the joys of creative re-description

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Working with data is a creative process. Yes I know data word has got to be systematic and thorough. You can’t make up your results. But working with data is also always about interpretation. And interpretation, at some point, is about a creative idea.

And where and when do you get creative? Well, one place where it can be very helpful to have a creative idea is when it comes to saying what you think are your major results or The Result.

The creative moment comes when you dream up a re-description, a new name for something. Your research has said that a, b and c are important. If there isn’t already an existing name for a,b, and c then you get to create the name for what a.b.c mean. You decide on what this new category (a.b.c.) is going to be called.

The idea of re-description comes from the US philosopher Richard Rorty (1). Rorty differentiated between argument and re-description. Re-description, he said, was a way to think about a better world – if you offered novel, interesting and attractive re-descriptions of what the future world might be, then people would become interested.

Now Rorty’s writing about re-description isn’t entirely popular with other philosophers, but it does have some resonance with what you may need to do with your research. The idea of offering a novel term is one which is helpful when you come to think about your claim to the production of knowledge.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you make up a new term if there is a perfectly good one out there already. That’s not only a waste of time but it’s also a problem. Simply inventing new words, as if you’ve found something new when you haven’t, suggests that either you don’t know the literatures well enough to know the existing term, or worse still, you want to claim something is your idea when it actually isn’t.

So you do have to be careful when it comes to coining new terminology. But let’s imagine that you actually do have a new constellation of results that are different to what’s already out there in the world. Then you get to name it. The you get to be creative,

Let’s see what that might mean.

Say you have a new something to be named, something a bit different to what’s out there but part of the same family. You’re probably looking for a new adjective + existing name. So think about the noun that’s already in use. And then what the new bit is that you can add.

If you are a scientist there might be rules about how  invent a name. But lots of scientists do get to name new things. New bits of theory. New plants or insects or fish or animals that have somehow escaped the eye of science up till now.

And if you have got something that doesn’t belong to a pre-existing family, then you get to decide the whole new name. Like… String theory. Pulsar. Just to name two.

Let’s make up an example. Say I’m working on something where there’s already a lot of research. Academic writing. So my noun is writing.

Now imagine I have done some research about writers of articles rejected from journals. My research shows one group of papers where writers feel so terrible that they can’t go back to the papers ever again. They stick them in a drawer and can’t face them, can’t even bear to talk about them. But they can’t forget them.  The papers don’t go away. They are in a kind of writing limbo.

I’ve also found another group of people who find rejected papers a challenge. They get annoyed, yes. They might even stick the papers in a drawer. But they can’t bear to dump them altogether because they see this as a waste of effort and a hurdle to overcome. They rewrite. And resubmit to another journal. And another. But the papers comes back and back and back, journal after journal. And these writers just won’t give up. They keep trying and trying.

So I have two kinds of writers with two kinds of papers. Now is my chance to be creative.

Let me see.

I’m going to call the first abject writing because the papers are in the process of being cast off, but never actually get there.

And the second? Well I’m going to call this sisyphean writing after that poor fellow who had to keep  trying to roll the rock up the hill no matter how often it came back down.

Or perhaps. But i wont’ bore you with my brainstorm about possible names. They were just my first thoughts. I can do better I’m sure. Fun, eh.

When we researchers develop more than one term for our research results, then we are actually building a new vocabulary. Our new vocabulary might help other people to see things differently, start a conversation or they might extend what we did.

And this kind of creative re-description is often how we signal our claim of adding to knowledge. We have given a new name to a set of results –  our work with them, the patterns we have produced, the constellation of results we have made, has produced something not quite like everything else out there. So we have a new term.

The act of re-description is creative, and legit.

Play. Enjoy.

 

(1) I first saw redescription used in relation to research in a chapter by John Laws in the book Using social theory. Thinking through research. This version is my application of his insight.

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a thesis (often) needs A Big Idea

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Everyone knows that the thesis has to make a contribution. No probs. Well yes, there are actually probs. At the end of the research it can be hard to find one. Contribution, where is it?

You’re exhausted from generating all that data and trying to make sense of it. You have descriptions of what you think you can say – and categories. Categories galore – themes and key points. And you can talk about how at least some of this is new. But you can’t seem to get past what you have done. You are just too close to your data.

The too-close stuck-ness often appears at one or two points in thesis writing- (1) not being able to work out how to break the results up into chapters or (2) not being to write a ‘discussion’.

What’s stopping you? Well maybe what’s missing is The Big Idea that is going to make everything come together and hang together.

A good (social science, arts and humanities and some sciences) thesis depends on you finding your Big Idea. The one sentence which sums up what it is that you think you now know that you didn’t when you started. The one sentence that lets you construct the chapters and say what they add up to.

Let me give you an idea of how The Big Idea might work. Suppose I have researched people who are writing their PhDs. I’ve interviewed them and read their texts.

I can see from the interview transcripts that the interviewees often experience periods where they are unsure of what they are writing. I can see that most of them are reluctant to make claims that are too bold. I can see that most of them struggle with structuring their text and they fall back to the default IMRAD structure. I look to see what is lacking from their accounts and I see people variously not yet knowing how to write a big argument and not feeling suitably expert.

What Big Idea might encapsulate that set of results?

In this case it was – yes this was an real research project done by Barbara Kamler and me – it was the notion of text work/identity work. The idea that text and identity work were inseparable and produced and reproduced each other. Gaining authority over the text led to the doctoral researcher feeling more like a researcher. Presenting at a conference as an expert on a topic made the researcher feel more like a researcher and they carried that sense of authority back into their writing and wrote a little differently.

So if we had written our research as a thesis or scholarly monograph, then Barbara and I would have structured our text around The Big Idea of text work/identity work. And it might have looked a bit like this:

  • The problem – doctoral writing and doctoral researchers struggling with writing
  • Introducing key concepts – writing as a social practice, theories of identity,
  • Reporting methodology research design and audit trail of the research
  • Writing in progress, identities in formation– the various processes used by doctoral researchers to get on top of their text
  • Texts in formation – analysis of some texts and interview material to show where and how doctoral researchers were able to make identity and/or text shifts or were stuck
  • The literature review and discussion of results as key sites for text work and identity work
  • Introduction and explanation of the notion of text work/identity work, examining the practices and organisational cultures that supported and hindered tw/iw formation
  • Concluding by naming the contribution – text work/identity work with implications for practice and policy, referring back to the discussion.

Well, we didn’t write this book.

(But a lot of the material can be found in the book we did write for supervisors Helping doctoral students write.)

Finding the Big Idea isn’t always easy. And of course some people do get away without one. However, most people do need The Big Idea to make their argument.

The Big Idea is your one minute answer to the question, What did you find in your research? And you don’t have to wait until someone asks you this question. You can ask it of yourself, particularly as you are working with your data, what it is that you think that you can see emerging? And as you get to the point where you start writing, ask the What did you find? question then – it’s a really helpful start to planning your thesis structure.

Focussing on Your Big Idea is not as scary as ‘making the contribution’, ‘discussing the results’. The Big Idea is a scaffold to the necessary thinking and writing. Getting hold of it and saying it in simple straightforward words also helps you write an abstract or a road map, plan chapters by amassing the pieces necessary for storyboarding or writing chapter Tiny Texts. That’s because starting with your problem and working right to the Big Idea – drum roll, Ta Da – gives you the red thread that will guide the reader through the text.

Do I write like this? Oh yes absolutely. I always sort out my Big Idea when I start to write a paper or a book.

And it was actually my own PhD supervisor who taught me that The Big Idea was helpful as a writing process. He once gave me twenty four hours to come back to him with my thesis chapter outlines. He didn’t suggest I needed a Big Idea, as I remember it, but I found I had to have one to get my task done within the time limit he set.

And afterwards I learnt that getting The Big Idea and an outline made my writing go really quickly. (Thanks Richard.) So I do the same. I always ask for The Big Idea from the doctoral researchers I work with too.

See also:

Take home point

PhD contribution

Original contribution

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Posted in academic writing, argument, Big Idea, contribution, thesis | 5 Comments

writing targets – word count, time spent, or chunks?

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Many people swear by writing goals. Perhaps it’s all about time. Timers allocate a given number of minutes for each writing session – say thirty minutes each morning, or a couple of hours two or three times a week. Or perhaps they are less motivated by time and more by the number of words written. Word counters set themselves a target for each and every writing session – five hundred words, a thousand, two thousand words. They don’t stop till they’ve churned out the required amount.

I tend not to do either of these. I find time and word counts both interrupt my train of thought often at inappropriate moments. So instead I write in chunks. I’m doing that right now as I’m book writing under deadline pressure.

I thought it might be of interest, particularly to thesis and other book writers, if I described chunking. Perhaps you do something similar too.

To begin, I spend time writing an initial road map – a tiny text – for the paper or chapter. I then amass the various bits and pieces that I think I’m going to use – quotations, bits of data (my writing mise-en-place). Chunks might also include pieces that have been written in thirty minute pomodoros, but in my case they generally don’t. Sometimes I put these pieces in a separate document, organising the bits into the order of the tiny text. I often have various books and PDFs open on my desk top and on the floor.

At this point I’m ready to write chunks. I always start with the introductory chunk, as this sets the tone and argument thread for the whole piece. After I have the intro done I revisit my tiny text and make any adjustmentsI need to. I then work out how many steps there are in the argument to come. Each step is a section of the paper with heading. Each step is a chunk. I can then match the number of chunks I have to write to my available time.

My current book is made up of chapters, each of which is about 7000 words. So after I’ve finished each introduction draft I typically have three or four chunks left to do for every chapter.

My preferred method is to write a chunk in one sitting. Occasionally it takes me two sittings to complete a chunk. But mostly it’s a chunk every time I sit down to write. And almost always, at the end of completing a chunk, I spend some time thinking about the next one. I make a few notes about what comes next so I know, when I return to the writing which may not be the next day, what I was thinking.

My chunk writing is always about assembling. Writing paragraphs is about placing the collected materials into surrounding text. It’s much more analogous to making a mosaic where the outline is already traced out, and the pieces are standing by. The text needs to be composed, put together, glued with new words and sentences. But unlike a real mosaic, a written chunk can be deconstructed and re-assembled if it isn’t pleasing.

So writing in chunks is not the same as writing to a word count or writing to time. Chunk writing usually looks and feels a bit stop-and-startish while it’s happening. I work consistently at the screen but swap between referencing, copying, or cutting and pasting. Sometimes it becomes obvious that I need something not at hand and I’ll either stop and find it, or leave a marker that I can come back to at the end of the chunk-writing. I do a clean-up at the end.

Chunk writing always seems quite creative, seeing the various elements come together. I like to keep the flow going so that, in reality, I spend more time on writing new text than in inserting or hunting and gathering. I also try not to edit what I’ve done too much as I know that this is a first draft. I’ll get another go. And another.

Writing a chunk of text, of variable length, but usually between one and two thousand words – sometimes a bit shorter or longer – usually takes me the best part of a morning.

And invariably in between chunk writing sittings I‘ll have a few thoughts about things that I have left out, or things that I need to do differently. I write these down on anything – back of an envelope, or notepad – and I begin the next chunking session attending to the forgotten and omitted. I find that beginning a chunking session adjusting the existing text sets me up for what I aim to do that day.

I like chunking. I find it’s a remarkably efficient way of writing. I can generally get a book chapter draft done in four or five sittings, sometimes even only three.

For me, the magic trick in writing in chunks come from focusing on one step in the argument at a time. I keep the current step at the forefront of my mind. I don’t worry about what’s come before or what is to come next. I don’t get distracted by the whole. I just focus on this bit. Here. Now. You write a whole, not a part. You stop when you’re done. And it’s very satisfying to make the last full stop knowing that you have advanced the chapter by taking that one more step.

Perhaps chunking is something you might want to try too as an additional goal-setting strategy. It doesn’t have to be all about word or time count. Or perhaps you have another strategy altogether?

 

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don’t give your thesis examiner a bad first impression

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My hunch is that I’m a lot like most thesis examiners. When we get sent a thesis we often don’t plunge in straight away. We have a bit of a look around first. That’s not an unusual response to a new text.

Think about book shop behaviours. Most people usually check out the title and the back cover and then have a bit of a flick through, perhaps reading some of the first chapter to get a sense of writing. ‘Look inside’ options in online bookshops encourage you to do this.

Or think what you do when you get a new book you’ve ordered on spec. Perhaps you read a few random pages or the start of several chapters. Whatever you do, your little foray into the text gives you an idea about whether the book is going to keep you interested. You also know whether it will be a good read. Then you go for the armchair and the coffee, book in hand.

The thesis examiner is probably no different. They do something equivalent to a bit of a bookshop browse. They pick up or click on the thesis and have a look around.

And what do they see first? The title. Is it dull? Too long? Too vague? Or is it – just right… first impression, right there.

Next, they are likely to look at some or all of – the thesis acknowledgements, the abstract, the table of contents and the reference list. Acknowledgements? Well yes, that’s in part curiosity, but acknowledgements do often give a pretty strong impression of the person who has written them. Thanking the dog and not the supervisor for instance is certainly a statement!

The abstract tells the examiner what the thesis is going to say and gives a glimpse of the writing style. So… Stodgy writing with lots of long sentences and not much variation in style? Tentative claims or no claim at all? Nice turn of phrase and convincing argument? Depending on what there is, the examiner will start looking forward to the reading, feel a little concerned, or in rare cases, summon up the courage for a hard-to-get-through text.

The abstract, together with the table of contents, gives the examiner a pretty good idea of how the thesis is going to go. Add to this the reference list which shows what work has been cited in the text – in other words, the company the doctoral researcher has been keeping for the last few years and the scholarly conversations they’ve been engaged in – and the examiner has formed an initial view of what’s in store for them.

It’s not all bad if some of these initial bits aren’t riveting. Experienced examiners know to put their reservations on hold. For instance a table of contents that uses a lot of generic headings or seems to follow an inexplicable logic can suggest a poorly structured text. But most examiners can put that thought to one side. They know that you only really find out about structure when you get into the text proper.

So where is a poor impression actually made? Well, a bad thing is when the examiner finds typos in the acknowledgments or in the abstract. Or worse still, grammatical mistakes. Yes, careless proofreading, poor grammar and stylistic mistakes make the examiner wonder. They think to themselves –  if the writer has been careless here, then perhaps they have been careless elsewhere. They ask themselves whether there is a difficult read ahead.  They prepare to start noting corrections.

But equally tricky, if you have a scholarly-nerdy examiner like me, are when there are inconsistencies in the referencing – capitals all over the shop, erratic italics and various uses of : ;  , and pp. A sloppy reference list does make the examiner wonder about the quality of the scholarship they will encounter.  And it is an automatic correction, right at the outset.

The lesson here is simple. Don’t put your examiners off. Help your examiner browse. Steer them to focus on what matters – your research. Textual mistakes can easily distract examiner-readers from the substantive content. Present a clean text that meets the basic conventions.

Better still, use your writing to show a bit of yourself in your abstract, your headings and acknowledgements. Show the examiner what a pleasurable read they have in front of them. Make them interested in you and what you have done.

And the lesson. Don’t leave the things that create a good or bad first impression to the last minute. Spend time on the abstract. Think about your table of contents. Above all, proof read really carefully – and check that pesky reference list.

Do this, and your examiner will browse and start well disposed to the thesis, to you and to the viva.

(Yes, I’ve written about this before. Hey, after seven years and nearly eight hundred posts it’s still worth saying!)

 

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Posted in academic writing, examiner, proofreading, thesis, thesis abstract | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

safety and research

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Every now and then you read papers* by someone who has experienced violence during their fieldwork. Karen Ross, for instance, wrote about sexual violence in the field. She described the ways in which protecting herself from harassment and assault meant she had to adopt defensive behaviours that ran counter to the usual advice in research methods books – reduce distance to gain trust. For her, reducing distance did not produce trust, rather serious risks.

Imogen Clark and Andrea Grant discuss the need to start an uncomfortable conversation about the risks arising from researching in a new gender and sexual economy in which different understandings of reciprocity and exchange may be at play. Clark and Grant are very clear that the risks and violence they discuss happens everywhere. At home, and abroad. And violent attacks, in particular, are most likely to be carried out by acquaintances, not strangers. Clark and Grant discuss the guilt that a researcher can feel for putting themselves in a situation where she is assaulted.  This guilt was often accompanied by an acute sense of failure and even despair. How would she ever gather the data she needed to complete her thesis? Should she continue speaking to and meeting with potential (or, indeed, confirmed) assailants?

Clark and Grant are concerned that the potential for violence – physical, verbal or emotional – directed at researchers is rarely discussed in research training or in supervision. That’s my concern too.

But I’m also concerned about the effects of engaging with terrible situations.

It is not at all uncommon for researchers in the humanities and social sciences to want to research the experiences of survivors. Survivors of tragic one-off events or genocidal policies or war, or ongoing hostile policy agendas or hate-filled public behaviours. Or perhaps research into the toxic effects of everyday aggressions. You don’t have to look very far to see everyday aggressions, both macro and micro. Researchers who do this kind of work are usually driven by concerns for justice. Perhaps they have some experience of the topic of their research. But regardless of their own position, they are likely to encounter situations where they might experience strong emotional responses to the stories they hear and the events and contexts they come to understand.

As Ruth Behar says, it’s important that we don’t pretend that we don’t feel or care. But those emotions can end up causing us distress, anxiety and even trauma if we don’t look after ourselves. It’s important that researchers/we stay healthy physically and mentally. That’s about self-care.  That is enough on its own. But we also want to stay safe and healthy because we owe it to the survivors we’ve worked with to stay well so we can do their stories justice.

I suspect that fieldwork-related risk, safety, stress, anxiety and trauma are not well discussed in a lot of methods education. I’ve looked at the training courses I know about and not had a lot of joy in answering two basic questions – Where and how much are the risks of violence, trauma and stress arising from research discussed? (answer I haven’t a clue) Have I ever encountered this in researcher or supervisor training? (answer no)

Of course, fieldwork risks and post-fieldwork stress, anxiety and trauma are discussed in some locations and some texts (see for instance Helen Kara’s chapter on researcher well-being in her book Research Ethics in the Real World). And researcher safety and well-being is an increasingly important topic of conversation in disciplines like anthropology. But I reckon the university-wide conversation is patchy at best. It sits in tick-box in ethics forms or in anxious closed-door conversations in supervision.

The irony is that within universities we have disciplines which deal with risk, violence, stress and trauma. Professionals such as psychologists, social workers, counsellors – all of whom are educated in universities by our colleagues – have well-developed procedures for support and ongoing supervision to manage potentially tricky and damaging work-produced feelings and/or conditions. Why aren’t we routinely engaging these colleagues in research training?

It seems to me that there’s a much overdue public conversation about research-related safety, risks and trauma – but also a formal recognition that we actually have the resources available to us to take charge of structurally-produced consequences for researchers. If we have the wherewithal to make sensible institutional provisions to anticipate and deal with research-associated violence, risk, stress and trauma, why don’t we?

 And via Dr Kay Guccione: Check out the resources from Sheffield about emotionally demanding research

*See for instance a paper by Sinah Theres Kloß (paywalled), blog posts  here and here and here.

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Posted in academic writing, ethics, ethics of care, trauma | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

what is “measured” writing?

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I was recently part of a small discussion on another social media platform where someone reported that their supervisor had said their writing wasn’t sufficiently “measured’. Without seeing the actual work it was pretty hard to understand what the supervisor was concerned about. But everyone in the discussion knew that the term was vague, and therefore unhelpful.

But “your writing is not measured” is not an uncommon supervisor or reviewer comment. I wondered then, as I do whenever I hear it, what “measured” is code for. I could think of five possibilities.

The first. The text in question was not written in the third person, there wasn’t enough passive voice, and not enough multi-syllabled abstract nouns (nominalisations, or zombie nouns as Helen Sword calls them). In other words it didn’t read as ‘academic’. A lot of people think that academic writing has to be this way – passive voice, long sentences etc. Now, this style of writing is heavily criticised – many writing advice texts (Sword, Pinker, Billig) call for writing that is less complicated, that has a mix of short and long sentences, more active voice and far fewer nouny terms. But maybe this supervisor hadn’t read this good advice. Just because this advice is out there doesn’t mean that some supervisors have given up on convoluted and dense as the right way to write.

Following on, the second thought. The text didn’t have the right disciplinary flavour. Some disciplines, writing researchers tell us, are more characterised by personal feelings and value judgments. Writers in philosophy and education, for example, are more likely to express their own opinion than, say, those in engineering or biology. Perhaps this writer hadn’t written to disciplinary norms. Perhaps they hadn’t got the balance of personal feelings quite right. That’s hard and doesn’t always come straight away.

Or, third response, perhaps the writer was still in assignment writing mode and was more certain than is expected at doctoral level. They used too many strong boosters (clearly, definitely, absolutely, no doubt, extremely, obviously) and not enough hedges ( perhaps, somewhat, may, might, to an extent, possibility, almost). Strong boosters close down other possible interpretations, they leave little room for debate. They can make the writer seem overly assured, more sure of what they have to offer, when what is expected is something a little less assertive.

And fourth, maybe the writer just didn’t leave enough pointers in their text to critical thinking – they didn’t have enough references. They didn’t show that they had thought about possible counter-arguments. The supervisor was expecting to see sentences which started – alternatively, at the same time, however, on one hand and on the other, rather than, although, yet, conversely. Or perhaps the writer didn’t make their interpretations clear enough. They didn’t elucidate – in other words, to put it simply, to be precise – or give examples – here, specifically, in this instance, an illustration of this is.

And then finally. Measured. Yes. I recalled that my writing has sometimes been called journalistic. Too much personality, too much voice, too much idiosyncratic metaphor and style. This is of course why I like blogging. I like playing about with syntax – breaking the orthodoxies of the sentence and the paragraph. I enjoy mucking about with words, making up new terms, finding interesting analogies. And this is a choice on my part. I know perfectly well how to write a five sentence paragraph and the standard long academic sentence. I sometimes even write-this-way, particularly when writing for audit purposes (audit-oriented reviewers tend to be not-amused by experimentation). However, even when I’m playing with text, I do still take what I would call a measured stance towards the topic – I generally write to open up discussion rather than close it down. Did the supervisor confuse style with lack of substance, I wondered?

At the end of this chain of thoughts, I wondered about what advice I could offer. Like others in the discussion, I suggested that the writer go back and ask the supervisor to clarify. Ask them to show examples of “measured” prose and talk through its characteristics. I did suggest that the doctoral writer ask about boosters, hedges and critical markers, as well as whether there were enough references.

However, I don’t know what actually happened.

But I’m interested to know if anyone else has had the “not measured” comment about their writing, and if they were able to find out exactly what it meant. It‘s one of those elusive terms that suggest the presence of hidden rules and expectations. And we supervisors, bless us, often recognise a problem related to covert rule- breaking without being able to actually say precisely what the issues are.

And that’s about the lack of formal support for supervisor writing education, not individual inadequacy. Oh, don’t start me on that….

 

 

Posted in academic writing, argument, boosters, disciplines, hedges, measured writing, nominalisation, passive voice, stance, thingification | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

make a poster then write your paper

Im quite a fan of the academic research poster. However, posters have a bad reputation in some quarters. They’re sometimes seen as a “less than” – less than a conference paper, a second rate public presentation.

Ever heard anyone say – Oh my paper didn’t get in the main conference papers but they offered me a poster instead. It’s not worth me going in that case. Sound familiar? Or perhaps – There’s a poster session on next. I can give that a miss. There won’t be anything much for me there. That too?

These are an unfair and ill-deserved rap in my view. But not uncommon.

Presenting a poster at a conference can be A Good Thing.

Of course, for that to happen, the conference needs to have dedicated a posters time slot. Posters ought not to be something that get squeezed in instead of lunch – no time allowed really does say to people, this conference has posters but we don’t really value them.

But if the conference has been conscious of posters, has set aside time and advertised the session(s), then you may well find that the people who come to see your poster – with you standing next to it with your paper or handout – will actually be really interested. They will want to talk. The poster offers you the opportunity to chat, and there’s more chance of finding out where interests overlap. And who knows where that may go.

The research poster has uses after the conference too. It can be displayed in your office or corridor so that people in your building can see what you are doing. Very often, we don’t know that much about what the people we work with are actually researching, and posters on display give us the chance to see – and then follow up. And it’s good for students and visitors too to come into a building and see the kinds of research work that is done there.

BUT…

There’s another use for posters too. And that’s as a strategy to prepare a paper. Yes, a poster is a great way to get yourself organised for writing the conference paper or journal article.

Now, I often talk about tiny text abstracts as a way to start off a paper. And of course there’s free writing, the Pomodoro, with its variations of looping, ink-shedding, and use of prompts. You can also storyboard or use Powerpoint to sort out your paper too.

But posters are another good strategy for starting writing. Designing a poster is a bit like an abstract except that its longer. You have to produce more words. A poster is often about a thousand words. That’s not really a lot.

The key to the poster as writing strategy is that you have to sort out

  • the title – something that tells a passer-by or prospective visitor to your stand what your work is about, and what you have to say. It helps if your title is more than simply descriptive, but also signals to a reader your take-home point.
  • the beginning and end. Sorting out what needs to go at the start and the finish happen together. The introduction and conclusion “shake hands”. Your paper is going to start with some kind of problem, puzzle or question which you answer at the end. Your introduction also needs to set the puzzle in its context – and that context is what the So What and Now What that arise from your conclusion will refer back to. See my poster below for a simple example. I use ‘the blank screen’ at the beginning and end.
  • the middle is simple. It’s how you get from the question, problem or puzzle to your conclusion. This process may be through sections which look at literature, methods and results, or it may be a narrative made up of words and pictures. Or anything in between. What’s in the middle often depends on your discipline, and what kind of research you are doing. But whatever the middle of your poster is, it’s what takes up most of the words, because that’s the new stuff that you’ve done.

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Designing a poster and sorting out the sections and key content of each of them takes some time. In my writing workshops we usually take a couple of days – with the first day working on the title and the abstract. Then comes the actual poster, which doesn’t have an abstract on it by the way. The poster takes just a few more hours.

And yippee. Once you’ve made your poster, you are well on your way to writing the paper proper. You’ve already got it there in miniature form. You’ve done the hard graft of sorting out the title and the staging of the argument or narrative. It’s not so difficult now to think about working on each section and enlarging them.

Posters can do a lot of work for you in preparing a paper if you commit to them.

Posted in academic writing, conference papers, planning a paper, poster | Tagged , , | 3 Comments