Creating a coherent text: ‘sign-posting’ your argument

Readers of this blog may know that a big part of my work-life is reading and commenting constructively on other people’s writing – PhD scholars, postdoctoral fellows, peers. I spend hours each year immersed in people’s words, ideas, arguments and theses. And, while this work is difficult, and can be really draining of my own writing energy, it has the benefit of giving me a deeper awareness of what makes a piece of writing work, and what does not. In this post I want to reflect specifically on ‘signposts’, as a tool to create a more coherent, reader-friendly text.

When we read, our brains work to make sense of what is in front of us. When the writer has worked hard to ensure that what we are reading is well thought-out, and carefully put together, this is easier. But, when the text is ‘patchy’, and the links between the pieces are unclear, this sense-making work becomes harder. As a reader it is frustrating, because it’s hard work. Readers who have to work too hard may give up and move on to reading something else. So, as a writer, putting this kind of text out there is risky. What we need to be putting out there for our readers is a text where the ‘moves’ we are making in putting the story together are clear, and signalled, so that the reader’s work is less trying to work that all out, and more trying to engage with and appreciate the story itself.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

So, you are writing a paper. You have a basic argument in mind – a claim, or series of claims that you know you need to make. You have done your reading, and have notes around the evidence that will go with these claims to support them. You start writing, and the argument develops and may take a somewhat different turn to what you originally thought. You start to worry that you have lost your argument thread – what are you actually saying anymore? How does this all fit together? Does it, even? This is all the first draft (and maybe second draft) process of working out what you are actually trying to say, and whether and how you can say it in this paper. Totally on track so far.

Where the more conscious connecting, and care, comes in is usually on draft three or more, where you have to start making the thread of the argument clear, and overt, for the reader. This is where you need to start thinking about structure, coherence, and the tools you can use to ensure this. There are a couple of tools that I use, as ‘sign-posts’, to guide readers through my argument. These are ‘foreshadowing’, descriptive sub-headings, and clear transitions.

Foreshadowing

This, in essence, is a tool that uses clever repetition to create links in the readers’ minds between paragraphs, and sections, of the paper. Repetition is often discouraged in academic writing, but there is a use for it, when it consolidates and advances the development of your argument.

From: https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.15.1.04

See how these writers have used the term ‘bridge’ in the text, and then again in the sub-heading. And, how they have connected this idea of a bridge to disciplinary knowledge structures. This term, in a different way, is then repeated under the sub-heading, and the effect for the reader is to see, without being told in a sentence that starts with ‘The next section will …’, that they are going to read about what the writer thinks this bridge is, and how it is connected to knowledge in the disciplines. The value of trying to use repetition, carefully, to build connections between ideas, as well as complexity of ideas, over the course of a paper, is that you show the reader what your argument is (and why it is useful), rather than telling them what it is. This is a more reader-friendly approach, and more likely to engage the readers with the argument itself, than with the way the argument is structured.

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

Descriptive sub-headings

Not everyone is allowed to do this. If you are writing for a journal in the natural or applied sciences, or that has a more ‘traditional’ approach to journal article structure, you may be given your subheading (Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and so on). But, if you are writing in a field, and for journals, that is less prescriptive about this, consider using your sub-headings, with your text, to create sign-posts for readers to move them from one sub-section to the next as your argument builds.

Instead, for example, of ‘Literature review’, consider the main claims or points this section is contributing to the argument overall, and create a sub-heading that captures this. Instead of ‘Theoretical Framework’ or ‘Discussion’, try headings that capture what the theory or discussion contribute to the argument. This further enables the reader to see each step of the argument, and how they are being led in one direction, rather than wandering around in circles or zig-zags. See the examples below, and how the authors use a mix of foreshadowing and descriptive sub-headings (e.g., ‘driven by economic concerns’ and then ‘Drives to increase…’

From: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14703297.2016.1155471

And here: they introduce the notion of the ‘politics of disciplinarity’ in the text, along with the ‘university system’ and then show with the sub-heading that they are moving forward to elaborate on these issues in the next section of the paper.

From: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ523110.pdf

If you are working in a field that will not look kindly upon descriptive sub-headings, you will need to think more creatively about the transitions you create for your readers. I urge you to go beyond statements, like ‘the next section will discuss X’. Too many of these, and the reader starts to feel like they are being taken through a list of points, rather than a joined-up argument. Rather, think about what you have been writing about, and where you are going next, and what the ‘content’ connection is. What is the link between the present section, or paragraph, and the next one? How are they connected together in light of the overall point of this section, and the unfolding argument? Try to capture that in the transitional sentences.

From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876
From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876
From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876

Hopefully, in these examples, you can see a small sense of what I am arguing for – a form of showing your reader your argument, through carefully thought-out links and transitions between paragraphs and between sub-sections that ‘sign-post’ the steps of the argument as it builds.

If you do not pay attention to sign-posting your argument, especially through carefully and clearly connecting ideas, and claims, to one another as part of a coherent whole, the effect on the reader is usually one of two things, in my experience. The first is the sense that they are reading a list of ideas – they may be in more or less the right ‘order’ to be making an argument, but the ways in which you are joining them together are left to the reader to figure out. The second, is the sense that this is a jumble of ideas, not all of which may belong in that paper, or chapter. Neither make for a reader-friendly experience, and if the reader is lost, or annoyed, or struggling to make sense, this is not good for the writer.

https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/

Clear, careful, and visible signposts that are creatively woven into your text take time, and work, and iterations of drafting and feedback from readers. But, they are the ‘glue’ that binds your argument together.

What does it mean to ‘sound academic’ in your writing?

I have been reading a lot of other people’s writing lately, which has kind of sapped my own creative energies. However, it really has got me thinking about a few issues related to helping other people to improve their writing, which I’ll share over a few posts. This one is about ‘sounding academic’, and what that may mean in academic writing.

The first thing I have noticed in the academic writing I have read, as an editor and a critical friend, is that writers often use overly complex sentences and (under-explained) terms to convey their ideas. Here is one example:

Despite the popularity of constructivist explanations, this perspective oversimplifies the otherwise complex ontology and epistemology of reality by suggesting that representations of physical and biological reality, including race, sexuality, and gender, as well as tables, chairs and atoms are social constructions. Constructivists do not necessarily focus on an ontological reality they regard as unintelligible and unverifiable, but instead on constructed reality. Rather, constructivists discount claims to universalism, realism or objective truth, and admit that their position is merely a view, a more or less coherent way of understanding things that has thus far worked for them as a model of the world.

There is a lot going on in this sentence – it tries to establish that constructivism is popular, but flawed, and then also tries to show why it is flawed. But, for me, the sentence doesn’t quite pull this off. A few simpler, connected sentences may clarify and expand a little on what the author is trying to put across here.

Constructivism is a popular paradigm for explaining reality. Yet, its ontological and epistemological stance is overly relativist, as it conflates different categories of social construction in problematic ways. For example, a constructivist may argue that like tables, chairs and atoms, race, sexuality and gender are social constructions. A chair, and race, are clearly very different kinds of ‘social’ construction. We therefore need a different way of understanding ‘social constructions’ that allows for differences, and takes us beyond getting stuck in a battle between competing views of reality. 

This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, on the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence.

pexels-photo-340981

This is another example:

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through “a pedagogy which makes explicit (or attempts to make explicit) the principles, procedures and texts to be acquired” (Bernstein, 1999:168), usually the natural and physical sciences, and tacitly where “showing or modelling precedes ‘doing’” (Bernstein, 1999:168), typified by the social sciences and the humanities. Horizontal knowledge structures can be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155); these grammars may be ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999:164).

Here, I want to focus on the amount of quoting going on. In this short passage there are three direct quotations, and a further reference to an external text in the second to last line. Many of the authors I work with, especially those who are new to academic writing in the form of a thesis or article for publication, overquote, believing that their inclusion of several quotes shows their reading, and their knowledge of the field. While using relevant, current sources to provide a foundation for your own research is important, the emphasis in any writing at doctoral and postdoctoral level must be on your own research.  This means paraphrasing more often than quoting directly, and using the work of others to inform and shape, rather than overshadow your own.

The languages that make up horizontal knowledge structures can be transmitted explicitly through pedagogical approaches or processes that focus on making the principles or procedural learning accessible and clear to students, as well as the means by which to acquire it (Bernstein, 1999). This kind of learning is usually typified by the natural and physical sciences. These languages can also be modelled tacitly, as in the social sciences and humanities, where students are immersed in texts, language and learning over a longer period of time (Bernstein, 1999). Horizontal knowledge structures can further be subdivided into strong and weak grammars. In this context, ‘grammar’ refers to “their capacity to generate unambiguous empirical referents” (Maton, 2010:155), and as such  may be stronger or weaker relative to one another within horizontal knowledge structures (Bernstein, 1999).

This is a minor edit, but transforming the direct quotations into paraphrased passages, and changing the sentence structure goes some way to making the author more visible, and more ‘in charge’ of the text’s construction. Thus, to sound academic, it is important to claim an authorial voice, and make your own research and its contribution to the field very clear through your paper  – in other words, as you weave your golden thread, make sure it doesn’t get crowded out or lost in long, complex sentences and over-quoting from the work of others.

pexels-photo-144633These are just two observations I have made in working with a range of writers across several disciplines in the last few years. Other things writers do, seemingly to sound more ‘academic’ is introduce and use smart-sounding transition words, often in the wring place, or extraneously; include 15 references in a bracketed space where only the 5 top references are needed); and over-use formatting tools, such as adding tabs, heading levels and so on. It’s like writers are trying to create a staircase to take their readers from one ‘place’ of knowledge to another; the question is whether you create a staircase that makes your readers dizzy on the way up, and wanting to stop halfway, or one that has a bit of interest and colour, but gets them to the new knowledge via an accessible and manageable route.

The general ‘rule’ to observe with writing, as I hope this post has shown, is to be as clear, direct, and detailed as possible in setting out, establishing and substantiating your argument. Shorter, simple sentences that convey your meaning clearly; the right references for the piece you are working on (not all the references); limited use of direct quotations and only where you really need these (quotations from literature used as data are a different kind of quotation to the one I refer to here); and all claims supported, and explained in context, so that your golden thread is clearly woven through the piece of writing. Verbose, under-explained, ‘fancy’ papers are alienating to readers, who have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. Simple, direct, clear prose that conveys your meaning and gets the point across well is so much more enjoyable to read, and is far more likely to be useful to other researchers too.

Concluding the thesis

I am co-supervising a PhD student who is handing in her thesis for examination in November. She is currently revising her whole thesis, working towards the conclusion (and finally, the introduction). Conclusions can be tricky things to write – pulling something as big as a PhD dissertation together into a final, clear chapter is not easy. It is both an intellectual and an emotional challenge, as conclusion-writing comes towards the very end of the process, and you are so tired, and probably feeling like there are no more coherent words or sentences in your brain. This post reflects a little on what a thesis conclusion is for, with some thoughts on how to construct one that does justice to your meisterwerk.

pulling ideas together

To begin with, let’s think a bit about what conclusions are for in a piece of written work. In undergraduate studies, students are typically taught that conclusions are summaries. You restate the thesis, or main claim, of your paper, reiterate what each paragraph has said that contributes to that argument, and then bring it all together with a firm final sentence or two that says something about the relevance of the paper, or argument. There should be no new information, just a summing up of what has already been said. Sometimes you are allowed recommendations, depending on the discipline. It makes sense, then, that we progress into postgraduate studies believing that we are writing summaries whenever we conclude (a paper, or a journal article, or a thesis). I have seen many conclusions like this in postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writing. But, unfortunately, at these levels conclusions that merely summarise a paper the reader has just read are not adequate, or suitable. A shift is needed.

As Pat Thomson usefully argues in this post about writing a thesis conclusion, the conclusion to a thesis (or journal article) is not a summary of the whole. The summary part of a thesis conclusion should ideally be quite brief, and used rather as a springboard to the real work of the conclusion: using the preceding writing and research to show how the study has addressed the research questions, and in so doing, how it has made a valid, and useful, contribution to knowledge.

A strong conclusion shows your readers what your research means within the context of the field you have referenced in your ‘literature review’, and how in answering your research questions you have been able to speak back to this body of research in which you have located your own study. It answers your research questions, succinctly and clearly, so that your readers understand the overall claims of your study, the focus of your argument, the basis upon which you have advanced your argument, and the significance, meaning or value of that argument to your (their) field. It discusses – argues – for the place of your research within your field, and the contribution it is making.

arrows direction

There are a few ways in which you can approach writing such a conclusion (and Pat’s post above is very helpful here). There are also a few guidelines to consider in writing this vital part of your thesis.

To begin with, you do need to bring your reader up to speed with the thesis thus far. Examiners and other readers are unlikely to read your whole PhD in one go, so ending each chapter with a brief summary, and starting the next one with a short section that connects the present chapter to the previous one is a good idea for creating coherent connections between chapters, and is helpful for your readers. Thus, you should begin your conclusion with an overview, or brief summary, of the argument thus far.

Then, consider your research questions: what did you set out to do in this project or study? Your research questions could make useful sub-headings here, at least in a first draft, to help you organise your thoughts. Starting here, you can begin to pull out the answers you have found (in the ‘analysis chapter/s’) so that you can discuss the implications of your findings, their relevance in relation to your overall argument, and the way in which what you have found relates to the body of research to which you have connected your study. No new information: just an analytical discussion of selected aspects of your findings that are useful for answering your research questions, and further consolidating your argument.

Perhaps you have recommendations, on the basis of your findings and their implications for practice, and/or further research. You could include a section on these, discussing a step further the possible implications of your research in relation to your field. Something else that may be relevant to include here could be limitations to the size or scope of your findings: are there any that your readers need to know about, so that they don’t expect your study to have done something other than what it has done? Don’t just list all the things you could have done but didn’t do: think carefully about pertinent limitations that may represent counter-arguments you could defend or mitigate against.

At the end of the end, consider your argument again: what has your thesis claimed and to what end? Try to end your thesis with a paragraph that reiterates not just what your thesis has argued, but WHY this argument has relevance, or import, for your readers. What do you hope the outcome of your research will be? Why are you so passionate about it, and why do you think others should care too? Read a few thesis conclusions to get a sense of different ways of doing this, and check out Pat Thomson’s posts on conclusion writing, too. Then write a draft and share it with your supervisor for feedback.

It’s worth really taking your time and not rushing this chapter, even as it comes at the end when you are tired, and really just want to be done. End on the highest note you can: you owe yourself that much after all your hard work getting there.

Paper writing V: answering the ‘so what?’ question

Writing papers for publication means making and supporting strong arguments. This is hard work: making a firm, well-crafted and persuasive argument takes time. But this time is worth taking because this is the most important aspect of your paper. Without a strong argument, you do not have a contribution to knowledge. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a publishable paper.

Making arguments is not necessarily as simply as just saying ‘This paper will argue that’, and then making that argument. You also need to locate the argument within the field it is making a contribution to. You need to show your readers why your argument is relevant, or important, and worth their time and attention. This is what is often termed the ‘so what?’ question.

If you have ever tutored, lectured or coached other writers, where you have had to read and give feedback on drafts of their writing, you may have some experience of working with this tricky question, and its answers. You are reading a draft of a paper and you get to the end, and it has been full of interesting information, but you wonder ‘So what? Why have I read all of this? What’s the point?’

The first part of the answer to the ‘so what?’ question of this is the actual argument: ‘This paper is claiming that X is the case…’. It takes time to whittle down all the things you could write about to one tight, well-formed argument you can express in one or two clear sentences. But simply making your argument on its own is not enough. If all you do is make your argument, without considering why you are making it, you run the risk of locking your research into a potentially narrow context, and thus limiting your readership. You need to think about your readers, your audience: who are they? What do you need to consider in terms of making your (focused) argument relevant to them? What would they be able to learn, or gain in terms of their own potential research (or practice)?

In asking, and findings answers to, these questions about relevance you can find your way to answering the second part of the ‘so what?’ question: ‘Why am I making this argument? What is my contribution to my field?’ This is really important, and usually included firmly in the conclusion to your paper. It is important to make this clear, and argue for the relevance of your paper to the field, because this clarifies for the reader how you believe you are making a contribution to knowledge, and why you believe this contribution is relevant or necessary. You make this claim on the basis of your reading of the field, your identification of a gap that needs to be filled, and the research you have done to fill this gap.

Thus, there are two parts to the ‘so what?’ question and both need to be clearly answered in your paper. You need to state, and make your argument, and then you need to tell your readers why that argument needs to be made, and what your research is contributing to your field: a critique, an innovation in theory or methodology, an additional empirical case that explains a current problem in a new way, and so on. To answer both parts of this question in your own papers, then, make sure you ask yourself what am I arguing for (or against) in this paper, and why is this important to my field at this point? Answering both, clearly, will help you ensure that your contribution to your field is well made.

Paper writing IV: analysing data

One of the trickiest areas for researchers working with data – either primary or secondary (data you have generated in ‘the field’, or that gleaned from texts etc) – is the analysis of that data. It can be a significant challenge to move from redescribing findings, observations or results, to showing the reader what these mean in the context of the argument that is being made, and the field into which the research fits. There are a few moves that need to be made in constructing an analysis, and these will be unpacked in this post.

Often, in empirical research, we make our contribution to knowledge in our field through the data we generate, and analyse. Especially in the social sciences, we take well-known theories and established methodologies and use these to look at new cases – adding incrementally to the body of knowledge in our field. Thus, analysis is a really important thing to get right: if all we do is describe our data, without indicating how it adds to knowledge in useful ways, what kind of contribution will we be making? How will our research really benefit peers and fellow researchers? After all, we don’t write papers just to get published. We conduct research and publish it so that our work can influence and shape the work of others, even in small ways. We write and publish to join a productive conversation about the research we are doing, and to connect our research with other research, and knowledge.

data 1

How to make a contribution to knowledge that really counts, though?

First things first, you can’t use all your data in one paper (or even in one thesis). You will need to choose the most relevant data and use it to further illustrate and consolidate your argument. But how do you make this choice – what data should you use, and why? The key tool used to make all the choices in a paper (or thesis) – from relevant literature, to methodology and methods, to data for analysis – is the argument you are making. You need to have, in one or two sentences, a very clear argument (sometimes referred to as a problem statement, or a main claim). In essence, whatever you call it, this is the central point of your paper. To make this point, succinctly and persuasively, you need to craft, section by section, support for this argument, so that you reader believes it to be valid and worth engaging with.

So, you have worked out your argument in succinct form, and have chosen relevant section of data that you feel best make or illustrate that argument. Now what? In the analysis section, you are making your data mean something quite specific: you are not just telling us what the data says (we can probably work that out from reading the quotes or excerpts you are including in the paper). To make meaning through analysis, you need to connect the specific with the general. By this I mean that your data is specific – to your research problem and your consequent choice of case study, or experiment, or archival search and so on. It tells us something about a small slice of the world. But, if all we did in our papers was describe small slices of the world, we would all be doing rather isolated or disconnected research. This would defeat the aim of research to build knowledge, and forge connections between fields, countries, studies and so on. Thus, we have to use our specific data to speak back to a more general or broader phenomenon or conversation.

data 2

The best, and most accepted way, of making meaning of your data is through theorising. To begin theorising your data, you need to start by asking yourself: What does this data mean? Are these meanings valid, and why? There are different kinds of theory, of course, and too many to go into here, but the main thing to consider in ‘theorising’ your data is that you need a point of reference against which to critically think about and discuss your data: you need to be able to connect the specifics of your data with a relevant general phenomenon, explanation, frame of reference, etc. You don’t necessarily need a big theory, like constructivism or social realism; you could simply have a few connected concepts, like ‘reflection’, ‘learning’ and ‘practice’ for example; but you do need a way of lifting your discussion out of the common sense, descriptive realm into the critical, analytical realm that shows that reader why and how the data support your argument, and add knowledge to your field.

Analysis and theorising data is an iterative process, whether you are working qualitatively or quantitatively. It can be difficult, confusing, and take time. This is par for the course: a strong, well-supported analysis should take time. Don’t worry if you can’t make the chosen data make sense in the first go: you may well need to read, and re-read your data, and write several drafts of this section of the paper (preferably with critical feedback) before you can be confident of your analysis. But don’t settle for the quick-fix, thin analysis that draft one might produce. Keep at it, and strive for a stronger, more influential contribution to your field. In the long run, it’ll be worth more to you,to your peers, and to your field.