Paper writing: crafting an introduction

I am in the fortunate position, this year, of teaching a short course to early career researchers and postgraduate students on writing an article for publication. I will write more about this another time, but it seems to me, from research I am doing and practical work I have done with these writer-researchers, that much is expected where too little support is given. By support I specifically mean constructive, formative spaces where they can write, obtain feedback, get formal input and guidance from experienced researchers, and work on finding their own voices.

Over the course of a few posts, I will be writing about different parts of paper writing to create part of this space here, focusing on writing in the social sciences for the most part. This post tackles part one of any paper (after the title and abstract): the introduction.

Introductions are, to my mind, a tricky section to get right. Too short and you may leave your readers wondering what they are reading and why; too long and you’ve got more detail than you need. A good introduction needs to do three main things: scope the field you are writing into and outline the debate/conversation/area of study you are contributing to; indicate what your contribution is going to be; and give your readers a sense of where the paper will be taking them as you make this contribution clear (an outline). This sounds really simple, but a good introduction that grabs your readers’ attention, and draws them in so that they want to keep reading, can take a while to craft.

Funnel for introductionsA useful image to have in mind when planning your introduction is that of a funnel (left). You need to start off answering for your reader these questions: at a broader level, what area of research is this paper connected to? What debate/conversation/issue are you connecting with? Why is this research important? How has it been done? For example, if you are writing a paper about student engagement in a specific course through a new method of assessment, you would need to start by introducing your reader to pertinent issues in the area of student engagement in learning in higher education – what helps or hinders it, what the point of student engagement and learning research is, and so on.

But then you need to bring this in a bit – narrow in a little more on which aspect of this larger area of study you are interested in – student engagement in learning through assessment. You would focus on this, briefly setting out (with relevant references) how student engagement and assessment have been connected in research, but also pointing out gaps or areas that have been under-considered thus far.

Then you can really narrow in on your paper: what is the argument this paper will make, contributing to this area of research, and this particular gap or under-considered part of it? Here you can also set out, for your reader, what shape or form the paper will take, so that they know where they are going. You may be arguing that involving students in creating and assessing tasks, rather than simply completing set tasks and being assessed, is more conducive to their engagement in learning. Thus, you conducted a study in which you set up this kind of activity, and tracked students’ engagement and experience in some way. This paper will be reporting on that, and arguing that students should be more engaged in creating learning activities, rather than only doing them. This structure should assist you in creating a clear, coherent and focused starting point for your paper.

It’s hard to say how long introductions should be – the shape an introduction takes sometimes depends on the field in which one is writing, and sometimes on the length and purpose of the paper. Generally, though, for a 6000-7000 word paper, the introduction should be about 10% of this (600-700 words). But, one could (as I have seen done) include the literature review in the introduction as an extended contextual framing of the conversation/debate/field of research one is contributing to, and in this case it will be longer (albeit with sub-headings to make it less dense and more readerly). Look carefully at papers in your field, and in the journals you want to publish in, and see what they are doing. Try to follow the dominant examples, as this is more likely to be well received by editors and reader.

building blocks

My advice, if you struggle with introductions, is to write a first draft quite methodically, part by part. Use the funnel and focus on the three areas you need to cover. Give yourself roughly 10% of the total length of your paper, or 10% of your page length. So, for a 6000 word/12 page paper, you would have a 600 or so word/one to one and a half page introduction. You don’t need to be too stressed if you are over or under this – the main point is that you have adequately set out the metaphorical space in which the paper is being written, as outlined above. If you find yourself going way over this guiding limit, you may need to consider that you are trying to do too much in this one section. Stop and ask for feedback if you get stuck, and ask for input around the three focus areas.

In a doctoral thesis, I would say that you write the introduction last, when you know what you want to introduce. But a thesis and a paper are quite different in this respect. I think it’s useful and necessary to craft a strong draft of the introduction first in paper writing, because you need to create a clear boundary to stay within. One paper = one good, well-made argument. You need to set out, for yourself as the writer, what you want to say, why you want to say it, and how you will go about saying it so that you don’t go too far off track, and end up with too many arguments, and too much extraneous writing and detail. Although you can and probably will revise it later on, a strong introduction will provide a solid foundation for the rest of the paper.

Finding a problem to solve: searching for your doctoral thesis

I am working with a new PhD student, as a co-supervisor. He is just starting out, and recently emailed us with a slightly panicked email about what title he should have for his PhD? He sent a few ideas, wondering if they were too broad or too narrow or off-topic. My first response was to think: never mind about the title yet – we’re still trying to work out what the study is about! But he was genuinely concerned, leading me to wonder where this panic about his title stemmed from. It became apparent that he had to write down a title on a form in order to register, and he was worried that this would commit him to sticking with that title from now on. We could reassure him that this was just a form, and had no bearing on his PhD proposal or final topic. But it also pointed us to a bigger conversation: how to search for, and find, your PhD.

Bureaucracy and forms aside, do we fixate on finding a title before we have located a problem we can solve? I remember (and have proof in my research journal) scribbling down several possible titles early on in year 1 of my own doctorate, long before I knew precisely what the parameters of my study would be. Unsurprisingly, they were largely discarded along the way and I ended up somewhere quite different. I still do this in writing papers. I think it is, quite simply, because playing with words and titles is more fun, and immediate, that spending months reading, writing and speaking about my research in the effort to find a problem that is small and focused enough for me to research and write usefully about.

I do think that having some notion of a title might be helpful – it gives you a basic search area to focus on, and a way in to your reading, writing and speaking journey. But it should be seen, at this early stage, as a movable placeholder, rather than a limitation. In other words, you know you want to say something about, for example, teaching in Physics and how students learn effectively, but you remain open to further refining and reading around that issue, as opposed to discounting any reading that is not strictly about what you think you are researching.

map

I have written here about research problems, and return to the notion of a corridor of doors: at the early stage of a research project, like a PhD, you don’t want to have too many of those doors already closed. If you know the answer or solution already, why do the research? You want to remain open, read widely, and as you keep your reading journal and start to piece the field together, you then start closing doors to refine and focus your study on one problem you can viably research and respond to, making a useful and original contribution to knowledge in this field.

The reality is that you have to spend about a year reading, writing reading journal or annotated bibliography entries, making connections, taking a few wrong turns and doubling back, and talking a lot with your supervisors and peers about your study, working out where it needs to go, why and how. A great deal of the writing you do in this first year will not go into the thesis (although hopefully much of it will end up in your formal proposal*); it will be writing in your journals, writing for yourself, writing for your supervisors to guide you and offer feedback.

All this reading and informal writing can feel, at times, frustrating: you’ll read papers and even books that will be profoundly helpful, and others than you will never cite or include. You will write many words that will never progress beyond drafting/thinking/scribbling stage. I often felt as if my time was not being well-spent, especially as a part-time student with so many other things to do, if the reading was not exactly relevant, or the words were not all for The Thesis. At times, I felt I was paddling around in a circle, rather than slowly crawling forwards towards a complete thesis.

But, with hindsight, I can see just how much I gained from all that reading, scribbling and talking, even if none of it is now visible in the final thesis I wrote. In writing for myself, and giving myself permission, if you like, to just read and not panic too much about my topic or title, I slowly read and wrote myself into my research problem, locating, refining and focusing it until I was doing just one PhD (instead of the apparent four I initially proposed to my supervisor!). I found my voice through becoming immersed in the research in my field, both directly connected to my PhD and indirectly as well. I gained confidence that I was making a useful contribution as I wrote, and spoke with more knowledgeable peers, about what this contribution could be.

one way signWhile the original spark of an idea, and impetus for doing a postgraduate degree by research may find you and light you up, driving you forwards into a PhD (or MA) journey, the searching for and refining of a specific, clear and viably solvable research question or problem is a long process. Before you fixate too much on a topic, or sexy title, take the time to open yourself up to reading in and around your idea, write for yourself and your supervisors, find your researcher voice, and try your ideas out on peers and colleagues. You won’t, of course, be reading indiscriminately, but try not to hem yourself in too much with a title or topic that limits you before you have searched your field and found your PhD within it.

*In most South African PhD programmes, most of the first year of a doctorate is spent developing a formal PhD proposal, which then has to be approved by a ‘higher degrees’ committee before ethical clearance is granted and a student has permission to begin the study proper.

Annotated bibliography to literature review: a way in?

This post reflects on the affordances and challenges of creating an annotated bibliography as a way in to scoping your field, and drafting your literature review, whether for a paper or a postgraduate thesis.

I am working on a project with 3 colleagues at the moment, the first part of which is writing a literature review scoping the relevant parts of the field addressed in this study. It’s a significant amount of reading, and this literature is new to me, so the work was daunting at first. I felt a bit overwhelmed at the scale of the reading, note-making and writing I would have to do to actually create a relatively short, concise literature review. One of the co-investigators helpfully suggested that one of the outputs be an annotated bibliography, out of which we could craft the literature review. I must add here that I then had to google what this was, because I have never written one before, although the term is not new.

books-colorful-book-5711

In essence, to create an annotated bibliography, you compile a list of relevant readings on the topic you are writing about, read these, and then create concise, focused summaries that evaluate the quality and accuracy of the source, and its relevance to the research you are doing (a useful example here). Some guides say you should keep these to 150 words, others indicate that you can go up to about 300 or so words. The main point seems to be to go beyond a simple, descriptive summary of the article, to be critical of the source, and its relevance to your proposed research. It’s useful here to remember that critique is not criticism; it is rather about inserting your researcher voice and position in relation to the text, and commenting from that position.

This all sounds rather simple, in theory. I am finding it a little harder in practice. This is partly because the summaries I tend to write in my reading journals tend towards the descriptive, and only become critical when I evaluate their relevance and connection to my research. I don’t actually think all that critically about the quality or accuracy of the source, or the authority of the authors, unless this is obviously suspect (for example, a low-impact study that tries to be more, or data that is not clearly described or is atheoretically analysed). These papers, unless that really say something helpful, are usually left out of my eventual literature review.

In the annotated bibliography, you are creating sharp, focused annotations or commentaries (rather than summaries) that point to the type of study (qualitative/quantitative; larger/smaller scale; single/multi-context and so on); the theory or methodology perhaps (as this influences relevance and also accuracy or quality); how (and how clearly or effectively) the argument is made; and how/why the article is relevant to the research you are doing. As you start to grow your bibliography, you can add a comment about how the study connects with, extends or contradicts other studies you have included thus far.

open-book-library-education-read-159621

My research is at play here, of course, as it is guiding the selection of sources, and what I am looking for in the reading I am doing. However, I am finding that my argument is rather fuzzier than it could be at this stage; the reading is guided by a general sense of what I am trying to find out about, but my actual argument is not yet formed. I am finding this tricky, as I am working with literature that is new to me. I don’t necessarily know who the ‘names’ are, or what the influential studies are. I’m starting to work this out as the same studies and names are cited over and over in the papers I am reading, but I’m still getting the ‘lie of the land’. But, while I may not yet have my firm argument, I am able to see it emerging from the mists because I know the basic problem or question I am trying to answer.

Holding onto a basic, albeit fuzzy, sense of why I am doing all of this and what I am looking for enables me to manage the annotation process more effectively.  I can trim out readings that are irrelevant, too old, or otherwise unfit for this purpose, and add in new readings that are useful and on point. I can keep the annotations clear, concise and focused on the research problem. I can start to make connections between studies, seeing how the authors are talking to one another, and creating a conversation in which there are both agreements and disagreements. This all takes me closer to my literature review, which is where I will make and defend an argument of sorts in response to my research question.

In the literature review I will be doing far more than copying and pasting from my summaries: I will be drawing out key themes in relation to my research problem/question, and elaborating on these using the annotations I have created, but rewriting and connecting these into a framework that illuminates: what the research problem is; why this problem needs to be addressed in our context; how it has been addressed in other contexts; and where the gap is that this project seeks to fill, i.e. the contribution or argument advanced in this research. This will then set us up for creating a suitable methodological plan for going about evidencing or supporting our argument.

puzzle

I have, as I said, never done an exercise like this before. But, I am really enjoying the intellectual challenge of creating the annotations – it has taken me a while to work this out and the word limit is tough! I am excited at how ‘organically’ the debates, conversations and connections between the different contexts and studies within the readings are emerging, like a puzzle slowly forming out of a mess of pieces. Putting it all into one document – one long bibliography – may seem unwieldy, but this enables me to search for key terms, and to pull threads together in the literature review that is not starting to take shape. It’s making my literature review work less overwhelming, because the annotations are written in my own words, contain my research position, and are critical rather than descriptive, so I am well on my way to creating a literature review that comments on, rather than summarises, the relevant body of literature, and does so in relation to my research problem.

Given how stressful literature reviews are for so many postgraduate writers, and how many are critiqued for being too descriptive and not critical enough, this ‘tool’ could be a useful, practical and manageable way in to your field, and to finding your researcher voice and position.

Managing a relationship with your supervisor/s

If you ask a cross-section of postgraduate students what one of the best (or worst) parts of doing their MA or PhD is, most of them will likely tell you something about their supervisor(s). A supervisor can make or break a postgraduate degree process, and I have to say I have heard too many terrible stories about students being poorly treated, ignored or just inadequately supported by their supervisors. But these stories do make me wonder if there needs to be more thought put into how to choose a supervisor, and then ‘manage’ a relationship with that supervisor to ensure that it works for both of you as effectively as possible.

I have started co-supervising students; I am working with one student in her final year and have just met a new student. I have to say, it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be, emotionally and intellectually. I worry about whether I am giving these students the right kinds of advice, whether I am being too directive or not directive enough, and whether I am helping them effectively to write the best possible thesis they can. Supervision is absolutely a form of pedagogy, and requires a dialogic, constructive relationship between student and supervisor to work really well over the long period of time that the average PhD (or even MA) takes to complete. And the work of building this relationship can be difficult, and must be done on both sides of it.

I concentrate, with the students I am fortunate to work with, on making myself accessible to them, and open to questions, feedback and so on. I try to give comments and feedback within 2 weeks, and mostly have been able to keep to this so far. I think accessibility, openness and timeous feedback are pretty standard expectations to meet, and all of this goes a long way to creating space for that pedagogical relationship to grow. But, I am also following my own supervisor’s example here. She was very accessible, open, warm and gave relatively quick and always useful feedback. I felt very well supported and mentored, and she is now a colleague, and still a mentor, that I am so fortunate to have. I want to be this kind of supervisor. But, even as I try to be all of these things, I still get really busy, and distracted, and I forget things. I still need to be managed by my students. I need to be reminded that I owe them an email, or prodded when they need an answer to a question, a form filled in or a recommendation for funders.

supervision 1

I think there are students who go into the MA or PhD with the expectation that the supervisor/s will set the pace and tone for the project, and will ensure that deadlines are set and met, and so on. Perhaps this is an expectation carried with them from undergraduate study, which is a good deal more structured than postgraduate study, generally speaking. Some supervisors may well be this structured, especially with a shorter MA project, but many are not. PhDs especially are as much about the actual research as they are about learning to become a more self-directed, independent researcher (who can eventually lead research projects and supervise others and so on). Thus, as a PhD student you may well be expected to take responsibility for your own project, and your supervisor may actually wait for you to ask for assistance, or feedback, or for you to check in and let them know how you are doing rather than being ‘on your case’ as such. If you do not, they might follow up periodically and ask how you are doing, but if you stop responding or go underground, a busy supervisor might just assume that you are either fine, or are no longer doing your research. While they perhaps should not just leave you be (especially if you really do need help), they may choose to focus on their other active students and projects, rather than spend more time trying to reach you with no response.

I would imagine students in this position feel neglected, and that’s a horrible place to be. But here’s the thing: you need to consider making the first move if this is where you are. You need to reach out and get in touch and let your supervisor/s know what’s going on with you. Perhaps they will step up and help if you let them know you what you need to get through this rough patch. Hopefully there will indeed be some part of it they can assist with, that is within the realm of their role as your supervisor.

If you have stopped talking to your supervisor/s or sending in pieces of writing for them to read, or stopped talking to peers even, pause here. Why have you stopped? Are you overwhelmed, struggling with reading, unable to write, writing a fair bit but worried it’s all rubbish and therefore don’t want to send it in? Odds are, your supervisor can help if you let them. Rather than waiting for someone, somewhere, to sense your distress and help, take a deep breath and reach out. Your supervisor/s can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) always be the ones reaching out, setting deadlines, cajoling students into sending writing and so on. As doctoral students, we are expected to actually be able to cajole ourselves into writing and sending it in, and set our own deadlines, and ask for help when we need it. It’s tough, but it is part of the learning of the PhD: learning to be brave, write, ask for feedback, and receive it (even when it’s negative or difficult to hear).

frustration

If you are trying to manage your supervisor and they are ignoring or neglecting you, pause here: Are you being fair in your requests? For example, have you sent your supervisor 100 pages and are expecting quick feedback when this is the first piece you have sent them in ages, and needs careful reading? It would be better if you sent smaller chunks of writing, and gave your supervisor at least 2 weeks to get back to you. That way they can manage quick feedback, and give you more constructive assistance as your thinking unfolds. Have you given your supervisor a clear request for feedback? Rather than sending an email that says: ‘here’s my latest draft, thanks’ or some version of that, be more specific (and polite). Ask for particular feedback, and maybe request a face-to-face or online meeting 2 or 3 weeks hence. While it is undeniably necessary for supervisors to be responsive and present, it is also necessary for students to be fair, reasonable and clear in their communications.

If you are one of the unlucky, and probably very unhappy, students who has tried just about everything they can think of, and still cannot effectively manage your supervisor, it may be time to take more drastic steps, like approaching the head of department, or a mediator of some kind in your faculty, to try and resolve the situation. If you cannot, perhaps try to find help in other, more constructive places. As I have said before: it is an unhappy truth that not all supervisors use their power for good. But, even the good ones need some help from their students in learning how to supervise effectively – each student is different, and each supervision relationship unfolds differently and at a different pace. Consider ways in which you can play your part in maintaining and enhancing the two-way relationship with your supervisor/s, tough as that may be. If you have other suggestions for others who are struggling, please share them in the comments.

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.