Strategic reading: filling gaps in your writing

Reading: it’s a tough subject for postgraduate students. I have written here, here, and here about reading – how much to read, what to read, how to find reading you need to do. In this post I want to think a bit about strategic reading: reading to fill certain gaps in your writing, or to add additional or necessary authority to claims you are making.

This kind of reading is, I think, a little bit controversial. This is mainly because it doesn’t always require you to read the whole of every paper you are planning to include on your paper or chapter. This kind of reading could be considered a cheat code of sorts. In gaming, cheat codes (as my sons have led me to understand) enable you to take certain shortcuts through the game, circumventing tough sections that may wipe you out otherwise. The kind of strategic reading I am talking about here is a writing cheat code. It enables you to add to your writing without necessarily spending hours doing additional reading.

cheat codes

*There is an important caveat here though: this kind of reading can only be used effectively under particular conditions. It cannot be used to replace deep, sustained and considered reading that gets you into your field, introduces you to theory, empirical research, the thinkers you will be ‘conversing’ and ‘debating’ with in your own research and writing.*

Now that I have added that caveat, let me explain how I think this tool works, and how and when it could help you. There are two common scenarios in which I use strategic reading:

1. I am writing a paper with two colleagues on the ways in which tutors use different forms of questions to structure conversations with student writers in a university writing centre. They have actually written the first draft, and I have come in to edit, add to and reshape it, before they have another go. Several of the cited sources are older, and if I was the paper’s reviewer I would certainly be suggesting that we bring the reading material up to date, as there is more recent research that we could cite, that would add to our paper. But, I don’t actually have time to re-read 10 papers right now, all of which I have actually read at some point over the past few years. I have a basic sense of where I could add particular points or authority in the form of sources cited. I am thus using this cheat code: selective strategic reading.

reading 1

Basically, I am finding papers in my archive that speak about some of the issues we are touching on in the paper. I am them skimming these until I see key words or phrases, and I am reading around these, to see if a) what the author is writing about is useful, and b) if I can add it to the paper as a useful reference that adds authority to our argument, and also extends it in productive ways. I am only reading parts of these papers, some of which I recall well, and others which are a little more vague. I am using my judgement here to see how much re-reading I need to do, and I have to be careful not to take what the author is saying out of context just to suit my purposes.

This is a potential catch of this cheat code: by not reading the whole paper, I may inadvertently claim that the author has written something that supports my argument, when they actually meant something else. But, because I am only selecting papers I have already read, and that do actually connect with the argument I am making, this risk is largely mitigated.

2. I used a different kind of strategic reading tool in writing a paper I published last year, for which I was on a very tight deadline (hence less time for long periods of deep and thoughtful reading for every part of the literature review): gap filling. Here, what I did was work put very carefully exactly what the gap in my contextual framework was, and what I needed by way of literature to fill it. I needed a few tight, clear paragraphs on academic staff development, in particular how new staff members are mentored in higher education. I then ran a focused Google Scholar search for people I know have written about this, and found 6 or 7 authoritative studies/papers. I read the whole of each of these papers, but with my eye on my argument so that I was really pulling out pieces of what they were writing about that would help me fill my gap effectively. I made limited and focused summaries in my reading journal, rather than my usual general summaries, with a focus on my paper at the end thereof.

reading 2

This gap filling strategy works best when you know what you need to write about and you have a basic structure worked out, because then you can see the gaps, and choose only what you have to read to fill them. If you have a good sense of what the gaps are, you can focus better on a few key readings, or writers/theorists, and not worry overly much about not having read everything on that topic. Usually within a few papers, with reading notes, you can start to see the gap filling up, and you can learn to judge when you have read enough or need to keep going. It does require a measure of confidence, and knowledge of your field, but usually when you get to writing papers you are on your way to this.

If you are using these kinds of strategic reading cheat codes in an MA or PhD, they would probably work best towards the end of the thesis, when you are going back, connecting chapters, creating overall coherence, and ensuring that the argument you have ended up making by the conclusion is well supported by the earlier contextual and conceptual literature you have cited. Using these tools early on in a research project is not advisable: cheat codes are usually only useful, in gaming and in writing, when you know where you are going, but just need a little extra help in getting there a bit more efficiently than otherwise.


Acts of self-sabotage

I have been pondering the issue of self-sabotage lately in relation to various parts of my life. I have been wondering, mainly, why I do this, and trying to spot the signs so I can try to head myself off at the pass. Lovely husband and I then started talking about all the parts of our personal and professional lives we can affect with acts of self-sabotage, especially writing and the PhD.

As you may know if you read my last post (which was a while ago), I am writing a book. At this stage the qualifier ‘trying to write’ should replace ‘writing’. I am doing this in fits and starts in between pieces of other work, some of it essential work of the paid variety needed to pay bills, some of it of the essential unpaid variety, such as supervision and blogging, and some of it of the not very essential type at all. Obviously, I cannot stop doing the essential work, but I can rethink some of the non-essential work; I can also rethink how I do the essential work, and where my writing fits into my time.

superhero-emojiI wrote a post a while back about how you make, rather than find, time to write. I am clearly not very good at taking my own advice (not at the moment anyway). I left the writing retreat I was on when I posted my most recent post with a resolution that, at least 5 days a week, I would start my work day with two pomodoros (which roughly translates into 50 minutes of focused writing). Before 9am, I would have written part of my book for almost one hour, and then I could move on with the rest of my working day. I did this for about a week, every morning. I felt like a freaking superhero. My back had a red mark on it from being patted so much. And then, and then… I stopped making this time to write. I got busy with managing journals, and writing reviews, and responding to emails and reorganising folders on my desktop, and my pomodoros fell away. And now, having done no writing for over a week, the book has become Annie Dillard’s feral creature**, and I am rightly afraid to go into its room, without or without the chair.

What I have been doing is sabotaging myself. I have been doing all the Other Things before writing, thereby devaluing, and scuppering my writing time. Maybe some of those things are important, but I could do them after 9am. Maybe some of those things are actually not all that important at all, today, and I can just not do them and write instead. I am, rather actively, standing in my own way. The question is, if I want to stop doing it quite so effectively: WHY? Why, when I am actually really excited about this book, and believe it should be out there in the academic world, am I so seemingly intent on making sure I never actually write it? Why, by the same token, do PhD students who really want a PhD scupper their progress by taking on extra work, procrastinating to the point of craziness, hiding from their supervisors and so on? Why do we self-sabotage?

I have one theory, maybe two. The first theory is that we do this because actually finishing the book or the PhD means we have to show it to people. People will read it. It will be published, either by an actual publisher or in your university’s repository. It will appear in Google Scholar searches, people will be able to obtain it, read it, dislike it, critique it. That is pretty bloody scary, no matter how much we believe in what we are writing about. I imagine it must be even scarier if you are unsure of what you are writing about, or writing about something you are not passionate about. It is impossible to separate your writing and thinking work from your self. My writing is so much a part of me. I cannot but take it personally if you don’t like what I have written, or criticise my argument. And that can hurt. So, perhaps, we self-sabotage to avoid that potential hurt. It’s a protective instinct, possibly.


Credit: Allie Brosh

The other theory is connected. When you do put your work out there, and it is critiqued and commented on (by PhD supervisors, critical friends, examiners, book reviewers and so on) (and it certainly will be) (and even if they are all very nice to you) you will have more work to do. You will have to do more reading, more head scratching, more sighing, more scribbling, more thinking, more writing. And, while most of us who choose an academic life are more or less okay with that, it is a lot of work. Life is full, and busy, especially when you are a working parent and student and person. Often, I just want to be done with work. Revisions are hard, and they take time, and I don’t always want to do them. I therefore think I self-sabotage to head off the inevitable additional work I will have to do further down the line – the really difficult thinking work that will certainly make my writing better, but will be tiring and challenging and just plain hard to do.

The thing I am trying to do now is talk myself off that distant ledge: I am not there. No one has read my work yet, or been able to dislike it (or like it); I don’t have to anticipate all the negatives here. They may come, they may not. Past experience of peer review has shown me that as much as critique hurts, it is almost always helpful, and I have been far prouder of the revised papers than I would have been of the first versions I wrote. I have to get out of my own way long enough to be brave, write the thing, and send it to people who are willing and keen to read it and offer me input and advice.


Psych Central Blogs

The thing that gets theses and books and papers and blogposts written is writing them. I have to be better at taking my own advice, make time for those promised pomodoros, and protect my writing from all the other work I use to sabotage it. I need to just focus on now, and what I need to write today, and tomorrow and this week, and then next, and stop trying to see so far into the future. Perhaps that will mitigate the fear of critique and more work that seems to be freezing me up now. I just have to write, and I will. Simba, here me roar!



“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

The relationship between your research question and your argument

In the last post I wrote about research problems, and working out one that is the right size and shape for the scope of your project and level of study. In this post, I want to go a step further, and reflect a little on research questions, and the relationship between your research questions and your argument, and how to think about building your argument from the start.

In the workshops I have been facilitating with postgraduate students, all of whom are in the early stages of their projects, it has become clear that they have research problems, and questions, but are still struggling to a) pin these down into a manageable project the right shape and size for their level of study and time available; and b) separate (yet also connect) their research questions from their proposed argument.

(b) is a tricky thing to do early on in an MA or PhD – how do you really know what your argument is if you haven’t even done the research yet? I didn’t really know clearly what my argument actually was until I had finished the research – generated and analysed the data and considered what kinds of answers I had found in response to my research questions. But I had a sense of where I was trying to go. Working out a basic, ‘holding’ line of argument, and clear research questions that can reasonably be answered within your proposed timeframe and project scope is important to work on at this early stage for two main reasons.

Clear strategy and leadership solutionsThe first is so that you have a track to stay on when you start  reading, sharing your work, getting feedback and so on. Having a sense of the point of your project can limit the risks of  being pulled in different, potentially confusing directions, especially by reading and other people’s responses to your early thinking. This track may shift and change shape a bit, but you need to try and argue for what your proposal says you will argue for, so having a basic idea of what that argument could be, even if it starts off a little more fuzzy and ill-defined than it will be at the end, is helpful.

golden-threadThe second reason for creating a line of argument refers to the golden thread I have written about here. The questions you ask, and the argument that you propose as the answer to these questions, will guide the rest of the work you do on your thesis. You choose conceptual tools and build your theoryology in order to create a framework within which the argument can be built; you create a methodology, and choose a research design and methods in line with the theoryology and the research questions and proposed argument; and you analyse your data within the bounds set by these frameworks, so that you can actually refine and strengthen your overall argument. Thus, having a fairly clear sense of what this golden thread will comprise, and how it will pull through the different parts of your argument-building process, is also important.

Your argument is your original contribution to knowledge in your field, at PhD more than an MA level. It is the answer, more or less, to your research questions. It is the most important part of your research. You may well find that it is difficult to pin down in a concise few sentences, in your proposal or early on, exactly what your argument is. You may only find this emerging from your research as it progresses, and your thinking deepens. If you have followed a more linear research process (theory, then methods, then data, then analysis, then pulling it all together) you might find it easier to see your argument, your contribution, from early on. If you have started somewhere in the middle, with data, and are moving back and forth to build your theoryology and methodology around the data, your argument might be more fuzzy and difficult to pin down.

The point is, though, that your argument is there, and that pulling it out and jotting it down, at various points, is a useful exercise. Ask yourself: ‘What is the point of my research? What am I trying to say here?‘ Write down what you think the point of your research is on post-its and stick them up where you work. Rewrite these every few months and update them, even if the changes seem small.  A workshop I went to during my PhD encouraged us to come up with a haiku to capture the contribution we thought our research could be making (this was actually pretty spot on, and fun to do, so it’s worth a try). Keep a research journal, and make a point of checking in every few months on what claims you are making, and how these might be slowly becoming more refined, sharper, and possibly changed.

At the end of your research project, at whatever level you are working, and whether you are writing a paper, a book or a dissertation, you need to have found an answer to the question that started the research process in the first place. This answer is your argument, and it is what will make that contribution to your field, whether bigger or smaller. This is your voice, joining the conversation, and you want it to be a loud, and clear, and relevant as possible. Taking some time, throughout your research process, to make notes on what that argument is shaping up to be is a useful way of keeping yourself on track with your research aims, and spinning that golden thread as you go.


Research problems: too big, too small or just right?

I have been working, in recent weeks, with two groups of postgraduate students working on research proposals. These workshops were planned specifically to assist these students with clarifying their research problem, research questions and potential argument. This is turning out to be a little tougher than I thought it would be. There seem, right now, to be two reasons for this: the first is that focusing on just one small, manageable project is difficult when there are so many possible things that could be researched and written about. The second is more about experience, and learning to trust that if one follows a research process and a supervisor, the results will be positive in the end.

Size and scope: finding a research problem you can solve

The first place you start with any research project is with the problem that needs to be solved. Sometimes, as postgraduate students (especially at more junior levels, like Honours and Masters) you may be guided quite firmly to a research problem by your supervisor, perhaps connected to their own research. Most of the time, hopefully, you are able to find one that excites and interests you, and that you really want to find out more about. In the first case, it may be easier to focus on a problem of manageable size and scope, because that may well be part of the process of guiding you to that problem. But most of the time, you will need to work out, through a process of reading, writing and working with supervisor feedback, what the right size and scope of your project is.



This is not necessarily an easy or even quick process, and finding your way to the research problem that is neither too big, nor too small, can be frustrating. I started my own PhD sending my supervisor an email outlining my research problem, thinking – here we go! She emailed back a week later outlining the four or five (!!) PhD theses I could actually be researching based on that email. She helpfully outlined them all as she saw them, and then asked me which one I wanted  pursue. This, of course, was partly very helpful and exciting, and partly anxiety-inducing. Surely just that one seemingly small problem was in no way big enough for a whole PhD? I had to trust her experience and wisdom on this, and I am so glad I did because that problem was indeed big enough, and if I had fought her and tried to think I knew better, I may have had a much more frustrating time researching and writing my thesis.

I think, based on my conversations with these students in my workshops, and my own experience, that part of the anxiety is that we make the project too big in our heads. We make it everything about ourselves and our work as students at that particular level. We try to write ALL the PhDs and MAs and Honours mini-theses in our one small project. Part of this urge to do ALL the research may stem from a fear that if we just make one small, but clear, argument we won’t be doing enough to prove we are worthy of the degree being awarded, or what comes after. Part of it may stem from an unwillingness to choose, because it means closing doors on other ideas and projects that also interest us.


What I had to learn, and what all postgraduate students and researchers need to learn, is to manage one project at a time, and to resist turning the PhD (or MA or Honours project) into everything. Especially at PhD level, which often leads to a career based on academic research, writing and possibly also teaching, the PhD is the door-opener to that career, not the career itself. It is the stepping stone to other and further research and writing, not the best and brightest piece of research you will ever do. As lovely husband kept telling me: ‘It’s a project. You have to manage it well and move on’.

What this means for finding and defining your research problem is that you need to firstly, trust your supervisor when they caution you about aiming too high and going too big. They’ve done this before you, they have learned some of the lessons already, and their advice comes from their desire for you to succeed and not spend months and years floundering on a project you cannot realistically manage or complete. Secondly, you need to be brave enough to close doors to other shiny and interesting ideas and projects and keep them closed until your PhD or MA is finished. They’re not barred forever – there are many problems to solve, and many ways to solve them and if you’re signing up for academia, you’ll have time to reopen doors and revisit ideas you’ve had to put on hold while working on the PhD or MA.

revolving doorhotel-corridor

Continuing to read, look for theory, change methodologies, look for new and more data, and so on will likely pull you in too many different directions, and will slow your progress on the project in front of you. Moreover, it may actually lead you to feeling that the project you are actually working on is holding you back from and making you give up on other cool projects and possibilities, creating a potentially negative and fractious relationship with it. It is worth remembering that this project – PhD, MA or Honours – is actually going to open doors for you to many other exciting opportunities for work and research, but it can only do that if you finish it, and get your degree, and have the skills, knowledge and abilities to move on to whatever comes next.

A first step is finding one small, defined and focused research problem that you can actually follow up on in the timeframe you have, and with the resources at your disposal. Focusing on one thing, while this does mean at least temporarily pushing other things into the background, will give you the space and time to do what a postgraduate degree is really trying to do: help you develop your capacity for more independent thinking, reading, writing and argumentation.


Making the most of an hour a day

I have realised, looking through recent posts, that there is a bit of a theme emerging: that of a slightly aimless and depressed writer trying to get off the couch. I feel I should break this theme with a different kind of post, a more optimistic one. Although I have no regrets sharing this low patch of feeling aimless and stuck and unable to get off the  couch – the downs are as much a part of working on a PhD or research project as any other part of it, and an important part to talk about – I do need to get going again. And the only person who can really get me going again is me. So, this post is really about how to make the most of the time you have, and be as productive as you can be.

Many of my readers, and colleagues, are part-time writers and students. Writing and reading and thinking about research is squeezed into the odd hour here or there, or if you are lucky, a research day a week, a weekend, or even a sabbatical from work. But, for the most part (and this was the case for me during my PhD), research has to be fitted into everything else, and not the other way around. For much of my own PhD I had, at most, about an hour a day, most days. Then I had to put the PhD down and do my real job, and be focused on other things. After work, there were extra-murals to fetch and carry from, kids to spend time with, suppers to cook, pets to feed and so on. So, these brief hours here and there were precious and I needed to learn to make the most of them.



This is  not easy. I have written here about finding time to write, and about what that means: less physical hours in the day, and more space in your head to actually think and write productively when the physical time is created. It’s no use making time to write and then having to spend that time just getting back to where you were the previous time you set aside an hour or two to work on your research or writing. You’d just be treading water, becoming increasingly frustrated, and struggling to move forward. Each hour, ideally, needs to move you one step further to a finished thesis, or paper. Thus, you need to make the most of these hours that you can create AND, very key, create as many of them as possible in a consistent manner. Think of these hours as stepping stones: too far apart and you’re stuck in the middle of the river, looking for a place to put your feet and finding the leap a bit scary. Ideally, they need to be fairly evenly spaced, so that you find each step in front of you manageable.

I have also written here and here and here about things you can do to manage your research time effectively, and work on creating a balance between time for your PhD/MA and the rest of your professional and personal life. What I am working on now is creating links between the hours and minutes I set aside to work on specific projects. I read recently that when you are working on a piece of writing you should end off such that your thought is not quite finished, so that you can pick it up again and keep going. The problem with this, for me, is that I might not come back to that piece of writing for a few days, or even a week, and then that thought may have left me. This writing time then becomes about trying to get back to where I was before I left off, rather than picking up the thought and carrying on with it usefully. My trick now is to end off a block of writing time with some brief notes to myself in the form of a holding text, pointing ahead to what I want or need to think, read or write about next time. Thus, when I do pick it up, whether the next day or the next week, my time will be used moving my writing forward. This is one way I create a link.

Another way I am creating links is by getting better at managing my physical time week in and week out. I am learning to keep much more detailed writing TO DO lists, breaking projects into more realistic pieces (such as ‘Read three papers and make notes’ set aside for three or four pomodoros in a morning; ‘draft introduction’ set aside for an hour or two one morning, and so on), and then working out, along with the kids’ stuff, and my other work and home stuff, exactly how much time I can set aside for these pieces and when. Then (mostly), I stick to this, and find that (when I can get it to work) the stepping stones connect together quite well, and I move my writing forward quite productively. A bonus is that I enjoy writing like this more, because I am moving forward with each step, and not going sideways or backwards.

Finally, a common theme in many of my posts about writing: I practice self-kindness. I do not beat myself up (too much) when I can’t quite make it all work out. But, without structure, some organisational skills and planning, and a way of holding myself accountable, I would do very little. Thus, in order to make the most of each hour you can set aside, you do need clear goals, consistency – whether you can make this an hour a day or a few hours over a week or so – and good planning. The more you can get to your writing and research, the more the writing comes and the research plods on, and the more productive and enjoyable that time will become.