managing the #phd- keep a reading journal

Reading is integral to research. Everyone says that, and it’s true. It’s also true that you need to find ways to read, note and keep track of all that reading. This is in part a question of tools and strategies. But tools and strategies are necessary but not sufficient. 

You need to make sense of your reading. This is not just so that you can write short reports for your supervisor and then a literature review. Making sense of the reading is about understanding scholarly conversations – what they are, who is involved, the debates, tensions, silences, assumptions and holes. Making sense of the reading is finding the pleasure in scholarship. 


One of the things that can help you in making sense of your reading is a reading journal. A reading journal is not so much a place to keep track of what you’ve read. It’s not a data base. Nor is it a place where you keep the key points that arise from each piece of reading. A reading journal is not a set of summaries. A reading journal is a place to keep track of what you are thinking about what you’ve read.

It’s a place where you can write what that the readings have prompted or provoked.

It’s a place to record questions that you may have about arguments or evidence.

It’s a place to explore ideas, both sensible and off the wall.

It’s a place to speculate about how the readings might come together.

It’s a place to store possible ways to connect the reading to your research.

It’s a place to record key quotations that resonate strongly with you.

It’s a place where you can write about the things you don’t understand and the things you want to know more about.

It’s a place to contain the curiosities, excitement, anxieties that the reading provokes.

It’s a place to argue with the authors of the texts you’ve read.

It’s place to see what you can add to the ideas already in the scholarly archive.

A reading journal is about your responses. It’s a way of supporting you to develop response-ability. It’s an aide-memoire and a practice of reflection.

A reading journal can be a digital document, or folder or written by hand in a carefully chosen notebook. Or whatever. No rules. No prescribed formats. What suits you. If your reading journal is digital, it can be hyperlinked to your references or reference library. But it doesn’t have to be. The reading journal is not about being efficient. It’s about thinking. The reading journal might collect together highlighted notes that you make on some pieces. But  it ain’t necessarily so – it’s not a database. I know I’ve said that already, but it’s important. A reading journal is an open text. 

Think of a reading journal as a writer’s resource book. As a place to experiment with interpreting ideas. As a place to develop your own writer’s voice. A place where you get to decide which and how other writers enter. A place that is not overrun by established researchers. 

A reading journal foregrounds your moments of engagement with scholarly thinking. A reading journal can be an important path for being and becoming researcher. Researchers are never the finished article – we are always learning. The PhD simply begins this process.  And writing about, from and with our reading is a key to growing our scholarship and ourselves as scholar.  

Read it, journal it.

(With thanks to Chris who reminded me recently about the benefits of reading journals.)

Photocredit: Bea Mahon. Sketchbook-011

Posted in journaling, reading, reading journal, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

what does a book proposal reviewer do?

A post for academic book week.

When you send in a book proposal to a publisher, chances are that it will be sent out to reviewers. This is peer review – and a version that actually gets talked about very little.

The publisher often asks you to recommend two to three proposal reviewers. When you make these recommendations, it’s important to pick people who look credible. Your nominated reviewers should be people who know your work, and who are also likely to be considered as ‘an expert’ by the publisher.

Now, reviewers don’t have to be academics. It depends on the type of book you are proposing. If you are writing a book where you are looking for professional readers for instance, you could recommend someone in a professional field. This person should be someone who is influential and is able to speak on behalf of others.

The publisher will probably go to at least one of your recommended reviewers. But they are also likely to go to at least one other reviewer that they know. This may well be an experienced author who they publish already, someone whose judgment they trust because they have found over time that they are likely to give an honest and helpful opinion. But bear in mind that your unknown reviewer could even be the author of the book that is most like yours.

So, what does the publisher want from a reviewer? The publisher is looking for someone who will help them make the decision about whether to publish your book. They want to know for instance about the:

  1. quality of underpinning scholarship

Is the book about something interesting? Is the line taken in the book defensible? Does the argument as presented in the proposal seem well evidenced? What are its strengths and weaknesses?  Are there any obvious flaws? Does it have a particular angle that is new and worthy of sharing? Is there anything glaringly obvious you have left out?

  1. quality of writing

Can you write? How well is your actual proposal written? How well is the sample chapter written? Do you have a clear and realistic idea of the readers you are writing for? Is the writing style a good fit with the target readers?

  1. potential readers

Who will find the book of interest? Is the book going to sell to a lot of people, or just a few? Will it be used in courses, and if so which ones? Will this be a book for the university library? Does it duplicate something already out there? If so, is your book likely to be competitive and if so, why? Would the reviewer buy the book or recommend it?

Reviewers are also generally asked to make an overall recommendation – If they were the publisher, would they publish this book – yes or no?



You might be wondering how important the peer review process is. Is it just a ritual that publishers go through? Something that has to be done but really they take no notice of? Well, no. What your peers say matters. Publishers already know a lot about the academic book market. They know their list, and that of their competitors. However, they want to make a commercial decision based on more than one point of view. They want to put their understandings up against that of people who know the field as scholars.

And yes, it is quite possible for a book proposal to be scuppered by a set of negative peer reviews. Yes, it is equally possible – but not that common – for a publisher to decide to go against the recommendations of reviewers. So…yes, publishers take the views of peer reviewers quite seriously. And they expect you to do so too. They almost always send the reviews to you, and ask you to respond to any concerns or criticisms.

And what do peer reviewers get out of the process? Well, peer book proposal reviewers are often paid in cash (a small token) or books (usually worth more). The publishers think enough of the process to put something into it – unlike journal peer reviews. However, by and large, reviewing book proposals is just another part of the unseen gift economy of scholarship.Something we do to help each other, and at the same time, the publishers who may, or may not, be commercial and for profit. 

See sample book proposal forms – Routledge, Sage, Bloomsbury, Policy Press.

See Wiley Blackwell and Palgrave Macmillan advice on proposal reviews.

Posted in book proposal, peer review, reviews, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

managing the PhD – keeping a journal

The PhD is often stressful and trying. Nevertheless, most people do get through it. Many PhDers keep a journal to help work through the difficulties, challenges and worries that they experience. 

Writing about the everyday can of course just be a wallow. A self indulgent moan that goes nowhere. However, verbalising concerns and putting them in writing can not only be cathartic but also lead to very helpful insights. Journaling can be a powerful way to both reflect on problems and resolve them.


Some people choose to make their journals public via a blog. Others keep them, analog style, in a notebook. And there is a cumulative running document on the desktop, with each entry dated so that ‘change’ can be tracked over time.

If you’re thinking of starting off a PhD journal, or you’re just a bit stuck on what to write about in a reflective journal, here’s a little listicle of prompts that might kick off a (new) line of thinking.

  • Strategies that help me cope
  • How stress affects my ability to get things done
  • Something I’ve learnt from failing
  • What I do when I feel inadequate
  • Challenges that I have overcome
  • Things that worry me about the PhD
  • Am I too competitive?
  • The best advice I’ve been given about the PhD was…
  • I can best organise my time by…
  • I am really motivated to/by…
  • I need to work with my supervisors/advisers on…
  • I am good at…
  • I have learnt since starting the PhD that…
  • The last time I did something difficult… 
  • I deal with negative thoughts best when…
  • Things that I have in common with other PhDers
  • How I manage ‘the university’
  • The key thing I have to remember is…
  • The feedback that most helps me is…
  • The PhD goals I’ve already reached are…
  • Dealing with things I can’t immediately change means I need to…
  • People who support me are usually …
  • Am I too hard on myself?
  • Risks I will and won’t take
  • Academics I admire generally…
  • I am really looking forward to…
  • When and where I work best
  • The book that has most stuck with me is…
  • My favorite part of the PhD is… 
  • Ethical issues I need to keep in mind are…
Posted in journal, journaling, PhD, reflection, reflection on learning, starting the PhD, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

managing the #phd – reMIND me

This is a guest post by Donna Franklin, an applied psychology alumnus of Nottingham University. Donna candidly shares her challenging academic journey to finding mindfulness, a helpful strategy with which to navigate the emotional landscape of the PhD.

‘Can I really do this? ‘Am I good enough? Sound familiar? Ever heard of Imposter Syndrome? Ever feel you are an imposter who is masquerading doing a PhD? Well you are not alone. I worried myself with continuous doubts of not being good enough for a long time.

Chancing upon the massive on-line course Survive Phd15 run by Dr Inger Mewburn from the popular ‘The Thesis Whisperer’ blog, the course focused the often unspoken emotional journey of the PhD process. I was introduced to Imposter Syndrome,  which resonated strongly. It seemed to encapsulate my own challenging academic journey. Even though I had trained as a clinical psychologist, I hadn’t come across Imposter Syndrome before, (as it is not considered a diagnosable emotional disorder), nevertheless I was curious to see if it might shed some light on my difficult PhD journey which, I was beginning to realise, ran deep.

As a result of my underlying doubt, my PhD experience triggered anxiety and then later depression that impacted significantly on my ability to perform.  Regarding myself as spiritually minded, my interest in the benefits of mindfulness grew as I began to recognise the therapeutic similarities between my meditative interests and the various stress-reduction strategies used in clinical practice.  Given the emotional upheaval, my priority was to protect against any return to an unbalanced state by taking part in a Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) training course. Seeking a practical way in which to align heart and mind (thoughts and feelings), I was keen to experience the  emotional benefits of mindful meditation as: better concentration, increased self-awareness, non-judgemental acceptance together with the cultivation of ‘letting-go’, as the attitudes supporting positive mental health and wellbeing.

 Mindfulness is characterised as the activity of ‘paying total attention to the present moment with a non-judgemental awareness of one’s inner and outer experiences’ (Kabat-Zinn, 1994).  As a state of awareness achieved through meditative practice, its core attributes have been identified as:

  • the awareness of sensation
  • a non-judgemental acceptance of experience

Self-awareness and non-judgemental acceptance are offered as therapeutic aims for relapse prevention from depression. They are effective antidotes to the avoidance, procrastination and worry that often feed doubtful thinking. Seeking to ‘slow things down’ in order to increase awareness of the present moment ‘here and now’, individuals learn how to be less reactive and judgemental of their experiences, helping themselves break free of the unhelpful thoughts and actions that maintain doubtful thinking.

With practice, the emotional benefits of mindfulness have been found to be:

  • Enhanced concentration
  • Increased awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations
  • Development of a state of ‘being’ ie. living in the here and now – rather than pushing oneself against the ‘doing’ mode of thinking which says ‘I must, I should do’.
  • Developing acceptance (otherwise known as ‘kind-awareness’ of what an experience ‘actually’ is).
  • The growth of an ability to ‘let go’ that is critical for avoiding and freeing oneself from unhealthy cycles of interaction.
  • Increasing awareness and activities that facilitate self-care & self-compassion.

prairie dog.jpg

So how does it work? By learning to use several meditative techniques, the mind and body can be gradually encouraged to ‘slow down’ and unwind from the ‘doing mode’. Techniques include:

The Body Scan – a progressive observation and awareness of the body in minute detail.

Guided meditations (spoken) (3, 20, & 45 minute duration)

Routine Activity – paying ‘close’ attention whilst engaged in a ‘routine activity’ eg. Brushing teeth.

Noticing of small things & events that make up one’s moment to moment experience (eg. the sight of a bird crossing the sky, the noise of a slamming door) that occur throughout the day.

Use of the breath (3 minute breathing space) as an anchor for concentration.

I found that if you experiment with the various meditative techniques, you will quickly find what works best for you, whether it be regular use of the 3-minute breathing space (as a quick ‘tune in’) or a longer period of focused concentration with a body-scan at the end of the day.

My personal experience with mindfulness has been transformative. Experimenting initially with the body scan, I was surprised by my level of restlessness. Over time, using the  guided meditations, I have been able to identify my bodily sensations more readily, scanning for tension pockets which offers me insight about my emotional state and the opportunity to pause and consider how I might best respond more skilfully.  With the three-minute breathing space at my disposal, slowing things down ‘labelling’ my thoughts and feelings descriptively eg. judging, happy, fearful, content, doubtful and empowered has been liberating.

So yes, mindfulness seems to work for me. The sense of clarity and calm that it brings to my life has been noticeable, together with the belief that I am no imposter but the genuine article reassures me from the inside out! Try it! I’m sure it will works wonders for you too.

Some useful resources:

Mind charity –

A useful blog –

Body scan meditation (45 mins) –

U Tube – introduction to Mindfulness – Kabat-Zinn –

Guided Meditation audios –





Posted in imposter syndrome, mindfulness, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

paper not working? try the “what’s the problem?” approach

Ever find yourself with a draft of a journal article that you’re just not happy with? Can’t put your finger on what’s wrong? Well you’re not alone. The being-disgruntled-with-a-paper-but-unsure-of-the-reason syndrome is the most common problem I see in writing workshops.

Unhappy drafters have almost always completed research that’s interesting and that potentially makes a contribution. They can write about the background literatures and methods as well as their results. They’ve chosen a target journal and written for that specific readership. But they still can’t seem to get the paper into shape. Grrrrrr. What’s wrong?

When I read these drafts I quite often see a paper that doesn’t have a clear warrant. The  writer hasn’t yet established the need for the research that the paper reports. It’s not that they don’t know it, they just haven’t communicated it in ways that will make sense to, and connect with, their readers. And that means – in paper writing terms – that the introduction and the conclusion in particular aren’t doing their job.

I’ve found that the most helpful question I can ask in this situation is this:

What’s the problem for which your piece of research offers an answer?

Once the problem is clear, it’s easier to think about how to stage the argument, and most importantly, how to re-write the introduction. Armed with the answer to the “Whats the problem?” question, the writer can:

  • establish the context for the problem
  • state the problem, and
  • provide some compelling evidence that it exists and is important.

In doing this, the introductory text must also

  • connect the evidence of, and the need to solve the problem, to the interests of the journal readers.

This set of ‘problem’ focused moves – context, problem, evidence, connection – begins the introduction to a paper,  creates the warrant for the research that follows, and sets up the argument.


Let me show you an example of how the problem posing approach works as an introduction.

I’m going to look at a paper by Saranne Weller called “New lecturer’s accounts of reading higher education research” (2011 Studies in Continuing Education, 33(1)- 93-106).

Weller conducted a small pilot study examining the reading practices of four new lecturers from different disciplines. She asked them to choose and annotate two key readings about higher education. She then interviewed each participant, talking through their reading strategies. Her analysis of their responses led her to ‘see’ three key themes that underpinned their reading: (1) their positioning as an insider in their discipline, but an outsider in higher education more generally: (2) difficulties they experienced in engaging with the language and disciplinary conventions of higher education research; and (3) tensions between their practitioner experience within their discipline and the abstract theory offered in higher education research.

So, let’s try out the question approach. What was the problem that Weller was addressing and for which her research provided (part of) an answer?

The context was – and is – that universities – in the UK at least – now require newly appointed lecturers to engage in pedagogical ‘training’, often for a formal award. The expectation is that new lecturers will develop a theoretically informed teaching practice – and integral to doing this is reading higher education research, reading that is out of their home disciplines. However, the problem is that we know very little about what new lecturers actually make of the reading they are offered. Therefore, we don’t know how useful it is and whether it contributes to the goals of the training courses, namely, to support more reflective teaching.

So how does Weller introduce this problem for which her research provides, if not an answer, certainly some unsettling questions?

Well, here are the first three paragraphs of her introduction. I’ve abridged the middle one, simply because I want to show how Weller makes the moves – context, problem, evidence and connections.

Paragraphs Commentary
1.  It is widely accepted that new lecturer professional development programmes should require participants to engage not only in reflective practices for the purposes of enhancing their teaching but that such reflection should be grounded in a critical understanding of current educational theories acquired through reading higher education scholarship. Self-referential acts of practitioner reflection should therefore be developed further ‘by regularly evaluating and analysing personal professional approaches against ideas and insights gained from and generated by research and scholarly work’ (Daly, Pachler, and Lambert 2004, 101). In the context of the professionalising of higher education, Ferman’s (2002) review of what lecturers identified as valuable for their enhancement supports this account of lecturers’ literacy practices as central to lecturers’ understanding of their academic professionalism. For her respondents, ‘professional reading’ emerges as a major theme for lecturers’ individual development, where reading includes both pedagogic and disciplinary topics. The context is established – newly appointed lecturer programmes expect theoretically- informed teaching.

The use of terms such as reflective practice, critical understanding and individual development connects with the journal c community interest in continuing education.

Evidence is provided of the assumption that reading is a Good Thing.

2.  Similarly, King’s (2004) survey of what academics considered important for their continuing professional development found that the reading of learning and teaching articles was rated more highly than centrally organised academic development. Professional development events   workshops, conferences, award-bearing courses remain key institutional learning and teaching enhancement interventions. Yet translating the outcomes of such activities into the workplace can be challenging where non-formal learning, including reading about learning and teaching, is ‘likely to be a more significant response than formal learning’ for ‘confronting professional obsolescence’  … This paragraph continues to provide evidence from higher education research into assumptions about reading. The use of the term ‘non-formal learning’ also connects to the journal readers’ interests.
 3. Despite the central role that reading higher education research might play in developing academic activities, such practices have received little critical attention in research into either the literacy experiences of lecturers or their professional development. For many lecturers, a model of ‘scholarly teaching’ relies on reading rather than writing practices, given the expectation that lecturers might read and apply research about higher education to enhance their practice but might not necessarily produce comparable written research about their own practices. Inquiry into the literacy challenges for academics, however, has remained focused on the specific demands of writing whether that be the demands of disciplinary research writing (Badley 2009), written feedback processes on student work (Lea and Street 2000) or everyday workplace writing (Lea and Stierer 2009)   rather than the particular requirements of academic reading. Weller now moves on to the problem that the paper addresses – all of this practice and research has assumed that reading higher education research is unproblematic.


Taken together context, problem and evidence provide the warrant for the paper.

Because Weller had established the problem as lack of knowledge about new lecturer reading  in the introduction of the paper, she was able to return to it in the paper’s conclusion. Weller was also able to raise questions for universities interested in improving teaching practice through supported and systematic professional development. This was her So What response.

Im sure you can see from this account of Weller’s paper the other thing that is helpful about a problem-based approach to an introduction. And that’s to do with the Conclusion. Once you’ve established the problem you’re addressing at the start, you can easily return to it in the conclusion, showing how your evidence/research does provide insights/questions/answers. You can then discuss the implications of the research for the context you outlined at the start. I haven’t shown Weller’s conclusion here but I’m sure that you can guess it.

It’s important to note that the What’s the Problem question, and the problem-based approach to Introductions that I’ve outlined are not the only way to write a paper or sort out writing issues. The question is however a useful strategy to add to your own writing diagnostic repertoire. Try it out and see if it helps you too.

A caveat

The three moves – context, problem, evidence and connection – are what Barbara and I refer to as the Locate move, and what Swales and Feak refer to in the first part of their Create a Research Space.

Further resources

Check out my curated patter collection on writing for journals.

Or, borrow Kamler and Thomson Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for publication from the library.

Posted in introduction, journal article, what's the problem | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

what did that peer reviewer actually mean?

We all know that real estate agents write in code. Renovation potential means it’s a dump. First home buyer’s dream means it’s a dump. Original condition means it’s a dump.


Sshh… don’t mention the enormous gas works  opposite. No wonder they need a wall around the garden.

Now, journal reviewers have codes too. You may find that sometimes you get reviews where it isn’t immediately obvious what you are being asked to do. That’s because the review is written in reviewer-speak. Reviewer-speak  varies by disciplinary community and by cultural location. As well, each reviewer has their own idiosyncratic way of telling the writer what they think, some less polite than others. But there are patterns in reviewer-speak. It is possible to identify it when you see it.  Here are a few examples:

I suggest that author read further about…

It would be helpful if the writer took account of…

The paper could benefit from…

The author(s) might familiarise themselves with…

It would be worth the writer citing…

So making suggestions about what to change in the paper is common. Well that’s not too hard. These are things you might do. They are not even recommendations. Just possibilities, right?


These are not suggestions. Strong reviewer recommendations are often couched politely.  Obliquely even. We all talk about the rude reviewers, but actually many more of your peers write their reviews in this kind of language. Considerately. Hoping you won’t take offence.

But don’t be deceived. The reviewer is basically saying “Do this. And if I get this paper back for re-review and you haven’t done it you’d better have a pretty good explanation for why not.”

And those reviewer ‘suggestions’ often point to very specific actions. For instance:

The most recent writing in the field argues that…  means

“Read more current material and work it in.”

The article would benefit from more detailed information about methods … means

“You need to do some serious work on the methodology section in order for this to be taken seriously.”

The article lacks a compelling conclusion … means

“There is no So What here. I finished the paper and didn’t have a clue why you wrote this. You have to have a message. Simply reporting your research won’t do.”

The author might think about the match between the claims and the results … means

“You think your research says what? Unbelievable. You really need to match up the findings and the claims and implications.”

I’d be a little more cautious in linking x and y … means

“No, they don’t go together. X and Y can’t be linked in this way. You need to change this.”

And of course, the nightmare scenario. Reviewers may appear to be saying different things. Take these excerpts from two reviewer comments:

Reviewer 1: Perhaps it might be helpful to explore the conceptual and theoretical issues around identity and how that links to the issues around power in much more depth.

Reviewer 2: The theoretical approach brings together roles, identity and habitus as if these were commensurate concepts. Identity is not anchored to any theoretical paradigm, Bourdieu is given pretty short shrift and the potential of field theory is not explored. Role theory is used most in the paper even though it could be explicated more fully. One of these approaches needs to be adopted and explicated in detail.

Both comments here do ultimately agree – they say that the writer’s take on identity is confused, perhaps even simplistic and facile. But it would be a mistake to read these comments as minor. Reviewer 1 says more depth while reviewer 2 says in detail. Both of these are code for a text requiring substantial rethinking and rewriting. This is not about a paragraph or a few more references. This is a fundamental reworking of the theoretical basis of the argument.

Now, Reviewer 2 is very direct and more specific. Perhaps verging on rude. Blunt, certainly. However, although both reviewers say much the same thing, the writer might have a much better idea about what to do from Reviewer 2’s comments. In many cases genteel hedging isn’t as helpful as it might be.

This is just one example of the need to decode and read below the surface of reviewer comments.

Of course, simply understanding the reviewer comments is not enough. There is always a choice about how to respond, about what to do. Writers can decide which or any or all of the reviewer comments they will attend to. Many writers, particularly if they’re new, think that they have to follow each and every recommendation slavishly.

Early career writers can treat reviewer reports as a set of exam questions to be answered. One writer Barbara and I know, for example, was critiqued for not showing the significance of her research to the field. Her solution was to insert two pages of additional literature work to show other scholars also addressing her research problem. The result was a mess. Her paper lost focus and balance. She answered the reviewer diligently and methodically, but at the expense of her own argument. A mentor helped her reduce these two pages to one paragraph and acknowledge the point, within reason.

Keeping the integrity of the argument and the article is of paramount concern. Just like writers, reviewers don’t always quite know what they are trying to say. At times, they know there is a problem, but they can’t put their finger on it. So they have a stab at saying what they think is going on – the result is that it’s not always clear what action might resolve the problem.  And reviewers can go off on a tangent; they see something interesting that may not be germane to the main argument. In this instance, the writer may need to say “I’ve made a note that this is a potential area to be explored, but not now.” At other times, reviewers may make suggestions that disrupt the flow of the article or add unduly to the word length.

The writer has to keep their eye on their own purposes – decode and attend to reviewers, yes – but not rigidly. It is important to remember that reviewer comments, however vital to the progress of the publication, are the backstory to the final performance – which is the published article. The actual performance – the paper – must be coherent and stand on its own. You can’t let what happens backstage ruin the production.

And, it always helps to ask experienced writer to help you to translate reviewer-speak and work out what you want to do. And it can be a bit of fun to attend to the codes – in the absence of an actual review. Sharing reviewer-speak is a very educational after-work game. So do add your favorite examples of reviewer-speak in the comments!


Posted in peer review, reviewer speak, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

data analysis – jigsaw puzzling writ large?

I do love a good jigsaw. The more complicated the better. Tiny pieces. Ambiguous shapes that could be one of any number of things. Large slabs of mono colour. What’s not to like?

And over Christmas I got hooked on the digital jigsaw puzzle. No more analogue piles occupying the dining room table for weeks. No more accidental knocks destroying several day’s work. No more sideways looks at this quaint old fashioned pastime.

But… it’s not all good. The ipad jigsaw app I’ve acquired really chews through the battery and on a particularly hard puzzle I have to recharge midway. The other down side is that when you combine screen size with the need for the pieces to be visible to the naked eye, there is an inevitable limit to the number of pieces in any one puzzle. The equivalent of the enormous tablecloth size piece this is not.

However, the digital jigsaw has an added bonus, a big plus over analogue. You don’t have to have a picture to guide you. That’s right. Nothing to guide you. Unless you hand over actual money, or some bit coin equivalent, you begin with a lot of pieces and no idea what the end product is going to be. I realise that this would drive some people crazy, but I really like the process of putting just enough pieces together to get to a point when I can imagine  the final image.


Of course, you’d likely never get to the point where you could recognise the subject unless you had a system. You have to follow the grammar of the puzzle. This usually means putting the outside frame together by finding all the pieces that have a flat side. Corner pieces are particularly important as they can help to work out the flow on each side. Once you’ve made the edges, you then have to choose something to build up.

Because I work largely with colour and line, I usually choose something that seems smallish, working inward from the frame. I like to find something that goes from top to bottom or side to side. I work by colour and line first but eventually by shape. I’m not so good at shape. I’m really good at colour and line so I rely on that a lot. At some point, I know I’ll have to sort out pieces of the same colour – where there is no recognisable difference – by shape.

So you can see my system – find and make the border, compile the more obvious sections by colour and line until you can see the big picture, then put the pieces for each section of the picture together. I then continue working section by section rather than scatter-gunning all over the image. I pick off the sections that look more obvious first, leaving the most difficult to the end. This way, I have the reward of seeing the image filling out, rather than being faced with bits everywhere, bits here and there.

The jigsaw puzzle is all about looking, being systematic, and being able to imagine a completed work. It’s also about an eye for detailbeing patient and not being daunted by something that looks completely incomprehensible at the start.

Do you recognise this? Sound familiar? There is something important about this piecing together process – it’s a lot like dealing with (any kind of 0f) research data.

Now – reading warning – this isn’t a metaphor. The jigsaw isn’t a terrific metaphor for research IMHO. Usually, research data doesn’t arrive with a predetermined border; the researcher has to find/make/sort-out what the edges of the research actually are. And there are often not right answers. There are generally multiple interpretations possible in social science and humanities research – lots of possible final images that can be made from the data. There is judgement to be exercised in putting together the pieces of the analytic puzzle.

No, when I say research is like a puzzle what I actually mean is the material practice. The process of solving a jigsaw puzzle is a lot like the process of data analysis.

To start with both the jigsaw puzzler and the researcher have to have a systematic approach. This may mean you construct the borders first. Or it might mean putting bits of things together in order to determine possible avenues for analyses. Or it might mean taking a frame from the literature and sorting data according to predetermined categories. Or it might mean following an analytic convention. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have a system – and you can describe the ways in which you worked through the data. You also need to be able to provide a rationale for the system of analysis.  (Just as I can describe how I approach a jigsaw.)

And there’s more. I think that the embodied practice of jigsaw puzzling is a lot like the embodied practice of analysing data. You have to be prepared to face something that looks like there is no way it can come together. You have to be patient and understand that it takes time to work out what the big picture is – it doesn’t necessarily come quickly or easily. You have to have a tolerance for ambiguity – things that might fit in multiple places have to be held onto until you can work out where the best place for them is. You also have to sweat the small stuff, the tiny differences.  Above all, you have to be relaxed, accept that this isn’t going to be a quick process. In fact, you’re likely to think its in-soluble and undo-able several times before you’re done.

Ideally, you get to the same point with data analysis as dedicated jigsaw puzzlers do. You understand and accept that it takes as long as it takes, and as long as some progress is being made – and that may be just working out what doesn’t work – then it’s all good. You stick to the system and trust in it, or you change the strategy, but then make it systematic. And you enjoy the process. No. You relish the prospect of making sense of a big pile of stuff – of bringing order to something that appears to be random and arbitrary, of making a picture at the end that is both recognisable and pleasing.

These puzzle/analysis behaviour and attitudes are dispositional. And I suspect that there might be some resonance between a disposition for puzzling – not just jigsaws, but any game which requires sustained engagement, concentration, strategic thinking, imagination and persistence – and the practice of research. I don’t think that playing games necessarily makes you better at research analysis of course, but I do think that the correspondence between the two practices is – well – interesting!


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments