Tagged / academic writing

BU Academic’s Blog Reaches 250,000 Views

KIPWORLD, the personal weblog of Bournemouth University academic, Kip Jones, reached a milestone this week, measuring 250,000 page views in the all-time history of the blog. 

Begun in 2009, the blog averages about one article a month of around 1,000 words in length. These are definitely not the perhaps more typical ‘off-the-cuff’ or ‘stream of consciousness’ blogs, however. Jones pores over and reworks these pieces, sometimes for days, even weeks.  He says that he tends to painstakingly write and rewrite anyway, so putting something out frequently was never going to work for him. One great things about on-line publishing is that you can continue to edit once an article is published, however.

Jones also writes for other blogs from time to time (LSE Impact blog, LSE Review of Books, Discover Society, Sociological Imagination, Creative Quarter, The Creativity Post, Bournemouth University Research Blog) as well.

As Jones reported earlier, 

KIPWORLD is my personal blog where I write about projects that I am working on, but I also use it to develop my writing. A good example is a piece entitled, “How Breakthroughs Come: Tenacity and Perseverance”. First written for the blog, it was then reworked to  include some reader responses to the earlier version. Through a Twitter connection, it was then published for a third time on the Social Research Hub, a site particularly aimed at PhD students in the Social Sciences.

Interestingly, the vast majority of the traffic to the site comes from Facebook where Jones moderates several special interest groups.The audience for KIPWORLD is predominantly in the USA, but the blog is viewed widely throughout the world.

The all-time top article on KIPWORLD is A summer holiday, three books and a story  has received 17,499 views so far. The format is an exercise in creative autofiction, book review and a short story. This contribution to the site was written on holiday and is very much a personal reflection. A similar formula of tripartite creative writing developed by Jones recently made it to the pages of the academic journal, Qualitative Research Journal.   (Interestingly, this ‘blog style’ article in an academic journal has been downloaded 30 times since publication in January 2017).

What might be called “How to” articles (such as What is a Systematic Review? or A Brief Outline for Organising/Writing the PhD Thesis) are also extremely popular.

Jones’ advice on blog writing to others:

Find your own voice, even your own subject material. Use your blog to develop your writing and your personal style. Don’t just assume that it has to look and sound like a blog to be one. Include at least one picture with every blog article. Let people know about the blog through social media—don’t expect an audience to just find it on its own. Promote it.

If the most important thing in your life IS to write about your cat, write about it as creatively as you possibly can. Enjoy the experience!

From time to time, Jones holds an hour-long taster session, “Academic Blog Writing”. If you are interested in joining an upcoming session, please email

 

 

 

 

 

Say it once, say it right: Seven strategies to improve your academic writing (Patrick Dunleavy)

Whether writing a research article or a grant proposal, it can be difficult to pinpoint the sections and areas that need further improvement. It is useful to have a set of tactics on hand to address the work. Patrick Dunleavy outlines seven upgrade strategies for a problematic article or chapter: Do one thing well. Flatten the structure. Say it once, say it right. Try paragraph re-planning. Make the motivation clearer. Strengthen the argument tokens. Improve the data and exhibits.

I guess every researcher and academic writer has often faced the task of trying to upgrade a piece of work that just will not come out right. Sometimes it’s clear what the problem is, and colleagues, friends or supervisors who read the article or chapter can make concrete suggestions for change. But often it’s not so clear-cut. Readers are cordial but obviously unenthused. There’s nothing massively wrong, but the piece feels thin or unconvincing in some diffuse way.

Sometimes too the problem occurs well before you want anyone else to read your text. If it is a one-off piece of research then maybe it can just be filed for later reconsideration. But often the research plan in a grant bid, or the book contents page crafted a year ago, or the PhD structure devised two or more years ago, mean that an article or chapter just has to get done. Here an unsatisfactory first draft is not just much less than you’d hoped for at the distant planning stage, but instead a depressing roadblock to completing a whole, long-term project.

At times like these it is handy to have a set of standard things to try to improve matters — familiar strategies that you can frequently use, deploying them quickly because you’re deliberately not treating each article or chapter as sui generis or unique. Everyone has their own moves for coping with the upgrade task. Here are my top seven, in hopes that some of them work for you.

1. Do one thing well. Many writing problems stem from trying to do too much within the same few pages, causing texts to inflate beyond journal length limits (often fatal for passing review), or just introducing ‘confuser’ themes that referees love to jump on. ‘I’m not clear if the author is advocating X, or trying to do Y’. Keeping it simple (within well defended boundaries) makes things clearer, so long as your paper is also substantive i.e don’t go from this point to try and ‘salami slice’ a given piece of research across multiple journal articles. A nice blog by Pat Thomson puts this point alongside other common mistakes.

2. Flatten the structure. All articles in social science should be 8,000 words or less and most chapters are similar or verge up to 10,000 words. Given the attention span of serious, research readers, you need a sub-heading about every 2,000 words or so — that’s just four or five main sub-headings in total. They should all be first-order sub-heads, at the same level, and preferably dividing the text up into similar-sized chunks, that come in a predictable way and have a common rhythm. If you have two or three tiers of sub-headings in a hierarchy, make it simpler.

In other fields, length limits are much less — e.g. just 3,000 words for medical journal articles. So the numbers of subheadings needed here will be correspondingly reduced. Each of your section headings should be substantive (not just formal, conventional, vacuous or interogative). Ideally they should give readers a logically sequenced set of narrative cues, about what you did, and what you have found out. You can add a short Conclusions section with its own smaller kind of heading. Also, never label the beginning bit of text ‘Introduction’ — this is already blindingly obvious.

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Image credit: Nic McPhee (Flickr, CC BY-SA)

Many structural problems and inaccessible text are caused by people using outliner software to create overly hierarchized sets of headings at multiple levels, made worse still by adding complex numbering systems (e.g section 2.1.4.3) to ‘help’ readers. At an extreme, an analytic over-fragmentation of the text results, with sections, sub-sections and sub-sub sections proliferating in bizarre complexity. The text can become like the traditional British tinned desert called ‘fruit cocktail’, which contains many different kinds of fruit, but all in small cubes and smothered in a syrup so thick that you cannot taste at all what any component is.

The writing coach, Thomas Basboll, shrewdly remarked that :

A well-written journal article will present a single, easily identifiable claim; it will show that something is the case… The [typical academic] article will consist of roughly 40 paragraphs. Five of them will provide the introductory and concluding remarks. Five of them will establish a general, human background. Five of them will state the theory that informs the analysis. Five of them will state the method by which the data was gathered. The analysis (or “results” section) will make roughly three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three five-paragraph sections. The implications of the research will be outlined in five paragraphs. These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but “knowing” something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions.

3. Say it once, say it right. Nothing is so corrosive of readers’ confidence in a writer than repeating things. Academic readers are not like soap opera fans — they do not need a thing previewed, then actually said, then resaid, and then summarized. So it a bad idea to take one decent point and fragment it across your text in little bits. If your current structure is forcing you to do this, recast it to make this problem go away.

Simple, big block structures are generally best. Complex structures, with points developed recursively on in frequent discrete iterations, are easier to mess up. Close to every nuance of your own argument, you may well feel that you are thematically advancing, embroidering and extending your arguments each time you come back to a linked point. But readers will just see repetition. So, say each point once— and say it right first time.

This motto also has resonance at the micro-level. Fellow scientists or academics normally do not need points to be so hammered home that every tiny scintilla of meaning has been triple-locked in case some doubt remains. This way lies turgid prose. (As Voltaire shrewdly remarked: ‘The secret of being a bore is to say everything’).

4. Try paragraph re-planning, as discussed in my separate blogpost. This is a great technique for really helping you understand what you have done/got in the existing draft of your article or chapter. Rachael Cayley has a similar approach, which she calls ‘reverse outlining’. The core idea is to start with your finished text and then to resurface a detailed, paragraph-by-paragraph structure from that. Looking at this synoptic view of your whole text, you should find it easier to come up with an alternative Plan B sequence for your text. Unless you are a genius writer already, re-modelling text is an inescapable burden at multiple stages of securing acceptance by a journal.

5. Make the motivation clearer. Give readers a stronger sense of why the research has been done, why the topic is salient and how the findings illuminate important problems. Researchers who live with their topic over months and years often lose track of why they started, why they shaped the study as they did, and what the significance of their findings is for a larger audience. If a text is not working, or not quite working, the author is often too close-up to the detail of the findings, too convinced that the study could only have been done this way and that its importance is ‘obvious’. Being unable to write an effective conclusion is a good ‘tell’ for this problem — an apparently separate symptom that is actually closely linked.

Trying to achieve a high impact start for an article (or a clean, forward-looking beginning to each chapter in a book or PhD) can help readers to better appreciate a motive for reading on. A quick start usually helps readers commit to learning more.

6. Strengthen the argument tokens. At research level every paragraph draws on ‘tokens’ to sustain the case being made — which might be literature citations, supportive quotations, empirical evidence, or systematic data presented in charts or tables (see point 7). On citations, quotes or evidence it is usually worthwhile to ask if your search and presentation could be made more convincing — for instance, by multiplying references, showing evidence of systematic and inclusive search, more methodical evidence-gathering, or simply updating and refreshing a literature search that is now a little dated. People often do a literature search at an early stage of their research, when they only understand their topic rather poorly — but then neglect to do a ‘top up’ search just before submission, when they are likely to be much better at recognizing material that is relevant.

7. Improve the data and exhibits. This works at two levels. First, at an overall level it is important to design effective exhibits that display in a consistent way and follow good design principles. Second, at the level of each chart, table or diagram, make sure you provide full and accurate labelling of what is being shown, and that the data being reported are in a form that will matter to readers — not ‘dead on arrival’.

This post has been taken from LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog and is available from this linkThis piece was originally published on the Writing For Research blog and is reposted with the author’s permission.

To follow up these ideas in more detail see this book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003) or the Kindle edition, where Chapter 5 covers ‘Writing clearly’ and Chapter 6 ‘Developing as a Writer’.

There is also very useful advice on Rachael Cayley’s blog Explorations of Style and on Thomas Bassboll’s blog ‘Research as a second language’.

On Academic Writing

Writing is not easy, yet academics must write.  Communicating your research and ideas to your peers through writing is an essential part of an academic career, you may be doing brilliant research, you may be a fantastic speaker or teacher, but if you can’t express your ideas through the written word your career may flounder.  Writing lies at the heart of research.  There are no quick solutions, fixes or dodges and I don’t profess to have any, but I am interested in the process of writing and seek your help in exploring this.

The importance of writing is no great news and if you are, like me, dyslexic and find the challenge of writing exactly that, a challenge, then what can you do?  We all have different approaches to writing – our own coping strategies if you like – that allow us to get the words on the page, the thoughts and ideas clarified and expressed.  It is an intensely personal process and what works for me is unlikely to work for you.

So what does works for you?  How do you go about writing that difficult piece of prose?

Have a think while I share what works for me.

 

How I write

Ideas often flow better for me from conversation, but as an introvert I don’t have much time for conversation!  So I talk to myself, mentally rehearsing what needs to be said, framing initial ideas and nebulous arguments.  I can be seen on the walk to work deep in thought, in fact deep in silent conversation, and not always silent to the amusement of those that walk their dogs in the park I cross each day!

These silent conversations shape my initial draft, since when I sit down to write I am simply noting down the conversation.  I then refine this early draft picking out and questioning the logic, developing the argument as I craft iteratively the text before me.  For me writing is therefore a process of constant refinement, iteration and clarification as my ideas and argument take shape in the words that I write.

 

It’s different for everyone

Others work differently I know, my mother for example who is a retired academic talked to me recently of how she used to coin a statement, or phrase, something elegant and clever that she then picked at to see if it was true, forming her argument in light of it.  For others it is all about the research question that is being posed and I know that some of my colleagues believe that all your ideas should be formed and in sharp focus before you start to write.  It is a bit like having a beautiful artefact that they can see in their mind’s eye, which simply needs to be described.  I cannot write like this and my approach is more akin to that of Stephen King who, in his wonderful book On Writing, describes the process of writing as the excavation of a fossil with the story slowly emerging from the ground with work and care.  No one way of writing is any better than any other and each may have their own particular style that may also vary across discipline boundaries which leads to my basic question how do you approach the process of writing?

It is this question that intrigues me, a question that I would like to explore for its own sake but also perhaps because it might amuse me in time to write about it in a book or paper.

So what do I need, to help me explore this idea?

 

Getting involved

Well I need the help from my fellow academics, not just geoscientists like myself but social scientists, chemists, historians and engineers.  I am interested to know what helps you to write – a short email with ‘a brain dump’, a couple of paragraphs or a list of bullet points is all I need with your own reflections on how you approach the task of writing.  If you are not an academic but write a lot as part of your profession then drop me a line as well.  In return I will reflect on how I can best summarise, or collate your collective ideas, to play them back to the academic community in ways that would be useful for them.

So going back to the questions posed earlier – how do you write?  In framing your response it might help to reflect on the following questions, whilst also adding anything else that you feel it would be relevant for me to know.

How do you approach your academic writing?  Describe for me the process by which you shape your ideas and craft your prose from conception to completion of a piece, whether it is a journal article, a book or a chapter.

What is the most challenging part for you?  And how do you overcome this?

Where do you like to write?  Can you write anywhere – on the plane, train or in a stolen five minutes, or do you need a block of time and a quiet place, or a noisy coffee shop?

Do you write for a specific audience and journal or in a more generic form formatting once written for a particular journal?  Does this vary depending on the piece?  Do you always know where something is to be submitted before you start?  What in truth guides your choice – clinical analysis, convenience or simply the tradition in your discipline?

How do you write collaboratively?  Do you take the lead, or do you write truly by committee?

How much are you influenced by the norms of your discipline – and what is your discipline?

These are the types of thing I am interested in, I am trying not to be prescriptive and all I ask is that after some reflection you open up an email, insert my address – mbennett@bmth.ac.uk – and write to me something about how you write!  I will respond asking you to sign a consent form and with further details of the study and I promise to preserve your anonymity at all times, unless you specifically state that you are happy to be acknowledged.  Thank you.