also need to say why and how it is possible to use more than one approach. Does one theoretical framing fill in a gap left by the other? Are these theories (epistemologically) compatible? What tensions are there between them? Has anyone else done this? What potential issues are there that you need to draw the examiner’s attention to?

Once you’re clear on the audience and purpose for your theory chapter/section then it’s also important to consider the way you’re going to write it.

The examiner wants to know you are on top of the theory. That you know your stuff. That you have expertise. That you can speak with authority about it. So they don’t expect to read quote after quote after quote after quote. Assume that the examiners have read the original, so what they want is something other than a cut and paste of the stuff they’ve already encountered.

The examiner wants your theoretical explication – your approach to the theory and how it’s used – largely in your own words. Of course, the judicious juicy quote can be used for a few key points, those occasions where the theorist makes a point, just so. But it’s best if you can explain the key points about the theory in your own way.

And the examiner really doesn’t want to see you quoting large slabs of “introductions to”, that is, other people’s interpretations of key ideas, unless you are actually discussing how the theory has been interpreted in the field. They want to see that you have read the texts for yourself.

The examiner gets pretty worried if they can’t see you and your research in the theoretical chapter. They want to see you summarising, evaluating, managing a discussion, stating your take on the theory, explaining your use of it. If they can’t find you, then they’ll approach the viva wondering whether you really do grasp the framework you claim as the basis of your work. They’ll have a set of viva questions in mind to try to find this out. You don’t want that!

So in sum –  you need to have a deep and meaningful relationship with your chosen theory long before you put hand to mouse to write the relevant chapter. You need to know how to explain it. And you need to be very clear about how and why and where you’ve used it.

But there is no doubt that writing the theoretical section/chapter will also enhance your understanding and your subsequent use of the theory throughout the rest of the thesis text.

Posted in academic writing, chapter, examiner, theory, theory chapter, thesis | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

academic writing – trust those gut feelings

Please note, I write my blog on weekends. It is not part of my workload, nor in my job description. I support the #USS strike.

I started writing a paper a while ago. It’s from a large-scale mixed methods project. We have mountains of data and we need to start producing journal articles.

About two thirds the way through the first draft of the first cut paper, I realised I was way over word count. It wasn’t that the argument wouldn’t work, it was just going to take a lot more words than I had to make it happen. I had to find a solution somehow, either by re-writing and editing down, or doing something else. Editing down seemed pretty daunting, so I put the paper aside.

I woke up the next morning knowing the problem with the paper. I had to simplify the argument – and I knew just how to do it. But I also had an idea for another paper using a different data set.  I now had not one paper in my head, but two. What’s more I could see exactly how this new paper should go – so I started on this one. I left the original trouble-making paper sitting, while I worked on the new idea. And this one was written pretty quickly, and after some additions and changes from co-authors, it went off to its target journal.

But then back to the original paper.

I scrubbed the original introduction to the paper, and decided that, rather than write a new outline, I really needed to finish writing the lengthy analysis. So I had to write from the middle, as I didn’t really yet know what the paper was going to do. But I knew the data was pretty compelling. As I wrote, I worked out the central problem the paper addressed and needed to explain. Then and only then did I write the abstract. And writing the abstract made me realise that this troublesome paper needed a substantial whack of social theory to give it explanatory heft. Realising that meant I was finally able to go back to the beginning and start the tetchy paper afresh.

All good. A bit frustrating but I’d got two better papers by following my gut feeling about paper one, rather than pressing on with my original plan.

Coincidentally, the same week a doctoral researcher told me that she was having some difficulties with her discussion chapter. She was finding herself repeating things that she had said earlier. She didn’t have a problem with some repetition, she said, but this felt as if maybe what had gone in the results chapters should all be in the discussion chapter.

I suggested that she follow her gut feeling for a bit and just try out what she was thinking. You can often only see if something is going to work by having a bit of a play and finding out what might happen.


What’s the gut feeling about then?

The academic writing gut feeling. It’s a real thing.  It isn’t about finding the writing hard, although that might also be true. It isn’t about being stuck. No. It’s that uneasy sense that the things that you’d planned to do actually might not be working … something is happening and you don’t know what it is …

These are not actually simply ‘feelings’. They are that, but they are also emerging understandings. You have an experience – writing, writing, writing, Oh this doesn’t seem right – and then Oh I see, you reach an understanding about what is actually going on, you make sense of what’s happened.

Getting from Oh this doesn’t feel right to Oh I see can be almost instantaneous. Or it can take a while. Sometimes, yes, quite a while, if you just let things percolate away while you go onto other tasks.

But maybe you can’t afford to just let working-out-what’s-going-on take its course. If that’s the case,  you have to generate some possibilities – Maybe it’s because of this, or perhaps it’s that – in order to help bring on the Oh I see moment. And you need to test your new ideas out so that you can see whether they fix the problem.  Or not. Maybe you just have to go back to the original and do more there so you can see if it’s fixable or not.

Those academic writing gut feelings are really the first manifestation of a diagnostic process, the use of tacit knowledge to recognise and then resolve a problem. When we write, write, write, it’s our experience, expertise and repertoire of prior writings that produces the Oh this doesn’t seem right. But I’m not an expert in academic writing I hear you say? Well perhaps not, but we all have a lot of experience in it through undergraduate and postgraduate reading – and writing. A lot of this might be unspoken and incoherent knowing, but it’s still a knowledge base albeit incomplete.

If it’s the set of academic writing know-how that you’ve built up that leads to that nagging sense that the writing is not as it should be, then it’s worth paying attention. Sometimes you don’t know what you know. Rather than ignore that sense of unease it’s worth going with it, at least for as long as it takes to see if there is a basis for the concern.

And the associated corollary is also important –  the more experience we have, and the more we build knowledge from experience by reflecting and learning more in order to build our own diagnostic repertoire, the better we become at using those gut feelings.

So patter’s message for the day –  don’t dismiss that academic writing gut feeling out of hand. Your subterranean expertise may well be trying to surface.

Image credit: incene 2007

Posted in academic writing, gut feeling, tacit knowledge | 6 Comments

threshold concepts in academic writing

Please note, I write my blog on weekends. It is not part of my workload, nor in my job description. I support the #USS strike.

Many of you probably know what the term a ‘threshold concept’ means. My understanding of a threshold concept is that it’s a transformative idea located in a discipline.

1176_855_855.jpgJan Meyer and Ray Land developed the notion of the threshold concept. They use the metaphor of a conceptual gateway – passing through the gate means that things that seemed previously mysterious, nonsensical and incomprehensible become clear. So understanding a threshold concept is like going through the gate. Once you ’get it’, once you grasp the threshold concept, the way you understand what you are doing, and why, changes for good. You just see and understand things differently. You can’t easily unlearn a threshold concept.

A threshold concept is something that is held in common by a disciplinary community. A threshold concept brings apparently disparate disciplinary ideas and arguments together, and it therefore creates the space in which you can work. The threshold concept provides a language and a history of ideas, but also offers possibilities for building new knowledges.

A threshold concept is not the same as a core concept or foundational idea. Let me give you an example. A foundational concept in writing might be that of rhetoric – the persuasive, informative and artful forms that speech and writing can take. However, knowing the principles and rules of rhetoric doesn’t help a writer to understand what they are doing. It is the understanding that writing is both social and rhetorical that makes a difference to the ways in which we approach writing. Once we understand that our writing communicates with people across time and space, and that we want them to respond in particular ways to our texts, once we connect purpose with audience, we can make authoring decisions about what rhetoric we use. And how.

When I run writing workshops I emphasise seven threshold concepts:

  1. academic writing is always written for a specific reader
  2. academic writing does ‘work’ – for instance it can persuade, excite, reassure the reader
  3. academic writing always refers to other academic texts, it is intertextual
  4. academic writing is not neutral, but social. It is produced in specific disciplinary, cultural, social and political relations and flows
  5. academic writing is the way we produce and communicate academic knowledges – we ‘join the conversation’ through writing.
  6. academic writing is a key way in which academic identities and reputations are formed (and audited) – writing is text work/identity work
  7. academic writing is complex. A text goes through several iterations; drafting and revising are integral to academic writing practice.

You can see from these magnificent seven that focusing on academic writing threshold concepts moves away from advice – teaching academic writing isn’t about a set of tips or techniques or skills but understandings about what writing us and does. You can also see that threshold concepts help us to understand what academic conventions and genres are expected – we can also then ask why this is so.

cover_article_2062_en_US.jpgBut my seven  threshold concepts are not all that there are. No. There are, according to writing scholars, thirty five. I’m well short. And my version collapses some rather important nuances and differences together. Well, that’s according the authors of Naming what we know. Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies.( open access online)

 The authors are North American writing scholars of varying seniority. They got together to sort out what they thought were the most important threshold concepts in their field. The result is five meta-concepts:

  • Writing is an activity and a subject of study
  • Writing speaks to situations through recognisable forms
  • Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies
  • All writers have more to learn
  • Writing is (also always) a cognitive activity.

Each of the meta-concepts is explained through four to six related ideas.

So for example, the meta concept Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies, offers an explanation of the overall idea, and then a further five points:

  • Writing is linked to identity
  • Writer’s histories, processes and identities vary
  • Writing is informed by prior experience
  • Disciplinary and professional identities are constructed through writing
  • Writing provides a representation of ideologies and identities.

The very first short section, about identity, makes a couple of big claims. The writer. Kevin Roozen, argues that “The act of writing then, is not so much about using a particular set of skills as it is about becoming a particular kind of person, about developing a sense of who we are.” Roozen explains that through writing, we come to be socialised as members of particular academic disciplines, we write ourselves into being a social scientist, a mathematician, a historian. We display this identity through our writing, perhaps challenging as well as claiming allegiance with the beliefs, interests, values and knowledge traditions of the specific disciplinary community.

Roozen argues that understanding text work /identity work (Barbara and my phrasing of this threshold concept) “foregrounds the need to approach writing not simply as a means of learning and using a set of skills, but rather as a means of engaging with the possibilities for selfhood available in a given community”. He suggests that the difficulties that some people have with academic writing may not be to do with poor literacy, but rather be about how much they see themselves as part of the academic community in general and/or the disciplinary community in particular. If you don’t feel part of the gang, then you are likely to have difficulty with performing as one. ( Yes. A very important point. Everyone who teaches postgraduates needs to understand this. A poorly written text maybe a sign of someone who doesn’t yet see themselves as ‘one of us’.)

Each section of the book addresses the implications of the threshold concept for general teaching and learning as well as for the writing classroom. So, for instance, Roozen suggests that on the back of understanding that writing is linked to identity, that an academic curriculum should be structured so that learners develop a sense of what it means to become a member of an academic discipline. He adds that assessment ought also to address learner’s identity work.

The book is obviously of interest to people who work with writing in under-and postgraduate contexts. But it is written for more general higher education audiences too. My suspicion is that it would be a very good addition to courses for people new to university teaching and for doctoral writing programmes. I’m certainly planning to use it in my next writing course.

See also:

ESRC project reports for threshold concepts study.

Resources on threshold concepts

Posted in academic writing, identity, scholarly identity, text work/identity work, threshold concept | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

PhD stuck points


There are some points in the PhD process where the going gets pretty tough. Stuck points, where it’s hard work. Where it’s difficult to move on.

Now don’t get me wrong. These points don’t cause grief to everyone. I’m not talking about something that is inevitable. But there are points where a lot of people do find themselves slowed down, where what seemed to be making-pretty-good-progress-through-the-doctorate comes to an abrupt and unwelcome halt.

And it’s often a going-round-in-circles halt. A what-am-I-doing-this PhD-for halt. A maybe-I-can’t-do–this halt. A confidence-sapping halt where you just can’t seem to make headway, despite all of the things you try.

The good news is that PhD stuck points are generally only a temporary change of pace,  even if they seem interminable at the time. That’s because these are points where really serious thinking time, and a lot of playing around with possibilities, are needed.

So what are these points? Well, they can be one or all of these:

  • Sorting out the research question or hypothesis. Getting the right wording in the question.

Finding your way to be sufficiently focused but still clear that you don’t know the answer yet; open but not so open that you have to write pages and pages of definitions and boundary setting; careful to avoid contentious terms that get you into shedloads of trouble – this is hard. You often don’t get the research question right in one, two or even three goes. The research question needs a lot of work.

  • Sorting out the research design.

It can be tricky to match the amount and kind of data you need to your methods, within a suitable methodological frame. The implications of choosing this group over that. The possibilities of doing something here or there. The benefits of this process versus another potentially interesting approach. These decisions take time to work through.

Because you will have to justify these choices to the examiner there is no getting out of thinking these design issues through. You can’t fake your way through it. And it’s important to get the design right, as it is the foundation of everything that you do from now on. You can do the PhD with not reading everything at the start – but you can’t just muddle through a poorly designed project.

  • Tacking the analysis.

It’s pretty easy to feel completely snowed under by the mountains of data that you have amassed. And it’s daunting when you realise that it’s down to you to make the decisions about what to do. That it’s sometimes a bit arbitrary about where you start.

No matter how rigorous the analytic tool that you choose to use, there is a point where interpretation kicks in. Interpreting means you putting your head on the block. You have make the best and most defensible decision that you can about analysis, but decide you must.

  • Wrestling your (mostly analysed) material into a thesis structure.

Even if you follow the default IMRaD formula, there are still decisions to make about what to include and exclude, what to put where, how much detail is needed and about what. But if you are working with a thesis structure that responds to the moves of the argument, then this point really does take all of your imagination, as well as some hard graft.

Of course, there can be other points in the PhD where you are stymied. You may have ethical difficulties. Or perhaps something has not gone as expected and your careful plans need to be remade. But these stuck points are less predictable, they don’t happen to loads of people, and they usually have more to do with serendipity than poor planning. (Unless of course you did plan poorly –  that will be because you were too worried about being stuck, and moved on too quickly from (1) the question and (2) the design.)

But hang on, Let’s reframe the idea of stuck.

Perhaps these are not actually points where you are stuck. Stuck points aren’t necessarily the same as being bogged down, as going nowhere and just spinning your wheels – even if that’s how it might feel.  Let’s think of these as the places where you need to change gear, to adopt different processes.

Perhaps you need to stop worrying about the clock and take the time that is needed. Perhaps these are the places/times where you need to be like the little train that could, and move as much or little as you can, remaining confident that you will get there if you stick at it.

I think I can, I think I can.

I want to reassure you that stuck points in the PhD process are, well, simply hard. But possible. They just require you to take the time and head space to sort out.

Knowing this can help you to avoid the slough of despair. It can stop you from the counter-productive exercise of berating yourself for being stupid.

The stuck points are where you do key bits of thinking and deciding. They are where you make progress. They aren’t to be rushed. If you understand this, then you are better prepared – and you can even see the hazards coming up. They don’t take you by surprise.

You have time to think about the kinds of strategies that you need to adopt to deal with each decision, each puzzle. You are better able to be kind to yourself while you work out what to do, and where to go with your research.

Image credit: Greg Siminoff. Flickr Commons.

Posted in academic writing, data analysis, PhD, research design, research question, structure, stuck points, style and structure, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

get the picture? how not to use images in the thesis


Thinking of using images in your thesis? Good idea. And easy to do with everything now being digital.

I love an image. I enjoy a photograph. I like a good diagram. I’m happy pouring over a graph or table. But not always. And I’m not alone.

Key thesis readers, the examiners, are not always thrilled when graphics appear in a thesis. They are less than pleased when thesis illustrations, as they are sometimes called, are poorly judged additions.

Here’s some examples of thesis images that don’t work:

  • the photo is pretty but adds nothing. The reader could get what they need to know just from text. The examiner wonders if the image is there simply to make the page look better, or perhaps has been inserted in the mistaken notion that the image adds some kind of veracity to the words.
  • the photo contains lots of clues for analysis but these are not taken up in the accompanying writing. The analysis of data proceeds as if the image is a window on reality but not worthy of critical attention. The examiner wonders how they are meant to interpret the visual.
  • photos, tables, graphs and diagrams are used to support minor planks in the argument. But why? The reader notices images. Making an image suggests that space has been given over to the image because the point it makes or supports – it illustrates – is significant for the argument. The examiner can’t make sense of a visual supporting a relatively slight point when what seem to be key questions go unaccompanied.
  • the diagram, table or graph does not make sense. While a diagram, table or graph should always be contextualised in a thesis text, (the convention is: figure 1 shows, table 2 demonstrates… ) it should also be its own little self-contained nugget of information. The image that accompanies this text for example can be read and partially understood just as it is. But  it would benefit from some further analysis… and an associated point,
  • the diagram is free-floating. The words don’t show what point the diagram will amplify or explain. The examiner wonders what it’s about. Unlike the image that accompanies this blog post, thesis images always need to be anchored in the sea of words. Having the examiner search for the connection isn’t good.
  • the diagram is so complicated it takes the reader a long time to work out what it means. It obviously meant a lot to the researcher who made it, but it’s not obvious to anyone else. The examiner is mystified. That’s probably because
  • the diagram is poorly designed. There are too many labels. The examiner doesn’t understand what the labels refer to as they bear little relationship to what’s going on with the text. The arrows that are mean to show relationships are a thick tangle and the reader can’t work out which relationships are most important and which less so. Or maybe…
  • the diagram is so idiosyncratic that it takes the researcher two pages of words to explain. If it’s that individual, then the diagram isn’t doing its job. The examiner ought to be able to follow a diagram with minimal additional support.
  • the principles underpinning the use of shapes is unclear – the circles and boxes in the diagram seem to refer to incommensurable things. The examiner can’t figure out what design principles guided the development of the image.
  • the caption doesn’t summarise the major point that the examiner is to take from the image, diagram, table or graph. A good caption captures context and the key message the examiner is to remember.
  • the table or graph is too detailed. A table or graph isn’t an exhaustive display of every single bit of data possible. It is a careful selection which makes a key point. Lengthy and detailed information, say systematic recordings of an event or experiment, need to go into the Appendix where the examiner-reader can get at them. An examiner doesn’t want to be made to stop reading to check and/or make sense of loads of detail mid chapter – they like to choose when and how to pursue the micro information.
  • a table, with its patterns and rows of numbers, is used to show a trend, rather than a graph – the examiner quickly sees a trend from a graphic line.
  • the images are dodgy. Low grade clip art is used to create poor quality images and diagrams. The photographs are grainy and poorly cropped. The examiner is left wondering why the writer used such amateurish material in their thesis. What did they think their examiner would conclude from a poor choice of image?

So that’s a list of image glitches to avoid.

The good news is of course that if you avoid these mistakes, a well chosen and produced image, graph, table or diagram can be a very helpful aide to the examiner.


Some of this material is adapted from Evans, Gruba and Zobel (2011) How to write a better thesis. Pp 154-160.

Image credit: Pedro Brito, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, diagram, graph, illustration, image, photography, table, thesis | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

why is academic writing so hard

Academic writing is a complex business. And it’s that complexity that makes it tricky.


When you sit down to write a thesis, book or paper you start off with:

  • material that comes from a well designed project
  • a defensible analysis and possibly, depending on discipline, a cogent theoretical explanation
  • a good grip on the relevant literatures in order to situate the work and designate the contribution.

To get ready to write you need:

  • well organised kit – files, bibliographic data bases, primary materials, transcripts and so on
  • the right kind of gear at hand – a good computer, pens and paper, online access
  • a place conducive to writing – this varies from person to person but noise, privacy or social are important considerations
  • a manageable time slot – whether short or long, you need to be able to focus on the task

And then to the actual writing. You have to have:

  • something to say – you need to know the point you want to make
  • a clear picture of your readers – this is so you can connect what you want to say to their interests and prior understandings
  • enough confidence to express in words your authority as an expert on the topic
  • a view about what you want to happen as a result of the writing being read by your readers.

As if that’s not enough, you can’t do without:

  • understandings of the particular writing form – its genre, conventions and disciplinary framings
  • the secretarial stuff – you need to know how to write a sentence, paragraph, headings, handle meta-commentary and so on
  • a sound strategy that you use to create the first draft – outlines, tiny texts, pomodoros, whatever works for you
  • a diagnostic toolkit – a set of strategies that help you to sort out any drafting blocks and problems, and to undertake the revision and then editing

Whew. But wait, there’s even more. It helps if you:

  • are a student of academic writing and are steadily building your criteria about what ‘good’ academic writing means for you. These criteria are what you use to guide your revision and editing.
  • understand how to use language to convey a sense of who you are as a scholar – your writing voice – any piece of writing is an opportunity to improve your own artisanal writing practice.

Yes, academic writing really is all of those things and a bit more besides…. well, like the identity work involved in writing, just for starters.

But it is this totality, all these things combined, that makes up an academic writing practice.

It’s no wonder that it’s hard to find the perfect bit of writing advice. Most writing advice addresses some of the above but not the lot. That doesn’t make partial advice wrong – it’s just not complete. Learning more about academic writing and finding the right help is always a matter of piecing together bits and pieces from various sources about all of the different aspects of writing.

And it’s no wonder that what can seem to be a bit trivial – the lack of the right writing gear for instance, or half organised reference material or a fuzzy idea of what a journal actually wants – can make writing and finishing a paper really difficult. Most of the above list, if not all, do need to be in place and working together if the writing is to go smoothly and, yes, do its job.

This academic writing business isn’t simple or straightforward. It’s complicated.

So we ought not to beat ourselves up if we find it hard sometimes. It is.

Image credit: Isabelle Gallino, Flickr Commons

Posted in academic writing, practice | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments