ghosts in the text

Pentimento is the term used to describe the traces of an earlier work glimpsed through layers of paint on a canvas. Marks from the previous composition bleed through the newer surface, a reminder of what went before, a sign of the artist’s corrections and/or new thoughts. The presence of brushstrokes, images and/or forms intended to be hidden is a reminder of the artistic processes that led to the final work.

Paintings are not the only type of text where previous versions re-emerge, bleed through, haunt the present. Pentimento happens in writing too. A version of writings past appears in a new text – this often happens when we are revising. When we cut and paste from one text into another, or rewrite and restructure using bits of what went before, we can carry forward vestiges of the previous version(s). And this can be a problem.

Take the case of radically revising a paper. You are writing a first draft. But while you are writing you discover that your initial argument isn’t working. By the time you finish the draft you’ve worked out what the paper is really about. You know that you have to go back to restructure it. There are a couple of places in the results section where you really like what you have written so you want to keep those bits. You also really can’t bear to go back and do the literatures again. So you don’t rewrite the literature section, nor the methods which have, of course, been written specifically for version one of the paper. So you rewrite the introduction to fit your first draft conclusion and play about a bit with the order of the results and the headings. This second draft, the revised paper consists of a new section, as well as sections that are rewritten, tweaked and/or transferred over. 

Now, this second draft runs a real risk of bringing over too many phantoms from your first text. And your readers may not see the traces of the previous paper as clearly as an X Ray shows previous versions of an art work, but they can usually point to something in a text where there is is a mis-step, a something out of place, a jolt rather than flow in the text, a shift or turn where none was needed. Pentimento.

The presence of previous text, pentimenti, is more of a problem in the thesis. A thesis takes a long time to write, and it is almost inevitable that some chapters are written way ahead of others. Writing through in one go is an important part of revising. One of the goals of revision is to smooth out and eliminate the places where the narrative arc falters, where the continuity of the argument drops away, or goes down a side tunnel. And some of the real danger spots in the thesis are when entire slabs of text are taken from versions written not months, but years earlier. This tends to happens most with text devoted to literature work.

There are two reasons why taking text about literature from a much earlier time – most likely the proposal – might be problematic:

  1. The literatures work you did for the proposal is not the same as the literatures work you need for the thesis, although there is overlap. At the outset of the doctorate, you were looking for literatures that would help you see where your research might make a contribution as well as literatures that would help you to conceptualise and design your research project. But at the end of the project you know your results and you now know exactly what literatures they refer to, build on, speak back to. So you may need ot jettison a lot or some of what you started out with. You also know which literatures helped you to make sense of your analysis. You have also kept up with the literatures and there has been more published since your initial extensive work. The thesis text you have to write to help the examiner understand the chapters to come will therefore not be the same as the text you wrote for your proposal. It may need ot be radically different. Simply inserting a few new bits will not be enough to make the new argument you write when you know your research results. What’s more…
  2. The scholar who first wrote about the literatures is not the same as the scholar who is completing their thesis. Over the course of your PhD programme you have become more expert, more evaluative, more authoritative. Writing the thesis is still forming you as a scholar, but you are starting from a very different place you were in some years before. Your new thesis text is both making and representing your doctorateness, not your readiness to embark on a doctorate. Cutting and pasting from your initial proposal brings the spectre of your former doctoral self into the dissertation. And the eery presence of an earlier writer is one which is often very obvious to examiner readers (it always is to me) – the early PhDer is generally much more tentative, writes assignment style rather than scholarly argument, and is much less present in the text than the completing nearly PhD. You don’t want your former self to be examined, it’s the current nearly and ready to be Dr that you want the examiners to encounter.

Potentially adverse risks of the carry-over traces – or writing pentimento – apply equally to the task of publishing from the PhD. Cutting and pasting from the PhD thesis into papers, or more commonly, to the book of the PhD is potentially a problem. The PhD is written for a particular audience, the text must meet examiner expectations. Academic book readers have different expectations of a book or paper; this is why the advice about converting theses into books and papers is to think about them as new text, as rewrites for a different audience. Writing from the PhD is not just a matter of making a few cuts and a lot of cut and paste. Ask any publisher, and they will tell you that they really dont want to see the PhD in the book that comes from it. Although I can imagine a book which is a deliberate conversation between the early PhDer and the completed PhD, the general rule of academic writing thumb is – Try not to let your present and unwary readers be spooked by the apparition of your PhDer past.

Of course I’m not saying don’t cut and paste. I’m not saying you can’t write into an pd over an existing text. We all do. It’s just about being aware of the potential for hauntings. Do keep pentimento in mind – it is a helpful concept to guide revising.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

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ten playful viva preparation activities

Finished the thesis? Loud cheers. Now to get ready for the viva, or defence as it is called in some places. There’s a lot of great advice about how to prepare for the viva – check out Nathan Ryder’s Viva Survivors blog podcast and workshops, VITAE’s resource pages and Eva Lantsoght’s PhD talk series on PhD vivas around the world.

My particular interest in the viva is the work you have to do to get yourself into the “expert” frame of mind. You’ve had to write the thesis as if you were already doctored and the world’s greatest authority on your particular bit of research. Now, in the viva, you have to act and talk like one too. You have to BE expert, even if you don’t feel like one, when you have The Conversation With The Examiners.

The most common way to shift into and inhabit the body of the expert is to do a mock viva. Other more “performance” oriented opportunities to speak with authority often happen through three minute thesis competitions and public presentations.

But I think there are probably some entertaining ways to get into the viva frame of mind and body. So I’ve started to generate a few ideas. These are by no means a complete list and if they seem simply silly to you then just ignore this post. I’m writing here for people who might like to indulge in a bit of lighthearted, but possibly serious, play. Something that interrupts the ongoing feelings of anxiety and/or unease and/or uncertainty. Here goes.

  1. Write a love letter to your Doctor self, listing all of the expert doctoral qualities and competencies they have. Write a break up letter to your student self, saying why you lived with them for so long, and explaining why it’s now time to leave them behind.
  2. Imagine that the key implication of your research has actually been implemented. Write the short new item that reports what has happened, the research on which it was based, and why this is important.
  3. Turn your thesis into a picture – draw or collage it. Imagine that this is now a postcard. Choose three people to send your postcard to – write a message on the back of the postcard telling them why they need to take notice.
  4. Sample five to ten key sentences from your thesis to make a poem which tells the story of your research.
  5. Create a shoebox museum in which small objects tell the story of how your research was designed and carried out. Alternatively, make a shoebox museum of your journey from doctoral researcher to The Doctor.
  6. Make a selfie of yourself as doctoral researcher. Now take a selfie of The Doctor (yes yes before the viva, not after, but you can do that too).
  7. Write a very bossy memo to the examiners telling them what to look for in your thesis.
  8. Make a small monument to a tricky moment in your research. Look it in the eye. Write a brief curatorial sign which explains.
  9. Make the record cover of your research. Write its signature tune.
  10. Design the party you would love to have to celebrate becoming The Doctor. What is its theme? Will there be a song? A new ritual? Costumes? Special food? A new dance? A wonderful game? Pilot your design when the viva is over. Or before 🙂

If you have more playful ideas for viva preparation do add them in the comments.

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

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a very neat hack to avoid repetition and duplication

Do you repeat yourself? Most of us do. It’s not unusual.

Repetitive writing takes many forms – several sentences that say the same thing using different words, a word or phrase used over and over, paragraphs and sentences that have identical beginnings, one point made multiple times using different examples.

But repetition is not necessarily a problem. Purposeful repetition can be a stylistic choice. Rhetorical theory for example lists anaphora – the repetition of a word of phrase at the beginning of a sentence or clause used to create dramatic emphasis and affect. Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which poetic reiteration built up a picture of a possible future, a socially just United States. There’s also episeuxis – the serial repetition of word, usually within the same sentence – as in Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education.”

Repetition can also be integral to a professional practice. Teachers for example deliberately repeat themselves. Saying the same thing in different ways is a pedagogic strategy which gives students varied ways into a topic, gives options for understanding a concept or process. Inclusive teaching practices rely on multiple illustrations and explanations. And restatement is an approach often taken in pedagogic blogs like this one – I often say the same thing a few times in different ways, in case my first explanation doesn’t make things clear.

But repetition can also be a problem. Readers and listeners get bored and switch off when hearing or reading what rapidly becomes the same old same old. They may even get irritated if it takes them a while to find the point amid the verbiage. Writers are thus always advised to revise by checking for unintended repetition. Cutting out the déjà vu effect is part of becoming concise – making the point as simply and effectively as possible.

So to revision. You may be aware of some of the places in your writing where you repeat yourself. I often repeat someone’s name at the start of every paragraph when writing references. Dr X does this. Dr X is, Dr X worked for me and… Because I know I do this, I can check my first draft for this particular problem. And another of my first draft problems, I often use superfluous sentence beginnings – It is clear that, it is worth noting that… and I know to look for these false starts during the revision process.

Checking sentence and paragraph beginnings can quickly locate some repetitions. However, it’s not always so easy. Searching for repetition can be tricky. Part of the problem is that we often use what are called “crutch” words – single words, phrases or clauses that are habitual. We use “crutch words” in drafting because they help us get the ideas down. Because they are so familiar, we often miss them when we come to revise.

Checking by reading aloud for “so, but, therefore, thus, nevertheless, however, on the one hand, not only but also” may pick up places where you need to get rewriting. You can also print out your text, using a highlighter every time you find a sneaky “crutch”. You might alternatively use the search function in Word. Searching is particularly helpful when checking for repeated common research terminology as well as specific disciplinary terms.

Duplication can be a real issue when composing the meta commentary used in academic writing – we might use the verb “argue” or “investigate” rather too often in a few paragraphs. Sometimes you can pick most of the repetitions hiding in plain sight if you change your font, or put your manuscript into an e-reader rather than read it on your customary screen. 

However – and here is the point of this post – there is a short cut. As the illustrations suggests, one of the very best hacks for finding duplicates and repetitions is to make a word cloud. What a gift it is to put an entire chapter or paper into one of those free platforms that looks for either words or phrases. Almost instantly you can see what terms are used most frequently. If there are any that are a surprise, or are used rather more than you would like, you can then simply use the search function in word to check for each one. Word clouds can save hours of reading and highlighting. Yep, a word cloud can be one of your close revising friends.

Notes;

See warning in comments about potential problems with “free” websites.

Word cloud made from the first draft of this post.

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finding time to write

Recently I’ve been focused on goal setting and planning. It’s down to lockdown I think and the need to be realistic about what can be achieved. One of the things I’ve not mentioned is time. In particular, writing time. I like the approach to writing time developed by the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel in his book The clockwork muse: A practical guide to writing theses, dissertations and books.

Zerubavel, who studies time and memory among other things, suggests that before setting writing goals, we should think about time. Fit the goals to the time available rather than struggle to find the time to achieve goals, he says. Zerubavel nominates three kinds of time:

  • Time when you absolutely cannot write
  • Time best suited for writing
  • Time when you might be able to do something writing-related

Zerubavel’s proposition is this: When planning your writing, first of all work out how much time you actually have available. Start with the times you don’t have.

Block out all the slots in your diary when you know you can’t write. This is all of your meetings and appointments. But it also includes time for exercise, walking the dog, having meals, doing housework, getting people off to school/work, supervising homework, talking with loved ones and so on. It also includes the times when you know that you really can’t write a word (for me this is every night, as writing late is guaranteed to produce insomnia.) You also need to include admin time – time spent emailing, marking, preparing for teaching for example.

Once you have blocked out busy time, then you can see how much is actually available for writing and for other writing-related tasks.

The next step is to divide the time that is left between ideal writing times and less good writing times. You probably already know your ideal writing times, morning or evenings are common. It’s not hard to see how much of this best writing time is available in your schedule, and block these slots out. But there is also an opportunity, now you can see your diary, to move from finding available time to making time for your writing.

It is helpful to see how much of your blocked out, already occupied time is actually your best time for writing. Too much? There is an immediate opportunity to see if there is any way you can reschedule any of the things occupying your best writing times. But there is also an opportunity to set up new patterns – trying not to set meetings in your optimum writing times. ( I try to leave the first part of at least three mornings available for writing. And most people I work with now know that I prefer meetings to start around lunch time if it’s at all feasible. Teaching times are harder to arrange as they are involve juggling entire timetables.) When setting a new pattern it is also helpful to ensure that optimum times occur fairly regularly, so that you don’t lose touch with your writing.

Once you have blocked out your writing time and the unable to write time, you will have little pieces of other time scattered throughout the week. This is time that could be used for writing related tasks. It is also time that we often ignore when we are planning for writing. Yet these bits and bobs of time can be very valuable. You can use apparently loose moments for writing-related tasks such as endnoting, organising files, chasing missing or additional references, backing up files, catching up with the latest journals, getting the library to order the books you need.

You may also like to add into this flexi-time a few non-urgent tiny targets, like reconsidering a title, revising the first sentence of the introduction, drawing a diagram and so on, writing a paragraph – and so on.

There are real benefits from using Zerubavel’s time centred approach. For starters, you have optimum writing time reserved in your diary, and anything you get done in open slots is a bonus. It doesn’t matter so much if you are interrupted, or have an urgent email to attend to in these flexi spots, because you still have protected writing time. So the added benefit of using Zerubavel’s trio of time-slots is that if you really do follow your scheduling, you won’t let writing-related tasks eat away your optimum writing time.

And there’s more to gain. By using three kinds of time as the way to approach planning, you will also be able to ensure that you do something related to your writing – either optimum writing or writing-related – just about every day. In other words, you will have found a way to see and use time to help establish a regular writing practice.

Finally, of course, trying to write a big text, a sustained project, really does depend on you finding enough time in your schedule to do all the work required. Zerubavel’s three time slot-driven approach might be just what you need to go the distance.

You may also like:

setting writing goals and targets

writing targets – word count, time spent or chunks?

lockdown writing routines

a first draft in five minutes a day?

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editing your writing – lessons from chefs?

You can pick up helpful ideas from the most unlikely places. Like cooking shows. Yes I watch cooking shows, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. I’m sure I’m not the only one, given their popularity. Sometimes they offer more than new ways with potatoes. Just last week I found myself thinking about the ways in which cooking programme judges use the term “editing”.

You can imagine the context. There is the over-enthusiastic aspiring-restauranteur. “I’m an experimental cook” they say, “I like putting unusual flavours and cuisines together”. “ All the things in the Mystery Box are so wonderful I couldn’t decide which to hero.” Or “ I want to bring all the things I learnt on my travels together on one plate and show you who I really am.” Or perhaps, “ I want to show you all of the techniques I’ve learnt while being here.” These statements are usually made direct to camera with the kind of smile that is intended to disarm and charm, if not reassure, judges and viewers alike.

Sometimes when the resulting dish arrives at the judging table, the judges beam. They gush. “I’ve never had this before”. “ Wow, you’ve done something truly original here” “ I think it’s fantastic.” More often though, the various judicial comments made as the dishes are being prepared are realised – “ It all seems terribly sweet/soft. I think we need a bit of crunch/texture/acid“, or, “I’ve never heard of putting X with Y before. I hope it works out for them.” ( It won’t.) And when the finished plate finally arrives, we all see what the judges were concerned about – smears of puree, puddles of jus and oil, a swamp containing more vegetables than you can count, variously prepared. The culinary equivalent of a cabinet of curiosities.

And what do the judges say then but “ Edit. You need to edit. Less is more.” By which of course they mean, don’t try so hard. Be more consistent. Not so many influences at once. Don’t put everything you like in one dish. Don’t try to be too clever. Get rid of some things. Don’t clutter.

So editing, in the cheffy sense of the word, is about taking control of the impulse to do whatever you think counts as accomplished and prize worthy. Focus instead on respecting the ingredients, creating flavour and a neat presentation. Sound familiar? Maybe because there’s an academic writing equivalent to the over-enthusiastic cooking competitor and their overcrowded plate.

The academic text which needs a good culinary style edit is generally the result of one of three things :

  • The writer is over excited by all of the ideas out there in the literature and wants to include a reference to all of them. This is the academic equivalent of wanting to bring too much to the plate.

This desire is understandable. There is a lot to be enthusiastic about in scholarly writings. However, an academic text works well with only as many ideas as are needed to make the argument, using only the most directly relevant and useful concepts and terms. You see, just like a plate of food, a scholarly narrative which is excessively garnished is distracting rather than engaging. Readers of the heftily embellished text often want to know whether the peripheral ideas are important or not and which. Reviewers may even ask writers to do justice to some of their tangential ideas rather than tell them to edit. But a good edit is what is needed.

  • The writer doesn’t look hard enough at the different traditions from which ideas and terms emerge. Lumping things together is the academic equivalent of clashing flavours. An academic mash-up brings contradictory ideas and terms into a text without recognition of critical differences, with no explanation or justification.

The confused textual offering can often be found in discussions of methodologies and methods and in literature work, where texts from vastly different and often warring traditions appear nestled together like good friends. Contradictory terminology and clashing concepts usually leave the reader confused about the writer’s knowledge base. Readers worry that the writer doesn’t actually know that the melange they have on their plate isn’t working.

  • The writer wants to say and do everything at once. This desire is understandable. The academy does induce an inclination to display – undergraduates and masters students in particular must show coverage and depth as well as the capacity to go off and find more information for themselves. But the rules for successful performance change at doctoral level, and particularly in relation to writing papers and books. Scholars are expected to produce something digestable and refined – a narrative which showcases key points concisely, creatively and clearly.

Now, I don’t want to labour this cooking show metaphor too much. Like all metaphors, it’s limited in its reach. But I do think that editing, in the cooking show sense, has some legs. The utility of the culinary notion of edit is that it draws attention to the need to rein in ambition, to relinquish the half-grasped idea, to control the impulse to do everything in one go. Editing does mean you have to be prepared to pare back. To cut and cut again until the text is reduced to the things that must be there, as opposed to the things could be there. So I’m pretty sure it would be helpful to read a first draft, or even a nearly final draft, with the epicurean type of edit in mind.

Some chef-like questions to ask might be:

What might I need to edit out of this text? Are there too many ideas running in this text? Too many side issues?

Are all of these ideas and references necessary to my major argument? Am I trying to impress rather than inform and explain? Have I used some references and ideas simply because I think it would be good to do so?

Is everything here broadly coherent, working in the same academic traditions? Have I made sure that I’ve not been too heavy handed with the quotations, references and citations? Have I let my major point shine through?

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lockdown writing routines – a.k.a a cheer for the humble pear

Most creative writers have their own idiosyncratic set of rituals and routines. Academic writers do too. But at least some of these practices may have had to change during WFH – working from home – during the various lockdowns. While I’ve been acutely aware of changes that lockdown has brought to PhDers I hadn’t thought a lot about what it meant for me. I’ve been aware of fluctuating motivation of course, something a lot of people experience at the best of times – but more so now. But that’s not all that’s been going on for me. As I realised a couple of weeks ago.

I was doing an online shopping order, as we privileged people are able to do. The supermarket site offered me the option of starting with my “regular items”. This seemed to be a sensible suggestion so I went ahead and pre-packed my basket. When I went to edit the contents, I was a little surprised to see pears. So many pears. Now, I don’t think of myself as a fan of pears. It’s not that I actively dislike them, I just don’t think of them as being something that I would choose over other fruits. But apparently I do.

The reason I now buy so many pears every week is down to working from home. I often have online meeting after meeting, jampacked together. As I am sure at least some of you do too. And rather than load up my desk with unhealthy things to snack on, I now seem to always have pears next to my keyboard.

Why pears? My favorite fruit is actually mango – but a mango is entirely unsuitable for desk duty on just about all counts. The pear wins hands down. Why? The pear has attributes. You don’t have to peel pears like oranges or clementines. Pears don’t go brown like apples when you take a quick bite out of them between calls or writing bursts and then put them down for a bit. Nor do they crunch like a good apple, so you can take a surreptitious bite of a pear when everyone in the meeting is focussed on the speaker. Pears don’t create a lot of mess in general, so you can nibble and not end up with a sticky-fingered keyboard. And pears don’t create a lot of waste to deal with afterwards, like bananas. Pears are size-limited so you can’t just keep eating and eating them, like grapes. What’s more, the pear does have a bit of juice, so they are good for those times when you need a bit of liquid, have run out of water, and don’t have a moment to sprint to the tap. Hooray for pears.

As I thought about pears, I realised that other things about my writing routine have changed too. I no longer have writing clothes which I change out of when I go into work. No, I now have something in between writing and work clothes. Respectable on top, but out of sight it’s comfort all the rest of the way down, and like this all day. I only take off the Uggs or Birkies when I actually leave the house. I am, so to speak, dressed for writing at any time.

But this wearing the one thing all day does make for a lack of demarcation between writing times and other forms of work. 

My previous routine was always to write first thing in the morning – that has largely still held true. But working from home means I can add in smaller writing grabs – I now do tiny tasks and meet tiny targets. If I’m sitting at my desk with fifteen minutes “to spare”, I now often fill in with a little bit of something writing related that needs doing. This new writing routine has meant that I tend to plan even more than usual about how to get a piece of writing underway and completed.

Of course, the lack of demarcation between writing at home and work at the office also means that writing has now blurred into other forms of work – emails, feedback, reviewing, analysing, meetings. And this may not be a completely bad thing. It did always seem before as if the office was the “real work” and the writing was something of an add-on. Now the writing is much more integrated into my calendar.

But the danger with WFH is that I just work more without stopping for a break. That’s a problem. While I don’t have to worry about concentration fatigue, as do many people, I do have to manage a chronic back problem. I think I’ve said before that I have an exercise bike in my office. Since lockdown I have taken to reading – or rather being read to – while I cycle. I’m very appreciative of the reading function of ipads which are small enough to prop up in front of me while I pedal away. I don’t really need to see pixelated hills – I’d much rather be following along with Karen. Yes, really, the English (Australian) voice is called Karen. And yippee! I can, it seems, get through a book in about a week of cycling. And the combo of reading and being read to allows me to plod systematically through some rather dense and challenging material. So I’m actually reading more and more serious books. Fuelling my writing and thinking.

I’m also aware of things I haven’t changed. For instance, as I don’t much go for social writing experiences – I prefer a rather solitary and silent location for writing – I haven’t taken advantage of any of the online writing rooms. I still use my desk top layout to signal writing work that is ongoing and the writing which is most urgent. I still keep notebooks in most parts of the house to jot down any brilliant insights I have while away from my desk – well usually more like, Oh no, I’ve forgotten about x. Better make sure to put x in tomorrow.

But how about you? 

People who used to like to write in cafes – what do you now do? 

Do the Shut up and Write online sessions work as well for you as the face to face or do you find them better? 

If you used to write in your work office how has it been shifting to writing at home?

Is your desk organised differently now that you do everything from it? 

Have you managed to find a new routine if you have parenting or caring responsibilities and can’t shut out interruptions and more pressing demands? 

Have you developed any new habits, like buying pears and/or being read to while you exercise? 

What’s changed for you in your writing routines and rituals? Do you think these changes will stay? What do you think you might keep when/if we go back to more familiar work routines?

Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

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use a structured abstract to help write and revise

Most journals don’t expect an abstract to be written in a particular format. But some do. They require writers to follow a particular format – a pre-structured template. These templates – structured abstracts as they are called – are specifically designed to focus on the key points in a paper. These abstracts are designed for readers. Readers can check out important aspects of the paper before they decide to read on, or not.

However, templates are also useful for writers, particularly to assist in the thinking process. Structured abstracts force writers to decide on and state, in relatively few sentences, key features of their paper. Often, the structured abstract demands writers pay attention to the textual features which they can easily gloss over, or fudge.

So, how can you use a structured abstract as part of your writing process? Well, you can use a structured abstract to kick off your writing, or as a way to organise your revision. You can also use a structured abstract as a final check – have you included everything in the paper and emphasised key points sufficiently? And even if the structured abstract is not your final actual abstract, the exercise of writing short, and to different formats, can help you to get clear on some very important aspects of academic argument.

Some structured abstracts follow a pretty conventional format – Objective, Methods, Results and Conclusion – or a variation on this. But even though this format is pretty familiar, it can still be very helpful to write a one sentence objective for a paper.

Getting clear on your objective – what you hope the paper does – can be challenging. Is it good enough to explore or investigate for example? Should your paper do something else instead – clarify, evidence, challenge, verify, reveal, develop, review, theorise, interrogate evaluate, assess, document, voice… ? Writing an objective can help you get rid of some of all-encompassing and vague verbs and hone in on exactly what you are trying to do.

One common variation on the OMRC abstract is to substitute Background for Objective. In Background, writers are expected to situate their study in a specific context – policy, practice or research – and justify their reason for writing the paper. Simply identifying a gap isn’t sufficient for Background – you have to tell the reader why the gap matters and how.

Abstract from Dentistry and Medical Research journal

As an aide for writing, I rather like the structured abstract required by most Emerald journals. Emerald demands that authors write a 250 word abstract – the generic journal abstract instructions say:

All submissions must include a structured abstract, following the format outlined below.

These four sub-headings and their accompanying explanations must always be included:

  • Purpose
  • Design/methodology/approach
  • Findings
  • Originality

The following three sub-headings are optional and can be included, if applicable:

  • Research limitations/implications
  • Practical implications
  • Social implications

Further explanation is offered for these terms. Purpose is clarified – 

This is where you explain ‘why’ you undertook this study. If you are presenting new or novel research, explain the problem that you have solved. If you are building upon previous research, briefly explain why you felt it was important to do so. This is your opportunity to let readers know why you chose to study this topic or problem and its relevance. Let them know what your key argument or main finding is.

Purpose is not the same as an objective, although it covers some of the same territory. Purpose is a broader take on your topic. The writer is expected to present the warrant for the paper – is it addressing a problem? What and why and to what ends? Is it adding to or challenging existing research? If so, what and why and to what ends? Writers are asked to get specific, rather than ignoring the particularities and presenting a de-contextualised purpose.

And originality/value is also explained further – 

This is your opportunity to provide readers with an analysis of the value of your results. It’s a good idea to ask colleagues whether your analysis is balanced and fair and again, it’s important not to exaggerate. You can also conjecture what future research steps could be.

The purpose and the contribution are of course connected. You establish in the purpose what the problem is, and then you say in originality/value what your answer is, what it means and why it is important.

But claiming your contribution, making its novelty, originality and significance clear to readers, is often hard. It’s particularly hard for less experienced writers who don’t yet feel that they have the authority to make any claims at all. Yet, without understanding your own claims and the So What – and the Now What, if you choose to add in the research, practical and social implications – it’s pretty difficult to write a decent conclusion.

Having to make the originality/value explicit of your paper clear in a couple of sentences is really good exercise to do, no matter where you are in the writing and revision process. 

Abstract from Qualitative Research Journal

Using structured abstracts as an aide to revision might seem counter-intuitive. Equally, using a structured abstract to orient your writing, even if it isn’t the abstract you will use in the final version, may seem equally odd. But as exercises, as part of the process of writing a well-argued paper, using structured abstracts can be a great help.

I have a collection of structured abstract templates that I use for just this purpose. I exercise my capacity to write succinctly, I don’t expect it just to be there because I want it to be. I practice.

Perhaps you too might want to practice by adding some structured abstracts to your bank of writing strategies.

With thanks to the authors of the two published papers – they may be very surprised to see their work appear here as illustrations of structured abstracts!

Posted in abstracts, academic writing, conference abstract, Pat Thomson, revision, revision strategy, structured abstract, structured abstracts, thesis abstract | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

meeting your readers’ expectations – a revision strategy

There are multiple ways to revise a paper. If you’re revising, you’ll find a load of strategies on this blog, just search using the key word revision. While none of these is The One Way to sort out your writing, all of them provide A Way to tackle drafts.

Having more than one way to tackle a writing problem is good. The more options you have – the more revision, and other, writing strategies you can call on – the better. Building up a repertoire of strategies that work well for you is an integral part of becoming the writer you want to be.

This particular revision strategy can help you to check whether you have included all of the bits that need to be in your text. You can see what’s left out. It’s a strategy that is designed to position you as the reader you hope to have.

When is this strategy useful? Well, at any time in the redrafting process, but there are two places where it can be particularly helpful.

  • Early on. Once you have a decent draft, definitely not the first crappy one but early, then it helps to run a check to make sure you have included all the bits that need to be there. Checking for missing content usually comes before examining structure,
  • At the end. A read through as the reader works equally well as a last check over the piece, before you send it out into the world.

So here goes. 

First of all, imagine your ideal reader. Or perhaps the reader you know you will have – your supervisor, your examiner. Next, think about the disciplinary community they are part of. What have they been reading, writing and talking about? What do they already know about your topic?

Now, bring these understandings of your reader to your draft. Read through your text answering the following questions. What are your reader’s expectations about:

The type of text you are writing? 

Does your reader expect your writing to follow a particular format? What heading, paragraphing and syntax conventions do they expect you to follow? Will they be happy to see some variation to a standard format? If you are writing something other than the expected genre, have you signalled this early on and explained why? What do they really not want to encounter in your or any text?

What you are writing about?

What will your reader already know about your topic? Will they expect you to cite particular texts or people? Will they expect you to use particular terminology? Are there any key debates where you need to state your position? Are there some sources and people that they wouldn’t see as credible? If you are challenging a core premise or understanding, have you explained why, anticipated objections and spelled out the benefits from doing so?

The trustworthiness of the research you have done?

What will readers take as sufficient information about methodology and methods? How much and what kind of evidence do you need to insert? Do you need to include pointers to full data sets and/or reports? Is it customary in your discipline to use diagrams, charts or images? What will be seen as too little to be trustworthy?

You as author and researcher?

What kind of writer/researcher do you want readers to meet in the text? ( neutral, expert, advocate etc) Do readers expect you to make your particular connection with the topic clear? Do you need to state your position as a researcher? Do readers expect to see ‘you” in the writing? What might be too much you? Where and how do you appear – where do you evaluate and use evaluative language? Where and how do you interpret and explain? Do readers expect to see you use some inventive categories? Literary techniques?

What they will do after reading your paper?

What do you want to accomplish as a result of writing this paper? Have you signalled this aim clearly at the start? Have you made the implications of the paper – the So What and Now What – clear at the end? Have you made your original and novel take on the topic clear to the reader?

If this was helpful, you might also like similar posts which offer a tighter focus on text:

revising with a reader in mind – ten questions

revising like a reader

Photo by Joel Reyer on Unsplash

Posted in authorship, reader, readers, readership, revision, revision strategy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

a first draft in five minutes a day?

This is a brief post. It’s a brief post about a brief strategy which helps you to get started on writing that feels a bit – well – a bit boring. It’s the five minutes a day strategy.

Boring? Yes … sometimes we all have to write things that don’t excite us. We often try to put off tedious writing. We find it hard to get going. We have no energy. Just thinking about the writing makes us feel tired. And perhaps resentful.

When faced with an enervating writing task, it’s tempting to put it off. To do something that’s more interesting. Or perhaps we could sit and look at the blank screen for a while, then switch to email, or marking, or analyse some data, or one of the many other tasks that need doing.

So the boring bit of writing stays unwritten. It becomes increasingly pressing. But no less tedious. You can’t face it. Rinse and repeat. 

Here is one way to get going. Set aside five minutes. Five minutes only.

For the first minute, brainstorm on your screen or on a piece of paper as many elements of the boring piece of writing as you can. What are the bits of stuff you have to write about? Just bullet point them. Don’t fret about it, you’ll know the most important.

Now you have a list. That’s already an improvement on a blank screen or page, but you can do more.

Pick the most boring of all of the boring items. Set your timer for four minutes and write or type as fast as you can about the boring topic for the four minutes. You goal is to reach 250 words. That’s it, just 250 words. Don’t pause, don’t correct the syntax, and leave a blank or write “something” if you can’t think of the right word. Just get stuff down. Your goal is not to generate a coherent flowing piece of writing but to get out as much of the boring stuff as you can.

At the end of the five minutes you’ll actually have made a start on the boring bit of work. You might like to reward yourself for getting going.

Now, if you have time, you can repeat this procedure straight away. Choose the next most boring thing on the list, set your timer for five minutes and write like there’s no tomorrow. Or continue on with the first one if you think you have more to say. Another 250 words down. Again another little reward. 

If you don’t have another five minutes, or the will to go on, put the list and the new 250 words aside and do the same exercise tomorrow.

Five minutes is not a lot of time. And two lots of five minute writing gives you a whole 500 words. (But if it’s not working for you, you have only spent ten minutes seeing if it will. Not a lot of time compared to staring at a blank screen. ) But if it has worked, good for you. You’re underway.

You can keep going in five minute slots a day. Once you have four slots done, you’ll have 1,000 words. Who knew a few days ago that 1000 words could be written without significant pain?

At the 1000 word point, you may want to put the chunks of writing together, and in the order that you think they will go in the paper. You can also add into the document the leftover bullet points from your initial brainstorm. And you now have something like an outline.

You may now be able to go ahead and fill in the various pieces, writing around the remainder of the points. Without timer. Without rewards.. Or you may like to keep going on five minutes a day, point by point, with rewards, until you have the entire outline – lots of chunks of stuff.

These chunks all need work, and they need to be strung together, to link into a narrative chain. But hooray. You do have, at the end of a sequence of only five minutes a day, something that is pretty close to a crappy first draft. Well done you.

So that’s the five minutes day strategy. It’s an adaptation of a common creative writing exercise, tailored to an academic purpose. While it may appear that the major part of this strategy is a short pomodoro, the more important aspect of the strategy is the development of tiny targets, sometimes called micro-goals. Each bullet point from your brainstorm is a tiny writing target.

For people who find getting going hard, or who have very little time to spend on their writing, developing and sticking with tiny targets can be very helpful.

You don’t have to confine tiny targets to boring writing. You can apply tiny targets to anything. With an initial focusing – the brainstorm leading to choice of the mini pomodoro – tiny writing targets can add up very quickly to a text that can then be worked on as a whole. It’s a crappy first draft for sure, but it’s not a blank screen or page. And even a lot of that next stage of second drafting, where you focus on structuring the argument, can happen in little five to ten minute slots.

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

Posted in being stuck, boring writing, crappy first draft, pomodoro, speed writing, stuck points, tiny targets, writing to get unstuck | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

writing for publication – finding an angle and an argument

This is a story, a my story, which leads to eight pointers about writing for publication. 

I’m currently writing a paper. Well, yes, always writing something. But right now it’s a paper. A paper designed to do some thinking work that will then inform a book. I’m not writing this paper by myself, but I am doing most of the first draft with some crucial and well-timed help from my co-researcher Chris.

The paper began with some nagging data. You know the kind of thing, the bit of data that just sticks with you and won’t go away. The data was in the form of a set of themes from a sub-section of our research – Chris had produced these themes. This themed data just sat there – literally sat on my desktop, but also stuck in my thinking. And the data metaphorically waved to me whenever I started to think about the book. ( I’m here, I’m here, come play with me.) We have to do something with you, I thought, just not now.

And then the obstinate data somehow met an idea. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but it often does. I could have done this connection work systematically I reckon, by brainstorming how the data might be used. But the connection just emerged one day and interrupted what I was doing at the time. I told Chris about it and she agreed it would be good to pursue.

So the idea. I knew from previous research and engagement with relevant literatures that there was a need for further work around a particular topic, let’s call it X. The case for X needing more thinking was in black and white in an important report. X and our data met in my subconscious and then I started to think quite consciously about what we could do. Our data had been produced and analysed precisely in the way that the big report on X suggested was needed. I told myself it ought to be possible to bring our stuff and X together. It was worth spending a bit of time to see if it could be done. Down tools on everything that could be downed.

I went back to the literatures. If I was going to write about X, then I needed to catch up on what had been published about X since I last looked.I also needed to work out which journal was particularly interested in all things X. Where was the conversation going on? As well, I needed to find out whether anyone else had put together data similar to ours with X (not the case, pleasure and relief combined). I also had to find out whether there was anything already in print that spoke to the potential combination of our data plus X. Well yes, there was, although not a huge amount of literature-as-a resource to call on. Some daily slots of reading, summarising, noting, Endnoting etc followed and the resulting writings went into a word doc where the summarised literatures were arranged in like-topic clumps. By this time I also knew the journal we could submit to.

My speculative foray into the literatures certainly didn’t suggest that I stop. I still hadn’t started writing the paper; I was immersed in the creation stage, not yet drafting but writing of a generative kind. Writing to work out what was there and what might be said.

I next went back to the data and did some finer grained analysis. I constructed three new categories from our existing themes and checked them against the literatures. They seemed to generally fit with the X conversation and there seemed to be something like a potential contribution. Worth keeping on then. 

Gah. Not all resolved. I still didn’t have an argument. I couldn’t just report data analysis and X. I had to say what X and our data together meant for how we thought differently about X. And so what! The paper had to take the reader somewhere. I had to find an angle that would be of interest to the journal readers, and would actually advance the conversation that had gone on.

I wasn’t at the point where I could write a succinct Tiny Text, so I had a first go at beginning the paper. I set up a problem in the introduction for which the paper would provide an answer, and then wrote the literatures and methods sections. This was about three thousand words and had quite a lot of references. It took me about three writing sessions to get this done – about four or so hours. This is not what I would ideally do, but I didn’t have enough sorted for a Tiny Text and I needed structure for the text – so timed unstructured writing would be counter-productive. I just had to plunge in and have a go.

I sent the three thousand or so words off to Chris to see what she thought. Chris of course knew the data and I had also already sent her a couple of key books to read so she would know what I had been reading. We booked a discussion. 

Chris could see what I was trying to do, without me having to explain it. She agreed there was a paper. But she thought I had the angle wrong – the way I had set up the problem didn’t work. The new categories I had generated were however right, and the connection with the literatures was sound. But the thinking wasn’t there yet. I thought so too. It was pretty clear I was writing my way into something, but what that something was wasn’t yet sorted. However, through our conversation, the problem that paper could address was refined. Chris had a different perspective which was very helpful. (Talking things over at this point of paper development is often very helpful.) A possible angle and argument were just about visible. This paper could be something that added to X and that journal readers would be interested in. I could see a way forward.

I then started a new document. Left the old one behind. Back to the beginning. I changed the title and rewrote the introduction which set out the problem we were addressing, suggested the contribution and laid out the argument moves as the reader would encounter them in the paper. I wasn’t entirely sure about a minor bit of possible theory, but put it in to see how it would read and feel. This was an entirely new text – no cut and paste, a clean sheet. Once again I sent this (now about) five hundred words to Chris for comment, this time in the body of an email.

Her feedback came straight back, and is now incorporated into the paper I’m writing. I’ve just written myself a Tiny Text and it’s all go. Of course I expect there still to be bumps and many revisions. But we do have a direction and something new to say about X. And Chris will have more to contribute as the paper gets drafted and polished. 

So what are the key points about writing a paper that emerge from this story? 

1 Follow your nose. If it feels like there’s something there, there may well be.

2 Connect to a body of literature early and find the space for development so you can see where the paper will fit and what kind of contribution you can make.

3 Dig into the literatures to find what’s helpful to situate and shape the possible paper. What does your paper build on? What does it speak to? 

4 Locate the journal where the relevant conversation is happening and the papers that have already been written. See how your new paper might engage. Think about what will be interesting to readers.

5 Don’t be afraid to spend time writing to see what the paper might be about. Sometimes you just have to write it till you get it. Even if you are a planner like me, you can’t plan if you don’t have your head around “the stuff”. 

6 Talking through a possible paper is a good way to help sort out whether your idea is viable and to get the angle and argument sorted.

7 Working with a trusted collaborator is fab – they can always see things that you can’t. 

8 Don’t be afraid to junk what you’re writing and start afresh. The first writings were necessary to get you to the paper proper so it’s not been wasted effort. Those early words have done their job. 

And of course a caveat. My process won’t work for everyone, or for everything you write. But some of these pointers, I hope, may be helpful to you. Write on.  

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Posted in argument, choosing the right journal, contribution, journal article, journal publication, literature a resource, the angle | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments