a thinking tool (tt) for academic writing: front and backloading

I ‘ve decided to post more on some of the thinking tools that I routinely use in my own writing and in conversation with early career researchers. You’ll see them off and on over the next few months. I’m going to kick this little tt campaign off with the notion of front loading and backloading.

But before I get into specifics, let me say a little more about thinking tools. All thinking tools come from somewhere, and most of them emerge from writing research. While they do have research as their home, they are also concepts/terms that have a use on their own. They are capable of standing alone.

So what is a thinking tool? A thinking tool is really just a name for an idea, an idea which is useful. Thinking tools for writing can be used for diagnosis – you can use them to look at a piece of writing you’ve already done and see how it marries up to the idea. You can also use thinking tools for development – you can use them as you consider how to do a piece of academic writing. They aren’t a strategy, but they work as a kind of reminder, they are something to make sure that you either do or don’t do as you set about drafting.

Patter has already introduced some acwri (academic writing) thinking tools. For example:

(1) thingification – the process of making the subject under consideration into a ‘thing’ whose attributes can be refined, named and renamed, discussed and debated

(2) collocation – things put together so it seems as if they go together naturally

(3) signposting – the construction of a road map to the contents and argument of an article, chapter or thesis

(4) blank spots and blind spots – the things that your research method doesn’t allow you to see or say, and the things that you just don’t see

(5) the collective and inner library – a way of thinking about the scope of the literatures involved in your research and the particular corpus you are using.

So that’s what tt are, and now it’s time go on to the particulars of front and backloading.

This is a notion that I first came across in Patrick Dunleavy’s (2003) Authoring the PhD: How to plan, write, draft and finish a doctoral thesis or dissertation (Palgrave). Dunleavy points out that some doctoral theses are unbalanced because their authors have front loaded them – there is literally too much in the front section. Front loaded texts have an enormous literature chapter and an equally enormous methods chapter. Much less is therefore able to be written about the actual research – and this is after all the substantive contribution. Frontloading produces an unbalanced thesis where the claims for a contribution to knowledge are difficult to justify because there just isn’t enough stuff there, not sufficient working through the data and analysis to substantiate the claim of contribution.

Frontloading is a very common problem in research bids, where grant applicants spend all of their time justifying the need for the research and the literature they have read. However reviewers always look for a well-grounded and detailed research design, where there is a sound justification for the study which clearly articulates with the research questions. Frontloading research bids is a recipe for rejection.

The reverse textual strategy – backloading – happens less often, but it does happen. Backloading is where there is too little grounding in the literatures and/ or a scanty account of how the research was produced. There is however an agonisingly detailed trawl through the data and findings. This not only produces an unbalanced text but is also a flawed strategy. This is because there is simply not enough detail to work out what the research actually contributes to. It is as if the researcher is operating in some kind of intellectual vacuum in which nobody and nothing exists but their own work. In order to justify a claim to making a contribution to knowledge – or to a scholarly conversation – then the nature of that knowledge/conversation must be spelled out.

So in articles and theses it is important to go for balance. No frontloading and no backloading the overall text.

However in other forms of writing, a bit of front loading is often necessary in order to entice readers. Dunleavy and Gilson point out that blogs often need to be front loaded or people won’t bother to read on to find out what the point actually is. Journal articles are the same and so some succinct frontloading of the argument in the introduction and in the abstract encourages the reader to tackle the whole piece in order to find out more.

So that’s a tt – front and back loading. Use it for diagnosis and for development.

Do you have any other tts that you find useful that you’d like to see added to this list – with full credit of course?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in backloading, blank spot, blind spot, collocation, frontloading, signposts, thingification, thinking tool and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to a thinking tool (tt) for academic writing: front and backloading

  1. Mel McCree says:

    Thank you Pat! I’m deeply involved in writing up a thesis and constantly fighting off my desire to frontload. I sit down to write up the findings and find myself back fiddling in the previous chapters, perhaps as it feels more comfortable there? I shall invoke this post on a daily basis until I’m done now.


  2. Simon McGrath says:

    Pat, just come back to my hotel room in Suva after doing a writing workshop at The University of the South Pacific and have three papers from participants to read. Have just done the first and, yep, frontloaded. Lit review finished after 14 pages. Yes it is competent in many ways but what’s the contribution? I think that the frontloading also can have the effect – not just in this paper – of making it harder to work out what the author’s position regarding the literature is – as they lack sharpness. On a lighter note – the Head of School took down the ISBN etc of the new Thomson & Kamler book to order it for the library.


  3. Pingback: a thinking tool (tt) for academic writing: front and backloading | Learning-Teaching | Scoop.it

  4. Pingback: a thinking tool (tt) for academic writing: front and backloading | Translation Memory | Scoop.it

  5. Pingback: a thinking tool (tt) for academic writing: front and backloading | Academic Writing for Higher Education | Scoop.it

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