Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

Archive for the category “Writing”

Active vs. Passive voice in writing

I often find it frustrating that Word’s grammar checker always marks the passive voice as wrong. There are good and legitimate uses of the passive voice.

While it is a bit of a judgment call in academic writing a more objective tone of voice is generally appropriate. That is sometimes understood as requiring the passive voice. In a thesis or journal article the idea is to demonstrate that actions taken were based on careful research (reading, data collection, etc.) not at the whim of the researcher.

However, the passive voice can serve to obscure rather than clarify what is going on. A researcher must be careful to let the reader know who took certain actions. A description can become confusing if there are multiple researchers all referred to in the more traditional third person. In some approaches to research, ethnographic or action research for example, knowing how the research influenced the context studied helps the reader evaluate the findings and analysis of the research.

While it is designed for people writing in the sciences I have found this article from the Duke Graduate School helpful: Passive voice in scientific writing

For a briefer summary see the University of Toronto writing centre

Field Work and Critical Thinking

Most of my research is field work. It is very easy to fall into the temptation that all that is necessary after data collection is to report on what you have found in the field. The advent of data analysis software with fancy charts and tables makes this temptation all the more stronger because it is easy to make an attractive report. Reporting is a necessary first step both to summarize what you actually have and to communicate the research to any affected or interested constituencies.

However, to make the data useful for decision making we have to interpret these data. What do they mean? What do they tell us about particular courses of action? Who can they be applied to? In what ways? Getting to this point requires, among other things, critical thinking skills. To apply critical thinking to data is to both analyze what is going on and to make some kind of judgment about what it means. How did you come to this interpretation? How did you determine which information was relevant? What is the evidence for this conclusion? What assumptions contributed to this analysis? What are the limitations to this conclusion?

While it is written for educators Unlocking the Mystery of Critical Thinking provides a helpful summary of how to encourage critical thinking. The included bibliography provides some sources that could be productively explored to learn more.

Humanizing Academic Citation

Over the last few years I have noticed that people increasingly struggle with giving attribution to the source of their ideas. Even when they do cite their sources they often struggle to deal with them in a civil manner—either making fun of them or presenting their own ideas as the culmination of all prior research.

I don’t have any research on why this is but it may be related to the borrowing culture of the Internet or the rise of snarky humour. Whatever the reason it negatively affects people’s contribution to the larger academic conversation.

Anne Curzan in The Chronicle of Higher Education talks about how understanding academic citation as a classroom conversation helped one class understand both its need and why a certain level of civility is necessary.

Humanizing Academic Citation – Lingua Franca – Blogs – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Become a Better Writer

I work primarily with doctoral students. These are smart people who already have at least two degrees. As the program I work in is a professional program they are generally accomplished leaders with full time jobs. A surprising number of them can’t write well.

Writing well is not an optional skill. In todays world of email and Twitter communication clear, careful and concise writing skills are more important than ever. Good ideas are more valuable if they are communicated well. If people can’t understand you they can’t learn from you.

My advice is simple: practice, read your work out loud, get others to read it, read lots of good writing and don’t give up.

Dave Kerpen says something similar in this article:

Want To Be Taken Seriously? Become a Better Writer | LinkedIn.

How to Give a Great Presentation

This blog is primarily about research but at some point most people want to present their research orally. This could be teaching a class, presenting a paper at a conference, or just trying to convince a group of people to benefit from what you have learned.

I have read a lot of material on how to give a good presentation. The basic recommendations in the literature are relatively consistent—which makes it surprising that so few people pay any attention.

Here is a summary of one of the classics in the literature: Writing that Works.

How to Give a Great Presentation: Timeless Advice from a Legendary Adman, 1981 | Brain Pickings.

Leading Writing Problems

I read a lot of writing by doctoral students. I have never considered myself a grammarian but with enough reading the contrast between good and bad writing becomes relatively obvious. Furthermore, some problems are more common than others. In the Lingua Franca blog Ben Yagoda notes that of the writing problems he encounters:

“The leaders of the pack are wordiness, imprecision, poor or incorrect word choice, and spelling and punctuation errors.“

via A Swang and a Miss – Lingua Franca – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This entirely matches my experience. Fix these problems and people are much more likely to know what you are taking about.

How Not to Write

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Overcoming Writer’s Block

Anyone that does any kind of writing encounters writer’s block at one time or another. This could be because you are overwhelmed with information, because the project is unfamiliar, because your passion for writing does not match your passion for what you are writing about or any number of other issues.

Here is a list of a few strategies for addressing this problem from my own experience and from what I have observed in others:

  1. Start Writing. Just write down anything. It does not have to be coherent at this stage. Write down titles of books that come to mind, book or journal passages that seem relevant (cited carefully), snippets of ideas, bits of conversations—anything at all that is in some way related to the topic at hand.
  2. Ignore the Rules. There is a time for editing but when you are first writing concentrate on getting things down. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, flow or bad ideas. Just write.
  3. Start in the middle. There is no rule that you have to write in the order that you intend the document to be read. If you are feeling passionate about outcomes today write about outcomes. If you are excited about a particular source write about that.
  4. Simplify. It is hard to keep all the elements of a large project in our heads at the same time. Break the project into smaller pieces that you can easily conceptualize. NOTE: sometimes the problem is that the project itself is too big or too complicated. A conversation with a trusted advisor can help you figure out if that is the case and what to do about it.
  5. Talk about it. Some people are verbal thinkers. They cant figure out what they think without talking. Buy somebody a nice drink in return for using them as a sounding board.
  6. Take a long time. It is very hard to write something long on 15 minutes a day. Try to find blocks of at least a couple of hours to work on your writing. If possible set aside an entire day or several days.
  7. Be disciplined. Having a regular, protected time for writing helps to develop writing into a habit. If you expect to be interrupted at any time it is hard to concentrate on what you are writing.
  8. Read more. Find something to read and read it to get ideas percolating in your head. React to other‘s ideas. Let your mind wander to your own project as you read. NOTE: carefully record what you are reading and make sure you cite any ideas that find their way into your own work.
  9. Take care of yourself. It is hard to write if you are exhausted, sick, or depressed. Take time to sleep, recover and get the help you need.
  10. Exercise. Exercise is just as good for the brain as it is for the body. Exercise can clear brain fog, promote the production of ideas, and promotes restful sleep among many other benefits.
  11. Be Prepared. Ideas come at strange times. Keep a notepad within arms reach at all times. A phone, tablet or computer will also do.
  12. Diagram. Put your individual ideas in boxes and draw lines showing how they are connected. Here is an example from one of my papers:

wpid-clarifyingmythesis-2012-11-16-17-15.jpg
This is not an exhaustive list—a quick Google search will find much more (here is a fun article on the topic from science and science fiction blog io9). However, it should be enough to get you writing again.

No, You Can’t Multitask

We all want to get more things done. The temptation is to try to do multiple things at once. Unfortunately, research doesn’t work like that. Data analysis and communication requires intense, sustained and focused attention.

Here is an article that provides the evidence that you can’t multitask:

Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t | Faculty Focus

Be More Productive

We all want to be more productive. I have found that a careful designed system that focuses on clearly defined next actions of measurable goals is the best way forward. Here is an article that makes this argument in more detail:

Five Reasons to Think About How You Work – ProfHacker – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The book that has been the most influential in my thinking about this topic is David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  

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