tiny texts – small is powerful


I work a lot with tiny texts. Abstracts. Storyboards. Story threads. Lines of argument.

Tiny texts are my academic writing tool of choice. If I had to abandon all the other writing strategies I have in my repertoire, this is The One I would keep. It’s my Desert Island academic writing Swiss Army knife.

Tiny they might be, but little texts do a lot of heavy lifting for academic writing.

Now you might call these tiny texts – summaries. And indeed they are. They are little mini-me versions of a text that will become bigger. But they are not notes. Not notes. They are instead, at their heart, a way of capturing extended thinking.

Now, what do I mean by notes? And why is a tiny text better than a note? Well, let me explain through a hypothetical example. Below is a typical set of writing notes for a social science methods chapter in a thesis. The notes suggest a structure, an order of events, and perhaps something of the content.

Notes version

Methods Chapter

  • Positionality
  • Research Design – institutional ethnography of hospital
  • Ethics
  • Approach to analysis
  • Audit trail – participants, timeline, list of data against question
  • Issues and limitations, confidentiality
  • Portraiture

Familar eh. These are categories of content for a methods chapter. They are the sections and even the headings you might use. And of course, each one of these bullet points could lead to an expanded set of bullets listing what is to be covered in that section.

Now compare the notes approach to a tiny text.

Tiny text version

Methods Chapter

My research, an ethnographic examination of the experience of staff-patient relations in a privatising hospital, took a feminist perspective in which the everyday experience of participants is prioritised. Institutional ethnography  (Smith) allows actual experience to be both documented, interrogated and used as the basis for an analysis of power-saturated social relations.

I worked as a volunteer in a hospital over a period of twelve months, making observations, conducting interviews with nursing staff and patients. I also amassed and analysed case records and organisational documents; these were transcribed and anonymised.

I used critical discourse analysis to analyse field notes and transcripts and this allows for generalisation beyond the specific institution.

Because of the potential for harm to individuals arising from patient complaints about hospital procedures, I have written a semi-fictionalised portrait (Lawrence Lightfoot) of patient and nurse experience from the analysed data. The portrait brings the lived social relations of the hospital to life and this complements the more conventional discussion arising from the discourse analysis.

Now, writing a tiny text takes a lot more time than simply jotting down a set of notes. But the time taken is in thinking. It’s thinking about what actually needs to go into the chapter and what the chapter will say, specifically, about your work. And this is time that is saved when you get to drafting, going hand to mouse.

The tiny text (above) elaborates what you have to say about your positionality and how it led logically to a particular methodological choice. You know you will report on your voluntary work and how it supported you data generation. You know that, despite keeping to the usual ethical rules, you will write about confidentiality and how you have resolved ethical difficulties through choosing to use a semi-fictionalised portrait – and you know where and how in the chapter you are going to say that.

Also note that the tiny text is written in the first person. Even if the chapter reverts to a more conventional narrative, the “I” positions you to write about what you did and why, rather than produce an impersonal and unnecessary essay about methodological procedures. (That’s one of the dangers of a notes approach.)

There are four big pluses for the tiny text

  1. There is a logic to the four tiny text moves – their order make sense. And these moves are the structure of the chapter. Note that there are seven generic bullet points in the notes but only four moves in the tiny text. The tiny text structure follows the logic of the material being presented, it is not a default list of what must be covered. You can write specific and informative headings from each of the four moves, rather than rely on something generic and empty (like the notes). And one more thing. You’re not going to have little chunks of text which don’t really follow on from one another. You have the red thread of argument already built in.
  2. The literature work to be done in the chapter is already apparent. You have two key theorists you are drawing on – Dorothy Smith for institutional ethnography and Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot for portraiture. The rest of the chapter e.g. feminist theory, ethical issues, discourse analysis, will be supported by relevant citations rather than anyone’s work in particular being discussed in any detail.
  3. You are ready to get organised for writing. Knowing the shape of what is to be said allows for a much more efficient pre-writing phase. You can see what materials you need to get together for each of the claims.
  4. And you have a writing plan. A road map. There are four moves in the tiny text and you can write each of the sections in discrete drafting sittings, knowing how they fit together. You won’t have to labour over transitions as the red thread of the chapter has been established in the tiny text.

A final advantage for doctoral researchers is that taking a tiny text into supervision allows you to discuss what you will actually write in your chapter in concrete, not abstract, terms. You arrive with some thoughts already sorted, not simply with a set of vague headings that could be written in any number of different ways.

Ah yes, a tiny text. Try one out next time you have to write something. See what a tiny text can do for you. You don’t have to abandon notes altogether – you can use notes as a checklist just to make sure you have covered the mandatory stuff.

But you get the picture now I’m sure. Don’t say what you are going to write. Write it, but write it small. Sort out the moves. Get the stuff in order.

You know, less is more and all that.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash


Posted in abstracts, academic writing, methods, methods chapter, research methods, thesis, Tiny Text | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

getting ready to write about “the literature”


You’ve all heard that the doctorate is about making an original contribution To the literature. Well, that’s right, although what that means is not nearly as scary as it sounds.

What you may not be told is that doing a PhD is a lot about information management – finding information, cataloguing it, saving it and retrieving it in order to use it.  And one major slab of information that you need, in order to say how you contribute, is “the literature”. Yes think of “the literature” as a bid wadge of information and it’s not quite so scary.

Now, there’s a lot to say about “the literature” – and you might want to check out some of the things that I’ve written before about literatures work, But here I want to focus on using the literatures. And in particular on the kind of preparation you might do to make yourself ready for using. So a particular kind of information work.

I’m focusing here on preparatory writing.

Preparatory writing happens before you write the first draft of the literature review.  I’m assuming that you already have read a lot and entered relevant aspects into some kind of bibliographic software. You will also have made some notes about key points in each text, probably stored in the same software. And you may already have done some mind-mapping about how the various pieces of literature fit together and how they apply to your project. You’ve been managing information.

So, this here post is just another additional information management strategy that might be useful for you when you are thinking about how to organise the literature-related material you have. In particular I’m focused on how to use literatures to present the case for your research.

Today’s information management strategy is in the form of three questions. Your goal is to write an answer to each question. You should write as concisely as possible.  

But you do need to accumulate the relevant texts for each answer before you start writing. It is crucial in this strategy to add in the references to each answer using your citation programme (Endnote, Zotero, Mendeley etc). Or the old time consuming way with cards or lists if you must.

Because you need to accumulate information pre-writing, you may not be able to do this exercise by giving yourself a time limit for each answer. But as you don’t want to spend a huge amount of time on each question, you could use a set of timed writing sprints, Pomodoroes, once you have your information, your references together. Or just write each answer as quickly as you can.

So, what are the three questions? Well, here goes.

  • What studies provide the warrant for your particular project?

In other words, are there any studies which actually say your research is needed? What are they? Why do they say the research is needed?

  • What studies will your research speak to?

Are there studies like yours but which don’t do exactly what yours will do? In other words, is there a gap in a key set of studies around your topic – say which and what is the gap left and why is this important?

Are there other studies which your research might speak back to? What is the ‘problem’ with these studies that yours might address?

  • What studies provide the building blocks for your study?

In other words, what literatures are you using as the basis for defining, boundary-ing, and organizing your key ideas?

Why these particular studies and not others?

There. Not so hard. But look at the benefit.

The answers to these three questions do some important work – first of all, you have now brought together the main texts you are going to write about. They are in one place, not scattered about.

More significantly, the answers to the three questions have positioned you to think about the literatures you have read in relation to your own work.

This ‘personalisation’ equates to the stance that you need in order to write your literature review. Your writing with literatures is all about what is useful to your study and where your work sits in the field. You are not writing a general review of all of the literature.  Your review is always made particular to your study.

This preparatory writing puts you in the right place to write the longer review. It may even form the structure of the literature review, but that’s something to think about once you have this preparation done.

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Posted in academic writing, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, preparation | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

starting the PhD – learning new vocabulary


Scholarly work often involves learning new words. You know this right? Sometimes it even seems that in order to be considered a scholar you have to speak in words no one else can understand.

Well that’s the stereotype.

But let’s try to unpack this a bit. What words do you need to learn, why and how?

Each discipline has a dedicated terminology

An example. If you study Chemistry then words like composition, structure, properties, behaviour, reactions, bonding and so on are a very basic lingua franca. Most non-chemists have a good chance of understanding what these terms mean, as they have not entirely dissimilar meanings outside of the discipline. But when you get further into Chemistry, say you’re doing a PhD, you’ll possibly be saying things like – electrostatic self-assembly, electron micro probe analysis, enantioselective rhodium-catalysed coupling reaction, supercritical carbon dioxide…

I don’t know what any of these terms mean by the way. But I know that they are associated with research done by my colleagues. And I know that these terms just trip off their tongues and they all understand each other, even if I don’t have a clue what they’re on about. Fortunately, most of them are also able to explain these ideas in plainer language to non-Chemistry types like me. But it’s obviously important if you’re a Chemistry researcher to get on top of this kind of advanced terminology and the various and very specific practices and phenomena that they describe.

And the same goes for every discipline. Whether you’re doing a PhD in English, Politics or Veterinary Science, there will be a whole lot of new words and concepts for you to acquire. They have particular meanings that other people in your discipline understand. You can conduct an ‘insider’ conversation in the scholarly community using this technical disciplinary lingo.

Each research practice also has its own terminology

Researching also has a lot of terms that you don’t use regularly in everyday conversation – like epistemology for example. You don’t bowl up to your seldom-seen aunty and say “What’s your epistemological position?” However, you might very well have a conversation with another PhDer, or your supervisor, where you do talk about epistemology in exactly this way.

And specific types of research use particular words which flag up what they stand for. A “post-positivist” might talk about “validity” to signal their understandings of ‘truth’, and research methods that arrive at ‘truth’. On the other hand, a “post-structurally informed” researcher might use the term “trustworthiness” to talk about the status of the knowledge that they have produced and the process they used. Examiners and colleagues reading a text know where someone stands epistemologically by the specific words that they use.

It’s important to take note of such specific research terms.You need to get on top of them even if you never use them anywhere but in conversation with other academics. They represent our ‘tools of the trade’. During your PhD you’ll need to understand them in order to be able to make choices about which of them to use. You may also need to be able to translate researcher-talk into plain language in order to discuss your work in other contexts. Like with your seldom-seen aunty.

But there’s another kind of word use you also need to get familiar with.

Academic writing also often uses particular kinds of language

Over time, we scholars have developed a collective vocabulary for what we do, a lexicon for our collective ‘rhetorical practices’. We discuss, investigate, categorise, argue, frame, predict and so on. We don’t start and end something, we introduce and conclude. We cite, state and suggest. We often compare and contrast, we further an idea, we infer, deduce, calculate and make an original contribution.

Different disciplines often have their own rhetorical twists too. Some disciplines are fonder of describing and showing for example than illustrating, reporting or arguing. So you will need to get used to reading them and probably using them.

And there’s important news about the wording of academic writing – a lot of academic journals expect you to use this verbiage. Most PhD examiners also expect to read prose which uses this kind of language. They take the use of these terms and syntax as a sign that a PhDer has become part of their scholarly community. So you will probably need to adapt your writing to this kind of lexicon and syntax.

But there are two health warnings about both academic words and their usage.

First, it is important to understand that ‘these more ‘formal’ ways of talking and writing are conventions. So while terms such as frame and infer are common, you’ll see them used quite a bit, it is still possible to write in other ways. However, while you may have a choice about how ‘formally’ you write, there is much less wiggle room about using the generally agreed terminology for the subject matter you are researching or for how you name your research practice and positionality,

Second, some, if not all, of the discipline-based terms that I use without thinking are strongly culturally located. What you can see and say is always limited by the language available to you. So it may be the case that, depending on what you are researching, terms from other languages, places and times are a helpful addition – or counter – to the terms usually used for the kind of scholarly work that you do.(I’m constantly on the lookout for non-English disciplinary terms and expressions and ideas that might push my assumptions and learning.)

Why does word knowledge matter? Well…

Academic work is communication and conversation

Because you will want to tell other people about your work, otherwise why do it, thinking about words and their use is an integral part of your scholarly work. You will want to use your PhD in a range of ways. You’ll work to ‘translate’ from formal academic prose loaded with discipline-specific words into different media and genres for different audiences.

If you don’t want to be stuck for words during a conference presentation, or a talk to the local citizen science group, then continuing to work on words will be part and parcel of what you do as a scholar. It is therefore very helpful to continue to extend your general vocabulary, as well as to deliberately build yourself a solid scholarly lexical repertoire.

So how do you learn new words? No I mean really, how do you consciously set out to extend the words you know and can use appropriately?

Some word-based strategies you might consider

Some people swear by ‘word a day’ apps to build general vocabulary and “cheat sheets” of academic word lists and word banks. I’m much less enthusiastic about these than you might think. Not a fan. However, you may want to check these resources out for yourself.

As an educator, I understand the process of building your own academic dictionary as helpful for owning all the words you want and need. I suggest that it’s useful to:

  • Note down new words that you find in your reading. Build up a word list relevant to your project that you can practice using.
  • Build a glossary of the discipline-specific and research terms relevant to your work. Write their definitions out in your own words – add references if this is helpful. Keep this handy on your desktop.
  • Buy a Thesaurus, or use the Thesaurus online, at times when you find yourself searching for an alternative word.
  • Look for your idiosyncratic lexical tics – words you use too much – and find substitutes.
  • Read good journalism, non-fiction and fiction and analyse the writing. Look for the kinds of language used and the ways in which words are chosen and ordered to support the crafting of ideas.

And you may well find other ways to work with the words you need. Let us all know when you do.

The most important thing is not that you adopt one or several of these word strategies, but that you do take on the task of building specific and necessary vocabulary. Your PhD in part depends on your familiarity with and choices of terms and the academic conventions they embody.

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Posted in academic writing, English language, language, starting the PhD, syntax, vocabulary, word bank | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

deep into writing the thesis? don’t​ forget to yodelayeehoo


It’s the time of the year when writing the thesis gets pretty serious for a lot of PhDers. The endpoint is there in the distance, but there is still so much to do. So many words. So many pages. So much more to sort out.

Is this you?

The timetable to completion is tacked above your desk along with your research questions. It seems clear and do-able. But… but…

Your supervisor is very focused on the text and what needs to happen when. They exercise their red marker a lot, and ask questions that seem to muddy, as much as clarify, your thinking. They count down along with you and sometimes you think that they are just as anxious as you are about when you’ll get done. (They are.)

It’s true. Thesis writing can be a very lonely stage. No-one else can write the text for you. No-one else can sort through the muddle of ideas that still exist around some sections of the work. You can easily feel – and become – very isolated as you shut yourself away to get completely free from distractions.

While your family may be very supportive and do whatever they can to help, they may find it hard to identify with your growing and overwhelming obsession with the text. That waking up in the middle of the night with a thought. That getting up at 4 am because there is no point lying there anymore. The new biscuit and ice cream habit you seem to have developed. The lack of attention to your gym regime.

Seriously. Now is the time to make like the lonely goatherd and yodelayeehoo very loudly. Loud enough for other PhDers to hear.

The friends you made earlier in grad school are now crucial. Often you just need to commiserate – for the life of me I can’t work out what to write in the discussion, do I have a claim at all? – and to celebrate the small victories – I sorted out how to write about the tricky ethical issue, I finally worked out how to finish off this chapter, start this chapter, what to put in the appendix. Yay! Go me.

It’s a good time to reconnect with a scholarly group too – to feel part of a larger cohort. So thesis boot camps and shut up and write sessions now provide a much-needed sense of community as well as a time to write. You are not the only person feeling all on your own. Here, lots of other people are also beavering away.

PhDers at a similar stage can be very helpful to you. Other goatherds high on their own thesis mountains, but not yet at the top, know exactly what you’re going through.

Those things that you feel silly telling your nearest and dearest? You can now say them out loud. Just want to moan and vent? Go ahead, do it together. Want to make a pact to exercise at regular intervals – nothing like a colleague who also spends far too much time seated at the keyboard.

Think seriously about taking the initiative too – perhaps organising regular meetups at the pub or local coffee shop. Meet outside of the university. Make it social. Make it supportive. Whatever works.

Breaking the loneliness of the long-distance thesis writer is important. It not only helps you to finish, but also means you’ll be in MUCH better mental and emotional condition when you do.

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idle thoughts while reading? it may be a light bulb moment


Does your mind wander while you’re reading? All the books to read for that pesky literature review and you just can’t focus …

Sometimes the havering mind is “the worries”. Worries about how much reading there is and how hard some of it is. This is a moment when you need to soothe and reassure yourself. You have to tell yourself that it will all be OK, you just have to persevere, you have it on good authority that everybody feels like this and it’s not just you. You can also set up reading schedules if you’re so inclined, and daily reading targets if they work for you and help you feel better about getting through the stuff.

But sometimes those vacillating procrastinating thoughts are very useful.  You’re reading, or trying to, and one of three thoughts just pops into your mind. Unsolicited. You’re reading long and – woah – here is this thought.

Don’t dismiss any of these three thoughts – it’s good to listen to them – they are telling you something helpful. In fact, you may even have a light bulb moment. That idle thought is actually something important.

So what are these three things?

Well number one –

I’ve read this name before.

This is a really helpful response. It usually tells you that you have come across one of the people and texts that is important in the field. This is someone whose work most people refer to, their contribution is something that other people build on and/or interrogate and speak back to. This is a key figure in the field.

When you see this name repeated it is helpful to note it. Then go and find the text and read it for yourself – either in the original or in translation. If it does turn out to be important you won’t want to be citing it as a secondary source – a in b – but as a text that you have read and interpreted for yourself.

And number two –

I’ve read a lot of different opinions about this

This is a another really helpful response. It usually tells you that you have come across one of the key debates in the field. Something that isn’t settled, but something important.

It’s helpful to try pause when the deja vu thought interrupts. It’s time to analyse the nature of the differences in the readings. Are they methodological? Theoretical? Definitional? It’s very helpful to understand the key debates in a field, as you may well have to position yourself in relation to them. This is where I stand in relation to this debate. This is how I understand x and why. I stand with this lot of scholars over here. I start from the position that x is… My work is like a, b, c and in that I too understand x to be… My contribution speaks to the debate about x in the following ways…

And number three –

I’ve read something a lot like this before.

This is a really helpful response. It tells you that you are reading something that belongs with other papers. It has a strong family resemblance – it’s probably arguing much the same thing as other papers you’ve read. So this means that you have identified a theme in the literatures. More importantly, it may well signal that you don’t need to read any more like this, as you know the general shape of the argument that is offered in this body of work.

Hallelujah. You’ve probably reached what is called saturation point – any more reading in this theme isn’t going to tell you much more. And once you know you’re at saturation point, you can usually check whether new papers fit within this theme when you read the abstract. If you get that “I’ve read this before” thought, then you know that you can put this one aside as it won’t add to your understanding of the field.

So, if you find yourself reading along and any of these three thoughts pop into your mind, stop for just a minute and think about what you might have just worked out.

Clever you. And you weren’t even trying.

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Posted in academic writing, debates in the field, reading, saturation point, too much reading | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

new year – seeing anew


You’ve heard of Lego your research method and Dance Your PhD. But now Bake Your Thesis is getting to be a thing. There’s a hashtag #bakeyourphd and active competitions in New Zealand, Canada and the UK.

One of the Canadian thesis baking competition entrants represented their research on immigrant communities through a cinnamon bun – a complicated and lengthy bake which mirrored the complex experience of trauma. In Otago, the 2018 winner made a poppable “cyst” cake, which sounds truly disgusting  but probably tasted delicious once you got over the idea. In Canterbury New Zealand the winner made an Imposter Syndrome Cake which featured lots of blank pages.

What next, we might ask? The Thesis Jumper, a bit like the Christmas jumper, made to be worn on the day you pass and for the following week? The PhD on a postcard? – send it to everyone who’s put up with you during the process. The Thesis as …  do add your ideas in here.

Now is this all just a bit of silliness? A major distraction from writing? A cheap trick cooked up by Graduate Schools to create a bit of social levity and togetherness? Is it simply about “adding a dash of extra flavour to what can be a dry intellectual meal” as the University of Otago puts it? Do cooking and dancing and building things accomplish anything at all?

Well, I guess the answer is probably yes and no. There’s certainly a way to take any of these activities at face value and approach them very literally. But there’s also a way in which taking your work into another medium can help you think about what you are doing and/or what you have done. And this is not because you are working metaphorically. No, it’s because you are working materially.

Take baking your research for instance. You have to first decide on a core idea – is your cake about a process, a theme or a result? Can you translate that core idea into an baked object in a way that is immediately communicable?

And searching for the key idea can be very helpful to your thesis for instance. That’s because finding the Big Idea that will make your thesis work is a challenge. During your field work you necessarily drown in detail and it’s hard to step away. In the writing phase, the task of reducing what you’ve done to a small set of claims or a single claim is often really tricky. Answering the supermarket queue question – what have you found in your research – in one or two minutes, is really hard.

So playing with something other than words, playing with materials such as dough, bricks or images, can be helpful. You have no choice but to eliminate detail and get to the big picture. You can only use a minimal number of words if you’re dancing or baking so you can’t fall back on them as you might do if you are talking as usual about your work. Doing something like baking or dancing or poster-ing can be a very helpful way to sort out what you really think, what you actually mean, what you want other people to know.

When you move into another medium, translate from words to something concrete, something magical may happen. You may find a new way to think and focus. Concrete processes such as drawing, building or making can produce new ideas. As you work into another medium you might just make a new connection or association. (That aha, that new insight is what happens when little people play with blocks for instance, and learn about shapes and relationships, patterns and volume etc. But Froebel and Montessori can work for us big people too.)

Translating your thinking into ‘stuff’ can be a good way to revisit your research and your writing. You don’t need a competition to experiment with different ways to imagine your process and/or your analysis and/or your ideas.  You could in fact bake, draw, sculpt, knit, film your research any old time – particularly if you are feeling a bit stale.

( I was tempted to say here that maybe you could bake your next supervision, and use the cake as a conversation starter, as explaining the cake can be helpful too – but that would be entirely inappropriate. BTW do remember I’m gluten-free.)

Seriously, though. Playing with and through “stuff” can be a very helpful exercise. Of course it can also be meaningless – you only get something from these kinds of exercises if you give them a serious go, suspend your disbelief.

And really, what have you got to lose? What better time to experiment with ways of seeing things anew but in a new year? Go on. Reach for that flour. Get out the icing sugar and the lurid colours. Bake on. Lego on. Dance on. See your research anew.


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holiday​ break



Patter is now having a tiny break from blogging. She is reading and writing and she may even be walking on the beach and spending time with family.

She will be back on 7th January. She wishes everyone who continues to read the blog a very peaceful and restorative holiday break.

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