Methodology, Method, and Theory

debatingLike last week’s post, this one was inspired by @leenie48 on Twitter. My post of the week before was on how to choose a research question, and @leenie48’s view was that I should not tackle that topic without considering theory. Last week’s post dealt with why I didn’t include theory in the previous post (I hope you’re all keeping up at the back). This week’s post, as promised, explains why I think theory sits with methodology rather than with method.

Some people think ‘methodology’ is just a posh word for ‘method’. This is a bit like how some people think ‘statistical significance’ is a more important version of ordinary everyday ‘significance’. As in, it’s completely wrong.

Methods are the tools researchers use to practice our craft: to gather and analyse information, write and present findings. We have methods for searching literature and sources, gathering and analysing data, reporting, presenting, and disseminating findings. Methodologies are the frameworks within which we do all of this work, and are built from opinions, beliefs, and values. These frameworks guide us in selecting the tools we use, though they are not entirely prescriptive. Therefore one method, such as interviewing, may be used for research within different methodologies, such as realist evaluation or feminist research.

Here, as almost everywhere in the field of research methods, terminology is contested. But most people agree that there are several overarching categories of methodologies, such as post-positivist, constructivist, and interpretivist, and that within those overarching categories there are more specific methodologies, such as post-modernism and phenomenology. There are debates about what each category and methodology is, and how different methodologies should be used. These debates are mostly based on theory.

As I explained last week, theory also comes in many forms and is widely debated. These kinds of debates keep some academics in full-time work and are much too complex to summarise in a blog post. What I can say here is that @leenie48 and I disagree on a fundamental point. She thinks it is not an option to ‘jump from rq [research question] to method choice with no consideration of theory’. I know it is an option because I have seen it done many times, and have done it myself as an independent researcher working on commission for clients who are not interested in considering theory or in paying me to consider theory. The kind of briefs I often work to say, for example, ‘We want to know what our service users think about the service we provide, please do a set of interviews to find out.’ The commissioners don’t want a literature review or any explicit theoretical underpinnings, they simply want me to use my independent research skills to find out something they don’t know which will help them take their service forward. In a different context, I have taught and externally examined Masters’ level students, in subjects such as business studies and advice work, who are learning to do research. Their projects focus on method, not theory. It is as much as they can do, in their small word allocation, to contextualise their work, give a rationale for the method they have chosen, and describe and discuss their findings.

Masters’ level students in some other subjects would need to engage with theory, as I did in my own studies for MSc Social Research Methods, and I cannot imagine anyone doing research at doctoral level without using a theoretical perspective. I agree with @leenie48 that theory is important and has a lot to offer to research. In an ideal world, theory would form an equal part of a triad with research and practice.

In a comment on last week’s blog post, Sherrie Lee suggested that theory may be always present in some form, even if it is not explicitly considered. I think she makes a good point. I would like to use theory explicitly in all the research I do, rather than just some of it, but I am not sure that day will ever come. Much commissioned research isn’t explicit about methodology either. There is a lot of practice-based, and practice, research that goes on in the world where people simply move straight from research question to method. While this is not ideal, it is pragmatic. I think @leenie48 and I will have to agree to disagree on this one.

Why Not Include Theory?

theoryLast week I wrote a post about how to choose a research method. It received a fair amount of approval on social media, and a very interesting response from @leenie48 from Brisbane, Australia, with a couple of contributions from @DrNomyn. I’ve tidied up our exchange a little; it actually ended up in two threads over several hours, so wasn’t as neat as it seems here. I was travelling and in and out of meetings so undoubtedly didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I couldn’t embed the tweets without tedious repetition, so have typed out most of the discussion; our timelines are accessible if anyone feels the need to verify. Here goes:

EH: Your post suggests one can jump from rq to method choice with no consideration of theory. I disagree.

HK:I teach, and write for, students at different levels. Here in the UK masters’ students in many subjects have to do research with no consideration or knowledge of theory.

EH: Perhaps it might be useful to point out advice is for specific readers. Bit sick of having to explain to new phd students that this kind of advice is not for them!

HK: You’re right, and I am sorry for causing you so much inconvenience. I’ll re-tag all my blog posts, though that will take a while as there’s a sizeable archive.

HK: That seems unnecessarily pejorative. I don’t regard practice-based masters’ research as ‘pretend’, but as a learning opportunity for students. Commissioned research and practice-based research is professional rather than academic. Not wrong, simply different.

EH: Then why not include theory?

HK: I’ve explained why I didn’t include it in my blog post, so I’m not sure what you’re asking here?

And that’s where the discussion ended, with me confused as @leenie48’s question was on the other thread. Having put this into a single conversation, though, for the purposes of this post, it makes more sense. I think @leenie48 was asking why not include theory in masters’ level or practice-based research.

My conversation with @leenie48 might lead the uninitiated reader to believe that theory is a homogeneous ‘thing’. Not so. Theory is multiple and multifaceted. There are formal and informal theories; social and scientific theories; grand and engaged theories; Euro-Western and Southern theories. These are oppositional theory labels; there are also aligned options such as post-colonial and Indigenous theories.

I studied a module on social theory for my MSc in Social Research Methods, and used hermeneutic theory (a grand-ish formal Euro-Western social theory) for my PhD. Yet I don’t think I understood what theory is for, i.e. how it can be used as a lens to help us look at our subjects of study, until well after I’d finished my doctoral work.

If you’re doing academic research, theory can be very useful. Some, like @leenie48, may argue that it is essential. It is certainly a powerful counter when you’re playing the academic game. Yet theory is, like everything, value-laden. At present, in the UK, the French social theorist Bourdieu is so fashionable that the British Sociological Association is often spoken of, tongue in cheek, as the Bourdieu Sociological Association. At the other extreme, social theories from the Southern hemisphere are often ignored or unknown. So I would argue that if we are to include theory, we need to engage with the attributes of the theory or theories on which we wish to draw, and give a rationale for our choice. I find it frustrating that so much of academia seems to regard any use of theory as acceptable as long as there is use of theory, rather than questioning why a particular theory is being used.

This kind of engagement and rationale-building takes time and a certain amount of academic expertise. If you’re doing research for more practical reasons, such as to obtain a masters’ degree, evaluate a service, or assess the training needs of an organisation’s staff, theory is a luxury. These kinds of research are done with minimal resources to achieve specific ends. I don’t think this is, as @leenie48 would have it, ‘pretend research’. For sure it’s not aiming to contribute to the global body of knowledge, but I can see the point in working to discover particular information that will enable certain people to move forward in useful ways.

I have still to tackle two other points raised by @leenie48: the ‘methodology vs method’ question, and the issue of writing for masters’ students vs doctoral students on this blog and elsewhere. So that’s my next two blog posts sorted out then!

How To Choose A Research Method

chooseBecause you do things in a sensible order, you have your research question, right? Good. It’s very important to have that first. The method (or methods) you choose should be the one (or ones) most likely to help you answer your question. You can’t figure out which methods are most likely to help if you don’t yet know what your question is. So if you’re actually not sure of your question, stop reading this RIGHT NOW and go settle your question, then come back and carry on reading.

OK, now you definitely have a question. You’ll probably have an idea of what kind of research method may be most help. (If you don’t, I recommend you get into the research methods literature, such as this book.) Let’s say you think your question could be answered most usefully by doing a bunch of interviews. Your next step is to think through the pros and cons of interviews as thoroughly as you can. You may find it helps to read relevant excerpts from the research methods literature. For example, here is a breakdown of the pros and cons of interviewing, taken from page 143 of my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide (2nd edn; Policy Press, 2017).

Pros Cons
Interviews yield rich data Interviews are time-consuming for researchers and participants
Face-to-face interviews let the interviewer include observational elements, e.g. from the participant’s appearance or body language, that are not available with other methods The researcher’s interpretation of the data from a face-to-face interview may be affected by the quality of the rapport they developed with their participant
Interviews can be conducted by telephone, which saves time and costs and increases anonymity Not everyone is comfortable using the telephone, and it can be harder to create a rapport over the phone than in person
An interview equivalent can be conducted by email, which avoids transcription and so saves time and money; this also helps in reaching some groups of people e.g. those with severe hearing impairment Conducting an ‘interview’ by email can make it more difficult to follow up interesting answers with supplementary questions
Interviewers can follow up interesting answers with supplementary questions Interviewers’ input can influence participants’ answers
Unstructured interviews can be particularly useful at the exploratory stage of a research project Unstructured interviews run the risks of missing important issues or degenerating into a general chat
Semi-structured interviews allow participants to participate in setting the research agenda, which may be more politically acceptable, lead to more useful data, or both Semi-structured interviews make it harder to compare data from different individuals or groups
Structured interviews enable clearer comparison of data from different individuals or groups Structured interviews require the question designer to be able to consider all the issues that are relevant to the participants
Recording data enables exact reproduction of someone’s words and pauses Transcribing interview data is time-consuming and expensive

This kind of thinking will help you to decide on your research method. Also, you will need to be pragmatic. For example, if you have a very tight deadline and no time or budget for transcription, then interviewing is not a good idea however much it might fit the research question. In such a case you would need to consider other methods. My book contains similar ‘pros and cons’ tables for using secondary data, questionnaires, focus groups, documents as data, observational data, visual data, and collecting data online. Of course this is not an exhaustive list, and if you’re considering using, say, mobile methods, soundscapes, or ethnography, you might need to construct a ‘pros and cons’ list of your own. To do this, you would need to read, watch videos, and talk to people with more knowledge about the method of interest.

Once you have established the pros and cons of the method, these need to be weighed against pragmatic considerations of available time, money, and other resources. This assessment will be different for each research project, in its own context; there are no hard-and-fast rules. But however you do an assessment like this, your results will always be better than those of someone who uses the method that first springs to mind. For sure you may end up using the method you first thought of, in which case you might say to me, Helen, what is the point of doing all that thinking? The point is you’ll be making a considered and informed decision to use the method. That means you’ll be able to justify your decision to readers, reviewers, tutors, supervisors, managers, examiners, or whoever else has an interest in your work.

Free Online Research Ethics Resources

freeAre you grappling with research ethics? If so, fear not, for there are numerous free resources online to help you. Here are some examples.

Ethical codes and guidelines

There are loads of ethical codes and guidelines online. For example, some countries have national codes of research ethics, such as the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research, or the Canadian Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. This was developed in partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

There are also codes of research ethics produced by Indigenous peoples who wish their own ethical principles to be followed by any researchers who wish to work with them. Examples of these include Te Ara Tika, Guidelines for Māori Research Ethics, from New Zealand, and the San Code of Research Ethics from South Africa.

Then there are professional and disciplinary codes of research ethics. Examples include the UK-based Market Research Society’s Code of Conduct, and the Code of Ethics of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

There must be a huge number of these kinds of codes and guidelines worldwide. They are not all the same, and the careful reader can find places where one code or guideline may contradict another. This is because of cultural (in its widest sense) differences in ideas of what is ethical. Nevertheless, they can be useful to read for learning, ideas, or of course specific contextual information.

Applying to a research ethics committee

If you have to apply to a research ethics committee for formal ethical approval, you might find it useful to see some other researchers’ successful application forms. You can find examples of these on The Research Ethics Application Database (TREAD), originally set up by Martin Tolich at Otago University in New Zealand and now hosted by The Global Health Network and the Social Research Association. This database holds copies of successful ethics applications from around the world which you can search and use for inspiration and learning. Applications are anonymised, though the researcher(s) must be named. Researchers often submit accompanying documents, such as consent forms and participant information sheets, which can be very useful to look through for ideas. The database managers are keen to add more applications, to help make formal ethical approval processes more accessible and less onerous. If you have an application you could submit, there is information on the website about how to share it via the database.

General guidance

The Research Ethics Guidebook is intended to provide general guidance for social scientists, but may also be useful for people from other fields. The Guidebook is supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, with the Researcher Development Initiative of the National Centre for Research Methods, and London University’s Institute of Education. Like TREAD, the Research Ethics Guidebook holds useful information about applying for formal ethical approval. However, it also covers other areas such as ethics in research design, conducting research, reporting, and dissemination. The Guidebook is ideal for reference at the start of a project, and also during research as unforeseen ethical dilemmas occur.

Ethics training

There are two free online courses in research ethics which are primarily geared towards health researchers and so focus heavily on participant wellbeing. Both have been through peer review and other quality assurance processes, and both offer certificates to students who complete the course successfully with a score of 80% or more. One is called Research Ethics Online Training and is adapted from an e-learning course and resource package designed and produced by the World Health Organisation. It contains 14 individual modules, plus resources in the form of a glossary, a “resource library” (aka bibliography), some case studies, examples of ethics guidelines, videos on research ethics, and links to other ethics websites. The second is Essential Elements of Ethics, adapted from an ethics tool kit created to support researchers at Harvard University in America. This course contains 11 modules, plus resources including a workbook and checklist of points to consider, and a discussion forum though this is not very active.

Free research ethics modules with a wider perspective are offered by Duke University in America. These cover topics such as cultural awareness and humility, ethical photography, power and privilege, and working with children. They are delivered through videos with transcripts also available.

Online research

For internet-based research, the Association of Internet Researchers has some useful resources free for download. The British Psychological Society offers Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. The South East European Network for Professionalization of Media has produced Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics.

Visual research

The International Visual Sociology Association has produced a Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines covering visual research.

Ethics of research publication

The Committee on Publication Ethics has a whole range of downloadable resources covering how to detect, prevent and handle misconduct, responsible publication standards for editors and authors, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, and much more.

This list of resources is by no means exhaustive. There are loads more out there. It would be a huge task to identify them all. These are the ones I have found particularly useful. If there are any you like to use, which aren’t in this post, please add them in the comments below.

Challenging The Dominance Of English

languagesIn a thought-provoking blog post, Naomi Barnes of Brisbane, Australia, recently asked what other white people were doing to break down the barriers built by whiteness. This is a very good question. One thing we can do is to challenge the dominance of English.

Language is not neutral in research or education. English is the dominant language of both, worldwide, as a direct result of colonialism. English is dominant even though it ranks only third in the world: more of the world’s people speak Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish. Studying for a PhD (or equivalent), or writing an academic journal article, is demanding enough when you can do it in your native language. Every year, around the world, millions of people have to study and write in English when that is not their native language, which makes already difficult work much more difficult. People like me, who are born into an English-speaking country, are unbelievably lucky and have a massive head-start. A lot of us, I think, don’t realise how lucky we are.

Professor Bagele Chilisa of Botswana, in her excellent book from 2012 on Indigenous Research Methodologies, calls this the ‘hierarchy of language’. (The English version of the search engine I use, duckduckgo, has never heard of her book, which rather proves her point.) The hierarchy of language comes with a range of ethical implications for native English speakers, and I will outline three of the main ones here.

First, we need to understand that there is not just one form of English, there are many: from Bangalore to Boston, from London to Lagos, from Sydney to Sao Paulo. This means we should not assume that someone’s ideas have less worth because their spoken English is heavily accented, or formulated differently from our own, or their written English is not entirely fluent.

‘Language-ism’ is embedded in structures such as academia and publishing. People who write non-standard English, regardless of the quality of the content, are less likely to have their work formally published in academic journals – or, at least, not the journals usually indexed by Google Scholar or the Directory of Open Access Journals. This is one of the ‘barriers built by whiteness’ referred to by Naomi Barnes. As a result, work in non-standard English is harder to find, so it is less likely to be used, shared, or cited. Yet some of these researchers are doing excellent work which is well worth exploring.

This is the second ethical point: we need to try harder to find, and use, work by non-native English speakers. Those of us who can read other languages have a head-start here. (Many non-English speaking countries teach languages, including English, to children throughout their schooling. In England in the 1970s, when I was at school, learning other languages was mostly optional – I spent just three years learning elementary French and have only needed to use it, since then, when actually in France. Even there many people speak better English than my French. This is another indication of the dominance of English.) But whether or not you can read other languages, you need to know where to look for research from beyond the countries where English is dominant. Here are some ‘starters for 10’ thanks to Andy Nobes of INASP on Twitter, in conversation with Raul Pacheco-Vega, Pat Thomson and Jo VanEvery:

African Journals Online

Bangladesh Journals Online

Central American Journals Online

Journals from Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal

Latindex (Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal – Spanish only)

Mongolia Journals Online

Nepal Journals Online

Philippine Journals Online

Scientific Electronic Library Online (Latin America, Spain, Portugal and South Africa)

Sri Lanka Journals Online

Many of these are supported by the research, knowledge and development charity INASP through its Journals Online project. Most have an English option on their website and some, if not all, articles available in English. Much of the content is openly accessible.

The third ethical point is to look at this the other way around. If we write in English, we should do all we can to get our work translated into other majority languages. There are 23 languages in the world that are each spoken as a first language by over 50 million people. The top 10 are: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Lahnda (a Pakistani language). Translation brings its own ethical problems, as there is not always a straightforwardly equivalent word for an idea or a concept, so translating from one language to another can involve some creativity and interpretation. However, a careful translation between any two majority languages will make your work available to many more scholars. In particular, translations from English help to reduce its dominance.

So there are three ways for white people (and native English speakers of colour) to challenge the dominance of English and so help to break down some of the barriers built by whiteness. If you can think of other ways to do this, please add them in the comments.

Let’s Talk About Research Misconduct

detective-152085__340Research misconduct is on the rise, certainly within hard science subjects, quite possibly elsewhere. Researchers around the world are inventing data, falsifying findings, and plagiarising the work of others. Part of this is due to the pressure on some researchers to publish their findings in academic journals. There is also career-related pressure on researchers to conduct accurate polls, produce statistically significant results, and get answers to questions, among other things. Some clients, managers, funders and publishers have a low tolerance for findings that chime with common sense or the familiar conclusion of ‘more research is needed’. They may expect researchers to produce interesting or novel findings that will direct action or support change.

Publishers are working to counteract misconduct in a variety of ways. Plagiarism detection software is now routinely used by most big publishers. Also, journal articles can be retracted (i.e. de-published) and this is on the increase, most commonly as a result of fraud. However, the effectiveness of retraction is questionable. The US organisation Retraction Watch has a ‘leaderboard’ of researchers with the most retracted papers, some of whom have had more papers retracted than you or I will ever write, which suggests that retraction of a paper – even for fraud – does not necessarily discredit a researcher or prevent them from working.

Some research misconduct can have devastating effects on people, organisations, and professions. People may lose their jobs, be stripped of prizes or honours, and be prosecuted in criminal courts. Organisations lose money, such as the cost of wasted research, disciplinary hearings, and recruitment to fill vacancies left by fraudulent researchers. And whole professions can suffer, as misconduct slows progress based on research. For example, in 2012 the Journal of Medical Ethics published a study showing that thousands of patients had been treated on the basis of research published in papers that were subsequently retracted. Retraction Watch shows that some papers receive hundreds of citations even after they have been retracted, which suggests that retraction may not be communicated effectively.

Yet even the potentially devastating consequences of misconduct are clearly not much of a deterrent – and in many cases may not occur at all. Let’s examine a case in more detail. Hwang Woo-Suk is a researcher from South Korea. In the early 2000s he was widely regarded as an eminent scientist. Then in 2006 he was found to have faked much of his research, and he admitted fraud. Hwang’s funding was withdrawn, criminal charges were laid against him, and in 2009 he received a suspended prison sentence. Yet he continued to work as a researcher (albeit in a different specialism) and to contribute to publications as a named author.

Closer to home, a survey of over 2,700 medical researchers published by the British Medical Journal in 2012 found that one in seven had ‘witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research or for the purposes of publication’. Given the pressures on researchers, perhaps this is not surprising – though it is deeply shocking.

The examples given in this article are from hard science rather than social research. Evidence of misconduct in social research is hard to find, so it would be tempting to conclude that it happens less and perhaps that social researchers are somehow more ethical and virtuous than other researchers. I feel very wary about making such assumptions. It is also possible that social research is less open about misconduct than other related disciplines, or that it’s easier to get away with misconduct in social research.

So what is the answer? Ethics books, seminars, conferences etc frequently exhort individual researchers to think and act ethically, but I’m not sure this provides sufficient safeguards. Should we watch each other, as well as ourselves? Maybe we should, at least up to a point. Working collaboratively can be a useful guard against unethical practice – but many researchers work alone or unsupervised. I don’t think formal ethical approval is much help here, either; it is certainly no safeguard against falsifying findings or plagiarism. Perhaps all we can do at present is to maintain awareness of the potential for, and dangers of, misconduct.

A version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association.

Writer’s Block Debunked

writers blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s an umbrella term for a whole bunch of problems, each of which has a solution. For sure, writing is difficult, and it is perfectly possible to get stuck. That happens to me all the time. But a complete block? I don’t think so. Seems to me ‘writer’s block’ is a lazy catch-all term which conveniently shifts responsibility from the writer to the ‘block’. That’s certainly not going to help.

Here are six of the things I think may be really going on.

Fear of failure. Writing for submission or publication can be terrifying. You’re working towards putting your work out in the world where it – and to some extent you – will be judged. What if people don’t like your writing? What if they don’t like YOU? This kind of fear can be paralysing.

Fear of success. Success equals change, and change is frightening, because it’s a leap into the unknown. This can be equally paralysing.

Boredom. This is a higher risk for long-term projects, or writing that has been imposed on you – say, by your manager, or a departmental imperative – that you don’t want to do.

Perfectionism. Novice writers sometimes think that writing is (or should be, or is for some people) as easy as reading. It isn’t. To write, you have to be willing to write badly first, and then make it good at the editing stage, sometimes through many revisions.

Running out of steam with a particular avenue or genre. Minette Walters is a successful author of psychological thrillers who published 12 books between 1992 and 2007, then didn’t publish another book for 10 years. She had become bored with writing psychological thrillers, but her publisher wanted her to carry on, presumably because they sold well. Now she has found a new publisher and is bringing out a historical novel. This can apply for non-fiction and scholarly writers, too, particularly if you’ve been writing in a specific area for some time and long to change tack.

Self-sabotage. If you say, think, believe that you want to write, but you’re not writing, then you are in some way sabotaging your own desires. This is a common human trait and probably links back to fear of failure, or perhaps fear of success.

Here are five potential solutions.

Freewrite. I love the technique of freewriting, and so do the doctoral students I teach it to. Here’s what you do. Set yourself a prompt, which must be in the first person and active voice, such as:

What I want to say is…

In this chapter, I want to argue…

I am writing this [thesis/dissertation/article/report/etc] because…

Then write for five minutes without stopping or correcting your work. This is only for your eyes so it doesn’t matter how scrawly or mis-spelled it may be. If you hesitate during the five minutes, write the prompt again, more than once if you need to, until it leads you somewhere else. Then see what you’ve got. You may well have a new insight or a phrase or sentence that you can use in your project. More importantly, though, you’ll have a load of words on a page, which – in five minutes flat – gives the lie to ‘writer’s block’.

Set small targets. Some people prefer word targets; others prefer time targets. Either is fine. Choose a target that feels easily achievable: perhaps somewhere between 100-500 words, or 10-30 minutes. Then set a frequency: once a day is good to begin with, or twice if you can manage that. And stick to it.

Switch projects. Working on more than one project is great because if you get bored, or stuck, you can move to another. I didn’t have a single idea for a blog post this morning, so I worked on a short story for a while till I came up with the idea of writing about writer’s block.

Keep a daily journal. Writing about your life, or some aspect of your life, for your eyes only, is a great way to convince your subconscious that you can write. This can be structured, or unstructured, as you prefer. For example, you might want to keep a journal of your dreams, or a ‘resilience journal’ where you write down three things you are grateful for and three things you did well each day, or a ‘reflective journal’ where you record what you have learned that day. Or you might just want to write whatever you feel like writing.

Go for counselling. If fear of failure, or fear of success, are really getting in the way – and, for some people, they can – then find a counsellor or therapist who can help you work on this.

If you have other solutions to share, please add them in the comment box.

Writing, Fast and Slow

fast and slowOn Monday of last week, Pat Thomson published a very interesting post about writing fast. I don’t use the exact approach she describes (though I might, one day, now I know about it) but I do often write fast, so the post resonated with me. I was writing fast that very day, and the day after as well; Pat’s post kept flitting through my mind.

Then last Wednesday, the fourth full day of my writing retreat, I ground to a halt. I did some good thinking, and a little actual writing, but not much. I told myself I was tired – and I was: a big storm had disturbed my sleep on the Monday night, and a recurrent car alarm on the Tuesday. So I did bits and bobs at my desk, in between going out for a walk, and making food, and having a nap. But I knew, really, that the slow-down was part of my process.

I’m good at writing, and part of being good at writing is getting the words down on the screen (or the page, if you’re that way inclined). But now and again there is a day, or part of a day, when the words won’t come. This isn’t me waiting for the muse, or procrastinating, or suffering from writer’s block. Though I much prefer being productive, I know that sometimes I need to do a kind of active waiting. It’s not taking time off, it’s like what musicians do during the rests in a piece, attending closely to the pauses between notes which are as much a part of the music as any of the sounds.

Last Wednesday evening arrived, which was a relief because I could declare myself off duty, fairly sure that the words would be flowing again by next morning. I spoke to my partner on the phone, ate a cheese salad washed down with a glass of wine, and read some more of the terrific Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman-edited issue of the New Statesman. Then I retired to the sofa with a novel and a cup of cocoa, enhanced with a dash of spiced rum, and some salted caramel chocolate. All this with a gorgeous sea view. Bliss! So relaxing.

Around 9.45 pm I got up to head for bed, looked out of the window, and saw a low red moon rising from the Channel between England and France. I have no idea why ideas began to flow just then, but they did, and generated so much energy that before I knew it I was pulling on a jacket and trainers and heading out of the door, over the road, and down the steps onto the beach. The waves thundered onto the shore in rhythm with the insights thundering into my mind. I stomped towards Dungeness, then back towards Dover, shingle crunching underfoot like an army eating popcorn in synch. The moon path followed me, patient and attentive, a French lighthouse winking to its right as if to remind me not to take myself too seriously. I walked until all the ideas had settled, and felt as relieved as if I’d just had a good [insert bodily emission of your choice]. And of course the next morning I was back to working at full speed.

In his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow (which the observant reader will notice inspired the title of this post), Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman explains the difference between our fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking. He says, ‘The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.’ (2011:4) His central thesis is that human reasoning is flawed, and I’m sure he’s right. But I wonder whether creative thinking is rather different from rational thinking. From learning about my own writing process through several decades, I am certain that now and again I need to make time for slow, intuitive thinking. Perhaps particularly in our world of information overload, I need to make space for the silence in my mind so that the mental work can happen. Sometimes I can do this consciously, such as by booking a writing retreat, or by thinking of a writing problem as I fall asleep and trusting my silent mind to solve it overnight – which it usually does. But sometimes, like last Wednesday, my process tells me it’s time for some slow writing. In practice, that means a few hours or a day with little or no increase in the actual word count. I know from experience that if I ignore this, and try to struggle on, I just get more stuck and cross and frustrated. I’m much better off going for a walk or pottering around the house, actively waiting while the mental work happens, silently, in my mind, which I can’t hear but I can choose to trust. So, although they don’t always come at times that I would deem convenient, I’ve learned the value of my slow writing days.

A sweet tweet

These are the kinds of tweets that warm an author’s heart – thank you, Amanda Taylor!

(It also shows one of my lovely bookplates, designed by Carol Burns. If you’ve got a copy of my book and would like a signed bookplate, please get in touch and let me know. No charge.)