[127/365] Immersed by Pascal, Public domain
There is no doubt that a lot of the time you spend writing a dissertation will actually be spent reading, and reading and reading, and reading. You need to read a lot more than will go in your literature review. You are reading to find things out about what others have found, thought and said, but you are also reading to learn. Its only once you have really learned what others have found, thought, and said that you can work out what you have found, and think, so that you can say it in your writing.
Dr Inger Mewburn, from Thesis Whisperer calls this the reading marathon and has some advice for surviving it here.
Little Mongrel by Nitin G, Attribution License
In this post Thesis Whisperer Inger Mewburn describes a technique to help you deal with the huge mass of information on your topic. She refers to it as “reading like a mongrel” and a key aspect of this is reading to find things out, rather than just generally reading around your topic.
I know what she means. Once you know what you need to find out, your reading (and writing) can proceed much much more quickly and until you reach that point – well to me it feels like swimming in mud (as I described here).
So sometimes when you are swimming in mud, you need to step back and try to think what you are actually trying to find out. Break it up into small questions (as I have suggested here) or topics. Talking to someone usually helps. Anyone will do….they don’t have to understand the topic. Try explaining to them what it is you are trying to write about and often this will clarify what you need to find out.
reader by Barbara Krawcowicz, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License
I used to think that when I was having trouble following a paper I was reading, it was because I didn’t know enough about the topic, or wasn’t concentrating properly. Now I realise that it was actually because of the writing.
Good writing is easy to read, even if the topic is difficult. The writer has written for their audience and so they provide the information you need in order to follow what they are saying. They use simple words. Their writing is concise and also precise. The subject of their sentences is easy to find so you know who or what is acting and they use strong verbs that accurately convey what is happening. They use correct punctuation as a signpost so you know where sections start and finish and which words belong with which others. Because their writing is so clear, you can read fast and its easier to concentrate. The writer makes sure you know where you are in the document, why they are talking about the things they are saying and what the point of all of it is. And on top of all of this the writer tells you what to conclude and justifies it. When you read well written work you enjoy it and it is fun.
Bad writing is hard work and hard to concentrate on. If you have ever tried to read a piece of work that has no full stops (I have!) you will realise just what a difference these small dots make to your understanding and the speed you can read. Same goes for incorrectly capitalised words, lack of subject-verb agreement, incorrect pluralisation and a host of other punctuation and grammatical errors that are the subject of some of my posts. Less skilled writers don’t always make the subject and object of sentences clear. It can be hard to know what they are referring to when they use words like “these”. They make nouns into adjectives and verbs which makes sentences overly long and complicated. They use wishy washy verbs that just “are’ but don’t make things happen in their sentences – usually they need to do this because all the action is being held by their nouns. And they tend to present you with information. This is what so and so said and this is what so and so did. But they neglect to tell you why that matters or what that means.
Sometimes I have trouble committing to what something means on paper. I think it stems from worrying that my audience knows more than I do and that they might not agree with me. If you have this feeling too, you have to get over it – at least in your writing. They may know more than you but they will agree with you if you show them the reasons why. Present your argument and back it up with evidence and logic. Cover your bases. And say what you conclude.
Reading is something you will be doing a lot of as you write a dissertation. Start to take notice when you read things that are easy and things that are hard to read. See what writers are doing and not doing that makes their work be like this. Then you can start to try to emulate a good style. And your readers will thank you for it!