To Ask Or Not To Ask

helpI am all in favour of people asking for what they want and need. It’s useful for each of us to figure out what we really want, what we need, how much of that we can sort out for ourselves, and what we need to ask from others. However, as my work has become more widely known, I have begun to receive more and more requests for help from people I have never met offline or interacted with online. I want to help where help is needed, but some of the requests I get are quite unreasonable. For example, I got an email from a stranger asking me to write their doctoral thesis for them, because they were unwell, and because God would reward me in heaven for my good deed. There is so much wrong with this request. To begin with, I would never write someone else’s doctoral thesis for them, or even part of one, because that would be highly unethical. I do take writing assignments on a professional basis – which means I get paid in actual money (or I don’t take the work). Also, assuming someone shares the same beliefs as you is not sensible and, I would argue, not ethical.

Other requests are differently unreasonable. Direct messages on Twitter or Instagram asking things like, ‘I’ve heard of thematic analysis, what other kinds of data analysis are there?’ which could easily be answered through an online search. Or ‘What’s the best way to ask people for consent to participate in research?’ which is a big question with no context and so impossible to answer. Then there are the emails saying, for example, ‘I love your blog, can you tell me how to get a good deal from a publisher?’ which signals to me that the writer hasn’t bothered to actually read or search my blog where I have written about this subject.

Then, of course, there are all the reasonable requests. Can you review this article? That manuscript? Keynote this conference? Deliver that seminar? And so on.

Recently I spent a whole morning responding to requests, only one of which was asking me to work for money. I realised, then, that I needed to write this blog post.

I would like to suggest four key pointers for contacting busy professionals with whom you have no existing relationship (and, FYI, a couple of tweets exchanged does not constitute a ‘relationship’). I have been using this system myself for many years, but it’s only just occurred to me to put it in writing.

  1. Do all you can to find the answer you need for yourself. Use internet search engines and search functions on website and blogs, libraries, and your own networks. Apart from anything else, this will strengthen your research skills.
  2. If you can’t find the answer and decide to ask someone you don’t know, wherever possible, ask in public. If you ask in a public tweet or blog comment or suchlike, others can also provide answers which can help the person you’re asking, and any answer may help other people. Asking questions in private – through direct messages, emails and so on – puts more pressure on the respondent and doesn’t benefit anyone but the questioner.
  3. There will be times when asking in private is appropriate, such as if you want to ask about something sensitive, confidential, or contentious. But if you do need to ask in private, try to keep it to a single or – at the most – a double exchange. Don’t assume that because you received a helpful reply, the person you have contacted is your new best friend.
  4. If you get help from someone you’ve not otherwise dealt with, think about how you could repay them. Are you in a position to contribute to that person’s Patreon, Kofi, or suchlike? If not, can you review one of their books (or equivalent) on a website or blog? I would not recommend posting on social media about how helpful they are, because I can assure you the last thing they want is for you to encourage more people to ask them for help. If nothing else, vow to ‘pay it forward’ – i.e. help someone else when you’re in a position to do so – and make that happen.

I think one of the problems with private messaging or emailing is that each person may feel they are the only one making such requests because there is no opportunity for them to see all the others. But I am absolutely sure that if you have enough respect for someone’s work to want to ask them a question, so will many other people. So now I’m going to ask of you: please, please be aware that you’re not the only one, and that the person from whom you’re seeking help has very many other demands on their time.

This is not to say “don’t ask”. It is to say please ask only as a last resort, and in public whenever possible. Thank you.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Bake Your PhD

cakeI’ve written on this blog before about the wonderful Dance Your PhD contest which has been running annually since 2008 for STEM and social scientists. I love that there’s now a spin-off at some universities called Bake Your PhD, Bake Your Thesis or Bake Your Research. This is presumably influenced by the success of television baking contests.

I can’t figure out where this started but it hasn’t been around for long and it’s not yet happening in many places. Bake Your PhD is embedded as an annual competition at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton in England. Bake Your Thesis takes place at Memorial University in Canada and at Otago University in New Zealand. Bake Your Research is happening at Dublin City University in Ireland, and at Warwick University in England. The Twitter hashtags #BakeYourPhD, #BakeYourThesis and #BakeYourResearch show evidence of lots of other universities joining in, with some scrumptious-looking pictures.

So now we have Dance Your PhD and Bake Your PhD (or Thesis, or Research). What next? Sculpt Your Inbox? Weave Your Ethics Approval Application? Climb Your Admin Mountain?

It’s easy to take the mickey but there is a serious point to all of this creativity: to make academic work more accessible. Holly Neill, from Ulster University in Northern Ireland, expressed this beautifully in a tweet:

 

I’m sure there will be many offshoots of, or alternatives to, dancing and baking. Yet I think baking will be hard to beat, as cake is both attractive and edible – what more could anyone ask?!

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Mind The Gap In The Literature

cat in literatureIn the course of my work I read a lot of academic articles, chapters, and books. This means I sometimes make surprising discoveries. For example, last weekend I was reading an article by, I’ll call the author McGonagall, who, in the course of developing her argument, claimed that topic X had not been identified as relevant to the development of field Y. I had another article already open on screen by, let’s say Trelawney, published four years before McGonagall’s article, which explicitly identified topic X as relevant to the development of field Y.

McGonagall’s article was published in a top-ranked journal. This means that not only the author, but the editor and some expert reviewers, were unaware of Trelawney’s article. Trelawney’s article was in a less highly ranked journal, but one from a reputable academic publisher and which focuses entirely on field Y.

So McGonagall claimed to have found a gap in the literature, but in fact that gap had been filled four years previously. I wonder how often this happens?

Both Trelawney and McGonagall had written articles that, for me at least, were worth reading and helpful for my work. I ended up citing them both. If McGonagall had found, and cited, Trelawney’s article, that would not have invalidated her own contribution. This made me wonder whether it’s time to rethink the way we mark our territories in scholarly work. For a while now I have been quite careful with these kinds of claims about what exists in the literature. I explicitly take responsibility, and so use formulations such as ‘To the best of my knowledge there is no previous work on…’ or ‘I have been unable to find any discussion of…’ rather than asserting that such work or discussion doesn’t exist. After all, there is far too much literature out there these days for anyone to be confident about what has or hasn’t been covered. And saying something doesn’t exist – at least, saying it in English about literature in English (which is the only language I read) – has imperialist overtones in its refusal to acknowledge the possibility of scholarly work in other languages.

Also, a gap in the literature is not the only thing scholars need to address. Perhaps you want to write on a topic where there is already a sizeable body of literature. If so, then make a rationale for writing from a particular time, or place, or standpoint, or theoretical perspective. And keep it simple. Probably nobody has written a Queer-Framed Bourdieusian Gaze On The Post-Feminist Praxis Of Shed Construction In Huddersfield Using An Extended Baking Metaphor and there’s a good reason for that. Several good reasons, in fact.

Rather than filling a gap, what can we add that has value? Figuring out the contribution your work makes is likely to help motivate you to get the words down. Also, it should help you to convince editors and reviewers that your work is worth publishing. People often don’t like to think of it this way, but it’s a sales pitch. Even when no money changes hands directly, publishing is a commercial exercise; publishers, even non-profit publishers, have to make a surplus to stay in business. And if you’re self-publishing, you want people to read your work, right? So you have to sell it – even if you’re giving it away. I suspect the old ‘gap in the literature’ claim is losing force in today’s market. It’s time to think up other claims, preferably ones we can legitimately make. Have you come up with any good ones? If so, please share them in the comments.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $44 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $44 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

The Ethics of Working with Literature

literatureAn earlier version of this article was originally published in ‘Research Matters’, the quarterly newsletter for members of the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA). The SRA now has a blog with topical peer-reviewed articles by and for researchers. They are also interested in contributions from readers so, if you fancy writing a guest post, you could give them a try. They even have a ‘secret researcher’ option for posting anonymously if you have something really controversial to say.

Researchers often use existing literature to set their research in context. ‘Literature’ is the academic term, referring to peer-reviewed scholarly work such as journal articles. Practice-based researchers may also contextualise their research, though more often with policy and project documents, in part because they are openly available. However, these distinctions are not so hard-and-fast these days. Academics increasingly recognise the value of ‘grey literature’, as they call relevant information that has not been through the peer review process. Practice-based researchers can read more and more academic literature, with the growth of open access, and through schemes such as the SRA’s member benefit of access to around 6,000 social science journals through EBSCO. Also, the definition of ‘literature’ has grown to include written phenomena and artefacts such as ephemera (leaflets, zines, etc), creative writing (novels, poems, and so on), and online writings such as blog posts and tweets.

When I ask people about the ethical issues of working with literature, they tend to look blank. So here are some pointers. First, define what you are using as literature, or background documents, and explain why you have chosen those types of material. This is important now that there is such a range of available literature: as with all decisions about research, you should be making well-informed choices for good reasons. Then make sure you know how well you can search that body of literature. For example, if you are searching online – as many people do these days – you need to understand the scope and limitations of the electronic tools you use. Google Scholar is many people’s go-to website for academic literature, but it doesn’t index everything, and its search function is far from neutral. The Directory of Open Access Journals indexes work from developing countries that does not find its way into Google Scholar. Even more work from developing countries can be found through the Journals Online project run by international research development charity INASP, which currently covers work from Africa, Latin America, the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Mongolia, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Even if your work focuses on a single country or locality, you may find relevant literature from far afield. You are not obliged to search everything; you simply need a clear rationale for your search.

You should record your search strategy – where you searched, terms you used to search on, dates of searches – so your readers can assess the effectiveness of your approach. Sadly, these days you will also need to check whether material you plan to cite is bona fide, as directories and repositories may still index and hold literature that has been retracted, or is a spoof that may not be instantly recognisable as such. This means researchers need to be on their guard, and make use of services such as Retraction Watch where possible.

Many search strategies will yield far more literature than any researcher, or team, can read. There are ethical dimensions to choosing what to focus on. Bias can creep in here: it is important to read literature representing a good spread of views and opinions, not only those you agree with. Then, when you have chosen what to read, it is ethically necessary to read that work carefully. Take the time to understand the arguments being presented and what they are based on. If you skim-read or cherry-pick, you risk misunderstanding the author’s argument, because you won’t understand their reasoning. Also, superficial reading doesn’t enable you to assess the quality of someone else’s work, so you won’t know how much weight to give it within your own research.

Then of course you need to cite others’ work correctly and not plagiarise or self-plagiarise. Having said that, self-plagiarism isn’t so much of a problem if you plan to self-publish, whether as an online pdf, e-book, or zine. However, if you plan to publish formally, self-plagiarism is unethical as publishers expect to publish original material.

Taking this kind of an ethical approach to working with literature shows respect to authors of the work on which our own work is based. Also, this approach helps to avoid the replication of errors, which in turn helps to raise standards in research.

This blog, and the monthly #CRMethodsChat on Twitter, is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me at least one working day per month to post here each week and run the Twitterchat. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding from Patrons of $25 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $25 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Knowing When To Stop

stopSometimes it’s hard to know when to stop. That could be when you’re still having fun and you don’t want to stop even though it’s after midnight and you’ve got to be in work at 9. In my early 20s I could get away with that. In my mid-50s? No chance. The dark sides of not knowing when to stop are dependency and addiction. Then there are the mental ‘ought’s and ‘should’s. I ought to finish reading this book, that I’m not enjoying at all, because the author took so much trouble in its writing. I should keep working on this collaborative piece even though my collaborator hasn’t answered my emails in months.

There’s an art to knowing when to stop. My mother, who is prone to outbreaks of wisdom, explained to me the point of stopping while you’re still having fun. Because what’s the alternative? Keep going till you’re not having fun any more? If you do that, you’re unlikely to want to do whatever-it-was again. Whereas if you stop while you’re still having fun, you keep the magic.

The ‘ought’s and ‘should’s can bog off. There are so many books (and journal articles, and – ahem – blog posts, and so on) that if you’re not enjoying one, why take the time to read it to the end? You won’t have time in your whole life to read all the books (journal articles, blog posts etc) that you do enjoy. So blow it out. Read the last page/paragraph if you need to satisfy your curiosity, then toss it and find something that suits you better.

And as for collaborations that have gone belly-up… that can be hard, when you’ve put in a lot of work and you’re not far from the finish line. But recognising when you need to quit is an important survival skill because it protects you from throwing good time after bad.

There’s another way this can work, too, which is not so much knowing when to stop as recognising that you have stopped. This has happened to me with my New Year’s resolution (I know! July! Not bad, eh?). My resolution was to review a book a week; i.e. an academic book, and to publicise this and encourage others to join in. I said from the start that it didn’t actually have to be a book a week, and I followed my own guidance; I reviewed 14 books between 1 January and 7 June, 12 on Wordery/Amazon and two for the LSE blogs. I haven’t reviewed an academic book in the last couple of months, though I’ve read quite a few. I will continue to review academic and other books but I’m not going to plug it as a ‘thing’ any more.

This is partly because hardly anyone joined in. A few people said it was a great idea, and one or two did write reviews, but it was evidently an idea whose time has not come, or has passed, or will never exist. Conversely, the monthly creative methods chat that I started in June has taken off rather well. And of course the point of all these things is not only to be the thing in itself, but also to raise my profile. Sounds cynical, in a way – yet I’m running a business and I have books and skills to sell. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to sell them to everyone all the time; that would clearly be unrealistic. I aim to create initiatives which will be of value to people in themselves, because I think that’s the best way to do marketing. Not to shout GIVE ME WORK AND BUY MY BOOKS AND BE MY PATRON but to generate resources and opportunities for people, which may lead to some of those people choosing to put some work or money my way. Or not – there’s no obligation and I like it that way. But the return on investment for these initiatives is low. For example, there have been over 5,000 downloads of Starting Your PhD: What You Need To Know and around 25 reviews worldwide, or one review for every 200 downloads. So evidently it’s sensible to invest time in the initiatives that increase my visibility rather than those that don’t, no matter how close they may be to my heart.

So bye bye, review a book a week. It was nice knowing you. And hello, #CRMethodsChat. You’re ace, and you happen on the second Tuesday of every month. Long may that continue.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

 

Ten Ways To Unstick Your Writing

stuckRegular readers know I have little time for the concept of writer’s block, where people allegedly find themselves unable to write for days, weeks, months, even years. However, I do understand that writers sometimes get stuck. This is a temporary affliction, but an annoying one, which can cost us valuable minutes or hours. So I thought it might be helpful to share ten strategies I have adopted and/or developed over the years to keep my writing flowing.

  1. Freewriting

This is a great technique that I always teach on doctoral writing courses. It has been around for a long time; for example, it was advocated by the American writer Dorothea Brande in the 1930s. There are several different approaches to freewriting. The method I find most useful is to formulate a prompt in the first person, e.g. ‘I want to say…’ Then set a timer for five minutes, begin with the prompt and write without stopping. Don’t edit or revise. If you falter in your writing, write the prompt again – several times, if necessary – till your flow returns. At the end of five minutes you will probably find that you can write whatever you were stuck on, and you may also find that there is a useful nugget or two within the words you produced while freewriting. Even if you only have half an hour to write, it can be helpful to spend the first five minutes freewriting.

  1. Think-walk

Go for a walk, for at least 20 minutes if you can – longer if you prefer. Don’t listen to a podcast on this walk, use the time to think about your writing and your work. This think-walk can help you problem-solve.

  1. Do something repetitive

If the weather isn’t conducive to walking, or you need to stay home for a delivery or in your office for some other reason, find something repetitive to do. This could be tidying or cleaning or filing. Again, use the time to think about your writing and your work, to help you problem-solve.

  1. Use placeholders

My early drafts are full of phrases like WRITE MORE HERE and EXPLAIN THIS, usually in capitals and highlighted so I can find them easily. These placeholders show where I’ve got stuck – and they help me get unstuck, because they mean I can move on, knowing I’ll come back later and fix whatever needs fixing. I don’t know how it happens but when I do come back, I can almost always write whatever I was stuck on before.

  1. Start somewhere else

Sometimes people think that because reading is often linear, writing must be the same. Far from it. You can start writing anywhere you like. In fact, the easiest way to write is to write the easy parts first, the parts you feel like writing. And again, I don’t know how this happens, but once you’ve written those parts, the harder parts become easier. Novice writers usually don’t know this and may not believe it but honestly, I promise, try it and you’ll see.

  1. Permission to write rubbish

Perfectionism is a major cause of writers getting stuck. The highly successful novelist Elmore Leonard said, ‘The first draft is always shit.’ (Don’t @ me, I’m quoting!) Nobody writes well when they start work on a piece, but you need the rubbish as raw material to craft into good writing as you edit and polish later on. So give yourself permission to write rubbish – and then get on with it!

  1. Read

Reading in and around your topic is a great way to get unstuck. Other people’s work will help you generate ideas of your own. You may only need to read for a short time, or you may find you want to switch back and forth between reading and writing for a while.

  1. Change your writing method

If you usually write longhand, try writing on screen, or vice versa. If you always write longhand, try using a different pen or a different type or colour of paper. If you always write on screen, change the font size or colour and/or the background colour.

  1. Change your location

Generally for writers it is helpful to have a ‘writing place’ – or perhaps two or three – a particular space at home, a favoured café, a library desk. Some people can write pretty much anywhere, but most people have a location they prefer. If you’re stuck, though, it can be helpful to go somewhere else. You may not have to go far. If you like to work at home, you may be able to try a different room or an outdoor space. If you prefer café writing, try a different café. Or you may want a bigger change, in which case find somewhere you’ve never been before: perhaps a pub, or a community centre, or a park bench.

  1. Get creative

Try writing what you want to say as a poem, or a short story, or a scene from a play or a film. You don’t have to spend hours on this – you could set a time limit if you like. And it doesn’t have to be ‘good’ (whatever that is!). Nobody else ever needs to see what you write creatively, so allow yourself to be playful and see what happens.

I hope that if you are – or become – stuck with your writing, one or more of these strategies will be helpful for you. If you have any other strategies to share, please put them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Collaborative Writing: Ten Top Tips

collaborative writingI last wrote about collaborative writing in February 2016 when I was having a crazy year of writing – much like this year. Since you ask, this year’s output is scheduled to be six books and five journal articles. Most of the books and journal articles are collaborations, and I’m also co-editing a book series. I love the variety: this year I’m collaborating with forensic scientists, education researchers, an anthropologist working in a sociology department, geographers, and comics professors. This enriches my professional life, as well as enabling me to produce far more work than I could do alone. (Though it is a bit hectic. I’m definitely planning to do less writing next year. But then I said that in 2016, too…)

I thought it might be useful to share some of the key things I’ve learned from collaborating across different disciplines and in different ways.

  1. You don’t need to be co-located to collaborate. I’m located in the UK. I’ve co-written a book with my good friend Janet Salmons who is based in the US, and the comics professors I’m working with are in Australia. Email and VOIP (Skype, Google Hangouts etc) make collaboration possible across distances and time zones.
  2. Collaborations of two are easier to manage than group collaborations – but group collaborations can result in richer outcomes.
  3. Regardless of how many people are in a collaboration, time spent figuring out how to work together is never wasted. If you don’t do this, you can end up in conflict, which is best avoided.
  4. In a group collaboration, such as to write a book or a professional document, it is sensible to agree on a format for each chapter or section before you start drafting. Different people may have very different ideas about structure. If you don’t agree on a format you risk ending up with chapters of very different lengths and structures which will leave you with a lot of work to do at the editing stage.
  5. To decide on hard deadlines such as publishing contracts, think about how long you’re likely to need then add some time for contingencies. With a collaboration there are more people in whose lives things can go wrong – and they do, and those people who are affected need time to deal with their difficulties.
  6. If you have a problem that is going to get in the way of your collaborative work, let your collaborator(s) know at the earliest opportunity.
  7. If you’re in several collaborations, find a way to keep track so you don’t inadvertently miss deadlines or otherwise fail to meet your obligations.
  8. Be willing to compromise and/or be outvoted. If you want to have everything your own way, work alone.
  9. When your collaborators give you feedback on your work, accept it gracefully even if you don’t feel at all thankful. Always respond positively, or at least politely, or at worst diplomatically. In collaborative work your relationships are more important than being right.
  10. When you’ve finished: celebrate!

Do you have any tips to add? If so, please share them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $34 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $34 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Don’t Get Off At Cliché Central

clicheI went to a meeting recently with some clients, lovely people doing really worthwhile work, and boy did they love a cliché. They were forever touching base, working across the piece, and moving the dial. There were any number of deep dives and light touches, and they were either sold on something or not feeling it. Learning had to be captured (poor thing) and change had to be embedded (though they never said into what).

By the end I was ready to prepare a bingo card for the next meeting. More seriously, though, I was getting a sense that these clichés had a couple of effects. One was positive and one was sinister. On the positive side, the common use of language was serving to create and build group identity. On the sinister side, clichés were so prevalent that they seemed to be reducing the space available for creative thought and discussion.

A cliché is initially a creative, original, sometimes even funny way of saying (or writing) something. It is so effective that it gets repeated a lot, and that is what turns it into a cliché. It stops being creative and original and starts being habitual, almost reflex, and can be stultifying in its effect on speech and prose.

Using clichés is lazy writing. Avoiding clichés requires more effort, more thought and care. Whatever you’re writing – job application, journal article, funding bid, doctoral thesis – aim for the specific. The initial impact of a cliché is lost through overuse, so it can seem quite vague, while particular details often seem interesting and fresh.

Take this short paragraph from a draft research proposal:

We will leave no stone unturned to ensure we get as many questionnaire responses as possible. Then it will be just a matter of time before we analyse the data and write the report. At the end of the day the research report will be fit for purpose.

Compare it with this version:

We will make every effort to maximise questionnaire responses. Our strategies will include: circulating the link by email and by social media; monitoring respondents’ locations regularly and targeting any identified geographical gaps; and offering a prize draw as an incentive. The questionnaire will be live online for one month, and it will take us another two weeks to analyse the data and write the draft report. We will write in plain English and the draft will be submitted for feedback which we will use to produce the final version.

The first version is stuffed with clichés and assertions and tells the reader nothing of substance. The second gives specific details, explaining how the researchers propose to achieve their aims.

It is really sensible to avoid clichés in your writing. Whatever you’re writing. What would you write in a condolence card? “I’m sorry for your loss”? “You are in my thoughts/prayers”? Don’t do that. Take a little time to think about the person who has died. Is there a memory you treasure that you could share in a few words? Perhaps an impact the person had on you that you could describe briefly and which will form part of their legacy? Whoever you are sending the card to will have dozens of others bearing standard clichés. Make the effort to send them something personal, real, authentic. It doesn’t have to be long, or take long, and it will mean a great deal more than platitudes.

One place you can get away with clichés is in titles, as with the title of this piece (which I could equally have called Colour Me Clichéd, or The Cliché At The End Of The Universe, or… you get the idea). But that’s about the only place you can use them in academic writing. So don’t!

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $35 per month. If you think a day of my time is worth more than $35 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also make a one-time donation through the PayPal button on this blog if that works better for you. Support from Patrons and donors also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Getting Creative with your Thesis or Dissertation #3

embroideryI have some more examples of creative doctoral work for you, and this time they’re all from the UK. (If you haven’t seen my previous posts on this topic, which include examples from other parts of the globe, they’re here and here.) They are also all from Twitter without which my work and life would be very much harder.

Chris Bailey, from Sheffield Hallam University, investigated the lived experience of an after-school Minecraft club. (For the uninitiated, Minecraft is a computer game which is itself creative and educational.) Chris wrote his thesis abstract as a comic strip. Parts of the thesis are conventional text and other parts are in comic strip form. He also uses the comic format to present data excerpts. Further, Chris uses images and a soundscape as integral parts of his thesis, and even represents the soundscape visually in a variety of ways.

Kate Fox, herself a poet and stand-up comedy and poetry performer, included comedy and poetry in her thesis from the University of Leeds. She was studying resistance in solo stand-up performance by Northern English women. There are poems in every chapter, and Kate uses an ‘interrupting voice’ throughout her thesis, in italic text, to illustrate the dialogic nature of stand-up in some very funny ways. For Kate, stand-up ‘can function as an academic methodology and critical pedagogy’ – I think many of us would like to see more of that!

Jenny Hall, from the University of the West of England (though now at Bournemouth University), used creative inquiry to study ‘the essence of the art of a midwife’ for her EdD. Jenny collected written personal histories, conducted ‘educational sessions’ that involved making, and used photo-elicitation with her participants. She also kept a reflexive research diary and used this to create a textile quilt with squares made as a response to individual diary entries, in a form of creative autoethnography. Jenny’s ‘Midwifery Quilt’ now has its own website.

Clare Danek is currently investigating ways in which people learn amateur craft making skills in community making spaces for a PhD from the University of Leeds. So this is something of a departure as she doesn’t yet have a finished thesis or dissertation, though I’m sure that day will come. Clare is keeping a diary of her PhD which is relevant here as it’s a ‘stitch journal’, as she calls it, using textile art. Also, she is documenting the process online. I am increasingly interested in the ways in which researchers are using creative methods for process as well as output. However, this is not generally well documented so it’s great to see Clare making her journal available as she creates. I’m sure this will help and inspire others.

It seems to me that doctoral students are increasingly finding their creative voices, and that more supervisors and examiners are willing to support this process. I am sure that part of this is due to the existence of precedents such as those listed here and in previous posts. These precedents – and, I’m told, also my book on creative research methods and its bibliography – enable doctoral students to build convincing academic arguments for the use of creative approaches that help to persuade reluctant supervisors. I am delighted to be able to witness and support this quiet revolution in academia.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!

Ten Top Tips For Managing Your Own Research

crossroads-1580168__340When someone mentions research methods, what do you think of? Questionnaires? Interviews? Focus groups? Ways of doing research online? Do you only think of data gathering, or do you think of methods of planning research, analysing data, presenting and disseminating findings?

Research methods is a huge and growing field with many books and innumerable journal articles offering useful information. But nobody talks about methods for managing your own research. Perhaps you’re doing postgraduate research in academia or workplace research such as an evaluation. Even if you’re a fully funded full-time doctoral student, research is not all you do. Research has to fit in with the rest of your life and all its domestic work, family needs, other paid or voluntary work, hobbies, exercise, and so on.

Nobody talks about the methods for doing this kind of personal research management. Or, at least, not many people. I said quite a lot about it in my book Research and Evaluation for Busy Students and Practitioners. Petra Boynton also addresses it in her book The Research Companion. But I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else (if you have, please let us know in the comments). So here are ten top tips:

  1. Plan everything. Lots of books will tell you how to plan your research project. What they don’t say is that you also need to plan for the changes to your life and work which will result from you taking on the research. How will your research affect your other commitments? What do you need to do to minimise the impact of your research on your other commitments and vice versa? Build in contingency time for unforeseen events.
  2. Manage your time carefully. Use your plan to help you. Break down the main tasks into monthly, weekly and daily to-do lists. Review these regularly.
  3. Learn to work productively in short bursts. It may seem counter-intuitive, but most people get more done this way than by setting aside whole days to work on a project.
  4. Use time when your mind is under-occupied, e.g. when you’re waiting in a queue or doing repetitive household tasks, to think about and solve problems related to your research.
  5. Seek support from your family. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance to you.
  6. Seek support from colleagues, managers, tutors etc, whether your work is paid or unpaid. Make sure they know about your research and understand its importance in your life.
  7. Don’t cut corners in ways that could damage your health. Eat sensibly, take exercise, get enough sleep and rest.
  8. Take breaks. At least three short breaks in each day, one day off in each week, and four weeks off in each year.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up if things go wrong. Be kind to yourself and learn what you can from the experience. Then re-group, re-plan, and set off again.
  10. Reward yourself appropriately for milestones reached and successes achieved.

In my view, these are as much research methods as questionnaires and interviews. Learning to use them involves acquiring tacit knowledge. I’ve been on a mission to convert tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge ever since I started writing for professionals. This blog post is part of that process. If you have other tips, please add them in the comments.

This blog is funded by my beloved patrons. It takes me around one working day per month to post here each week. At the time of writing I’m receiving funding of $12 per month. If you think 4-5 of my blog posts is worth more than $12 – you can help! Ongoing support would be fantastic but you can also support for a single month if that works better for you. Support from Patrons also enables me to keep this blog ad-free. If you are not able to support me financially, please consider reviewing any of my books you have read – even a single-line review on Amazon or Goodreads is a huge help – or sharing a link to my work on social media. Thank you!