the problem with gap talk

Gap talk. You know, the “this research fills a gap in the literature” line. Most of us have made this statement at some point in our academic life. It’s the most common starter for journal papers, proposals and theses, according to genre researchers. They’ve identified three moves in the game of what they call CARS, Create a Research Space. CARS basically goes –

  1. Establish the context for the study
  2. Describe what is missing – the gap
  3. Identify how you will fill the gap

Yep, the gap is named, potentially filled and Bob’s your uncle – your paper is accepted, the research is funded, the supervisor allocated. But not so fast. CARS has been critiqued on a number of counts, including:

  • “Gap” overstates the reality of most disciplines. The majority of us work in occupied spaces where there is already a lot of research activity going on. When there actually is a big space – something worthy of the title “gap” – it is unlikely that one researcher and/or one research project will fill it. For this reason, some genre researchers (including John Swales who is credited with the original CARS formulation) are uncomfortable with the notion of a gap, arguing that what people usually find is a tiny niche not a yawning crevasse. So stating that you will fill “the gap” is generally researcher hubris rather than reality.
  • CARS is an additive model of knowledge. Knowledge is stable and more is continually added. Gap critics say this isn’t the situation in all instances. Critics say that the idea of a “gap” might work for some disciplines and types of research where adding is the way that knowledge is built. However, it isn’t right for all disciplines and research traditions – see this critique offered by qualitative researchers.
  • CARS is a timid notion. It doesn’t offer the possibility of identifying problems in existing knowledge traditions, nor of reframing questions which open up new directions. It’s anti innovation and change. Gap talk is fundamentally about preserving the status quo.
  • There might be a good reason why no-one has filled the gap – it’s not interesting, it’s not significant. Not being done is not enough of a reason to do a piece of research. At the very least CARS move 2 – Describe what is missing – needs to be accompanied by a justification for why it is important to attend to the lack of existing research.

These objections are all important. if you are going to make the warrant for your research a “gap” in the existing literatures, then it is certainly worth seriously considering these concerns. However, it’s the last objection I’m really concerned with. I want to ask the question – is filling the gap really the purpose of our /your/my research? is that all there is? I/we fill the gap and that’s enough?

I worry that the CARS three moves are too reduced, very over-simplified. That we’ve done the research equivalent of making a face out of a semicolon, a dash and a bracket. : – )

Using ”the gap”formulation as research warrant eliminates other possible formulations, variations on a theme which might be important. There surely are other ways to provide a rationale for your research. The “gap” is not all that there is.

To illustrate my point about variation, here’s a few examples. These examples are expressed colloquially – of course, they’d need to be tidied up a bit for “proper” academic writing. I’ve written these examples in pretty plain language to make my issue with over-simplification apparent.

  • The scholarly community in ( name discipline or sub discipline ) seems to agree on (this, these things).  

A next step is to… 

It is worth going back to…. to see if the early work still holds (describe change) …

We are not yet sure of whether (this) applies to/works with (topic)

It’s about time we reconsidered (this plus reason). My research therefore…

It’s urgent that we pick up the strand/pace of work which focuses on.. because….

  • The field of (name) research is based on a number of implicit agreements/assumptions. 

This research takes (one of these… say what) and puts it to the test through critical reading/empirical testing/ historical research/philosophical analysis. I …

  • There is a truckload of research about (topic) in ( discipline or sub discipline). 

Most of this research works with methods/literatures from…. This research brings a different body of work/different approaches to (topic), asking what this might add/show about…

Reviewing this work ( say how) suggests that the field might benefit from (what, say why)

This corpus was developed by people in particular contexts and of specific persuasions – the discipline is no longer like this/ it has different and new concerns/obligations/commitments. Therefore…

It is worth asking the question why nothing has apparently resulted from all of this work.

And why not simply:

  • It’s always puzzled me why…
  • The profession is in desperate need of… Government policy focuses on ( topic) but this fails to deal with (topic, information, context, situation, events)

I am sure that you get the idea here. And I am sure that you can add other formulations.

Of course most of these variations on research warrants could potentially be reduced to “gap” talk, if you were so inclined. But as I’ve written them, they do additional work. These alt. warrant wordings can be made quite specific to particular contexts, disciplines, research traditions and topics. And because these variations on research justifications offer particularity, they orient the researcher to their research purpose in a different way. They thus also offer something much clearer in relation to the So What and Now What at the end of the project. The purpose of the research is not simply to “fill a gap” but to do and be something much more targeted.

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Posted in gap-spotting, research warrant, thesis warrant, warrant | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

make your case stronger – argue against yourself

Argument is crucial to academic writing. It’s argue argue argue all the way. Once we have identified a problem or puzzle that we think is worth researching, we then make a case for research, creating the warrant for our work. We present evidence in a persuasive sequence. We argue that the research results have a logical conclusion – this is the basis for claims for “contribution”. We propose potential uses and significance of the research.

Academic argument depends on being able to produce the best possible information, presented in a convincing sequence. But we are usually advised we also need to take account of counter points. We need to consider and deal with different positions and troubling information. Wearing blinkers while arguing trips us up, stops us being credible.

An obvious way to address the negative is to find alternative views in the literature, or in the public realm. It’s straightforward then – just cite and counter. Right? Well, maybe. Simply mentioning and summarily dismissing may not be enough. You may need to understand more than the superficial to adequately address a different case.

It is often useful to spend a little time with different points of view and opposing arguments in order to strengthen your own. Here’s five playful but serious starter ideas for getting your head around arguments other than your own. These starters may well help you to see where you need more clarification, more boundary drawing, more references or additional information

1. Re-examine your original problem or puzzle.

Imagine that yourself are someone who thinks about this problem or puzzle differently. Become Reviewer 2 and write a short rebuttal of your initial premise. Be brutal. Suggest other reading. Point out the omissions, lack of definitions, the assumptions. Wait a day. Now look at how you have presented your opening gambit, the warrant for your work. What do you need to say to head off Reviewer 2? Do you need to explicitly reject their views or do you simply need to strengthen your own position?

2. Become devil’s advocate.

Brainstorm all the various ways your topic might be understood. Take just one of the different points of view. Sum it up in a sentence. Free write for fifteen or twenty minutes starting with the sentence. Leave the text for a day, then come back to it and ask yourself what this exercise might teach you about how to better present your case. What do you need to add, remove, rewrite?

3. Become a three year old.

Three year olds ask why all the time. On and on and on. Why? Why? Why? Do the same. Ask why about each move you make in the argument. Why? Why is this the next step? What else might come here? Where would an alternative move take the argument? Is this alternative defensible? Where do the whys lead you, do you need to re write your argument “red thread”? Add new steps? Change the order? Get rid of some information? Add more citations?

4. Think like a hack tabloid journalist.

Imagine you are a newspaper columnist or a political speech writer who supports exactly what you are arguing against. Write half a page about your research from their point of view. Make it colourful. No words of more than two syllables. No sentences longer than fifteen words. Wait a day. Then read the piece asking what this polemic might suggest you need to do. (This exercise is particularly good if you are about to write for non academic audiences.

5. Be a sci-fi writer.

Make like George Orwell. Or George R R Martin. Get dystopian. Imagine that the things you have suggested as So What and Now What – the implications of your study – have actually made things worse. Brainstorm what has happened. Wait a day and then use this information to analyse the weaknesses in your argument, conclusion and implications.

These negative strategies may be most helpful to you as part of getting from a first to second draft. They speak to the choreography of the argument as well as its details.

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a qual. research strategy – empathy mapping

I dont write much about research methods on this blog. That’s not because I’m not interested in research methods – I’ve published three methods texts, after all – but more because I’m pretty sure people who come here mainly want to read about writing. But the two things are not really that easily separated. The way in which you generate, analyse and interpret data, and what and how you write about your results, are linked.

The tangle of writing and analysis are generally an issue if you work with what are usually called qualitative approaches. And that’s often what I do. My preferred mode of research is to generate a hefty amount of wordy material. Even if I have numbers, which these days I often do, I am always more interested in the detail that you get from working with real live people.

Qual researchers get pretty familiar pretty quickly with the difficulties of writing about people who have given up their time to talk with you, who’ve invited you into their space and allowed you to walk away with recordings of their words, feelings, actions and selves. How do you account for this gift fairly and “truthfully”? You see, questions about representation do not stop at anonymity and confidentiality. There are other much more complicated issues related to harm, benefit, and doing justice to and for your participants. And I’m sorry to say that, in my experience, the more research training focuses on analysis as a primarily technical matter, the more many of these tricky ethical-representational-texting issues get left to individual researchers to sort out for themselves.

A step towards dealing ethically with people in text is to use strategies which help you to understand why your participants do what they do, say what they say, behave as they behave. Here is one strategy that might be helpful for you in considering what’s going on for your participants. It’s called empathy mapping.

Empathy mapping can be helpful at any stage of analysis, but it may be particularly useful if you have generated themes and want to put them together in narrative form. The story that you tell, and how you write it, will depend very much on whether you can see your participant as a sense-making person, as well as a set of themes and codes. Using an “empathy-explanatory” approach doesn’t mean you avoid normative judgments, but it does mean that judgment isn’t your first response. Your first move is to comprehend.

Caveat One before I start. This empathy mapping strategy is likely to be most helpful for people using some form of social or cultural analysis, or people who want to bring this disciplinary perspective to their data.

Caveat Two before I go on. It is important to understand that the empathy map is all about interpretation. It is thus always useful to ask yourself, as you do with any interpretation, how your own positioning might stop you seeing and understanding what’s in front of you.

Empathy mapping

Using the data you have generated – interviews, observations, conversations, artefacts – ask questions that help you focus on the participant’s point of view, experiences and motivations. Use quotations or observation notes as your answers – don’t brainstorm answers to the questions. Your goal is to get down the “stuff”, the data you’ve made during the research. If you can’t answer some of the questions, that’s OK. It’s helpful to know what you don’t know.


  • What is the participant doing? ( be specific, so dont just for example put “writing”, say what the writing tasks are)
  • What do they say about this doing?
  • What are they feeling when they are engaged in doing?
  • What are they seeing and hearing while doing?
  • What do they understand as “right” about what they are doing?
  • What do they enjoy about what they are doing?
  • What concerns do they have about this doing?

You might like to put these answers into diagrammatic form e.g. 

You might see some connections. Mark them in. And please do change these questions and adapt them for your situation and particular research project if these don’t do it for you.

Next ask yourself, what is the context in which this doing occurs? It often helps to think about the doings in two layers – the wider social-cultural context, and then the immediate institutional/organisational context. It’s helpful to specifically ask how wider social and cultural relations are interpreted and made into rules, customs, practices, narratives etc by the institutional/organisational. (Social scientists usually call this mediation).

Once you have elaborated the wider context and the institutional mediating layer you can begin to make more sense of your answers to (1) to (7). You can see how your participant’s actions, feelings, sayings, interactions, relationships etc have been both constrained and enabled by where and how they are positioned. You can also perhaps see how much choice and agency they have, and you can understand the logics of your participant’s actions and words.

At the end of these two moves, you are now much better placed to consider normative questions and any ethical dilemmas that may arise.

Note: The idea of empathy mapping comes from design practice. I have redesigned what is sometimes done in design, tailoring it for research.

Posted in data, data analysis, empathy mapping, qualitative data | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

make a poster – it may also help you write a paper

Academic posters. They are a thing. You can find academic posters at a lot of conferences. Ah, conferences. Remember when we had face to face conferences? Oh, that seems like a long time ago now – but when we had them, academic posters were often displayed in a separate conference room. Separate poster sessions may even have been timetabled – makers standing anxiously by their posters. Or the posters may have been cunningly positioned in the refreshments area to encourage conference attendees to browse.

The need to encourage viewing is a clue to the status of the poster. Even though conferences give prizes for the best posters, they are often seen as a lesser form of communication than the conference paper. There are, I am told, some disciplines which think highly of posters, but I am not in one. In my field, the academic poster is a somewhat unloved scholarly child.

However, the academic poster is, at its best, a neat and quick way to find out about research projects. The poster is shorter than a paper, can economically provide an argument and key supporting evidence, and often makes its point in a well-worded informative heading. Academic posters can do several communication tasks at once – attract viewers/readers, inform them, and persuade them of the trustworthiness and significance of the work. Posters also support networking and can help to build the researcher’s profile.

You often see academic posters displayed in university buildings. Poster displays are a great way for visitors, students and peers to find out about the research that staff and doctoral researchers are doing. It is a bit pointless though if they are not updated regularly and they start to sage, tatter and get clearly out of date! Academic centres and schools that take on the poster-as-ornamentation need to keep on top of the task.

Posters with this kind of conference after-life have both a specialist and a generalist audience. Even at conferences this may be the case. Poster information thus always needs to be assembled carefully. Making an academic poster is about clear and effective communication via a judicious choice of images, headings and texts. Posters also offer a chance to be a bit creative.

There is a load of online advice about making academic posters. Some is very specific – like this –

Characteristics of a Scientific Poster

This resource goes on to recommend fonts, font sizes, word lengths… You may not want to be so tightly prescribed.

And there are debates about academic posters – check out Mike Morrison’s video ( if you haven’t already seen it) which suggests that we might want to throw the dominant poster designs and conventions out the window and do something more daring.

Morrison’s work has provoked discussions, see here and here – and an entire twitter hashtag #betterposter of examples. If you search for posters in your discipline you may see a lot more than the usual rather dull three columns and cramped text – there’s comics and lots of free form posters about now.

But I often use academic posters as part of writing workshops. I go from writing the title using the key point to be made, to writing a structured abstract and then to making an academic poster. Making a poster forces you to think about viewers who can easily walk past your poster if it doesn’t immediately seem of interest. This awareness points you to the importance of

  • crafting a title that your viewer will find interesting and informative
  • writing a succinct warrant for the research
  • giving sufficient information about the research process to show that it meets the scholarly standards expected in your discipline
  • presenting the most important results in a form that is readily able to be understood (usually graphic as well as text)
  • making the take home message completely obvious and unavoidable
  • giving some indication of the significance of the results and their implications for further research policy practice scholarship. 

Most people do find that it is helpful to work through different iterations of their argument. Rather than several drafts and many thousands of words, you work with different writing genres, each of which supports you to add to your argument, while also allowing you to develop it. Each version of the paper gets bigger, and each version also focuses on communicating to a reader/viewer. In my workshops I also add in a powerpoint display and a conference handout.

You might want to try working through different genres, including the poster, to see if you too find it a useful strategy to build up to a paper. The bonus of the iterative strategy is that at the end you have a poster you can put online, above your desk, or in your corridor. As well, you have most of the bits and pieces that you need to actually submit an abstract to a conference or a journal as well as a coherent paper outline.

If you are new to making posters and want to experiment with poster-making as an aid to writing as opposed to make the most interesting poster on the planet, there are a load of free poster templates available – try these for starters. 

Or just grab a big piece of paper and a marker and free style it.

Posted in academic writing, conference papers, drafting, poster | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

academic writers as readers

Many academic writers are avid readers. That’s because there is a strong connection – not causal, but surely correlated, she says hastily – between reading and writing. Reading and writing are mutually beneficial, they feed each other.

I was thinking about the read-write connection just this morning as I sat reading the books section of the weekend newspaper.

As I slurped down my breakfast smoothie – strawberry, raspberry and banana with yoghurt in case you want to know – I got stuck into the regular column where writers talk about the books that they read. And I realised that we tend not to have these kinds of conversations with academic writers. We don’t ask what academic writers are reading at the moment, the books influenced them most, the book they wish they’d written, the book they are ashamed not to have read, the book they couldn’t finish, the book they always give as a gift.

This omission is perhaps a little odd, as we are always making reference to books – we publicise our own, congratulate our friends on their publications, and recommend and review books in our field. But we tend not to focus on ourselves as readers. We don’t seem to have a forum where we as writer-readers list current must-read academic books or share the new releases to read over summer.

I’m interested in what people read, and I do wonder why we don’t have more writer-reader conversations. But perhaps the questions asked in Saturday’s newspaper – influential books and so on – aren’t the kind that academic writers can readily answer. Or are they? So I decided to have a bit of a play with them to see what my responses would be. And here they are.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve got several things on the go. Academically, I’m half way through Mieke Bal’s (2002) Travelling concepts in the humanities. A rough guide (U of Toronto Press), which is helping me to get somewhere in thinking about inter/trans/multi-disciplinary work. And I’m dipping in and out of Laura Micchiche’s (2017) Acknowledging writing partners (University Press of Colorado, Boulder, OA) which I first bought because it had a chapter on writing with animal companions. With pictures. And graphs! But her book is much more than cats on keyboards and I do like her conclusion that academic writing has an “exuberant vitality” despite its “performative struggles”, and leaves us with a “completion afterglow”. Non academic books? I’m reading Michele Roberts (2020) Negative capability. A diary of surviving (Sandstone Press), her memoir about getting over her publisher rejecting a book manuscript. And for light relief I’ve just started Ajay Chowdury’s (2021) detective novel The Waiter (Vintage) about a failed Kolkata cop who ends up serving in a Brick Lane restaurant.

What academic book influenced me most?

It’s probably Bourdieu’s Distinction. I encountered this tome while I was doing my PhD. It was the first book I’d read that brought together economics, education, work and cultural practices. And Bourdieu is still my go-to to explanation for everyday life/experience, although I’ve flirted with lots of other writers and ideas since then. But if I could name two or three influential books, then I’d have to add Laurel Richardson’s (1997) Fields of Play. Constructing an academic life (Rutgers University Press) about being creative in social science writing, and Ruth Behar’s (1996) The vulnerable observer. Anthropology that breaks your heart (Beacon Press) on ethical self and other care in research.

What academic book do I wish I’d written?

No question, it’s Mike Rose’s (1989) Lives on the boundary. A moving account of the struggles and achievements of America’s underclass. (Penguin) Rose combines three strands: 1. a memoir of his own life, growing up as a poor Italian immigrant in LA and supported by a local parish priest to continue his education, 2. an account of the pedagogical practices at the University of California Writing Centre which he ran, and 3. stories of the first gen uni students who came to the Centre for help. It’s a wonderful example of a complex sociological narrative, beautifully written.

What book am I ashamed not to have read?

Well I have to say, in my field of education, it’s probably anything by Vygotsky. I’ve read lots about him and dipped in and out of some of his work but never really got stuck in. His work doesn’t really resonate with me despite how influential it/he is.

What book couldn’t I finish?

Too many to even name. But one that stands out and nags at me every time I look at my bookshelf is Luhmann’s Risk. I do feel like I ought to get to grips with Luhmann. Even though I have deliberately sought out talks about his work I just find the prose off-putting. Don’t @me please. We all have a Luhmann. We should talk about our Luhmanns more.

What “academic” book do I give as a present?

I often give people the not-really-academic books that have been given to me. So for quite a while it was Chris Kraus’ (2006) I love Dick (Semiotexte) – so good on the experiences of white women of a particular generation (thanks Becky). But my friend Chris recently gave me Didier Eribon’s Returning to Reims (2013 Semiotexte), a sociological memoir about class, home and education. Eribon astutely gets to the ambivalences and awkwardnesses of class mobility. Lots of recognition and resonances in there for me. So this is my gift of choice at present. You see the theme here I’m sure!

So there you go. My reader writer responses. How would you answer these questions? Have a go. It’s just a bit of slightly serious fun.

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concluding a paper

Conclusions can be hard. There are a few big traps that conclusion writers can fall into. In order to avoid them, try the following three things.

Deep breath. It’s good to be bold.

The conclusion generally requires bigging up what you’ve done. In a thesis you have to name and claim your original contributions. At the end of a journal article, you have say what readers now know that they didn’t know before they read your paper. So the conclusion summarises the stellar work that you’ve done. You say that you’ve made a pretty convincing case.

So, even if you don’t feel like it, you have to write the conclusion as if you have changed the reader’s mind, at least to some extent. They’ve learnt something by reading what you’ve written. They are less ignorant about your topic, as John Warner puts it. The conclusion is not a place to be bashful. But it’s also not a place to be a braggart. You have to hit just the right assertive tone, adding in enough caveats to show you know you haven’t done everything.

However you have done something. You can’t be timid and spend so much time discussing what you didn’t do that you convince the reader that the paper is unimportant. If you are not feeling much like an expert, writing with sufficient authority might require you to summon up a last bit of chutzpah. Go on, it’s worth it.

Think about moving the reader forward and then bringing them to a satisfactory stop

The conclusion needs some new insights that keep the reader engaged – usually called the So What and Now What  – also known as spelling out the implications for policy, practice, and/or further research. 

But what is this So What and Now What? It can help to think of the So What and Now What as completing the cotton reel structure of the paper. Journal articles typically start with a more general, abstract and/or contextual proposition. The bulk of the paper then moves inwards. But it moves out again at the very end to the general, abstract or contextual proposition you established at the outset.

So, at the end of the paper you may want to suggest that there are at least some answers to the problem you carefully identified and evidenced several thousand words ago. Perhaps there are significant consequences that logically follow from the argument you’ve made. You may want to project your line of argument into the future, hinting at what might come to pass. (You can see what this might look like in the two examples at the end of this post. )

Don’t rush. A truncated, trite, or cliched conclusion won’t do

You may find that you are running out of words by the time you get to the end of the paper. The temptation is just use the words you’ve got left. A mistake. The problem with fitting the conclusion to the remaining inadequate word count is that you may telegraph the important work that the conclusion has to do – you don’t make the case for contribution, nor do you offer any answers, consequences and projections. Coming to an abrupt stop and failing to address key concluding issues will leave the reader dissatisfied. My rough guide to managing conclusions holds that it’s better to go over the word count and then cut back overall as part of the revision process.

Trite and cliched conclusions are another story. I must confess that this is my particular weakness. I find it difficult to think of last sentences that aren’t the academic equivalent of “They all lived happily ever after”. Or perhaps something akin to Chicken Little’s pronouncement “The sky is falling, the sky is falling.” I have no easy remedies for glibness other than to say it’s probably helpful to know if you have an issue. I know the tendency to cliched is something I have to work on through several drafts. And so I do.

A strategy to try: Analysing conclusions

It’s helpful to have a look at how papers in your discipline conclude. Conclusions can vary depending on the purpose and nature of the paper as well as the field. And remember, there is no one best right way to write a conclusion, and you do see conclusions and discussions that don’t conform to the more usual pattern.

So, doing a little analysis of conclusions can very useful for seeing different ways to manage the process of finishing off. I’ve got a couple of examples from social science papers that show how an analysis can reveal conclusion moves and their rhetorical staging.

When you analyse conclusions the point is not to take the phrases used and apply them in your own work. No, the point is to see the argument moves and the ways that the author introduces points and elaborates. The argument moves are composed to persuade, written so that readers understand why what they have just read is important – readers should take note, remember and use.

Examples of conclusion analysis:

Paper One Conclusio(Politics, reporting on a new empirical data set)

  1. Connection with literatures

The approach taken in this article builds on some of the conceptual ideas of ( short outline of theory). 

2. Summary of results and Claim for contribution

Our findings provide important further evidence for the idea that … (summary of results and discussion which connect with the theory).

3. So What and Now What

Our article also points towards areas in need of further exploration – most obviously… (implications for research) 

The evidence here suggests that ( a bit more summary of results and discussion)  …Consequently it would be a mistake to assume that …  ( pointing out how not to interpret the results, a neat and assertive way to talk about what are often called limitations)

If… then… yet (Establishing a trend, and projecting possible social changes and what the results of this paper might have to suggest) 

The public response to ( current events) .. demonstrates that… But the policy response to .. is.. Yet … ( extrapolation from results of what might result if public policy continues in this direction).

Paper Two Discussion and Conclusion ( Sociology, arguing that the field needs to adopt a perspective from another discipline in order to tackle a topic of ongoing significant concern)

  1. Connection with literatures 

While existing literatures have mentioned ( topic) in the form of.. and highlighted… 

2. Summary of results and Claim for contribution

We have shown here that…. ( outline of the key ideas that make up a “new perspective”) This perspective can add… 

3. So What and Now What

Adopting this perspective could for example ( what might be added to the literature if further research is done using the ideas in the paper)

These ( ideas developed in this paper)  could help us go further in understanding… (everyday problem) These…  are likely to be … 

Further empirical work could use (ideas developed in the paper) outlined here to… For example…. ( outlines a current pressing policy problem)

Drawing on ( ideas outlined in the paper) … adds further.. ( outlines policy area lacking evidence) 

( Ideas in the paper)…. could also further develop .. The example of the ..( outlines a practice problem)  illustrates this possibility… ( shows how ideas developed in the paper might be applied to the problem)

The ( another problem but this time in research) is also worthy of further inquiry. Adopting (the ideas outlined in this paper) could… 

Additional posts about conclusions

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Posted in conclusion, journal article, so what | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Structuring and sequencing chunks of writing

Writers think about structure, a lot. They don’t necessarily tell that to their readers. That’s because writers often want their readers to focus on what’s been written, rather than how it’s been organised. But yes, there are loads of texts where writers play with structures and want the reader to notice. But even then they don’t always tell the reader what they are doing. They show, rather than tell all.

However, academic writers are in the business of explaining what they/we do. We generally signpost what we’re going to say, as well as the order in which we will present our information and argument. Unlike the novelist, we often give away our end point at the very beginning. No surprise twist for us. But we may still do some structuring of our text that we don’t make explicit.

Yet here’s the thing. Even when we haven’t pointed out what structure we are using to organise our “stuff’, what it is and why it’s the way it is, academic readers often “feel” the presence of structure. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that readers notice the absence of structures, and/or when we shift the logics of one structure to another mid-stream, without saying anything.

Academic writers have a load of common structures to call on to sequence and order material and ideas. These common modes of organisation can be used in small bite sized morsels, for tables and graphs and paragraphs, as well as in larger chunks of writing about literatures, methods and results.

It really is helpful to understand the most common ways to structure academic writing. When we know what the options are, we can consciously choose the way we want our readers to encounter our material and to engage with the case we are making. So academic writers are, like any other writers, choosers. Choosers from a range of possible structures.

Here are some of the most common structures used in academic writing:

Pyramid structure related to specificity

  • Abstract to concrete, and concrete to abstract
  • General to specific, and specific to general
  • Wider context (big picture) to specific local instance, and the reverse, specific to general

Pyramid structure related to complexity

  • Simple to complex (not so often the reverse, but never say never)
  • Easy to difficult (not so often the reverse)

Linear structure related to scale, number and size

  • Few to many, or many to few
  • Lowest to highest, or highest to lowest
  • Small to big, or big to small
  • Wide to narrow, or narrow to wide

Linear structure related to familiarity

  • Known to unknown (rarely unknown to known)
  • Open-ended to fixed, or fixed to open-ended

Linear structure related to chronology

  • Newest to oldest, or oldest to newest

Structure related to function

  • Compare and contrast
  • Point and counter point
  • Call and response
  • Evidence and interpretation

This is not an exhaustive list mind you. Just the structures you’ll see a lot.

These structures may also be combined. The text may not be a simple this to that. It is more a case of this to that, and then back to this again. For instance, a very common way to think about a paragraph is to see it as beginning with a sentence about something quite general, then it moves to specifics than moves back out again to something more general. The last general paragraph sentence leads onto the next paragraph general opener. This cotton reel structure will be and feel familiar to readers. A lot of academic articles work the same way, with the introduction beginning out wide with context/background then narrowing to specifics. The conclusion moves back out again.

Understanding structure matters. Knowing your structural options can help you when you want to knock some shape into those pages of brain dump you produced during a timed rewriting session. And one of the things to look for when revising is the consistency of structures. If, for example, your tables are a mix of high to low and low to high, this is likely to be confusing for the reader. If the axes on graphs are ordered inconsistently, it’s harder for readers to easily grasp the information because they are constantly adjusting to how it is presented. Getting to grips with structure means keeping your reader in mind.

You can build your understandings of structure by looking for the ways in which other academic writers have structured their text. When you see a table for instance, ask yourself – How has this table been structured? Is this the only way the information might have been presented? What are the advantages of this structure? What are the downsides? Is there a better alternative? When you recognise a structure, let’s say a chronological discussion of events, ask yourself – What is the advantage of a timeline approach? What might it make more difficult to establish? (A chronology tends to be descriptive, so look for the presence or absence of argument).

A caveat before I’m done. If we are thinking about how to structure a thesis or a set of results chapters we might use themes or the moves in an argument as the basis of the sequencing and chunkings of stuff. There are a range of narrative structures that can be adapted for academic purposes too. We can also organise big book writing around artefacts and/or specific texts. However, chances are that within the broader structural decisions about text, there will still be a load of other, smaller choices to be made about how to order and present discrete pieces of information.

Structuring academic writing is not about applying a template or a format, but is about writerly choices. Even if your writing is framed by conventions and genres, there are always choices to be made. Keeping your reader in mind is a key to making good structural decisions.

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the thesis discussion – making the move work

This post comes back again at the discussion “chapter”. It seems you can never say too much about this tricky bit of the thesis.

A caveat before I start. This post is written from a social science perspective and offers a fairly orthodox view of what a thesis has to do. I think it has applicability in other disciplines – but do read this from your particular perspective. I’m not attempting a one size fits all explanation here. If that’s OK with you, read on.

The key to the discussion, whether it is a chapter or not, is understanding its place in the logic of the thesis argument. It’s the nearly final step in a chain of moves. And the discussion leads up to the big claims for contribution and significance.

The most common way to stage an argument in the thesis goes something like this:

  1. Here is a puzzle/problem/question worth asking. If we know more about this puzzle/problem/question then something significant (policy, practice, more research) can happen.
  2. Here is what we already know about the puzzle/problem/question. I’ve used this existing knowledge (literatures) to help: my thinking and approach; my research design; make sense of my results; and establish where my scholarly contribution will be.
  3. Here is how I designed and did the research in order to come up with an “answer”.
  4. Here’s the one/two/three clusters of results.
  5. Missing step
  6. Now here’s my (summarised) “answer” to the puzzle/problem/question I posed at the start. On the back of this answer, here’s what I claim as my contribution(s) to the field. Yes I didn’t do everything, but I did do something important. Because we now know my answer, and we didn’t before I did the research, then here are some possible actions that might arise in policy/practice/research/scholarship.

The missing step in these argument moves is the discussion (a chapter or section of the last chapter). Number 5’s job is to get you from your clusters of analysed results to the “answer” to your original problem/puzzle/question, and your big claim of now knowing something more than when you started. (Even if that knowing is tentative and only part of what you might want or need to know.)

Before I go on, I need to say that an argument move is not always a discrete chapter. Very often, and depending on the discipline, the thesis structure won’t conform precisely to these argument moves. What to say doesn’t equate exactly to how it is organised and said. But these moves generally exist in a thesis, even if they are structured differently, and/or written in a different style than conventional social science or scientific prose.

Now that second caveat is out of the way, let’s go back to the missing step. You are paused at the point where you have your one/two/three clusters of analysed results. You’ve done 4, so what’s 5?

Well, move number 5 is where you say what the one/two/three results clusters add up to. When you look at all of these results together, when you take a step back, what do they make as a new combination? What is their aggregated, net message/meaning?

Being able to say what your results add up to doesn’t mean repeating each of the analysed results clusters. You’ve already done that. Don’t do it all over again. You have a+b+c, so what is the = ?? ( It’s probably an x) In a thesis, the discussion sum is always greater than the results parts. Bringing the analysed results together means that you can/must say more than you already have. You need to move your argument on. You need to show that a+b+c=x.

How do you start thinking about this? Bringing the analysed results together and moving the argument forwards also means going back to your problem/puzzle/question. So ask yourself, if the analysed results together make some kind of answer or response to my initial problem/puzzle/question, what is it? What is x?

Depending on your discipline and research design your final discussion, your x, might take a lot of additional work e.g.:

  • an explanation of why the results are as they are: you might use a theoretical or conceptual framing
  • a cross-case analysis, or key points arising from a set of design experiments, action research cycles etc
  • development of a heuristic, or a new or modified conceptual frame, or a set of underpinning principles etc

This additional work might actually be a large and separate chunk of writing, it might be a very substantive bit of work.

And then, what next? Well, if you want to claim that a+b+c=x is a contribution, you need to get back into conversation with the relevant literatures. What does a+b+c=x say about/to the existing body of research? ( That’s the literatures you discussed earlier.) Then, what do you have to say that is different and interesting? What is your new news? ( Hint – it may well not be entirely the same as your x, as x may have some components that are already in the literatures.)

If you do this – establish a+b+c=x and put it in conversation with the existing literatures- you’ve filled in the missing piece in the overall thesis argument. You’ll have made the discussion move.

So the thesis moves become these:  

  1. Here is a puzzle/problem/question worth asking. If we know more about this puzzle/problem/question then something significant (policy, practice, more research, scholarship) can happen.
  2. Here is what we already know about the puzzle/problem/question. I’ve used this to help: structure my thinking; my research design, make sense of my results and establish where my scholarly contribution will be.
  3. Here is how I designed and did the research to come up with some kind of answer.
  4. Here’s the one/two/three clusters of results.
  5. Here’s x, what these results add up to, and here’s my new news for the field.
  6. The x is my “answer” to the puzzle/problem/question. The new news is what I claim as the contribution(s) to the field. Yes I didn’t do everything. But I did do something important. Because we now know this new news, and we didn’t before I did the research, then there are some possible actions to be taken (policy/practice/research/scholarship).

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revising – nine steps for making meaning

In 1973 the late Donald Murray published an essay in The Writer in which he argues that writing begins when the first draft is completed. From then on, he says, the writer revises, reads and changes their words, closing in on the meaning they are trying to make. Revision isnt a virtuous act, Murray states, it is simply an integral part of the writer’s practice. No more, no less. You write, you revise.

The writer – or the maker as Murray calls them – has to learn to read their own work critically, but not so critically that it paralyses them. They must be able to read in order to cut away the meaning-less and get nearer to what they want to say.

Revising for meaning cannot simply depend, Murray asserts, on the feedback of others. Other people do not necessarily know what the writer is trying to say. Readers’ comments may point the writer in a direction that they don’t want to take. The writer may even be unaware of the going-off-course effect because they are not yet sure themselves where their writing is going. Writers need to be their own best critical readers. Murray suggests an order of critical reading for meaning-making revision work. While his advice on ordered reading is directed towards fiction and non-fiction writers, it is also salient for academic writing.

When I first read Murray’s essay, a long time ago now, I was pleasantly surprised to see his reading order laid out, as it is pretty well what I do in my own revision. It is also the order I use for reading multiple drafts of doctoral chapters and theses (although I am now thinking about Murray’s comments about writers not relying too heavily on the feedback of others.)

In case you dont know Murray’s work, I’ve adapted his critical reading order list here. I not only like his list, but I also like that he says that makers don’t always do these steps in a neat linear fashion. Experienced writers combine some of these steps.

The idea of this Murray revision strategy is to use these nine steps as questions to guide your reading of your own draft text.

1. Information

Does the text contain enough information? Murray argues that all readers need to find accurate and interesting information in a text. Academic readers probably expect more information and more of information than other readers, they want to find analysis. They also want references to other literatures and to data sets to ensure that they can trust the information provided. If there isn’t enough ‘stuff’, an academic text will have no foundation and can easily be blown over, just like the three little pigs’ house of straw.

2. Meaning

Writing must convey something of significance. Each piece of information in a text provided leads the reader towards a meaning worth making, Murray says. Academic readers expect a novel and worthwhile contribution from their reading. So writers need to ask whether their text has a real point to make.

3. Audience

Successful texts connect with their readers. Academic texts are no exception to this “rule”. Does the text have a sense of the likely academic reader? Are there sufficient signs and signposts which will help the reader to connect with the text and to follow its meaning making moves?

4. Form/genre

While academic writing genres are often predetermined, it is always worth querying, for example, whether you have chosen the right one. Is the text in a form suited to both the audience and your purpose? Is what you are trying to make a blog post really a paper, and vice versa?

5. Structure

Academic writing is most often an argument. Ask then, is the reader taken logically through the text to the end point? Is each move in the argument backed by the appropriate amount and kind of information? Are all of the moves in the right order? In the order that readers expect and that is part of the genre? Perhaps this is the time in the revising process, Murray suggests, where the writer needs to construct an outline (sometimes called a reverse outline) in order to reveal and check the “hidden spine” of the text, the logic of its construction.

6. Development

Each section of the text now needs separate attention. Does each section have enough of the right information for the reader to be able to follow the moves of the argument? Does the reader have enough guidance to understand what this particular section does, and its place in the overall text? What needs more work?

7. Dimension

While working on developing each section, the writer also needs to keep an eye on the whole.  One section must not get so developed that it grows more substantive in length or information than is warranted by its contribution to the whole. Is the text balanced?

8. Voice

The writer works on making sure that the text is written with authority, that their critical, evaluative, individual stamp is marked on the text. Does the text feel and sound like it’s you as the writer?

9. Craft

The writer/maker now, Murray suggests, moves closer and closer to the text. “Each sentence, each line, each clause, each phrase, each word, each mark of punctuation, each section of white space between the type has to contribute to the clarification of meaning”, he says. Every change has to be checked, he suggests, to ensure that it adds to the meaning – not detract or obscure. Murray sees this as an enjoyable stage of revising – new meanings appear unexpectedly, as writers “rub words against each other” and as the potential multiple meanings of individual words come into play.

I like Murray’s emphasis on the importance of crafting.

The maker’s eye moves back and forth from word to phrase to sentence to paragraph to sentence to phrase to word. The maker’s eye sees the need for variety and balance, for a firmer structure, for a more appropriate form. It peers into the interior of the paragraph, looking for coherence, unity, and emphasis, which make meaning clear.

I am not sure I always do enough to point the PhDers I work with towards the pleasures of word-crafting. I am sure that I stress the necessity of revising and the inevitability of multiple versions of a text. Perhaps making the notion of making as explicit as Murray does might help to indicate the enjoyable aspects of revision. But regardless of whether I – or we –  can reach enjoyment in revising, I reckon that Murray’s order of reading steps are still very helpful for both doctoral writers and their supervisors. 

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required, desirable and delightful elements of academic writing

This is the time of year that I run writing workshops and courses. And because I’m preoccupied with teaching, I’m also thinking about new and different strategies for authoring and revision. Authoring and revision strategies are inter-related – heuristics used for authoring can often be converted for revision purposes and vice versa.

I sometimes find inspiration for teaching in surprising places. Like the design literatures. This post features a modification of a tool used by designers to prioritise the features and attributes of an artefact and to assess potential user satisfaction. Meet the Kano Analysis.

Kano Analysis is a tool designers use instead of, or as well as, a cost-benefit analysis. I was initially interested in KA because one of its concerns is delight. Designers assess an artefact not simply on essentials such as durability, utility and ease of use, but also on whether it somehow pleases/excites the potential user.

Now I know there is a real intellectual problem in thinking about an academic text as a product, and using terms like usability and customer satisfaction. Nevertheless, I think there is some mileage in adapting the Kano Analysis for academic writing, not least for its unexpected emphasis on delight and its prioritising of the reader. It also assumes the designer-writer has agency, they make deliberate authoring choices.

So to my beginning play with Kano Analysis… the KA works with five key criteria around (1) required elements, (2) desirable elements, (3) neutral elements, (4) anti-features and (5) exciters. The first three seem really helpful for authoring and all of them in revision. Here, I’ve worked with four of the KA criteria – I’ve left out neutral. My workshop idea is to pose a big question about each of the KA elements and then have workshop participants to fill in the details themselves.

But I think the KA could work for DIY too. In the working that follows, I’ve taken the thesis/dissertation as the example. But you could use any other genre from refereed paper to blog post. I hope you can see how this adapted Kano Analysis might be used in a workshop situation or as a self-guided process. It might also be the basis of a conversation in a writing group or with your supervisor.

  1. Required elements

Big Question: What elements does the thesis have to have?

A thesis needs a defined focus, clear question(s) or hypothesis, sound knowledge of scholarly and other relevant literatures, a robust research design, evidence that the research has been conducted thoroughly and ethically, a clear argument and organisation, a clean text with accurate referencing, and an explicit contribution. 

The examiner looks to these required elements to make the decision about whether the thesis is “doctorate worthy”. If the thesis has these required elements the odds are in favour of the writer having only minor or tiny corrections to make. Perhaps even none. Major corrections usually signifies that one or more of these required elements is missing or dealt with in a cursory way. 

These required elements are not the same as the thesis structure, nor are they a style or mode of presentation. There are various ways to structure and write a thesis to incorporate the required elements. But some disciplines and examiners may see a particular thesis structure as required, and if this is so, you need to add that to the above list together with any other disciplinary necessities.

2.Desirable elements

Big question: What desirable attributes will lead the examiner to evaluate the thesis more favourably?

Now this is where things get interesting. A desirable thesis attribute in my discipline is likely to be different from yours. And examiners will differ too within disciplines. However, I’m guessing that the vast majority of examiners desire/want the thesis to be a ‘good read’ – that is, they want the thesis to be elegantly written, not simply technically correct. I also like the thesis to tell me something about the researcher, not simply via a personal narrative, but also in the ways in which they show understanding: this goes to the ways in which the thesis writer expresses their interpretations, what is sometimes called “voice”. And isn’t this a good conversation to be having about the thesis? Getting beyond the required to what’s additionally desirable.

Having desirable on top of required elements doesn’t necessarily get the thesis writer into the no corrections category, but it can certainly favourably dispose the examiner in that direction. However, a well written thesis which doesn’t have the required elements will share the same fate as its less well written thesis counterpart.

3. Anti-features

Big question: What thesis attributes will examiners perceive negatively? 

Pretty well all examiners complain about poorly presented texts. Academics are used to reading reasonably error-free texts, and examiners will be distracted and annoyed by mistakes on every page, a muddled reference list, inconsistent referencing style or incorrect citations. Most examiners are also irritated if they get lost in the text, particularly if they are reading it over several sittings. Economical signposting helps the examiner know where they are, but you might alternatively take a more creative approach. I also get annoyed when I have to frequently skip backwards and forwards between an appendix and chapters, and I am distracted by too much important information in footnotes or endnotes.

Disciplinary differences are important in relation to anti-features and often relate to the ways in which data is presented. And there are other things that put particular examiners off. My discipline expects that the researcher will write about their connection to the research and subsequent implications for research conduct. However I get bothered by a lot of “I” writing if the “I” is not the major research focus. I also hate to get a thesis which frequently repeats itself, and where there is a lot of essay-like writing, particularly about literatures and methodology. I suspect I’m not alone in this.

It is helpful to consider anti-features when writing, but it’s particularly helpful when revising.

The next and final KA element is not compulsory. It’s delight. You don’t have to have exciting elements in the thesis. The very thought of having to delight will worry some people. Don’t read on if this is you. But for those who are not put off by the idea of delight, then..

4. Exciters

Big question: What surprising elements of the thesis will delight the examiner?

I rarely hear this question asked. It is an even more interesting proposition than thinking about desirable elements. I haven’t seen delight given a lot of space in academic writing literatures or writing advice. I haven’t done this myself, largely because I think that it is important to focus on the bottom line of required elements and anti-features. However, exciting the examiner might be, well, exciting to consider.

There will certainly be disciplinary and examiner differences in answers to questions about delight. An examiner might well be exhilarated by the thesis that produces insights that are novel and innovative (but not the Nobel prize), and/or where the thesis writer has shown creativity in their analysis and/or has played with the thesis structure and/or has used multiple media in the final text in engaging ways. None of these of course are a substitute for required elements. No examiner is keen on style over substance. But substance plus style? Yippee.

The theses that get through without corrections are generally exciting in some way. They offer the examiner something that is compelling, truly captures them. But many theses with minor corrections also have something for examiners to get enthusiastic and energised about. Examiners are not too hard to interest. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many theses do delight their examiners!

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Posted in examiner, Kano Analysis, revision, thesis | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments