All my writing epiphanies happen at 2am

Epiphany is one of those great words in the English language, meaning a moment of sudden realization. It usually feels quite profound and transformative in some way. As writers, you will all know about writing epiphanies. You will also likely know that many of them happen when you are not at your computer or journal, actually working on the writing that the epiphany is about.

I have had two such epiphany moments in the last week. One at about 2am when I was awake. Just because. And one at about 11pm as I was falling asleep, writing some of the most profound words you will never read. Why, oh why, do all my moments of insight and sudden brilliance happen when I am illplaced to do anything productive with them? I was not awake enough to get up at 2am and go and write. And I was warm and cozy. I sometime force myself up at 11pm when I am writing brilliant paragraphs in my head while I’m drifting off, but I can’t always be bothered to do that. So what to do to make something useful of all this insight into my writing?

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Some of the brilliant thoughts are not that hard to remember. For example, the 11pm moment of brilliance revealed that chapter 5 and 6 are in the wrong order, and that chapter 6 is horrible because it’s about the wrong thing. It’s not all wrong, but it needs to be refocused. I was able to remember that, run the idea by Lovely Husband as a sounding board, and it’s in my head now. So that’s alright then. But I have no idea what the 2am moment was about now. I think it might have been nonsense, but what if it wasn’t?

Some of the words I write in my head at 11pm are probably rubbish. But the ones I have made myself get up and write down, when re-read with a clearer head, have actually been words I can work with. This is really frustrating. I want the brilliance – the muse if you like – to be there when I am working, during the day, in clothes rather than pajamas (although I am often found in pajamas at midday). But I do wonder if some of those late night epiphanies and insights do eventually make their way into my daytime writing?

Is the brain like a giant filing cabinet storing everything you see, hear, do, read, etc., waiting for you to recall it at some point? Or is it structured to retain information for a certain period and then clear it out to make way for new knowledge because it has limited RAM? Kind of like clearing a cache, perhaps? My preliminary reading suggests that, while it may feel like your brain clears its cache of certain memories, especially papers you have read or important references, it actually doesn’t. But it’s not quite like a filing cabinet either.

Current research suggests that the brain can probably store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Memories are encoded and stored according in groups of neurons connected to the parts of the brain that generated them. So one memory can actually be stored in more than one place, in parts: one part associated with smell, one with sight, and one with the emotions associated. Like seeing and holding your newborn for the first time and smelling their skin. That memory would be reconstructed from the different constituent bits when given an appropriate cue, like looking at a photograph of you and your baby. Research suggests that if you can’t recall information, it’s likely because of a mismatch between the stored information and the cue, or a problem with the retrieval process.

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Further, research suggests that repetition consolidates memory, and makes it more likely to be stored in the brain and recalled at will. So, reading the same thing or seeing the same thing many times makes for a potentially more durable memory than something seen only once or twice. This is what interests me in relation to my epiphany moments. With my book, I am thinking about and planning and reworking the argument all the time, over and over. Many of my late night musings and brilliant paragraphs written in my head are about parts of the book – the same parts thought about in different ways. So, I am wondering if my brain isn’t actually able to treat those as repeated events, and consolidate them so that, with the right cues, some of that can come back into my conscious writing during the workday.

It’s an intriguing thought: some of the late night epiphanies do pop up during the day, right? You wake up thinking you won’t remember and then you read a paper or chat to someone and up it comes, ready to be acted on. Some of them seem to be lost in the mists of amnesia, but maybe the right cue just hasn’t been offered, or there wasn’t enough consolidation to store that memory in multiple places, making it more likely to be recalled.

What I take away from this ramble is that, far from being a problem, these late night moments of insight I cannot always write down, or act on in the moment, are all working like repeated events that my brain is storing and consolidating. If I’m constantly chipping away at the book in all this thinking and scribbling and formal writing during the day and mental writing late at night, then the epiphanies actually are a form of consolidation, where my lovely brain has put some pieces together and gone: oh right! It should look like this! That then stays with me because it’s actually a gathering of many little thoughts and moments all together.

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So, perhaps instead of being frustrated, I should just go with it. Encourage the writing in my head of the best paragraphs people may never read, and the 2am flashes of genius and the aha! moments while I’m driving or cooking. If I let them swirl around, and form memories of a sort, and these all add up through consolidation, they will find their way in one form or another into the book and into anything else I am working on. Scribbling in your research journal, chatting about them with friends, whatsapping them to your virtual writing group – these acts all further consolidate and settle those thoughts, encouraging your brain to really back them up. The more we find ways to write and talk about our research thoughts and musings, I am sure, the better our writing will be for it.

Book writing: making space for the ’emerging argument’

Argument. I have written a lot about that over the past few years. If you are a postgraduate student, you have probably heard that word many times, and as a supervisor, you are probably always looking for ways to explain to your students more clearly and effectively ways to make strong arguments. In this post I want to reflect a bit on my book writing, and the argument I am trying to make there, hopefully with some insights into argument creation that will be helpful to those of you meandering through this nebulous labyrinth yourselves.

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The first thing to say, here, is that no academic or scholarly argument has ever been made in one go, or even two gos. It takes several iterations to think through an argument, with several rounds of reading, writing, feedback and refining as part of the process. This can be really frustrating for many scholars and writers: the back and forth doesn’t always feel creative and generative and clever. It can make you feel small, and stupid, and un-knowledgeable. Why can’t I get this right? Why are my readers confused – why is what I am saying not clear? Why is this thing so tough? The thing that seems clear(ish) to you suddenly is weird and wobbly and fragmented on the page.

The thing about argument(ation) in scholarly and research writing is that it is the thing: if you don’t have an argument, you don’t have a publishable paper, or a thesis that will lead to the award of a doctorate. So, it is seriously high stakes. If I don’t have an argument, I don’t have a book. What is more complicated about book and thesis writing is that this argument has to pull through 6, 7, 8 chapters – it is a multifaceted beast.

The book is a bit different to the thesis, I am finding. In the book, each chapter has to have a bit of everything: literature, theory, methodology, data and analysis and conclusions. In the thesis, each chapter has to make part of the larger thesis argument: the literature review makes one part of the argument for where the study fits in the field, and the theory chapter (if you have one) argues for which theoretical framework will best address the research aims and questions, and so on. This is a big ask for a scholar: to create such a multi-layered argument, over several chapters, and hold the golden thread clearly and presently in the readers’ minds.

I read a blog post recently by Pat Thomson, talking about a book she has been writing, and deadlines etc. What stuck out for me was her comments on the structure and organisation of her book argument, and how what she thought she was going to do was not exactly what had emerged from the writing and thinking process she engaged herself in. This is what I am finding now, and what I found during my PhD too: that I had plans for what I was going to say, and do, and write (my PhD proposal, my book proposal), but what I actually said, and claimed and wrote was different. Plans and reality and not the same thing when it comes to making arguments in academic research. What we have to make space for – in our heads and in our timelines – in the emergence of something we haven’t planned for.

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This is not easy. At PhD level especially, I just wanted my thesis to be right, and clear. I was very unsettled by the not-knowing, because up until that point all my previous education has primed me to know. To know what was what – what does this reading say? What are these authors claiming? What is the answer? I got used to knowing, because that was what I had been trained to do. This is a really odd aspect of higher education for me: that actually, as researchers working in the field, post-studying, we spend a lot of time not-knowing. This is our business, really: We don’t know, so we design research projects to find out, and we get much better at moving between the knowing and no-knowing. We learn to be more comfortable in that space. But, we don’t always translate that into the supervision we do, or the teaching. We tend to emphasise knowing: What is your argument? What methods are you using? What is your theory? Students are expected to have clear answers, and if they don’t they worry that something is wrong. It took me a while to learn to be okay with not-knowing, and to become resilient enough to push through that towards knowing.

I am having to keep learning this now, writing this book. The plan in my proposal is changing. That structure – that argument – is not quite working out now that I am writing and trying to allow the ideas to form, and re-form, and shift within and across chapters. The argument is emerging differently. I must be clear, it is not a whole new argument. What I wrote in my proposal and what I am doing are closely connected, but the closer details have shifted in ways I could not have anticipated when I wrote the proposal last year. So, Chapter 3 is now Chapter 5, and there is a new chapter that was not in the proposal, because the emerging book argument demands that. This is not as scary as it was when I was doing the PhD – this emerging of something un-anticipated, and new.

I quite like that my argument is alive: it is a living, growing thing with its own aims and goals. My work as the writer is to give it space to emerge, and make itself heard, and then shape it into a form that is right for my audience, so that they can really hear and appreciate it, and learn from it. This is not necessarily easy. It requires me to hold the ambivalence, to paraphrase a former therapist I saw several years ago. By this she meant holding different, perhaps incommensurate things, together in the same space while the answers worked themselves out, and the way forward became clearer. In writing, for me, this means holding the knowing and not-knowing, the plans and emergence, together, and just writing through it as the argument does take clearer shape, and becomes more solid, and persuasive and fit-for-purpose.

What I am writing through at the moment is a restructuring of the book argument on the macro-scale – moving chapters around and rejigging the overall organisation of the book. On a micro-level, I am reworking a few of the chapters, within this new structure, so that their smaller arguments actually contribute to the larger, reworked argument. This is what I need to be open to: this lack of closure on what the argument of the book, and its chapters, is, and what form that needs to take. I need to actually create, and hold, an open space where that argument can emerge, and take shape, and where I can write my way into, and through it.

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Writing your own paper, or book, or PhD, this is your work too. To not close down, and pre-determine the argument so definitely that you close this ambivalence – this space where new ideas can emerge, and new avenues for the argument can be brought in and explored. Obviously, the road cannot stay wide open indefinitely. At some point you need to shut down all the sparkly ideas off to the side, and all those other roads and paths, and choose your path and stick to it. But, even having chosen this space, this road, this argument, you can still be open to the alive-ness of your argument, and its ability to form itself in not-totally-known ways. This can make the process scary, for sure, but it can also make it more creative and interesting for you as the writer. I am certainly finding that, and it helps draw me into my writing, because I’m keen to find out where this chapter is going to go. Watch this space… 🙂

Knowledge: claims, contributions and confidence

Going through my blog stats recently (one of my many procrastinations last week), I noticed that my post on what a contribution to knowledge is has garnered many hits in the last 2 years especially. That a doctoral study has to make a novel contribution to the researcher-author’s field is one of the main things that sets a PhD apart from other postgraduate qualifications, but it’s not something I have written much about, other than that one post. I have been thinking about different contributions to knowledge in relation to my book-in-progress, and paper writing for journals, and student development, and have a few more thoughts to add to my earlier ones on this topic.

In South Africa, all our qualifications are set out in government policy, and the purpose and main goal of the doctoral degree is there defined thus: “The defining characteristic of this qualification is that the candidate is required to demonstrate high level research capability and to make a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of a discipline or field” (HEQSF 2013: 36, emphasis added). This contribution is judged as significant and original by your supervisor(s), examiners, reviewers all chosen because they have expertise in the knowledge of your field, and where your research fits in this field.

This is pretty full-on – significant AND original, at a high level of capacity and ability (seen through the writing, argument, data and so on), and subject to critical evaluation by more senior researchers/scholars/knowers in your field. Yikes.

This idea of ‘contributing to knowledge’ in a novel, interesting, important way freaks out many doctoral scholars and researchers writing papers for journals, and writing books. But let’s break it down, because it’s not as hard, or as scary, as it sounds.

Research, which is behind pretty much all the formal writing we do at postgraduate and career level in academia, is fundamentally about curiosity, and questions. Why? How? When? To what extent? And so on. We read the field, and engage with peers, and see potential gaps, places where our questions could fit, and lead to answers that could fill that gap, and add new understandings, data, knowledge, practice and so on to our field. You could ask: If you are not going to say something the pushes your field forward, why do research in the first place? Research is active, it involves agency, and choices, and drive on the part of the researchers to find those answers that they really want or need.

This curiosity about possible gaps in knowledge starts us off on a research process, and this is why the first step is always readingimmersing yourself, through published literature, in the existing questions and answers in your field. You will have a sense, after spending a significant amount of time in the reading, what kinds of research is being done and what has been done, what kinds of theories have been used and useful, what methodologies have been employed by other researchers, and what questions remain un(der)-answered. This is a vital part of making your own contribution that is both significant and original.

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Another part of this immersion in the current questions and answers, as part of finding a way to your own original research question, is talking to peers and colleagues about your emerging thinking. This should include other PhD students in your field and department, your supervisors, other academic researchers in your field. I have had students reach out to international scholars via email and Twitter, to ask questions about papers they have read and ideas they have, and joining a writing circle within your university, with writers working across different fields, is always a good idea. This all gives you opportunities to try out your own ideas, and hear them out loud, as well as to test the potential contribution with its future audience: is this idea new enough for the field, focused enough for one PhD, interesting/valuable/useful to those working in this field alongside you?

If you are undertaking PhD research because you are training for an academic career, research will be part of your life from here on. Reading, writing, talking to others about your work, getting critical feedback, being told your arguments are not new enough and pointed in the direction of more critical thinking – this will all be part of your life from here on. The PhD starts this off proper: saying something to your field that has not quite been said yet is important, because it enables the research we do to add to knowledge about the world around us, and because it enables you to find and claim a researcher identity and voice. This is a precondition for working as an academic researcher, scholar and future supervisor.

I suppose, what I am thinking now, is that a contribution to knowledge is not one kind of thing – in papers, dissertations and books, it takes different forms and can be a different ‘size’ depending on the length and purpose of the research, and the written (or visual) text. But, regardless of whether you are doing this in a book, or book chapter, or paper, or thesis, the common point, to me, seems to be that you have an argument that has a place of significance in your field, recognisable to those in your field as such. In essence, you have something to say to peers in your field, in relation to the research that has already been done, that takes it a step further – whether through critique of existing work; new data from a new site that adds information to existing studies; new methodology or theory used to cast a different light on an existing problem; or identification of a whole new problem we need to be solving. There are many different forms this contribution can take.

If you are struggling to find, or see, your contribution and hear your voice, consider a few practical steps. Perhaps you need to do some more reading, and writing in your reading and research journals, and talking with peers and your supervisor. Odds are the idea is there, but we can often struggle with mean voices and Imposter Syndrome, and the fear that we have nothing to say. This can all very much get in the way of your progress, and confidence. You have the agency to claim this though. Rather than letting the fears and doubts paralyse you, get writing, and reading, and talking. Confidence grows as you actively out yourself out there, and discover that you do have a voice, and that people want to hear what you have to say. Claim your space, research it well, and the contribution will be there.

Academic writing: making (some) sense of a complex ‘practice of mystery’

This is a second post linked to my own insights about academic writing at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, gleaned from working with a range of student and early career writers over the last few years. This one tackles a tricky topic: the aspects of writing that can be knowable and teachable, and those that are more tacit and mysterious, and how we grapple with this as writers (and writing teachers).

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Have you ever had the experience of reading a really well-written, tightly argued paper without one word out of place, and wondered: ‘how did the author do that?’ Writing like that seems like a fabulous piece of magic – a card trick that should be easy to do, but is actually much harder than it looks to replicate yourself. Why is academic writing so complex, and hard to do in sparkly, elegant, memorable papers and theses?

Theresa Lillis refers to academic essay writing in particular, which is sort of a base unit for all other forms of prose-style academic writing, as an institutional practice of mystery. It is difficult to decode the rules, and then re-enact them in your own writing, across different subjects, different disciplines, and different levels of study and career-practice. Each time you write, you have to learn something new – develop and hone your skills. If you are starting from a position of not being a mother-tongue speaker of the language you are writing in, or having had a relatively poor home and school literacy background, then this writing work is all the more challenging. This is why writing needs to be de-mystified through being made a visible, learnable-and-teachable part of the curriculum.

As a writing teacher, this is where the challenge starts: how do I facilitate the process of creating ‘magic’ through helping writers develop and hone their skills so that a paper can be written or a thesis constructed? What parts of this process can I really make overtly knowable and teachable, and what parts will remain somewhat ‘mysterious’? This is perhaps a small part of a bigger question about whether every aspect of higher education learning and teaching can indeed be made visible, overt, step-by-step and therefore more easily learnable by as many students as possible.

pulling ideas together

Some of the writing process is knowable and teachable in relatively overt ways: there are clear guidelines for creating a research design and outlining methodology and methods, and you can follow a process that can be broken down into steps. There is a basic process to follow that will take you from a broader research problem, through increasingly focused reading to a gap, and then to a research question you can answer. There are useful ‘rules’ to follow to create clear, coherent paragraphs that are written in your own authorial voice, using basic structures, guides and tools that have been tried and tested, and researched. Thus, as a writing teacher and coach, I can (and do) draw on all of the advice, tools, experience and insight at my disposal to make as much of the process of creating a paper or a research project visible, knowable and teachable. But…

You can follow all the advice, and play by all the ‘rules’ that can be made visible and be broken into steps or parts, and still end up with a paper or thesis that is missing something. It’s all there, but it’s not. Technically, it’s a paper or a thesis: it has all the required sections, it says something relatively novel, and it has been edited and polished. But examiners and reviewers are lukewarm – it meets all the visible standards, but it seems to miss some invisible mark that no one told you about or showed you.

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What went wrong?

Trafford and Leshem, in this paper on doctoral writing, argue that the missing ‘x-factor’ is something they call ‘doctorateness’. This is more than displaying skill at writing or doing research, and it is more than having a good idea for a paper or a thesis. It is something slightly mysterious, and has aspects in common, I think, with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This can be defined as ‘the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences’ (Social Theory Re-Wired). Habitus, doctorateness, the writing x-factor – these are difficult and somewhat ambiguous concepts. The point of writing at this level is to persuade people of your arguments – to win them over to thinking about your subject in a novel, or challenging, or critical way. We write to make and convey meaning, and we need to structure, style and present our papers in the ways that best enables this.

The style of the writing needs to reflect the nature of the knowledge. If you are writing in the natural sciences, you would likely be writing in a starker, more pared down prose so that the ‘science’ shines and conveys the meaning you (and your readers) are interested in, whereas in English Literature, you would probably choose more creative phrasing, ‘flowery’ prose and imagery to construct and convey your meanings. We write within and in response to stylistic and meaning-oriented ‘structures’ that shape our writing, and are shifted and shaped by the writing that we do over time. So, there are two aspects here that writers need to be aware of, and work on continuously.

The first is the ‘rules’ or guidelines that I have already mentioned a little: how are meanings predominantly created and conveyed within your subject/discipline/field? What will your readers likely expect, and what will journal editors/examiners be looking for to mark your writing out as ‘belonging’ to this field, and making a contribution? This is important. If you break or bend too many of the rules, your readers may completely miss your meaning, and the paper will fall short of making your voice heard in relation to those you want to ‘converse’ with in your field. This aspect can be knowable and teachable: the genres, conventions, structures, forms and small and big ‘rules for writing’ can be elicited, make visible, and broken down into manageable advice, steps and so on.

The second aspect is where the ambiguity comes in – where part of the writer’s habitus/’doctorateness’ resides. This aspect involves making and conveying meanings within and perhaps slightly beyond the ‘rules for writing’ that shape your field, but with a certain flair, style and ‘je ne sais quois’ that makes your writing more engaging, interesting and readable than papers that may make similar kinds of arguments. This is harder to teach, and harder to enact in your own writing in ways that you can put into words or steps for others to follow. The truth may well be that some writers have more of a flair for writing than others. This flair may come from being an avid reader (and living in a home and going to a school that surrounded them with books and time to read). It may come from having had a wonderful English teacher at school who provided advice and encouragement. It may be something less easy to pin down – it may be a bit of a mystery in the end.

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As a writing teacher and coach, I work hard to unpack, break down and make teachable as much of the writing-reading-thinking process as I can, using images, metaphors, examples and so on. For the most part, it enables people to make a start on a paper or chapter, and make progress over time. It is harder to tell writers what exactly it is about parts of their paper or thesis that don’t ‘work’ for me as a reader, but I think it is important to try. Why am I not convinced or persuaded here? Why is this point not making an impact? Why does this meaning come across as vague, or confusing? If more writers could be pointed – by critical friends/examiners/peer reviewers/editors – towards  a need to re-read, re-think and revise their meanings from the perspective of readers, perhaps more writers would be able to unravel the more mysterious parts of academic writing. It would certainly be an encouraging start to making the writing of publishable academic work less complex, and thus more achievable for more writers.

The connections between the act of research and referencing

As an editor, I often read papers and theses with varying degrees of consistent and well-considered referencing. The most recent MA thesis I edited presented the inspiration for this post – many references included in the text and left out of the list (10 pages’ worth), and several easily corrected errors, such as transposing author initials, and mixing up the order of authors’ names in the citations. The particular inspiration, though, was references that had incorrect book titles, missing information, and incorrect details, like year of publication, spelling of authors’ names and dead website links. Taking what was there and plugging into Google Scholar took all of 10 second to find the correct reference. It got me thinking, does sloppy, incorrect or inconsistent referencing say something to readers/examiners/reviewers about your ability to do research? 

I think, yes. Let me explain. Finding a useful text that doesn’t immediately tell you upfront all of the citation details, like the date of publication, or the place of publication (for example a working paper you find online, or a research report) prompts you to do some research to be able to cite the resource properly. You can’t just provide whatever you know and hope that the reader will be able to find the resource too. Remember, a reference list is more than an account of what you have read; it is a reading list for your readers, so that they can delve deeper into the research if they are interested, or need to look beyond your paper for further reading.

To provide your readers, then, with a useful and complete reference list, you need to do some research. In most cases this literally means going to Google Scholar, and typing in what you do have:

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Press ‘search’ and you end up with a list of sources:

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You could then, if it is available to you, click on the link to the right [PDF] to find the paper (usually a free version), like this from the author’s university repository:

Screenshot 2017-11-15 17.55.51This also contains the citation for both in text (Archer, 2010) and the reference list. But, if all you need is a citation, in one of the accepted formats, you can click underneath the reference on either ‘Cite’ or the quotation mark (in the newest version of Chrome):

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This will give you the screen below:

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You can then very easily copy and paste, and edit if needed, into your text.

This is the easy version of doing a bit of research to find ALL the information you need to consistently and completely include a reference in your text.

Sometime, though, Google Scholar is not entirely helpful. You type in the information you have and end up with incomplete citations, like this one:

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Although this has most of the details, it is missing a place of publication. Thus, you would need to do a bit more research and plug this into Google to find out where SUNY Press is located. This reveals with a few clicks that the Press is located in Albany, New York. This detail can now be added to the reference to complete it.

But it can get more complicated, like referencing working papers or legal statutes, or research reports. What you need to do here, is work with Google, Google Scholar, and other people’s reference lists (who have also cited the paper etc you are using), and find the information you need, and then reorganise it into your chosen citation format.

Example:

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This may become a version of this: Republic of South Africa. 2006. Children’s Act, 2005 (No. 38 of 2005), Government Gazette, 492(28944), 19 June 2006.

Or this:

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which may become a version of this: Piper, N. 2007. Enhancing the migration experience: Gendering political advocacy and migrant labour in Southeast and East Asia. IDRC Working Papers on Women’s Rights and Citizenship, No. 1, February. Online at: https://www.idrc.ca/sites/default/files/sp/Documents%20EN/WRC-WP2-Piper-Migration.pdf [accessed 15 November 2017].

Most of this information is on the cover page, but the URL needed to be copied and pasted from the website.

Or finally this:

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Sometimes, Google Scholar gives you a citation with no hyperlinks to follow. What you can then do is click on ‘Cited by X’ and choose one of the resulting papers that has a full-text link. Scroll down the the reference list, and find the details you need. You can then transpose these into your paper or thesis references, in your chosen citation format.

Part of the problem with references that are incorrect, incomplete or inconsistently presented, perhaps, is the misunderstanding about the technical work the references perform in a paper or thesis. They create, for your readers, a cumulative sense of the credibility of your work – the basis for your claims and arguments – and they provide, as noted above, a clear and complete reading list, which other researchers can use to read further, or more widely in their own research.

Your writing, whether in a thesis or paper, contributes to knowledge in your field, and gives other researchers, like you, knowledge and learning to draw into and build on in their own work. How do they do so if you don’t give them the information they need to read what you have read, and move on to other and further reading from there? You don’t just contribute through your argument; you contribute through tracking the resources you used to build and make that argument too.

Take the time to do the research around your referencing carefully, and persistently. This persistence in getting your references right, for editors, reviewers and examiners, reflects well on you as a researcher and writer. It says you can do basic and slightly more complex searching and research, that you care about your work, and that you understand the role of referencing in providing readers with a full account of the sources you have used in building and making your argument.