Paper writing: effective conclusions

This is the second post in the Paper Writing series: the first on Introductions is here. This post deals with the opposite end of the paper: conclusions. 

Conclusions, for me, are the hardest part of paper writing. I really struggle to pull all the strands of the paper together in a coherent, punchy closing paragraph or two. Part of this struggle, I think, stems from how I was taught to write conclusions in my undergraduate study. I was taught that you need to start with the phrase ‘To conclude/in conclusion/to sum up’ or similar, and then proceed to summarise the ‘body’ of the essay by restating the main claim and then the main ideas of each paragraph. Although most essays asked us to make an argument, we were not taught to consider the relevance or significance of that argument for our audience. In fact, I was never explicitly told to consider an audience for my work (beyond my tutor or lecturer) until I was a Masters student.

This ‘summarise and restate’ version of conclusion stays with many students as they move into postgraduate study, largely because of the dearth of focused writing education and support at postgraduate level; once students are registered for an MA, or PhD especially, we assume they can write effectively in these forms and at these levels. This obviously needs to change if we are going to graduate more successful postgraduate students, and at PhD level graduate more able researchers, writers and future supervisors.

The papers and dissertations we write at postgraduate level – PhD and postdoctoral in particular – have to make a contribution to knowledge in our fields; they have to say something relatively new, interesting and relevant to our audience. But, we can’t just leave it to that audience to work out what that contribution is or why they should care about it. Our papers have to answer the ‘So What?’ question clearly, and effectively. (Actually, all papers have to do this from first year onwards, but this has different implications for a first year student writing for a tutor, and a researcher writing for a wider audience of their professional peers in the field). If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have an argument. The Introduction to the paper is where we posit the argument, and where it fits into this field of ours, but the Conclusion is where we really get into what the argument of the paper is and what contribution it makes to the field – in other words, why it matters and should be engaged with  by readers.

Rather than summarising the restating the thesis and summarising the main ideas of the paper, the conclusion needs to be focused on discussing the point of the argument the paper has been made, and its implications for the area of the field you have located your research within. It needs to pull all the strands of your paper together, which are connected like links in chain, and close the paper off with clarity. If you are, for example, writing about a new form of evaluation of teaching practice, or a new way of creating energy from biomass, your conclusion should explore what meaning or relevance this form of evaluation or method of energy creation potentially has for the field – your audience – and could perhaps make recommendations, or posit areas for further research and development, building on your work.

Useful questions to guide this writing could include:

  • what is the argument my paper has made? Write it down in as couple of clear sentences.
  • on what basis have I made this argument? Briefly pull together the main forms of evidence – from the literature and data – that you have discussed and used to support this argument.
  • why have I made this argument? Briefly summarise the reasons behind your research – the gap in the field you located and are seeking to fill.
  • who would benefit from engaging with this argument, why should they engage with it, how? Talk to your readers here – tell them what the significance of your argument is to the research and/or practice you imagine they are engaged in, and why this research you have done matters to your shared endeavours.
  • do I have any recommendations for further research that builds on this research and what are they? Briefly, indicate how this argument could be furthered through new, or cumulative research.

The main point here is that you are avoiding the ‘restate and summarise’ version of the conclusion, and you are aiming for a clear, concise, pointed answer to the ‘So what?’ question. You need to show your readers why your argument matters, and remind them, without doing a point by point summary, of how and why you made your argument and are engaged in this research. They should be longer than one short, limp paragraph – a decent conclusion is at least 10 of the total word budget for your paper. Read the conclusions of papers in the field in which you work, preferably those by authors who are regarded as successful and knowledgeable. See if you can find the moves they make in their writing to convince you of the relevance of their argument, and replicate these in your own writing, Share your writing with peers and ask them if they can see the same moves in your drafts.

Conclusions are hard work, but strong, clear conclusion will stay with your reader and make your paper both useful and memorable.

On support for PhD and research writing

I have been reading several articles and blog posts recently about research writing, PhD writing, and the need for more focused and well-thought out pedagogies and support for research and doctoral writing (as opposed to what mostly happens, which is ad hoc, often managed by a ‘support unit’ like a writing or learning centre, or non-existent because it is assumed if you are a researcher/postgrad you should already know how to write research papers or dissertations). As a new supervisor, I have been thinking a great deal about how to work writing support and advice into the supervision conversations, rather than just leaving this all to my student to work out for herself or find elsewhere. This post reflects on the kind of work academic writing is, and my initial thoughts on how we need to change the way we approach writing development and support in academia.

As someone who used to manage a university writing centre, and ran many workshops with both postgraduate and undergraduate students, and as a researcher-writer myself, I can attest to the fact that not knowing how to write in a new or specific genre, like a research paper or thesis, is not a mark of failure or even necessarily of inability. Often, even the ‘best’ or brightest students battle to work out how to write, think and read effectively in new and unfamiliar genres, or when they move up to a more demanding level of study that requires a different kind of academic literacy practice. Research suggests that we cannot ‘frontload’ academic literacy support at undergraduate level, and then expect that at every stage after that students will automatically be able to work effectively, and learn what they need to without explicit guidance from their supervisors/lecturers/teachers. As the literacy demands change, so too do a student’s strategies and skill levels need to change and develop, and so the guidance, instruction and advice around writing that they are given needs to keep pace with these changes.

I have read, recently, about the need for more writing courses for doctoral students – optional and compulsory – and the need for more writing spaces on campuses that serve postgraduate students, and the need for a recognition that just because you got accepted into a postgraduate programme, doesn’t mean you will just know how to write effectively at this new level, and in these new forms. So much frustration, disenchantment, anxiety, and harm could be avoided if universities, postgraduate support divisions, and supervisors really realised that being bright and capable does not automatically equate to being an amazingly efficient and polished writer, and that supervision of a postgraduate student ideally needs to encompass explicit conversations about the writing itself, and how it is (or is not) progressing. If the thing that gets a PhD finished is actually writing it, then the management and doing of the writing itself has to be a more central and recognised focus in supervision.

Supervisors need to be supported, as well, as they work more closely with their students around the actual business of writing the thesis, as we can’t assume that all supervisors can simply be writing advisors. We all have our own struggles with writing, whether we are at the beginning of, or more advanced in, our academic careers. Perhaps, as supervisors/advisors who are often held up as ‘capable experts’, we need to be able to confess to our own struggles and writing blocks, and share these as a way of lessening the power divide between supervisor and student, and as a way of opening up conversations all academics could benefit from that expose this truth: writing is (damn) hard work. These conversations, between colleagues, and between students, could help us share strategies, tools, struggles, triumphs and steps forward more openly, and with less fear of being exposed as frauds. Rather than starting from the point of assuming that all postgraduate students and researchers are capable writers, why don’t we start from assuming that writing (especially when it needs to fit into the rest of our busy lives) is actually quite challenging, even if we love doing it, and that everyone at whatever level they are working at, can benefit from support, advice, constructive feedback, and useful resources to draw on?

writinghardwork
If we start from this assumption, we start disrupting the notion that, if you have reached an advanced level of study, like a postgraduate degree or a post-doctoral career, you no longer need help with your writing, and that if you do then maybe you’re in the wrong career. That’s just nonsense. All writers need feedback, and all writers get stuck, and lost and feel like frauds at some point. All postgraduate students and academics can benefit from more open, constructive conversations that recognise that writing an extended piece of academic work like a thesis, or a journal article, is seldom as simple as just shutting up and writing it. When we can not only be kind to ourselves as we seek help, but also offer this kindness and help to others around us, we can start to create higher education spaces for postgraduate students and career academics that make writing a truly collaborative, engaging, creative and less awful and lonely thing to do for a living.

 

On my first proper post-doc year, and planning for the next

This was supposed to be my final post for 2015, but I decided to give my brain a longer rest that usual at the end of a hectic November, and then suddenly 2015 was over. Thus, it is my first post for 2016, instead.

I’ve been re-reading the last post I published in 2014 – reflections on my first proper post-doc year. It was interesting to read my thoughts on what the year had been like, and what lessons I had hoped to take into the year that has just come to a close. Did I learn them? A few, perhaps – sadly, some of these lessons I am still learning. This post reflects on my first year of a two-year postdoctoral fellowship, and what I am still learning about becoming an academic researcher and writer (and what I still probably need to learn in 2016, and beyond).

I started 2015 as I am starting 2016, with many ambitious plans and some deadlines in place while others are more nebulous. I am starting with energy, and excitement about what is ahead, and also trepidation and nerves about workshops I need to organise and people I will have to work with that I do not know well (yet). So I’m keen to get going, and quite happy to get back into bed all at the same time :-). I do hope this is normal – the ambivalence about knowing what work I need to be doing, being excited about it doing it, and also dreading having to do at least some of it.

From marsyberon.com

From marsyberon.com

One lesson I had hoped to learn, and suspect I will spend the rest of my life learning, is to be more realistic and focused in planning my projects. There are two parts to this: one is about carrying over or finishing off projects, and the other is about how many to actually plan for in any given year. I carried over a few projects into 2015 from 2014 that I just ran out of time to get to, so the carry over was not planned and I started the year feeling a little like I was on the back foot. This was frustrating. To try and learn a lesson here and start 2016 on a better footing, I planned my carry overs more consciously. I am working on a paper due at the end of the month, and one due next month, so I am carrying these. I am also halfway through a two-year research project that forms the basis of my post-doc fellowship, so obviously I am carrying this too. But here is what I feel I am finally learning: to plan 6 months ahead with writing projects, and to be a little more realistic about how long it actually takes to research and write a good paper (nevermind the reviewing period). If you plan at least 6 months ahead, you can avoid unexpected carry overs that can drag on into the new year and set you back on your planned-for progress.

The second part of this is more tricky. I find I am finally getting ready to move on from my PhD research to expand into a longer-term research plan that will stretch me, and require new fieldwork, new theory and hopefully new research partners. So, I have many, many ideas for this research, and for papers and also a book that I really want to write. I have, really, too many ideas. I know that I can’t, and don’t have to, write them all in the next two years. But I want to. I want to write, like, 3 papers a month, and a book by December, and generate new data and code and organise all that data, and go to conferences and have a life. I know, right? It’s madness. I really battle to be properly realistic about what I want to do, what I need to do and what I actually can do. I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I am trying to plan for the year on three levels: from now until March; from now until June, and from now until December. I hope this planning will help to curb my madcap plans to do all the papers and research now.

To help with part two a little more practically, I took my own advice in 2015, and made a work plan that I checked in with periodically and updated. It helped that I was required to write a narrative of my progress for each quarter as part of my fellowship admin, because these formed the basis of regular check-ins which encouraged me when I felt like I was making no real progress, and also helped me to plan for the coming quarter a little more realistically in terms of the time available to me and how much I had managed to do in the previous quarter with the same amount of time. This practice will be part of my research programme for this year, but is something I’ll take forward after the post-doc. I also keep a running log of the whole year, and to this I am adding a mid-level that covers just 6 months, so that I really can stay on track with myself and my plans. This is also important considering that I am working with other authors  and lecturers this year, and we all need to stay on the same page in terms of goals and timelines.

Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go wrong; the best laid plans of researchers and writers are subject to the same. Planning is, I am learning, important; realistic, focused planning that involves accountability and regular updates as life happens around and to you, is everything if you want to stay on the course you have set, and achieve the goals, papers, and satisfaction you have in mind. I wish us all a productive, successful and well-planned 2016!

someecards.com

someecards.com

 

The relentlessness of writing for publication

This post comes on the eve of AcWriMo – a month long writing event that happens around the world during November every year. In this post I want to address two things I am (and colleagues and friends are) battling with at this time of year: fatigue, and motivation to keep going in the face of the relentlessness of producing writing that can be published or can go into the thesis, and can help us ‘earn our keep’ as doctoral, postdoc or academic scholars.

This relentlessness is often talked about among students, postdocs and academics – producing publishable research on a regular basis is part of playing the game of academia well, and it needs to be played well everywhere. So, this pressure is familiar to all those who aspire to an academic career. But, we don’t always know how to manage the feelings of frustration, fear, fatigue and even rebellion that this relentless hamster-wheel of writing for publication engenders. Many students and academics battle to find support – either professional or personal – and may then opt out or drop out, slowing down to the point where they get stuck, unable to make any meaningful progress. This is a horrible and overwhelming place to be.

But what to do? I am wondering this now. I have been literally forcing myself into my office and to my desk every day, managing about 15 minutes of concentration at a time as I grind out 100 words here and there, half of which I have to edit, delete and rework later. It’s exhausting. And then, when I have managed to finish one paper out of the many that I really need to write, it takes months to get feedback from journals, and further months to make the inevitable revisions, send the paper back, get further feedback and eventually, please god, see the paper in print.

As a young scholar, in career terms, with a slew of ideas but without a slew of actual papers on a conveyor belt of writing, revising, and conceptualising, this hamster-wheel is flattening me more than I would like it to. I have had one paper accepted this year – last week (which, don’t get me wrong, is fabulous), but the other writing I have sent off is languishing in slow journal systems, and one is at a second journal after having been reviewed, revised and then rejected by the first journal. This is all quite difficult, and I feel that this frustrating process is often too invisible to those in our universities who assign us the brownie points, grant funding and recognition. I certainly feel that there is a glibness about doing research and publishing in journals and books that does not quite tally with my experience as an academic researcher and writer.

Perhaps if we can talk, in public spaces, about how difficult it can be to get onto one’s own research and writing conveyor belt as a career-young PhD or postdoctoral scholar, we can create a dialogue with university research offices and bean-counters that enables more acknowledgement of the challenges younger scholars face. This acknowledgement, and a troubling of the often linear-seeming ‘formulas’ that are applied to research and publication funding and support, can then hopefully lead to new, more developmental support opportunities, in the form of research workshops, writing retreats, and/or peer editing partnerships and writing circles, where written work is swapped, shared and worked on with others.

So much of our research and writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities, is solitary, or done in small writing and research groups. I spend a great deal of time reading, writing and thinking on my own. It is lonely, and the more I am on my own the less brave I feel about seeking out critical feedback and peer review. I really do feel that I need to connect myself more obviously, whether face to face or virtually, with other writers, and I have been trying more consciously to do this over the course of this year especially. I may not always be able to research and write with others, but I can offer to read the work of colleagues and ask them to read mine. Academia.edu, for example, now enables scholars to share drafts of their work with selected followers to enable peer feedback.

AcWriMo is another good opportunity for me to re-engage my tired brain and absent concentration within a supportive and non-judgemental writing community – both face to face and online. I have been invited to join a Facebook page where a diverse and international group of writers can share writing progress and stumbling blocks, and we have a Google spreadsheet where we need to record our writing targets per day or week for the month, so we can hold each other gently accountable. For me, this works well, as I need encouragement, even if I imagine that people around me are egging me on (they may or may not actually be doing so).

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen - www.jasonya.com

Image courtesy of Red Pen/Black Pen – http://www.jasonya.com

In the end, I know that (at least for now) I have chosen to play the game of academic research, writing and publication. In spite of this whinge, I do actually see great value in sharing my research, and in having other research shared with me. Perhaps the way onto the conveyor belt, to work my way up to having a series of papers in various stages of development, is to be patient and not expect it all to happen NOW, and to keep plugging away – writing as steadily as I can, even if only 100 words a day, and seeking out peer responses and feedback, both from friends and from journals. Perhaps, as with much in life that challenges us to grow and change, the only way through it, is through it.

 

Publishing during or after the PhD: putting yourself out there now or later?

Publishing your work is tough. Putting yourself out there in terms of sharing your ideas with your colleagues and peers can be as scary as it is exciting. I think this is especially the case for PhD scholars and early career researchers who are still finding their research niche, their voice, confidence in their ideas and writing. In this post I’d like to try and tease out some of the issues that could be involved in deciding to publish during your PhD, or wait until your thesis is finished to start composing papers and sending them out to journals for consideration.

Let’s start with publishing during the PhD: first, let me say that if you are first-authoring or only-authoring a paper and sending it to a journal before your PhD is completed, I am in awe of you. I could not have done this – not least because I have no idea where I would have found the time. It was more a case of the Fear. Fear that my research had actually already been published in a paper I just had not found and read; Fear that my ideas were actually awful, or derivative, or boring, or just ridiculous. Fear that I would be rejected, and that the self-doubt this would create would spill over into my PhD and derail my progress. I am not sure the Fear will ever really leave me – critical self-doubt may well be part and parcel of being an academic writer keen on growing and developing their ‘crafts’ – but I do have a sense that putting my work out there will get easier, and be more exciting rather than scary on the whole.

If you are publishing during the PhD, there may be a limited range of papers you could write, depending on how far along in your research process you are. If, for example, you have not generated data yet, it would be difficult to write a more empirical paper, where you use your data, analysed, to support your case or claims. You could perhaps write a ‘critical literature review’ (for example, Robotham & Julian, ‘Stress and the higher education student: a critical review of the literature) which reviews the literature you have read that relates specifically to the research you are doing, but that takes a critical stance in terms of pointing to alternatives, gaps and spaces for other kinds of, new, or different research in this research area. You could write a paper exploring part of your own research process, from a methodological point of view, or in terms of critically reflecting on parts of the research process (not a personal narrative, but something that would be of use to other researchers in terms of helping them reflect on their own process too; for example Ortlipp, ‘Keeping and Using Reflective Journals in the Qualitative Research Process’). You could write these papers post-PhD, too, of course – but during the PhD you’d need to think quite carefully about where you are in the process, and what you would want to say to your professional or research community at that point.

If you are publishing post-PhD, the range of papers you could write widens, of course, because you now may well have a large data set you can draw on – either data that made it into the PhD, or data you had to put aside for reasons of focus and scope. You can write probably 2 or 3 empirical papers (for example, Coleman, ‘Incorporating the notion of recontextualisation in academic literacies research: the case of a South African vocational web design and development course’; Mckenna, ‘The intersection between academic literacies and student identities : research in higher education’). These papers would likely be more ‘traditional’ journal articles, in the sense that they will look and sound a lot like many of the papers you will have read and still be reading. Using the papers you are reading as ‘models’ or guides for the papers you want to write, fresh out of a PhD, can be really helpful. You can look at what your peers, colleagues and academic ‘heroes’ are writing about, and connect with their arguments, methodologies, conceptual issues, and join these conversations in a more deliberate and careful way. This is really highly recommended, because joining ongoing conversations in your field deliberately and with a fresh voice, perspective and argument, can increase your chances of eventually publishing your work.

I don’t have any definitive opinion on publishing during or after the PhD: I do wish I had published at least one paper about my PhD research towards the end of the process or just after I completed my thesis, as I think it would have got my post-PhD publishing off to a more confident start. However, I had more than enough to do holding down a job, completing my thesis and taking care of my family and my own health. I think this is probably the case for lots of part-time PhD students – writing for a thesis and writing for an article are different, and when you are consumed with one kind of writing, doing the other as well as this, and as well as everything else, can seem like just one thing too many to do. If, however, you do have an idea for a paper that you think could be fleshed out, and can see how writing the paper would help, rather than hinder, your PhD thinking and writing, I would say ‘go for it!’ Give it a try, ask for help from supervisors and critical friends, and be brave. If you just can’t, for whatever reason, publish until after your PhD is finished, don’t fret that you’re ‘behind’. The point of doing a PhD is to do a PhD, rather than to publish papers (unless your PhD is by or with publications, of course). There will be time, after, to write many papers, and do many revisions of these papers, and move your research into new areas of inquiry as your career grows and changes.

Putting yourself out there as often as possible, in polished and well thought-out papers and chapters, is tough, but I think I’m realising it’s also the only way I’m going to get braver, become a better, more educated thinker and writer, and find the exciting over the scary in publication. When and how you choose to do it is up to you, but whenever and however you do choose to do it, thinking in terms of ‘publish and flourish’ (to paraphrase a colleague) rather than ‘publish or perish’ is a more positive way to begin.