academic writing is visual

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Writing is a visual medium

It may seem odd to say that writing is visual. Writing – and academic writing in particular –  is about words and what they say isn’t it? Well of course it is. But the way in which we engage with words can be pretty seriously affected by the ways in which they are presented to us.

You see, a page is an arrangement of two elements – there’s the text, made up of words, and then there’s the place where the words aren’t – white space. And the more solid the block of words are, the less white space there is, the more the reader is likely to see the page as difficult to get into.

Of course, academic writers often don’t get a say in all of the decisions made about how their writing will look. Somebody else – the publisher of the book or journal, university regulations – may well have already made some decisions about font size, margins and galleys, and perhaps even the required use of numbers for paragraphs. The number and hierarchy of headings may also be a given. Using proprietary web platforms such as this (WordPress), also limits the design features that can  be used.

But even if there are limits, it’s still helpful to think about the visual elements of your writing.

Say a writer is working to page limits and keen to jam in as much in as possible. They decide to reduce the size of the top, bottom and side margins. They squash more words in, but at a cost. Their page might seem pretty inaccessible to a reader. Then, they use the smallest possible font, or one which is quite cramped. And this only adds to a reader’ s fear that they are about to enter a dense grey fog of verbiage.

Thinking about your writing as visual means that you begin to think about how the information is presented on the page, in particular considering what makes the writing feel inviting, what makes it feel accessible and comprehensible. When you do this, you begin to think a little like a designer.

So here are a few things to consider – my basic LTG of the visualities of academic writing:

L is for Layout

Step back from the page – squint. Look at how the page appears to you. Is it one solid mass or is it broken up into digestable bites/blocks? What do your eyes tell you? Is this a verbal crowd that the reader has to battle their way through?

How have you used white space – do you have generous margins around the text? Is it broken up into sections and paragraphs? Have you crammed images into the available space so that they appear to be one with the words, instead of another and separate medium for conveying information?

Does the page appear balanced? Is your eye drawn to one part of the page and not the rest  – is this actually what you intend? (The optimum page designs are often said to be the F pattern or the  Z pattern.)

T is for Text 

If you are writing in English then your readers’ eyes travel from left to right. Then it is generally easier to read text that is justified on the left and is evenly spread out – text that is justified on both sides often has uneven spacing so it takes a little more effort for eyes to track – and understand what’s being said.

Font matters. Apart from choosing a font that is relatively familiar and easy to read and not too small, the key issue is not to use too many fonts at once. Frequency in font use makes text hard to read as it’s a bit confusing. What does each font mean? Commercial publishers sometimes use different fonts for headings and the main body of text but they keep the number to a manageable number. It’s worth looking to see how these publishing graphics work.

It’s also really important to look at each page and ask yourself whether readers can easily find the most important information on that page.

Writers can point readers to key information through using multi-media in which words may be one element. Images, figures and diagrams can provide evidence and detail. They might also provide complementary information. Bullet-pointed lists indicate key points. Numbered lists show steps, priorities or chronologies  – this then that, then this then that. Flow charts show processes. Maps show relationships, territories and borders, flows and positions. Hyperlinks show connections. Footnotes and endnotes show evidence and also connections.

Using easily located media to provide information is important. Which brings us to..

G is for Guidance

Headings are the reader’s guide-ropes.

Headings help the reader to find their way through a text. Writers can give readers navigation tools which assist them to understand what is coming up – key ideas, major points and themes.

Headings are usually organised in a hierarchy of importance – chapter title, section heads and sub headings for smaller points and themes. Hierarchies of importance are signalled through the size, style and alignment of heading fonts that you choose. You can set heading formats ahead of time in standard word-processing software or use those that are already pre-set.

So there you are. LTGs. There’s much more to the visuals of writing, but that’s a start. I hope I’ve said enough to make the point – that the appearance of text is significant as it goes to how well we communicate our thinking and research results.

Poets think a lot about visuality. They consider line lengths and breaks and what these do to the way readers encounter their text.  Web designers also have to think a lot about how people read a screen. And as academics become more digital we also need to become design savvy.

But the visual matters even in ordinary old academic writing – like that grant bid where it is tempting to cram as much as possible into a limited space. So perhaps, just perhaps, there is too little discussion of the visual in discussions of academic writing… ??

 

Photo by Jenny Smith on Unsplash

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getting to grips with new literatures

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Over time all researchers build a knowledge base about their key interests. A large part of this knowledge is a core set of literatures. They/we do need to keep up to date, but they/we can rely on – and use – our incrementally expanding personal library of literatures. However, every so often, researchers have to deal with a completely new topic and brand new literatures.

My colleague Lexi Earl and I are currently writing a book about school gardens. Learning gardens are pretty popular at the moment. They are promoted by celebrity chefs and by environmental scientists alike – and many schools believe gardens are a great place to learn about the processes and practices of cultivation and/or to appreciate the natural world.

Lexi and I have done some research, school garden case studies, and we now have plenty to say. But we thought that we needed to start our book, contracted to Routledge,  with some historical discussion about school gardens, because now is not the only time when they have been popular. We had a hunch that there might well be something to learn from what had happened before.

So this meant that we had to find a load of new books and new articles – well, I mean new to us. And that meant …. reading. And lots of it.

We were pretty keen to find primary source material as well as literatures from contemporary educational historians. And so there’s been a fair bit of archival searching as well as the journal and book based searches we are used to doing.

We are immensely grateful to the generations of librarians who have catalogued, conserved, digitised and weblogged the books and reports that we are using. The British historian Raphael Samuel often argued that doing history was a collective endeavour – the introductory thanks to the army of librarians that make writing histories possible are just too little recognition.  That’s certainly our experience too.

We have had to come to terms with this historical material fairly quickly. But this history chapter is mine to draft first of all so I have done most of  the primary source reading. Lexi is focussed on other reading about current school garden issues and so she is adding additional points into my draft.

But I haven’t just done any old kind of reading. I have been reading with a purpose – we already knew the key areas we were interested in from our case studies. Because we are taking a genealogical approach (Foucault), we are interested primarily in how gardening in schools is and has been understood and categorised, as well as practiced.

I approached the historical texts with five key questions:

  • What’s the purpose of a school garden? What’s the problem for which school gardening is the answer?
  • What is the garden – what is important about it (size, plants location etc)
  • What school subjects is the garden connected with? What is the disciplinary basis of teaching?
  • How is the garden organised?
  • What successes and problems are encountered in establishing and sustaining the garden?

I then recorded details of each text in bibliographic software.

Then I wrote the answers to our questions into a landscape table. Below, an example of the record of one key book  – designated key because we saw that other historical texts referred to it, and it was also referred to a lot in contemporary accounts. You can see here that I’ve bolded the major point that this book talks to, and I’ve highlighted bits I think I might use in the draft chapter

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After I’d read all of the texts and recorded details on the table, I then wrote some very short notes on the answers to our questions. These were more in the form of a synthesising memo than an outline.

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I then

  1. decided on the argument for the chapter, (a Tiny Text), you might use mind mapping to get to the argument
  2. decided on a structure – I divided the material into three big sections (in this case, philosophy, historical accounts, contemporary accounts) and then I
  3. wrote an outline.

Finally I started to generate text. A first draft. This drafting process did involve shifting some things around in my initial outline. But mainly I had to keep going back to the table to ensure that I brought all of the material about any single point together.  I also frequently went back to the digital books.

So the drafting was actually working with at least three and sometimes four documents on the desktop – table, memo and original text as well as the developing first draft. If you are a Scrivener user then this all happens within the software. I’m not, largely because I like to insert the references as I go, so my Endnote is always open too.

You can see what a small section of this first draft looks like.

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You will see that I have presented some historical “evidence” which I go on to read critically to see: what is presented and how, what is put together, what assumptions are made, where there are tensions or differences, what is missing, what the consequences of thinking in this way might be and why this might matter.

And of course this first draft might be completely changed as I start to revise. Who knows how much the final version will look like this? 🙂

But please don’t think this is how you must work.

A concluding caveat. I am often asked how I work with literatures and will I show and tell. So I’ve done some. But I do try not to do a lot of display of my own processes, as my methods are bespoke to me.

And a confession. I’ve been doing this a long time. In this kind of overview work, I tend towards pretty minimalist noting  – I actually spend much more time thinking about the questions I want to ask of a text than writing notes. When I am teaching people how to work with literatures I generally use more notes and write more memos. When I do my own work, I’m a bit lazy, I rely on my short term memory probably too much, and I tend to shortcut some written processing.

And most important – this is not the only way to do literatures work. I am pretty sure that Lexi does this differently  – I have seen her taking a print-it-out-and-highlight, notes-on-the-printout-and-then-themes- in-a-memo approach.  That works just as well.

No matter the techniques used, both our approaches will mean that our final text is firmly connected with the literatures through our critical reading  – and our work will read seamlessly as if we are one person writing!!!

But that’s another post.

 

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Endnote, literature mapping, literature review, literature reviews, note-taking | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

tracking the path to research claims

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All researchers make claims about their work.

Remember the phrase staking a claim? That’s what we are actually doing when we claim something. We are metaphorically placing a marker in a field that we are prepared to stand on, stand for –  and defend. We plant that marker at the end of the account of our research. We’re here, we say. This is where, why and how I’ve got to this point.

So… What does claiming look like? Well, we researchers always claim that we make a particular contribution to what’s already known about our topic.  We sometimes claim that we provide new insights, alternative approaches, different interpretations, innovative methods, novel results. We might also claim that our work has the So What Now What factor  – there are significant implications that arise from the work – there’s a need for more or particular research to be done, for law and/or policy to be changed, for practitioners to do some different things and/or not do others.

What’s also important is that we researchers make our claims in and through writing. And any account of the research we’ve done should provide a traceable pathway from start to finish, from warrant to claim. When they get to the end of our text, readers must understand what claims we’re making and how we got there. Along the way, we need to show – evidence – that our ending claims are warranted and justified.

Making claims can be a particular challenge for doctoral researchers. It is hard to summon up the chutzpah to make a firm claim. PhDers sometimes dodge the issue by concluding their thesis by restating their results and perhaps offering short and vague suggestions about potential consequences. Alternatively, occasionally nearly-docs overstate what they have done, making sweeping generalisations. Or – a particular bugbear for me – they conclude their thesis with recommendations – as if thesis readers, particularly examiners, are in a position to act on what they say.

In order to make reasonable and defensible claims, all researchers have to do three things:

( 1) make sure that the claims match their research tradition, design and its results. So for instance, we can’t claim that policies need to change if we have only a handful of interviews, but we can claim that such research raises questions that need to be investigated further. Another example – we can’t claim causality if what we have are correlations.

(2) make sure that the research is trustworthy – we have to provide sufficient details about what we did and why, and make sure this information is available to be checked – so we always provide an audit trail with relevant details of data and analysis – perhaps even the data set itself.

(3) summon up the courage to get off the fence and own our expertise, while acknowledging the inevitable particularity, and the limited scope of our research. We recognise our blank spots – the things that the research design, methodology and methods just didn’t allow us to do.

Examiners look very carefully in the thesis for the argument that leads to claims. They read forwards and backwards tracing the path that leads to final claims.

Here are some of the things that examiners ask while they are reading a thesis:

  • Is sufficient data presented to support the claims that are made?
  • Has the full data set has been used – or not, and if not, has the researcher made it clear why and how this data was selected for presentation in the text?
  • How is the data, analysis and interpretation presented? Quotations? Tables? Images? Graphs? Diagrams? Have the implications of these forms of presentation been recognised and taken account of?
  • How have multiple data sources been brought together? Are alignments, misalignments and tensions with these data sources recognised and dealt with?
  • Are the claims congruent with the data and analysis presented? Can I trust the researcher?
  • How is the data and its analysis connected with relevant research, theory and literatures – and possibly the social and policy context?
  • What evidence is presented in the text that the researcher has spent time reflecting on the significance of their findings? On their research? On their development as a researcher?

These are general questions of course, and as such they need to be made bespoke to discipline and research tradition. Supervisors can help doctoral researchers consider the particularities related to their claim-making.

Revising the thesis for submission can usefully include claim-tracing – going backwards through the text from the conclusion to check that there are no missing parts to the the argument path, it’s not a maze, there are no gaps or time -consuming detours.

And the examiner questions listed in this post are a place to start.

Photo by Lili Popper on Unsplash

 

Posted in academic writing, argument, claim, claims, evidence, revision, revision strategy, thesis, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

2019 was…

… the year of the book series. So I thought a little end of year discussion about book series might be in order.

Book series require a very particular kind of editorial work.

Editors have to have a good analysis of the field, they need to know what is and what isn’t already covered. And this field analysis is not just at the start when series editor wanna-bes convince a publisher that their idea is good. You have to keep up to date with what is being published. You also have to have a view of where the field might go – and where it should go. “We need less of that and more of this”, thinks the series editor.

Series editors have to understand what their series will do. Series need a purpose and a point of view. Some series are knowledge building – usually through monographs and edited collections. Knowledge building books not the same as trade books or text books; these are designed to support readers to understand and do something- think of methods or advice books, these are ‘trade’.

Series editors need to know their potential readers. This not only means who they are (researchers, students and/or professionals in a particular area ) but also where they are located. Once you know the who, what and where, the series editor can make sure that books will connect, ring true, appeal. Ideally, the series editor also wants to get authors from the range of target locations.

Book series editors have to have good networks. They need to know, or know how to get to, potential writers. Of course, sometimes series editors are approached by keen authors with ideas for a book. Occasionally the publisher will also get a proposal that they think will fit in the series. But mostly, series editors hustle. They get out and invite people to write. They hear someone present at a conference and talk to them about a possible book. They approach people they know and ask them what book they’d like to write. They suggest topics. They match-make co-authors.

It’s these things – place in the field, mission, readers and potential authors – that any book series proposal has to cover. A publisher must be convinced there is a need for the series, a market, a credible set of authors and enough ideas to make up an actual series, not just a couple of volumes.

So to my year.

I have one long standing knowledge-building series which I edit with two colleagues. Our series is not a huge seller, it’s quite niche – critical leadership studies in education. We don’t publish a lot, only one or two books a year as we don’t think there is the market for more. So series editing isn’t a particularly onerous task. As I write this post, there is one book in press (2020), two being written (2021) and another proposal nearing completion (2022). So there is a slow stream of books.

This year we had to have a bit of a think about whether we would, should, could continue with the series. A stocktake. Where were we up to and was it still worth continuing. Since we started, another publisher has begun a similar series. A competitor or companion? We had to ask ourselves whether there was there room for two of us. Would we just be duplicating effort? But it seems we still have ideas for potential writers and topics. So we decided to persevere for a bit longer. This series is not yet at its use-by-date.

Fanfare at this point. This year was the year I also said no. Well kind of. More accurately, I gave up on a new series. A publisher had suggested the possibility of an arts education series and I had asked two colleagues if they were interested. We had a couple of meetings (not easy as we live in three different countries) but I think none of us were really up for the work involved. So at this point this series is a no go.

9781138339149But letting go was not simply about that series. No, it was also because 2019 was the year when a new (advice) book series really kicked into gear.

The Insider Guides to Success in Academia.  Helen Kara and I collaboratively edit this series. As the series title suggests, it’s designed for doctoral and early researchers. We’ve commissioned eight books already – and the first one is now published, hooray, two are in press and another two are being read before being revised. We expect to have five books published by this time next year. And there are another three already under contract and several proposals on the way. (Cross fingers they all turn up, you know who you are and you know we’ll chase you up).

This series is more work than the first. For starters, there are just more books. But our editorial process is also pretty hands on. Helen and I hunt out authors and topics and look at proposals, as you’d expect. But we have also introduced a “beta reader” stage where three people read a penultimate draft and give feedback. And we feedback too. Because beta-reading isn’t a process usually done by our publisher (although it is by others) Helen and I have to manage it. We find the readers, get the manuscript out and back in. And then we give the combined feedback to authors. But beta-reading is not like a reviewing process, it’s more informal, and everyone knows who has written the book and who has commented.

9781138362598Helen and I are in relatively frequent contact about book series issues. We talk largely by skype, even though we live only a few train stops away from each other in the Midlands. It may seem silly for us not to meet face to face, but we are both busy women. We do occasionally manage to meet halfway, and we also meet with our publisher once a year.

Helen and I are both really pleased with this series. It’s our great pleasure to help these new books into the world. They are, like most of this series, new approaches and/or on important topics much less well travelled.

And I guess that’s ultimately why we do this series editing stuff. It’s certainly not for the money – like all academic books the royalties for series editing in no way take account of the amount of time we spend. But there is something very satisfying about shaping a series. It’s a creative process – a kind of curation of a collection which together makes a more substantive contribution than any one book could do on its own.

A good series does have an identity. It stands for, and as, a particular point of view on a field. So in its own distinctive way, editing a book series is another way to contribute to the wider scholarly conversation.

Roll on 2020 and all those new titles!

Posted in academic writing, book series, co-editing, editing, Helen Kara | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

a festive gift from patter – a checklist for revising methods chapters

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PhDers sometimes find writing the thesis methods chapter a pretty tedious business. But the methods chapter is a key part of the examination process – it shows that the researcher knows how to research. You see, examiners make their decision – yes or no, this person can be Dr – on the back of this chapter. It’s not all that matters for sure, but get this chapter wrongish, and doubts arise, questions are asked, corrections loom.

Examiners are looking for the evidence in the text, and any accompanying appendices, that will allow them to tick the box that says the researcher can DO research.

And when examiners decide on methods, they are acting as stand-ins. They speak for both the discipline and the wider scholarly community. When they bring their knowledge of ‘standards’ to their evaluation of a doctoral text and viva, they aren’t reading and deciding as an individual, but as a gatekeeper.

So examiners read the methods chapter very carefully.

It is helpful therefore for doctoral researchers to understand some of the concerns that examiners bring to their reading. Understanding what examiners are interested in can guide the revision of the thesis. PhDers can make sure that all bases are covered before handing in.

So here are some of the key things that examiners look for.

The Researcher:

  • Is the researcher’s positionality made clear? (This may not be expected in some disciplines)

Research Design:

  • METHODOLOGY

Why was this methodology chosen? What does it have to offer? What claims does this methodology allow and disallow?

  • METHODS

What methods were chosen? What data are to be generated and how will these help answer the research question? Given that data are partial and particular, how are the inevitable blank spots acknowledged?

  • SETTING

Is the choice of setting explained? How does this context connect with the research question? Does the rationale for choice recognise the limits as well as the benefits of this context?

  • SAMPLE

Why was this sample selected? Was a particular approach used to make this choice?How was this done? If it is necessary for the reader to understand particular details about the sample, are these details provided and clearly signposted?

  • DATA GENERATION

What is the data? Are there important implications arising from inclusions and exclusions? When, where, and how was data generated? Was a theoretical or conceptual framework used and is this explained – or referred back to if it is presented earlier? Are the tools used available to the reader? Is a clear audit trail provided?? Were there any particular considerations or issues involved?

  • ETHICS

What approach is taken to ethical concerns – is this explained? What approach to anonymity and confidentiality has been taken? Were there any particular ethical concerns that arose during the research and how were these addressed?

Analysis:

  • APPROACH

In what tradition is the data analysis? What are the implications of using this approach?

  • PROCESS

How was sense made of the data? Is this made clear? Is (some of) the working available to the reader? Are the workings defensible/accurate?

  • TRUSTWORTHINESS

What steps were taken to ensure rigour? Is it clear how the full range of data is to be brought together? How has theory or conceptual framing informed the data work?

Now these don’t make a complete list. Nope. Sorry, there’s more. Specific disciplines and research approaches will add their own criteria. Supervisors know these and can add them in.

But these are at least a head start – and maybe a heads up.

 

You might also find these older posts helpful:

the audit trail 

methodology isn’t methods

three key things about methods chapters

 

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Posted in academic writing, data, data analysis, methodology, methods, methods chapter, research methods, revision, revision strategy, thesis revision | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

writing a second edition is much harder than I realised

This is a guest post from Mark Carrigan. Mark is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His research explores how the proliferation of digital platforms is reshaping education systems, with a particular focus on knowledge production within universities. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, the second edition of which was published in October 2019.

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It all seemed like it would be so simple. I was delighted when Sage asked me in 2017 if I would produce a second edition of Social Media for Academics. It was only a year since the first edition had been released and it felt like a resounding vote of confidence in what I’d done and how people reacted to it. I imagined it would be a straightforward process which would only take a few months. How wrong I was.

The idea of a second edition sounds more simple than it is. There are things which will need to be added. There are things which will need to be removed. The challenge is to decide what to add and what to remove. I went through this with the lovely James and Diana from the Education team at Sage, feeling by the end of our meeting that we had cracked the list of new material: a range of topics which I realised had been missing from the first edition, some new developments which hadn’t emerged at the time of writing and extensions of the features like ‘potential pitfalls’ which I had included throughout the original text. I came away with a sense that this would be a vastly easier undertaking than writing a new edition. Somewhat bigger than writing a paper but far less than writing a book.

Since the first edition I’d been routinely producing short blog posts tagged as ‘Social Media for Academics’ which identified developments, shared ideas and reflected on issues which had occurred to me since the first edition. After I committed to the second edition, I began to supplement this with a Scrivener project in which I collected short pieces of writing (500-1000) words elaborating on what I was reading and thinking about. I’d also done countless talks and workshops since the first edition, preparing my thoughts on piles of artefact cards which now littered my office, containing new thinking but in inevitably overlapping and disorganised ways. I tried to neatly pile them up but simply placing them together did nothing to help me process the thought contained on them.

It was extremely gratifying for the first edition to have received such uniformly positive reviews. The reception left me with a sense that the book had worked, people understood what I was trying to do it and I could in some sense be proud of the work. This should have led me to think more about the structure of the book when it came to revision.

After much deliberation when proposing the first edition, I had decided to focus on four practice based chapters (publicising, networking, curating, engaging) and three problem based chapters (managing identity, communicating effectively, time management). These were placed between an introductory chapter which provided an overview of social media and a concluding chapter which mapped out trends likely to shape the future. My hope was this structure would enable the book to be more about practices than platforms. Social media changes so fast that a preoccupation with platforms risks becoming out of date extremely quickly. The challenges are enduring but the substance of them changes as the underlying technology does. I was confident I’d produced a book which spoke to the experience of these challenges, largely by structuring it around them and ensuring the chapters weren’t over saturated with detail about specific platforms to the exclusion of more general guidance.

This became a problem once I found myself with 50,000 words of new material. Much of it overlapped because of the chaotic and uneven undertaking my daily writing routine had devolved into. In retrospect I realise it had become too‘efficient’… I would dive into it each day, quickly completing my assignment, before forgetting about it for the rest of the day. After years of trying I had managed to perfect an odd sort of free writing in which I could invariably knock out 500 high quality words or more in twenty minutes or so. But the fact I was doing it so quickly left the process as a whole increasingly thoughtless, taking what had once been the most reflective activity I engage in and making it something I’d rush through before getting on with the rest of my day. The fact the results were usually good, at least in their own terms, obscured the much bigger problem that was emerging. I’ve always been a chaotic writer, only figuring out what I want to say by trying to say it. But this began to spiral out of control with the second edition. Unfortunately I only realised it when the deadline began to approach and I was faced with the challenge of trying to incorporate this vast mass of new material into an existing book which had a tight and effective structure.

There were other things which got in the way that were unrelated to my writing. I was beginning to think about leaving the job I’d been in since the end of my PhD, while I’d also started a new job the year before which involved getting to know a university and department which were radically different from the ones I had been in for my academic career up until that point. In subtle ways the circumstances of my life were conspiring against the careful engagement which was needed to salvage the project, even as the regularity of my output meant that it felt to me as if my writing practice was flourishing. But the main problem was still the quantity of material I was producing, compounded by my failure to order it in any way.

When the first deadline felt as if it was sneaking up on me, I began to try and force each of these snippets of writing into the text. However without any ordering of them, I soon reproduced the repetitions in the text. In the process I managed to destroy the carefully calibrated structure of the first book, as chapters ballooned in size and their internal rhythm vanished under the weight of new material. It felt like the foundations of the first book had collapsed, leading the roof to cave in and forcing me to scrabble around in the rubble in the hope of bringing some order to what had once functioned so well.

I initially fixated on two writing retreats, convincing myself that all it would take would be a few uninterrupted days. But the first one was preceded by a massive argument with my partner immediately before hand, leaving me distracted and off balance for what was intended to be a week of deep focus. The second was just weird, as I discovered that ‘shut up and write’ really doesn’t work for me, particularly when editing is the pressing task at hand, leaving me awkwardly staring at the page for hours at a time in a way that left me with a lingering hangover of negativity and frustration even after the retreat.

The allure of the writing retreat was that the problems I was becoming cognisant of could be fixed ‘efficiently’ by blocking out a few days. But this drive to be efficient about my writing was the source of the problem in the first place! It had allowed a thoughtlessness to creep into what had always been a profoundly thoughtful activity and I couldn’t fix the second edition without accepting the scale of the task at hand. I had to lose myself in the text, giving the project as long as it needed, as opposed to fitting it into convenient windows in my life.

In the end I eventually rewrote the second edition from scratch. I went through it line by line, changing it as I went, in order to impose order on the remarkable mess I had made in the course of writing. This meant cutting liberally. I suspect I cut around 30,000 words from a text which still came out much longer than the first edition. It meant failing to include all the topics I had planned to, being realistic in the face of things which I simply couldn’t fit into the book’s structure. It meant remixing the existing content in ways I couldn’t have anticipated, moving sections around within chapters and moving material between chapters to better match the new structure which was emerging.

Most of all it meant a LOT of editing work. Much more than I’ve engaged in for any other project. In retrospect this is what a second edition involves. It needs thoughtful, careful and creative editing rather than the (overly)energetic production of new material. I’m really proud of the second edition because it’s turned out to be something much more like a new book than I could have imagined at the outset. But I’m still so shell shocked from quite how much work it took to produce that it’s going to be a long time before I attempt something like this again.

 

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keeping up with the literatures – preliminary sorting is key

This post is in response to a question about how to keep on top of what is being published

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I found out early on that academic work required finding ways to deal with a load of information. My undergraduate honours class, taken in addition to regular courses, required novice scholars to read three to four primary sources and then five or six papers each week. Whew. We all had to find ways to read efficiently or go under. So we looked for key points and evidence. We were also steered away from summarizing what we’d read towards evaluating the credibility of often contrary arguments. So I learnt, without being necessarily aware that I was doing so, that dealing with a hefty reading load meant being selective and critical.

When I started my PhD I set myself a similar kind of reading target. I decided that I would read at least one book and a minimum of ten journal articles each week – I would skim more, but would engage with ten papers in detail.  As it turned out, this wasn’t such a huge task and I often read more than this. And I not only got through lots of material, but I also cemented in a pattern of looking at the journals regularly.

And I’ve kept this up. I used to get alerts from journals but now I just use the app Browzine (which I’ve talked about before). Each week I look at forty or so new papers from thirty core journals in my areas of interest.

My first task is to decide if the paper is of interest. If so, I then save it.

I have a set of Browzine folders for articles which relate to my current projects. My first organising task was to sort out the types of papers I was going to keep and then to title the folder so I could easily see what each one contained. My titles are relatively separate, they cover a number of topics. But it would be possible to set up folders related to particular subsets of one topic. So if you were collecting papers about the doctorate for instance you could divide these into, say, experience, supervision, writing and so on.

Now, Browzine is meshed with bibliographic software ( Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote) so it exports papers and their details. As I’m saving a paper, I usually add a keyword and phrase so I know why Ive saved it. And just as I did all those very many years ago, I only identify The Point that the paper is making. I skim read the paper – title, abstract, introduction and conclusion and work out what the key message is.

An example – a recent paper that I saved on doctoral education – that’s one of my topic folders – focused on collegiality among doctoral candidates.The writer identified four types of collegiality among doctoral researchers – professional, intellectual, social and emotional – and argued that universities could do much more to cultivate collegiality. So The Point, as I have it saved on Endnote, is exactly this sentence – There are four types of collegiality among doctoral researchers – professional, intellectual, social and emotional – universities could do much more to cultivate collegiality.

I have saved this paper just in case, I may want to use it at some point in the future. I could for example, call on this paper to help justify a piece of research of my own about collegiality, or I could cite it in a more general paper about doctoral education – what we do and don’t do.

Of course, I haven’t read the paper in entirety yet, but I do already know enough about it to be able to go back to it, if or when I need to. I may decide, depending on whether the paper is central to my own work or not, to eventually read the paper thoroughly. I will always do a more general search when I have a specific research or writing task in mind, but I can get a head start in my stored Browzine folders and in Endnote.

You will have gathered that I have not printed the paper out. I have not highlighted it. No stationery or printer ink involved at all. I have not taken extensive notes. However I do know what the paper is about and I have it stored so that I can find it again.

The processes of selection – choosing which papers to keep and their potential connection with your own work – are a key to managing the volume of literature that is potentially useful to you. If you engage in detail with every paper you come across, you end up reading a lot of dross. And you also have difficulty sorting out key points from which you can construct an argument for your own research- there’s just too much minutiae.

Having a systematic way to record and store information is vital. There are many ways to do this, and we all develop systems of our own. You will have gathered that I am more minimalist than many people. That’s just me. I’m economical with my time and only read in detail when something is relevant or it piques my interest. But I do absolutely spend enough time on the selection and information retrieval side of things to make sure I can go back and find things when I want to. And you’ll find your own ways to select and store I’m sure.

 

Photo by Sophie Elvis on Unsplash

Posted in academic writing, Browzine, literature review, reading | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments