In this post Michelle Bastian discusses how putting into practice advice from Robert Boice’s book on writing has worked for her. She explains her use of spontaneous writing first, to get ideas down, followed by outlining based on what you wrote spontaneously and then restructuring. This process, which she explains in more detail made writing quicker but also more fun.
An amusing post about how to attack a large task…
How to eat an elephant in 10 minutes by Craig Jarrow
Looking back on this site over 2016 we have covered a lot! I hope you have found the site a useful source of information and inspiration for your research project. Here is a roundup of the year’s postings.
Productivity and looking after yourself
A thesis or dissertation is a big job and a long-term commitment that can be a struggle to get through at times. From time to time I find sites that give helpful advice about remaining productive and this year these included ones on approaching planning with processes instead of goals, checking your progress each month, avoiding procrastination, and productive writing. In order to be productive you need to look after yourself, and mindfulness can help as well as giving yourself a break.
Critical thinking and a scientific approach
Thinking is the nuts and bolts of your research. It is how you turn ideas into a structure and hold them all together. We discussed science as a way of thinking and critical thinking techniques, and also how the process of writing helps think and structure your ideas.
Understanding statistics so you can critically evaluate
Having a basic understanding of some statistical principles is important for being able to critically evaluate the research you are reading, and also helps you plan your study design. Explanations of basic statistical concepts can help get you started. We also talked about statistical concepts that affect interpretation of results including bias, missing data, effect size, study design, and concepts around causation. The posting about reading epidemiological reports also gave further pointers that help you evaluate clinical papers.
What to say
I came across quite a few sites that give helpful advice about what to say and how to make the argument that your report must make. In two posts this year we talked about the overall structure of your report and what goes where. We also talked about how a research question is important to help you structure literature reviews. Aspects of making your argument include articulating the problem you are writing about, writing defensively, and using counter argument. Effective transitions are an important way to guide your reader through your document and both avoiding hedging and appropriately using boosters help you say something meaningful.
Being creative with figures and tables
There is a real art to constructing tables and figures that convey information elegantly and coherently, so I like to point out sites that help you with this whenever I can. This year two sites attracted my attention, which you will find here and here.
When you are stuck
Editing and revising
It is such a lot of work to get to a first draft stage that it often seems impossible to contemplate revising your work. But this phase of writing can also be very satisfying. You can find some help for spotting problems you need to fix in this post, and another post shows you a technique for revising by chopping up your work into sections.
Getting advice and feedback from other readers is a key piece of advice in writing a great report and when you have received feedback from reviewers you need to take it on board, as discussed in answering your reviewer.
Paying attention to the mechanics of writing can make your writing clearer and more fun to read. Posts about long sentences, paragraph problems, vague antecedents, compound adjectives, long subjects, and using quotes might sound dry and complicated but they cover issues that cloud many a piece of writing.
Using your tools
In my experience, people often feel at a loss with software and don’t really get the best out of it. Computers can certainly be frustrating, but if you know more about how software works you will be much more productive. Some time spent finding out how to do things is well worth the saving in time later.
A word processor and reference management software are absolute musts for writing dissertations, and usually I speak about Word and Endnote which are what I and my students use mostly. This year I pointed you to information about formatting your paragraphs in Word (here and here), and how to use tools such as the comments tool, cross references, and the status bar. Two important skills with Endnote are customising Endnote citations and formatting references so they don’t add extra initials or first names to your in text citations.
I use OneNote a lot, and this year I pointed out the docking feature which helps you take notes on other documents, webpages and so on. Other information that you might find useful includes how to use Google books to find things in your textbooks and how to use the Crossref website to find DOIs for your references.
Probably the most important tool of all when you are writing is having a good back up system. If you are not backing up, check out this post now!
A stand alone literature review has a different purpose to a literature review that is part of a research study. When a literature review is part of a research study its purpose is to justify the research question that the study addresses. It needs to show readers what is already known, where the gap being addressed by the study is, and why the gap is important to fill.
In contrast, the purpose of a stand alone literature review is to answer a question itself, based on analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of published literature. The question may be a general one like “what is currently known about..…” or “what does current evidence suggest is the best strategy for…..” but it can also be a more specific one such as “what factors are associated with the development of…..” or “which therapy for (condition) has the best long term prognosis…”. The question being answered needs to be an important one to answer and you will need to explain to readers why it is important in the introduction to the literature review.
When planning your literature review, you may start with a general topic, but its important to work on defining a research question early on. In order to define your question you will need to do a lot of reading, and also perhaps create summaries of what you have read, but you will not really have started your review until you know what the question is that your review will answer. The research question provides the focus for your review by defining the topic more specifically and ensuring it is feasible. For more information about formulating a research question, see this post from Sheffield Hallam University.
At one time or another, most of us find it hard to get the writing we are supposed to be doing done. There can be days when all that seems to come out of a whole days work is 500 words! Other times we procrastinate about even starting writing. Lets face it – writing is difficult.
Helen Sword, from The University of Auckland, has written several great books about writing. In this short article she summarises some key points for writing productively. If you read the article you will notice that one point “write every day” appears three times because it is so important. Writing only happens if you sit on a chair and write. Check out Helen’s article for more tips.
Helen Sword (2010) Becoming a more productive writer, MAI Review, 2,
Critical thinking is an essential skill for researchers. Without critical thinking , your literature review will be just a summary of what others have said. Critical thinking enables you to evaluate the evidence of reported findings, and the opinions of experts. It enables you to gather information and assess its relevance to a question. It enables you to explore other points of view and form your own ideas. And it also enables you to consider the implications of findings and integrate these in your evaluation.
In this video from the University of Technology, Sydney, David Sotir discusses how to apply critical thinking skills to writing and research.
In a recent graduation address linked below, Atul Gawande, a surgeon and researcher, spoke of science as a way of thinking. It isn’t, as he explains, a natural way of thinking, but one that has to be learned. He describes how his undergraduate degree gave him a new set of “truths” to replace the ones he had previously held, but how it took him much longer to adopt a sceptical scientific way of thinking.
This is a transition we are trying to encourage in the Masters programme. Often when we teach undergraduates, we teach them one “best” way, or one “truth”. We need to keep it simple, as there is so much to learn. However at Masters level we can start unpicking what has been taught before and help students understand where the knowledge comes from, how it is an approximation of truth, and the ever-changing product of collective effort.
Atul Gawande’s speech is very engaging, inspiring and well worth reading. You can find it here.
In this video and accompanying blog post James Clear discusses how focusing on processes rather than goals can be far more productive and help you be happier.
If things are feeling a little overwhelming, you might find mindfulness helpful. With practice it can help you be less stressed and distracted, so you can concentrate better on the things you need to do.
This website has some good explanations and examples of how you can be more mindful.
This post on the APA Style Blog is by Paul J. Silvia who wrote a very useful book called “How to write a lot”. It’s a short book that is fun to read and definitely worth it, but its basic advice is simple. This post will give you the idea.