At this time of year many (student) writers are looking for advice on planning, writing, and revising their work. My own two top tips to my students are:
1. Content first, style later. Worry about what you’re going to say, and then you can make it look pretty. That is, don’t worry about your sentence structures and phrasing until your ideas are there. This leads me to:
2. Never start with a blank piece of paper / blank screen: jot some notes, talk about it to someone else, or use a mind map or plan. Nothing makes me pause like trying to construct perfect sentences without an outline. If bullet points help, write in that format first.
I recently read that we should consider first drafts as written for ourselves, and subsequent drafts as increasingly written for a reader. I can’t remember where I read this, so unfortunately it goes unattributed.
Here’s a collection of other advice I have recently come across, which I hope is of use whether you’re writing a first essay, editing a dissertation, or constructing a research proposal.
Patrick Dunleavy writes about constructing paragraphs:
Each paragraphs [sic] should be a single unit of thought, a discrete package of ideas composed of closely linked sentences. The most generally applicable sequence to follow is — Topic, Body, Tokens, Wrap.
… and Patrick Dunleavy again on writing a good abstract (for dissertation or journal article):
What rarely gets covered in all this are the actual key findings of the article. Readers are normally left to guess what the researcher’s ‘bottom line’ conclusion or academic ‘value-added’ is, still less what key ‘take-away points’ the author would ideally want readers to remember. The final conclusions or key arguments made in the article usually remain an enigma, shrouded in delicate veils of obscurity, perhaps hinted at suggestively but discreetly, but never frankly set out.
Another on abstracts from PhD Talk:
Motivation: Why do we care about the problem and the results?
Problem statement: What problem are you trying to solve?
Approach: How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? Did you use simulation, analytic models, prototype construction, or analysis of field data for an actual product?
Results: What’s the answer?
Conclusions: What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant “win”, be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful)?
Much of Rachel Cayley’s site Explorations of Style is brilliant, but this post in particular caught my eye – Reverse Outlines:
Reverse outlines are outlines that we create from an existing text. Regardless of whether you create an outline before you write, creating one after you have written a first draft can be invaluable. A reverse outline will reveal the structure—and thus the structural problems—of a text.
Pat Thomson’s advice on what goes in methodology and method chapter(s):
I would therefore always expect to see a methods chapter, if it is presented as such, to cover:
(1) a brief restatement of the research question
(2) a methodological discussion, including discussion of epistemology and ontology as relevant
(3) the research design, including a discussion of methods with due recognition of their blank and blind spots.
Michael C. Munger writes at The Chronicle of Higher Education with 10 Tips for Writing Less Badly
Ditto everything linked at this post on The Sociological Imagination on how to write a good sociology essay
– of note at that previous link is Survive and Thrive in Grad School’s post on five steps to effective paragraphs:
Each paragraph is a self-contained logical argument, crafted to stand on its own (like an abstract, or a letter to the editor of Nature) or to be strung together to form a larger thing of persuasive beauty: a well-written scientific manuscript. All the best writers in science write gorgeous, tight paragraphs.
The Thesis Whisperer presents a how-to on using the Cornell Method to turn notes into writing:
Now that I’m working with lots of PhD students, I find that they also take a lot of notes. Years and years of notes. Notes about field work. Notes about interviews. Notes about lab results. Notes about books they’ve read. And then they get stuck. Because they have to turn the notes into a thesis. And that’s really hard.
Specifically for those formulating dissertation proposals is a page from QUT on what makes a good research question:
A well defined research question has six properties:
– identifies the theoretical construct you want to learn more about
– assists you to code literature according to a logical structure
– transcends the data used to conduct the research
– draws attention to the significance of the research
– has the capacity to surprise the researcher as they research
– encourages a complex answer (i.e. not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response).
Finally, for journal articles, there is a series of posts at PhD2Published drawing from a book called Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks – really valuable for writing productivity. Twelve weeks sounds a long time, but sustained and steady writing and editing processes soon stretch to that, for a well crafted paper.