UWC writing workshop

Image from Wikipedia article on writing

Last week UWC hosted a writing workshop for academics. I always enjoy writing workshops because there’s always something I find in them that makes me think about my own process a little bit more. I wasn’t able to attend the full sessions every day, but managed to make a few notes while I was there.

Writing an Introduction

CARS model – Create A Research Space (John Swales). Using the Introduction as a way of creating a space, or a context that the research will take place in. Publishing as a way of creating a conversation in a field. I write the Introduction last, as a roadmap for the reader rather than as a roadmap for my writing. I can’t change the Method and Results, so I use those sections as anchors and go back to the Introduction to make sure that there’s alignment between the major sections.

Genre – ways that members of a community agree that certain discourses within that community will be presented

Writing as a process of learning about what you’re writing about. The process changes you and changes itself as it moves forward. Sometimes you don’t really know where you’re going or how you’re going to get there, but the act of writing creates can create a pathway from where you are to where you need to be.

Try to avoid:

  • Repetition
  • Unnecessary background and context
  • Exaggerating the importance of the work
  • Weak statements
  • Assumption that the reader knows where the research is located i.e. context is lacking
  • Not focusing on a clear and compelling research question i.e. it is too broad

Establish a niche by showing that previous research is not complete (can be negative evaluation of other studies, or positive justification for your own)

Using the Introduction as a way to establish authority and situating yourself and your own work within a context.

Knowing the steps in this model can be used to give feedback to other people’s writing. The tacit understanding of good writing can be made explicit. Is also a good way to actually read articles.

Keeping track of sources and versions as part of the Literature Review

Three uses of sources

  1. Making notes: Help formulate the question; Quick read to spark interest; Recording general ideas
  2. Reading for an argument: Help to make a logical argument; Look for similar arguments to what you want to make i.e. a logic checklist; Use the literature to make points that you want to address; Turn major points into questions that you want to answer
  3. Reading for evidence: Most common reason but not necessarily the most important; Reporting evidence completely and accurately, cite source carefully; Try to locate the original source; Don’t try to collect everything (we often feel a need to gather and read as many sources as possible. Rather try to be selective about a few good sources)

Preserve what you find. Record bibliographic information and notes accurately. When taking notes from literature, summarise the main points, highlight issues/data/methods that are important. Identify when you quote, when you paraphrase and when your notes trigger a new thought.

Share you resources with colleagues. Discuss what you’re reading with others, and discuss why what you’re reading is useful (or not). How does your reading shift or shape your topic or questions. Use sources to revise your question and topic (check with your supervisor).

Saving versions

  • Understand the concept of versioning
  • Use file sharing rather than email e.g. Dropbox
  • Rename files with dates, supervisor names
  • Keep an archive folder with older drafts (don’t delete anything)

Imagination and writing creatively

I sometimes feel like not writing because it’s like I have nothing to say. Sometimes you  who don’t write because the ideas aren’t there but it’s important to understand that ideas don’t emerge from nothing. Being embedded within conversations is one way for the seeds of ideas to be planted. Over time, and over many conversations, the seeds begin to grow and you feel like you have all these ideas that came from nowhere, overnight. As a writer, it’s important to keep track of all of these seeds and add to them over time. For example, keeping drafts of blog posts with links back to original sources, or keeping notes of books being read, or just keeping a short audio note reminding yourself that “this is an interesting idea”.

How do you deal with having too many ideas?

Think of note-taking and reading as a critical conversation with the author, rather than just reading and making notes. Being critical of the writer / writing style open us to further avenues for thinking about the topic.

What is the purpose of the review? This influences how you approach it.

  • Find published research
  • Read and skim: identify major points, important contributors
  • Map the literature: outline the major topic with sub-topics, highlight themes, narrow the boundaries of what to focus on
  • Read and critique smaller portions to identify exemplars
  • Write a focused review that introduces the perspective you want to use

Writing is not a linear process.

Think about beginning locally and then moving globally. Usually we write to narrow the focus e.g. by beginning globally and moving locally.

Data analysis and reporting

What are some of the challenges you experience with data analysis and reporting of results? I find it difficult to only use the data. There are experiences that exist outside of the data, tacit knowledge, that I find difficult to integrate with the “formal” data.

Avoid simply listing quotes under categories, try to create links between the major concepts.

Data analysis is shaped by the research methods you choose.

Depending on whether the data is quantitative or qualitative, the presentation will be different.

Ensure that the discussion of the data goes further than simply repeating the results. The role of the author is to interpret the data in the context of the literature, to go further and unpack what can be inferred. Acknowledge that analysis is an act of creation, informed by personal beliefs and biases. We can try to reduce bias but should be aware that how we interpret the data can’t really be separated from ourselves.

Discussion of findings, conclusion, submission and peer review

Go back to the beginning. Review the research question. Remember that the process is not linear.

In quantitative research, it makes sense to separate out the results and discussion of those results. This isn’t the case in qualitative research where the discussion of the results are usually best done together.

Make sure that themes are logical and that they build on each other. These themes should also speak to the key questions and ideas that were presented in the Introduction.

Unpack the quotes and narratives clearly. In qualitative research, avoid using too many quotes to illustrate the same point.

The presentation of the findings should follow a logical flow. Guide the reader through the piece so that they feel like they are moving through a process. Try to integrate the results into a narrative.

Consider using pseudonyms rather than “Participant 1” in order to avoid objectifying them. You could even ask participants to provide their own pseudonyms.

Conclusion: Here is what I did, what I found, what it means and some things that might happen next.

Finalising the document: check on content and alignment. Is the context and rationale clearly outlined? Are the questions or problems clearly stated? Is appropriate and comprehensive literature reviewed? Are you joining the conversation with familiarity? Have you outlined your methodology clearly and in appropriate detail? Have you summarised, concluded and drawn out key contributions of your work? Are your references in the correct format? Do you need to acknowledge anyone? Is the work formatted according to the journal requirements?

Resources

Note: This was originally published at Unteaching.

Notes on academic writing

Earlier this year (January in fact) I spent a few days away on a writing retreat to help develop academic writing skills for new academics. I made a few short notes during that process that for some reason didn’t make it onto the blog. Here they are…

Completed the following articles:

  • Wikis and collaborative learning in a South African physiotherapy department
  • Developing reflection and research skills through blogging in an evidence-based practice postgraduate physiotherapy module

Observations on personal development re. writing skills:

  • Keep track of references (including page number) from the outset. I wasted a lot of time having to go back and read through articles just to find the point I was checking.
  • Know what journal you’re going to write for, so that you can begin using their formatting. I also wasted a lot of time because I wrote the entire article using APA Style, then realised that the journal I was submitting to required Chicago Manual Style.
  • Begin the article with clear aims and objectives. Write the article with the aims and objectives next to you. Don’t include anything that isn’t directly relevant to the achievement of those aims and objectives. I spent a lot of time exploring ideas that were eventually culled because they weren’t relevant to the article’s aims and objectives.
  • Keep your writing “tight”, meaning simple and concise. Ask how you can get your point across with as few words as possible. Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Seems like good advice.
  • As much as I like to believe that I can do everything using just a computer, sometimes it’s good to print out a draft and go through it with a pen. Oddly enough, things can look different when it’s in a physical form.
  • Applying a theoretical framework in the beginning and building around it is easier than trying to manhandle it into the article at the end.